Thoughts on the Church's Old Testament Canon

Posted by Dr. John Bergsma on 02.15.12

The Canon of the Old Testament in the Days of Jesus

There was no universally-accepted canon of Scripture among the Jews in the first century A.D. Instead, different sects within Judaism had divergent views of which books were inspired and authoritative. The Samaritans and the Sadducees, although very different in their religious views and practice, were agreed that only the five Books of Moses were divinely inspired Scripture. The Pharisees, on the other hand, accepted a larger canon close to that of modern Jews and Protestants. One of the earliest witnesses to this canon is to be found in the Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of St. Paul:
For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation, is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them. (Against Apion, 1:8:38-42)
Josephus’ Canon: One Proposal
• Genesis
• Exodus
• Leviticus
• Numbers
• Deuteronomy
• Joshua
• Judges
• Ruth?
• 1-2 Samuel
• 1-2 Kings
• Isaiah
• Jeremiah
• Lamentations?
• Ezekiel
• Daniel
• The Twelve
• 1-2 Chronicles
• Ezra
• Nehemiah?
• Job
• Psalms
• Proverbs
• Song of Songs?

Unfortunately, it is not at all clear which books Josephus meant by his “thirteen books of the prophets” and “four books of hymns … and precepts.” No two scholarly reconstructions agree. Moreover, despite Josephus’ assertions, the canon he refers to is that of his own sect, the Pharisees. It is now apparent from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes (a large sect of Jews given to asceticism, prayer, and rigorous observation of the Law) accepted a larger canon than that given by Josephus, one that included certainly apocryphal works like the Book of Jubilees and various Enochic books that are now found in 1 Enoch, and may have incorporated the deuterocanonical book Tobit and some sectarian works like The Temple Scroll. Furthermore, the large numbers of Greek-speaking Jews scattered around the Mediterranean outside the land of Israel read the Scriptures almost exclusively in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (see below), and accepted as inspired a larger collection than that of the Pharisees, one that roughly corresponds with the canon eventually accepted by the Catholic Church.

When the Jewish community did reach consensus on their canon of Scripture is a matter of dispute. “Canon” and “canonization” are Christian ecclesiastical terms that presuppose an authoritative body (the magisterium) competent to make formal decisions on religious matters. The Jewish tradition does not have a hierarchy or magisterium, and does not hold infallible councils. In 1871, the German scholar Heinrich Graetz suggested that the Jews may have reached closure on their biblical canon in AD 90 at the “Council of Jamnia [Jabneh],” a city on the coast of Israel to which the Sanhedrin relocated after the destruction of Jerusalem. This theory was popular for about a century, but has now been discredited due to a lack of evidence. The Mishnah records debates about the status of Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes still ongoing in the second century AD.

Certainly, then, there was disagreement within Judaism over the exact list of canonical books in the days of Our Lord and the Apostles, and this was just one of many disputed religious questions which were expected to be resolved by the coming of the Messiah (cf. John 4:25).

The Perspective of Faith and the Witness of the New Testament

While the New Testament does not record Our Lord communicating a list of inspired books to the Apostles. Some indication of what was considered inspired may be seen in those books that are cited as Scripture by the Lord and his apostles. Many of the books of the Old Testament are quoted in the New, almost always according to the Septuagint translation. However, several protocanonical Old Testament books (like Esther and Lamentations) are never cited in the New; whereas some non-canonical books (like the Book of Enoch) are quoted. Therefore, New Testament quotation cannot be a criterion for canonicity, as is sometimes proposed by non-Catholics. If it were, 1 Enoch would be in the Bible, but Esther would not.

