Canonization is the process by which some books were included in the Old Testament while others were excluded. Canon is a word meaning “a measuring rod.” The canon is the standard that all scriptural books must meet. The books of the Bible were authoritative, and the Old Testament books shared the following five particular traits that distinguished them from other mere books:
1. They were written by a prophet of God.75
2. That prophet’s authority was confirmed by an act of God.76
3. The prophetic writings told the truth about God in harmony with God’s other prophets.77
4. The prophetic writings were accompanied with the power of God to change people’s lives.78
5. The prophetic writings were accepted by the people of God as true.79
There is little if any dispute about the books of the Old Testament. God’s people in the Old Testament quickly accepted those books as inspired by God.
When an Old Testament prophet spoke, it was clear that God had spoken. For example, the tablets of the Law were preserved in the ark, which was the place of God’s presence on the earth. This placement indicates the sanctity with which they were considered.80 The Five Books of Moses (also called the Pentateuch, which means “one book in five parts”) were placed alongside them as soon as Moses wrote them.81 The writings of the other prophets were added.82 The Scriptures were eventually moved to the temple to be cared for by the priests in the days of Solomon.83
To this very day, Jews continue to have the same exact books as their Bible. The “Hebrew Bible” of Judaism is virtually identical to the Christian Old Testament, with a few organizational exceptions. For example, their books are in a different order than the Christian Bible, and sometimes they combine two books into one, such as Ezra–Nehemiah.
Nonetheless, Jews and Christians agree that the content of the Old Testament as we have it is the total canon of Scripture before the time of Jesus. Jesus himself agrees with this. By the time of his birth, the content of the Old Testament was a settled matter, and Jesus accepted, learned, and taught the Old Testament as we have it without modification. Furthermore, Jesus summarized the Bible as existing in three parts: the Law, Prophets, and Psalms.84 Jesus also spoke of the Old Testament as existing from Abel (from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament) to Zechariah (a contemporary of Malachi, the final book of the Old Testament).85
The Hebrew canon was closed and settled with the final book of the Old Testament, Malachi, around 400 BC. Malachi concluded with the promise that the next event in redemptive history would be the coming of John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Jesus, and Jesus would come to the temple.86 Importantly, the temple was destroyed in AD 70, which means that the Jews who are still waiting for a Messiah today wait in vain because Jesus was that Messiah and after AD 70 the promise of Malachi could not be fulfilled.
During the four hundred years of silence between the end of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus, many other works were written, including books of history, fiction, practical living, and end-times speculation. These books are also known as the apocrypha, which means “hidden” or “secret” because the religious leaders of that time preferred that the books not be widely read by the people. While these books were read by some of God’s people, they were treated like popular Christian books in our own day, such as those by C. S. Lewis; they were never accepted as Scripture, for many reasons. First, many of the apocryphal books were also pseudepigraphal, meaning that they were written under a pen name so that the true identity of the author would be unknown. The pen names were often those of biblical people (e.g., Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Solomon), deceitfully leading readers to believe the books were written by these biblical men. It would be similar to me putting Billy Graham’s name on this blog to generate more interest. Second, while the Old Testament is quoted roughly three hundred times in the New Testament, none of the apocryphal books are ever quoted in the New Testament or even alluded to, with the exception of a very debated section of Jude. Third, both Jews and Christians rejected any of the apocryphal books as divinely inspired sacred Scripture until the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546. At that time, the Catholic Church was facing a growing protest movement (now known as Protestantism) that denounced some of the church’s teaching as unbiblical. Among the chief critics was the Catholic monk Martin Luther, who pointed out that praying to saints, paying indulgences to the church, and purgatory were not found in the Bible. In an effort to defend themselves, the Catholic Church voted to insert new books into the Bible, more than a millennium after the Old Testament canon had been closed and the apocryphal books had been rejected as Scripture. Why? Because it found some support for its unbiblical doctrines in the apocrypha and, rather than changing its doctrines, it instead chose to change its Bible. Subsequently, if you open Catholic—and even some Orthodox—Bibles today, you will find books with names such as Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, Baruch, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees, as well as additions to Esther and the book of Daniel (such as the Prayer of Azariah or the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).
