We’re continuing our series in how the Bible came about. Yesterday, we looked at the story of how the Old Testament canon was formed. Today, we ask the question: why is the Old Testament canonical for Christians?
Why is the Old Testament canonical for Christians?
So far, this has just been a history lesson. Hopefully interesting history. But what’s it got to do with us. I mean, isn’t the Old Testament just the Jewish Bible? Written by ancient Israelites for ancient Israel? Why is it canonical for us, as Christians?
Let me give you four brief reasons we treat the OT as authoritative:
Firstly, the New Testament doesn’t make sense on its own. As a New Testament lecturer, sometimes I stir my Old Testament colleagues by referring to it as “that big long preface to Matthew’s gospel.” And they respond by calling the New Testament “the epilogue to Malachi.” (Such an hilarious place to work…) But really, the New Testament needs the OT to make sense. The New Testament sees itself as the fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures; the continuation of God’s actions in history. In fact, the New Testament depicts the church as a “new Israel”; the “true Israel” who are the heirs of the promises made to Abraham back in Gen. The Old Testament is just as much our story as it is Israel’s story. (The laws may no longer be binding, but it’s still our story…)
Secondly, the writers of the New Testament consistently quote the Old Testament as authoritative. To back up their point, they appeal to the Jewish Scriptures. Now this is quite natural for writers like James or Matthew, who are writing to Jewish Christians. But writers like the apostle Paul and Luke even does it when writing to non-Jews. For the earliest Christians, the Hebrew Bible was still Scripture.
Thirdly, Jesus himself treats it as authoritative. He quotes from it to prove his point. He even affirms the Old Testament law, saying that none of it will pass away (Matt 5:17-20). He came to fulfil the law – both by meeting its requirements on our behalf, and to bring it to its “completion” by enabling us to live by the spirit of the law, rather than simply the letter of it. (See our series on Matthew 5 to find out how that all works.)
And fourthly, Jesus himself says that the Old Testament testifies to himself:
Lk 24:44b “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Lk 24:27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Ultimately, it’s because the Old Testament bears witness to Jesus that it is canonical for Christians.
It was Jesus’ Bible, so it’s ours too.
What about the Apocrypha?
Before we get to the New Testament (tomorrow), there’s a question I’m sure I’ll be asked in the comments section if I don’t deal with it here. And it’s this: what about the Apocrypha? That is, there are some books that aren’t in the Jewish Bible; and they aren’t in our Old Testament either. But they do appear in the Bibles of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. What’s the deal with them?
Just so you’re clear what we’re talking about, here’s a list of the apocryphal books in the Catholic Bible:
- additions to Esther
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus)
- Baruch additions to Daniel
- 1 & 2 Maccabees
The Orthodox churches are similar, but different branches of Orthodox churches have slightly different lists. These books were rejected by Protestants during the reformation for a couple of main reasons:
Firstly, they weren’t in Jesus’ Bible. In fact, as far as we can tell, the Jews have never considered them to be Scripture. So to put it simply, these books don’t have Jesus’ endorsement.
And secondly, some of their content is at odds with the rest of Scripture. Some of the teaching only found in the Apocrypha includes the idea of purgatory; of saying prayers for the dead; and of atonement for sin through giving money to the church. (Church treasurers may think it a shame to lose that last one, in hindsight…)
But these apocryphal books, while not being Scripture for us, can still be quite useful. Firstly, for understanding the history, culture, and philosophy of the Jews in Jesus’ day. They give us a great window on how Jesus’ and Paul’s contemporaries would have thought. New Testament writers sometimes allude to stories from these books.
And the apostle Paul – he doesn’t ever quote from them as authoritative, but on occasion he borrows arguments from them. His critique of the sinfulness of humanity in Romans 1 is a kind of summary of an argument given more fully in a book called the Wisdom of Solomon. So as students of the New Testament, the Apocrypha can be a great tool to help us understand what some parts of the New Testament mean. But they are not canonical. They are not Scripture, for us.
Really, they only ended up in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles because of a publishing practice. At some point they stopped writing each book of the Bible on a separate scroll. Instead they produced large books (called codices) a lot more like we use today. And in with the canonical books, various editions of the Greek Old Testament started including other “edifying books.” Over time, it became blurry as to what was Scripture and what wasn’t.
It’s a bit like the current proliferation of study bibles, women’s and men’s devotional bibles, or New Testament editions with the testimonies of famous Christian sportspeople. We know which bits are inspired Scripture and which aren’t. But outsiders or later generations might not be so sure.
So that’s how the books we call apocryphal – that is, outside of the canon – ended up in the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testament.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the NT was put together.
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.