Canon – comes from the Greek word kanon, which means “a rule, standard, or a firm criterion against which something is measured.” When talking about scripture, it means “the list of books contained in scripture, the list of books recognized as worthy to be included in the sacred writings of a worshipping community.” – F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 17
The first person to use this word to describe scripture, that we know of, is Athanasius (4th century AD)
II. The Old Testament Before Jesus
Three divisions of the Hebrew Bible as it has come down to us: Torah (law), Neviim (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings)
Law (also called the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings
Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Book of the Twelve Prophets
Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles.
Tanakh = Torah + Neviim + Ketuviim
The Hebrew Bible has 24 books, from which we get the 39 books in our OT (though in a different order)
Chronicles was most likely the last book in Jesus’ Bible (Luke 11:50 probably refers to 2 Chronicles 24:20).
This threefold division was probably referred to first in 132 BC, by an author who refers to the Hebrew sacred books as “the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers,” and also as “the law itself, the prophecies and the rest of the books.”
But even though there is evidence that there was a threefold division before the first century, no definitive list was made until later.
III. The Old Testament and Jesus
In the gospels, the OT is quoted or alluded to about 120 times.
Jesus referred to 24 of our 39 OT books.
Jesus often appeals to the authority of the scriptures (“It is written…”), and the early Christians came to see the OT as bearing witness to Jesus.
Often, Jesus refers to the whole OT as “the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12, Matt. 11:13, Matt. 22:40, Luke 16:16, John 1:45)
One possible reference to the threefold division: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” – Luke 24:44
It is clear that there was some sort of collection in Jesus’ day, but we don’t know what the exact limits of that collection were – or whether there were different collections for different groups in first-century Palestine.
IV. The Old Testament After Jesus
1. The New Testament
Five OT books are not quoted in the NT: Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. But this does not mean they were not part of the canon. Likewise, books in the Apocrypha are referred to in the NT. This does not mean that they were part of the canon.
Most of the time, when NT authors quote the OT, they quote the Septuagint (e.g. Stephen in Acts 7). This sometimes explains the inexact nature of quotations.
2. The Septuagint (LXX)
A Greek version of the OT, prepared sometime between 250 and 150 BC for Jews who lived outside Palestine (in Alexandria) and did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic as their first language.
The order of the books in the Septuagint is different from the order in the Hebrew Bible, and this is why we have the order of books we have in our Bibles.
The “Apocrypha” are a series of books that appear in the Septuagint, but did not appear in the Hebrew Bible.
Eventually, Christians began to use the Septuagint so much that its use among Jews dropped off. For example, the Greek of Isa. 7:14 means “virgin,” but the Hebrew can mean either “virgin” or “young woman.” Most manuscripts of the Septuagint that we now have were produced by Christians, not Jews.
3. Jewish canon: Jamnia (or Jabneh)
This was a meeting of Jewish rabbis after the destruction of Jerusalem (and the temple) in 70 AD. This wasn’t really a council, they simply reviewed the tradition they had received and left it as it was: 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.
4. Christian canon of the OT: The Greek East
Melito of Sardis – a list from about 170 AD, preserved by church historian Eusebius, contains all of our OT except Esther.
Origen of Alexandria (185-254) – a list also preserved by Eusebius corresponds to our OT, plus the Letter of Jeremiah.
Athanasius of Alexandria – Easter Letter 39 (367). The same as our current OT, but omits Esther, and includes Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah with Jeremiah.
Eastern Orthodox councils in 1642 and 1672 affirmed the Apocrypha as part of the OT. The Orthodox also use the Septuagint as their authorized version of the OT, rather than the Hebrew original.
5. Christian canon of the OT: The Latin West
Tertullian – thought that everything in the Apocrypha, plus a few others (like 1 Enoch) should be regarded as scripture. “Tertullian may stand for all the Latin fathers before the time of Jerome: the Bible which they used provided them with no means of distinguishing those parts which belonged to the Hebrew canon from those which were found only in the Septuagint.” F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 87
Jerome (346?-420) – Until Jerome’s translation of the OT in the fourth century, all Latin translations included the Apocrypha because they were translations of the Septuagint. Jerome, after studying Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, decided that the Apocrypha was useful for instruction, but shouldn’t be used to establish doctrine. But he included it in the Vulgate (his translation) by popular demand.
Augustine (354-430) – His list of scripture included the Apocrypha. Influenced by him, the Third Council of Carthage (393) drew up a list of the canon that included the Apocrypha.
Martin Luther later sided with Jerome, including the Apocrypha as an appendix in his translation of the Bible (1534), with the title: “The Apocrypha: Books which are not to be held equal to holy scripture, but are useful and good to read.” This set a precedent for those who came after him: Protestants.
The Council of Trent (1546) became the first general council to provide a list of the canon of scripture, and the Apocrypha was included.