The Old Testament Canon

Gerhard Pfandl


The Old Testament Canon

The Greek word canon comes from the Hebrew qaneh, which means “reed.” Since reeds were used as measuring rods, the word canon came to mean “rule” or “standard,” by which other things are measured. The wordcanon occurs in Galatians 6:16 and 2 Corinthians 10:13–16, translated “rule” in the KJV. It is first used in regard to the books of the Bible, in a technical sense of a standard collection of sacred writings, by the Church Fathers of the fourth century.

How the Old Testament canon came into existence may never be known in detail. What is known is that God on occasion told His prophets not only to deliver His messages orally, but also to write them down (Ex. 17:14; Isa. 30:8; Jer. 30:2; Eze. 43:11; Hab. 2:2) as a witness (Deut. 31:24–26) for future generations (Isa. 30:8). And early in Israel’s history certain writings were recognized as having divine authority and serving as a written rule in the life of Israel. This can be seen from the people’s response to the reading of the “book of the covenant” in Exodus 24:7, “‘All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient.’”1 Similarly, when the “book of the law” was found in the temple and read before the king and the people in the time of Josiah (2 Chron. 34:14–31) or when Ezra read it to the people (Neh. 8:5–10), it was accepted as having divine authority.

In time, the same happened with all other books contained in the Old Testament today. They were acknowledged as having canonical authority because their authors were recognized as God’s spokespersons. F. F. Bruce wrote: “The words of the prophets were divinely authoritative from the moment of utterance, and the documents in which they were recorded were canonical in principle, if not in a technical sense, from the first.”2      

The Pentateuch (Torah) was the earliest part to acquire canonical status. The “book of the law,” placed beside the ark of the covenant to indicate its importance (Deut. 31:26), was also called “the book of Moses” (Neh. 13:1). It was the divine rule for faith and life, and people were continually urged to obey its precepts (Joshua 1:8). It is repeatedly referred to in the Old Testament (Joshua 8:31; 2 Kings 22:8; Neh. 8:1), and still today forms the basis for Orthodox Judaism.

The second major section, according to the Talmud, is the collection of the “Prophets.” It is divided into two parts: (1) the former prophets or historical books—Joshua, Judges, Samuel (one book) and Kings (one book), and (2) the latter prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. The Minor Prophets were counted as one book because prior to the appearance of the codex in the first century A.D., they were all written on one scroll. Undoubtedly, the writings of the prophets were collected and treasured as soon as they were written. For the devout Israelite the writings of a prophet were divinely inspired and, therefore, obligatory for faith and practice.

The third section, called the “Writings,” contains 11 books: the poetical books Psalms, Job, and Proverbs, the five scrolls (Megilloth) Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther; and the historical books Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah (one book), and Chronicles (one book). Altogether, the Hebrew canon according to the Talmud contains 24 books.

Many of the books in the second and third section seem to have achieved canonical status by the time of Nehemiah. In 2 Maccabees 2:13, we are told that Nehemiah “founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets and the writings of David and the letters of kings about votive offerings” (RSV). The “letters of kings about votive offerings” may be those reproduced in Ezra 6:3 to 7:26.

The earliest reference to a threefold division of the Old Testament comes from about 130 B.C. At that time, the grandson of the author of the book Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach wrote a prologue to his grandfather’s book, in which he refers to “the law, the prophets, and the other books of our fathers.”3 Though this does not say which books were included, it does indicate that some kind of formal canon had been established by the second century B.C.

Prior to the use of codices, biblical books were written on separate scrolls and had no specific order. Once they were bound together in codices, however, a certain sequence or order had to be established. In the early Christian centuries, when codices were expensive and relatively rare, not only were biblical books bound together, but other books used in worship, or books recommended to be read, were bound with them. Thus, the three important Septuagint codices (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus) contain not only the 39 books of the Old Testament but also some of the Apocrypha and additions to biblical books as well. Some scholars, therefore, speak of a wider, or Alexandrian canon. However, there is no evidence that the Jews in Alexandria had a different canon from the Jews in Palestine. “Indeed,” says F. F. Bruce, “there is no evidence that the Alexandrian Jews ever promulgated a canon of scripture.”4


The Witness of Josephus       

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the end of the first century A.D., compared the sacred Jewish writings with those of the Greeks and said: “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 has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.”5

This statement contains a number of important points concerning the Old Testament canon: (1) The writings in this canon were believed to be divine, i.e., to have been composed by inspired men, and they cover history from the creation to the time of Artaxerxes; (2) books describing the history after Artaxerxes were not considered to be inspired, since the succession of the prophets ended in the Persian period; (3) the contents of the books are consistent and without discrepancies; (4) Josephus refers to only 22 books, and the number of the books in his three divisions are different from the Talmudic canon (e.g., Daniel is included with the prophets). However, he, like Jerome in the fourth century A.D., refers to the same 24 books as the Talmud, Ruth being counted as an appendix to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah.



After the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai moved the Sanhedrin to Jamnia (Yavne) close to the Mediterranean coast. It soon became an established center of scriptural study. About the same time as Josephus wrote his work Against Apion, discussions took place in Jamnia relating to the canonicity of certain Old Testament books. From the recorded discussions in the Talmud we know that the books concerned were Ezekiel, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. However, the question was not whether these books should be included in the canon, but whether they should be excluded from it. Some of the reasons given were: (1) Ezekiel’s temple and its services could not be harmonized with the Pentateuch; (2) neither Esther nor the Song of Songs refers to the name of God; (3) Ecclesiastes contained too much Epicurean thought, and (4) Proverbs seemed to contradict itself in two adjacent verses (Prov. 26:4, 5). In the end, no changes were made, and the books that had already been accorded canonical status in popular esteem were confirmed.

All Protestant Bibles contain the Hebrew canon; they do not recognize the apocrypha as inspired writings, in contrast to Catholic and Orthodox Bibles



1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), p. 94.
3. R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 316.
4. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 45.
5. Against Apion, 1, 38–41, The Works of Josephus, William Whiston, trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1987), p. 776.