The Old Testament Canon

By James M. Rochford

Picture1The term canon goes back to the ancient Greeks, where they used the term to describe a measuring rod. This is probably a loan word from the ancient Hebrew kaneh (or “reed”), which was used as a measuring rod (Ezek. 40:3; 42:16).[1] Theologians use this term to refer to the books that belong in the Bible; thus, canonicity is the study of the canonical books.

Critical theologians assert that the Jewish community gradually recognized the Old Testament (OT) books in three stages that match the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible. Their historical explanation is as follows:

Stage 1: The Pentateuch accepted as scripture by 400 B.C.

While the Bible asserts that Moses wrote the Pentateuch in ~1440 BC, critics argue that it wasn’t accepted as Scripture until a thousand years later. Critic Stephen Harris writes, “By about 400 B.C.E. the Jews regarded the first five books of the Bible (the Penteteuch) as authoritative and binding.”[2]

Stage 2: The Prophets accepted as scripture by 200 B.C.

Some of the prophets wrote before the exile in 587 BC, and all of them wrote before 450 BC. However, critics argue that these books weren’t accepted as Scripture until 200 BC. Harris writes, “Next to be accepted were the prophetic books, which form the second major division of the Hebrew canon. By about 200 BC the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets) were regarded as sacred.”[3] Because the prophetic books were not closed until 200 BC, this explains how Isaiah could “predict” the Babylonian captivity and return. All of these “predictions” would be history—not prophecy.

Stage 3: The Writings accepted as scripture by 90 AD

According to modern critics, the OT wasn’t specifically canonized until after the time of Christ. Harris concludes, “As early as the mid-second century BCE a third category of Scripture was recognized… these ‘other volumes’ are the Writings (in Hebrew, the Kethuvim), whose contents were not clearly defined for many generations. Not until after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E. did the Jewish community attempt to set a precise limit on the number of books comprising the Writings… Following the Roman destruction of the Jewish state, a group of distinguished rabbis… assembled at Jamnia on the Palestinian coast to define and consolidate the essential teachings of the Jewish religion, including a statement on which books of the Hebrew Bible were to be accepted as sacred and authoritative.”[4] Since Daniel was placed in the Kethuvim, this would also make Daniel history—not prophecy (for a defense of Daniel as a prophet, see our earlier article “The Authorship of Daniel”).


Are these critical scholars right? Was the OT canonized as Scripture centuries after its completion? Were religious councils responsible for canonizing the biblical books?

The Immediate Acceptance of the OT Canon

The OT canon is determined by authorship. In other words, in order for a book to be considered inspired, it needed to be written by a prophet. Typically, God said that he would speak to prophets through visions and dreams (Num. 12:6). However, when he spoke with Moses, he writes, “With [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” (Num. 12:7-8) This seems to mean that canonical writings (like Moses’) were very specific in their inspiration—though not necessarily dictated. Micaiah, the prophet, says, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I shall speak” (1 Kings 22:14).

Prophets were Tested

Jeremiah criticized the false prophets for inventing novel prophecies. He writes, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer. 23:16).

Regarding the prophet Hananiah’s short-term prediction,[5] Jeremiah writes, “The prophet who prophesies of peace, when the word of the prophet comes to pass, then that prophet will be known as one whom the Lord has truly sent” (Jer. 28:9). Hananiah was killed by God as a result—by Jeremiah’s prediction (v.16). Jeremiah reminds them that it will take 70 years instead (Jer. 29:10).

In order to write Scripture, one needed to be a prophet, and there were two tests for determining a false prophet. They needed to have correct doctrine, and they needed to accurately predict short term events. If they could pass both tests, then the people were to believe in them. Moses—the first prophet—outlined two crucial tests to discern a prophet of God:

1. Doctrinal Test (Deut. 13:1-5)

Moses writes,

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,3you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4”You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. 5”But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death” (Deut. 13:1-5).