In an effort to summarize much of what I have tried to explain thus far, I have condensed the main points into chart 1.1 as a histori- cal timeline of the writing of Scripture.
Old Testament (1800–400 BC)
• Prophets spoke, “Thus says the Lord.”
• Some prophets wrote their books (Jer. 36; Josh. 24:26; Isa. 30:8; Ezek. 43:11; Hab. 2:2; Dan. 7:1–2; 2 Chron. 21:12).
• Some prophets had a scribe (Ex. 17:14; 34:28).
• Books were treated as sacred:
• Placed in ark (Deut. 31:24–26).
• Placed in sanctuary (Josh. 24:26).
• Placed before God (1 Sam. 10:25).
• Books showed the power of God changing peoples’ lives (2 Kings 22–23; Ex. 24:7; Nehemiah 8).
• Old Testament books appeal to each other for authority as God’s Word:
• Joshua 1:8 refers to the Pentateuch.
• Daniel 9:2 refers to Jeremiah.
• Ezekiel 14:14 refers to Noah, Daniel, and Job.
• Old Testament ends with the last prophet Malachi:
• Promises that the next event will be Jesus coming to the Temple (Mal. 3:1).
• Promises that the next prophet will be John the Baptizer (Mal. 4:4–6). • No new books of Scripture are given.
• The Old Testament canon is settled without any significant debates regarding certain books.
Intertestamental Period (400 Silent Years)
• Apocryphal (“hidden”) books are written as history, fiction, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature that become popular books but are never considered to be Scripture.
• Four hundred silent years end with John the Baptizer and Jesus (Matt. 3:1–17; 17:9–13; Luke 1:8–17).
Life of Jesus (roughly 0–AD 33)
New Testament (AD 45–95)
• Jesus spoke of Old Testament history as existing from Abel (Genesis) to Zechariah (the time of Malachi) (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:51).
• Jesus described the Old Testament as Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44).
• Jesus quoted the Old Testament freely for teaching.
• Jesus and the New Testament writers never quote any apocryphal books. They accepted the Old Testament as we have it.
• Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would inspire his disciples (John 14:26; 16:13).
• New Testament writers were nearly all eyewitnesses (e.g., 1 John 1:1–3).
• New Testament books claim to be Scripture (1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Thess. 2:15; Col 4:16; Rev. 1:3).
• New Testament authors claim works of other disciples were Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15–16).
• After all eyewitnesses died, some pseudepigraphal (pen named) books were written by people pretending to be apostles.
• Almost all New Testament books were accepted by the second century, and all were finalized by the fourth century.
• No apocryphal books were accepted until the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546.
• Authors under pen names pretend to be eyewitnesses to Jesus and write various false gospels (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas).
75 Deut. 18:18–22; 1 Pet. 1:20–21.
76 Heb. 2:3–4.
77 Deut. 13:1–5; 18:22; Gal. 1:8.
78 Heb. 4:12.
79 Deut. 31:24–26; Josh. 24:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Dan. 9:2; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 2:13; 5:27; 1 Tim.
5:18; 2 Pet. 3:16.
80 Ex. 25:16–21; 40:20; Deut. 10:5; 1 Kings 8:9.
81 Deut. 31:24–26.
82 1 Sam. 10:25; Josh. 24:25–26; Isa. 8:20; 29:18; 34:16.
83 1 Kings 8:6–9; 2 Kings 22:8.
84 Luke 24:44.
85 Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:51.
86 Mal. 3:1; 4:5–6, cf. Matt. 3:1–17; 17:9–13; Luke 1:16–17; 3:1–18.
The content for this post was originally published in the book “On the Old Testament” that is out of print until it is revised and rereleased.