How the Old Testament Canon Was Formed
The documents that comprise the Old Testament were written by many different people over a period of approximately fifteen hundred years. Originally, the material circulated in independent units as scrolls. The present book-form (known as a codex) did not exist until after A.D. 100.
Criteria for Inclusion
Both objective and subjective criteria were part of the process of canonization. Some or all of the following considerations led to the acceptance of the works into the Canon:
The document could be attributed to a writer who lived before 400 B.C.
Several sources written before or during the inter-biblical period (ca: 400-4 B.C.) present a belief that the time when direct prophecy was being heard had ceased. William Barclay notes, “It was a fixed Jewish belief that with Malachi, midway through the fifth century B.C., the voice of prophecy was silenced and never spoken again.” (Barclay, The Making of the Bible, 25).
In order for a document to be included in the Jewish category of inspired writings, it had to be associated with the period when people were still receiving messages from God. After the fourth century B.C., the common belief that the prophetic age was over created a natural skepticism toward materials known to have been written after that date.
The document received wide acceptance throughout the Jewish community.
The fact that the material was transmitted and reused in an oral age when written messages were not the norm gave the surviving material added credibility. “The books of the Old Testament took their place as sacred Scripture, not because of the ‘fiat’ or decision of any council or committee of the Church.
The documents were originally written in Hebrew. While certain parts of the Old Testament include influences from Aramaic, the bulk was written in Hebrew.
The writing carried an authoritative message. Often this quality was related directly to an internal claim such as, “thus sayeth the Lord”; yet, even when explicit statements of authority were not made, the acceptable book presented a dynamic message capable of transforming lives.
Three Jewish Divisions of Scripture
Many biblical scholars have used the three Jewish divisions or classifications of Scripture as evidence that the various parts of the Old Testament came to Canonical status in stages. One of the earliest statements of these three divisions and their contents was in a baraitha (a tradition from the period A.D. 70-200) quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (F. F. Bruce, 30). This recognized the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, which correspond to the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament. The higher number in the latter results from counting the 12 minor prophets separately, and dividing Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah into two each.
While the Jewish classification included Law or Torah (the preferred Jewish designation of the first five books, a term meaning “instruction”), Prophets (the former prophets included Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings while the latter prophets included Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and twelve minor prophets), and the writings (for example the Psalms, Proverbs and Job), the two final classifications were an amplification of the first. The Law was the centerpiece of Jewish Scriptural authority. Many of the New Testament references to the Jewish scriptures are to “the Law” or “the Law and the Prophets”. However, in Luke 24:44 Jesus referred to “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”, indicating that the three divisions were in existence at that time.
The Hebrew canon at the time of Christ was the same as today’s Protestant Old Testament. These are the scriptures that Jesus referred to when He said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).
Writing around 90 A.D., the Jewish historian Josephus made a very important statement concerning Jewish Scripture: “From Artaxerxes until our time everything has been recorded but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what preceded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased.
If the Artaxerxes to which Josephus referred can be identified as the same ruler mentioned in Nehemiah 2:1, Josephus’ statement would reinforce the idea that the prophetic message had disappeared by 400 B.C.
Theories of Inspiration
A consideration of Canon formation leads to the issue of inspiration. There are three basic views that have been used to characterize the inspiration of the Bible.
Some people mean by inspiration of Scripture that the Bible is inspired like any other great piece of literature. In the sense that it inspires, it is inspired. This would be natural inspiration in contrast to supernatural inspiration.
The mechanical dictation theory suggests that God utilized humanity as the “keyboard” or mechanism by which He produced the message.
A third view emphasized that God inspired humans. The recorded message reveals divine authority and human transmission. The divine authority insures inspiration that was accommodated to the human agencies whose personalities and backgrounds are reflected in the message.