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How Was the Bible Canonized? – Part 1

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How Was the Bible Canonized? – Part 1

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Where did the Bible come from? What is the background of its origin? Who authored it? Many wonder: Do we have the entire Bible? Some feel we cannot know.

Can the Bible’s books be proven? Is God’s Word complete without the Apocrypha or other writings? Does evidence exist that these belong in God’s Word?

Many feel the Catholics assembled the Bible. Is this true? What role did the Jews play in compiling it?

You need to know if God wrote the Bible—or men did. For instance, it contains many commands that either do or do not have authority behind them. Also, one-third of it contains prophecies that will affect you—soon!

Many facts about the assembly and preservation of the Bible—called canonization—show God’s guiding hand in the entire process. This subject, different and more technical than other Personals, will prove fascinating. Prepare yourself for plain answers to big questions, explaining the amazing story of how God preserved His Word!

Design and Layout of the Old Testament

The design and development of the Bible is a truly incredible story. God’s Word as we know it today has been passed down through many centuries. Only a thumbnail of what could be said, this article series explores the canonization—the binding and confirming—of the books God intended be preserved for all time as His Word.

Let’s consider. Are you able to preserve important financial papers you need to keep? Can families preserve treasured photographs? Are companies able to keep records vital to their existence? Can the National Archives protect priceless documents and artifacts from America’s history? Can courts preserve the record of proceedings? Is the Internet able to preserve virtually everything? The answer in every case is, “Of course!”

If God can create the universe—and all life within it—surely He can preserve His Word. Yet most seem to think God is less capable than human beings of preserving what is vital to Him!

The word “Bible” conjures mystery in most people’s minds. From the Greek biblos, it simply means “a sheet or scroll of writing” and “a book” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible).

The languages in which the Bible was originally written are primarily Hebrew for the Old Testament (with a few exceptions in certain books) and Greek in the New. If a person cannot read Hebrew or Greek, he must rely on a translated version. Of course, no translation is 100 percent accurate. There will be errors, based on the meaning of certain words, phrases, idioms and each translators’ preconceived ideas. But the words in original Greek and Hebrew are perfectly recorded. The Bible’s Author declares, “Every word of God is pure” (Prov. 30:5) and that “the words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace…purified seven times” (Psa. 12:6). But how do we know this is still true today?

God gave the Jewish people a special commission. Speaking of Moses, the book of Acts states, “This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spoke to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us” (7:38).

Next, notice who exactly was commissioned to preserve the “lively oracles”: “What advantage then has the Jew? Or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God…what if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yes, let God be true, but every man a liar…” (Rom. 3:1-4).

God commissioned the Jews—their unbelief or not—to preserve His Word.

What are the oracles of God? These consist of the Scriptures and what is called God’s sacred calendar, which includes the seven-day weekly cycle. Some mistakenly reject this calendar—sometimes called the Hebrew calendar—because they insist on looking solely to the Bible for guidance—not anything the Jews did. Yet it was God—not men—who entrusted the Jews to preserve the calendar and the Scriptures!—the lively oracles! So to find the source of the true Scriptures, we must look to the Jews, whose leaders were charged with preserving and protecting the Law, Prophets and Psalms—known as the Old Testament.

Can we be absolutely certain God preserved His Word for us today—nearly 2,000 years after the final canonization of the New Testament? Jesus answers: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Another statement by Jesus expands this: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (5:17-18).

The phrase “the law or the prophets” is a term for the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus did not come to destroy God’s Word, or nullify His Law, but to fulfill them—here speaking of prophecies of His Coming and sacrifice for the world.

The following verse shows Jesus knew the Jews had the proper Scriptures, which foretold a specific fulfillment. The setting is the moment He is seized before crucifixion: “How then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?…But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled…” (26:54, 56).

First-century Christians knew where to find God’s Word. Let’s read: “The brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming there went into the synagogue of the Jews. These [the Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:10-11).

The evangelist Timothy, who was the son of a Jewish woman, had known the Scriptures from childhood. Notice: “From a child you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:15-16).

Every synagogue possessed copies—exact replicas—of the texts in the Temple. The term “holy scriptures” meant “sacred scriptures.” “Sacred” refers to the Holy Place of the Temple. “Holy scriptures” is translated “Temple Scriptures” in The Englishman’s Bible.

What about the New Testament? It was the Greeks who preserved the manuscripts from the apostolic era. More on this in part two of this series.

