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Canon Part I: The Old Testament

July 25, 2011

The formation of the canon is a rather contentious topic.  Catholics often assert that the early Church is responsible for the canon, while Protestants often see the canon as the thing that created the Church.  A revival of interest in the early heresies has brought more canonical issues forward, including whether some books were axed from the canon for ideological reasons.

I would like to begin tackling this issue in the Old Testament and with a challenge to the reigning canonical paradigm.  The canon was not flat – there were not simply canonical and non-canonical books where all canonical books held equal standing.  This idea of canon comes well after the Old Testament Scriptures start being used.

The Tanakh (identical to the Protestant Old Testament) is divided into three main sections.  The first is Torah (instruction or teaching), composed of Genesis through Deuteronomy.  The second section is Nevi’im (prophets).  The former prophets consist of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which are prophets in that they record the perspective of the prophets (theoretically).  The latter prophets are composed of what we would more naturally consider the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor twelve; Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  Notably, Daniel is not within the Nevi’im, but within the last section, Ketuvim (writings).  This section is composed of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Lamentations, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Chronicles.

Several of the books in the Ketuvim are of late origin.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles all date from after the Exile (Chronicles begins with a list of the returning exiles).  Daniel and Esther record events from within the exile.  Notably, not all post-Exilic writers are placed within the Ketuvim.  Haggai is a notable exception.  However, there does appear to be a sense in which “recent” literature was separated from older literature.  The reason for this is probably also based on the decidedly secondary (or tertiary) status of the Ketuvim.  The earlier works in the Ketuvim are poetic (Psalms, Proverbs, much of Job, and Lamentations), wisdom literature (which is always general advice, some of which appears to be common to a larger Ancient Near Eastern culture), and the book of Ruth.  Ruth 4:7 explains how a particular custom of “former times” worked, signaling that the book itself post-dates the period of the judges.  It’s also not a particularly theological book.

The evidence for what I’m calling tertiary status for the Ketuvim is not merely its content, it’s the level of citation within the New Testament.  The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” appears eight times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:17, 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, John 1:45, Acts 13:15, 28:23, Romans 3:21) and would refer to the Torah and the Nevi’im.  The preponderance of references in Matthew (generally acknowledged to be written to Jewish converts) is suggestive, although Luke and sometimes Acts use “Moses and the Prophets”(Luke 16:29, 16:31, 24:27, Acts 26:22) which means the same thing.  One reference, Luke 24:44, includes the Psalms, and the book of Psalms is referenced in Luke 20:42 and Acts 1:20, while Daniel is referenced as “the prophet Daniel” in Matthew 24:15.

Obviously, citation goes well beyond naming books.  Examining every single citation in the New Testament would be beyond the scope of a readable article but a simple example will suffice.  Using a simple word search, in how many places can we turn up someone citing an Old Testament book?  “Psalms” gets us two and “psalmist” none.  “David” frequently introduces Psalms as well, although thirteen instances of the word “David” cluster around only eight New Testament passages.  The names of the other books in the Ketuvim turn up nothing with the exception of Daniel (one reference).  “Scripture” turns up another twelve quotations from the Ketuvim, eleven in Psalms and one in Proverbs.  However, these terms duplicate each other at two points and so we have found only twenty-five citations of the Ketuvim in the entire New Testament (and twenty-three of these are to the Psalms).  In contrast, the word “prophet” (or “prophets”) turns up thirteen citations in the book of Matthew alone.  The Torah is even harder to search – both “Law” and “Moses” frequently turn up arguments in which huge sections of the Torah are clearly being referenced but everyone is expected to know them well enough that they are not repeated.  However, the word “Abraham” appears 73 times, “Moses” appears 80 times, and even a minor character likes Noah has his name appear five times in the New Testament.

There’s a fairly simple explanation for this.  The Torah was (and is) absolutely central to Jewish life.  There are suggestions in the Talmud that the Sadducees would not accept any doctrine that could not be supported from the Torah, and Jesus’ answer to them in the dispute about the Resurrection (which the Sadducees did not believe in) cites the Torah only (Mark 12, Luke 20).  The importance of the Torah is further demonstrated in an incident in Acts 6:11, where an accusation is leveled against Stephen.  The accusation?  Blasphemy against not only God but also Moses, the traditional author of the Torah.  Similarly, the lack of citations to the Ketuvim aside from Psalms (many of which are attributed to David, a reputable authority) makes sense if one takes the name of the group seriously.  These are some writings.  They aren’t prophets, and they aren’t instruction.  Just writings.

