The Literature of the Old Testament (1913) [Chapter 1]

[Articles in the Summed Up series are intended to be summaries of chapters of selected theological books. The author(s) will be quoted verbatim for the purposes of ensuring accurate representation]

The Canon of the Old Testament  


A) About the author of the chapter:

George Foot Moore “graduated from Yale College in 1872 and from Union Theological Seminary in 1877, in 1878 Moore was ordained in the Presbyterian ministry and until 1883 was pastor of the Putnam Presbyterian Church, Zanesville, Ohio.

He was Hitchcock professor of the Hebrew language and literature at Andover Theological Seminary, 1883–1902. In 1902 he became professor of theology and in 1904 professor of the history of religion at Harvard University.” [1]


B) Chapter Summary:

“The early Christians received the Sacred Books of the Jews as inspired Scripture containing a divine revelation and clothed with divine authority, and till well on in the first century of the Christian era the name Scriptures was applied exclusively to these books.”[1]

“In time, as they [i.e. the early Christians] came to attach the same authority to the Epistles and Gospels, and to call them, too, Scriptures (2 Pet. iii. 16), they distinguished the Christian writings as the Scriptures of the new dispensation, or, as they called it, the “new covenant,” from the Scriptures of the “old covenant” (2 Cor. iii. 6, 14), the Bible of the Jews. The Greek word for covenant ( diathéké ) was rendered in the early Latin translation by testamentum , and the two bodies of Scripture themselves were called the Old Testament and the New Testament respectively.”[2]

“The Scriptures of the Jews were written in Hebrew, the older language of the people; but a few chapters in Ezra and Daniel are in Aramaic, which gradually replaced Hebrew as the vernacular of Palestine from the fifth century B.C.”[3]

“The Sacred Books comprise the Law, that is, the Five Books of Moses; the Prophets, under which name are included the older historical books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) as well as what we call the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve, i.e. Minor Prophets); a third group, of less homogeneous character, had no more distinctive name than the “Scriptures”; it included Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The Minor Prophets counted as one book; and the division of Samuel, Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles each into two books was made later, and perhaps only in Christian copies of the Bible.”[4]

“There was a controversy, however, over Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs; some teachers of the strictest school denied that either of them was inspired, while others accepted only one of them. The question was voted on in a council of rabbis held at Jamnia about the beginning of the second century of our era, and the majority decided for the inspiration of both books. There were also, even down to the third century, Jewish scholars who did not acknowledge Esther as Sacred Scripture. On the other hand, some were inclined to include among the Sacred Books the Proverbs of Ben Sira, which stand in the English Bible among the Apocrypha under the title Ecclesiasticus.”[5]

“By such decisions, recognizing the inspiration of books that had been challenged and excluding others for which inspiration had been claimed, the canon of the Scriptures, that is, the authoritative list of Sacred Books, was defined. The oldest catalogue we have, containing the titles of all the books, dates probably from the latter part of the second century, and is not concerned with the point of canonicity—which it takes for granted—but with the proper order of the Prophets and the Scriptures.”[6]

“In cities like Alexandria, where Greek was the common speech of a population recruited from many races, the Jews soon exchanged their mother tongue for the cosmopolitan language. The ancient Hebrew of their Sacred Books was unintelligible, not only to the masses, but even to most of the educated, who had learned in the schools of Greek rhetoricians and philosophers rather than at the feet of the rabbis. If the knowledge of the holy Law by which the distinctive Jewish life was regulated was not to be lost altogether, the Scriptures must be translated into Greek.”[7]

“The Pentateuch was doubtless translated first—legend attributes the initiative to King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.); then other books, by different hands and at different times and places.”[8]

“Besides the books which were finally included in the Jewish canon, there were various others, written in Hebrew or Aramaic after the pattern of the several forms of Biblical literature. History, for example, is represented by 1 Maccabees, relating the struggle of the Jews in Palestine for religious liberty and national independence in the second century B.C.; the Proverbs of Solomon have a counterpart in the Proverbs of Ben Sira, already mentioned; the Psalter, in the so-called Psalms of Solomon; the story of Judith may be compared with Esther; the visions of Daniel have their parallel in popular apocalypses bearing the names of Enoch, Noah, Ezra, Baruch, and other ancient worthies. These writings were sooner or later translated into Greek, and some of them attained a wide circulation.”[9]

“The Greek-speaking Jews, also, produced a religious literature, in part imitating the familiar Biblical forms, as in the Wisdom of Solomon and 2 Maccabees, in part cast in Greek moulds, as when prophecy disguised itself in Sibylline Oracles, or the supremacy of reason over the emotions was made the subject of a discourse after the pattern of a Stoic diatribe (4 Maccabees).”[10]