The first test of a true prophet was doctrine. Even if a prophet could predict signs and wonders (v.2), they could still be discerned by their doctrine. That is, if what they said contradicted existing Scripture (“Let us go after other gods… and let us serve them”), then this would disqualify them immediately.

2. Accurate Predictions (Deut. 18:21-22)

In addition to correct doctrine, a potential prophet had another test to pass. Moses writes,

“You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ 22”When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:20-22).

God used short term predictions to validate his prophets. Ezekiel writes,

“So when it comes to pass—as surely it will—then they will know that a prophet has been in their midst” (Ezek. 33:33).

False prophets were not given a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Instead, if they simply made one false prophecy, they were given capital punishment (Deut. 13:5; Ezek. 13:2, 9; 14:9).

Moses predicted the 40 year exodus in the wilderness (Num. 14:33).

Samuel predicted the demise of Saul’s kingdom (1 Sam. 15:28).

David knew the future of his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:11-16).

Solomon knew the future of his kingdom from a dream (1 Kings 3:13-14).

Isaiah predicted King Cyrus a couple of hundred years before he lived (Isa. 44:28-45:1), and he predicted that Ephraim would be destroyed in 65 years (Isa. 7:8). For evidence for the early authorship of Isaiah, see our earlier article, “Authorship of Isaiah.”

Jeremiah predicted the doom of Jerusalem (Jer. 26:8-15) and its 70 year exile (Jer. 25:11). When the people rejected this, he predicted that Hananiah (an evil, false prophet) would die within the year (Jer. 28:16). Two months later, Hananiah dropped dead (Jer. 28:17).

Ezekiel predicted the destruction of Tyre (Ezek. 26:3-11), which was fulfilled (see “Predictions of Ruined Cities”).

Daniel predicted the correct succession of world empires after Babylon (see “Daniel and the End of Human History”).

Zechariah predicted Alexander the Great’s conquest of the ancient Near East. It is so accurate that critics date his book after Alexander’s life.

Micah predicted that “Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins” (Micah 3:12) over 100 years in advance.

Harris concludes, “These are but a few of the hundreds of predictions—some short range, some long range—which dot the pages of the Old Testament.”[6]

Canonical Acceptance was Immediate

Some critics argue that age was the determining factor for canonicity. For instance, critic Stephen L. Harris writes, “As centuries passed, Israel’s legal and prophetic writings grew ever more venerable and were quoted, debated, and read publically in the synagogues until familiarity with their teaching and their recognized consistency with the Mosaic tradition made them by use and habit part of the Hebrew Bible.”[7] However, biblically and historically, this is certainly false. In fact, the Bible itself refers to other books that were used by the Jews that were not included in the canon:

(Josh. 10:13) Is not this written in the Book of Jasher?”

(2 Sam. 1:18) “Behold it is written in the Book of Jasher.”

(Num. 21:14) The Book of the Wars of the Lord

(1 Kings 11:41) The Acts of Solomon

(1 Chron. 27:24) The Annals of King David

(2 Chron. 12:15) Shemaiah the prophet wrote the “acts of Rehoboam.”

Moreover, some newer books were included as Scripture. For instance, Daniel considered Jeremiah Scripture (Dan. 9:2). In fact, biblically, even as the ink was drying on the page of a prophetic book, it was considered Scripture.

Moses’ View

Moses wrote the original five books ascribed to him (see “Authorship of the Pentateuch” Ex. 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:9, 22, 24; Ezra 3:2; 6:18; 7:6; Ps. 103:7; Josh. 8:31, 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3), and he was the first prophet in Israel’s history. In fact, all other prophets were measured against Moses’ initial role as a prophet (Deut. 18:15). The canon began with him, and prophetic succession began with him, as well.

Joshua’s View

Joshua viewed Moses’ writings as inspired (Josh. 1:8; 23:6), and he added to the existing canon (Josh. 24:26). Moses told his successors not to add or take away from Scripture (Deut. 4:2; 12:32).

