AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | The term "Canon". | The Purpose of a Canon of Scripture. | The Hebrew Canon. | The Greek Canon.


The Greek word κανών means, in its original sense, "a straight rod"; it is derived from κάννα "a reed", for which the Hebrew word is קָנֶח (Kaneh); in Ezek. Xl.3, 5, e.g., we have קְנֵח חַמּרּח, a measuring rod". The Greek word was borrowed from the Hebrew. In its earliest known Greek use (175 BC) it is applied to "a level" in reference to the building of a temple. [See Moulton, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, s.v. κανών - kanon.]

Its metaphorical use in Greek is equivalent to the Latin norma, the "rule" or "standard" of what is right and best; cp. "And as many as shall walk by this rule (τῷκανόνι), peace be upon them." (c.p., also ii Cor.x.13ff.). The title κανόνες was given to the old Greek authors as those who created the best models in literature. [Cp. i Clem.vii.2: "-and let us come to the glorious and venerable rule (κανόνα) of our tradition."]

Its use in reference to the books of the Bible - the Old Testament in the first instance - is Christian. Derivatives from the word, by the Greek Fathers, occurred before the term itself came into use. As a technical term in reference to the Scriptures it is used for the first time, so far as is known, by Amphilochius, archbishop of Iconium (circa AD 380).

By the expression "the Canon of the Old Testament", then, is meant the existence of a certain number of books that were held to conform to a standard. What constituted that norm will become clear as we proceed.


It is clear that the idea of a Canon necessarily presupposes the existence of a number of books, some of which, for one reason or another, are regarded with special veneration, and which must therefore be authoritative in a pre-eminent sense. Otherwise we should have to assume that what we now call "canonical" books were regarded as "canonical" when they first appeared, and there is nothing to suggest that this ever was the case with any Old Testament writing. Now this idea of a " Canon," i.e. of some books being more holy than others, could not have arisen all at once. It was only gradually, and by general consensus that certain books came to have a special sanctity attached to them. The earliest actual designation of the books of the Old Testament as the "holy books," or the "holy writings," is found in Josephus, about AD100. But the formulation of the Canon must have been going on for long before, because the way in which he writes shows that in his time already the Canon as we know it was accepted; and it was regarded as finally fixed, for nothing farther could be added to it. Josephus' words are so important in the present connexion that it is necessary to quote them in full:

We have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another; but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times, and which are rightly believed in. [The word θεια (believed to be) "divine," is omitted in Niese's text, as it does not occur in the Greek or Latin texts of Josephus; it is added by Eusebius (Hist. Eccles., iii.10).] And of these, five belong to Moses, which contain the laws and the tradition of the origin of mankind till his death for a period of nearly three thousand years. From the death of Moses until the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets who came after Moses wrote down the things that were done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining books contain hymns to, God and precepts for the conduct of human life. But from Artaxerxes to our times all things have indeed been written down, but are not esteemed worthy of a like authority because the exact succession of the prophets was wanting. And how firmly we have given credit to these books of ours is evident by what we do. For during so many ages that have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them. But it is become natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain divine doctrines, and to stand by them, and willingly to die for them. [Contra Ap. I.38-42]

This passage shows that, according to Josephus, the essential marks attaching to the idea of "canonical Scriptures" were:

  1. They are θεοῦ δόγματα, of unquestioned authority, and must be believed in ex animo; for since they all originate within the prophetical period, they are divinely inspired;
  2. They are to be distinguished from every other form of literature in that they are holy;
  3. Their number is strictly limited;
  4. Their verbal form is inviolable. [See Holscher, Kanonisch und Apokryph, p.4. (1905)]

Further, it must also be noted that, according to Josephus' belief, as expressed in this passage, the canonicity of a book depended upon whether it had been written within a clearly defined period. And that period was from Moses to the death of Artaxerxes, i.e. within what was held to be the prophetical period. The artificiality of this test is shown by the fact that, as. Ryle has pointed out, "the mention of this particular limit seems to be made expressly with reference to the book of Esther, in which alone the Artaxerxes of Josephus (the Ahasuerus of the Hebrew book of Esther) figures." [The Canon of the Old Testament, p.174 (1895); see also Ederharter, Der Kanon des alten Testaments zur Zeit des Ben Sira, p.57 ff. (1911)]

This is all entirely in accordance with the teaching of official Judaism as ultimately stereotyped in the Talmud: Revelation began with the Patriarchs. All the prophets up to and including Malachi were endowed with the Holy Spirit, so that the words they wrote must be regarded as having been inspired. Therefore the Scriptures were "holy writings", the origin and norm of all divine teaching. And no teaching can be recognized as true unless it can be shown to be founded on the holy writings. [Weber, Judische Theologie. pp.80-91 (1897)]

The Rabbis, like Josephus, maintained that no book could be regarded as canonical unless it had been written within the prophetical period, which they reckoned as from Moses to Ezra. [The term occurs frequently in reference to the Scriptures in the Mishnah, tractate Yadaim.]