Imagine, for a minute, that you did not believe in a flat canon.  You had the important books of the Bible.  Maybe, like a lot of Evangelicals, you really like the Pauline Epistles.  Maybe you pick the gospels since they are most directly about Jesus.  Then you have some less important bits of the Bible.  Maybe you like Psalms a lot, so you have that in there.  Maybe, like myself, you love Isaiah and so that’s in there.  (Maybe, like an unfortunate number of people I talk to, you’ve never read Isaiah.  Go fix that.)  Then, a level out, there are the books of the Bible you’re not so sure about.  If you didn’t place Leviticus there you either need to teach me or you have a disturbing desire to hang on to that verse about men sleeping with men being an abomination.  But here’s the thing – C.S. Lewis is far more comprehensible than Leviticus for most of us.  And this is just writings, so your edition of the Bible has C.S. Lewis in that last section next to Leviticus.  Somebody else might not have C.S. Lewis, and a third person might have Lewis, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and a bunch of charts from a conference.

This begins to explain one of the other puzzling things about the Old Testament: its size shifts.  The Septuagint includes a number of books that the Tanakh as it stands now does not: I Esdras (the Esdras are renumbered several times but II Esdras in the Septuagint is Ezra and Nehemiah combined), Tobit, Judith, I-IV Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, the Prayer of Manasseh, the Psalms of Solomon, Baruch, and a Letter of Jeremiah.  Esther, Daniel, and Psalms also contain additional material.  Obviously, the rabbinical translators of the Septuagint and the rabbis of the later (probably post-Jesus) period when the modern Jewish canon was finalized did not see entirely eye-to-eye on this issue.  Neither did the Jewish historian Josephus.  Despite the fact that he was surely familiar with the Septuagint when he describes the period covered by these additional books (the Deuterocanon1) he says he is picking up where “our prophets” have left off (Wars of the Jews, opening chapter).  These controversies remain present in early Christianity as well.  While the early Church was comfortable using the entire Septuagint (as witnessed by the numerous quotes from its books in the early writings) there are still hints that some of these books were occasionally challenged.  The Muratorian Canon is primarily aimed at clarifying the New Testament writings but it takes time to mention that the Wisdom of Solomon is a valid book (written, it says, by Solomon’s friends in his honor).  More surprisingly, Athanasius’s 39th Festal Epistle lists all the books of the Bible, Old and New Testament, and leaves out many of the Deuterocanonical works.  His list of the Old Testament books looks very much like the Protestant or Jewish one minus Esther and with Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah.  Esther is placed alongside the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Judith, Tobit, and two New Testament-era works in a category of works that are good to read but not canon.

It appears that there may have been some disagreement about which books held sacred authority during the time shortly before and after the New Testament, which contributes to these contradictory witnesses.  However, this is more understandable if we think of the canon less as a closed box and more of a scale.  Is something that’s 32% canonical canon?  It’s a question we can’t answer from our normal way of thinking but I suspect it’s something a first-century Jew could have answered.  This probably doesn’t help anyone who is questioning the canonical status of the Deuterocanonical books but determining this would also require determining who amongst the early canonizers was right, and that’s an extremely complex task involving one’s beliefs on a large number of other issues.

To summarize, the Old Testament canon is composed before anyone writes about the composition of the canon.  Unlike the New Testament we have no recorded discussions about what goes into the Torah or Nevi’im, nor do we have any candidate books that were excluded.  The dispute focuses on a later time period and the later books seem to be grouped together in the Ketuvim.

1 I prefer this term to “Apocrypha” which is also used for writings no orthodox Christian of any flavor has ever considered valid.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    July 25, 2011 2:19 pm

    An interesting read. I had been slowly making my way through the previous articles wondering if I had missed the one on ‘canon’. Now I can quit searching.

    I look forward to reading part 2.

  2. July 29, 2011 3:03 pm

    Cool web. I saw you at Suzanne McCarthy’s.

    From Buridan’s Ass (indecisive me) on the subject of canon –

    “Terminological Tumblers ~ Terminology Science ~ Standardization and Canon” (second article down).

    I’ll respond here in a bit on your thoughts. For which I’m thankful. Easier to respond here than there.



  3. July 29, 2011 4:01 pm


    I see a note in “About.” The note refers to a zoologist. Is that a throw-away reference? Or is one of the authors here a zoologist? No biggie to me. But it might pay to consider some zoology in light of my response.

    Inter-linear –

    Eric – “ The canon was not flat – there were not simply canonical and non-canonical books where all canonical books held equal standing. This idea of canon comes well after the Old Testament Scriptures start being used.”

