Which books belong in the Old Testament? What about the Apocrypha? In this fourth installment you will learn how and by what authority the canon of the Old Testament was determined.
THE LAST installment revealed how Ezra and Nehemiah reestablished God's Government in the Old Testament church. The central authority in Palestine to carry out that government has often been called by the Greek name "The Great Synagogue." The word "synagogue" in Greek means ASSEMBLY. This is the name most modern writers use when referring to that authoritative body of priests established by Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 10). But whether the name Great Synagogue or Great Assembly is used, it always represents the same institution. We shall see in this installment how this Great Assembly, with the Spirit of God guiding them, put together the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Our Old Testament comes to us because of the work of this Great Assembly!
What the Great Assembly Did
The firm reestablishment of the religious and political government in Palestine was accomplished by Ezra and Nehemiah. They convened the Jewish elders for the purpose of signing and officially sealing a covenant to keep God's commandments. It brought about the inauguration of a constitutional government in Palestine. THE CONSTITUTION WAS THE LAW OF MOSES! Both Ezra and Nehemiah were at this covenant — signing, with the leaders of the Jews, to acknowledge THE WRITTEN LAW OF MOSES as the law of the land — as their constitution. All the Jewish leaders, except a very small minority, happily covenanted to perform the requirements of the Law. In consequence of this, the people put away their foreign wives, started tithing, established proper Temple services and began to keep God's Sabbath! This is the real beginning of the religion of Moses after the Babylonian captivity. And it was the true religion of Moses, no additions or subtractions!
New Controversy Arises
In the previous installment we found that Eliashib, the High Priest at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, did not countenance the decision of the Great Assembly in regard to the putting away of foreign wives. One of his older grandsons was involved in such an illegal marriage. This grandson, Manasseh, was married to one of the daughters of Sanballat the Horonite — a Gentile. Had Manasseh been married to an ordinary woman of no repute, it probably would not have made a great deal of difference. But he was married to the daughter of Sanballat who was governor of the northern province of Samaria. Sanballat was an influential government official of the Kingdom of Persia. The grandson of the High Priest of the Jews being married to the daughter of the governor of Samaria offered a type of alliance between the two peoples. This presented a delicate political situation. If Manasseh repudiated his wife, in order to keep the Law, this friendly relationship would undoubtedly have ceased. There were a few other Jews along with Eliashib and Manasseh who felt that this marriage should not be terminated even if the Law of Moses and the decision of the Great Assembly commanded it. So, Manasseh openly rebelled against God's Government — the constitutional law — defying Ezra and Nehemiah and the Great Assembly. When Manasseh refused to adhere to the Law, Nehemiah, who was governor of Judea, excommunicated him from the Jewish society and banished him from the country (Neh. 13:23- 31). Manasseh was exceedingly indignant over the excommunication. He especially was angered because he would have become High Priest of the Jews upon his father's death, had he remained faithful to the Law and had not been excommunicated. In lieu of this, he, and some of his Jewish sympathizers, even some of the priests, left Judaea and went northward to Samaria.
Samaritans Enter the Picture
The Samaritans, who nominally adhered to some points of the Law of Moses, only as it suited their fancy, readily accepted these renegade Jews. The Samaritans had no scruples over marrying Gentile wives, for they themselves were Gentiles who had been placed in central Palestine about 250 years before by the Assyrians. With the arrival of Manasseh in Samaria, Sanballat, his father-in-law, sympathized with him because he had been deprived of the opportunity to be High Priest among the Jews. But Sanballat had cunningly devised plans to honor his son-in-law for his rebellion against Nehemiah and the Great Assembly. Since the Samaritans had no temple in which to worship, SANBALLAT PETITIONED THE PERSIAN GOVERNMENT DO GRANT HIM PERMISSION TO BUILD A TEMPLE FOR THE SAMARITAN PEOPLE. Because it was the general policy of the Persians to allow their captive nations to worship their own gods, this permission was granted. It was the design of Sanballat to build this temple and install Manasseh, the son of the Jewish High Priest, as the High Priest of the Samaritans. This plan was carried out. The Samaritan temple was built on Mount Gerizim in Samaria and Manasseh received his schismatic priesthood. This is the beginning of the Samaritan religion.