The Rabbis indicated the holiness of the canonical writings by saying that it "defiled the hands". The phrase denotes an antique conception. The Deity, according to old-world ideas infects what is "holy". But to come into contact with the Deity, even mediately, is dangerous, because everything holy is originally taboo. Anyone who touches a holy thing must undergo ritual washing. [, and elsewhere.]

Therefore a holy book imparts contagion to him who touches it. This is what lies behind the phrase "defiling the hands" as equivalent to what we understand by canonicity.


The Hebrew Bible, as we now have it, is divided into three parts; the divisions, which are due to the Rabbis, are artificial, and judged by their respective contents, illogical, as will be seen; they are as follows:

(a) Torah - The Law:

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (each 1 book)

(b)  Nebi'im - The Prophets; divided into:

(i) Nebi'im Rishonim  - the former prophets:

Joshua, Judges, i, ii Samuel, i, ii Kings, (each 1 book)

(ii) Nebi'im 'Acharonim - the latter prophets:   

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (each 1 book)

(iii) The Twelve Minor Prophets:   

Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. (each 1 book)

(c) Kethubim   - The Writings:   

Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, i, ii Chronicles; (each 1 book)

24 books in all.

At first sight this does not seem to agree with the twenty-two of Josephus, 5 + 13 + 4; but there can be little doubt that Josephus' Ruth belonged to Judges, and Lamentations to Jeremiah.

Of these, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther are known as the five Megalloth ("rolls"). They were so called when they were received into the Liturgy, in post-Talmudic times. [See Blau, Studien zum althebraischen Buchwesen und zur biblischen Litteraturgeschischte, pp.66 ff. [1902)]

The number twenty-four is clearly an artificial one, as can be seen, e.g., by the fact that the books of the Twelve Minor Prophets, belonging to very different times, are treated as one book; on the other hand, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles, which form one book, are reckoned as two. It is possible that the Rabbinical number twenty-four was chosen because it = 12 + 12; the number twelve "derived its sacred character from the fact that it is the product of three and four, and is the number of the months of the year. There are twelve tribes of Israel and the same number of tribes of Ishmael (Gen.xvii.20, xxv.16). The number of many representative men and things was made twelve to accord with the number of the tribes (Exod.xxiv.4; Num.xvii.2, 6; Josh.iv.etc)..." [Jewish Encycl., ix.349, a.]

That the way in which the books are divided is illogical is also clear, since the first division, the Law, consists more of narrative than of legal matter; similarly, the Prophets, which is very largely history.

The question now arises as to whether these three collections of holy writings represent three successive stages of canonization. It is usually held that at one time the Hebrew Canon consisted of the Law, i.e. the Pentateuch, only; that later the Canon was enlarged by the admission into it of the "Prophets"; and that, finally, the canonicity of the remaining books was recognized. And thus the threefold Canon came into being.

This view Holscher [Op. Cit., pp.7-77], in his discerning and discriminating examination of the whole subject, has shown to be based on insufficient and unreliable evidence, and therefore erroneous.

There were not three successive stages at which these three collections of books were in turn recognized as canonical in the technical sense. Such stages cannot be indicated. The idea is due to post-Christian rabbinical suppositions. What happened was that the Torah, as it grew from the end of the seventh century BC, was specially venerated; but it was constantly added to until it reached its final shape about the end of the fourth century BC. Its authoritative character increased, but no idea of canonicity attached to it. As to the Prophets, some of these writings existed before the Torah became a Lawbook, and they were added to from time to time up to the middle of the second century BC; but nowhere is there any evidence that they became "canonical". So that, for example, what Ben-Sira says in Ecclus.xliv.1 does not indicate anything regarding the Canon as such, i.e. one cannot say that this is evidence that the prophetical canon was closed by that time. [So e.g., Buhl, Kanon und Text des Alten Testaments, p.12 (1891), and Ryle, op. Cit., p.113.]

It only shows what books had by his day (circa 182 BC) come to be regarded with special veneration - an important step in the process which ultimately led to the formation of the Canon. But the idea of a Canon had not yet arisen. And this is clearly seen by the fact that Ben-Sira can speak of himself as the latest of the Biblical writers, and therefore regards his book as the most recent addition to the Scriptures:

And I, last of all, awoke (or 'came', as the Syriac reads), as one that gleaneth after the grape-gatherers. By the blessing of the Lord I made progress, and as a grape-gatherer, filled my winepress. (Ecclus.xxi.16).

Again, that Ben-Sira did not regard the books of the Old Testament as what is understood as canonical, in the sense of being separated off from other books to which no addition may be made, is seen from xxiv.33 of his book, where he writes:

I will yet pour out doctrine as prophecy, and leave it unto eternal generations. (see also verses 30-32, 34).

Nor would he have taken upon himself, as Holscher [Op. Cit., p.20) points out, to assume the tone and style of the ancient prophets, as he often does (see, e.g., xlvii.20, 1.29), if the "unbridgeable cleft of canonicity had gaped between him and the prophets.

Similarly with the Writings; they, too, existed in part before the Torah became a Law-book, and went on increasing into Christian times; but there is no evidence to show that they, as a separate collection, obtained an individual canonicity.

