Jesus Christ and the Old Testament Canon

Yesterday, I argued that you cannot derive an accurate Old or New Testament canon from simply following the sources used by New Testament authors.  They quote approvingly of Enoch and Epimenides, while failing to mention Esther, yet of the three, only Esther is considered inspired. But there’s a reason that the New Testament isn’t a reliable way of determining the canon of Scripture.  It was never intended to do so.  And through this, if we pay attention, we can discern what God’s telling us.

I. The Three Old Testament Canons

In broad terms, at the time of Christ and the New Testament, there were three schools of thought within Judaism about which Books were the inspired word of God:

  • The Sadducees taught only the Torah, the first five Books, were Scripture.
  • The Pharisees taught that the entire Hebrew TNKH was Scripture.  This is the same canon used by modern Protestants.
  • The Hellenistic Jews held an even larger canon, the LXX.  This is the basis for the Catholic canon.  (Other Greek versions of the Old Testament included additional sections which the Catholic Church rejects, like Psalm 151, but which the Orthodox Church considers canonical).
Because of the different canons, there were doctrinal differences, as well.  For example, the Sadducees rejected the resurrection of the dead, since they didn’t see that teaching in the Torah.  On the other hand, bodily resurrection is taught in Daniel 12:1-3, so the Pharisees and Hellenists believed in it.  Paul would later exploit this conflict in Acts 23:6, while on trial before the Sanhedrin.  By making his trial about the question of bodily resurrection generally, rather than Christ’s Resurrection specifically, Paul pitted the Pharisees and Sadducees against each other, until the Romans had to finally intervene (Acts 23:10).
II. Jesus’ Resolution of the Canon Question

A. Jesus and the Sadducees

There were a few times in Scripture where Jesus squarely confronted the issue of the canon, and He seems to have gone out of His way to avoid answering them.  For example, in Matthew 22:23-33, we hear:
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.  “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh.  Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.  At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

So we know that the reason that the Sadducees don’t believe in bodily resurrection is because they have an incomplete canon.  There’s an easy answer to this question:

  1. Sadducees, you have the wrong canon.  The Pharisees and Hellenists are right in believing in other Books, which you reject.
  2. If you listened to those other Books, you ‘d know that there was a bodily resurrection: just look at Daniel 12:1-3, and 1 Samuel 28, and Psalm 16:9-10, etc.

And Jesus almost seems to say this, by telling them they don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.  But then He surprises us.  The Scripture He quotes is Exodus 3:6 — that is, it’s from the Scriptures that the Sadducees already believe in.  This verse, He shows us, implies that the souls of the faithful departed are not annihilated, but live on.  In other words, when Jesus says “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God,” He’s not telling them that their canon is wrong, but their understanding of the canon that they have.

Now, this incident, left alone, might lead us to think that Jesus agreed with the Sadducees’ canon of Scripture — that the Torah alone was inspired.  After all, He could have pointed to passages outside the Torah which were much more obviously pro-resurrection.  But He chose Exodus, instead, to make His case. But then He goes to the Pharisees, and does something similar.

B. Jesus and the Pharisees

Luke 11:37-51,

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.  Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

In the Pharisees’ canon (as in the Protestant canon today), the murder of Abel was the first murder, and the murder of Zechariah was the last, if you read the full Testament front to back.  Zechariah’s is not the last murder in either the Sadducees’ or Hellenists’ canon. In other words, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees using the Pharisee Bible, just as He condemned the Sadducees using the Sadducee Bible.

C. What Should We Make of This?

It seems to me that Jesus’ point is that it’s less important how many Books you have, but how faithful you are to them. That is, the word of God, Scripture, is useful only if it points us to the Word of God, Jesus.  The Catholic Church teaches this, as well: “sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2)” (Dei Verbum 7).  If we’re not seeing God through the mirror, the mirror is worthless.  Likewise, if we’re not following Christ, proclaiming our alleged fidelity to the Gospel does us as much good as it did the Pharisees to proclaim their alleged fidelity to the Mosaic Law.