The Prophets: View of Themselves

King David believed that God had spoken to him directly, and he said, “His word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Samuel laid up the kingly instructions before the Lord (1 Sam. 10:25). The prophet Isaiah wrote about the life of king Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:22) and the life of Hezekiah (2 Chron. 32:32). The prophet Jeremiah was divinely commissioned by God to write his book (Jer. 30:2), as was Isaiah (Isa. 8:1) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 43:11). Moreover, each of the twelve Minor Prophets called themselves prophets. The prophet Jehu (1 Kin. 16:7) wrote about the life of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:34). Moreover, Solomon, Samuel, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel all had dreams and visions which squares with God’s description of a prophet (Deut. 13:1; Num. 12:6-8). Finally, the historical books were written by prophets (1 Chron. 29:29; 2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 13:22; 20:34; 32:32; 33:19).

The Prophets: View of Each Other

Daniel viewed Jeremiah as divinely inspired (Dan. 9:2). Ezra also believed that Jeremiah was a prophet (Ezra 1:1), citing his fulfilled prophecy (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10-14; c.f. 2 Chron. 36:21). Isaiah and Micah accepted each other’s writings as scripture contemporaneously (Isa. 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3); these two passages are almost identical. They ministered in Israel at the same time, so it’s difficult to know who copied from whom.[8] Ezra believed that Haggai and Zechariah were real and historical prophets, and he places them in their historical setting (Ezra 5:1; 6:14). He also believed that the “law of Moses” was preserved from before the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 7:6). Jeremiah regarded Micah’s writings (125 years earlier) as being from God (Jer. 26:18), citing Micah 3:12-4:1. Ezra believed that David had written two of the psalms (Ezra 3:10-11; Ps. 106:1; 107:1). Ezekiel attested to the book of Job (14:14, 20). Solomon wrote “3,000 proverbs” (1 Kings 4:32), and Proverbs 30:2-3 cites Deuteronomy 4:2 and Psalm 18:30.

Prophetic Succession

Prophetic authorship supports the OT books:

Pentateuch: The Pentateuch (or Torah) contains the first five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Moses was the first prophet (Deut. 18:15; Hos. 12:13; Num. 11:29) and the author of these first five books (see “Authorship of the Pentateuch”).

Joshua: The book of Joshua picks up after the death of Moses (Josh. 1:1), and Joshua tells us that he added his book to the canon (Josh. 24:26). Joshua references Deuteronomy 27:5 (Josh. 8:31), and he mentions Numbers 32:20-33 (Josh. 22:1-8).

Judges: The book of Judges mentions Joshua before it (Judg. 1:1, 20, 21; 2:8).

Ruth: The book of Ruth mentions Judges before it (Ruth 1:1).

1 & 2 Samuel: Samuel was a prophet or “seer” (1 Sam. 9:9). We read, “All Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the Lord. 21 And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, because the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:20-21). Samuel continues the history of Israel after the Judges, and he tells us that he himself added writings to the canon (1 Sam. 10:25). This history of David was written by Samuel, Nathan, and Gad (1 Chron. 29:29).

1 & 2 Kings: These books refer to the “law of Moses” (2 Kings 14:6), and they repeatedly refer back to David (1 Kings 3:14; 5:7; 8:16; 9:5). These historical references must come from 1 and 2 Samuel. Moreover, Nathan, Ahijah, and Iddo recorded Solomon’s history (2 Chron. 9:29). Shemaiah and Iddo recorded the history of Rehoboam (2 Chron. 12:15). Jehu the prophet recorded Jehoshaphat’s history (2 Chron. 20:34).

1 & 2 Chronicles: These books are parallel accounts of Samuel and Kings. It also contains genealogies that come from Genesis (1 Chron. 1) and Ruth (1 Chron. 2:12-13). Harris observes, “Ezra has often been called the author of Chronicles and he certainly was in a position to write such a book. The book ends, as has been noted above, with a catchline identical with the beginning of Ezra. Ezra, at least knew the book and attached his writing to it.”[9]

Psalms: David was a prophet according to the OT (1 Chron. 28:9) and the NT (Acts 2:30). Asaph is called a prophet or “seer” (2 Chron. 29:30).

