Historical and Geographical Background for the Development of the Two Old Testament Canons

Note: The numbers in brackets refer to the chart in the following section.

The development of two Old Testament canons raises questions which are rooted both in history and geography.

[1] The roots of the double Old Testament canon in history center around the beginning of the Diaspora or dispersion of the Jewish communities outside Israel about 600 BC. This occurred at the time of the Babylonian Captivity--the conquering of the Israelites by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar about 605 BC and the Jews being taken to Babylon as captives.

2 Kings 24:12
Then Jehoiachin, king of Judah ... surrendered to the king of Babylon, who, in the eighth year of his reign, took him captive.
2 Kings 25:1-7
In the tenth month of the ninth year of Zedekiah's reign, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon ... advanced against Jerusalem ... The king was therefore arrested ... (Nebuchadnezzar) blinded Zedekiah, bound him with fetters, and had him brought to Babylon.

[2] The Israelites and their king were taken into captivity.

2 Chr 36:20
Those who escaped the sword he carried captive to Babylon, where they became his and his sons' servants until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
Jer 52:28-30
This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadnezzar led away captive: in his seventh year, three thousand and twenty-three people of Judah; in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar, eight hundred and thirty-two persons from Jerusalem; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, exiled seven hundred and forty-five people of Judah: four thousand six hundred persons in all.

[3] A "remnant", a few, remained in Israel.

2 Kings 25:12
But some of the country's poor, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, left behind as vinedressers and farmers.
2 Kings 25:22
As for the people whom he had allowed to remain in the land of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, appointed as their governor Gedaliah, son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan.
Jer 40:11
... the king of Babylon had left a remnant in Judah ...
Eze 33:27
Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, they who live in the ruins on the land of Israel reason thus: ... Tell them this: Thus says the Lord God: As I live, those who are in the ruins I swear shall fall by the sword; ...

[4] Not all Israelites went into captivity in Babylon. A number of Israelites went to Egypt.

2 Kings 25:26
Then all the people, great and small, left with the army commanders and went to Egypt ...
Jer 42:14
... we will go to Egypt, where we will see no more war, hear the trumpet alarm no longer, nor hunger for bread; there we will live.
Jer 43:7
Against the Lord's command they went to Egypt and arrived at Tahpanhes ...

[5] While in captivity, Babylon was captured by Cyrus of Persia.

2 Chr 36:20
... the Persians came to power.
2 Chr 36:23
Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: "All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!"

With Cyrus' proclamation, the captivity of the Israelites came to an end. The Jews began their return to Israel.

Ezra 1:5
Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and Levites--everyone, that is, whom God has inspired to do so--prepared to go up to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.

[6] Ezra and Nehemiah recorded the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem.

Ezra 7:28
I therefore took courage and, with the hand of the Lord, my God, upon me, I gathered together Israelite family heads to make the return journey with me.
Neh 2:11
When I had arrived in Jerusalem, I first rested there for three days.

[7] Many Israelites went on to Egypt from Babylon instead of returning to Israel. History records a substantial Hebrew population in northern Egypt.

The roots of the double Old Testament canon in geography center around the fact that a great number of Israelites departing Babylon fled to northern Egypt. They became part of the city of Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered the region and founded the city. There were ultimately more Jews in Alexandria at the time of Christ than lived in Palestine--as there are more Jews in the United States today than in Israel and more Jews in New York City than in Jerusalem.

1 Mc 1:1,4
After Alexander the Macedonian, Philip's son, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and Medes, he became king in his place, having first ruled in Greece. ... He collected a very strong army and conquered provinces, and rulers, and they became his tributaries. (Considered to be intertestamental Apocrypha by some Protestants; missing from the NAS and NIV translations)

Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in 332 BC. He wanted to make the city the finest port in the ancient world. The city numbered chiefly Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians. It was the capital of Egypt. Most notable among the boasts of the city was the Library--the greatest collection of books in the ancient world in 3rd century BC.

[8] In Palestine, with the return of Ezra from exile (458 BC) and Nehemiah (445 BC), and the prophecy of Malachi (433 BC) there is established biblical silence--no further known divine revelation.

As the first semblance of a Hebrew canon is collected, the language was dying such that it was considered dead by 135 AD. It was dying sufficiently by the time of Christ that Jesus and his contemporaries used Aramaic, a Semitic language which had replaced Hebrew as the common language of the Jewish people.

[9] In Alexandria, Demetrius of Phaleron is the librarian of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC); he wanted copies of the Jewish Law for the Library of Alexandria. Such is perhaps the beginning of a Greek translation of the Torah. Historians do know that the compilation of a full translation of the Torah was made in the early 3rd century BC.

The term septuagint, Latin for the number 70 (LXX), may represent the number of translators. The term stands for not only the Pentateuch in Greek, but the entire body of Hebrew scripture translations and compositions dating from possibly before 300 BC.

There is no biblical silence in the Greek Septuagint: the Septuagint conveys the original text of some books (Wisdom, 2 Maccabees) and the basic canonical form of others, either in part (Esther, Daniel, Sirach) or as a whole (Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and 1 Maccabees).

[10] While the Septuagint was a collection of the books of the Old Testament and an attempt at a canon, it was not a fixed canon in the first century. It was a popular translation of scripture because Greek was the common language of the entire Mediterranean world by the time of the Apostolic Church.

It is not surprising that this is the translation--and canon--used by Christ and the New Testament writers: 300 of 350 quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament are from the Septuagint. The remainder are often paraphrases of either the Hebrew or the Greek only.

A group, perhaps a school, of Jewish rabbis, unsaved by Christian standards, collected a Hebrew canon at Jamnia, in Palestine, by the end of the first century. It is believed they may have been equally pressured to this canon by the demands of the Christian Church of the time. They collected a still unfixed canon of between 22 and 24 books.

[11] Historians place the fixed canon for both the Alexandrian and Palestinian translations at the end of the second century. Bishop Melito of Sardis recorded the first known list of the Septuagint canon in 170 AD. The Septuagint canon contained 45/46 books (Lamentation was once considered a part of Jeremiah); the Palestinian canon contained 39 books.

[12] The first translation of the Bible from Greek to Latin, now the common language (the vulgar or "Vulgate") of the Mediterranean world, was made by Jerome, in Rome, in 383-383 AD. He based his translation on the Hebrew text of the Palestinian canon, but translated from the Greek Septuagint canon those books not found in the Palestinian canon. Jerome's Old Testament canon for the Latin Vulgate contained the books of the Alexandrian canon, 46 books.

[13] Two church councils, local and hence not ecumenical or worldwide councils, Hippo (in north Africa), 393 AD, and Carthage (also in north Africa), 397 AD, from which Protestants and Evangelicals take as the authority for their canon of the New Testament, 27 books, approved the Alexandrian canon of the Greek Septuagint, 46 books, as the canon for the Old Testament.

It is interesting to note that the Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible, was the Latin Vulgate Bible with the Alexandrian canon, 46 books, of the Greek Septuagint.

[14] Roman Catholics accepted the canon of the Bible--the Alexandrian canon of the Old Testament--as a matter of uncontested faith. Since it was not a matter of controversy for sixteen centuries, there was no need to define the canon as infallible truth. When Martin Luther proposed the Palestinian canon, 39 books, in Hebrew in 1529 as the Old Testament canon, the Catholic Church, following the model of refuting error and defining biblically unrevealed truth set in Acts 15--accepting the Holy Spirit as revealing authority--defined, at the Council of Trent, 1563, the Old Testament canon of 46 books following the Alexandrian Greek Septuagint.

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By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Catholic Biblical Apologetics, © