How did the Bible get put together? Part One

Tim begins a new series this week. And thanks, Sheree, for the last two weeks in the book of Acts!

This week will be a little different from normal. Instead of studying a text from the Bible, we’re going to learn about the Bible. Looking at the question: How did the Bible get put together? That is, how did the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven books of the New Testament – these sixty-six rather diverse pieces of writing – how did they end up in our Bibles? And why these books and not others?

It’s an important question, isn’t it? I mean, if we’re going to spend the other 51 weeks of this year learning from it, conforming our lives to what it says, and believing that God speaks to us through it – it makes sense to spend at least one week finding out how it came to be in the first place! So this week, we ask the question, “how did the canon of Scripture get put together?”

But before we start, we probably need to be clear about this word “canon” I’ve just used. We’re not talking about cannon spelt with two Ns in the middle; that would be a big bore. (Sadly, that’s the calibre of humour on offer this week.) This is “canon” with one N in the middle, a Greek word meaning “measure” or “ruler.” Or in old-fashioned terminology, a “yardstick.” The canon of Scripture is the yardstick, or the ruler we use to measure what books are in the Bible. A book is canonical because it’s in the list.

As well, if a book is determined to be canonical – if it’s in the Bible – it’s also canonical for us. That is, it’s the yardstick, or standard by which we measure our lives, our beliefs, and our actions.

So this week, we’re asking how this list – this canon – was formed. We’ll begin, today, with the Old Testament.

The Old Testament

1. The writing of the books

So the first question we’re looking at is: how was the Old Testament formed. The Jewish Scriptures – how did they come into being? And the answer, as you’d expect, is pretty complicated. A long and gradual process, of which we’ve only got time to give a frighteningly quick overview. But here goes.

The first bit of Scripture written down was the 10 commandments. Written by God, on some stone tablets (Exod 24:12; 31:18; 32:15-16). But the people couldn’t swallow them, so Moses broke the tablets in half (Exod 32:19). Which meant that God had to give them a repeat prescription (Exod 34:1). As well,  Moses wrote down all of the other laws and regulations God spoke to him while he was up on Mt Sinai. And for the Israelites, that became the earliest “canon.” The standard by which they were to measure their behaviour as the people of God. And you can read those in Exodus chapter 20 onwards.

Now, Jewish tradition says that Moses didn’t only write down these laws, but in fact he wrote all the first five books of the Bible. What they call Torah, the books of the law. Containing not just laws, but the entire history of God’s people. Most scholars today see this as unlikely. For a start, Moses is always referred to in the third person. (Which hints that he didn’t write all of it, or so Tim MacBride thinks.) We read of Moses’ death in Deut 34; so if he did write that bit, it makes him pretty clever. And throughout, there are little indicators that a fair amount of time has passed between the events and when they were written. Phrases like “to this day” in Deuteronomy. Or in Genesis, talking about a time “before any Israelite king reigned,” suggesting that it was written down at least after the time of King Saul.

More likely, the laws given through Moses and the stories about Israel in the time of Moses were passed down through the generations. Many of the laws in document form. A lot of the stories by word of mouth. Gradually taking on the written form we know today.

And so long before we have the five scrolls of the law written down, their contents were canonical. What I mean is, they were already authoritative for the Israelite community. The rules God gave for life and worship. And the stories about God’s gracious actions in their history: his calling of Abraham; the rescue from Egypt; God’s care for them in the desert, despite their rebellion; and their miraculous entry into the promised land. These were the words and actions of God that governed their lives.

So it’s not as though one day they all got together and said “hey, look – these five scrolls we’ve got – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – do you reckon we should whack ‘em in a Bible or something? Start obeying what they say?”

On the contrary – they were written down in the first place because their contents were already canonical. Israel is simply writing down and compiling their sacred history they already knew; and their religious rules and social laws they’d already been given by God. The written documents are canonical, because they contain – in written form – teaching which was already recognised as authoritative. As being from God.

So that’s the story of the Torah; the first five books of the Bible. The rest of the books came about by a similar, gradual process. The history books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were probably written in the 8th or 7th centuries BC; possibly at the time of King Josiah’s religious reforms and rediscovery of the law. Not an impartial, unbiased history. But a history that judged, that measured Israel and their kings against the laws given to them by God. The words of the prophets were also compiled; words that called Israel back into obedience to God. Words that proclaimed judgement on disobedience; and restoration for those who repent.

Another set of history books – a parallel history to the one in Samuel and Kings – is found in the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. This set probably dates to the 5th or 4th centuries, after Israel returned from exile in Babylon.

The book of Psalms appears to have been put together in two stages. If you flip through the Psalms in your Bibles, you’ll see they’re actually arranged in five books. The first three books seem to have been compiled in this way by the time of the exile, and they contain a lot of material about Israel’s king. But books four and five probably come from during and after the exile, when there was no king. Instead, these Psalms focus on God as Israel’s true king. And not just Israel’s king, but king over all the earth. (See especially Psalms 96-99.)

(And probably even back then, the older Israelites wanted the good old psalms from books one to three, and the young kids wanted the louder ones in books four and five. You think I’m kidding: check out to the last Psalm of book five: “praise him with the tambourine and dancing… praise him with the clash of cymbals.”)

2. The formation of a canon

So over time, these writings were gradually recognised as being sacred Scripture. Because they bore witness to the truth God had revealed to them. And they called Israel back to the rule of faith God had given them.

In fact, at some point the second century BC it seems that the canon was considered closed. That is, no more writings were added to it. And the Jewish Bible took on the form we find it in today. Arranged in three sections: the law, the prophets, and the writings. (See Luke 24:44 – “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of MOses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”) And containing twenty-four books.

(Twenty-four? But our OT has 39 books! That’s because we’ve split them up. 1 & 2 Kings, for example, is really one book. And there’s a whole bunch of prophets – like Amos, Joel, Hosea – that form one book in the Hebrew Bible: the book of the Twelve. See table below.)

So that’s the quick story of how the OT books were written and the canon formed. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the question: why is the Old Testament canonical for Christians?


Disclaimer: this one-week series is a brief overview for the curious Bible reader that tries to tell the story of how the Bible was put together. It’s not intended to be anywhere near a scholarly presentation showing all of the different theories of how each book was authored/compiled, or the many competing theories of the canonisation process. Further, it’s not attempting to “prove” the divine nature or authority of Scripture to the sceptical. 

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