The underlying and real cause that in course of time forced the idea of forming a Canon to arise was Greek culture and the growth of Greek literature. The more immediate cause - which was, however, to a large extent an outcome of this - was the spread of apocalyptic books written by and circulating among the Jews. To give the reasons for this would take up far too much space here. Holscher cogently presents them. But it became necessary in view of what was regarded by the Jewish religious leaders as erroneous and pernicious literature, to gather out from the mass of current books those that they held to contain the truth. Thus the idea of a Canon came into being, and this was towards the end of the second century BC. But the actual fixing of the Canon did not come until long after this, and it was not piecemeal. There is good reason to believe that the Hebrew Canon as we now know it was an accomplished fact by about AD 100.

In what has been said the important thing to bear in mind is the distinction between books that are good and authoritative, and the same books when they have been pronounced canonical, i.e. as possessing the marks, mentioned above, attaching to canonicity. The nature of books undergoes by this process, as it were, metamorphosis. But this pronouncement did not take place in three successive stages in respect of what we now call the three divisions of the Canon. On the other hand, it did not, as it were, take place in one act. The discussions as to whether certain of the books "defiled the hands" or not, many remains which are preserved in the Talmud, show that it must have taken a long time before the final fixing of the Canon was a fait accompli in about AD 100.


By the "Greek Canon" is meant the books of the Old Testament included in the Septuagint Version of the Hebrew Scriptures. The term is used for convenience' sake. In itself it is inaccurate because the books of the Greek Old Testament not represented in the Hebrew Scriptures did not come within the purview of the Jewish religious authorities in their discussions about books which "defiled the hands" or not. So that inasmuch as these books were never even considered from the point of view of canonicity it is not, at any rate from the Jewish point of view, accurate to speak of a Greek Canon. On the other hand, from the Christian standpoint the term, is justified, for the early Church regarded all the books of the Greek Bible, whether represented in the Hebrew Scriptures or not, as equally authoritative, and therefore canonical.

When exactly the repudiation by the Jewish Church of the Greek, or "Alexandrian" Canon first began to take shape is uncertain. It would seem in any case to have come gradually. For "about the middle of the first century AD, when the Greek-speaking Christian community began to break entirely with Judaism, the narrow Pharisaic doctrine of the Canon had certainly not as yet penetrated into the domain of Hellenistic Judaism so deeply as to delete completely, or to exclude from the MSS. of the Septuagint, all the books that Pharisaism refused to recognize." [Budde, in the Encycl. Bybl., i.673.]

By the time of Josephus, however (end of first century AD.), the Greek Bible, which he used, consisted substantially of the books of the Hebrew Canon, as we know it. And according to ii (iv) Esdras xiv.44, 45 (of approximately the same date) the Canon consisted of twenty-four books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The number of the books in the Greek Old Testament not included in the Hebrew Canon varies in the MSS and in the lists that have come down to us. (For these see Swete, Intr to the OT in Greek, pp.201 ff. (1900).) But the most complete lists contain the following: i Esdras, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, Baruch and the Ep. of Jeremiah, i-iv Maccabees. In addition, the Psalms of Solomon is sometimes included, either among the Solomonic books or at the end of the Canon; And the Greek version of the Book of Enoch, "although by some accident it has been excluded from the Greek Bible," (Swete, op. Cit., p.265.) was undoubtedly regarded as canonical in the early Church, (As is well known, it is quoted in Jude 14, 15 (= Enoch i.9)) and must therefore have been included in copies of the Greek Old Testament. (In the case of what most of the Last in MSS call iv Esdras (= Chs.iii-xiv of ii Esdras in the English Apocrypha), the Greek is not extant, excepting for a few fragments; it was originally written in Hebrew.)

Apart from the last two, these books are comprised in what we now know as the Apocrypha; a final word in regard to this expression is called for. The Greek word apokryphos was originally used in a good sense in reference to books that were "hidden" from the outside world because they were too excellent for ordinary mortals.

In its technical sense the term "is derived from the practice, common among sects, of embodying [tcp.ii [iv] Esdras xiv, 44-47] [James, in Encycl. Bibl., i.249.] their special tenets or formula in books withheld from public use, and communicated to an inner circle of believers."

"Apocryphal" was thus applied originally to books that contained hidden wisdom, and must therefore be kept hidden from the world in general. (The equivalent term in Hebrew, ganaz, refers to books the contents of which were regarded as heretical, not to books of the Apocrypha, the reading of which was permitted.)

But Origen used the term in reference to what we know as the pseudepigraphic books. Then, in the fourth century, in the Greek Church a distinction was made between " Canonical " books and those that were read "for edification". But these latter referred to the books of what we now call the Apocrypha. The term "apocryphal" was still used only in reference to pseudepigraphic books. Jerome (died AD 420) in the Latin Church followed the example of the Greek Church in so far that he made a distinction between the "libri canonici" and the "libri ecclesiastici". The latter referred to those of our Apocrypha, so that these were now apocryphal books. Jerome was the first to use this term apocryphal in this new sense. It did not become general for some time; St., Augustine, for example, used "apocrypha" in the old sense, in the De Civitate Dei, xv.23; but by degrees Jerome's usage of the term became generally accepted, and it has continued so to the present day.