In an earlier post, I began to respond to a series of questions being asked by a college student. In that post, I addressed the topic of biblical inspiration and canonization in a general way. There I argued that early church leaders weighed the evidence regarding which texts told the truth, which were written by the most reliable witnesses. They did not decide what books were in the Bible. They sought to follow the trail of evidence. Through which authors did God choose to speak?
In the student’s list of questions, they asked further about this historical process. How specifically have we arrived at the list of books currently found in our Bible? In this post, we will talk about the Old Testament. In the next response, we can focus on the New Testament.
Dead Sea Scrolls: An Important Discovery
In 1947, two Bedouins are credited with finding a cave in the hills of Qumran that changed the world of biblical scholarship. Eventually, some 12 caves in this area were found to contain significant ancient scrolls and objects. (The most recent cave was discovered in 2017.) Because Qumran is located near the Dead Sea in Israel, these finds are collectively known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Among the many scrolls in these caves, scholars discovered copies of every Old Testament work, except perhaps Esther. Scholars debate the dating of these Old Testament scrolls, but most agree that they date somewhere between 200 BC and 100 BC.
Prior to these Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest copies of the Old Testament came from the Middle Ages, about 1000 AD. In other words, these Dead Scrolls enabled scholars to compare copies of scripture that were about 1100 or 1200 years apart! When scholars made these comparisons, they found substantial agreement between the two sets of writings. Yes, there were some differences among manuscripts, but they were far outnumbered by the linguistic matches discovered.
This tells us that the scriptural text received in about 200 BC was essentially the same text preserved some 1200 years later. Two hundred years before Jesus, in order words, the Jewish community had already largely agreed upon the writings that they regarded as God’s Word.
The Septuagint: An Important Translation
Besides the Dead Sea scrolls, we have another important record of what the Old Testament looked like before the time of Jesus. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great founded a city in Egypt and named after himself: Alexandria. From its earliest days, it collected a large number of Jewish settlers. Living far from their Jewish homeland, they learned to speak Greek, the trade language of the locals. In time, then, the leaders felt pressure to produce a Greek version of the scriptures they loved.
Many legends describe how this translation was produced. One version describes how 70 scholars each went into seclusion and individually translated the scriptures from Hebrew into Greek. Miraculously, so the legend goes, all seventy translations agreed word-for-word. Because “Septuagint” is the Greek word for 70, these ancient translations are often referred to by this name.
Legends aside, these translations seem to have appeared somewhere between 280 BC and 245 BC, give or take a few years. So, again, more than 200 years before Jesus, we have a witness about the writings that the Jewish community regarded as authoritative. And, again, they agree substantially with the 39 books that we currently have in our modern Bibles, numbered and arranged differently, but the same basic material.
“Septuagint Plus”: Some Exceptions
I use the phrase “substantially agree”, because there some important exceptions. The story in the original Hebrew scriptures ends around 443 BC, some 70 years after the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. When the Greek translators undertook their work in Alexandria, they included some material written after this date, during the period of the Alexandrian empire. Scholars often call these “extra” books, the “Septuagint Plus”.
While Jewish communities generally respected the difference between these writings and the original scriptural writings, their existence presented a challenge after the time of Jesus. Christian leaders began to debate whether these “extra” books ought to be retained as part of what they would call the “Old Testament.” Many chose to err on the side of inclusion. Include them but remember that they are not as authoritative as the other books. When the early church leader, Jerome, translated and edited a Latin version of the Old Testament around 400 AD, he took this inclusive approach. He insisted, however, that the Church “does not receive them among the canonical Scriptures.” (Prologue to the Writings of Solomon).
Jerome’s translation and editing work laid the foundation for the Latin Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries. In fact, it would be called the “Vulgate” or “common” translation. In the 16th century, however, when various Protestants began their own translations of the Bible, this old debate about these “extra” books was stirred up again. Martin Luther, for example, thought that these works were “good to read”, but eventually decided to leave them out of his later German translations of the Bible.
Unfortunately, the debate over these “extra” books became part of the larger, enflamed battle between Roman Catholics and Protestants. This pushed the Roman leadership into a very inflexible position. Finally, in 1546, at the Council of Trent, church leaders declared that anyone who would not “receive” all the books they listed, including these “extra” books, was considered “anathema,” or “cursed.” Fortunately, much of the heat over this issue has subsided. Roman Catholics now refer to these books as “deuterocanonical,” a big word that, in some ways, takes us back to where the early church began. These books are helpful to read, but they are not as authoritative as the rest of scripture. They are therefore still found in Roman Catholic Bibles. Meanwhile, most popular Protestant Bibles do not include these books. Instead, in Protestant circles, they are often referred to collectively as the “Apocrypha,” or “hidden” books, probably because, in Medieval England, they were thought to contain secret, mystical knowledge. Whatever we call them, however, we can agree that they do not retain the same level of authority as the more commonly accepted books. They cannot be seriously regarded as the Word of God.
A lot of words, today, but I hope we have given you some important facts. The big picture is that, within 200 years after the last Old Testament work was completed, the Jewish people had already accepted what they believed to be the revealed, written word of God. It was copied and translated, because it was revered as God’s Word. Apart from the few controversial “extra” books described above, we have a vast flood of witnesses and testimony on this subject. Many educated, talented, gifted people who lived much closer to the times than we do, came to the same conclusion about what works speak for God.
Of course, we could throw out their testimony if we wish, although I am not sure why we would. I am not sure why we would think that we have more evidence than they did.
The thirty-nine books currently included in the Old Testament have survived the test of time, centuries of challenges, critics, skepticism and doubt. As I mentioned in my last response, God knows what He said, and He wants us to know what He said. The scriptures of the Old Testament stand, therefore, because God wants them to stand. Countless generations of followers have tested the validity of these books, and found them to be true, true in fact and true in life. The Spirit of God breaths through these words, and they change us. They comfort us, correct us and challenge us.
In His Service