What is referred to as the Old Testament canon of scripture is simply the list of all the books that belong in the Old Testament portion of the Bible, from Genesis to Malachi. These writings constitute the words of God that were spoken before the birth of Christ. If we are to believe, trust, and obey God absolutely, we must first be certain that the words we have are indeed the words he spoke.
If, for example, there are books missing that should be in the canon, then that means that there are likely commands that we have not followed, histories that remain lost, prophecies we are not aware of, and guidance we have not had. Or on the other hand, if there are writings that should not be in the Old Testament canon, then that means there are likely commands we didn’t need to follow, histories that might be false, false prophecies that have led us astray, and guidance that might not be godly.
The Origin of the Old Testament
The canon of scripture began with the Ten Commandments (Exo 20) since they were the first written words of God. In Exodus 31:18 we are told that the two stone tablets that were given to Moses were inscribed by the finger of God himself (Exo 32:16; Deu 4:13, and 10:4 also confirm this). These two tablets were placed inside the ark of the covenant and established the terms of the covenant between God and his people.
Now while the law says in Deuteronomy 4:2 that “you shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you,” we find that Moses, Joshua, and many others added to the words. This however is not a contradiction, since it seems that the verse in Deuteronomy is speaking specifically of the law and not the entirety of scripture, especially since at that time, there was no such thing as the canon of scripture.
What we do see is that additional writings were made and laid before the Lord, some of which directly mention their command from God (Jer 30:2). It would seem that in addition to the law, God spoke to other individuals, instructing them to write the words he commanded them. Over time, this collection of writings would come to be known as the Tanakh by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians.
Where The Old Testament Ends
The Old Testament ends with the prophetic book of Malachi which was written around 435 BC. If we take the familiar dating of Haggai to 520 BC and Zechariah to between 520 and 518 BC we have a rough idea of the dates of the last Old Testament prophets. We have in addition the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther which close off the writings of Old Testament history. Now Ezra went to Jerusalem in 458 BC, Nehemiah was there from 445-433 BC and the book of Esther was written sometime between 465 and 423 BC. This information would imply that after around 435 BC, there were no further additions to the Old Testament. Rabbinic literature even states that “when Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel; nevertheless they made use of the [voice from heaven]” (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 48b).
We can trust that the words and books within today’s Old Testament are the words spoken by God himself. We can partially see this from the New Testament where there is no recorded dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the contents of the canon. Within the pages of the New Testament, the Old Testament is quoted as divinely authoritative over 295 times without one reference to other outside sources such as the Apocrypha. This lack of reference to other literature, and the highly frequent reference to places in the Old Testament, provides strong confirmation that the New Testament authors agreed that the Old Testament canon was to be taken as the words of God himself.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 54-57