Index/Table of Contents
Old Testament and New Testament  
Credits and Copyright




Students will be able to identify

Canon, Codex, Apocrypha, Torah, Pentateuch, parchment, papyrus, criteria for inclusion of material in Canon, three Jewish classifications of Scripture and three theories of inspiration.

Content of Lecture

The formation of the Old Testament is "shrouded in the mists of history and tradition" (Oxford Annotated Bible. XXVI). There are numerous theories as to how the present collection of writings which form the Old Testament came together. The following views are supported by many biblical scholars:

The documents which comprise the Old Testament were written by many different people over a period of approximately one thousand years.

Originally, the material circulated in independent units. The present book-form (known as a codex) did not exist until after AD. 100.

Ancient Writing Materials

Some of the most ancient written messages were recorded on stones and pieces of clay. Just as the Bible said that Moses brought stone tablets down from Sinai (Ex. 32:15­16), archaeologists have discovered similar writings from other Middle Eastern cultures. The "Code of Hammurabi" is a collection of Babylonian laws written in stone which are frequently compared and contrasted with Mosaic law.

The scroll provided ancient authors with more pliable writing materials. Papyrus and animal skins were commonly used. Papyrus was a primitive form of paper made from reeds or bulrushes prevalent on the Nile River. The sheets made of layers of the papyrus pith were joined edge to edge forming the scroll which would then be inscribed with narrow columns of writing.

Vellum (calves' skin) and parchment (sheepskin) manuscripts were expensive to produce but more durable than the fragile papyrus.

The Greek Biblos, from which the word Bible is derived means "book". Biblos was originally the term used to describe the papyrus reed.

The "official" documents of the church are said to be part of the Canon, a term derived from the semitic word for "ruler" or reed used in making a straight line. In referring to the Bible, the Canon metaphorically referred to both the books which "measured up" and the measure by which everything else would be judged. Not only did these books meet the standard, they became the standard.

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:

1. The document could be attributed to a writer who lived before 400 B.C.

Several sources written before or during the interbiblical period (ca: 400-4 B.C.) present a belief that the time when direct prophecy was being heard had ceased. Zechariah 13:3 has been interpreted as suggesting that at the time this book was written, a person professing to speak a message from God should be treated as a fraud.

"And if anyone still prophesies, his father and mother, to whom he was born, will say to him, 'You must die, because you have told lies in the Lord's name.' When he prophesies, his own parents will stab him" (Zechariah 13:3)

From a document describing the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV (between 167 and 142 B.C.), the author reminisced about the glorious past when prophets were still alive: "Thus there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the prophets ceased to appear among them." (I Maccabees 9:27).

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.

2. 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, but because history and experience had manifestly and effectively demonstrated them to be the word of God. These were the books in which men had met God in the times which tried men's souls, and in which they had discovered the strength and the comfort of the Almighty. When any council gave any decision in regard to any book or books of the Old Testament, it was simply repeating and affirming that which experience had already proved. Such councils did not make these books into sacred Scripture and into the word of God; they simply recorded the fact that men had already mightily found them so". (Barclay, The Making of The Bible, 40).

3. The documents were originally written in Hebrew.

There was a preference for the ancient language of the Jewish people, especially when the influence of Hellenism resulted in the spread of Greek. While certain parts of the Old Testament include influences from Aramaic, the bulk was written in Hebrew.

4. 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 Classifications of Scripture

Many biblical scholars have used the three Jewish classifications of Scripture as evidence that the various parts of the Old Testament came to Canonical status in stages.

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 (the variety of documents not in the first two categories), the two final classifications were an amplification of the first. The Law was the center piece of Jewish Scriptural authority.

Many believe that the law first came to be view as inspired and was later supplemented with the prophets. Finally, the individual documents which comprise the "writings" rose to Canonical status.

The book of the Apocrypha known as Ecclesiasticus, written between 190 and 130 B.C., seems to support the three-stage view by the introductory comments:

"Whereas many great teachings have been given to us through the law and the prophets and the others that followed..."

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 preceeded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased. By what faith we have placed in our own writings is evident by our conduct; for though so long a time has now passed, no one has dared to add anything to them, or to take anything from them, or to alter them in any way" (Against Apion 1).

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. ("The succession of prophets ceased") and further indicate that the documents of the Old Testament were known to exist by that date. Josephus said that there were five books attributed to Moses, thirteen books written by the prophets and four books containing hymns and advice "for the conduct of human life" (Against Apion 1:8)

Two-stage Theory

Conservative scholars have developed a two-stage theory of Canon formation which supports early acceptance of the "Writings" and Daniel which, in the three-stage theory, is normally dated during the interbiblical period (Harris, Canon of the Old Testament, 719-731).

