Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The Doctrine of Scripture Series - The Old Testament Canon: Defining It, Its Arrangement, Its Authority


    In our last post we began to consider issues surrounding the subject of the "Old Testament Canon here Theologian Wayne Grudem in his “Systematic Theology – 2nd Edition”, page 39, offers this crisp definition of the term “canon”, “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible.” We noted three headings under which we can discuss this subject.

1. The Old Testament Canon (or, how we got 
   our Old Testament – recognizing its 

2. The Old Testament Canon’s Message.

3. The Old Testament Canon’s application, 
    (or, why it matters to you).

      In today's post we will look at the first point - how we got the Old Testament Canon. In so doing, we will observe how the issue of "canon" is related to the issue of "authority" (whether it be the church as final authority in creating the canon or the canonical books forming and shaping the church).

The Old Testament Canon (How we got our Old Testament – recognizing its authority).

A. What is meant by “canon”?

    What do we mean by the term “canon” or “canonization”? We noted already the short definition above given by Wayne Grudem. Some further explanation is warranted. We know this term refers to the specific collection of Divinely inspired books we find in the Old and New Testaments. To lend clarity to this concept, it may surprise some to learn that this term is used quite a bit in discussions about current films. For example, in the Star Wars series, fans will often compare the movies, T.V. series, and games that have spun from those with the books based on George Lucas’ ideas. The question that often arises is this – “is that canon?” The concern of course deals with whether or not a movie, a T.V. series, or game fits in accurately with the original storyline conceived by George Lucas.

    Now, what I just described to you is a contemporary use of this term “canon”. If one goes back to the city of Alexandria Egypt before the days of Jesus, one will find the term “canon” used to describe an official listing of books. The term “canon” itself comes from a Greek word meaning “measuring rod”. When we apply this term to the Bible, we speak of the 39 books comprising the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. 

    You will notice in Jesus’ words in Luke 24:37 we find Him mention the “Law and the Prophets”. Jesus elsewhere spoke of the Old Testament in this two-fold division (Law and the Prophets) in Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16,29,31; 22:47. This phrase designated the books of the Hebrew Bible (or what we call “The Old Testament”, see picture at the beginning of this post).

B. The first arrangement of the Old Testament Canon.

    In Luke 24:44, Jesus would sometimes refer to that same collection of books by the three-fold descriptor “Law, The Prophets, and the Writings”. This speaks of the arrangement of the books or “canon” of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible, called by the Jews “TaNaK” for the three sections subdividing its contents, contains the following. (Note: the term "TaNaK" may have different spellings, due to it being a Hebrew acronym and English attempting to render it. Some variations include "TaNaCH").

    First, there are the "Law books", calls “Torah”, hence the “T” of “TaNaK” (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Then there was that middle consonant of “TaNaK”, the letter “N”, which stood for the “Neviim”, the Hebrew term for “Prophets” (arranged in differing order than our modern Bibles, Joshua-2 Kings and Isaiah-Malachi, known respectively as the “Former” and “Latter” Prophets). Then lastly, the final consonant of “TaNaK” or “K”, which the Jews called “Ketiviim”, that is, “The Writings (beginning with the book of Job and ending with the book of 2 Chronicles). 
In another post, I’ll explain why the ordering of the books in our Old Testaments differ from the Hebrew.

C. The authority of the Old Testament Canon.

    The notion of “canon” and “authority” go hand-in-hand. If we did not know which books were the inspired ones, we would have no idea which one to follow in living the Christian life, let alone in how to receive salvation which begins such a life. Norman Geisler comments on this in his book “A General Introduction to the Bible”, page 221.

“Canonicity is determined by God. A book is not inspired because men made it canonical; it is canonical because God inspired it. It is not antiquity, authenticity, or religious community that makes a book canonical or authoritative. On the contrary, a book is valuable because it is canonical and not canonical because it is or was considered valuable. Inspiration determines canonization, and confusion at this point not only dulls the edge of authority but it mistakes the effect (a canonical book) for the cause and (inspiration of God). Canonicity is determined or established authoritatively by God; it is merely discovered by man.”

    To get at what Geisler wrote, the issue of authority revolves around which came first? Did the Church create the Bible? Or did the Bible end up forming the church? This post argues for the latter point, namely that because of the canon of Scripture, which Christ recognized and which the Apostles preached, the Holy Spirit was so pleased to birth the church on the day of Pentecost in fulfillment of Christ's teachings and Old Testament expectation. It is this train of thinking which drives Geisler's remarks and echoes this post. 

    So, can we see the canon developing within statements made by the Biblical authors? We can. To see this process of canonization illustrated, we can observe the following.

1. It all began with the Ten Commandments.

    The beginnings of the Old Testament Canon and the recognition of its authority by God’s giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses wrote of this experience in Exodus 31:18 “When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God” (See also Exodus 32:16 and Deuteronomy 4:13). 

2.  The Ten Commandments were immediately recognized and used as Divinely Inspired Scripture. 

    The Ten Commandments, once written, were carefully kept and set apart by Moses and the people. Deuteronomy 10:1-4 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Cut out for yourself two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to Me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood for yourself. 2 I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3 So I made an ark of acacia wood and cut out two tablets of stone like the former ones, and went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. 4 He wrote on the tablets, like the former writing, the Ten Commandments which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me.”

3. More revelation was written in the form of the Book of the Covenant.

    We can see by how the tablets were recognized, received, and set apart, that their authority was evident. The Ten Commandments would have further written revelation, called the “Book of the Covenant” (see Exodus 24:1-7). This is where the Old Testament canon sprouts from the root of the ten commandments. 

4. The Canon grows from the other books written by Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). 

    As each prophet penned further books after Moses and Joshua, the Old Testament Canon continued to grow. 

5. The total Canon of the Old Testament took 1,000 years for its total completion.

    The prophet Samuel likely wrote Judges, Ruth and major portions of 1 Samuel (see 1 Samuel 10:25). The remaining portions of 2 Samuel and the books of Kings were composed by other prophets like Nathan the Prophet, Gad the Seer and Jeremiah the Prophet (see 1 Chronicles 29:29; 2 Chronicles 20:34; 32:32 and Jeremiah 30:2). 

    Contrary to modern Higher Critical theories that espouse a naturalistic evolutionary process of canonical development, involving multiple editors and beginning in the far more recent past (as in the 7th century b.c.), history and the text itself attest to a more organic, supernatural, and providential process of canonization. The books of Moses, written in the 15th century b.c, and the final prophetic Book of Malachi, written in 400 b.c., represent roughly 1,000 years of time.

Consider the growth and development of the canon like chainmaille.

    Rather than treating this growing body of revealed books as a chain full of links, think of it more as chainmaille. Each book not only reinforces what was written, but also contributes to the overall message conveyed by God (see Amos 3:7). This brief history chronicles what really happened, based on textual evidence and archaeology.

The process of canonization: revelation, inspiration, recognition, then use. 
   The authority of the Canonical books shaped the life of the ancient Jews in the following way. First, their revelation. Then of course, their inspiration in writing. Thirdly, their recognition. Lastly, their use. As noted already, this process of “canonization” would take a millennium before the final completion of the Book of Malachi at roughly 400 b.c.

Closing thoughts:

    In the next post, we will continue on by noting what criteria were used to determine which books were inspired and thus included in the canon.

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