by Paul D. Wegner –

Throughout church history there has been active discussion between the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox churches regarding which books belong in the Old Testament canon. But how did these canons develop? And is it possible to determine which canon of the Old Testament the early church used? What are the apocryphal books and how did they come into being? These will be the type of questions we would like to examine in this article and there is a significant amount of controversy surrounding them. The word “canon” as we will use it for this article refers to a “list or collections of books which were accepted as an authoritative rule of faith and practice.”1

Formative Years of the Early Church

Initially early Christians and Jews both worshiped in synagogues (Acts 3:1; 4:1; 5:42; 6:9-10; 13:14-15, 42; 14:1; 17:1-2), using the same books of Scripture, namely the Old Testament, which they viewed as authoritative. It is essential to remember that the Old Testament was the Bible for Jesus and his followers; however, the Jews and Christians had significantly different vantage points, since Christians understood messianic prophecies in the Old Testament to be fulfilled in Jesus, whereas Jews still awaited the Messiah. When the Christian Church broke away from the Jewish synagogue in the latter half of the first century, the Old Testament remained an integral part of its canon. Traditionally the Church has held that both the Old and New Testaments are direct revelation from God and are equally part of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. They adopted this high view of the Old Testament from Jesus himself who clearly declared his views in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (NASB). But is there enough evidence to confirm which books were considered part of the Old Testament canon?

Evidence for the Old Testament Canon

Early Jewish Evidence

  1. Jewish Traditions (1stcentury to 6thcentury A.D.).

Jewish traditions claimed that divine prophecy ceased about 400 B.C. in Israel:

Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the Holy Spirit [of prophetic inspiration] departed from Israel; yet they were still able to avail themselves of the bath kol (T.B. Sanh. 11a; Tos. SoXah 13:2; barait a in T.B. Yoma 9b; T.B. SoXah 48b, and T.B. Sanh. 11a).

The phrase bath kol is literally translated as “daughter of a voice” (i.e., its sound or perhaps its echo),2 connoting something that was not as reliable as the voice of the prophets themselves. After direct revelation from God had ceased, the Jewish people were directed to listen to the words of the wise men – those who had been trained in the words of God. Other passages state:

“Until then [the coming of Alexander the Great who destroyed the Persian Empire] the prophets prophesied through the Holy Spirit. From then on, ‘incline thine ear and hear the words of the wise.’” (Seder Olam Rabbah 30, quoting Prov. 22:17)

Rab Samuel bar Inia said, in the name of Rab Aha:. . . “The Second Temple lacked five things which the First Temple possessed, namely, the fire, the ark, the Urim and Thummim, the oil of anointing and the Holy Spirit [of Prophecy].” (T.P. Taanith 2:1; T.P. Makkoth 2.4-8; T. B. Yoma 21b)

Rabbi Abdimi of Haifa said, “Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise.” (T.B. Baba Bathra 12a)

These passages indicate that according to Jewish tradition the voice of God had ceased following the time of Malachi (about 400 B.C.) and thus new books were no longer being added to the sacred Scriptures. In the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, Simon Maccabees speaks of the great sorrow in Israel such as there had not been since the prophets ceased to appear to them (9:27). In the Pseudepigrapha, the author of 2 Baruch (85:3) claims that the prophets had fallen asleep.

The Babylonian Talmud, which was compiled over a period from about the third to the sixth centuries, provides a thorough list of the books of Scripture and their order, although not in the same order as our modern Hebrew Old Testament. As the books of the Pentateuch were not in question, they are not mentioned in this passage:

Our Rabbis taught: The order of the Prophets is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophet s. Let us examine this. Hosea came first, as it is written, God spake first to Hosea. But did God speak first to Hosea? Were there not many prophets between Moses and Hosea?
R. Joxanan, however, has explained that [what it means is that] he was the first of the four prophets who prophesied at that period, namely, Hosea, Isaiah, Amos and Micah. Should not then Hosea come first? Since his prophecy is written along with those of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi came at the end of the prophet s, he is reckoned with them. But why should he not be written separately and placed first? – Since his book is so small, it might be lost [if copied separately]. Let us see again. Isaiah was prior to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Then why should not Isaiah be placed first? – Because the Book of Kings ends with a record of destruction and Jeremiah speaks throughout of destruction and Ezekiel commences with destruction and ends with consolation and Isaiah is full of consolation; therefore we put the destruction next to destruction and consolation next to consolation.