Look at the way that the early Christian authors were able to prove all of the major doctrines from the first five Books of the Bible alone.  In fact, just look at Genesis:

  • Genesis 1-2 teaches the Sabbath, and original sin, and the complementarity of man and woman, and the proper role of sex in marriage, and the unitive nature of sex.
  • Genesis 1:26 already shows us a God who is One, but who also describes Himself as “We,” because He is Trinity.
  • Genesis 3:15 prophesied Christ, the Seed, and His Virgin Mother, the Woman.
  • Genesis 15:6 teaches justification by faith (as Romans 4 makes explicit).
  • Genesis 22 teaches the role of works in maintaining justification (as James 2:21-23 tells us).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  And just one Old Testament Book.  How wonderful it would have been to be with Christ on the road to Emmaus, when Jesus showed once for all that every Old Testament Scripture was Christological (Luke 24:27).

If you’ve ever wondered why the New Testament writers relied so heavily on the Pharisees’ canon, instead of the broader Hellenistic canon, you have your answer here: they weren’t trying to settle the debate on the canon, but show their Jewish peers how Christ is contained within every word of the canon that they already acknowledged.

III. Whose Canon is Correct?

All that said, it’s easier to see God if you have a bigger mirror, so to speak.  The resurrection of the dead was in the Torah, but so subtly that the Sadducees missed it.  To those Jews blessed with the Book of Daniel, it was plainly clear.  The Incarnation of Christ is implicit in Genesis 3:15, but it’s explicit in the New Testament. Having the fullness of Scripture is helpful, since it gives us more tools, even if it’s possible to get by with fewer.

Fortunately, we’re graced to have the New Testament Scriptures implicitly answering the canonical question.  In Acts 17:11, we hear:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Berea, as you may know, is solidly Greek, not far from Thessalonica:

You don’t get more Hellenistic than the middle of Greece.  There’s virtually no question that the canon used by the Bereans was the Greek canon — the same Old Testament canon used by Catholics, and rejected by Protestants. And how does Scripture treat that canon? Calling it “the Scriptures,” and praising the Bereans for reading it.

So the Catholic canon is the right one.  But Acts 17:11 also serves as a warning for us Catholics. The Thessalonians also had a complete Catholic Old Testament… but didn’t read it.  God has blessed Catholics with a broader Scriptural toolkit, so to speak.  But all too often, our Protestant brothers and sisters draw so much more out of their limited canon than we do out of our fuller one.  There’s a joke that, in their Bibles, Catholics have seven more Books that they don’t read.  Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a lot of truth to that grim joke.  We should strive to be like the Bereans, using our innumerable gifts to their best advantage.


  1. Exactly. Work from the common territory to prove your point. That said, the fact that the Apostles were fine with all three canons shows that the largest of these (the equivalent of the Catholic OT) was still Scripture. Otherwise, we’d expect to see some sort of rebuke.

  2. In the early fourth century Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire and it became possible for the bishops to meet without being imprisoned or killed by the pagan authorities.

    Beginning in the late fourth century and continuing until the very early fifth century the Catholic Church met at a number of councils where the canon of the Bible was debated. These councils produced canons which were identical to the current 73 book Roman Catholic canon.

    As can clearly be seen the canon of the Bible was produced by the Catholic Church. The Church also existed long before the Bible – it was the early fifth century before the Bible existed as we might recognize it today, and none of the books of the Bible were even written until around 50 AD. But the Catholic Church began 20 years earlier, at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles.

    The Christians who wrote the New Testament were Catholic – they were Catholic for two reasons. One, they believed everything which the current Catholic Church (and only the Catholic Church) teaches (as is shown by the writings of the Church Fathers).

    And they were Catholic because there was no other church at the time. Myths such as the “Trail of Blood” simply do not hold water – the Catholic Church was, quite literally, the only game in town.

  3. Re: 3 OT canons – Sadducees, Pharisees, and Hellenistic LXX. Where is the Jewish authoritative list of the books in the LXX other than Josephus, who numbered them as the Pharisees did? The best you can do is cite fourth- and later- century Christian codices which have different books among them – hardly an authoritative canon (and by the way, they include Psalm 151, 1 and 2 Clement, etc.)!

    Your citation of Matt. 22:23-33 does not support your argument that the Sadducees used the wrong canon. Indeed, Jesus’ reference to the resurrection does not depend on any other OT book outside of the Pentateuch because he does not mention a bodily resurrection, but rather resurrection like the angels, who are spirits.