“The oldest of these lists [of books which were accepted by the Jews as Sacred Scripture] which has come down to us was made by Melito, Bishop of Sardes, about A.D. 170; it contains the books of the Jewish canon enumerated above (p. 8), with the noteworthy exception of Esther, about which, as we have seen, Jewish opinion was divided.”[11]

“The Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach, was appropriated for the moral instruction of youth and of converts, as is shown by the title it bears in the Greek Bible, Ecclesiasticus, that is, “The Church Book,” and other writings not included in the Jewish canon were highly esteemed in the church.”[12]

“Athanasius, at the end of a list of the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (A.D. 365), adds: “There are, besides these, other books, not, indeed, included in the canon, but prescribed by the Fathers to be read by those who come to the church and wish to be taught the doctrine of religion, namely, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, and the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”[13]

“The question of the inspiration and authority of the supernumerary books of the Old Testament was not decided by any council speaking in the name of the catholic church; nor was it ever thus determined exactly what these supernumerary books were, though several local synods made lists of them.”[14]

“[In his writings] Jerome gives a catalogue of the books of the Hebrew Bible, corresponding to the contents of our English Old Testament, and expressly excludes all others from the class of canonical Scriptures: “Whatever is not included in this list is to be classed as apocrypha. Therefore Wisdom (commonly entitled ‘of Solomon’), and the Book of Jesus son of Sirach, and Judith and Tobit … are not in the canon.””[15]

“The word “apocrypha,” literally “secret, or esoteric, writings,” had been used generally for the books of heretical sects, or suspected of being such, and, more broadly, of writings which the church repudiated as not only uninspired but harmful, the reading of which it often forbade. It was, therefore, a very radical word that Jerome uttered when he applied this name to books which the church had always regarded as godly and edifying.”[16]

“In his treatise on Christian Doctrine (ii. 8; written in A.D. 397) he [i.e. Augustine] includes among the canonical books of the Old Testament, Judith, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon; African provincial synods at Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397) pronounced themselves in the same sense.”[17]

“The Syriac-speaking churches, whose Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew, originally recognized those books only which were found in the Jewish Bible; it appears, indeed, that the earliest Syriac version did not extend to Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, but did include Sirach. Under the influence of the Greek Church, those branches of the Syrian Church which remained in communion with it gradually added to their Bible translations of the other books from the Greek; but the Nestorians, in whose schools Biblical criticism moved more freely than in the Catholic Church, continued to reject them, or to accord them, together with several of the books commonly reckoned canonical (Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Job, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom), only qualified authority.”[18]

“In rejecting the authority of ecclesiastical tradition and the prescriptive usage of the church and making the Scriptures the only rule of faith and practice, the Reformers were under the necessity of deciding what books were inspired Scripture, containing the Word of God revealed to men, clothed with divine authority, demanding unqualified faith, and a means of grace to believers.”[19]

“Naturally, therefore, Luther reverted to the position of Jerome: the books found in the Hebrew Bible, and those only, were the Scriptures of the Old Testament; whatever was more than these was to be reckoned among the apocrypha. In the first complete printed edition of his translation (1534), these books (Judith, Wisdom, Tobit, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, the Greek additions to Esther and Daniel, the Prayer of Manasseh) stand between the Old Testament and the New, with the title (after Jerome) “Apocrypha ; that is, books that are not equally esteemed with the Holy Scripture, but nevertheless are profitable and good to read.” The other Protestant versions, on the Continent and in England, followed this example.”[20]

“In opposition to the Protestant limitation of the canon of the Old Testament to the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Roman Church defined its attitude more sharply. In the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (1546) it framed a “Decree concerning the Canonical Scripture,” in which the books set apart by the Protestants as Apocrypha are included with the rest.”[21]

“This decree not only affirms that all the books in question are Holy and Canonical Scripture, but seems to put them all in one class, and deliberately to exclude the ancient distinction between the books of the Jewish Bible and the Ecclesiastical Books. Many of the Fathers had, however, made such a distinction, and Catholic scholars, even after Trent, thought it permissible to class the Ecclesiastical Books (which Protestants call the Apocrypha) as “deuterocanonic,” meaning not thereby to imply that they are inferior in authority or infallibility or dignity—for both classes owe their excellence to the same Holy Spirit—but that they had attained recognition in the church at a later time than the others.”[22]


[1] p.7

[2] Ibid.

[3] p.8

[4] Ibid.

[5] pp.9-10

[6] p.11

[7] pp.11-12

[8] p.12

[9] Ibid.

[10] pp.12-13

[11] p.15

[12] Ibid.

[13] pp 16-17

[14] p.17

[15] pp.17-18

[16] p.18

[17] pp.19-20

[18] p.20

[19] p.21

[20] pp.21-22

[21] p.23

[22] p.24

C) Chapter Review:

  • Readability: 8/10
  • Theological depth: 9/10
  • Any other comments: This chapter provides a great overview of the development of the Old Testament canon. Tracing through its history may be a bore for some but content wise, it’s solid.

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