Manasseh's Further Rebellion
The first act of Manasseh after being installed as the Samaritan High Priest was to repudiate the true Temple of God located on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He did this by maintaining that the Temple should be located on Mount Gerizim and not in Jerusalem. Manasseh's rebellious motive was to strengthen his own position among the Samaritans and perhaps to gain some of the Jews in Judaea to his side. In maintaining that the Temple should be situated on Mount Gerizim, he encountered, however, an embarrassing situation. Throughout the writings of the Old Testament prophets were the clear prophecies that the Temple of God should be located only on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (Isaiah 2 and Micah 4). The prophecies concerning this fact were so conclusive, so decisive, that it was impossible for Manasseh to reconcile his temple being located on Mount Gerizim with the statements of the prophets. Realizing that the writings of the prophets and many of the Psalms specifically taught just the opposite from what he was endeavoring to maintain, he seized upon the only alternative to seemingly justify his temple being on Mount Gerizim. His way out of the dilemma was to formally REJECT THE WRITINGS OF THE PROPHETS. To do this, he had to represent them as the uninspired opinions of men. As a result of this, Manasseh acknowledged that the only books which were really the inspired words of God were the books of Moses — the first five books of the Old Testament. The reason he accepted this portion of the Old Testament was that in this section there was no direct mention of the necessity of having the Temple of God on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. By accepting only the first five books of the Bible and none other, he put his own authority ahead of the Word of God. With Manasseh ruling as the Samaritan High Priest and finally claiming that only the books of Moses were the inspired word of God, the situation called for drastic action by Ezra, Nehemiah and the Great Assembly. Here was a new temple built in Samaria, and Manasseh loudly proclaiming that all the Jews in Judaea were in error. Something had to be done about this situation. Ezra and Nehemiah knew it was possible that there might be an internal disruption of the Jewish society that they were developing in Judaea, unless a determinate and authoritative counter-action could be launched against the falsehoods of Manasseh and his heretical followers, especially since many of his ideas were being subversively planted in the minds of many Jews in Judaea. The people had to know who was right, Manasseh — or Ezra and Nehemiah!
The Great Assembly Settles the Question
Under the divine inspiration of Almighty God, Ezra and Nehemiah with the Great Assembly convened to settle the matter. These two authoritative servants of God, along with the ordained priests of God, were given the responsibility of assembling the inspired books of the prophets and holy men of God. Their task was not to write the books, for they were already written. They had to assemble the already acknowledged inspired books into one book in a final order. Thus, we read: "To erect a wall of partition between the Jews and these apostates (Manasseh and his followers), and to show the people which of the ancient prophetical books were sacred... the men of the Great Synagogue (Assembly) compiled the canon of the prophets" (Cycle. of Bib., Thee. And Ecc. Lit., vol. x, p. 83).
The Canon of the Old Testament
That Ezra, Nehemiah and the Great Assembly, under the divine inspiration of the Spirit of God, compiled the books of the Old Testament is the universal acknowledgment of all early Jews and Christians (ibid., vol. ii, p. 75). All of the Old Testament books, remember, WERE ALREADY WRITTEN. The task of the Great Assembly was merely to put them together into one book in proper order! And this they did! It has been thought by some modern critics that Ezra and the Great Assembly may have sanctioned only the Law of Moses, the first five books. This is decidedly not the case! The very reason the canon of the Old Testament had to be defined at this time was that the renegade Jew, Manasseh, erroneously maintained that the first five books of Moses were the only inspired books. He, out of his own vanity, rejected the inspired books of the Prophets and Psalms. These books were already as much a part of God's Word as the Law of Moses. It was not necessary to OFFICIALLY proclaim the Law of Moses AS BEING INSPIRED FOR IT HAD ALREADY LONG BEEN RECOGNIZED AS GOD'S WORD. (See II Kings 22:8.) It was, of course, God's purpose that all the writings of the Prophets be transmitted to those of future eras in final and unchangeable form. The books of the Prophets, the Psalms and the other books were now officially established, properly placed in the canon and PROCLAIMED as the authoritative Word of God.
Proofs that Canon was Compiled Under Ezra and Nehemiah
We have the testimony of Josephus, the Jewish historian, that the complete Old Testament was finally settled and established in the days of Artaxerxes, king of Persia (Against Apion, I, 8). By this, Josephus meant that the Old Testament canon was completed in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, for these two men of God lived in Artaxerxes' time. Josephus also mentions that there had not been any prophet who had left any writings from the time of Artaxerxes until the New Testament Period (ibid.). Even the writer of Maccabees recognized that up to his time the inspired prophets had ceased with Malachi. "And there was great stress in Israel [in 168 B.C.], such as there had not been SINCE THE TIME WHEN THE PROPHETS CEASED TO APPEAR TO THEM" (I Macc. 9:27). Without men of God in a prophetical office, it was impossible to have inspired writings. It is therefore plain that Josephus, who was one of the leading Pharisees of his day, and other prominent Jews, believed the canon of the Old Testament was completed under Ezra and Nehemiah.