The order of the Hagiographa is Ruth, the Book of Psalms, Job, Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel and the Scroll of Esther, Ezra and Chronicles. Now on the view that Job lived in the days of Moses, should not the book of Job come first? – We do not begin with a record of suffering. But Ruth also is a record of suffering? – It is a suffering with a sequel [of happiness], as R. Joxanan said: Why was her name called Ruth? – Because there issued from her David who replenished the Holy One, blessed be He, with hymns and praises. (T.B. Baba Bathra 14b)3

  1. Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – A.D. 50.). Philo, a well-educated Jew from Alexandria, appears to have accepted the Hebrew canon of Scripture as distinct from the Apocrypha. He mentions the common three-part designation of Scripture, which he summarizes the Old Testament as “the Laws, and the oracle given by inspiration through the Prophets, and the Psalms.”4 Regarding Philo’s view of the canon, Roger Beckwith observes: “though Philo quotes all the books of the Pentateuch, most of the books of the Prophets and several of the book of the Hagiographa, often with formulas recognizing their divine authority, he never once quotes a book of the Apocrypha.”5
  2. 2 ESDRAS (A.D. First Century). The apocryphal book of 2 Esdras (sometimes called 4 Ezra) contains a fictional account of Ezra rewriting the biblical books after they had been burned, most likely in the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar (14:21). During forty days, Ezra dictated to five scribes, who were trained to inscribe quickly, ninety-four books. God then told Ezra:

Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy books that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge (14:45-48).6

The twenty-four books are most likely the same as our 39 Old Testament books (just grouped differently – the book of twelve is counted as only one book, etc.). Josephus and Origen refer to their Old Testament as containing 22 books, but once again they contain the same books as our Hebrew Old Testament.

  1. Josephus (c. A.D. 60-100). Josephus, a Jewish historian writing during the latter p art of the first century A.D., states that the Jews had only twenty-two sacred books (he combines Ruth and Judges; Jeremiah and Lamentations), see Contra Apion, I.37-39.7

Early Christian Evidence
1. Jesus (early first century A.D.). Jesus describes the extent of the canon in Matthew 23:34-35 and Luke 11:49-51, of which F.F.Bruce observes: “No body of literature ever had its credentials confirmed by a higher authority.”8 Both passages state that the Jewish nation will be held responsible for the blood of the prophets from “the blood of Abel” (Gen. 4:8), the first recorded murder, “to the blood of Zechariah” (2 Chron. 24:20-22), the last recorded murder. The implication is that biblical history spans from Genesis to Chronicles, which is the same order as the oldest complete manuscript s of the Old Testament (i.e., Codex Leningradensis [1008 A.D.] and the Aleppo Codex [most likely about fifty years earlier]). There were certainly other martyrs following Zechariah, but the Jewish nation will not be held responsible for them, since they fall out side of the parameters of the Jewish authoritative sacred history.

Jesus also uses the common tripartite division of the Hebrew Bible to refer to the canon in Luke 24:44: “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled “(NASB). This last designation is evidently representative of the final group of Old Testament writings, of which Psalms was the first and largest book.9 A similar designation for the Old Testament canon was in use from the time of Philo in the early first century (“[the] laws, and oracles delivered through the mouths of prophets, and psalms, and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety” [Contemp . 3 §25]) until at least the tenth century (al Masudi, an Arabian historian and geographer, describes the Hebrew canon as “the Law , the Prophets and the Psalms, which are the 24 books”).10 It is also interesting to note that Jesus quotes from each of the three p arts of Scripture as authoritative material (e.g., Law: Mt. 4:4 – Deut. 8:3; Prophets: Mt. 10:35-36 – Mic. 7:6; Writings: Mt. 13:43 – Dan. 12:3).11