Think. Doubters are essentially accusing God of being incapable of preserving His Word. What about you? Do you accept the Scriptures as authentic—as preserved by the Jews? Did the Jews succeed, or was God’s plan thwarted?

Dead Sea Scrolls Offer Proof

Three areas must be understood. Evidence in this series will come in this format: (1) Design and layout of the Old Testament (including canonization). (2) Design and layout of the New Testament (including canonization). (3) A brief study of the Apocrypha and other documents not canonized.

The Jews—just one of the 12 tribes of Israel—were entrusted to preserve the entire Old Testament text from generation to generation by meticulously copying it. They took this responsibility so seriously that, as copies were made, they counted every word and letter to make sure nothing was added or omitted. This is known as the “Masoretic Text.”

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 proves the accuracy of today’s Old Testament. The arid climate around the Dead Sea was perfect for preserving the scroll material, which includes complete books and portions of books written 2,000 years ago. One well-preserved scroll of Isaiah was written in “square letter” Hebrew, which dates it to the second century BC. This single document—by itself—ended all speculation that Isaiah was written after the time of Jesus—thus proving correct the prophecies of Jesus.

Most of the scrolls were written between the third and the first century BC, and most likely hidden just before the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls permits us to travel back 1,000 years earlier than the oldest previously known manuscripts. They provide proof the Old Testament, as we have it, is accurate and reliable.

I cautioned that some of this Personal would be technical. What follows is more technical—but also involves some interesting math!

Arrangement of the Books

The King James Version and virtually all other more modern translations list 39 books in the Old Testament. These do represent the entirety of the Old Testament. But the one problem with them is the order in which they are found.

Since these books constitute the official Hebrew canonized scriptures, Scripture is where we should look to establish the correct order. Notice what Jesus told His disciples after His Resurrection about verses that foretold His life and mission: “These are the words which I spoke unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning Me. Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).

Jesus identified the Hebrew Scriptures as (1) the Law of Moses, (2) the Prophets, and (3) the Psalms. These are the three major divisions of the Old Testament. These are emphasized in contrast to such counterfeit documents as the Septuagint (covered later), written in Greek. However, accurate and valid copies of the Hebrew Old Testament translated into Greek did exist in the first century.

Keep in mind the correct arrangement of the Old Testament is different from the King James Version and other modern translations. This is because the Roman Catholic Church based its Latin Vulgate on the Egyptian Septuagint Version, written in Greek. These largely Samaritan religionists had no commission to preserve the Scriptures. They did not fear the God of Israel, and proceeded to group the Scriptures as they saw fit, arranging the Old Testament order according to subject, and ignoring the inspired order of the Law, Prophets and Psalms. But it was only the order that the Catholics changed, not the content and not the selection of books. The Catholics did not canonize the Bible! All claims that they did are false!

Most Bible arrangements reflect the rearrangement of these non-Jewish counterfeits. The order of the 39 books is radically changed. But we shall learn their original placement and come to appreciate why that order was important.

Flavius Josephus, a historian during Jesus’ time, wrote regarding the number of books in the Hebrew Scriptures: “For we [the Jews] have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine” (Against Apion, Book I, Section VIII). (You will see momentarily how they can be counted as 39.)

Many scholars associated with the Catholic movement also publicly acknowledged there were 22 books in the Hebrew Scriptures: Origen (AD 210), Athanasius (365), Cyril of Jerusalem (386), and Jerome (410).

Here then is the correct order of the Bible: The Law of Moses (five books): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This order is unchanged. Changes appear in the Prophets and the Psalms, often called the Writings.

Now the original order of the Prophets. Note how books are divided and sub-divided:

The Former Prophets (two books): Joshua and Judges (combined into one); I-II Samuel and I-II Kings (all four combined into one).

The Latter Prophets (four books): Three major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (one book each) and “The Twelve” (consisting of 12 prophetic books again combined into one): Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

Last come the Psalms, or Writings. These are divided into three parts: The Former Poetic Books (three books): Psalms, Proverbs and Job. The Megillot or Festival Books (five books): Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. The Latter Restoration Books (three books): Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah (combined into one), I-II Chronicles (combined into one).

The original order is completely chronological. This will be better appreciated later when we study canonization and other points of history.

Significance of the Numbers

Now let’s understand the significance of the number 22.