The Three Divisions of the Old Testament
When Ezra and Nehemiah compiled the Old Testament books they placed them in three general divisions. These are known as the Triparte Divisions. The first division was called THE LAW, and consisted of the first five books. The second was called THE PROPHETS. The third division was called, in Christ's day, THE PSALMS, because this division commenced with the book of Psalms. Thus, the inspired Old Testament, from Genesis to II Chronicles (the Hebrew order), was divided into three divisions — THE LAW, THE PROPHETS, and THE PSALMS. This arrangement of the books has always been reckoned by the Jews as having had its origin in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ryle, Canon of the Old Testament, p. 252; Angus, "Bible Handbook," p. 568). There is no question about this fact.
Historical References to the Triparte Divisions
There are several early references which show that the Old Testament was divided into the Triparte Divisions. One notable mention is that of Sirach's grandson — a Jewish religious leader who lived in the second century BEFORE Christ. He says in his prologue to the apocryphal book, Ecclesiasticus, that the recognized Scriptures of official Judaism were those books found in "The Law," "The Prophecies," and "The Rest of the Books." This is a clear reference to the authoritative Triparte Divisions established by Ezra and Nehemiah. You will perhaps notice that the grandson of Sirach did not use the name "The Psalms" for the third division. This is easily explained. This third section did not have a proper name in the time of Sirach. It became popularly called "The Psalms" by the Jews of Christ's time because that particular book introduced the division. This is clearly indicated by Philo, a Jew who lived a few years before Christ. He said that the Triparte Divisions were then being called "The Law," "The Prophets," and "The Psalms" (On the Contemplative Life, 3). Later, in the third century A.D., however, the Jews began to refer to the third division as "The Writings." This designation has been used by the Jews up to our own times.
Christ Sanctions the Triparte Divisions
It is important to realize that the Jews accepted only the books within the Triparte Divisions as inspired. No other books were ever recognized as being canonical. The Apocrypha were never accepted. But regardless of the beliefs of official Judaism, we have the testimony of much greater authority, telling us of what books the inspired Old Testament consisted. That witness is Christ Himself — the very One who inspired the prophets of the Old Testament (See Colossians 1:15-17). After the resurrection of Christ, we are told in the Gospels, He began to teach His disciples many important truths from the Scriptures. On one occasion, mentioned in Luke 24:45, Christ referred to "THE SCRIPTURES" of the Old Testament and about the prophecies concerning Him. What books did Christ mean by the expression, "the Scriptures"? What was the Old Testament to Him? Notice what Christ Himself related: "And He said unto them, these are the words I spake 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). Yes, the inspired Old Testament Scriptures for Christ comprised those books found in "The Law, The Prophets, and The Psalms" — the Triparte Divisions. These were the very books compiled by Ezra and Nehemiah, and the very books which have come down to us today in the King James Version. We can assuredly know that OUR OLD TESTAMENT is the complete Old Testament of God. Christ has told us this in the plainest of words.
The Arrangement of the Old Testament Books
You will notice that the Old Testament in the King James Bible begins with the book of Genesis and ends with the book of Malachi. However, in the original authoritative arrangement of the Old Testament books by Ezra and Nehemiah, this was not so. The Jews have never approved the King James arrangement because ITS ORIGIN WAS IN EGYPT. About 250 years before Christ there was a Greek translation made of the Hebrew Old Testament. This has become known as the Septuagint Version. The translators of this version decided to CHANGE THE ORDER of the books. Our King James Version follows the Latin which had this erroneous Egyptian arrangement of the books in it. The Latin translations followed the Septuagint Greek translation made in Egypt. The Septuagint does not follow the original Hebrew order established by Ezra and Nehemiah. When the Jews of official Judaism recognized the corruptions in the Septuagint Version, they completely repudiated it. Notice how the early Jews looked on this translation: "The day on which the translation of the Bible into Greek was made was regarded as a great calamity, equal to that of the golden calf" (Sopherim, i, 7). "The day on which it was accomplished... was commemorated as a day of fasting and humiliation (ibid.). The Septuagint Version translators did not take away or add to the books of the Old Testament, but they did disrupt the Divine order of the books and faultily translated much of the original Hebrew into Greek (Prologue to Sirach). It will be profitable for you to know what the authoritative order of the Old Testament books really is. And notice that originally, before printing, the number of scrolls were 22 — now subdivided in the King James Version into 39.
