The Old Testament canon (Malachi 4)

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Canon (from Greek kanon: “rule; standard of measure”) refers to writings that are authoritative for faith and religious practice by virtue of their divine inspiration. Secondarily, it designates a listing of such authoritative books.

Canonical writings were known in the ancient Near East in extra-biblical contexts. The Pyramid Texts profess to incorporate direct quotation from Egyptian gods. Mesopotamian seers recorded revelations they claimed t have received from the gods in dreams and visions. These compositions were deposited in temples to be preserved by priests. Important religious and secular documents were copied with meticulous care and often contained curses against anyone who would alter their contents. In particular, treaties were preserved in duplicate, with a copy deposited in the temple of each king, to be carefully guarded and periodically reread.

These practices find parallels i the treatment of Biblical writings. As a covenant or treaty document, early Mosaic legislation was preserved in the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9), first within the tabernacle and later in the temple; faithfully copied without alteration (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32); and publicly read every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).

The author of a canonical writing was to be an Israelite prophet who spoke in the Lord’s name. Fulfilment of short-range prophecies authenticated the prophet in the eyes of his countrymen (e.g. Jeremiah 28:15-17), after which his prophetic messages were to be held in reverence and obeyed.

The intrinsic authority of canonical books was recognized from the date of their composition, with later prophets at times citing the works of their predecessors as authoritative Scripture (e.g. Jeremiah 26:18 cites Micah 3:17, and Daniel 9:2 refers to Jeremiah 25:11-12). Rabbinical writings and the ancient Jewish historian Josephus bear witness that prophetic authorship was essential for a book to be included in the canon. The closing of the Old Testament canon coincided with the cessation of this prophetic activity.

Early witnesses number the books of the Old Testament canon at 24. This total actually corresponds to our own 39 books, with the 12 minor prophets counted as one book and the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicled and Ezra – Nehemiah as one apiece. Same list join Lamentations to Jeremiah and Ruth to Judges in order to force the total to correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. All told, these books were often referred to under three different categories; the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The 39 books of our Old Testament already appear as such in the Septuagint, and fragments of all of them except for Esther have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated 150 B.C. – A.D. 150). Jesus and the apostles acknowledged the same canon by their Old Testament quotations and use of such phrases as “the Law and the Prophets”.

The status of some books was debated by Jewish scholars at Jamnia in A.D. 90 – under the assumption that they were already accepted as canonical. The deliberation resolves difficulties of interpretation in light of other canonical books, such as apparent contradictions (e.g. the differences between Ezekiel 40-48 and Leviticus), apparent scepticism (in Ecclesiastes), eroticism (in Song of Solomon), and the lack of any direct reference to God (in Esther).

Some scholars argue that the Jewish canon of Alexandria, Egypt, included Apocrypha books. However, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C. – A.D. 50) never alluded to any of them as Scripture, and many early church fathers (e.g. Origen ,Athanasius, Chrysostom and Jerome) were either openly uncomfortable treating them as canonical or only rarely quoted them. The earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint (fourth – fifth centuries A.D.) include some of the Apocryphal books, probably as supplementary religious literature, but the list does not correspond the 14 Apocryphal books designated as such at the Council of Trent in 1546. Many additional non-canonical works were cited by Jews in pre-Christian times, as is evident from the large amount of religious literature discovered at Qumran. But the 39 Old Testament canonical books correspond of those Israel has regained as Scripture from ancient times.


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