How the Bible Came to Be (pt 5)

“Closing” the Canon: Discerning the Canonical Boundaries 

We are now in a position to investigate the “closing” of the canon. Here we ask, “How do we discern the boundaries of the canon?”

Because we have defined canon as an authoritative collection of authoritative writings, we have already affirmed that the writings that make up the divinely commissioned collection are "inspired" and in this sense implicitly authoritative as soon as they are written and gathered together. The role of the believing community, then, is to recognize this divinely given collection of writings.

So, this casts the quest in a slightly different light. We're not so much determining canonical boundaries as we are discerning them. Of course, this aspect of our approach to the biblical canon is directly theological. This feature, though, is appropriate and necessary when considering a collection of writings that we claim reveal God himself and his ways.

Several lines of evidence can help us with this process of recognition. We need to examine both internal evidence within the Bible and external evidence from the writings of the early churches. What follows is an outline of the types of internal evidence that we can discern for the closure of the OT and the NT.

Internal Evidence for the Closure of the OT
For the Old Testament, there is both a narrow collection of books (represented in the Hebrew Masoretic Text) and a wider collection of books that include the books known as the apocrypha or deuterocanonical books (represented in some Greek manuscript traditions). These additional books were typically written in the period between the time of the last of the writing prophets (like Malachi) and the time of the New Testament. Today, some churches and traditions accept all of these books and others reject them.

When considering the internal evidence of the New Testament, there are several reasons that encourage us to recognize the established canon of the Hebrew Bible that does not include the apocrypha.

1. References to the Shape of the Hebrew Bible. In a few places in the New Testament, there are indications that the version of the Scriptures that Jesus and the apostles used resembles the shape of the Hebrew Bible we find in the ancient manuscripts.

Luke 24For example, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus walks the road to Emmaus with two broken-hearted disciples lamenting Jesus' death in Jerusalem. Jesus fields their questions and insists that the suffering of the Messiah does not side-step God's plan. Jesus' chosen means of discipleship is a comprehensive study of the Hebrew Scriptures. As Luke records, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets," Jesus "interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk 24:27). Later, Jesus explains to his disciples that, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke then comments that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:44-45). Jesus seems to point here to the three-part shape the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, and Writings).

Luke 11Earlier in Luke 11:49-52, Jesus refers to Israel’s history in a way that seems to be based on the narrative sequence in the Hebrew Bible that begins in Genesis and ends with the book of Chronicles. Jesus mentions “the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation” (11:50-51).

The temporal spectrum that Jesus presents is not only historical but textual. Zechariah is not the last historical prophet to be martyred in the recorded history of Israel, but he is the last prophet killed in the book of Chronicles (2 Chron 24.20-24). By placing Abel, the first murdered individual recorded in the Pentateuch (Gen 4:8-10), side by side with Zechariah, the last murdered individual recorded in the book of Chronicles, Jesus seems to be referencing the shape of the narrative that is generated by the framework of the Hebrew Bible. In this sense, Jesus brings the entirety of the Hebrew Bible to bear on the individuals he is condemning in Luke 11.

Matt 1The way the New Testament begins with Matthew's Gospel is also significant. Matthew has a unique and prominent role at the very beginning of the New Testament canon. In particular, Matthew begins with a theologically loaded description: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). Each of the elements in these 17 verses is an allusion or echo of the Old Testament.

Truly, the covenantal overtones of these few words is explosive and majestic. The unique phrase, "book of the genealogy" echoes the "the book of the generations of Adam" of Gen 5:1 and more broadly the "generations of the heavens and the earth" of Gen 2:4. Matthew, then, is a book of beginnings that begins, "In the Begining" (Gen 1:1). The new Adam's story goes all the way back to the first Adam and even to the dawn of creation. The "Christ" recalls the promises about a coming Messiah or "anointed one" (Ps 2; Dan 7) and the "son of David, son of Abraham" recall that the promised "anointed one" would come through the line of Abraham and David (Gen 12; 2 Sam 7). By beginning in this way, Matthew directly roots this spectrum of Messianic expectation firmly in the soil of the first book of the Hebrew Bible.

This opening salvo is followed by a carefully crafted genealogy that goes from Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus (Matt 1:2-17). Matthew thus connects the messianic expectation raised by the first sentence to the messianic expectation found most clearly in the final book of the Hebrew Bible, the only other book in the biblical canon that begins with a genealogy (see 1 Chron 1-9). Significantly, the genealogy of Chronicles begins with Adam and ends up with a focus on David. The structural parallel to the Book of Chronicles introduces the notions of exile, return from exile, and the hope of a coming “son of David” into the beginning of Matthew’s narrative.

So, Matthew makes a literary reference to the first book of the Hebrew Bible and also the last book of the Hebrew Bible. By beginning his narrative in this way, Matthew strikingly asserts that the proper context within which to read his message about Jesus is the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Indeed, before he begins the story of Jesus' birth in 1:18, Matthew places before the reader's eyes a microcosm of the entire Hebrew Bible (a kind of Hebrew Bible in miniature!).

These ways of referring to the Scriptures imply that the biblical collection Jesus and the apostles made use of was the well-established Law, Prophets, and Writings. Indeed, they seem to know the entirety of the Hebrew Bible and also seem to know it as an entirety.

A Little External SupportThese NT examples are supported by a number of external witnesses to a three-fold shape of the Hebrew Scriptures among the Jewish communities before the time of the NT. For example, the prologue to Ben Sira, a wisdom writing in the intertestamental period (apx 2nd century BC), refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Law, the Prophets, and the “other books.” This three-fold division is mentioned three times in the short prologue. This work is a part of the broader group of apocryphal writings mentioned above. Several of these writings seem to refer to the books of the Hebrew Bible as an established and authoritative collection. This deference to the Law and Prophets, then, is another reason to think the writers of the apocryphal writings did not consider themselves to be adding to the already "closed" Hebrew Bible.

2. The “quotation patterns” of the NT: Across the NT, writers are virtually exclusive in citing the books of the narrow Hebrew Bible. The NT writers quote from all of the major sections of the Hebrew Scriptures. Conversely, while some non-canonical writings are mentioned in the NT, none of these are cited “as Scripture” or attributed to God or the Spirit.

3. The Scriptures are often the common ground for debate: In the New Testament narratives and epistles, Jesus and the apostles engage in numerous debates with Jewish leaders. Many of these debates are exegetical. They argue at length about the interpretation of Old Testament texts. Or, they debate theological topics and both sides cite texts or themes from the Old Testament to make their case. The authority, of these texts, however, is never in doubt. Both sides generally assume the authority of the book of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

4. No Dispute in the NT over OT Canonical Boundaries: Also striking is the fact that in these interpretive disputes, there is basic agreement regarding the extent of the OT canon. We see many debates over canonical texts, but virtually no debate on whether those texts are canonical.

5. Assumed Continuity with the OT Storyline: As a general point, the NT writers assume that their teaching is in line with OT teaching and locate their place in redemptive history in relation to the storyline of the Hebrew Bible (cf. Rom 15:3-6; 2 Tim 3:14ff, etc). The authors of the NT claim to continue the storyline of the OT Scriptures. They claim that their message of Jesus as the promised Messiah “accords” with Scripture. The new message of Jesus was articulated and understood in terms of ancient promises.

For these broad reasons, we can say that there is strong internal evidence from the New Testament itself that indicates that Jesus and the Apostles read and treasured the already established canon of the Hebrew Bible (what is now represented in the books of an English Old Testament).

Biblical Canon
March 13, 2017


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