Old Testament Canon

By Steve Puluka

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:35

What is the Old Testament

During the formative period of the Christian Church, there was not a final determination of the canon of scripture within Judaism. There were a number of books circulating and in use in both Greek & Hebrew forms. The Greek canon (called the Septuagint or Alexandrian canon) contained more books than the Hebrew version (called the Palestinian canon). Ultimately, Judaism would accept the Hebrew canon and organize this in three parts: The Law, The Prophets & The Writings. One of the differences between the Greek & Hebrew canons is the number and division of the books. The Greek canon contains many books not in the Hebrew canon. These are rejected from the canon by Judaism.

The Church fathers were well aware of the dual canon. They also debated which should be adopted by the Christian Church. Ultimately, the Christians choose the longer Greek Canon.

“Besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing should be read in church under the name of divine Scripture. But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows: (list of Greek OT canon & NT canon)”
Canons of Council of Hippo (397)

Many Fathers preferred the Hebrew, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius of Antioch, John Damascene & Jerome, to name a few. Even after the Church selected the Greek canon the Hebrew was used by a number of Fathers, including Jerome in the creation of his Vulgate. But ultimately the Greek canon won the day for general use in the Christian Church.

But even with this generally accepted canon list we see major texts citing as scripture books NOT included in the canon. The letter of Jude in the NT and a second century work, the letter of Barnabas citing 1 Enoch as scripture. Just as in the NT canon excluding the sound teaching works of the Apostolic Fathers from the canon, there are works like 1 Enoch, that are highly respected, but not included as scripture.

“The great final scandal is at hand, concerning which it has been written—as Enoch says. For the Master cut short the times and the days for this reason, that his Beloved One might hasten and come into his inheritance.”
Barnabas 16:5 citing 1 Enoch as scripture
“It was also about these that Enoch, in the 7th generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’”
Jude 14-15 citing 1 Enoch as scripture

Differences in the Texts

In addition to entire books differing in the canons between Christians and Jews, there are significant text differences in some books between the Hebrew and Greek versions. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Isaiah 7:14, which in the Greek text refers to the a virgin giving birth and the Hebrew calls her a young woman. This text plays a significant role in the infancy narrative in the Gospel as a proof text. Naturally, this text difference comes up in debates between Christians and Jews over the messiah.

“ Now it is evident to all, that in the race of Abraham according to the flesh no one has been born of a virgin, or is said to have been born, save this our Christ. But since you and your teachers venture to affirm that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son;’ and you explain the prophecy as if it referred to Hezekiah, who was your king, I shall endeavor to discuss shortly this point in opposition to you and to show that reference is made to Him who is acknowledged by us as Christ.”
Justin, Dialogue with Trypho (43)

These textual content debates solidified the establishment of the Greek canon in the Christian community. But the advocates of the Hebrew canon, particularly Jerome in his vulgate, saw the melding of the Hebrew and Greek versions of the text as translations were made.

So we do not see a universally established text throughout the Christian communities. The text serves the catechetical and liturgical needs of the various national churches, without a strict uniformity of content in all of the details. We even see the Coptic & Ethiopian communities retaining “extra” books in their worship.

Protestant Reformation

When the Protestant Reformation comes to the west in the 16th century, the reformers flock to the Hebrew canon. Led by scholars like Luther, they rediscover the ancient debate and take the side of Cyril, Athanasius, John Damascene and Jerome.

The reformers also take note of the debate over the virgin text in Isaiah and use this to deny the teachings of the council of Ephesus on Mary. The reformers claim that scripture alone is the source of knowledge about God and the individual believer can and should interpret scripture on their own. They also take aim at the understanding of Eucharist as the true body and blood of Christ. All of these assertions were forcefully answered by Rome in the Council of Trent.

In the east, the Patriarch of Constantinople accepted some of these assertions and began to teach them as well. This resulted in the calling of the council of Jerusalem to debate the merits of the reformation proposals by the Orthodox communities.

“I believe sacred scripture, in the tradition of God, is interpreted in the Catholic Church tradition, and this interpretation is faithful and adhered to by all.”
Synod of Jerusalem, 1672 (Article 3)

Thus the Orthodox community affirms what the Council of Trent declared for the Latin Church in the previous century. The longer Greek canon is the tradition of the Christian church. Further, both east and west declare that interpretation of scripture is the role of the church in the stream of tradition, not the private affair of individual believers. This renunciation of the Calvinist ideal puts down the move towards Calvin by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Council of Jerusalem has the Orthodox east standing side-by-side with the Catholic west in defense of both the Eucharistic mystery and traditional interpretation of scripture against the Protestant Reformation.

The question of the shorter Hebrew canon would come up again in 19th century Russia. Here the Russian Orthodox Church reconsidered the canon proposal and decided to affirm the shorter Hebrew canon as the authoritative one. The synod of Moscow in 1839 published a catechism affirming the position of Cyril, Athanasius, and John Damascene. While this ruling technically still stands for the Russian church, all of the officially published bibles since this time have included the books of the longer canon.

Originally Posted June 27, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010

Comments Policy
Anonymous
Posts: 1
Comment
Re: Old Testament Canon
Reply #2 on : Sun May 27, 2012, 15:43:53
im doing a project on this and im in. Could you "dumb it down" for me?
spuluka
Posts: 1
Comment
Re: Old Testament Canon
Reply #1 on : Wed May 30, 2012, 17:25:27
I'm sorry this is confusing. I'll try a really short summation here.

There are two basic versions of the Old Testament the Hebrew and the Greek canons. The early christian church used the Greek canon. The Jewish Rabbinic tradition uses the Hebrew one.

The Protestent reformation chose to use the Hebrew canon. The Orthodox and Catholic traditions affirmed their use of the longer Greek canon.

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