    I like this idea. So easy and misleading to consider the whole ecology in which texts formed as an ecology of a fixed and uniform ecological plane. So we flatlanders flatten texts too into textual flatland. Ecologies in which these texts took form might be as small as the smallest warm tip of a single melting icicle dangling from a cedar of Lebanon during a spring thaw. Or a textual ecology might range from the flat-fertile Mediterranean coast to the heights of Mt. Carmel so suited to herds of roaming humans. Fighting over religions. And land. And ‘textual’ property markers. For me, it’s not always a linear path (more like a drunkard’s walk) to find straightway interpretations and then applications of these ancient texts into my life. So I’m a liar if I say this – canons – has a lot of meaning for me. And my Christian bias is a constant flat-plane of offense to the original Hebrew shareholders in these texts. Alas.

    Eric – “The Tanakh (identical to the Protestant Old Testament).”

    I had the accidental pleasure of studying with Rendtorff. His best teaching involved a deep heart-felt powerful teaching never to call the Tanakh by the name, “Old Testament.” It’s the “Hebrew Scriptures.” Still alive today. God to learn this lesson. That said – I’d start the whole textual canon shooting match by putting “Job” first. Then Genesis as a recreation of the fractured creation. Is this my Christian bias? Would Jewish readers engage this?

    Eric – “Ruth 4:7 … It’s also not a particularly theological book.”

    Is theology-ladeness here an explicit or implicit criterion for its order in the canon?

    Eric – “The evidence for what I’m calling tertiary status ….”

    I’m out of my depth here. If citation levels in the New Testament are weighted for determining this status, then how do we know for sure whether the citation activity of the NT authors was anything more than a passing flurry? – say like courts citing Roe. v. Wade, but often as dicta, since little has changed with Roe? And what’s our confidence level that Jesus starting this citation ball a-rolling? – or that NT authors did this on their own? – after the fact? I’m not objecting to citation frequency as one measure of canonicity. Just that I don’t know how to weight it. If that makes sense?

    Eric – “There’s a fairly simple explanation for this. The Torah was (and is) absolutely central to Jewish life.”

    This bothers me. It assumes something about literacy. And after literacy, it assumes that the general pool of the population really cared. Data on contemporary doctrinal beliefs (in our literate society) show that people don’t really believe what they say they do. And contemporary believers know even less how to apply what they say they believe. Which means that operational – canons – are elsewhere. Outside of the texts. But I don’t want to read current studies backward. So these are just test-questions. Not conclusions.

    Eric – “Imagine, for a minute, that you did not believe in a flat canon.”

    That’s what I do believe. I like the hypotheticals you posed. I’d just add another: that textual reliance varies with our real life ecological needs. So both planes – textual and ecological – are not flat. Better a biological term here than a mathematical term – these planes are unlimited (not infinite) in all directions. Despite my love for Dyson on this.

    Eric – “This begins to explain one of the other puzzling things about the Old Testament: its size shifts.”

    If you’re a zoologist, would you consider these shifts as normal tectonics?

    Eric – “It appears that there may have been some disagreement about which books held sacred authority during the time shortly before and after the New Testament …”

    I’d like to learn more about this.

    Eric – “To summarize, the Old Testament canon is composed before anyone writes about the composition of the canon.”

    I disagree. I recently wrote an article on ethological evo-pscyh observations inside the texts themselves – “”What Thomas Aquinas, Saint of Evolutionary Psychologists, Did Not Know ~ The Biblical Basis For Darwinian Psycho/Sociobiology,”

    Don’t bother reading it. I cited the text – “Also every sickness and every plague which, not written in the book of this law, the Lord will bring on you until you are destroyed” (Deut 28:61).

    That’s the book citing the book. A self-referential citation by the book to ecological realities outside of the book. And not recorded in the book. This text here is self-referential back to the book – I see emergent canonicity here. So I wouldn’t agree than canonicity emerged after composition. Not quite. But I think I know what you mean. But more – the text is referential to external ecologies. Tt’s in those external ecologies (again – not a flat plane) of our natural environment outside the text where the rest of the canon is.

    Nature as, “the rest of the story.”

    My two-cents.



  4. Eric permalink
    July 30, 2011 3:16 pm

    I’m a zoologist. Or ecologist, depending which side of my research one wishes to label me by.

    Jim – “His best teaching involved a deep heart-felt powerful teaching never to call the Tanakh by the name, ‘Old Testament.’ It’s the ‘Hebrew Scriptures.'”