While the New Testament does not provide a list of canonical books, it does make clear that Our Lord authorized the Apostles to make authoritative judgments about religious law. The most pointed example is to be found in Matthew 16:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Leaving aside for the moment the significance of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” let us focus on the concept of “binding” and “loosing.” In first-century Palestinian Judaism, the terms “bind” and “loose” referred to authoritative decisions about religious law. Religious law was (and is) called halakhah, from the verb halakh, “to walk.” Halakhah is then, the way one “walks,” that is, how one behaves. To “bind” meant to prohibit a behavior, to “loose” meant to permit it. In practice, the Pharisaic scribes generally bound and loosed for the common people of Israel: Jesus refers to their exercise of religious authority (and even partially endorses it!) in Matthew 23:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.”

The point of Matthew 16:18-19 is, then, that Jesus is investing Peter—and later, the apostles with him (Matt 18:18)—with the authority to make binding decisions concerning religious law for the people of God. One such question of religious law was the correct list of inspired books, i.e. the canon.

The Development of the Old Testament Canon in the Early Catholic Church

In the first three centuries, the exact boundaries of the canon did not constitute a pressing theological issue. Of much greater concern were questions like the manner of inclusion of Gentiles into the Church (Acts 15), the relationship of the Law to salvation in Jesus Christ (Romans; Galatians), and maintaining the visible unity of the Church (see 1 Clement and the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch).

The second and third centuries witnessed frequent persecutions of the Church that threatened her very survival. This probably explains why it is not until after the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the early fourth century that we begin to have extant lists of the canon from various Church fathers and Councils (see chart). By the end of the fourth century, the Churches in communion with Rome settled on the canon recognized by the Catholic Church today, as can be seen from the Councils of Rome (382), Hippo (383), Carthage (397; 419), and by St. Augustine.

Click here for a side by side chart of the canons.

For the early councils and fathers, canonical texts were those authorized to be read publically in worship; non-canonical (apocryphal) texts were not approved for public proclamation:

No psalms composed by private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments. (Council of Laodicea 364; Canon 59)

Apart from the canonical Scriptures, nothing [is] to be read in church under the title of divine Scriptures. (Council of Hippo 383, Canon 36)

Thus, canonical vs. apocryphal was not only a theological but a liturgical distinction. The canon defines the books approved for the Church’s worship; the Bible is the Church’s liturgical book.

Further insight into the thought of the early Church on the issue of canon is provided by St. Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana. Since St. Augustine holds such authority in Western Christendom, not only in the Catholic Church but also among Christians in the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, it is well worth quoting his views on canon in full:

12. Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, [the interpreter] must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.
13. Now the whole canon of Scripture on which we say this judgment is to be exercised, is contained in the following books:—Five books of Moses, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; one book of Joshua the son of Nun; one of Judges; one short book called Ruth, which seems rather to belong to the beginning of Kings; next, four books of Kings, and two of Chronicles—these last not following one another, but running parallel, so to speak, and going over the same ground. The books now mentioned are history, which contains a connected narrative of the times, and follows the order of the events. There are other books which seem to follow no regular order, and are connected neither with the order of the preceding books nor with one another, such as Job, and Tobias, and Esther, and Judith, and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Ezra, which last look more like a sequel to the continuous regular history which terminates with the books of Kings and Chronicles. Next are the Prophets, in which there is one book of the Psalms of David; and three books of Solomon, viz., Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. For two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach. Still they are to be reckoned among the prophetical books, since they have attained recognition as being authoritative. The remainder are the books which are strictly called the Prophets: twelve separate books of the [minor] prophets … then there are the four greater prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel. The authority of the Old Testament is contained within the limits of these forty-four books.

Augustine’s comments are noteworthy for a number of different reasons. First, for the criteria of canonicity, he does not propose (1) the personal experience of the believer, (2) the opinions of scholars, (4) the beliefs of the Jews, (5) the quotation of a book by the New Testament, or (5) any abstract principle like “propheticity,” “proclamation of Christ,” etc. Rather, Augustine states clearly that the judgment of the Church is the criterion of canonicity. We should note: St. Augustine does not endorse the view that the Church confers inspired status on a book, much less that approval by the Church makes the book inspired. Rather, the Church recognizes or, to use his terms, receives books as sacred and inspired. The Scriptures do not require the approval of the Church to become inspired; they were inspired by God during their composition. However, the individual believer does require the guidance of the Church to know which books are inspired. The Church has an epistemological, not ontological role with respect to Scripture; she does not make the Scriptures inspired, but she does make known which Scriptures are inspired.