The PROPHETS: 1) Joshua & Judges 2) I & II Samuel & I & II Kings 3) Isaiah 4) Jeremiah 5) Ezekiel 6) The Twelve: Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi
The WRITINGS: 1) Psalms 2) Proverbs 3) Job 4) Song of Songs 5) Ruth 6) Lamentations 7) Ecclesiastes 8) Esther 9) Daniel 10) Ezra & Nehemiah 11) I & II Chronicles
Notice that the first seven books are the same as in our King James version, but afterward there are considerable changes. You will notice that the so-called "Minor Prophets" — from Hosea to Malachi — are not really the last books of the Old Testament. These Minor Prophets really belong in the center. The last books are actually I and II Chronicles. This authoritative arrangement of the Old Testament books is the one which the official Jewish community has always recognized as authoritative.
Other Books Rejected
Let us clearly understand that the books of the Apocrypha and all other spurious books NEVER found a place in the official Triparte Divisions of the Jewish Old Testament. All these "outside" books were totally rejected by the Jews. You will recall that Josephus, the Jewish priest and historian, who represented the beliefs of official Judaism in the days of the Apostle Paul, said that the Jews NEVER accepted any other books as inspired other than those compiled in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. "It is true," says Josephus, "our history has been written since the time of Artaxerxes [the time of Ezra and Nehemiah] very particularly, BUT HAS NOT BEEN ESTEEMED OF THE LIKE AUTHORITY WITH THE FORMER [writings] OF OUR FOREFATHERS, since that time" (Against Apion, I, 8). Yes, the last prophet to write an inspired book was Malachi — a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Christ Used Only the Inspired Old Testament
Another proof that Christ used only the Scriptures recognized by official Judaism is the fact that He never once quoted from or alluded to any of the Apocrypha or other spurious books. Had He made even the slightest indication that the sources of His doctrines were from these unrecognized books, the Jews would have vehemently countered Him with all their intellectual might. They would have loudly and persistently pointed out to the people that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah, for He was making use of uninspired books. But the Jews NEVER had an opportunity of accusing Christ of such things. They railed Him for going contrary to the doctrines of the Jewish denominations of His day, but they never criticized Him for using uncanonical books. The silence of any Jewish censure on this point IS DEFINITE PROOF that Christ utilized only the inspired books in the official Jewish Old Testament as the Scriptures.
Further Witness From the New Testament
We have further evidence throughout the New Testament that Christ and the Apostles recognized only the books of the Jewish Version as the complete Old Testament. Notice how it is taken for granted, in so many parts of the New Testament, that the Jews had the "Scripture" (John 10:35; 19:36; II Pet. 1:20), "the Scriptures" (Matt. 22:29; Acts 18:24), "Holy Scriptures" (Rom. 1:2, II Tim. 3:15), "the Law" (John 10:34), "the Law and Prophets" (Matt. 5:17; 22:40), and the Law, Prophets and Psalms (Luke 24:44). All the New Testament writers recognized the Jews to have had the complete Old Testament. Paul was also careful to let the Romans know that unto the Jews, "WERE COMMITTED THE ORACLES OF GOD" — the Old Testament (Rom. 3:3; 9:4). Paul was fully aware that the oracles of the Jews were the inspired books of the Jewish canon — the same books that are in our King James Version today. It is very clear, from secular history, and especially from the Word of God, that we have the complete Old Testament. ALL OTHER BOOKS NOT FOUND WITHIN THE BIBLE as we have it are entirely worthless for teaching true doctrines, and are to be completely rejected in this respect. The Apocrypha, and all other books, are the writings of men, not of God. With the canonization of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Jews of this time entered into a period of prosperity and happiness. They were keeping the Law and being taught by the Great Assembly. This period from about 430 B.C. to 331 B.C., until the overthrow of the Persian Empire by the Greeks, can be called a time when the Law of Moses was adhered to by the people. We are now compelled to look to a period later than the time of Persian control for the origin of the confused and mixed-up condition of Judaism. The next installment will plainly reveal the source from whence Jewish denominationalism arose.