Proverbs: Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs, and he was a prophet who had dreams and visions from God (1 Kin. 3:5; 11:9).

Job: James writes, “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings” (Jas. 5:11). Ezekiel classifies Daniel, Noah, and Job together (Ezek. 14:14, 20). Moreover, Job is “reckoned among the prophets” in Ecclesiasticus 49:9 from outside of the Bible.[10]

Ezra & Nehemiah: These books open with the closing verses of 2 Chronicles (36:22-23), and they refer to the “the law of Moses” (Ezra 3:2; Neh 13:1). Moreover, Nehemiah recounts Israel’s history as found in the rest of the Bible, going back to the book of Genesis (Neh. 9).

Daniel: Daniel is called a prophet by Jesus (Mt. 24:15) and the other contemporary prophets (Ezek. 14:14, 20; 28:3; c.f. “Authorship of Daniel”).

Amos: Amos was considered a prophet—even though he was “not a prophet, nor… the son of a prophet” (Amos 7:14).

Esther: Harris writes, “We do not know the author of Esther, Chronicles, or Job, but they are found among the Prophets, and there is no reason to object to claiming their authors also as prophets.”[11]

This is not an exhaustive list. However, it shows that the OT books were supported by prophetic succession and prophetic authorship.

Post-Christian Jewish View: The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) also add evidence for an early canon:

The Manual of Discipline

The Manual of Discipline was a monk rulebook for the men at Qumran, which was a highly legalistic Jewish community. R. Laird Harris writes, “The Dead Sea Manual of Discipline apparently dates from the late second century b.c. It is therefore of great historical value. It refers to what ‘God commanded through Moses and through all his servants the prophets.’ There are other references to the law of Moses and two quotations from Isaiah with the introductory phrase ‘it is written.’”[12]

From the Manual of Discipline, we can infer a number of things: First, by at least 150 B.C., the Jews were quoting from the canon. Second, the Jews believed in Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Third, they used the phrase “It is written…” to refer to canonical texts. This is the same phrase that Jesus used in the NT.

The Zadokite Document

Another document in the DSS was the Zadokite Document. Harris writes, “The Zadokite Document is longer and adds considerably to our information. It also refers twice to the Law and the Prophets. There are many references such as ‘The Book of the Law,’ ‘Moses said,’ etc. The formula ‘It is written’ is applied to Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Numbers, Leviticus, and even to Proverbs. Other references to Scripture books as authoritative, with the phrase ‘God said,’ etc. referring to a Scripture citation, include passages from Isaiah, Malachi, Amos, Zechariah, Hosea, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Micah.”[13]

From the Zadokite Document, we can infer a number of things: First, the Jews believed in Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Second, they used the phrase “The Law and the Prophets.” Third, they used the expression “It is written…” to refer to a number of OT texts (e.g. Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Numbers, Leviticus, and Proverbs). Fourth, they used the expression “God said…” to refer to a number of OT texts (e.g. Isaiah, Malachi, Amos, Zechariah, Hosea, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Micah).

Assorted DSS Commentaries

In addition to these texts, archaeologists have discovered various biblical commentaries in the DSS. Harris writes, “The fact that a commentary on the text of Habakkuk, chapters 1 and 2, appears is an evidence in the same direction. Fragments of commentaries on Micah and Isaiah also are found.”[14] This only supports the notion that these books were venerated by the Jewish community.

Non-Canonical Books were treated differently

In addition to these findings, we see that the evidence from the DSS shows that the Jewish community viewed non-biblical documents as uninspired. Harris writes, “Apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature is found and is referred to, but is never quoted as authoritative. Jubilees is mentioned by name in the Zadokite Document, but not with any formula that would designate it as authoritative.”[15] In other words, the non-canonical books were known and named, but they are not treated the same way. Harris concludes, “So, it appears, the non-canonical books of the sect do not make a claim of inspiration for themselves, but they fully support the inspiration of the books of the Old Testament—except only for Esther which is not mentioned.”[16]

