There are some things in Christian churches that are assumed. Even though there is no proof, these tenets are accepted without question. For example, some assume water baptism every time the word baptism is used. Some assume that the 66 books in the protestant bible are the Word of God, complete and entire. That the law and the prophets is the Old Testament is another assumption.
In fact, there are equations that some people have in their minds:
- The law and the prophets = the Word of God
- The law and the prophets = the old testament
- The Old Testament = the Word of God
Does the Bible itself teach this? Some use verses like 2Tim 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 to say it does. But that is circular reasoning. The word “scriptures” is really “writings”. Not all writings were given divine status. Maccabees was scripture in existence in original Christianity times, but not all include this in their interpretation of what “all scripture” is in 1 Tim 3:16, so the word “all” is not all-inclusive. Rather “all scripture” in 1 Tim 3:16 refers only to those writings that were actually considered the word of God. And what people considered scripture in 100 AD is different than what 21st-century Christians call scripture.
In ancient times there were numerous books that people read. In the time of original Christianity, for example, the Shepard of Hermas was very popular. Many accepted it as a prophetic book. It was read in churches. But hardly anyone today would even consider it as a “scripture” Nevertheless, to many, it had that status in the early centuries after Christ.
The modern bible with its collection of books bound together as a unit is a modern tool. Modern Bibles are not in agreement as to which books are the Word of God. The Roman Catholic Bible contains the “Apocrypha”. The Apocrypha includes books like Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch including the Letter of Jeremiah. The Tewahedo Bible in Ethiopia has, for example, the 27 books in the Protestant New Testament plus 28 – Sirate Tsion (the book of order), 29 – Tizaz (the book of Herald), 30 – Gitsew, 31 – Abtilis, 32 – The I book of Dominos, 33 – The II book of Dominos, 34 – The book of Clement, 35 – Didascalia. It also includes the Book of Joshua the son of Sirac and The Book of Josephas the Son of Bengorion in the Old Testament.[i]
There is more variation in biblical canons than the above paragraph includes but the point is that there are multiple modern versions of the Bible with differing book counts and that weakens the modern Protestant argument that their bible is the complete and original Word of God.
All of these reflect the decisions of men with the righteous intention of determining which books are actually scripture and separating them from the many other writings that have been proffered over time to also be scripture. Yet, none of these decisions are declared to be the work of the prophets under the guidance of the holy spirit whose function scripturally is to speak for Yahweh on such matters both in delivering anything that can actually be called the word of God or judging what another proclaims is the word of God on the matter.
Furthermore, it is known that Reformers like Martin Luther challenged the validity of certain books in the Protestant canon of scripture. Luther challenged Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation in the New Testament and Esther in the Old Testament.
Added to this is the fact that while Christians lump the books into one generically named Old Testament (not named so until 170 AD by Melito of Sardis) the Hebrews divided their bible into three sections, the Torah or Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.[ii]
Interestingly, the Prophets section in the Hebrew Bible includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings while Chronicles is in the Writings. I had the pleasure of talking with a rabbi about the Hebrew scriptures. I asked him about books in the Writings like Job. He informed me that they have an expression that went like, “Truer than if it were true”. He said while that he didn’t believe Job actually lived, what was taught in there was a vital truth. But it was not part of the Law and the Prophets.
Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles are all in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible.
There were no “bibles” at the time original Christianity was formed. There were individual scrolls, the scroll of Isaiah, the scroll of Jeremiah, and so on. There is no evidence that the old testament as we know was accepted in its entirety as the Word of God in the first century. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that only those books labeled the law and the prophets were read as scripture in the synagogue or by Christian groups of the first centuries after Christ. That is not to say that the other books of what we call the old testament were not available. And while new testament books like Paul’s epistles were available they too were not declared scripture by extant writings, as far as we know, at least during and immediately after the first century AD.
Without a prophet of God to verify the scriptural status of each scripture and since there was no “bible” in original Christianity we can only look at references to see what books had the authority of the “word of God”
Let’s look at some of the references that Jesus and Paul used.
And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead. (Luke 16:31)
And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)
But this I confess unto thee, that after the Way which they call a sect, so serve I the God of our fathers, believing all things which are according to the law, and which are written in the prophets; (Act 24:14)
The Law and the Prophets are what both Jesus and Paul referred to as the writings that should be believed.
Jesus speaks about which books to consider:
Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; (John 5:39)
The Septuagint was available in Jesus’ time, but he apparently didn’t use it. It is conceivable that where he was there were only scrolls of individual books. There are no references to Esther or Ecclesiastes by Jesus or Paul. The one certain determination about which books had divine status when we read the gospels was whether they were part of the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets are certainly less than what the rabbis in Jesus’ time or the bishops in the fourth century decided were “scripture”. One principle of original Christianity is that what was absolutely considered scripture was the Law and the Prophets. The “Law and the Prophets” means just the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, and the prophetic books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc. However, there is more. There are both direct references and allusions (brief references without quoting exactly) in the gospels and epistles to 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, Job, and Proverbs.
While it does not appear that they were recognized as such when written, the epistles themselves make declarations that they contain the revelation given to set up the Church age. That makes them Scripture and were later recognized as such.
The Hebrew Version of the Old Testament is called the Masoretic text. There was a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint and it had poetic books and historical books besides the Law and the Prophets. Scholars say that the quotes that the new testament writers cite align more closely with the Septuagint than with the Masoretic text. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the disciples preferred the Greek version, a possible explanation is that the Septuagint was translated from earlier scrolls than the Masoretic text we have today and thus was more accurate.
If you are like me you are not ready to throw out the Writings section of the Old Testament and I am not saying to do so. I read books like 1 and 2 Chronicles and poetic writings like Proverbs all the time
The point of this article is to show the change in perspective from the time of original Christianity to now. For a good while in the last centuries, certain Christian churches have grown to take the position that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are inerrantly the “Word of God” whereas it appears that to the first-century Christians, not all 66 books were considered such.
For the above reasons, I am dedicating a section labeled The Law and the Prophets to the website with the view of looking at what Jesus and his disciples called scripture and quoted from. There is also material about Scripture on Determining which Writings are Scripture.
[i] https://www.ethiopianorthodox.org/english/canonical/books.html The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church Faith and Order page.
© copyright 2009-2023 Mark W Smith Last Revised 8/16/2023. All Rights Reserved.