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What was the process of deciding on the Old Testament canon?

Old Testament canon

In his commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther denounced the Pope for claiming to have authority over the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church argued that, as it was the papacy who determined the canon of Scripture, Scripture must bow in submission to the Pope’s superior authority. Martin Luther pointed to the folly of such faulty reasoning, for God alone determines what writings are divinely inspired. Man does not sit in judgment of the Scriptures; rather, man discovers, recognizes, and agrees with those writings that are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).

The biblical canon is the collection of literature recognized as being divinely inspired, that is, words penned by human authors who “were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21, NLT). The word canon comes from a Greek word meaning “rule” or “measuring stick.” Based on Jude 1:3, the canon of Scripture has been settled for all time, and nothing can be added to or taken from our Bible.

A Brief Overview of the Old Testament

While the books of the New Testament were written within a relatively brief timespan, the Old Testament writings were recorded over a period of one thousand or more years in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, by writers spanning three continents. While God is truly the Author of all canonical writings, some forty human writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, penned His words for the teaching, discipline, and edification of God’s people. Five basic literary genres make up the Old Testament: law, history, poetry, wisdom, and prophecy.

Additionally, the Old Testament consists of four major divisions:

• The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Pentateuch is also known as the Torah, the Law, and the Law of Moses.
• The Historical Books consist of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. These books deal primarily with the history of Israel.
• The Poetic or Wisdom Literature includes Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.
• The Prophets: The major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. These books were labeled “major” because of their length and not by the significance of their content. The Minor Prophets are shorter: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Biblical prophecy falls into two categories: fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled. The preponderance of fulfilled prophecy lends credibility to those prophetic statements pending future fulfillment.

Unlike other examples of ancient literature in which early manuscripts are exceedingly rare, there are thousands of manuscripts that attest to the accuracy and reliability of the Old Testament writings. This is hardly surprising, for the prophet Isaiah declared, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8, ESV). Just as God gave us His Word through divine inspiration, we can know beyond doubt He has safeguarded the integrity of His Word.

The Soferim

Beginning around 500 BC, a specialized class of scholars called Soferim were responsible for the laborious task of hand-copying the holy manuscripts. These ancient scribes recognized the Scriptures as God’s authoritative Word and are known to have reverentially approached the work of copying the Scriptures with meticulous, painstaking care. Because the scribes held the sacred writings in such high regard, we can be assured of the Old Testament’s trustworthiness.

Dedicated to the integrity and preservation of the Scriptures, the Soferim began the process of officially identifying the Old Testament canon. These esteemed scribes were considered experts in the Mosaic Law and taught methods of applying the principles of Judaism to everyday life. Over time, the traditional duties of the Soferim were taken over by a group of conservative Jewish scholars known as the Pharisees. Unlike the Sadducees, a sect that discounted the validity of much of the Hebrew Bible, the Pharisees adhered to the infallibility of Scripture.

The Septuagint

As Greek became the preeminent language throughout the known world, a group of 70 or 72 scholars began translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek during the third century BC. Known as the Septuagint (LXX), a reference to the number of biblical scholars involved in the translation, this work was highly regarded for its accuracy by the Jewish religious establishment. Ultimately, the reliability of the LXX can be measured by the fact that the New Testament writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, frequently quoted it. Additionally, the widespread use of the Septuagint proves the canon of the Old Testament had long been recognized.

The Testimony of Flavius Josephus

As to the authenticity and credibility of the ancient Hebrew Bible, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote, “We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men” (Against Apion, Vol. 1, in Josephus, Complete Works, Kregel, 1960, p. 8).

While Josephus mentions twenty-two books that complete the Old Testament canon, other versions of the Hebrew Bible list twenty-four books, and our modern Bibles contain thirty-nine Old Testament books. The apparent discrepancy as to the number of books in the Old Testament canon is, in fact, no discrepancy at all. The difference is in how the books were divided. For example, Josephus joined Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah. Based on the testimony of Josephus, we may again conclude the canon of the Old Testament had long been settled in the minds of respected Jewish scholars.


There is little historical data detailing the formation of the Old Testament canon. The scribes compiling the canon would have been mindful of:

• the reputation of each book’s human author
• doctrines and statements within a given manuscript that conflict with the clear teachings of established biblical writings
• historical inaccuracies and/or spurious prophetic utterances that would cast a shadow of doubt on a manuscript
• a book’s widespread acceptance or rejection by respected scholars

Based on these exacting standards, the ancient Jewish scribes demonstrated the highest measure of diligence and scholarship as they settled on the Old Testament canon. Additionally, the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ never questioned the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament was regarded as God’s infallible Word by the early church, and, as Jesus Himself said the prophets spoke of Him (Luke 24:13–27), we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Old Testament.

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Questions about the Bible

If Scripture is supposed to be our sole authority, on what authority do we base the canonicity of the books of the Bible - since the Bible does not say which books are canonical?
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This page last updated: February 3, 2022