    Your quote of Luke 11:37-51 mistakenly equates Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees with a condemnation of their canon. It is true that the martyrdom of Zechariah has been reported to be in the last book of the Pharisees’ canon, but how does condemning the Pharisees for repeating the sins of their fathers condemn their Bible?

    You conclude that it is less important how many Books you have than how faithful you are to them. If so, why not accept the apocryphal gospels, such as the gospel of Thomas, as Scripture? On the other hand, if you are faithful to the Books of Moses, you must reject the Epistle of Jeremiah which falsely prophesies the duration of the Babylonian captivity to be seven generations long, instead of the 70 years that Jeremiah prophesied and that history verifies.

    Your assertion that Acts 17:11 proves the Bereans accepted a larger Hellenistic canon begs the question. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote explicitly that of all the books in the LXX collection, only the “twenty-two” (corresponding to Josephus’ Jewish canon and the Protestant canon) were handed down by the apostles. He even warned against going beyond these books (Catechetical Lectures 4.33).

    The truth is that the early church left an ambiguous testimony about the boundaries of the OT canon. Jerome and Rufinus got it right, but Augustine insisted – against the clear tradition of the earlier church fathers – on a “forty-four” book canon. In doing so, he broke his own rule that the purity of the canon would not admit forgeries. Augustine was well aware that the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach were not written by Solomon, even though his contemporaries accepted them on that mistaken premise. Again, if he had thought about the false prophecy in the Epistle of Jeremiah, and other flagrant errors (such as Judith’s claim that Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Assyria, ruling from Nineveh), maybe he would have been more open to Rufinus’ classification of ecclesiastical books that are not to be used for the confirmation of doctrine.

    1. Lojahw,

      I. The Sadducees’ Canon

      You ask, “Where is the Jewish authoritative list of the books in the LXX other than Josephus, who numbered them as the Pharisees did?”  That’s the whole point.  The notion of a “Jewish authoritative list” is anachronistic, since the Jews at the time had various canons.

      For example, that the Sadducees only accepted the first five Books of Scripture is well-established, and is attested to by the early Christians. St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 A.D.) said that the Sadducees “do not, however, devote attention to prophets, but neither do they to any other sages, except to the law of Moses only, in regard of which, however, they frame no interpretations.”

      And Origen (184-253) said that “although the Samaritans and Sadducees, who receive the books of Moses alone, would say that there were contained in them predictions regarding Christ, yet certainly not in Jerusalem, which is not even mentioned in the times of Moses, was the prophecy uttered.”  Both of these men are writing while the Sadducees still existed.

      In addition to this, look at St. Jerome’s commentary on Matthew 22:23-33, the passage in question:

      “In proof of the resurrection there were many plainer passages which He might have cited; among others that of Isaiah, ‘The dead shall be raised; they that are in the tombs shall rise again’ [Isa 26:29, Septuagint]: and in another place, ‘Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake’ [Dan. 12:2].

      It is enquired therefore why the Lord should have chosen this testimony which seems ambiguous, and not sufficiently belonging to the truth of the resurrection; and as if by this He had proved the point adds, ‘He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.’

      We have said above that the Sadducees confessed neither Angel, nor spirit, nor resurrection of the body, and taught also the death of the soul. But they also received only the five books of Moses, rejecting the Prophets. It would have been foolish therefore to have brought forward testimonies whose authority they did not admit.

      So you can’t seriously claim that the Sadducees didn’t have a five-Book canon.  As for Josephus, he was a Pharisee.  Of course he had the Pharisaic canon!

    2. I am sympathetic to your argument, and I agree with the general thesis that the canon of scripture was not settled among Jews as a whole at the time of Jesus but…would like to point out that your assertion that the Sadducees only accepted the Torah is far from “well established”…The early christian witnesses whom you cite are both based on Josephus, and, in context, Josephus seems to be referring to the Torah in the sense of a written law, as opposed to the oral traditions of the Pharisees.
      The other arguments which you cite just are not that convincing…my point is not that you are wrong…perhaps they did accept only the Torah, perhaps not, we don’t really know, and there really is not any academic consensus on this issue whatsoever–suggesting that this is something that is “well established” is misleading and, anyhow, is not at all necessary to the overall argument that the Jewish canon was not a settled issue in Christ’s time