    That’s fine if you expect your audience to know these terms. That particular phrase was aimed at clarifying what a Tanakh was and what it contained. Given this, reversion to the lowest common denominator term made most sense for a communication standpoint. I doubt this blog is fully accessible, but I try to keep the bar lower than it might otherwise be.

    Jim – “Is theology-ladeness here an explicit or implicit criterion for its order in the canon?”

    I suspect that certain sorts of books are in the Ketuvim simply because they are that sort of book. If you are composing a collection of religious texts there is inevitably the question of what counts as a religious text. For this reason I noted Ruth’s lack of much overt theologizing because this is possibly a reason to avoid giving it higher status (i.e., to count it as a “former prophet”). (At the same time, Ruth addresses the same Jewish question as “Joseph and Asenath” but with a very different answer.)

    The value I see in the New Testament references breaks down in several ways:
    1) I doubt you’d get the idea of a flat canon without referencing Christianity, so Christian handling of the Jewish canon seems relevant.
    2) Christian usage of the Jewish canon also reflects the Jewish usage to some degree since the New Testament is written about, and sometimes in, Jewish contexts.
    3) The people most likely to object to the idea of the flat canon are the least likely to reject the authority of the New Testament from which I draw this evidence.

    Jim – “This bothers me. It assumes something about literacy. And after literacy, it assumes that the general pool of the population really cared. Data on contemporary doctrinal beliefs (in our literate society) show that people don’t really believe what they say they do.”

    This is a semantic issue. When I say “Jewish life” I don’t mean “the lives of Jews”, I mean “the parts of the lives of Jews that are distinctly Jewish”. Those things really do seemed anchored in the Torah (even in cases where someone might claim that this anchor was dropped secondarily).

    Jim – “If you’re a zoologist, would you consider these shifts as normal tectonics?”

    I would probably say something like “temporal variation in community structure” not “tectonics”. However, you’d also need to be clearer about “normal”. Given my theory of a topographically variable canon yes, it’s not unexpected that the margins of the canon might shift,. Given some other set of assumptions that might be weird. What set do you want me to answer under (if I haven’t already)?

    As to the writing about the formation of the canon I’m aware of the citations within the Tanakh to other materials (the citation to the book of Jasher/Justice in Judges, the frequent citations to the books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel/Judah which I seriously doubt are the canonical Chronicles given the material they are supposed to contain, and at least one other set of references in Exodus). However, those aren’t writings about the canon process in anything like the detail we get for the New Testament where people write out arguments and counter-arguments about the inclusion of specific books. (The fact that I wrote out this whole five-part series and then did the final editing may mean that I have addressed questions here that you wouldn’t have about this material until part three, potentially.)

    I hope this all makes sense.

  5. July 30, 2011 4:16 pm

    Eric, good answers all around. Please accept my apology for my reference to Rendtorff on the “Hebrew Scriptures.” As I look at my comment now, it looks overbearing and dogmatic. What really happened amounted to a deep inward feeling of wistful respect. An emotional feeling. That’s all. Rendtorff talked in a confessional manner about how Jews in Germany to this day will not sit down for a sack lunch casually to discuss scripture with Christians. That broke my heart. And still does. All his cool teaching about composition took a backseat. Please know I did not mean my comment as pedagogy. Nor correction to you. Was just emotional. I apologize.

    Fair enough on tectonics. And on normal. I had Oxytrichia and its germline maneuvers in mind, but I don’t want to push a non-Darwinian card since I think the neo-Darwinian synthesis is adequate and pretty cool too. Since the metrization of memes hasn’t gone too well because memes don’t easily tract, yes, you’ve responded appropriately. Thank you. I’m not trying to invent new tropes. Except maybe discovering some textual randomness by chance – sort of thing. I’m really thinking of legal canons in comparative laws and how high court decisions which overrule prior precedent invent all kinds of mischievous ways to say they’re not overruling the priors, but really are. It’s rare that precedents are overruled flat-out by honest opinions. We know too that so-called black letter laws in statutes are really not black and white at all because legislative final drafts are immiscibly drafted with fudged language to conceal festering disagreements between legislators. This has become an art. And it’s pervasive. And it drives judges crazy. I’m thinking of theological analogues. And canon. Here too it’s irresponsible to push the edges of legal canon too far into randomness and fully developed turbulence – I wouldn’t tell a client to drive 100mph through a school zone just because of legal confusions in stuff like plurality opinions.

    Before I came to my own robust personal experience of God’s Love (raised in an atheist family – an atheist father, college professor), I came to love triple-point physics – the simultaneous features of ordered, chaotic, and randomness at the edges – simultaneously. That simultaneity (plus my observations of dust mote randomness as a mere child) is built into the baseline of my trust in God. It’s just there. I think that the triple-point stuff is a better analogy to canon. For me. Again, this isn’t meant to be pedagogy. Confessional.

