Generally speaking, the mention of canon or “canonicity” of the Bible is considered a topic for seminary professors and specialists in theology. It appears to have small relevance to “faith and practice.” But when one realizes that canonicity deals with such fundamental questions like “how did God’s people know what belonged in the Bible?” and “how can we be sure we still have what the inspired writers wrote?” it becomes clear that one’s views on canonicity are vitally linked to the integrity of Scripture.
An ongoing attack by biblical critics on the trustworthiness of the Bible has decidedly focused on the canonization of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament. Some critics suggest that the Old Testament canon, those thirty-nine books that comprise our Old Testament, are held to be solely a human product. To summarize, this view holds that the inclusion of Hebrew scrolls into a single corpus or canon came after a long and altered oral history, and eventually was sanctioned by ancient Israel, for some reason, as authoritative, binding, and fixed. Thus, the Old Testament canon was not fixed, that is, closed, until late in the first century AD. It is significant that no biblical critic has uncovered any evidence demonstrating that Judaism points to this period as marking the close of the Old Testament.
The space allowed here means I am only able to focus on one area of this vast topic. I will focus on the reason Israel originally accepted their scrolls as divine and authoritative. That reason, from a human standpoint, was measurable, objective, and verifiable. This reason was followed throughout Israel’s history, a topic we won’t be dealing with in this issue. However, a word regarding the culture in which the Old Testament begins begs at least a modicum of attention. One may even describe that milieu as “the fullness of times,” for every component that pertains to canonicity was not only present but prevalent.
Indeed, it was the “fullness of times.” Every feature and motivation necessary for writing a canon was not only in place but evident. For instance, the kind of language we find in the Old Testament is well attested in Moses’ day, though this was at one time seriously disputed. In proximity to Israel, at the time of Moses, 150 stone tablets demonstrate writing almost identical to biblical Hebrew. With minor exceptions, their alphabets were the same.
Written documents flourished long before the time of the patriarchs in the world that housed the Old Testament. They included writings on buildings, seals, columns, monuments, weights, pottery, tombs, jewelry, houses, letters, reports, contracts, treaties, daybooks, bilingual dictionaries, myths, epics, annals, histories, religious practices, private letters, and every kind of other miscellaneous topic. Civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia that engulfed ancient Israel maintained a number of schools for scribes dubbed “Tablet-Houses.” Strict practices for passing down written texts were established. There is no quarrel that the standardizations of written texts were present during the second millennium BC, at the time of Moses. The belief that God or the gods communicated with men and they wrote down their communications is older than Abraham. And whether or not one believes that God did speak to Abraham, the fact is that the ancients believed that the gods spoke to men and that men recorded their words. No one disputes this. So why should it seem impractical therefore to hold that this would have been a practice among the early Hebrews who also believed that their God had spoken? In addition, sacred texts were deposited in places for safe-keeping by priests. Places like shrines, temples, arks, tombs, and dedicated tents were employed to maintain sacred writings.
All of the above details that are the stuff of canonicity are supported by the evidence. In all candor, I have never seen it contested. The problem is that it has been neglected in the discussion of the Old Testament canon. The fifteenth century BC, the time of Moses, offers no hindrance as to why a figure from that culture could not have recorded details for posterity like those found in the Pentateuch. In fact, the kind of literature we have in the Old Testament strongly argues that it would have been advisable, practical, wise, and beneficial to do so.
This, of course, does not establish the sacredness of the Old Testament. Scripture offers its own reason for its inclusion into a sacred canon and what belongs there. All this only means that there is absolutely no reason why Moses could not have written down what he is said to have written in the situation where the Bible places him, the middle of the second millennium BC.
The beginning of the Old Testament canon corresponds to its times. But, as stated above, the acceptance and preservation for its incorporation in the canon was objectively verifiable. That marked a decided difference. It began with Moses who set a model for the writers of Scripture to follow. As such, we see Moses openly endowed with canonical authority in the formation of the Old Testament. For when the authority of Moses was settled, it established the way for those who were to follow.