  4. II. The Hellenists’ Canon(s)

    Just as you deny the well-established smaller Sadducees’ canon, you also deny the well-established larger Hellenist canon(s).  But again, there’s no serious question on the subject.  The Jewish Virtual Library notes:

    “The needs of the Hellenistic Jews, whether of Alexandria in particular or of the Greek-speaking Diaspora in general, led to the translation of the Bible into Greek. Beginning with the Torah about the middle of the third century B.C.E. the process took many centuries to complete. The formation of much of the Greek canon was thus coeval with the emergence of the Hebrew Bible as a sealed collection of sacred literature. The final product, however, diverged from the Hebrew – apart from the problem of the text – in two important respects. It adopted a different principle in the grouping and sequence of the biblical books, and it included works not accepted into the normative Hebrew canon. It must be understood, however, that, with the exception of a few fragments, all extant manuscripts of the Greek Bible are of Christian origin, and while it is reasonable to assume a Jewish prototype, the content and form of the Hellenistic Jewish canon cannot be known with certainty. […]

    Of those books excluded from the Hebrew canon but included in the Greek Bibles, the number varies, but the following are found in the fullest collections: I Esdras (Ezra), Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Ben Sira, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, I–IV Maccabees, and the Psalms of Solomon.”

    To this, I’d add just one more point: that there is evidence that even some of the Pharisees accepted Books you reject, like the Book of Wisdom.

    1. that, with the exception of a few fragments, all extant manuscripts of the Greek Bible are of Christian origin, and while it is reasonable to assume a Jewish prototype, the content and form of the Hellenistic Jewish canon cannot be known with certainty. […]

      What about the dead sea scrolls?

  5. III. Your Use of St. Cyril of Jerusalem

    In support of your claim that the Hellenists used the Pharisaic canon, you claim, “Cyril of Jerusalem wrote explicitly that of all the books in the LXX collection, only the ‘twenty-two’ (corresponding to Josephus’ Jewish canon and the Protestant canon) were handed down by the apostles. He even warned against going beyond these books (Catechetical Lectures 4.33).”

    Once again, you’re making a claim that’s demonstrably false.  In Catechetical Lectures 4.33, Cyril affirms as canonical the Book of Jeremiah, “including Baruch and Lamentations and the Epistle.”  That’s the exact same “Epistle” that you say I “must reject” because it allegedly has false prophesies.

    Given that he explicitly affirms what you explicitly reject (namely, the Epistle of Jeremiah), it seems inaccurate and even dishonest for you to continue to claim that Cyril and the other Church Fathers support your canon.  This is not the first time you’ve done this.  Over at Called to Communion, you claimed that there “were at least nine church fathers from the second through the fourth centuries who endorsed the shorter canon: six explicitly listed Esther, including Jerome and Rufinus, who agreed book-for-book with the Protestant canon.” When I called you out on it then (showing that zero of the nine Fathers you cited actually used the Protestant canon), you said that the “point is well taken that my wording was sloppy.”

    Well, at some point, this convenient “sloppiness” needs to stop.  This is now the second time you’ve claimed that Cyril affirmed your canon, only to be presented explicit evidence to the contrary.  I don’t know if you’re intentionally being dishonest about the evidence, or just don’t have a good grasp of what the Fathers actually said (and frankly, I’m in no place to judge your soul), but if you’re going to make specific claims about the what a given Church Father said about the canon, at least check to see if it’s true before saying it.  Otherwise, you just blow your credibility and damage your ethos.



    P.S.  I addressed your “bulls-eye canon” idea in depth here. Not sure if you saw it, but it also disproves (a) your claim that I have to rely on fourth century codices to show use of the Deuterocanon, and (b) your claim that these fourth century codices  “include Psalm 151, 1 and 2 Clement, etc. ”  Once again, you either intentionally or negligently misrepresent the relevant evidence.

  6. Excellent post. You also said:

    “All that said, it’s easier to see God if you have a bigger mirror, so to speak. “

    That is not necessarily true. There are bigger canons than that of the Catholic Church. Our best secret weapon is the charism of infallibility of the Pope and the Bishops united with him. That guarantees us a true reading and understanding of the Word of God no matter which canon we read.


    De Maria

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