Jesus’ Affirmation Of The Old Testament Canon Of Scripture

It is written:

“Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” (Luke 24:44)

Long before the time of Christ, the Jewish people had recognized and accepted the 39 Books of the Old Testament as being Divinely inspired and authoritative (i.e., canonical). Lightfoot has noted:

“The canon was substantially fixed long before Jamnia, and discussions there did not admit certain books into the canon but allowed these books to remain. 2 Additional evidence on the Old Testament canon comes from Josephus, a well- known Jewish historian of the first century….We can draw several conclusions from Josephus. 1. The number of books looked upon as having divine authority is carefully limited to twenty- two. By joining Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah, and remembering that the Jews enumerated their books differently, the twenty- two books mentioned by Josephus are the same as the thirty- nine books in our Bible today. 2. The division of the books is according to a three- part pattern. Although individual books are included in different categories, they form a threefold grouping similar to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 3. The time covered in these books is expressly limited. Josephus believed that the canon extended from Moses to Artaxerxes (464- 424 B.C.). This corresponds with the Jewish belief that prophetic inspiration ceased with Malachi, who apparently was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. 4 This was the period of Artaxerxes. Others indeed wrote later, but their writings are not on a par with the earlier writings. In other words, according to Josephus, the canon is closed. 4. The text of these books is sacred. No one has dared to cancel or alter it, since to every Jew these writings are “decrees of God.” (Neil Lightfoot, How We Got The Bible, 154-156 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Geisler and Nix provide further historical confirmation that the Old Testament canon was closed nearly four hundred years before Christ Jesus was born:

“The Jewish teachers acknowledged that their prophetic line ended in the fourth century B.C. Yet, as even Catholics acknowledge, all apocryphal books were written after this time. Josephus wrote: “From Artaxerxes until our time everything has been recorded, but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what preceded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased” (Josephus). Additional rabbinical statements on the cessation of prophecy support this (see Beckwith, 370). Seder Olam Rabbah 30 declares “Until then [the coming of Alexander the Great] the prophets prophesied through the Holy Spirit. From then on, ‘Incline thine ear and hear the words of the wise.’” Baba Bathra 12b declares: “Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise.” Rabbi Samuel bar Inia said, “The Second Temple lacked five things which the First Temple possessed, namely, the fire, the ark, the Urim and Thummin, the oil of anointing and the Holy Spirit [of prophecy].” Thus, the Jewish fathers (rabbis) acknowledged that the time period during which their Apocrypha was written was not a time when God was giving inspired writings.” (Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 33 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

The Jews had come to categorize the Old Testament Scriptures in a three-fold division.

“As the canon grew in size it often was described with the phrase “Moses and the Prophets,” and later it was referred to as “the Law, Prophets, and Writings” (or “the Psalms”). Jesus Himself alluded to this threefold division when He spoke of “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24: 44)….“If you were to look at the table of contents of a Hebrew Old Testament, you would notice two differences from our English Old Testament. First, it has only twenty-two books, not thirty-nine. But it is most important to realize that the content is identical; it is just that the Hebrew Bible combines certain books. (For example, books such as 1 and 2 Samuel are combined into one; other smaller books are attached to larger ones.) A second difference is that the order of the books is rearranged. Interestingly, the last book of the Hebrew Bible is not Malachi but Chronicles. Now let me share an incidental proof that Christ’s Bible was the same in content as the Hebrew Old Testament we have today. The first murder in the Old Testament was, of course, when Cain killed Abel; the last murder, according to the Hebrew order of books, was when the prophet Zechariah was stoned to death in the temple (2 Chronicles 24: 20–21). Only now are we prepared to understand the words of Jesus: Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. (Matthew 23: 34–35) Given the order of the Hebrew Old Testament, Christ gives a sweeping panorama of its entire history. These two murders are “bookends” for the whole of the Hebrew canon. In New Testament terms we would say, “From Genesis to Revelation.” This is further proof that Christ’s Bible was that of the Jewish Hebrew canon (though arranged differently), from our own Old Testament. Interestingly, eighteen out of the twenty-two books of the Hebrew canon are quoted as authoritative Scripture in the New Testament (all except Judges, Chronicles, Esther, and Song of Solomon). But by clear implication these books were also regarded as holy Scripture since Christ frequently referred to the whole Old Testament as a unit. And even when He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5: 17), He obviously had all of the Jewish Scriptures in mind. The Jews agreed that the canon of the Old Testament closed in about 400 B.C. with the prophecy of Malachi. Indeed, the period between the Old Testament and the New is often referred to as “The Four Hundred Silent Years.” God was not speaking directly to His people; no words of His were written down.” (Erwin W. Lutzer, Seven Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible, 2856-2895 (Kindle Edition); Chicago; Moody Publishers)

How ancient is this three-fold division of the Old Testament?

“How old is the threefold division? It is widely believed, and perhaps rightly, that it is referred to for the first time by the grandson of Jeshua Ben Sira when, shortly after emigrating from Palestine to Alexandria in Egypt in 132 BC, he translated his grandfather’s book of wisdom (commonly called Ecclesiasticus or Sirach28) from Hebrew into Greek. Repeatedly in the prologue to his translation he speaks of his grand-father as a student of ‘the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers’, ‘the law itself, the prophecies and the rest of the books’. Here we may indeed have a reference to the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. But it is just possible to understand that Ben Sira is being described as a student of the holy scriptures (the law and the prophets) and of other Jewish writings not included among the scriptures. 29 There is one place in the New Testament which may reflect the threefold division. In Luke’s account of the appearance of the risen Lord to his disciples in Jerusalem, they are reminded how he had told them ‘that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (Luke 24: 44). Here ‘the psalms’ might denote not only the contents of the Psalter30 but also the whole of the third division—the Writings—of which the Psalter was the first book.” (F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 407-412 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; InterVarsity Press)

Thus, Jesus clearly agrees with the ancient Jewish people regarding the acceptance of the thirty-nine Book canon of the Old Testament Scriptures. When you meet people who tell you that the Jews did not know which Books belonged in the Bible, simply point them to Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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