Old Testament Canon: A Brief Survey of the Evidence


The best rebuttals to the Protestant claims about the Canon of the Bible actually come from recent protestant scholarship. In the late 1960’s, A. C. Sundberg did his doctoral dissertation on the OT Canon of the early Church at Harvard (Old Testament of the Early Church: A Study of Canon). He concluded that there was no evidence of any “Alexandrian Canon” of the Jews. Rather, from the early 2nd centruy onwards (and before, in my opinion, if you read the Apostolic Fathers), the long Greek OT canon was always used by Christians everywhere. The preference among a minority of the Fathers for the “Palestinian Canon” is restricted to those Fathers (e.g. Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, Athanasius, Jerome) who studied Hebrew with the Rabbis and were embarrassed to discover that the Jewish Bible was not the same as that of the Christians. The tendency to restrict the books of the OT to the Jewish canon is a distinctly late development among a restricted few critical scholars. In fact, the longer Canon was promulgated at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD when the Church definitively settled the NT canon and EVERY pre-reformation Christian body recognizes the deuterocanonical books without exception.

It should also be noted that the Council of Hippo (like the NT itself) makes no distinction between OT and NT. The definitive list of books it promulgated was for the Scriptures as a whole. The distinction between OT and NT is not Biblical but rather is a later affectation of (primarily prot) scholars who wanted to separate the discernment of the canons of the 2 testaments in order to accept all of one but only part of the other. In fact, if you go back and check, every pre-Hippo Father who had a truncated OT canon also had an aberrant NT canon usually lacking some of the books we accept and including some we do not. Check it out and you will see what I mean. In the same book, prot scholars will extol the short OT canon of a Father in one section, but then talk about his defective NT canon in another section.

Other good books include:

  • The New Testament Canon : Its Making and Meaning by Harry Y. Gamble /published 1985
  • The Canon of Scripture ~ F F Bruce / published 1988
  • The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon (Oxford Theological Monographs) by Geoffrey Mark Hahneman / published 1992
  • Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments : Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible by Brevard S. Childs / published 1993 {This has the BEST new slant on the difference between the prot and cath canons that I have seen in a long time. You should read this if nothing else on the topic.}
  • The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon by Lee Martin McDonald / published 1995
  • Interpreting the Old Testament by John Barton (2nd Edition) / published 1997

In regards to the question of how a fifty year old Jew before the time of Jesus could have determined which books were in the Bible, it appears that, in the OT, most of the prophets were of priestly lineage. I cannot think of any prophet who was not. The duty to teach was given by YHWH to the priests and primarily to the high priest:

Exodus 4:14-15 – Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well; and behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you he will be glad in his heart. And you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do.

We also have the witness of Our Lord himself who said to his disciples in Matthew 23:1-2: Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they do not practice what they preach.

Then we also have John 11:49-52 – But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

It appears, therefore, that there was a Jewish “Magisterium” centered upon the High Priest and those priests who were in union with him by which the word of God could reach the people. As such the High Priest, when he was speaking as the teacher of all Israel, would have had charism of infallibility like that which the Pope has in the New Covenant. So the discernment of the Canon could have been accomplished through the Jewish Magisterium just like Beckwith claims in his book “The OT Canon of the NT Church.” Unfortunately for White and Beckwith, there is no evidence that the Canon was ever CLOSED by the High Priest – albeit that it was FORMED under his guidance. By the time the Jews decided to close their Canon at the Javneh rabbinic colloquia @90 AD, the Holy Spirit had departed from them and settled on the Apostles. It was the Church which CLOSED the Canon. The Jews merely formed it up to that point.

The closure of the Jewish Canon was precipitated by the destruction of the Temple and an overt attempt to deny the Messiahship of Jesus. The closure of the Christian Canon was precipitated by the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and as the end (interpreted as both the goal and the termination) of the Jewish Law and consequently of God’s public revelation. Thus the NT is the end of the Canon. When the Church discerned this, it also recognized the final installments in the pre-Christian of the Bible which were shown to be inspired in the light of Christ and his Holy Spirit.

