Canonization: Part 2 Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)

The canonization of the Hebrew scriptures is traced back to when God communicated with the ancient Israelite people by dictating his words to be written by human writers and by physically writing on stone tablets. This is portrayed in Exodus 24:4 of the Hebrew scriptures stating, “Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.” Also, Exodus 31:18 states, “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” The Israelites recognized, received, obeyed and preserved these written words throughout the centuries (Exod 24:7, 2 Kgs 23:3, Neh 8:9). Thus, an authoritative collection of written communication from God in the form of “the Law” (consisting of Genesis to Deuteronomy) was established early in the history of Israelites.[1]

Furthermore, God spoke prophetically through his chosen prophets both orally and in written form. There was a strong prophetic presence and influence by the prophets among the Israelite people. The prophets used statements claiming that they were speaking for God, including “declares the LORD” (Is 3:15, Jer 1:15, Hos 2:21), “this is what the LORD says” (Is 7:7, Jer 2:5, Ezek 3:11), “the word of the LORD came” (Jer 1:4, Ezek 6:1, Hos 1:1). [2] Thus, the words of the prophets and other Israelite prophetic writings were eventually recognized as God’s authoritative words with the designation of “the Prophets.”[3]

While there is canonical clarity of “the Law” and “the Prophets” in the Hebrew scriptures and in other ancient sources, the third traditional designation―”the writings”, has been debated by scholars. The debate focuses on the timing of the designation. Some scholars argue that the designation of “the Law” and “the Prophets” included those writings that are traditionally designated as “the writings”, and thus “the writings” were later re-categorized with a new designation. Others argue that there were developmental stages of the canon, where the initial stages only included the five books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets, and the latter stages introduced those writings that are designated “the writings”. Regardless of the position one settles on, the Hebrew scriptures in the form of “the Law”, “the Prophets” and “the Writings”[4] are considered part of the Judeo-Christian canon of scripture.

Moreover, there is strong historical, external evidence for this form of the canonization of Hebrew scriptures primarily from the septuagint c. 250-100 BCE, which contains writing from each of the designations. Ancient Jewish rabbis, philosophers and historians, including Jesus of Nazareth 4 BCE-30 CE, Philo of Alexandria c.20 BCE-50 CE and Josephus c. CE 37-100, allude to writings from the tripartite designation.  Further evidence for this canonical construction can be detected in other ancient Jewish tradition writings, and the writings of the Christian Apostles and Early Church Fathers.[5]

With all this in view, there is an incomplete record of the process of recognizing the canonicity of the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, Paul Wegner suggests four criteria that may have assisted in the process 1) the writing did not contain contradictions. 2) the writing was written by a prophet of God or someone thought to have been granted divine authority. 3) the writing originated through inspiration from God. 4) the writing was accepted by the Jewish people as authoritative. [6]


[1] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 102.

[2] Ibid., 103.

[3] William Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Revised and Updated ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2004), 106.  

[4] Wegner, The Journey, 104.  

[5] Ibid., 108-114.

[6] Ibid., 117.