  1. 2. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c. A.D. 170). Melito, Bishop of Sardis, about A. D. 170, who learned about the Old Testament canon while traveling in Syria (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 26), wrote to his friend Onesimus and described the books in the Old Testament canon.12 In his listing of the books, Lamentations is not mentioned but is probably included with Jeremiah; similarly Nehemiah is probably included with Ezra. The book of Esther is missing, but Melitos list may derive from the Syriac church which does not include Esther in its canon.13
  2. A List in Jerusalem (c. A.D. 170). F. F. Bruce cites a list of Old Testament books from about the same time or slightly later than Melito’s list. He states:

. . .[it was] preserved in a manuscript in the Library of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, and reproduced in a somewhat later form in a treatise by the late fourth-century writer Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus. In this list the name of each Old Testament book is given twice, first in Hebrew or Aramaic transcribed into Greek characters, and then in the Greek Septuagint form. The total of the books listed is twenty-seven. . . . But these twenty-seven correspond to our thirty-nine, except that Lamentations is not included by name. The omission of Lamentations, however, may be only apparent; probably it was reckoned as an appendix to Jeremiah.14

  1. Origen (c. A.D. 185-254, Alexandrian Theologian). Origen, one of the greatest biblical scholars of the early church, states: “But it should be known that there are twenty-two canonical books, according to the Hebrew tradition; the same as the number of the letters of their alphabet.” He then lists them according to their Hebrew and Greek names (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI.XXV.1-2) and they correspond to the thirty-nine books in the Hebrew Old Testament.
  2. Athanasius (c. A.D. 296-373, Bishop of Alexandria). In response to false teachers who claimed that other books were to be considered authoritative, Athanasius discussed the canon in his Easter letter to parishioners in A.D. 367. In it he delineated the twenty-two Old Testament books (corresponding closely to our thirty-nine books, except that Esther is not mentioned and Jeremiah includes Lamentations, Baruch, and the Epistle of Jeremiah).15 He also mentions the apocryphal books, but makes a clear distinction between canonical and noncanonical works. Nevertheless, questions still arose as to which books were canonical. See also similar lists by Jerome (c. A.D. 345-420)16and Rufinus,17 both of which contain the same books as the Hebrew Old Testament.

In the early period of the church before 90 A.D. the Christians lived among the Jews and knew which books were held to be authoritative. The evidence presented above reflects this consensus. However, after 90 A.D when the church was dispersed because of persecution, there was far less agreement in the church concerning the books of the canon. As time passed, some Christians had no contact with Jews and thus had very little knowledge about the Old Testament canon. This is almost certainly why the earliest copies of the Septuagint from the fourth and fifth centuries (Codex Vaticanus, ca. 350 A.D.; Codex Sinaiticus, ca. 400 A.D.; Codex Alexandrinus, ca. 450 A.D.) contain some apocryphal books.

Determining Canonicity

While there is no record as to how the Jewish nation determined what works were canonical, some hints are found in Josephus statement about the Jewish canon (Contra Apion I:37-42) [boldface added for emphasis]:

It therefore naturally, or rather necessarily, follows (seeing that with us it is not open to everybody to write the records, and that there is no discrepancy in what is written; seeing that, on the contrary, the prophets alone had this privilege, obtaining their knowledge of the most remote and ancient history through the inspiration which they owed to God, and committing to writing a clear account of the events of their own time just as they occurred) it follows, I say, that (8) we do not possess myriads of inconsistent books conflicting with each other . Our books, those which are justly accredited, are but two and twenty, and contain the record of all time.

Of these, five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws and the traditional history from the birth of man down to the death of the lawgiver . . . . the prophets subsequent to Moses wrote the history of the event s of their own times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.

