Tag Archives: the canon

How We Got the Sixty-Six

Conversations About God (5:3)

To orthodox Jews, the ones who had the Bible first, the Scriptures consisted of only the thirty-nine books that make up the Christian Old Testament many of us are familiar with. Sometimes the thirty-nine were combined together and counted as twenty-four or twenty-two. It all began with Moses and the first five. When Moses came down Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments, his face was shining so brightly they couldn’t even look at him. It’s no wonder that when he said, “I am giving you some dependable messages from the Lord,” there was every reason to take those messages seriously. So they built up a collection of the first five books. These became known as The Law or The Law of Moses. These five became a standard or rule among the Israelites, like a miniature canon.

Later on other prophets wrote books, and they were all measured by the first standard: The Law of Moses. By and by a prophetic collection developed and we had The Law and the Prophets. And then other books came along known as The Writings, or The Psalms. These were compared with The Prophets and with The Law until finally there were thirty-nine books, divided into three canons: The Law, The Prophets and The Writings; or The Law, The Prophets, and The Psalms, (since Psalms was the first book in the third canon).

The New Testament consistently recognized these three canons without any question as to their dependability. Look at what Jesus told His disciples in Luke 24:44: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (RSV). There are times in the New Testament when writers shortened The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms down to just The Law and The Prophets. Sometimes they shorten it clear down to simply “The Law.” So sometimes in the New Testament “The Law” means the whole Old Testament.

Look at some examples of these. First of all, in Matthew 5:17, 18 “the law and the prophets” means the whole Old Testament:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I’ve not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (RSV).

Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming that “the law” in verse 18 must be the Ten Commandments. But Jesus is actually talking about the whole Old Testament under the name of “The Law.” Another illustration of that is the reference in John 10:34: “Jesus answered them, `Is it not written in your law, “I said you are gods?”‘” (RSV). Jesus was quoting Psalm 82:6 here, but He called the Psalms “your law.” And He goes on to declare His confidence in the Old Testament: “Jesus answered, . . . ‘We know that what the scripture says is true forever’” (John 10:35, GNB). It seems to me that Christ’s confidence in the Old Testament should be of great significance to a Christian.

You can see these three canons of Scripture; The Law, The Prophets and The Writings, developing already in Old Testament times. Look at Isaiah 8:19, 20:

When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony, if they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn (NIV).

“The law and the testimony” is another way of referring to the five books of Moses and to the prophets. Bit by bit, the canon of the Old Testament was developing. Each book was tested. Does it measure up to the rule? Zechariah 7:12: “They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets” (NIV). Eventually the New Testament was measured by the same canons and the same rules.

Note the books that are in these three canons. The Law includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and all the twelve so-called Minor Prophets up to Malachi. And then the Writings, or the Psalms, include the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Yes, to our surprise, Daniel was included by the Jews in the Writings rather than the Prophets.

You add to these thirty-nine the twenty-seven in the New Testament canon and you have the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible.