Understanding The Bible
Part II - Introduction to the Canon of Scripture


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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible


    1. The Jewish Old Testament Canon--24 books in three groups (cp. Lk. 24:44) The student would do well to completely memorize this chart for all the years ahead.
      1. The First Group: known as THE LAW (Torah) 5 The five books ascribed to Moses
        (1) Genesis, (2) Exodus, (3) Leviticus, (4) Numbers, (5) Deuteronomy,
        called "the five-fifths of the Law, " which we know as the Pentateuch.
      2. The Second Group: known as THE PROPHETS (Neblim) 8 The Former Prophets (4): Joshua Judges Samuel (as 1 book) Kings (as 1 book) The Latter Prophets (4) Isaiah Jeremiah Ezekiel 12 Minor Prophets (as 1 book)
      3. The Third Group: known as THE WRITINGS (Kethubmi) 11 The Poetry Books (3) Psalms Proverbs Job The Five Rolls (M'gilloth) (5) Song of Songs Ruth Lamentations Ecclesiastes Esther
      4. The remaining books (3) Daniel Ezra-Nehemiah (as 1 book) Chronicles (1 book)
    2. Explanation of this strange grouping of OT books
      1. Suggested theories which we reject
        1. Some say they were arranged on the basis of material differences.
          We cannot accept this theory since if this were true, Daniel would have been placed with the Latter Prophets; Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ruth, Chronicles would have been with the Former Prophets; Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon would have been with the Poetic Books.
        2. Others say the divisions represent three degrees of inspiration.
          Scripture itself contradicts this view, as it treats each of the three divisions with equal authority. Cp. Lk. 24:27,44; Jn. 1:45.
        3. There is the view that there were three stages of collection, and canonization caused this threefold division.
          This view is not consistent with the traditionally assigned dates given to the various books. The view is held in the liberal circles where late dates are assigned, consistent with the evolutionary hypothesis of the growth of Israel's religion.
      2. Our view The threefold division rests upon the office of the writer. What is the official status of the author?
        1. Moses was in a place by himself as the lawgiver.
        2. Prophets were a distinct order of men universally recognized as such. They were the immediate messengers of God.
          1. Former prophets recorded historical matters and traced God's hand in the past.
          2. Latter prophets spoke to the people concerning their spiritual need and traced God's hand in the future.
        3. The Writings were comprised of books of inspired men who were not commissioned prophets in the technical and official sense of the word, but they had the prophetic gift to a marked degree. Hence, David was a king although he had the gift of prophecy. Daniel was a statesman although he too, to a very pronounced degree, had the gift of prophecy. Ezra was a scribe; Nehemiah, a governor; Solomon, a king.

          The student is to be warned not to allow the facts to be colored by our modern way of doing things. The question is why did the nation Israel at that time (BC) divide the OT in such a way. Note also that sometimes Lamentations was counted with Jeremiah and Ruth with Judges to make the same number of books (22) as the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This arrangement (of Lamentations and Ruth) would fit well with this theory.

    3. The gap between group one (the Law) and the two final groups
      1. Group one, the books of Moses, were accepted immediately as authoritative. This was due to two reasons:
        1. Moses' unique relationship to God (Num. 12:6-8).
        2. His exalted position as leader of Israel.

          The Law had a foundational place among the Jews, and although other books were written from time to time and received as inspired, nevertheless the Law was kept separate from these books. This amounted to closing the first section of the Old Testament canon.

      2. The second and third groups could not have been finally arranged until after the captivity in Babylon.
        This is evident because the sections could not have been finally closed until all the books contained in the sections were written. There are books in each group which were not written until after the return from captivity.
    4. At what date was the canon closed?: around 450 BC
      Some scholars have sought to show that the canon was settled long after Ezra's time. Many present-day theologians urge a late date. With this view we earnestly disagree and believe that all the evidence is in favor of an early date, i.e., in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (around 450 BC) or shortly thereafter. The evidence for this view is as follows:
      1. Testimony of tradition concerning Ezra
        There is a strong tradition among the Jews that Ezra and a group of his fellow scribes, called "The Great Synagogue, " not only founded a school for systematic preserving of the text by most painstaking copy methods, but also arranged in their final form the books which had been written, read, and revered in the centuries since Moses' day (i.e., the second and third groups).

        The circumstances of the return from Babylon and their experiences as recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah, as well as the need for a final weeding out of uninspired books which may have still been in existence following the captivity, make the tradition plausible.

