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NT Wright - Canon

1. The term canon, meaning an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture, is not found in the OT. The Heb. word hn<q;, which many claim is the noun from which canon derives, means reed. While the association between reed and sacred written material may have risen originally from the occasional ancient practice of packing tablets in reed mats, it is presently associated with its use as a standard for measuring (Ezek 40:5). Hence the idea developed that canon signifies a rule for measuring what belongs in the body of Scripture.

2. The canon of the OT contains thirty-nine books of the ancient HB. Judaism counts twenty-four books, but they are the same books enumerated by a different reckoning. The Roman Catholic Church includes an additional fourteen documents of books or parts of books known as the OT Apocrypha. The Apocrypha (—> ) are not included in the Protestant Bible because they were never included in early Judaism's canon and lack any endorsement by the NT apostles (cf. R. L. Harris, 178-89). This has been challenged by pointing to NT passages such as Jude 14-16, which quotes directly from the book of Enoch. But Enoch was never a part of the Apocrypha and was never accepted as canonical by any known orthodox Christian Church, including the Roman Catholic Church. Probably Jude cited Enoch because it was endorsed by the false teachers whom he was refuting. The book of Enoch was self-incriminating concerning the very people who promoted it! The apostle Paul uses much the same method in Titus 1:12.

In the Talmud there are five OT books, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Proverbs, and Ezekiel—the so-called Antilegomena—whose propriety in the OT canon is discussed. The objections mainly revolved around the problems these books posed for Judaism. Did the S of Songs border on the erotic? Did Ecclesiastes tend to be too pessimistic? Why do the details of Ezekiel's temple differ from Solomon? etc. But it was because these books were already canonical that these things were debated. It was not a matter as to whether or not these books should be included in the canon or not. Their genuineness and authority were never the issue.

Perhaps the only biblical book that is seriously contested on the historical evidence is Esther. It was the only OT book not on a list of OT books compiled by Melito, bishop of Sardis about AD 170. It is also the only OT book that has no witness at Qumran and one of the few that is not cited in the NT. These problems, however, are not insurmountable. The scroll of Esther may have been appended to another biblical scroll and subsumed under the name of another OT book (cf. Matt 27:9-10). The absence of Esther at Qumran cannot be decisive; it only means that we do not know whether or not Esther was present at Qumran. Some scholars assert that the Qumran community would have been reluctant to use this work anyway because of certain biases that the Qumran community held. Finally, the feast of Purim, that has its origin in the book of Esther, was observed during the intertestamental period (Add Esth 10:10-13; 2 Macc 15:36). Josephus, a contemporary of some of the NT writers, claims that in his time all the Jews of the world kept the feast of Purim (Ant 11:6:13). This practice demonstrates that the book of Esther was highly regarded long before the NT was written. Its unique focus may have precluded its use by NT authors

3. The OT canon was described having three sections in a prologue to the book of Ecclesiasticus, 132 BC. These sections were called the Law, the Prophets, and other books. This has led most biblical critics during the past century to the conclusion that this description indicates three historical stages that marked the end of the inclusion of biblical books: the Law, finally canonized in the fifth century BC, the Prophets in the third century BC, and the other books (later called Writings) in the first century AD. In other words, according to this view, the OT was composed of three separate canons. The late dating of several books of the OT by these critics necessitated a search for the canonizing of the OT almost down to the NT era. Used as evidence to support this viewpoint is that canonical decisions were still being made about AD 90 at the so-called Council of Jamnia.

R. Beckwith, however, has persuasively demonstrated that it is unlikely that the threefold division of the canon represents a tripartite canonization process (R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, 110-80). Beckwith, building his case on the baraita, credits the arrangement to a work of art. The threefold division is descriptive only, representing a sorting and classifying of writings already deemed canonical. The practice of grouping biblical books according to chronology and size in some logical order extended back to early Jewish scribes called Sopherim (400-200 BC). In addition, Sid Leiman has discredited the notion that there can be any talk of the fixation of a standard text at Jamnia as a result of a fixing and closing of the canon (S. Z. Leiman, 120-24). In fine, there is no evidence of a conscious canonizing of Scripture anywhere outside of the internal evidence of Scripture itself. It is in the OT and the OT world that conclusions regarding canonization must be pursued.

4. The idea of canon, the recording and preserving of writings attributed to a deity as a divine rule of faith for the community, is a concept much older than the writers of the OT themselves. While the term canon did not come into vogue for the Scriptures until the Greek and Latin church fathers, ancient documents from Egypt and Mesopotamia make it clear that the elements of a concept of canon, a written authoritative word from a god, was well in place before the Mosaic period.