The two-stage theory suggests the Law (the five books attributed to Moses) first gained Canonical status and then the other books were added on an individual basis because they were attributed to a prophet or person who delivered God's message. Initially, each part of the Torah was circulated independently, justifying the Greek expression Pentateuch (five scrolls). For convenience, the twelve minor prophets (the term "minor" refers to length in comparison to those of "major" length) were joined on a single scroll and came to be designated "the twelve" and considered a single unit in Jewish classification.

New Testament support for the two-stage view of Canon formation comes in the common reference to the Old Testament as "Moses and the Prophets" or "The Law and the Prophets" (Luke 16:16; Acts 26:22, 28:23).

It is impossible to determine precisely when individual documents rose to Canonical status; however, certain events serve as guideposts indicating that various parts of the Old Testament were being viewed as Scripture.

In 621 B.C., young King Josiah was introduced to a lost book of the Law which is believed to be Deuteronomy. This book discovered in the Temple was viewed as the law from God and became the basis for national renewal (2 Kings 22:11-23:3). Although parts of the Old Testament may have gained authoritative status much earlier, certainly by the time of Josiah's reform, parts of the Pentateuch were considered sacred Scripture.

Jewish tradition indicates that Ezra and Nehemiah played important roles in collection of Old Testament documents. The Rabbis believed, "The Torah was forgotten by Israel until Ezra went up to Babylon and re-established it" (Barclay, Introduction to the Bible, 39). In a Jewish source circulating by A.D. 50, Nehemiah was said to have "founded a library and collected the books about the kings and the prophets and the writings of David..." (2 Maccabees 2:13).

A Jewish synod called the "Council of Jamnia" met near A.D. 90 and discussed the works which were considered authoritative from a Jewish perspective. Although this council probably did not originate or resolve the issue, several works which were eventually given full Canonical status were seriously questioned. The extreme pessimism of Ecclesiastes presented problems. Song of Solomon was full of erotic imagery which led some to allegorize its message. The name of God did not appear in Esther, and the book could be considered to provide a distorted view of Jewish nationalism.

Around A.D. 170, Melito (the Bishop of Sardis), listed the works which had been accepted as "the Law and the prophets," including five books of Moses and all the other Old Testament works except Esther, Lamentations, Ezra and Nehemiah (Eusebius, Church History, IV, 26, 13,14). Melito's inclusion of Esdras undoubtedly referred to Ezra and Nehemiah and may have included Esther.

His omission of Lamentations is explained by the tact that Jeremiah may have included both the prophetic message and the prophet's lament over Jerusalem's destruction.

Theories of Inspiration

A consideration of Canon formation leads to the issue of inspiration. There are three basic views which have been used to characterize the inspiration of the Bible.

1. 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.

2. The mechanical dictation theory suggests that God utilized humanity as the "keyboard" or mechanism by which He produced the message. This view parallels the Islamic view of how Muhammad received the Koran.

3. A third view emphasized that God inspired humans. The recorded message reveals divine authority and human transmission. The divine authority insures inspiration which was accommodated to the human agencies whose personalities and backgrounds are reflected in the message.


Read an article on Approaching the Old Testament such as Chapter 1 in Hill and Walton or a similar piece in a Bible encyclopedia.



Discussion Questions:

Which view of inspiration seems to be supported by 2 Peter 1:20? What are the distinctions between the second and third positions above?


Teacher's Notes:

A number of important terms will be used in this lecture. Students will need to understand the meaning of the following by lecture's end Canon, Codex, Apocrypha, Torah, Pentateuch, parchment, papyrus. Begin lecture by noting the Table of Contents of an English version of the old Testament.

Note the number of divisions/books (39) and the arrangement: Law (Gen.­Deut), History (Joshua­Esther), Poetry or Wisdom (Job­Song of Songs), and Prophecy (Isaiah­Malachi).

Compare the English arrangement to the Jewish classifications of the same material (The charts from Jensen's Survey of the Old Testament, by Irving L. Jensen, Moody Press, Chicago, 22­23, will be helpful). The Jewish division provides either twenty-two or twenty-four books, depending upon whether Ruth and Lamentations are separate works (24) or included with Judges (Ruth) end Jeremiah (Lamentations).


Credits and Copyright This online text book is provided by the Division of Student Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, 333 N. Washington Dallas, Texas 75246-1798 214.828.5100 Use the text to meet your academic needs. If you copy any part of this online text, please give credit to the Division of Student Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Any donations which you give will be used in the Division of Student Ministry Summer Missions Programs.

Credits and Copyright This online text book is provided by the Division of Student Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, 333 N. Washington Dallas, Texas 75246-1798 214.828.5100 Use the text to meet your academic needs. If you copy any part of this online text, please give credit to the Division of Student Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Any donations which you give will be used in the Division of Student Ministry Summer Missions Programs.