Secondly, we see that St. Augustine gives the complete Catholic canon of Scripture, including the so-called “deuterocanonicals.”(i) Some of the earlier Church Fathers and the Council of Laodicea (360) were influenced by Jewish views of canon and felt constrained to restrict the list of Old Testament books to twenty-two only—a pious Jewish tradition related to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Nonetheless, perusal of the table of Patristic use of the deuterocanonicals below shows that all of them were used, and frequently affirmed, as Scripture by various Church fathers. What is particularly curious is that several Church Fathers, like Athanasius and Jerome, who dismiss certain deuterocanonical books in some of their statements, actually use them as Scripture in other places in their writings! So it is: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

After AD 380, the Church threw off the artificial constraint of the twenty-two-book canon of the Old Testament (a restraint eventually ignored by the Jews as well), and simply affirmed as Scripture those books that had been employed as Scripture by the Church for centuries.

Click Here for a chart on The Patristic Use and Affirmation of the Deuterocanonical Books

The canon of Scripture endorsed by the late fourth-century councils became the standard for churches in communion with Rome through the rest of antiquity and the middle ages. The question of canon next became pressing during the Ecumenical Council of Florence in the mid-fifteenth century (1400s), during attempts to heal the schism between the Western (Latin Catholic) and Eastern (Greek Orthodox) Churches. This Council, with the full participation of the Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Emperor of Constantinople, arrived at a common statement of faith, including a common canon of Scripture, in 1441. The canon proposed was the same affirmed by the late fourth-century councils, and repeated afterward by the ecumenical Council of Trent (1546). It is important for ecumenical dialogue to be aware that the Roman Catholic canon was established by an ecumenical council that included ample Eastern representation about a century prior to the outbreak of the Reformation.

The Status of the Deuterocanonicals

The Old Testament canon of the Catholic Church includes seven books not found in the Jewish canon of Scripture or in the Protestant Old Testament: these are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. For convenience, these seven books are referred to as the “deuterocanonicals,” even though the term has misleading connotations. These seven books are subject to a large number of misconceptions that need to be dispelled:

1. The deuterocanonicals do not, and did not, form a discrete, recognized collection within Scripture, or a genre division. The deuterocanonicals are not a genre division like the Pentateuch or the Prophets. Instead, the deuterocanonicals fall under different genre categories. Baruch is considered part of the prophets; Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees are narratives or histories; Wisdom and Sirach are wisdom books.

There is a widespread notion, especially among Protestant writers, that the deuterocanonicals constituted a discrete collection of books which were accepted or rejected as a group in antiquity. Thus, it is not hard to find theological authors who will claim that one or another of the Church Fathers rejected “the deuterocanonicals” as a group, while others accepted them.

In fact, the deutercanonicals differ from one another in their individual canonical histories, and the fathers and ancient councils treated them book by book, and not as a collection. For example, there is no evidence that Baruch was disputed by any father or council in antiquity: the entire book was considered, along with Lamentations, as part of the Book of Jeremiah. On the other hand, certain Church fathers, particularly St. Jerome, did express doubts about, or even deny, the canonicity of some or all of the other deuterocanonicals. Even then, however, there was frequently inconsistency, for St. Jerome can be found quoting Wisdom and Sirach as Scripture in his various writings, although in his prefaces to the Vulgate he relegates them to a non-canonical status. The situation is similar with St. Athanasius.