From Artaxerxes 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 either to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable; and it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully to die for them.18

The statements in bold print above suggest some of the criteria that may have helped determine the books of the Old Testament canon:

  1. They do not contain contradictions.
    2. They were written by prophets or by persons recognized as having divine authority.
    3. They originated through inspiration from God.
    4. They were accepted by the Jews as authoritative material.

When these criteria are used together, they form a strong case as to how Scriptures were recognized as authoritative. With regard to item three, it is interesting to note that biblical books often claim to be from God by phrases such as “the word of the Lord came to” (Jer. 1:2, 4; 2:1; Ezek. 6:1; 7:1; etc.) or “the Lord says” (Isa. 37:22; 43:1; Jer. 13:1; etc.), whereas none of the apocryphal books include such statements. The Jews believed that prophecy ceased about 400 B.C. so that apocryphal works, written later, were necessarily attributed to prophets already recognized as authoritative.

Why Were the Apocryphal Books Not Canonical?

A common list of the Apocryphal books include:

  1. The Wisdom of Solomon (c. 30 B.C.)
    2. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (132 B.C.)
    3. Tobit (c. 200 B.C.)
    4. Judith (c. 150 B.C.)
    5. 1 Esdras (c. 150-100 B.C.)
    6. 1 Maccabees (c. 110 B.C.)
    7. 2 Maccabees (c. 110-70 B.C.)
    8. Baruch (c. 150-50 B.C.)
    9. The Letter of Jeremiah (c. 300-100 B.C.)
    10. 2 Esdras (c. A.D. 100)
    11. Additions to Esther (140-130 B.C.)
    12. The Prayer of Azariah (second or first century B.C.)
    13. Susanna (second or first century B.C.)
    14. Bel and the Dragon (c. 100 B.C.)
    15. The Prayer of Manasseh (second or first century B.C.)

As already noted, there is good evidence that none of the apocryphal or pseudepigraphal works were included in the in the Old Testament Hebrew canon used by the Jews and early Christians. However, it is interesting that the earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint include several of them. There is no evidence that these books were ever accepted by Alexandrian Jews to form an Alexandrian canon in contrast to a Palestinian canon as some have suggested.19 From where did they originate? Most likely these books developed from Jewish traditions or folklore concerning the biblical text during the Second Temple period (more specifically, from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 100). Perhaps the Jews desired further revelatory material after Old Testament revelation had ceased. It is possible that these noncanonical scrolls were stored together with canonical ones, and in time the distinctions between the two may have broken down.

Important evidence against the apocryphal books being part of canon includes:

  1. The New Testament never cites any apocryphal books as inspired; Jesus’ use of Scripture suggests that only the books in the Hebrew Bible were thought to be authoritative (Mt. 23:34-35; Lk. 22:50-51).
  2. None of the apocryphal books claim to be the word of the Lord as do many Old Testament books (Num. 35:1, 9; Josh. 1:1; Isa. 1:10, 18, 24; Jer . 1:2; Ezek. 1:3; Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1; etc.).
  3. The Old Testament canon is confirmed by many sources: 2 Esdras 14:45-48 (24 books); Josephus Contra Apion, 1:37-42 (22 books); Melito (all Old Testament books except possibly Esther); Jerusalem List (all 39 books); Origen (22 books); etc. Each of these sources list the same 39 Old Testament books as we have today (except possibly Melito).
  4. There are significant mistakes in the apocryphal books – some are simple mistakes, others are chronological or geographical inaccuracies. For example the event s in the book of Tobit (1:3-5) are chronologically incompatible – Tobit is said to have lived in Nineveh about 722 B.C. and yet he saw the division of the United Kingdom in 931 B.C. Eleven out of fifteen apocryphal books have some type of inaccuracies in them.20 Those that do not are either very short (Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men; Prayer of Manasseh) or their content is such that inaccuracies are difficult to determine (Wisd. of Sol.; Sus.).