    If we’re clinical practitioners with duties to apply canons to everyday life (not just doing literary lit/crit stuff at a remote distance), then it’s an ethical imperative to know the triple-point states of our canons. It’s not just about me as reader-responder. There are other lives and families at stake.

    A good reply from you. Thank you.

    I look forward to following along.



  6. July 30, 2011 4:42 pm

    … nb, Eric – is it okay if I link to your blog (on mine) for your discussion of canon? – see e.g., “Terminological Tumblers ~ Terminology Science ~ Standardization and Canon,” @ –

    I have links there to other kinds of canons. But no links yet to discussions of biblical canon. If no, then no problems. I’ve been thinking of asking Peter Kirk where to go for a link, but I could use more than one. ~ Jim

  7. Eric permalink
    July 31, 2011 5:55 pm

    Don’t worry about the apology, I wasn’t offended. I simply wished the clarify the issue of audience – you may say “the metrization of memes” on your blog, I wouldn’t expect any substantial fraction of my readers to follow that easily.

    It might be worth pointing out that my main concern with this article (and the four to follow, although there will be some gaps between them so as not to bore anyone too much) is to address a common concern I hear in Christian circles: how do we know that the Bible we have is any good? A number of more recent popular theories claim things like the unhistorical idea that at some point in time a few people got together and threw out a lot of books that the Church had previously used. Since I’ve responded to these concerns before (and the formation of the canon is not nearly as simple as we might like – there was no final revelation where stone tablets dropped out of the sky with “these are the canonical books” written across the top followed by a nice list) but keep forgetting what I looked up in each case I decided to upgrade my research, look at more primary sources, and write it down in one place for me and anyone else who cared.

    The issue that seems to concern you is almost more of “what do we do with the canon?” For that I’d recommend the rather long list of articles I’ve categorized as “Reading the Bible”. I believe another one will come out tomorrow.

    Feel free to link to here if you feel this series will suit your needs. If you want to link to the whole series you can link to the page that comes up when you look up the “Canon” category on this blog. That page should automatically update as the rest of the canon articles come out.

    What’s your own field, if you don’t mind me asking?

  8. August 2, 2011 12:22 pm

    Eric, thanks. My field? I get that question elsewhere. I guess my profile is more confusing than clarifying. I’m working on a post to clarify. I’ll post it at my blog under bio, “professional.” And link here. The most synthetic header for my field is judgment theory and practice. Think generically, Hammond, K. R. (1996). Human judgment and social policy: Irreducible uncertainty, inevitable error, unavoidable injustice. New York: Oxford University Press.

    My post-grad research attempted an ethological frame for concrete case judgments in which various religious rules and various theological rules are applied in judgments in concrete cases (mostly civil law sorts of cases) – ethology: judgment as an observed behavior in cross comparative religions. Over 1,000 page research. Factor analyses and self–organizing clustered data as a primary overlay to look underneath theological and religious judgments in concrete cases, that is, the math as an overlay to look underneath at ethological considerations. Ethology could end up as a throw-away category if factor analyses did the trick alone. It didn’t. Another story.

    You pegged me perfectly. You got me by dead reckoning! – yes, I’m more interested in what we do with canon (or putative-canon) after we’ve got the jitterbug-canon in place. If we ever do!

    I need the challenge of your question. Because I’m confusing too many others. I look forward to following along here. Excited about it. I might ask you to take a look at my bio, “professional,” about my ‘field’ later. When I get it up and running. Asking for your criticism. Blessings to you in this project on ‘canon.’ ~ Jim

  9. August 2, 2011 8:15 pm

    Eric, please see here. And criticize. Peter Kirk has helped too.


  10. Eric permalink
    August 3, 2011 2:19 pm

    That’s a lot clearer. However, it might benefit from an abstract – just a sentence or two saying what you do now (practice law, perhaps specify a type of law) and the topic of your graduate work (clergy judging secular cases). The post is long enough that I doubt the average blog wanderer would read the whole thing without some idea of what interesting things you might say.

  11. August 3, 2011 4:04 pm

    Thank you! Will do.

    What are you wasting your time talking to me for? You’re supposed to have this book on canon done by now …

  12. Eric permalink
    August 3, 2011 4:34 pm

    I’m establishing temporal parity – it took me more than a month to write the articles, it will take more than a month to post them all. That said, I think we’ll put up Part II for next Monday’s article.

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