Post-Christian Jewish View: Josephus and Baba Bathra

Josephus wrote from AD 75 to 99—a fully 20 years before the supposed Council of Jamnia and 300 years before the Talmud’s tractate Baba Bathra. The Roman general Titus had given Josephus a gift of the complete OT scrolls (an expensive present!).[17] Therefore, he is an especially credible witness on the Hebrew canon because he had the actual Temple scrolls in his possession. He writes in Against Apion:

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 them, five belong to Moses, which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind until his death. This interval of time is little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artexerxes 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. From Artexerxes to our own time the complete history has been written but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets. We have given practical proof of our reverence for our own scriptures. For, although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured to add, or to remove, or to alter anything, and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as decrees of God…[18]

From this, we can learn a number of things about Josephus’ view of the OT canon: First, Josephus did not believe that the Word of God would disagree or contradict itself. Second, he believed that these documents were “divine.” Third, he believed in Mosaic authorship. Fourth, he believed that the histories from Artaxerxes until AD 70 were not of “equal credit” with the canonical books, because of the “failure of the exact succession of prophets.” In other words, the prophets stopped speaking around the time of Artaxerxes in 465 to 425 B.C. Fifth, the historical work from 425 B.C. to the present time (AD 70) was not considered canonical. Sixth, he didn’t think that the Jews had the freedom to “add” or “remove” anything from the canon (c.f. Deut. 4:2). Seventh, he claimed that “every Jew” had this perspective on the Hebrew Bible. Eighth, and finally, he believed that the canon consisted of 22 books. Of course, while our modern Bible has 39 books—not 22—this is not a difference of the books themselves. Instead, this is just an issue of how we number the same canonical books:


Comparison of Book Divisions

Modern Division (39 Books)

Josephus’ Division (22 Books)

Jeremiah and Lamentations are two books.

Jeremiah and Lamentations is one book. They were both written by the same author, so Josephus combines them.
Judges and Ruth are two separate books.

Judges and Ruth is one book. The book of Judges is a general history of Israel before their King. Ruth is a specific history of a woman living at that time. It’s not strange to see Josephus combining these two books.

1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles are two books.

Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are one book.
Ezra and Nehemiah are two books.

Ezra and Nehemiah are one book.

The 12 Minor Prophets are each labeled separately.

Josephus recognized these twelve as one book called “The Book of the Twelve.” Josephus also put Daniel in with the prophets, rather than the writings.


After Josephus’ time, the Babylonian Talmud (AD 200) records the same OT canon which we have today in a section called the Baba Bathra. Harris writes, “It lists the sacred Hebrew books which are accepted as canonical in our Hebrew and Protestant English Bibles—and no others.”[19]

The NT authors’ View

By the time of the NT, the OT canon was already in existence. Paul writes that the Jewish believers were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). The NT authors quote the OT over 600 times.[20] In Luke 11:49-51, Jesus referred to all the prophets from Abel (Gen. 4) to Zechariah (2 Chron. 24). Paul spoke of “the Scriptures of the prophets” (Rom. 16:26). Peter spoke of the OT “prophets” (1 Pet. 1:10) who “made the prophetic word more sure” (2 Pet. 1:19), and he specifically spoke of David as a “prophet” (Acts 2:30). Elsewhere, Jesus referred to Daniel as a “prophet” (Mt. 24:15). Geisler and Nix write,

Of the twenty-two books in the Jewish canon referred to by Josephus (Against Apion 1:8), some eighteen are cited as authori­tative by the New Testament. No citations of Judges, Chronicles, Esther, or the Song of Solomon are to be found, although there are references to events in Judges (Heb 11:32) and Chronicles (Mt 23:35; 2 Ch 24:20). Allusion to the Song of Solomon 4:15 may be found in Jesus’ reference to “living water” (Jn 4:10), but this would not be a support of the book’s authority. Likewise, the possible reference to the feast of Purim from Esther 9 in John 5:1, or the similarity of Revelation 11:10 to Esther 9:22, would fall short of a support of the inspiration of Esther. The divine authority of the book of Esther is adequately attested elsewhere but not by New Testament quotations.[21]

The Early Church’s View

The early Christian leaders also held to this standard canon of the OT:

Melito (AD 170): Melito—bishop of Sardis—travelled to Palestine to “learn the exact truth as to the ancient books, what is their number and what their order.”[22] He writes,

When I came to the east and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learnt accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts and sent them to you. These are their names: five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kingdoms,10 two books of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon and his Wisdom,11 Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Ezra.

