How the Biblical Canon Was Formed | Old Testament Studies

In this episode, we will explore how the early Christian canon of the Old Testament came to be and the debates surrounding it in the early Church. When Christianity emerged, no one thought of it as a new world religion. Instead, Christians saw themselves as the followers of Israel’s Messiah who welcomes Jews and Gentiles alike to His kingdom that is to come. Early Christians read the same scriptures used by Jews in the synagogue, especially the book of Psalms. Given that Christianity was a messianic movement, there was a great deal of focus on the books of the Prophets that were used throughout the New Testament to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew’s frequent references that begin with “that the sayings of the prophet so and so may be fulfilled” is a testimony of this early Christian attitude shared by other New Testament authors such as John and Paul. Despite the centrality of the prophets to the new Jesus movement, the most frequently quoted book of the Old Testament in the New Testament is either Psalms or Deuteronomy. This depends on whether one is considering direct quotes or allusion to ideas within biblical books.  

Though there was quite a clear idea of certain scrolls attributed to Moses and other prophets that were seen as authoritative, there was no canon of Scripture books that the Jews considered authoritative during the rise of the Jesus movement. However, there was minimal consistency about what sections of the Jewish Bible were authoritative and the authority of a few books were debated. Jews in Judea and Israel would have the TNKH scrolls as authoritative whereas Jews in Gentile lands were mostly reading the Septuagint, a translation of the Jewish Bible to Greek commissioned by King Ptolemy II with an appendix of a collection of books originally written in Greek describing the events of Jewish struggle in the second temple period; this collection would later be known as the deuterocanonical (doo·tr·ow·kuh·naa·nuh·kl) books in Catholic and Orthodox circles and apocryphal books in Protestant circles. Quite peculiarly, Samaritans only subscribed to a unique version of the five books of Moses and did not include the scrolls of the prophets or writings in their canon of Scripture. 

As early as Paul the Apostle, the place of the Old Testament in general and the law in particular was a matter of debate. Paul the Apostle came to the conclusion that the law is good but that it was incomplete and that the Messiah came to fulfill it. With the coming of the Messiah, there is no need to observe the law by the gentiles. Jews may continue to observe the law, but they must know that they are not made righteous by the law but rather by the Messiah’s righteousness. Despite that, Paul continued to highly regard the Jewish scriptures often directly quoting them or alluding to their themes.

By the second century CE, a gnostic named Marcion challenged the authority of the Old Testament together with all the positive allusions to it mentioned in the New Testament. Eventually, he would create a version of the Bible with practically no Old Testament and a modified New Testament. Opposing him, Irenaeus of Lyons would compose two major works: Against the Heresies and The Apostolic Preaching. Although Irenaeus dedicated more time to defend tradition and provide a list of the books of the New Testament, he did dedicate some effort to retell the story of the Old Testament in the larger context of the salvation narrative in his book The Apostolic Preaching

By the fourth century CE, a debate arose about which books are to be included in the Christian Canon of the Old Testament. Both sides of the debate believed that it was coherent to include the books which all Jews have taken to be authoritative. However, the deuterocanonical Greek books were a matter of debate as they became part of the Septuagint whereas they did not become part of the Hebrew text. Augustine held the view that these books teach about the relationship between God and the people of Israel in the era after the prophets and thus they should be included in the Christian Canon of the Old Testament. Jerome on the other hand believed that the Hebrew truth was superior. What Jerome meant by the Hebrew truth entailed his belief in the superiority of the Hebrew text to its Greek counterpart and in the number of books included in the Jewish Canon. Where there was a discrepancy between the Hebrew and Greek text, Jerome would also rely on the Hebrew text as he composed his Latin translation known as the vulgate. Eventually, the church would side with Augustine’s view against that of Jerome including the Deuterocanonical books as scriptural. It is important to note that this debate was in the context of whether Jerome ought to translate these books or not. The majority view of early Christianity was to perceive these books as canonical, even with the admission of Jerome. 

Until the rise of the Reformation in the 16th century under the guidance of Martin Luther, no one debated the authority of these books since Augustine’s win of this debate. 

Today, various canons of the Old Testament exist in the various churches as various schisms, manuscripts, translations emerged. Different Churches might have a different number of Old Testament books they hold as authoritative and even different number of chapters and verses. Interestingly, even a single communion might have a different list of Old Testament books based on geographical displacement rather than a theological dispute.