The Canon of the Old Testament

Today I begin a series of studies on the canon of the Old Testament. Although the Bible is the book of the church and although Christians everywhere recognize that the Bible is the Word of God, Christians (and Jews) look at the Bible from different perspectives.

This first study deals with the content of the Bible. The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word “Testament” comes from a Hebrew word (by the way of the Greek New Testament) which means “covenant.”

The name “Old Testament” reflects the Christian’s belief that the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 was fulfilled in Christ.

The Jewish people today call their scripture Tanak. It is also known as the Hebrew Bible. The word “Tanak” comes from an acronym made up of the initial consonants of the three major parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Law), Nebiim (Prophets) and Kethubim (Writings).

The Canon of the Old Testament

The word “canon” is a Greek word derived from a Hebrew word which means “reed.” In the ancient Near East reeds were used as measuring sticks. The word also means “rule,” “list,” and “standard.” In Ezekiel 40:3, 5 the Hebrew word is translated as “a measuring reed.”

The canon is a body of authoritative literature which is directly related to the religious life of the community which treasures it. There are three accepted canons. First, the Jewish canon, also known as the “Palestinian canon,” contains 24 books. The Alexandrian canon, the canon used in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, contains 39 books plus additional books or additions to biblical books. These books are generally known as the Apocrypha or the Deuterocanonical books. The Protestant canon contains 39 books. These are the same books of the Palestinian canon, but organized in a different order.

The Protestant Canon

The Old Testament in the Protestant canon, found in most English Bibles, contains 39 books and is divided into four sections:

1. Pentateuch: 5 books

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

2. Historical Books: 12 books

Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

3. Poetical Books: 5 books

Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

4. Prophetical Books: 17 books

(a) Major Prophets: 5 books

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

(b) Minor Prophets: 12 books

Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The Hebrew Bible (Tanak)

The Hebrew Bible, or the Palestinian canon, contains 24 books and it is divided into three sections:

1. Torah (Law or Teaching): 5 books

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

2. Nebiim (Prophets): 8 books

(a) Former Prophets: 4 books

Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

(b) Latter Prophets: 4 books

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve.

3. Kethubim (Writings): 11 books

(a) Poetry: 3 books

Psalms, Job, and Proverbs.

(b) Megilloth (Festal Scrolls): 5 books

Song of Songs: read at Passover.

Ruth: read at the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost.

Lamentations: read on the ninth of Ab, the day Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.

Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth): read at the feast of Tabernacles (Feast of Booths).

Esther: read at the feast of Purim.

(c) The other writings: 3 books

Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

The Alexandrian Canon

The Alexandrian canon was compiled in Alexandria, Egypt by Jews who had adopted Greek culture and used the Greek language as the primary means of communication. The translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek became known as the Septuagint (generally abbreviated as the LXX).

The Old Testament in the Alexandrian canon, contains the same books found in the Palestinian canon and several other books and addition to biblical books which were not included in the Palestinian canon. These are the books of the Alexandrian canon:

1. Pentateuch: 5 books

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

2. Historical Books: 16 books

Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther (including the additions to the book), 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees.

3. Poetical Books: 7 books

Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus (also known as Wisdom of ben Sirach).

4. Prophetical Books: 17 books

(a) Major Prophets: 6 books

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Baruc (including the Letter of Jeremiah), Ezekiel, and Daniel (including The Prayer of Azariah, The Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).

(b) Minor Prophets: 12 books

Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The Orthodox Canon

The Orthodox canon is used in Orthodox churches. The Old Testament in the Orthodox Bible contains the same books found in the Palestinian canon, the additional books and addition to biblical books found in the Alexandrian canon plus other books and additions which were not included in the Palestinian nor the Alexandrian canons. These are the books of the Orthodox Bible:

1. Pentateuch: 5 books

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

2. Historical Books: 17 books

Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Kingdoms (1 Samuel), 2 Kingdoms (2 Samuel), 3 Kingdoms (1 Kings), 4 Kingdoms (2 Kings), 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras (Ezra, Nehemiah), Esther (including the additions to the book), Judith, Tobit, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and 3 Maccabees (4 Maccabees appears in the appendix).

3. Poetical Books: 8 books

Psalms (including Psalm 151), Prayer of Manasseh, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus (also known as Wisdom of ben Sirach).

4. Prophetical Books: 17 books

(a) Minor Prophets: 12 books

Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

(b) Major Prophets: 6 books

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruc, Lamentation, Letter of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel (including The Prayer of Azariah, The Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).

In a later post I will discuss in more detail these different canons.

Next in this series: “Augustine and the Canon.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to The Canon of the Old Testament

  1. Andy says:

    >Dear Dr. Mariottini,This looks to be a very interesting series and I am looking forward to reading what you have to say on the subject.It is my assumption that to maintain a workable range for your blogging on the topic, you have identified a limited number of more common canon. On the off chance that I am wrong about this, are you aware that the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible contains 81 books– more than any other generally accepted canon? An outline of what is contained in their Old Testament is available at http://gbgm-umc.org/UMW/BIBLE/ethrcot.stm

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  2. Andy says:

    >I just read that, “The authorities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have never said of an edition of the Geez or Amharic Bible that it was complete,” and I wanted to append that note to my previous comment. As Protestants, we consider the canon to be a closed collection of books. Churches in the Orthodox tradition are general more comfortable with ambiguity than we are, and apparently this extends to what is and what is not “canon.”

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  3. Anonymous says:

    >Ethiopian Orthodox canonical Books of Maccabees, now translated from Amharic to Standard English by Ras Feqade I:http://stores.lulu.com/store.php?fAcctID=1693650Ras Feqade I

    Like

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