It is well documented, for example, that the ancient Egyptians had numerous records of the very words of their gods in “god's book” and that the Babylonians maintained a scrupulous scribal tradition against any alterations of their sacred writings (see ANET, 368-69, 373, 447-48; R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Pyramid Texts, 189, 218, 220, 228, 231-32, 238, 241; L. Oppenheim, 14, 18; and B. K. Waltke, “The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” in EBC 1:212). Such works were deposited in shrines, guarded and transmitted by dedicated priests and scribes. This was the world into which our OT entered. But while the words of the ancients fell far short of any kind of consistent theology in the context of a historical progression and while it was Israel alone that utilized the authoritative structure of the treaty/covenant (H1382) formula to express their God's will to his people, that milieu left enough clues to reassure us that there is no reason why the concept of a body of divinely authoritative writings, to be carefully preserved and transmitted, could not have accompanied the formation of the OT from its beginnings.

5. Though the components that make up the idea of canon were contemporaneous with OT authors, the OT canon differed significantly for its authority from its ancient parallels. While the origins of sacred writings in Israel's neighboring nations were attributed to visions, oracles, dreams, divinations, etc., the OT canon attributed its theological origins to a magnificent (though awe-inspiring) appearance of God himself at Sinai (“I am going to come to you,” Exod 19:9). The event was accompanied by a theophany (—> ) that included lightning, a dense cloud, thunder, the sound of a trumpet blaring louder and louder, fire, and billows of smoke (Exod 19; 20:1-19; Deut 4:10-14; 5:1-27). The indisputable appearance of God acted as an endorsement of his spokesman (“the people will hear me speaking with you [Moses] and will always put their trust in you”; Exod 19:9). The meaning could not be more clear: God had spoken. An entire nation both saw and heard a manifestation of God's presence in a most impressive manner, an event not easily forgotten.

This awe-inspiring display was subsequently attended by a presentation of God's word to Moses (Exod 20:1-17; 21- 23:33), termed the Book of the Covenant (Exod 24:7). There was then a formal acceptance and authorization of this book by a national pledge by thousands of witnesses. “Everything the LORD has said we will do” (Exod 24:3). Such a public acclamation signified textual finality, and so the words of the Book of the Covenant, according to the record, were written down immediately (24:3). The public acceptance of these words as canonical, i.e., authoritative, was ratified by a solemn covenant ceremony of the elders as national representatives (24:9-11). This first description of the presentation of canonical writings served as a paradigm for succeeding OT canonical writings. Writers of canon require a visible, measurable demonstration of God's approval, who then would record God's word.

Since, however, the exact events of Sinai would not be repeated after the Mosaic period, theological modifications were endorsed to suit future situations. Moses, the figure who received more approval as a canonical writer than any other writer in the OT, bequeathed on prophecy the same authority God bequeathed on him (cf. Deut 18:16-18 with 5:22-31). In 18:21-22, Moses addresses the question, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” He answers the question by stating that the words a prophet speaks must come true. Fulfillment of precise predictions has always been universally recognized as that which is beyond human capabilities. Such fulfillment was to provide tangible evidence of divine approval. The OT incorporates abundant instances of prophets credited with the writing of Scripture as those who provided examples of prediction/fulfillment to their contemporaries. There is hardly a writing prophet in the OT who lacks testimony in Scripture to this prophetic gift. Canonical authority was demonstrable and resided in the prophet, regardless of the kind of literature (narrative, poetic, wisdom, etc.), he was inspired to set down.

In support of the recognition of the prophet's canonical authority, OT writers were often cited by subsequent OT writers who acknowledged their writings as an authoritative word, for the prophets carried out their divine mission not only by speaking but by writing as well. Quotations and allusions within the OT demonstrate that ancient Israel regarded the written words of their predecessors as God-given. The OT is replete with references to the authority of the written law of Moses, aside from the detail that the Mosaic law itself presupposes other parts of the Pentateuch as canonical (Exod 34:27; Num 9:14; Deut 2:37; etc.; cf. Josh 1:7-8, 8:31; 23:6-8; 1 Kgs 2:3; 2 Kgs 14:6; 17:37; 1 Chron 16:40; 2 Chron 17:9; 23:18; 30:5, 18; 31:3; 35:26; Ezra 3:2, 4; Hos 8:12; Dan 9:11, 13). The prophet's written words were also treated as divine messages. Joshua 6:26 is recognized in 1 Kgs 16:34 in keeping with “the word of the LORD spoken by Joshua,” and Daniel 9:2 refers to Jeremiah's prophecy of a seventy year captivity as “from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet” (cf. Isa 30:8; Jer 25:13; 29:1; 30:2; Hab 2:2-3; Dan 7:1; 1 Chron 29:29; 2 Chron 9:29; 12:15; 13:22; 20:34; 21:12; 26:22). The autocratic manner in which the OT uses the OT indicates that the written words of Moses and the prophets were identical to Holy Scripture at the time the OT was still in process. Hence the church today may assert its theological suppositions on a canon of Scripture founded in the history of God's moving powerfully among his people of old. The OT is unique against all competitors in pronouncing its own rule of canonicity and complying with it.


Bibliography R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism, 1985; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 1988; R. L. Campbell, The Origin of Canonicity in the Old Testament, 1972; R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity, rev., 1995; M. Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority, 1975; S. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence, 1976; M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 1976, 1980; L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, 1977; R. Vasholz, The Old Testament Canon in the Old Testament Church, 1990.

Robert I. Vasholz (TDOTT)