        Furthermore, the presence of the tradition must be explained, if it is rejected. It cannot be dismissed by a mere wave of the hand.

      2. Various other testimonies
        1. The apocryphal book of "Ecclesiasticus" or "The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach." This was written by a devout Jew around 200 BC. He refers specifically to every book of the Law and the Prophets and to most of the Writings. The order of the books is followed and the 12 Minor Prophets mentioned. No explanation is given. It is assumed by the writer that all knew the canon as a long settled collection. Obviously it repudiates the radical critic's late date of first century BC, and also the moderate critic's date of around 250-200 BC. If the question of canonicity had but recently been settled, or was still under consideration, he would have explained why he accepted these books and the arrangement of them he used.
        2. Translation of Ecclesiasticus from Hebrew to Greek by Jesus Ben Siriach's grandson. In the prologue he refers to the threefold division a number of times.
        3. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the "Septuagint" and abbreviatedly symbolized by LXX. This translation, started around 250 BC by order of Ptolemy Philadelphus (and containing the whole Hebrew canon), testifies of the canon's existence and fixity some time before that date. (made in Alexandria, Egypt, by 70 Jewish scholars)
        4. Josephus, the Jewish historian, writing around AD 90. His book declares the succession of prophets ceased in the days of Artaxerxes (i.e., Ezra's time).
        5. The New Testament In the NT, the OT is referred to by many synonymous and general terms: e.g., "The Scripture, " Jn. 10:35; 2 Pet. 1:20; "The Scriptures, " Mt. 22:29; Acts 18:24; "The Holy Scriptures,' Rom. 1:2; "The Sacred Writings, " 2 Tim. 3:15 (R.V.); "The Law," Jn. 10:34; 12:34; 1 Cor. 14:21; "The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, " Lk. 24:44; "The Law and the Prophets," Acts 24:14; 28:23; "The Prophets, " Acts 26:27.

          This establishes the fact that a definite set of books had long been settled; also, it is apparent that general terms could not have been used without explanation to the reader or hearer.

        6. The Lord Jesus Christ His testimony, recorded in the NT is the same as e.
    5. Evidence that the Jewish canon previously listed was composed of the only books received as inspired of God
      1. Direct evidence
        1. Ecclesiasticus, or Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach As previously stated, he refers specifically to every book of the Law and the Prophets, and most of the Writings. The twelve minor prophets are mentioned. The order of books in the Jewish canon is followed. The fact that not every book of the Writings is mentioned does not weaken the evidence, because the writer is not intending to give a LIST of books he receives; in the course of his discussion he mentions only those books which relate to what he is saying. The fact he mentions so many of them, especially the minor prophets, is the strongest kind of inferential testimony that all 24 were so received by him and his fellow Jews to whom he was writing.
        2. Translation of Ecclesiasticus by Jesus' grandson The mention of the threefold division of the Jews' sacred books is clear evidence that they were identical with the books of the OT. As we pointed out before, there could be no threefold division until the books contained in the second and third divisions were written, received, and given a place in the canon. The only three- fold division history knows anything about is that body of books, numbered as 24 by the Jews, and as 39 by us, which form the OT.
        3. The Septuagint Translation
          The fact that the late copies, which are all we have, include some of the apocryphal books does not prove they were ever received by the Jews, because:
          1. There is nothing to disprove that they were later additions to the original translation. Indeed, not all the Apocrypha were then written.
          2. Even if some were in the original translation, it proves exactly nothing. Ptolemy Philadelphus was a heathen king (not a Jew), and he was a lover of books. Thus, his motive might well be understood to be "the more the better." Certainly he would have no discrimination.
        4. Josephus (a contemporary of Jesus)
          About AD 90-100, Josephus wrote a controversial treatise in defense of the Jews against their assailants in which he said:

          "For it is not the case with us (Jews) to have vast numbers of books disagreeing and conflicting with one another (as the Greeks had). We have but twenty-two (he uses the later count), containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in. And of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the laws and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to the time of his (Moses') death. This period falls short but by little of three thousand years. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to man. From the days of Artaxerxes to our own time, every event has indeed been recorded. But these recent records have not been deemed worthy of equal credit with those which preceded them, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased. But what faith we have placed in our own writings is evident by our conduct; for though so great an interval of time (i.e., since they were written) has now passed, not a soul has ventured either to add , or to remove, or to alter a syllable. But it is instinctive in all Jews at once from their very birth to regard them as commands of God, and to abide by them, and, if need be, willingly to die for them."

