Believing What Jesus Believed About the Old Testament Canon
Different communities of people who call themselves Christians use different Old Testaments. Here’s what I mean: Everyone agrees about thirty-nine of the texts in the Old Testament, but—if you attended Mass in a Roman Catholic congregation this weekend—the Old Testament readings would come from a canon that includes seven books more than the thirty-nine books in the Old Testament at the Protestant church down the street. A few blocks further down the street at the Jewish synagogue, a reader who probably doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all will be chanting a Hebrew or Aramaic text from the same Old Testament canon that the Protestants are studying in translated form. The Orthodox Church across town will be reading an Old Testament that encompasses a total of ten more texts than Jews and Protestants recognize.
All of these disparities spawn a difficult question: If people who claim to be Christians can’t be sure about which books belong in the Old Testament, how can anyone reasonably believe what the Old Testament has to say?
Some Christians answer this question by appealing to church tradition or to their conviction that the Holy Spirit mystically enables Christians to recognize which books are divinely inspired. Personally, I don’t find either of these answers to be the most helpful responses. What I believe about the Bible is grounded in the words of a man who died and rose again. If he’s still dead or if later Christians fabricated his teachings, I have no reason to believe the Bible at all. But it seems more plausible to me that Jesus walked out of the tomb than that he remained dead, and the teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels seem more likely to have originated with Jesus than with anyone else. Because I believe that Jesus is alive, I trust what Jesus had to say. And so, when I consider which books belong in the Old Testament, my goal is simply to trust the same Old Testament that Jesus trusted.
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus taught from an Old Testament canon that began ‘with Moses and all the Prophets’ (Luke 24:27). As it turns out, the Law of Moses and the Prophets are the first two sections in the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament but not in the Septuagint. The editors of the Septuagint text that included the Apocrypha placed most of the prophetic texts later in the Old Testament. A few verses later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus described the Old Testament as a collection that consisted of ‘the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms’ (Luke 24:44). Once again, these words from the resurrected Jesus describe the three-part Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament—a collection that never included the apocryphal books.
In case it still seems uncertain whether or not Jesus received the Apocrypha as authoritative, consider this: Jesus never cited any apocryphal text as Scripture—and it’s not as if Jesus was unaware of the extra texts in the Septuagint! By the time Jesus began preaching and teaching along the Sea of Galilee, the Septuagint had already been in circulation for more than a century. And yet, even though Jesus cited Old Testament texts dozens of times in his teachings, he never once quoted any apocryphal text.
The first-century followers of Jesus seem to have followed this same pattern. The writers of the New Testament quoted the Greek Septuagint at least two-thirds of the time when they cited Old Testament texts. Yet none of them ever clearly quoted any apocryphal book as Scripture, even though the Septuagint included these additional texts. New Testament authors may have alluded to apocryphal texts from time to time, and they sometimes cited stories from Jewish tradition (see Jude 1:9-10, for example). Yet they never gave any hint that any apocryphal text might belong in the Old Testament canon.
Believing What Eyewitnesses of the Risen Jesus Wrote in the New Testament
But what about the twenty-seven texts in the New Testament? Christians today don’t typically disagree about which books belong in the New Testament—but that’s not because the contents of the New Testament were never contested. For more than a century after the New Testament began to be written, there were differences of opinion about these texts. Unlike the books in the Old Testament, the contents of the New Testament can’t be decisively determined by anything that Jesus declared. That’s because none of the New Testament was written in the days when Jesus walked the hills of Judea and sailed the Sea of Galilee. The earliest texts in the New Testament were composed two decades after Jesus took a flying trip into the eastern sky from which he has yet to return.
So when did Christians agree on the twenty-seven books that appear in the New Testament today? And how was the list finally settled? According to bestselling biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, the New Testament was in flux at least until the late fourth century C.E. According to Ehrman:
We are able to pinpoint the first time that any Christian of record listed the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as the books of the New Testament— neither more nor fewer. Surprising as it may seem, this Christian was writing in the second half of the fourth century, nearly three hundred years after the books of the New Testament had themselves been written. The author was the powerful bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius. In the year 367 C.E., Athanasius wrote his annual pastoral letter to the Egyptian churches under his jurisdiction, and in it he included advice concerning which books should be read as Scripture in the churches. He lists our twenty-seven books, excluding all others. This is the first surviving instance of anyone affirming our set of books as the New Testament. And even Athanasius did not settle the matter.
Much of what Ehrman has to say here is correct. Questions about a few texts did persist well into the fourth century. At the same time, there are some significant aspects of this process that Ehrman’s reconstruction omits.
In the first place, it’s not as if the canon of the New Testament remained in total flux for centuries, with no foundation to determine which books might be authoritative. Even when the books that became the New Testament were being written, a clear standard already existed to determine the type of messages that Christians recognized as authoritative. Words from eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus and their close associates carried a distinct and unique authority (see Acts 1:21-26; 15:6–16:5; 1 Cor. 4–5; 9:1-12; 15:1-8; Gal. 1:1-12; 1 Thess. 5:26-27). Thus the standard for which books belonged in the New Testament was shaped from the very beginning by the resurrection of Jesus. When witnesses of the resurrected Jesus began to send written exhortations to the churches, these written teachings carried no less authority than their spoken instructions (see, for example, 2 Thess. 3:14). By the end of the first century, apostolic writers were already referring to Paul’s writings as ‘scriptures’ (2 Pet. 3:15-16), and Paul himself had cited a line that later appears in Luke’s Gospel as ‘scripture’ (1 Tim. 5:18; compare Luke 10:7).
Whether or not the first generations of Christians were right about the writings they read, their goal at every stage was to recognize and to receive a canon that could be connected somehow to eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus. The pedigrees of some compositions were well-known, and these texts were accepted immediately. Of the twenty-seven books that comprise the New Testament today, at least nineteen texts—the four Gospels and Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, and the first letter from John—seem to have been recognized as testimony from eyewitnesses or their close associates from the moment that these books first began to circulate.
Excerpted from Why Should I Trust the Bible? by Timothy Paul Jones
Edited by Isabella Wu