Sextus Senensis, a Jewish scholar, AD 1520, is credited with this: “There are 22 [Hebrew] letters, in which all that can be said and written are comprehended, so there are 22 books in which are contained all there can be known and uttered of divine things” (General Introduction to the Old Testament).

With the significance of the 22 books (or scrolls) of the Hebrew Scriptures and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, comes a type of alphabetical poem called an acrostic, which most likely paralleled the 22 books. An acrostic exists when 22 verses each begin with a word spelled with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter (beginning with the first) continues in order all through the alphabet in sequence. In other words, the first letter of the alphabet corresponds with the first letter of the first verse. Then the second letter of the alphabet corresponds with the first letter of the second verse, and so on. The parts of an acrostic can be single verses, sets of verses, or possibly chapters or even books.

An example of a complete acrostic is Psalm 119. Here, eight verses are grouped together into 22 sets of verses. The first letter of all eight of each set is the same letter of the alphabet. Thus the first eight verses begin with the first letter, the next eight all begin with the second letter of the alphabet, and so on. Not only is this poetic chapter a perfect and complete acrostic, the syllables of each verse had to perfectly match each other, because it was set to music.

Psalm 119 covers the subject of the Law of God being perfect and complete. Thus, a perfect and complete acrostic is used. Every single verse of this Psalm in the original Hebrew mentions God’s Law, using terms such as law, precepts, judgments, statutes, commandments, etc. The eight verses per stanza or meter times the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet equals 176 verses in Psalm 119.

Psalms 111 and 112 together also form a complete acrostic showing God will completely redeem His people. Each Psalm contains 10 verses, with the 10th verse of each containing two sections.

The way Bibles are divided into chapters and verses does not always properly coincide with the method or intent with which these were written. For instance, Proverbs 31:10-31 contains 22 verses forming another complete, perfect acrostic. These verses describe a complete and perfect woman. Another complete acrostic is in the book of Lamentations. This one emphasizes the complete destruction coming on all the tribes of modern Israel.

During Jesus’ time, the Hebrew Scriptures consisted of 22 books. (We saw Josephus and others documented this.) As an aside, when one adds these 22 to the 27 of the New Testament, a total of 49 books results. To the Jews, the number 49 (seven times seven) represents absolute completion. Also, another way to count is, if each Old Testament prophet is counted individually—and the Psalms are counted as five books—because of their natural division—the Old Testament total is 43 books. Adding this to the New Testament total of 27 makes 70, which is 10 times God’s number of completion or perfection.

By the second century, many Jews came to resent what they thought of as “their” Scriptures being combined with the New Testament to equal 49 books. So they adjusted the order of the Old Testament to increase the number to 24. They divided Joshua-Judges into two books and Samuel-Kings into two to get 24. While this change gave a different number, the books within divisions were never moved to other divisions.

Before and during this time, the Jews held disgust for the Egyptian Septuagint Version, which totally reshuffled the Prophets and Writings. Again, this is where the Catholics inherited their erroneous Old Testament order and passed it on through the King James Version and most other versions available today.

Many Hebrew Bibles bear the label TANAK on the cover. This name derives from the three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures:

T—TORAH is the name given to the division on the Law of God—first 5 books.

N—NEBEE-EEM is the name for the Prophets.

K—KETHUVEEM is the Writings.

The initial letters of the three titles (TNK) form TANAK. Named for these three major divisions, this shows the Jews’ acceptance of the true divisions, and not certain corrupted versions like the Septuagint.

History of Old Testament Canonization

Now for the history of the Old Testament canonization. Moses recorded and compiled all five books of the Law (called the Pentateuch) during Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. God obviously guided him to use pre-Flood documents and other sources to compile Genesis.

Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus were written during the first years in the wilderness. Numbers was written as the continuous record of the journey. Of course, at the outset, Moses never anticipated the journey would last 40 years. Deuteronomy was written during the very last months of the journey.

Just before his death, Moses presented to the priesthood of Israel the five books he had compiled and written. (Deuteronomy 31:9 tells us this.) These were stored in the sides of the Ark of the Covenant. Under authority of the high priest, scribes made copies of these scrolls.

Next, the book of Joshua/Judges was classified with the prophets primarily because it was written by Samuel, who was a prophet. But it was mostly historic, and laid the groundwork for Samuel/Kings and the Latter Prophets. It was Samuel who established the order of the prophets with help from what were called the “company of the prophets” (I Sam. 10:5, 10; 19:20). These men were throughout Israel.