          This testimony is the clearest and should be the most conclusive to the unbeliever. He arranges the books into three divisions, the order being changed a little for a legitimate purpose. He gives the number as 22, as per II, B, 2.

          The books are clearly recognizable as identical with the OT. He is fully aware that other books have been written since the "exact succession of the prophets ceased" in the time of Artaxerxes (i.e., Ezra's day), but he clearly distinguishes them from the canonical books as unworthy of equal credit.

          The fact that he was a HISTORIAN adds to the already tremendous weight of his testimony.

        5. The New Testament
          The whole attitude of its pages toward the OT is significant. An appeal to it settles any question of doctrine or practice. The fact that every book is not quoted does not weaken the evidence, for only sayings pertinent to the things under discussion were quoted.
        6. The Lord Jesus Christ
          This testimony is the most conclusive to the believer. Who was He? He was either:
          1. God, as He claimed to be, and He told the truth, or He was
          2. A liar, and the world's greatest imposter, or He was
          3. Insane, for no sane man who was not a liar would have made the claims He did.

          Certainly He, who was the Truth, would have strongly denounced any book which was not of God, if such a book had gotten into the OT canon which was received in His day. And He would have called attention to any omission of an inspired book. His absolute silence on any such matter, plus His constant exaltation of, and appeal to, the OT Scriptures, is the strongest possible seal and assurance to the fact that these books are inspired of God and constitute the true OT canon.

        7. The Old Syriac Translation (The Peshitta)
          This is probably the oldest version of the OT made by early Christians. It contains exactly the same books, without addition or omission, as the Jewish OT.
        8. The Early Church
          Such men of note as Melito (AD 171, Eastern Church), Justin Martyr, and Origen (Greek Church), Tertullian (Latin), Athanasius (African), Cyril (Jerusalem), Hilary (France), Ruffin (Italy), and Jerome (the most learned man of his time and translator of the Latin Vulgate), and a host of others, after all objections to their lists have been answered, bear united testimony to the OT canon of the Jews as adopted in Ezra's day (or shortly thereafter) and held to the present day. (The Jews have never accorded a place in their canon to the apocryphal books; see F below.)
      2. Indirect evidence
        The fact that other books were written and read by the Jews, and yet were not looked upon as inspired, is more conclusive that the books received are inspired, than if apocryphal books had not been written. The discrimination shows us that a book was not received simply because it was written by a godly Jew or great leader (e.g., Jesus son of Sirach, or one of the Maccabees), but only those books which gave evidence of Divine origin were received.
    6. The Old Testament Apocrypha They are placed between the OT and NT in earlier Protestant editions. Note these symbols:

      * - indicates unreliable as well as uninspired
      # - indicates reliable but uninspired
      @ - indicates good ethic but uninspired

      1. Their names and substance
        1. *Tobit - a fictitious narrative intended to show how a pious Jew, living in Gentile Nineveh, might yet be true to his faith and obtain the privilege of angelic companionship. Date unknown.
        2. *Judith - a story of the days of Nebuchadnezzar, showing how its heroine (like another Jael) slew her country's foe, the Chaldean general, Holofernes. Probably written in the 1st century BC. Books a. and b. are placed between Nehemiah and Esther in the Roman Catholic Bible.
        3. *Additions to Esther - a kind of appendix to the canonical book (10:4-16:24) with added details of events in the canonical book and with professedly original documents. Probably written in the 2nd century BC.
        4. @Wisdom of Solomon (author unknown). A Greek imitation of first part of Proverbs. Contains some fine passages. Probably of Christian era.
        5. @Ecclesiasticus by Jesus Son of Sirach. The choicest monument we have of uncanonical Jewish literature. Some parts nobly written, e.g., the Praise of Creation (42:15-43:33), and the Eulogy of Famous Men in Israel's History (44:1-50:21). Date, around 200 BC.

          Books d. and e. are placed between Song of Solomon and Isaiah in Roman Catholic Bible.