In this citation, Melito doesn’t mention any of the books of the Apocrypha, and he also affirms the canonicity of Esther—an oft-disputed book.

Origen (AD 250): Origen stated that there were 22 books in the OT canon.[23]

Athanasius (AD 367): Athanasius—bishop of Alexandria—listed all of the books in our Bible (minus Esther). He writes,

There are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.[24]

Eusebius (AD 314): He agrees with Josephus that the OT only contains 22 books, but no books were added after the time of Artaxerxes (3.10.1-5).

Jerome (AD 400): Jerome cites Jewish sources, and he said that there were 22 books in the OT.[25]

Defining the Canon

In order to determine the canon, we contend that we need to discover their inspiration—not determine their inspiration. Jesus’ words were immediately understood as Scripture, so that all people could build their lives on them (Mt. 7:24ff). Paul’s words were Scripture as the ink was still wet on the page (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:15). Jude acknowledged that the apostolic writing was already Scripture before the end of the first-century, quoting 2 Peter 3:3. Jesus said that he words would never pass away (Mt. 24:35; Lk. 21:33).


Defining the Canon[26]

The Church Is Determiner of Canon

The Church Is Discoverer of Canon

The Church Is Mother of Canon

The Church Is Child of Canon
The Church Is Magistrate of Canon

The Church Is Minister of Canon

The Church Is Regulator of Canon

The Church Is Recognizer of Canon
The Church Is Judge of Canon

The Church Is Witness of Canon

The Church Is Master of Canon

The Church Is Servant of Canon


Two Final Objections

As we conclude, let’s consider two popular objections to our characterization of the OT canon.

What about the Council of Jamnia?

As we noted above, some critical scholars claim that the OT was finally canonized in AD 100 at the Council of Jamnia. After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Jewish religious leaders relocated to a town on the Judean coast called Jamnia (a.k.a. Yavneh). Even though the story about a council at Jamnia is widely repeated in college textbooks about the Bible, the truth is, there is no evidence to support that a council was ever convened! The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explains,

The suggestion that a particular synod of Jamnia, held c. 100 AD, finally settled the limits of the OT Canon, was made by H.E. Ryle; though it has had wide currency, there is no evidence to support it.[27]

Scholars did gather at Jamnia over a long period of time to discuss many things, but to call this a “council” is really a misnomer. Geisler and Nix write, “The discussion was confined to the question whether Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (or possibly Ecclesiastes alone) make the hands unclean. i.e. are divinely inspired… The decision reached was not regarded as authoritative, since contrary opinions continued to be expressed throughout the second century.”[28] Critical scholars read a “religious council” into these quotes. However, any meetings that were held at Jamnia were certainly not a “council” in the sense people think of church councils.

What about the Apocrypha?

See our earlier article “The Apocrypha.”

Disputed OT Books

Mosaic Authorship While the Pentateuch claims to be written by Moses (Ex. 24:4; 17:14; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:9), the JEDP theory (sometimes called the Graf-Wellhausen or Documentary Hypothesis) was developed in the 18th and 19th century by critical scholars of the Bible. Under this view, the Pentateuch was not written by Moses. Instead, it was the result of a later author/editor, who pieced multiple sources together.

Isaianic Authorship While the book of Isaiah claims to be written in the 8th century B.C. (739-681 B.C.) by “Isaiah son of Amoz” (Is. 1:1; 2:1; c.f. Is. 7:3), higher critics of the OT claim that it was written in multiple parts by multiple people. Because of the fulfilled supernatural predictions of Isaiah, critics believe that the second half of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) must have been written by a later author. They refer to the first author as “First” Isaiah, and they refer to the second author as “Second” Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah). Sometimes, critical scholars even add a “Third” Isaiah (Trito-Isaiah), because of the break from chapters 56-66 (which is allegedly a post-exilic author).

