How We Got our Old Testament
In the late 100s, Bishop Melito of Sardis (in modern Turkey) was pressed by a friend to obtain “an accurate statement of the ancient books as regards their number and their order.” Melito did, and as a result, gave a now-famous list of the Old Testament books. Except for its lack of Esther, this list matches today’s Jewish and Protestant Old Testament.
But how was this Old Testament canon—the recognized, authoritative writings—formed?
According to the legend of 2 Esdras 14:37–47 (written about a.d. 100), God commanded Ezra to drink a potent cup. “Thereupon, my heart poured forth understanding. And the Most High gave understanding to the five men [with me], and by turns they wrote what was dictated, in characters they did not know. … ” After forty days were up, God told Ezra to make these now sacred books public.
On firmer history, however, professors LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush (of Fuller Theological Seminary) distinguish four stages in the development of the Old Testament canon, slightly modified here:
1. Speeches and sayings. God wrote the Ten Commandments in stone (Deut. 5:22). Moses put the Book of the Covenant, including the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1 through 23:33), into writing, and the people agreed to obey it (24:3–8). Other books began as speeches or sayings that were recognized by people as authoritative. For example, the oracle preserved in Micah 3:9–12 originally had caused King Hezekiah to repent (Jer. 26:17–19). Most of the books of the Old Testament are anthologies of authoritative utterances.
2. Individual books. The Book of the Covenant became part of the Book of Exodus and immediately was accepted as the Word of God through Moses. Regarding Deuteronomy, Moses commanded, “Take this Book of the Law and ...