The old idea that the OT was a Jewish product is not only no longer viable but a “stone of stumbling” for the Protestants. According to St Paul, Jesus was the END of the Law. If we accept that as true, then it was not possible for the Jews to have closed the Canon because to them there was no clear end to God’s plan. I have a book entitled “Prophetic Figures in the Late Second Temple Period” by Rebecca Gray which makes the point that Josephus, during the late 1st Century AD, still believed that there were true prophets in Israel and in fact talked himself as if he were prophesying. Jacob Neusner in his works even admits that modern Rabbinic Judaism is the religion of the “Two Torahs”: oral (Talmud) and written (TaNaK). Also, let us not forget the reception of both St. John the Baptist and Jesus as prophets in their own time. Judaism certainly did not despise what it considered to be genuine prophetic witness in the era after the return from Babylon.

The Deuterocanonical books represent the very best from the Talmudic material (eg Sirach, & Wisdom) while rejecting that which over emphasized the Law, the separation between the Jews and the Gentiles, and the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. It completes the work of the Holy Spirit among the Jewish people up until the advent of Christ when all prophetic activity came to its “telos.” The death of the last Apostle marks the end of the process of Public Revelation but not the end of the work of the Holy Spirit. That process formally started with Moses and definitively ended with St. John. There is no hint in either the Protocanonical OT, the Deuterocanonical OT, or the NT that there was ever any interruption in the process.

I recommend reading Ben Witherington’s book “Jesus the Sage” to see the strong connections between the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the deuterocanonical material. There is also a book from Sheffield Press entitled “James and ‘Q'” that shows the same thing. Even R. H. Charles in his mammoth “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha” lists dozens of references that substantiate this and that was almost 100 years ago!

It was only those who perceived a definitive end to the process of revelation (i.e. the Christian Church) who could formally close the Canon of Scripture. Any other alleged closure by parties other than the Church would come either too soon (i.e. Beckwith’s thesis) or too late (i.e. Jamnia) and would have closed the Canon for some other reason other than the ultimacy of Christ.

To find a discussion (with primary source citations) concerning the 10 books disputed by the Jews, I suggest consulting the Talmud and Sid Leimann’s book “The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture”. Contrary to assertions from our heretical friends, there was no certain knowledge of the boundaries of the canon among the Jews even while the NT was being written and the NT authors knew this. Beckwith and Leimann assert (correctly, in my opinion) that the TANACH was stabilized in its content by the mid 2nd Century BC. I think it was in the wake of the Maccabbean war. This does not mean that there was a canon at that point because the greek term “kanon” literally means closed and that obviously didn’t happen until later when Sirach and Wisdom were rejected. We must make a distinction between formation and closure. If the canon were closed definitively in the 2nd Century BC (for which there is no evidence), then the Church could not have added the NT books. If we allow that the NT books are truly scripture, then either the Canon was never closed (albeit well formed) or it was re-opened again and new books could have been added. I favor the former idea as opposed to the latter but either supports the Catholic view.

Beckwith actually goes so far as to say that the Sadducees didn’t deny inspiration to the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketubi’m (Writings). He does this in order to claim that ALL Jewish groups in the 1st Century agreed on the TANACH as Scripture. This directly contradicts the Talmud and is inconsistent with the NT witness (i.e. the riddle about the levirate bride and the seven brothers). There is a lot of good and interesting stuff in Beckwith, but his reasoning is very biased and he makes all kinds of ridiculous assertions to bolster his position. A more moderate and reliable description of the formation of the Hebrew Canon is in John Barton’s book “Oracles of God” which was published around the same time. (Beckwith wrote a scathing critique of this at the same time that Barton critiqued him. All the claws were out that day.)

Please don’t miss Brevard Child’s essay on the difference between the cath and prot canons in the book I cited. It is really good and has lots of insights.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate

August 1, 2001

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