Biblical Canon Part 1 – How were the books of the Old Testament chosen?

As you may know, the books that make up our Bible are not the only books that were written on the subjects they cover or even the only books written by the authors who wrote the books of the Bible. Why, then, aren’t all of these other books included? What sets the Biblical canon apart from other ancient texts that seem to be also relevant to Jews and Christians?

First, let’s get a few basic terms down. A Canon is not just a giant gun found on pirate ships (no, not just a camera company either). It is also a transliteration of the Greek word κανών, which means ‘rule’ or ‘measuring stick’. It means a group of texts (books, letters, prophecies, etc.) that a certain religious group considers to be authoritative. Christians believe the Canon of Scripture (i.e. The Bible) is inspired by God, or ‘God-breathed’, which makes the texts that are included in this Canon pretty significant. If these are the words of God, how did the list of books we have today come to be? Who made it? When? Do we have good reason to believe that these books, and no others, can legitimately be called the “Word of God”?

Let’s dig in.

First, the Old Testament and New Testament were canonized somewhat differently from one another. Why? Because the Old Testament (OT) comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish religion, God’s holy people who he brought out of Egypt and made a name for in the ancient world. The New Testament (NT) comprises the sacred texts of the Christian religion. Judaism and Christianity are separate, but related, belief systems.

They are separate because many Jews do not consider themselves Christians and most Christians do not consider themselves Jews. The sticking point is centered around the person and deity of Jesus Christ. The Jewish scriptures (OT) prophesy a coming Messiah, or Savior of the Jewish people and of the world, a man who would save His people from their sins. The Christian scriptures (NT) are all about a man named Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be that Messiah and gave many convincing evidences that He indeed was who He claimed to be. Traditional Jews will not accept that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah. Christians base their entire faith on the idea that He is that Messiah.

They are related because Christianity is (in secular terms) an off-shoot of Judaism. That’s another way of saying that Christianity came out of Judaism. In reality, the Christian canon (NT) picks up where the Jewish canon (OT) leaves off. The Old Testament begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the people waiting for a Savior to come and rescue them from evil. The New Testament begins with that Savior being born and ends with prophecies of the end of the world and the final judgment of all mankind.

So now that we know how the Old and New Testaments are related, let’s talk about how the books in them were selected.

The Old Testament, or Jewish Canon, was assembled and made authoritative by the Jewish teachers and leaders long before Jesus was born. The entire canon of the Old Testament was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, parchments that date back to 30 B.C., which means that the books had been collected and considered to be the Jewish scriptures before that time, likely well before that time. The tests of ‘canonicity’ (whether a book should be considered authoritative or not) were the following:

  1. Was the book written by a proven prophet of God, or by someone closely associated with a proven prophet of God? A proven prophet of God was someone who made predictions about the near future that came true within that person’s lifetime and just as they said it would. The Jews considered these predictions, or prophecies, to be divinely inspired because no mere man can predict the future like that. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that, unlikely the more general predictions of men like Nostradamus, are extremely detailed and had many points of possible failure. But the prophecies passed all of these tests, and so the prophets who wrote them were trusted to be true prophets of God. If the books were not written by the prophet himself, they were written by a close friend and follower who acted as a biographer to document the words and actions of the prophet. Any prophet who made predictions that did not come true in their lifetime was killed, so it did not make a lot of sense to write false predictions.
  2. The books that were selected for the Canon told the truth about historical events. They told the same story and did not contain contradictions between them in doctrine or in their representation of who God is.
  3. Many of the writings (the Prophets, specifically) actually claimed to be the very words of God. The words “The Lord says”, or “Thus says the Lord”, or “The Lord declares”, appear more than 600 times throughout the writings of the Old Testament. Out of 23,145 verses in the Old Testament, that comes out to a whopping 2.5% of them starting with the phrase “The Lord says”. Leave some room to write exactly what it is the Lord had to say, and you are covering quite a bit of the real estate in the Old Testament with this introduction.
  4. The subject of the books is, largely, God’s relationship with mankind, and on a smaller scale, they follow the history of the people of Israel, or the Jews (or Hebrews, or sons of Abraham, or whatever you want to call God’s chosen people). There are only two books in the Old Testament that do not mention God directly, although He is arguably the main character in the background. These are the books of Esther and Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). Song of Solomon is a high poem written by Solomon, the greatest king Israel ever had, who also wrote two other books of the Old Testament (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). Esther is the story of a young Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia by marriage and (with prayer and fasting) just in the nick of time saves the Jewish people from an evil plot to completely exterminate them throughout the entire known world. Purim, a major Jewish holiday, is the celebration of this event.

The books of the Old Testament were chosen by the leaders of the Jewish people before there were Christians. The Canon (or list of books), exactly as we see it in our Christian Bibles, was solidified before Jesus was born. There were other books written in these times as well that some say should have been included but were not. The above qualifications for a canonical book are the reason. The Jewish scholars who assembled the Old Testament did not believe that those books met the criteria. We’ll talk about specific examples of this in the post What is the Apocrypha?

If you have not read the Old Testament, I encourage you to do so. A good understanding of the Old Testament is essential to a correct understanding of the New Testament. The Bible that Paul and Peter and Jesus read was the 40 books of the Old Testament. It’s what they based most of their sermons and teachings on and contains countless treasures about God and His promises and love for us, as well as the keys to open up the meaning of some of our favorite New Testament passages.

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