2. The deuterocanonicals are not the same as the “apocrypha.” The term “apocrypha” is from Greek, meaning “hidden,” and refers to books that might be studied privately but were not to be read in the public liturgy. Which books are considered aprocryphal varies from confession to confession. Jews and Protestants consider the deuterocanonicals as apocryphal. The Eastern Orthodox generally accept as canonical certain books considered aprocryphal by the Catholic Church, including 1 Esdras and 3 Maccabees, sometimes also 4 Maccabees and the Odes of Solomon. The Ethiopic Orthodox accept 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees. The category “apocrypha” is therefore broader than the “deuterocanonicals.”

3. The deuterocanonicals do not have a secondary level of inspiration. The term “deuterocanonical” means literally “second canon.” It is unfortunate, because it implies that these books are secondary to the other canonical books, and are perhaps less inspired or authoritative. This is not the faith of the Church. The deuterocanonicals are fully inspired and are no less a part of Scripture than any of the other Old Testament books.

4. The deuterocanonicals were including in manuscripts of the Septuagint, but the Septuagint did not have set canon. It is sometimes said that the deuterocanonicals were included in the “Greek canon” reflected in the Septuagint, but excluded from the “Hebrew canon” of Scripture. The statement is not quite accurate, however.

It is true that the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine tended to follow the Pharisees in holding to a smaller canon of Scripture, which eventually became the modern Jewish canon or “Hebrew Bible.” It is also true that Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora tended to accept a larger number of books as inspired, including most of those included in ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint, the ancient translation of the Bible into Greek. This larger body of books, translated into Greek, is roughly approximate to the Catholic canon of the Old Testament.

However, it must be kept in mind that there was no exact canon of the Septuagint, nor was there a set order of the biblical books in the Septuagint. The origin of the Septuagint will be discussed below; for now we will just point out that no ancient codex of the Septuagint has exactly the same number of Old Testament books in exactly the same order.

5. The deuterocanonicals were not added by the Catholic Church at Trent, in order to produce Scriptural support for “unbiblical” doctrines. The falsehood of this assertion should be apparent already. As we have seen, the deuterocanonicals were used as Scripture by the fathers and endorsed by local councils in antiquity, and reaffirmed by the Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1441. All the Catholic deuterocanonicals are received also by the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which broke from Rome in 1054. Since the Eastern Orthodox do not recognize the authority of Trent, it cannot be Trent that added the books to the canon.

Longer Editions of Some Old Testament Books

In addition to the deuterocanonical books, the Catholic Church accepts as canonical longer editions of some biblical books than those accepted in the Jewish tradition (and this Protestantism). Catholic Daniel includes the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (found within Daniel 3) as well as Susanna (Daniel 13) and Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14). Apparently, the Book of Daniel circulated in antiquity in longer and shorter editions. The longer edition embraced by the Church was written originally in Hebrew and Aramaic. In fact, the Greek version read in the Churches in antiquity was actually translated by a Greek-speaking Jew, Theodotion.

Also, the Greek translation of Esther received by the Church is considerably longer than the Hebrew text which eventually became standard within the Jewish community.

Summary of the Process of Canonization from the Perspective of Catholic Faith

The exact limits of the canon of Scripture was a disputed point in ancient Judaism, one of the many issues to be resolved by the Messiah. Jesus Christ taught the Apostles by word and example which books were to be considered Scripture, and entrusted them with the authority to “bind and loose”, to make authoritative decisions about religious law. This authority was passed to the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, who began to address the canon question explicitly in the second half of the fourth century, when circumstances were favorable to the clarification of Church doctrine. The decisions about canon concerned which books were suitable to be read in public worship. The fathers of the fourth-century councils discerned the canon on the basis of tradition, especially liturgical tradition. They did not innovate, but approved those books that had been used by the fathers as inspired Scripture for centuries. Since the canon of Scripture was discerned by the magisterium of the Church on the basis of liturgical tradition, it makes little sense to interpret Scripture apart from its relationship to the magisterium, the liturgy, and the Church’s tradition.


(i) Baruch and Lamentations are not mentioned explicitly, but were regarded as part of Jeremiah, as made explicit by Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, and the Council of Laodicea Return to Article

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