The reason for the acceptance of divinely authoritative texts began with the giving of God’s law at Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai). The events at Horeb were not isolated, private, or clandestine affairs. God’s law was presented before a sizeable number of people, a huge community that came out of Egypt (Num. 2:32). This is significant. No other influential religious documents, other than the Scriptures, attest to this kind of corporate verification. A huge multitude served as witnesses. This is explicit. The Lord said to Moses, “I am coming to you … that the people may hear when I speak with you.… On the third day, the LORD will come down … in the sight of all the people (Ex. 19:9–11).
The book of Deuteronomy stresses this. Deuteronomy addressed the youth at Horeb who came out of Egypt. Moses’ audience in Deuteronomy, like their parents, were witnesses to the events at Sinai and old enough to remember them. How could one forget? His whole address to that audience in Deuteronomy 4–5 is dependent on that. Over and over again Moses reminds them they were eye and ear witnesses of an open, visible, and audible demonstration of God’s approval of His law to Moses.
They saw, they heard, and they felt. What did they see? They saw a dense cloud (Ex. 19:9). They saw lightning fire, and smoke that billowed from the mount like a fountain. The sight was awesome. What did they hear? They heard thunder and a trumpet that grew louder and louder. The sound was intimidating. But not only that. They heard a voice coming from the mountain. It loudly sounded Ten Commandments, words from that awesome sight itself. What did they feel? They felt the earth tremble. In truth, the experience was so terrifying that the people asked Moses to act as an intermediary. Terrified Israel presumed they would perish from a scene that must have looked like a volcano. That kind of experience can hardly be forgotten. Any peoples on earth would have been more than persuaded that the great God was there. Who could have asked for anything more? To conjecture that these events were construed in retrospect leaves one in a quandary as to why anyone would perpetrate such an account and then why such an account would be accepted as canonical.
All this is to say that the Lord was demonstrating His approval of Moses as spokesman and author. Pointedly, the Lord states that those events at Sinai were to reassure Israel of Moses’ authority. In Exodus 19:9, God said to Moses, “the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” Thus, the essence of the matter is that writings with canonical authority are based on the eyewitness testimony of God’s approval of a writer of Scripture by a credible number in the community. Who could ask for anything more?
To add to this, as if it weren’t enough, the Lord graciously accommodated His people with further assurances that Moses was His man. The divine approval of Moses at Sinai by an open, outward, and visible display would continue. This approval would accompany Moses throughout the subsequent wilderness wanderings. For when Moses visited the Tent of Meeting, it was Sinai revisited. There God appeared again before all the people in a cloud, as He did at Sinai. At the tent God spoke to Moses as He did at Sinai and Moses’ face radiated a reflection of God’s glory as it did at Sinai. This was a constant public reminder of the Sinai events where it was empirically impressed upon them to the point of fear and trembling that Moses was God’s author. Significantly, when Moses’ authority was challenged again and again by his brother and sister and others, it was the appearance of the cloud of Sinai at the Tent of Meeting that clearly showed the people who was God’s spokesman (Num. 12:5, 8; 14:10; 16:19, 42). It demonstrated to Israel without question that the Lord had stamped His imprimatur on Moses to deliver His words and to instruct His people.
Because of Sinai, the nation gave a positive response. The ratification of Moses’ writings with a covenant ceremony was concluded with the elders acting as national representatives (Ex. 24). All Israel declared that Moses was God’s spokesman and author. When a society recognizes and accepts a document deemed holy and authoritative, it implies textual finality, a phase where the text is not substantially changed.
In sum, the overwhelming endorsement of Moses provided a well attested rationale for the initiation of the Old Testament canon. But since Moses would not always be on the scene, he subsequently issued another objective criteria—the truthfulness of the prophet—by which the author of Scriptures could be measured so that God’s people might discern that He still communicates with them (see Deut. 13; 18).