The Canon of the Old Testament

Today I continue my series of studies on introducing the Old Testament. For previous studies on the series, follow the links below. The post today deals with the canon of the Old Testament.


The word canon is a Greek word taken from a Hebrew word meaning “reed.” In the Ancient Near East reeds were used as measuring sticks. The word canon also means “rule,” “list,” or what serves as a standard or model for other things. The canon is the body of authoritative literature which is directly related to the religious life of the community that treasures it. For Christians, the canon is the list of books that make up the Bible.

There are three accepted canons. First, the Jewish canon, also known as the “Palestinian Canon,” contains 24 books. The Protestant canon contains 39 books. These are the same books of the Palestinian Canon, but organized in a different order. 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 Palestinian Canon

The Jewish people call their scriptures Tanak or the Hebrew Bible. The word Tanak was formed with the initial consonants of the three main parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Law), Neviim (Prophets) and Kethuvim (Writings). The Hebrew Bible follows the textual tradition of Judaism and the canon used in the synagogues in Palestine. The Hebrew Bible contains 24 books and is divided into three sections:

Torah – 5 books
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

The word Torah means law or teaching. The Hebrew tradition called the Torah “The Law of Moses.” The five books of Moses form the basic foundation of the religion of Israel. Initially the five books of the Law were a single book. The division into five books was probably initiated by the translators of the Septuagint.

Neviim – 8 books

The word Neviim means prophets. The books of the prophets are divided into two sections:

(a) The Former Prophets: 4 books
Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings

(b) The Latter Prophets – 4 books
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve

The designation of former prophets and latter prophets can be explained by the order these books occupy in the canon and also by the chronological order of the appearance of the prophets in the history of Israel.

In the Hebrew Bible the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are classified as prophetic books because these four books form a prophetic interpretation of Israel’s history from the time the people entered the land of Canaan in the days of Joshua (1200 B.C.) to the exile of Judah in 587 B.C. Originally Samuel’s two books were counted as a single book. The two books of Kings were also counted as one book. The Twelve refers to the twelve Minor Prophets in our English Bibles. In the Hebrew canon, the twelve Minor Prophets were written in one scroll and regarded as one book.

Kethuvim (Writings) – 11 books

The Kethuvim (Writings) are divided into three sections:

(a) Poetry – 3 books
Psalms, Proverbs, and Job

(b) The Megilloth (The Festall Scrolls) – 5 books
Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther

(c) The Other Writings – 3 books
Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles

The books that are part of the Kethuvim make up the third part of the Bible in Hebrew and belong to different categories. Psalms represent a collection of hymns and prayers used in temple worship in Jerusalem. The books of Proverbs and Job represent the books of wisdom in the Old Testament.

The five scrolls (Megilloth) formed a collection of books read at Israel’s five great festivals:
(1) The book of Song Songs was read at the feast of Passover.
(2) The book of Ruth was read at the feast of First Fruits or Pentecost.
(3) The book of Lamentations was read on the ninth day of the month Ab, the day Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.
(4) The book of Ecclesiastes was read at the Feast of Tabernacles or the Harvest Festival.
(5) The book of Esther was read at the Feast of Purim, the feast that celebrated the day the Jews were delivered from death in the days of Esther.

The book of Daniel was not included among the prophets because Daniel was not considered to be a prophet, even though his book contains prophecies. The book of Daniel is an apocalyptic book.

Ezra and Nehemiah, a single book in the Hebrew canon, reflect the historical period that occurred after the people of Israel returned from the exile in Babylon.

The book of Chronicles is also a single book in the Hebrew canon. The book of Chronicles is considered to be the last book of the Old Testament and is a reformulation of the history of Israel from the perspective of the post-exilic community.

The Protestant Canon

The canon used in the evangelical and Protestant churches contains the books of the Palestinian Canon but follows the tradition of the Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament. The Protestant canon groups the books of the Old Testament according to the order (with some variations) of the Septuagint. The Old Testament in our English Bible contains 39 books and is divided into four sections.

Pentateuch – 5 books
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy

The word Pentateuch comes from two Greek words penta and teuchos and means five rolls. The Pentateuch is known as the five books of Moses or the Law. The Pentateuch begins with the history of the creation of mankind, recounts the origin of the patriarchs and the nation of Israel and ends with the exodus from Egypt and the preparation for the entry into the land of Canaan.

Historical Books – 12 books

The twelve historical books are:

(a) Period of Conquest: Joshua, Judges, and Ruth

(b) Period of the Monarchy: 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles

c) Period of Captivity and Return: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther

Most of the Old Testament is history. There are twelve historical books arranged according to a sequence that begins with the conquest of Canaan and ends with Israel’s return from the Babylonian captivity. The order of the historical books follows the order of the Septuagint and the Vulgate, the Latin and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Originally the two books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were considered one book each. The division of these books into two was because of the need to place each of these books in two scrolls.

Poetic Books – 5 books
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs

The third part of the canon contains the poetic and wisdom books of the Old Testament, however, poetry and wisdom are not limited only to these five books but are found in almost all books of the Old Testament.

Prophetic Books – 17 books

(a) Major Prophets – 5 books
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel

(b) Minor Prophets – 12 books
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

The books of the prophets were divided according to the length of each book. The Major Prophets were more extensive and needed a scroll each while the twelve Minor Prophets were called minors because of the size of their books.

The Alexandrian Canon

The Alexandrian Canon is named after Alexandria, the city in Egypt where the Old Testament was translated into Greek. The Alexandrian Canon, the canon used in the Catholic Church, contains the 39 books of the Palestinian Canon plus 7 other additional books and supplements to the books of Esther and Daniel. The extra books found in the Alexandrian Canon are called “Apocrypha,” a word meaning “hidden” or “secret” writings. According to the Catholic Church, these extra books deserve canonical recognition, therefore, the Catholic Church calls these books “Deutero Canonical” or “second canon.”

The apocryphal books were not part of the canon used in synagogues. None of the apocryphal books is quoted by the authors of the New Testament. The books considered apocryphal are: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus or the Book of Ben Sirach, Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah, the additions to the book of Esther and the three additions to the book of Daniel: the song of the three young men, the story of Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.

Next: The Formation of the Canon

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Studies on An Introduction to the Old Testament

1. Introducing the Old Testament

2. An Introduction to the Old Testament

3. The Books of the Old Testament

4. The Land of Palestine

5. The Old Testament: Inspiration and Revelation

6. The Canon of the Old Testament

7. The Formation of the Canon

This entry was posted in Canon, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Canon of the Old Testament

  1. Ivone Braz Rosa says:

    Gostei está em português


    • Ivone,

      Obrigado por visitar meu blog. Toda vez que vejo o seu nome, lembro-me dos bons tempos que tivemos no passado. Sua visita ao meu blog pode incentivar outras pessoas a ler mais sobre o Antigo Testamento. Estou planejando vir ao Brasil no próximo ano. Espero vê-la novamente e passar algum tempo juntos.

      Estou enviando um grande abraço para você.

      Claude Mariottini


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