Crossfunction: How do we know which books comprise the Old Testament?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

How do we know which books comprise the Old Testament?

The following letter is a response to a great question I received recently. If the author gives me permission, I'll reprint his note here. Until then, here's my response on his question about whether the canon of the Old Testament is established upon Church teaching authority, or on the basis that the Jews received it and discerned it before the birth of Jesus...


Hi, M,

Thank You for Your thoughtful letter! You raised a really interesting question. Here are a few thoughts in response…

Let me try to summarize Your line of thinking: The Church has authority to identify the canon of the New Testament, which God entrusted to the Church. But God entrusted the Old Testament to the Jews, and with it the authority to distinguish its canon. Therefore we must look to the Jews for a definition of the Old Testament canon. In this note, I’ll refer to this idea as the “Jewish canon theory”.

At first glance the theory certainly does make some sense. But let’s see whether some of its implications make sense.

If God gave the Church authority to discern the canon of the New Testament, it is because He gave the Church the mission and authority to interpret its contents. After all, You can’t reliably interpret a document if You’re unsure of the text it contains. Christians have differences of opinion on how the authority to interpret that text ultimately is exercised. Some will say that the individual believer, guided by the Holy Spirit, is his own final authority in interpreting Scripture. Others say they recognize yet another level of higher authority: the bishops and pope, guided by the Holy Spirit. But in any case, most if not all Christians agree that God gave the Church authority to interpret the New Testament, and that this implies the Church also has the power to declare which books authentically belong in the New Testament.

This authority to interpret the New Testament is necessary for the Church to carry out her mission to proclaim accurately what God has revealed. But God has revealed Himself not only through the New Testament but also the Old. For example, to preach about Christ, the Church must be able to preach about the Law and the Prophets. It must be able to interpret the Ten Commandments; the significance of circumcision and the Sabbath and how they apply to our lives today; and much more. If the Church lacks this power to interpret and preach the Old Testament, it can not have the ability to interpret and preach the New.

If it lacks this authority to interpret the Old, then the Church has only two plausible alternatives: to claim that nobody at all can interpret the Old Testament; or, to accept as definitive Jewish tradition, which offers guidance on the canon but also denies that Jesus is the Christ. Neither of these options really is plausible, as they both imply the Church –and all Christians- are ultimately unable to interpret the revelation of God, and unable to know or claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

But according to the argument You suggested, M… what if we say that the Church DOES have the authority to interpret the Old Testament, but that its canon –its list of constituent books- depend not on Church authority, but on the fact that the canon was determined prior to the foundation of the Church? That would recognize that Christians have authority to interpret all of Scripture, without having to depend on the Church to tell us which books belong to the Old Testament canon. Well, that only takes us full circle to the beginning of the discussion, and there’s no sense repeating the same things said above. In a nutshell, if the Church has authority to interpret Scripture, it must have the authority to determine the canon of Scripture: all of Scripture. It’s all or nothing.

Besides, there are other thorny problems posed by the “Jewish canon” theory. Here are a few examples:

The theory relies on Your claim that the “Canon of the OT was settled in Jesus' day already”. Yet it wasn’t. In around the year 95 A.D., a rabbinical synod convened at Jamnia in an attempt to definitively clarify the canon of the Jewish Scriptures. The rabbis were deeply concerned that Christians were using various New and Old Testament scriptures to defend and promote their belief in Jesus Christ. Many Christians and Palestinian Jews at the time were widely using the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, which had been in circulation for more than a century before Jesus was born. This translation included some writings that prompted controversy among the rabbis partly because of their use by early Christian apologists, and partly because of disputes about the language, time, or place of origin of the writings. The rabbis at Jamnia adopted certain criteria for determining the canonicity of the Scriptures, including these requirements:

1) conformance to the Pentateuch;
2) authorship no later than the time of Esdras;
3) language must be Hebrew;
4) place of composition must be Palestine.

As You can see, these criteria are arguably arbitrary, and in any case depend on the authority of Jewish teachers who were reacting to the perceived threat of a spreading Christianity, and rest on the presumption that there in fact is no “New Testament”. Historical evidence clearly shows, in fact:

  • there was no universal agreement on the Old Testament canon at the time Jesus founded His Church;
  • the Septuagint contains all the Old Testament texts that have always been recognized as canonical by the Catholic Church;
  • the “Jamnia criteria” for determining the canonicity of Scripture doesn’t exclude only the deuterocanonical books recognized by the Catholic Church. It also excludes the entire New Testament! The Jewish teaching on the canon deliberately excludes the New Testament.
  • You mentioned Josephus. Did You know that he “ascribed divine inspiration to the Jewish translators” of the Septuagint? (
  • Did You know that approximately two-thirds of the New Testament’s quotations from the Old Testament come from the Septuagint, and that Jesus quoted from the Septuagint? (

M, my friend, You have to consider whether, in the age of the Church, You as a Christian can attribute binding teaching authority to Jewish doctrine on the canon when that doctrine is at odds with Christian doctrine. If Jesus gave to Peter and his successors the absolute power to “bind and loose”, how can the Jews possibly have retained authority over the canon of Scripture? I do not mean to minimize in any way the teaching authority the Jews had prior to the Church. But with the founding of the Church that authority has passed into different hands.

Even in our time, there is not universal agreement among Christians on the canon of Scripture. Ultimately, You have to take someone’s word for it, because God did not directly reveal what the canon includes. From my point of view, the Catholic teaching on the canon is the most trustworthy, largely because it has not changed for 20 centuries, and because the Church has been unwavering in its claim that it received from Jesus through the apostles the authority to make that determination. Who are You going to believe?

I’d welcome Your thoughts on this!

God bless You!

John Robin.

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