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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


4.b The Old Testament

Jesus once spoke to his followers about the things written concerning him “in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Lk. 24:44). His mention of law, prophets, and psalms corresponds to the three divisions of the Hebrew canon: Law, Prophets, and Writings. (Jesus calls the third section by the name of the first and most important book in the section, the Book of Psalms.)

Referring to these three divisions, Jesus indicates the whole collection of books we call the Old Testament, for by the beginning of the first century, the canon of the Hebrew Bible was substantially what it is now.

Another early witness to the Hebrew canon is the late first–century Jewish writer Josephus. In one of his works, Josephus defended the Jewish religion and told of the books that Jews regarded as canonical:

Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time. Of these, five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws and the traditional history from the birth of man down to the death of the lawgiver . . . From the death of Moses until Artaxerxes . . . the prophets subsequent to Moses wrote the history of the events of their own times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life. (Against Apion 1.39–41)

Josephus, like Jesus, gave the books in three groups: the laws of Moses, the prophets, and the “remaining” books. He was obviously defining the familiar three-part Hebrew canon. In this canon there were, he said, twenty-two books. He did not identify them by name, but he gave their general contents: laws, history, hymns, and precepts.

What books were they? And why were there twenty–two of them? (The count is thirty–nine in the English Old Testament.)
To answer these questions we must think of what the Bible was like in Josephus’ time. The Hebrew canon was not a single book of many pages bound between board covers. It was rather a more or less clearly defined group of books on rolls, not bound between boards but stored in a basket (or jar, as the Dead Sea Scrolls were). The basket holding Josephus’s “justly accredited” books contained twenty–two rolls. (Twenty–two, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, may have been a mnemonic device.) Some rolls contained more than one book. We know, for instance, that the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) were copied into a single scroll and were called the Book of the Twelve. Likewise, the double books in our modern Bible were originally copied as single rolls: Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Further, short books might be attached to longer ones. Ruth might be copied out at the end of Joshua, and Lamentations at the end of Jeremiah. Ezra and Nehemiah might be combined in a single volume.

Assuming that Josephus made some such combination of books, it is possible to work out a list of twenty–two rolls that accommodates all of the Old Testament. The five books of Moses are easy: they are the same five which begin modern Bibles. The four books of hymns and precepts are perhaps Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. The thirteen books of prophets might be counted as Joshua, Judges-Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah-Lamentations, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets, and Daniel. It is impossible to know if Josephus would have combined the books in exactly this way. But there is little doubt that he meant the books familiar to us as the Old Testament.


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       The Hebrew Canon

The books of the Hebrew Bible are grouped into three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings. Within the sections the order of books varies, but the following listing has become standard:
Law (torah): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
Prophets (nebi‘îm) Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve (that is, the twelve Minor Prophets).
Writings (ketubîm) Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, Chronicles.
  People familiar with the order of books in the English Bible will notice several differences. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are among the books called prophets. Daniel, among the prophets in the English Bible, is grouped with the writings. The shorter books Ruth, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah are also among the writings, as is Chronicles, whereas in the English Bible they are placed in their approximate chronological positions among the books of history.
  The existence of this canon is self–evident by the time the New Testament is written, as the New Testament quotes it extensively and regards it as normative.

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