Danielic Authorship While the book of Daniel claims to be written roughly around 530 BC, critics of the OT claim that it was written in 167 BC, during the Maccabean era. They claim that this book was written for the purpose of encouraging Jews who were revolting against the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who was a savage Greek tyrant, intent on suppressing Israel.

Ecclesiastes The canonicity of Ecclesiastes was questioned by many of the early rabbis, because it has such a skeptical outlook on life. How could this be included in Scripture with such a fatalistic view of the meaning of life?

Esther This is the most difficult book in the OT canon to define.

Song of Solomon Some rabbis questioned the canonicity of this book. This wasn’t due to the authorship of the book (which they affirmed), but rather they found it to be too sensual, erotic, and lacking of “religious” value. Philo never cites it, and neither does the New Testament.


The books of the OT were not selected in a pell-mell or capricious way. The Jewish community didn’t create the canon of Scripture; instead, they recognized it as divinely inspired and authoritative. In fact, the consistent historical and biblical testimony points toward this reliable conclusion.

Further Reading

Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995.

Harris’ treatment on the inspiration and the canonization of the Bible is the best scholarly work out today. Unlike F.F. Bruce’s view (see The Canon of Scripture), Harris holds that the canon was predicated on the inspiration of the books themselves based on authorship—not church councils. Bruce holds that the canon wasn’t “officially” held until the lists were created by the church fathers. Harris offers a careful critique of Bruce, and he offers good evidence for his case based on the authorship of the books—either prophetic authority in the OT or apostolic authority in the NT.

Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986.

Geisler and Nix’s treatment is a far easier text to read than Harris (In fact, an even easier version is From God to Us by Geisler and Nix). These authors clearly explain the evidence for the canon, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible. It is not as in-depth as Harris.

Beckwith, Roger T. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub., 1986.

We haven’t read this text (yet!), but it is cited in all of the literature as one of the strongest defenses of the OT canon by Norman Geisler and Michael Kruger (two scholars whom we respect). It is an older treatment of the subject, but no doubt worth reading.

[1] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 202-204.

[2] Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Company  1985. 9-10.

[3] Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Company  1985. 10.

[4] Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1985. 10.

[5] Hananiah predicted that the stolen article from Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem would be returned to Israel within two years (Jer. 28:3).

[6] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 161.

[7] Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1985. 9.

[8] Gleason Archer writes, “Micah’s ministry was contemporary with the earlier career of Isaiah.” Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody, 1998. 361.

[9] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 173.

[10] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 172.

[11] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 169.

[12] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 140-141.

[13] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 141.

[14] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 141.

[15] Emphasis mine. Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 141.

[16] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 142.

[17] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 134-135.

[18] Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, book 1, paragraph 8.

[19] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 130.

[20] Harris writes, “There are more than 600 allusions and about 250 strict quotations. He lists no strict quotations in the books of Judges-Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Esslesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations. Also there are none from Obadiah, Nahum and Zephaniah, but these books were counted as part of the “Book of the Twelve,” the Minor Prophets, which is quoted many times.” Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 316.

[21] Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody, 1974. 37.

[22] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 131.

[23] However, Harris notes that his list was preserved by Eusebius, which only contains 21. See end note on p. 310. Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 131.

[24] Athanasius Paschal Letter Letter 39. AD 367.

[25] Harris, R. Laird. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures. Greenville, SC, 1995. 130.

[26] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 222.

[27] F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Second Edition (Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 726. For more on what did and did not happen at Jamnia, see Jamnia Revisited, by Jack P. Lewis in Lee Martin McDonald & James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002) pp. 146-162.

[28] Geisler, Norman & Nix, William. A General Introduction to the Bible: Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL. Moody Press. 1986. 238-240.