Old Testament Contents
If you open up your Bible (at least ones in the Protestant tradition), you will find 39 books listed as the Old Testament:
- 1 Samuel
- 2 Samuel
- 1 Kings
- 2 Kings
- 1 Chronicles
- 2 Chronicles
- Song of Songs
Hebrew/Jewish Bibles have the same books, but they reckon the numbering and ordering a little different. For instance, where the Christian Bible lists Malachi last, the Jewish Bible will list 2 Chronicles last.
Hebrew/Jewish Bibles also divide these books into 3 categories:
- Law (Hebrew, Torah) = Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
- Prophets (Hebrew, Nevi’im) = Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1-2 Samuel included), Kings (1-2 Kings included), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Twelve “Minor Prophets” (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
- Writings (Hebrew, Ketuvim) = Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles (1-2 Chronicles included)
In fact, you will sometimes hear people refer to the Jewish Bible as the Tanakh. This word is literally an acronym of these 3 divisions: Ta [short for Torah/Law] — Na [short for Nevi’im/Prophets] — Kh [short for Ketuvim/Writings] (see Wikipedia’s “Hebrew Bible”).
Only These Books?
This set of writings we call “Old Testament” (or “Hebrew Bible” or “Tanakh”) is a fixed canon. Meaning, no more writings could be added to this set.
The best way to confirm this is to look at Jesus’ own affirmations of the Old Testament. Remember, He lived and spoke hundreds of years after this collection of writings had been established and seen as God’s Scripture.
Jesus is not shy about quoting from these books. By one count, He affirms 24 of the 39 books of the Old Testament directly as Scripture (and does this with no other writings outside of the Old Testament). He also names various authors by name, specifically: Moses (John 5:46), Daniel (Matt. 24:15), David (Mark 12:36), and Isaiah (Matthew 15:7). As an aside, it is astounding to me that the 4 Old Testament authors most frequently doubted as being authentic in modern seminaries are these same 4 authors. Surely, Jesus knew and still knows today! Why won’t we just trust Him?
Beyond this, Jesus in 2 places affirms the entire Old Testament Canon (all 3 sections, which included all 39 Old Testament books):
The Law, Prophets, and Psalms
First, let’s look at Luke 24:44:
He [Jesus] said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”Luke 24:44
Notice, Jesus mentions the 3-fold division of the Old Testament referenced earlier:
- The Law (of Moses)
- The Prophets
- The Writings (though Jesus calls it the Psalms, it seems this is because it is the first and largest book of that section)
Pause to consider the importance. Jesus is, in essence, affirming the whole of the Old Testament by referring to its 3 divisions, and showing that they are God’s word because they prophetically speak of Him (thus carry God’s authority). If the Old Testament books were in flux at this time, it seems inconceivable that He could refer to the fixed sections of the Old Testament in this way.
Bookends: Genesis & 2 Chronicles
In Luke 11:51 (and Matt. 23:35), Jesus references “bookends” of martyrs. Namely, He speaks of Abel as the first martyr and Zechariah as the last matyr. Why did He choose these 2 martyrs as starting and ending points? The death of Abel is recorded in Genesis 4, whereas the Zechariah Jesus refers to is found in 2 Chron. 24. Though there were other martyrs that died after Zechariah in 2 Chron. 24, he is the very last martyr listed in 2 Chronicles. This is significant because the fixed Jewish Bible of Jesus’ time began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles (as it does today). Thus, this seemingly small reference to martyrs found in Luke 11 and Matthew 23 speak loudly that Jesus (and his audience) respected a fixed set (and order) of Old Testament books.Brian Holda, “Why our Bible doesn’t have 1 Enoch” (2020)
Thus, from different angles Jesus affirms the Old Testament we hold today as a fixed set:
- by referring to those books and authors solely as authoritative
- by referencing the 3-fold divisions of that Old Testament
- by referencing the “bookends” of that Old Testament
If Jesus thought the writings were in flux in His ministry, He would not have referenced them as if they were one established block of writings (which we call the Old Testament Canon).
Saying all this, it is true that some individuals and groups of Jews at the time of Jesus wondered or questioned if it was really “these 39 books and no more” (well, they would have numbered it differently, but were speaking of the same contents, so you get the idea). But even a casual reading of the gospels show that Jews of Jesus’ day believed all sorts of wrong things about God and the Bible. The question is, what does Jesus think? He should settle any doubts about peripheral views here or there on the matter by approving of what seems to be a mainline stance of many Jews of his day: that the 39 books of the Old Testament were truly God’s fixed Canon.
Council of Jamnia
Some have claimed that the Old Testament Canon wasn’t settled in Jesus’ day, and that the Jews had a “Council of Jamnia” that finally settled the Old Testament. But, from the research I’ve done, it seems more likely that such a council discussed books currently in the Old Testament Canon to see if they should stay there (as opposed to establishing if they should be there in the first place). And they kept those questioned books in there after all.
The 20th-century evangelical scholar F. F. Bruce thought that it was “probably unwise to talk as if there were a Council or Synod of Jamnia which laid down the limits of the Old Testament canon.” Other scholars have since joined in and today the theory is largely discredited. Some hold that the Hebrew canon was established during the Hasmonean dynasty (140–40 BCE).Wikipedia’s “Council of Jamnia”
Others have wondered about the “apocryphal books” that the Catholics include in their Bibles but Protestants don’t in theirs.
This is a big question that I can’t do justice here, but a well-respected Old Testament Scholar, Dr. Peter J. Williams, has made the point repeatedly that the closer the early Christians were to Jewish communities, the more they rejected the apocryphal writings (and only affirmed the Old Testament Canon we’ve been discussing in this article) (see various YouTube recordings by Peter J Williams discussing the Old Testament contents–sorry I don’t have a specific reference right now). But as those Christian communities were less connected with Jewish communities, they began entertaining some possibility of accepting apocryphal content (though never across-the-board).
Thus, the church would grow up to esteem the Old Testament Canon as Scripture, with mixed views on the apocryphal writings. This came to a head, a bit, in the time of the Reformation, at the Council of Trent when the Catholic Church officially acknowledged the apocryphal writings as “deuterocanonical”, which means “belonging to the second canon” (see Wikipedia’s, “Deuterocanonical Books”). Meaning, as I understand it, that they aren’t officially considered part of the 39 books of the Old Testament Books we’ve discussed here, but Catholics still see them as Scriptural. In contrast, Protestants (rightly) deny them as God’s Scripture.
Again, going into these books is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, the Jewish communities of Jesus’ day, as well as Jesus Himself (who is infinitely more important), did not recognize the apocrypha as part of the Old Testament Canon, but only the fixed set mentioned in this article.
For a much deeper dive into this subject, I recommend:
- Wayne Grudem’s, Systematic Theology, chapter on “The Canon of Scripture” – written for a general audience
- F.F. Bruce’s, The Canon of Scripture – a full book written a bit for general audience and a bit for academics
- R.T. Beckwith’s, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church: and its Background in Early Judaism – this is a dense and significant scholarly work, written for more scholarly audience