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How We Found the Old Testament

By the first century A.D., the books of the Old Testament had been written, but how did the canon form? Why were some—like Ezekiel and Esther—included, while others—like 1 Enoch and Jubilees—were not?

Some claim that the decisions were made by a gathering of 120 Jewish sages known as the Great Assembly, which was founded after the Babylonian Exile by Ezra, around 444 B.C.

In the A.D. 200s, rabbinical sages attributed all kinds of decisions to the Great Assembly, including the Old Testament canon. However, we have no contemporary records of the Great Assembly and no documents it issued. The earliest claims are from around 600 years later, and modern scholars doubt that it did the things claimed or that it even existed. It looks as though the rabbis—the intellectual descendants of the Pharisees—attributed their own views to the legendary body to give them antiquity.

Another view holds that the priests made the decisions and kept an archive of the sacred books in the temple. Anything in this collection was canonical; anything that wasn’t was not.

This view is mere speculation and is not backed up by the evidence. We know that the Torah was kept at the Temple (2 Kings 22:8-20), but we don’t have a record of an official archive of the scriptures there. It would be surprising if there were, for the prophets were critical of how the Temple was run. Also, the Sadducees appear to have rejected many books of Scripture, and they were closely associated with the Temple.

A third view holds that there were two canons in circulation—the Palestinian canon and the Alexandrian canon. The first contained the protocanonical Old Testament books written in Hebrew (with some Aramaic passages). It was used in Palestine and represented the pure Old Testament. Outside Palestine, where Greek was common, the broader, Alexandria-based Septuagint collection was used.

Advocates of this theory sometimes claim that the Palestinian canon was finalized around A.D. 90 at a meeting known as the Council of Jamnia. This view was common in the nineteenth century, but twentieth-century scholarship destroyed it. There was disagreement even in Palestine regarding which books were considered to be Scripture, and some didn’t consider the canon closed.

All Jews—and even the Samaritans—accepted the Pentateuch. These five books were foundational for the Jewish faith, and they were considered by far the most important books. Even those who accepted other works as Scripture considered these pre-eminent.

The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch as Scripture, and we have no evidence they ever accepted other books as such. It thus appears they had a closed and very limited canon.

The same may be true of the Sadducees. The Church Fathers state that the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch (Hippolytus, Philosophumena 9:29; Origen, Against Celsus 1:49; Commentary on Matthew 17:35-36; Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 3:22:31-32).


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As Luke notes (Acts 23:8), they didn’t accept the resurrection of the dead, which is unambiguously attested in passages outside the Pentateuch, like Daniel 12:1-2 (cf. Isa. 26:19, Ezek. 37:1-14). It’s hard to see how they included these books in their canon if they disbelieved in the resurrection. Also, when the Sadducees challenge Jesus about the resurrection (Matt. 22:23-33), he cites the Pentateuch (Exod. 3:6) instead of the more obvious passages outside it—likely because they didn’t accept the other books.

The Sadducees thus appear not to have accepted all of the books of the Hebrew Old Testament, and they may have had a canon limited to the Pentateuch.

This wasn’t the case for the Pharisees. They accepted additional books that corresponded roughly to the protocanonical books found in Jewish Bibles today. However, the boundaries of this collection were still somewhat fuzzy.

Those who say the Council of Jamnia closed their canon around A.D. 90 admit that it wasn’t closed before this time—and that’s true—but it wasn’t fixed until later.

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There was no “council” at Jamnia. Councils are temporary gatherings that meet for a time and then disband. They are a Christian rather than a Jewish institution. What actually happened was that, during the Jewish War of the A.D. 60s, a sage named Johanan ben Zakkai obtained permission from Roman authorities to establish a rabbinical school in Jamnia (also known as Jabneh or Yavneh). After the war, the Jewish ruling council relocated there.

We don’t have records saying the sages of Jamnia attempted to close the canon. In fact, rabbinic writings such as the Mishnah and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds reveal there was a diversity of opinion among the sages about certain books. Some rabbis opposed the scriptural status of six books—Ruth, Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Ezekiel. By contrast, some quoted Sirach as a book of Scripture, though it was eventually excluded. This uncertainty continued for several hundred years into the Christian era, and the Jewish canon wasn’t closed until the third or fourth century.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed that the Essenes had an even larger collection of scriptures. They appear to have included all of the protocanonicals except Esther. The likely reason is that the Jewish liturgical calendar was extremely important to them, and Esther conflicted with their understanding of the calendar. Hebrew and Aramaic copies of books like Sirach and Tobit also were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The sect had a large library of other materials, and many probably weren’t regarded as Scripture. However, several factors—such as whether they were quoted as Scripture, had commentaries based on them, or were treated as prophetic texts—have led scholars to argue that some of them were. These include 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and a document known as the Temple Scroll.

We’ve already mentioned the Septuagint tradition, which included not only the protocanonicals but also seven additional books—Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Baruch, Sirach, and Wisdom—as well as expanded editions of Daniel and Esther. This tradition also had fuzzy boundaries, and some editions of the Septuagint included additional books, such as 1-2 Esdras, 3-4 Maccabees, and the Prayer of Manasseh.

There were thus at least five major canonical traditions in the first century: 

The Samaritan tradition

The Sadducee tradition

The Pharisee tradition

The Essene tradition

The Septuagint tradition

None except the Samaritan tradition, and possibly the Sadducee tradition, was a closed, fixed list of Scripture. Instead, they were open and had fuzzy boundaries, and this fuzziness would persist for centuries into the Christian age.

Finally, there were books in circulation that were presented as divine revelation, though we can’t show that they were part of one of these established canonical traditions. They include works like the Apocalypse of Zephaniah. Some modern authors dismiss them, as if nobody in the ancient world regarded them as Scripture, but this doesn’t fit the evidence. That these books survived indicates they were popular. If they hadn’t been, not enough copies would have been made for them to survive. An individual copy had only a small chance of surviving the ages, so there must have been many copies in circulation. But if a popular book presented itself as prophecy—like the Apocalypse of Zephaniah—this is strong evidence at least some ancient Jews considered it Scripture.

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