The Canon of the Old Testament – Part 1

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Text: Deuteronomy 31:9-13

I.         As the last few years of a presidency winds down, people begin to discuss the legacy of the current President. How will the future remember him? What will historians say about him?

            A.        So what makes a President great?

                        1.         Is greatest determined by the writings of famous historians?

                        2.         Or does greatest come by the deeds done?

            B.        Are not historians merely recorders of what has happened and what is believed?

                        1.         Wasn’t Abraham Lincoln considered a great President because of the things he did and the popularity of his accomplishments?

                        2.         The historians didn’t make him great. They recorded his greatness.

            C.        Or what makes a musician great? Is Mozart, Beethoven, or Handel great because the critics say so? Or were they already great and the critics are merely acknowledging what everyone already knows?

II.        You are probably wondering where am I going with all of this. I have been challenged repeatedly to prove that the Bible is our only source of authority in spiritual matters.

            A.        There are several religious groups that believe that the Bible is “a” source of authority, but that there are other sources as well. In particular, they believe religious leaders and church traditions are equal sources of authority in spiritual matters.

            B.        To prove this odd take on the Bible’s role, they ask, “How were the books of the Bible selected? Who made the decision that Galatians is in our Bible and the Epistle of Barnabas is out?”

                        1.         What they expect as an answer is that Origen, or Jerome, or Augustine, or some early church council set the canon of the Scriptures and that is what we follow today.

                        2.         Then they can say, “See, you have accepted the authority of someone not in the Bible to control the contents of the Bible.” Therefore the Bible is just one of several authoritative sources.

            C.        But the problem with this reasoning is the same as the one about what makes a President great. Is a book of the Bible in our canon because Origen, or Jerome, or Augustine said it was to be in there, or did these men and others simply record what was already a known fact?

            D.        Our question today is: “What makes a book accepted as the Will of God?” In particular, we will look at the canon of the Old Testament and in a future lesson examine the canon of the New Testament.

III.       For as long as we have had recorded history, the books of the Old Testament have remained consistent.

            A.        The history we have is not that old. The Israelites tended to write on papyrus (a form of paper) which does not survive the centuries very well. Other societies used clay tablets, so we have older records. So our Hebrew records only reach back to about 200 B.C.

            B.        For years critics of the Bible said that the books in the Old Testament were revered because they were old. The Israelites did not have much in the way of writings so what did exist was treasured.

            C.        What we now know is that there were plenty of books written by the Israelites, but only a few were treasured as God’s word. The status of the Scriptures is what cause them to be carefully preserved and frequently copied. Other books existed, but they were allowed to decay or be lost in antiquity.

            D.        The records of historians

                        1.         A list was made in the late fourth century by a Jewish rabbi named Baba Bathra.

                                    a.         The Law: the five books of Moses

                                    b.         The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve

                                    c.         The Writings: Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Chronicles

                                    d.         Notice that there are only twenty-four books listed. This is because the scrolls were counted and today we divide the books differently. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are divided into two books each. The Twelve are the minor prophets which we have separated each into separate books. Ezra contains both Ezra and Nehemiah, which we separate today.

                                    e.         Some lists have twenty-two books listed to match the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. These combine Lamentations with Jeremiah and Ruth with Judges.

                        2.         Even earlier is a statement by the Jewish historian Josephus in A.D. 70

                                    a.         “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 these, five belong to Moses, which contain his laws, and the tradition 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 til 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.”

                                    b.         Josephus’s statement is valuable because of its age and because when Titus conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 70, he took the items in the temple back to Rome, but gave the sacred scrolls to Josephus.

                        3.         Notice that Josephus is not the source of the canon, but a mere recorder of what was accepted by the Jews.

                        4.         The historians tell us what was accepted but not how these books came to be accepted.

            E.        In fact, our only complete history of the Jews is the Old Testament itself, and it is from there we must learn how a book was accepted as divine in origin.

IV.      The primary test was the author of the book. Was the author a known prophet of God?

            A.        Moses was recognized as the founder of the Jewish religion. Many miracles were witnessed by millions of people showing the power of God was with the prophet.

                        1.         Moses was command by God to make a record

                                    a.         Exodus 17:14; Numbers 33:2 - Moses wrote the contemporary history of the people

                                    b.         The writing of the covenant - Exodus 24:4-8, 34:27-28

                                    c.         The law was written and given to the priest to teach the people - Deuteronomy 31:9-13

                                    d.         Moses recorded songs that were to be taught - Deuteronomy 31:22

                                    e.         He continued to write until the writings were complete - Deuteronomy 31:24-26

                        2.         Moses is never directly called the author of Genesis, but it is always included in his writings. It is believed that he complied earlier writings into the book we know as Genesis, so he was not the direct author though it was part of his writings.

                        3.         Later books confirm the canon of Moses’ work

                                    a.         Joshua 1:7 - Joshua was to learn the law Moses commanded

                                    b.         Joshua 8:30-32 - Joshua copied the law onto stone and references Exodus 20:25)

                                    c.         Joshua 23:6 - Israel was warned to follow the book of Moses

                                    d.         David charged Solomon to keep what Moses wrote - I Kings 2:3

                                    e.         David talks about what God made known to Moses in Psalm 103:7 and then quotes Exodus 34:6-7

                                    f.         Amaziah follows Moses commandments, quoting portions of Deuteronomy - II Kings 14:6

                                    g.         The book of Moses was found in Josiah’s reign and Passover was reestablished (Exodus and Deuteronomy) - II Kings 23:21-25

                                    h.         Chronicles and Ezra are full of references to the law Moses was given by God, such as Ezra 7:6

                                    i.         Daniel testifies that Moses’ prophecies given by the Lord have come true - Daniel 9:11-13

                                    j.         We could continue on citing Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi all stating that Moses recorded the law of God.

                                    k.         Christ and the apostles frequently quote from the works of Moses and interchangeably state that “Moses said” or “God said” or give it authority by saying “It is written.”

                        4.         The important point is to realize that the first five books were not canonized because of their antiquity, their linguistic style, or the beauty of their words. It was not by royal command or priestly decision. The books were accepted because they were written by God’s spokesman, Moses. “The human author, admitted by all to be a spokesman for the divine Author, guaranteed the writing.”

V.        This establishes the first five books are from God, recognized and testified to by many witnesses. In a future lesson we will examine the other books of the Old Testament to see why they were added to the works of Moses.

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