Certain historical facts from Joshua were likely compiled from sources generated by Joshua and some of God’s servants who came after him. Much of the detailed history of the early kings of Israel and Judah was probably recorded by the prophet Elijah, but later compiled and written by Isaiah for what became the books of Kings. After all, who would be more qualified to write about Elijah than Elijah? But all of this would have been done under God’s careful guidance.

Elijah carried on with the schools of the prophets in Israel—there were three—that Samuel had inaugurated over 200 years earlier (II Kgs. 2:3, 5; 4:38). One purpose of these schools was to document historical events and transcribe early records to be compiled later into canonized manuscripts. Elisha and others with him contributed to the historic records after Elijah’s time.

Obviously, the books of the major and minor prophets were written by the men to whom the books are attributed. These prophets wrote and sealed their own works, to be added to the Scriptures during subsequent times of canonization.

King David wrote and canonized much of the Psalms. He established the 24 (two-week) courses for the priests, and for the Levites and singers. He wrote two of the five books of Psalms. These two consisted of the first 72 chapters of Psalms, the official Psalms used for the Temple service by the singers.

Another contributor to the Psalms was Moses (author of Psalm 90 and a number of others in book four). More of David’s Psalms appear in book five along with some of the Psalms of degrees written by Hezekiah.

David’s son Solomon compiled and wrote the Proverbs. The one called Agur in chapter 30 and Lemuel in 31 both refer to Solomon.

The writing of Solomon late in his life reflected lessons from much bitter experience. This wise old monarch was offering sage advice from having grievously sinned against God. He advised submission to God (Ecc. 12:13)—hardly the conduct of someone hostile and unrepentant as some assert.

Though Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon were recorded by Solomon, they, with other writings, were not canonized until the time of Ezra.

The Roles of Hezekiah, Isaiah and Jeremiah

During the time of King Hezekiah of Judah, and Isaiah (in his younger years), there was threat of attack and captivity by Assyria. It is probable that Hezekiah and Isaiah canonized certain books for the surviving remnants of Israel and Judah, who could then look for proper guidance if religious services were suspended by an Assyrian invasion and captivity.

At this time, Israel had just been taken into captivity. Later, some Jews were also captured by the Assyrians (II Kgs. 18:13). These were taken to Eastern Europe where many of their descendants still live to this day.

Each of the 15 of what are called Psalms of degrees (120-134) coincides with one of the 15 steps leading to the Temple. A Jewish tradition holds that the singers would advance one step daily with each of the Psalms of degrees at a designated time of the year in their worship. Of these Psalms, five were attributed to David, one to Solomon, and scholars attribute the other nine to Hezekiah, who also canonized much of the Psalms. Isaiah 38:9-21 is a long psalm by him. This very gifted king would have been well qualified to compose certain Psalms.

Hezekiah established a “tri-grammaton” symbol, which indicated that a book of the Scriptures was officially bound or confirmed—or canonized. This symbol sealed canonized books after his time.

Some more history. Later, during King Josiah’s time, as with Hezekiah 85 years before, Judah was again under threat of invasion and captivity. Josiah was assisted and advised by certain servants of God, including Jeremiah. This paralleled how Hezekiah worked with Isaiah. Also, Hezekiah and Josiah had both been preceded by very wicked fathers. Both men, when each ascended the throne, re-established the true worship of God in Judah and reopened and restored the Temple that had been closed and defiled by their fathers.

During Josiah’s time, the threat came from Babylon. Much beloved of God for his righteous zeal (II Kgs. 23:25), Josiah sought God and peace was promised to Judah as long as he lived (II Chron. 34:27-28).

During this time, more Scripture was canonized mostly by Jeremiah. This probably involved most of the minor prophets.

Jeremiah wrote Lamentations to mourn Josiah’s death in a battle. Even though the book is written in the shadow of imminent invasion by Babylon, it is also prophetic of what the modern descendants of Israel will suffer again. The book of Jeremiah was not completed until well after the fall of Jerusalem.

During Judah’s captivity in Babylon, the prophet Daniel’s position of authority allowed him to preserve several copies of the Scriptures. The various references that Daniel made to Scripture would have been authentic. (Read Daniel 9:2, 11.)

There is much more to know about the all-important development of the Word of God, including how and by whom the New Testament was assembled. But the storyline next turns to the crucial role of Ezra in God’s canonization process.

Do not miss part two!

In the meantime, be sure to read our booklets How We Got the Bible – Which Translations Are Best? and Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven?

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