There is ample evidence to confirm that Jews and early Christians had an established canon in the early first century A.D. As time when on and the two groups drifted further apart both theologically and geographically, the Old Testament canon became less certain. Augustine favored including the apocryphal books in the Old Testament canon, and requested Jerome to include them in the Latin Vulgate even though Jerome was against doing so. This became the foothold for the Apocrypha to gain in popularity since the Latin Vulgate became the standard translation of the Bible for the Western Church for about 1,000 years. During the debates between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546, the authority of the apocryphal books was decreed by the Roman Catholic Church, thus providing much of the foundation for the modern controversy.

Paul D. Wegner is Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of The Journey from Texts to Translations (Baker, 2005).

1Richard N. Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 37.

2Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 370.

3 The Babylonian Talmud (Ed. by I. Ep stein; Seder Neziin 4 vols.; London: Soncino, 1935) II.70-71.

4 Philo, De V it. Cont . 25.
5 Beckwith, Old Testament Canon , 386.

6 The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, Revised Standard The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, Revised Standard 58.

7 H. S t. J. Thackeray, Josephus with an English Translation (LCL; 9 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 1.176-79.

8 F . F. Bruce, Books and the Parchments, 5thed. (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), 96.
9Beckwith, Old Testament Canon, 112.
10Paul E. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 2d ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1959), 88-89.

11 For a full list see: Paul D. Wegner, The Journey From Text s to Translations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004), 110.

12 K. Lake, Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History with an English Translation, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953) 1:393.

13 George F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of the Tannaim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962) I.238, 244-45.

14 J. P. Audet, “A Hebrew-Aramaic List of Books of the Old Testament in Greek Transcriptions,” JTS n.s. 1 (1950): 135-54.

15 P. Schaff and H. Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2d Series, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 4.551-52.

16 The Preface to his commentary on Daniel:  “for all Scripture is by them divided into three parts:  the law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa (Writings), which have respectively five, eight and eleven books” (Schaff and Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 6.493).

17 Rufinus states, “Of the Old Testament, therefore, first of all there have been handed down five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; then Jesus Nave, (Joshua the son of Nun), the Book of Judges together with Ruth; then four books of Kings (Reigns), which the Hebrew reckon two; the Book of Omissions, which is entitled the Book of Days (Chronicles), and two books of Ezra (Ezra and Nehemiah), which the Hebrew reckon one, and Esther; of the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; moreover of the twelve (minor) Prophets, one book; Job also and the Psalms of David, each one book.  Solomon gave three books to the Churches, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles.  These comprise the books of the Old Testament.” (Schaff and Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, III.557-58.)

18 Thackeray, Josephus I:177-81.

19 George W. Anderson, “Canonical and Non-canonical,” in Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. P. R. Ackroyd, C. F. Evans, G. W. H. Lampe, and S. L. Greenslade, 3 vols.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963-70) 1:145.

20 For a full list see: Wegner, Journey from Texts to Translations, p. 125.


Glossary of Terms

Apocrypha. Literally means “hidden books.” Primarily refers to books the Roman Catholic Church accepts as p art of the Old Testament, but that Protest ants reject. Includes First and Second Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Bel and the Dragon, and others.

Canon. A word that means “standard” and refers to the authoritative collection of books accepted by the church as divinely inspired and authoritative for belief and practice.

Canonicity. The state or quality of belonging to the canon of Scripture.

Epistemology. A branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature, scope, and justification of knowledge.

Hagiographa. Greek term meaning holy writings that refer to the last Old Testament books to be accepted in the OT Canon: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

Heresy. An opinion or doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs. Various heresies in the early church period led to the necessity of an established canon.

Pseudonymity. The practice of writing under an assumed (false) name.

Pseudopigrapha. Works of literature that were written by someone falsely claiming to be a well-know hero of the faith and universally rejected as noncanonical. These books include First and Second Enoch, the Testament of Moses, and others.

Septuagint. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, regarded as the standard translation of the Old Testament in the early Christian church.