        6. *Baruch - a feeble imitation of the language of a great prophet, purporting to have been written from Babylon in the 5th year after the destruction of Jerusalem. Date and author unknown. Placed after Lamentations in the Roman Catholic Bible.
        7. Additions to Daniel
          1. @ Song of Three Holy Children. It is inserted after Daniel 3:23 and purports to be their song in the furnace.
          2. *The Story of Susanna - Chapter 13 of Daniel in the Roman Catholic Bible. It tells how a Jewess, falsely accused of immorality, was miraculously delivered from stoning by the testimony of Daniel, who was then but a child.
          3. *Bel and the Dragon - Chapter 14 of the Roman Catholic Bible is a fanciful legend of Daniel's victory over the priests of Bel (the Babylonian god); a ridiculous account of a victory over a dragon; a fantastic preservation of the prophet in another lion's den, by an angel's bringing the prophet Habakkuk to Babylon by the hair of his head to provide food for Daniel.
        8. #1st Maccabees - an accurate and valuable history of Jewish affairs from the accession of Antiochus Epiphanes, 175 BC, to the death of Simon the Maccabee, 135 B.C.
        9. *2nd Maccabees - an abridgement, in part, of a longer history in five volumes written by Jason of Cyrene, covering 15 years (175-160 BC) of the period chronicled in 1st Maccabees. It is not on the same plane as 1st Maccabees and its history is discounted by strange legends.

          Books h. and i. come between Malachi and Matthew in the Roman Catholic Bible

        10. @1st Esdras (Greek form for Ezra) - includes incidents from Bible history (Josiah to Ezra), related with some deviations. The commission to Zerubbabel is made the reward for his ability in discussion. Doubtful origin. It is called 3rd Esdras in the Vulgate, Ezra and Nehemiah being 1st and 2nd Esdras.
        11. *2nd Esdras - is chiefly a series of apocalyptic visions, assigned to the time of Domitian (AD 81-96). This is 4th Esdras in the Vulgate. It is not in the LXX. @ l. The Prayer of Manasseh, King of Judah - a compilation of unknown date from penitential passages of the OT Scripture. See 2 Chr. 33:12-13. It is not in the LXX.

          Books j., k., and 1. were placed after the NT in the Roman Catholic Vulgate (Latin Translation).

      2. Rome's acceptance of them
        Although these books had been known and read from early times, they were always carefully distinguished from the canonical books by early church leaders and by the conservative leaders of Roman Catholicism.

        Jerome flatly rejected them, using the 22 canonical books (later numbering) saying: "Anything outside of these must be placed in the Apocrypha." Though he was an ardent Romanist, and strangely enough the translator of the Latin Vulgate (the Roman Catholic Bible), these books were later added to it as a sort of secondary canon.

        Pope Clement VII (AD 1378-1394) wrote: "The whole Latin church is greatly indebted to St. Jerome for distinguishing the canonical from the non-canonical books."

        Cardinal Cajetan wrote as late as AD 1534, when the issue in the Roman Church as to the place of these books had become very crucial as result of the action of Luther and the other reformers in rejecting them and placing them by them- selves: "We have chosen the rule of Jerome that we may not err in distinguishing the canonical books from those which he delivered to be canonical and which we hold to be canonical. Those which he separated from the canonical books, we hold to be out of the canon."

        In spite of such deliverances from revered Roman prelates, "the Church that never changes" added these books to her canonical list at the, Council of Trent. This was not in AD 400, nor 800, nor 1200, but in AD 1546, after she was forced by the Protestant Reformation decision on these books to do the something about her slipshod way of handling them through the centuries.

        She-had depended upon the Apocrypha before this to establish doctrine; it was only logical then that she declare them of equal authority with the canonical books. And loyal Catholics, like Cardinal Cajetan, who strenuously opposed this step of folly, both before and in Council, submitted (even if regretfully) to the decision of the Church.

      3. Reasons for the rejection of the Apocrypha by Protestants
        1. They were never included, and to this day are not included, by the Jews, as witness Josephus's emphatic testimony.
        2. Jesus Christ did not receive them, for they were not in the canon upon which He set His seal of approval.
        3. The apostles and early Church did not recognize them, as witness the NT, the Syriac version, and other testimonies.
        4. Some of them contain historical, geographical, and ethical errors.
        5. All of them fail to impress upon the reader any mark of Divine origin. (Read them and see)
      4. Why were they ever printed in Protestant Bibles, even though in a place by themselves?
        The highest regard which Protestants have ever held for them is expressed in the sixth Article of the Church of England, which after distinguishing the canonical books, says of the Apocrypha: "And the other books (as Hierome saith) doth the Church read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine."

        This is essentially like we read and profit by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, without in the slightest suggesting it be put on a par with the Scripture. Any light it has is reflected light from the Scripture of truth!


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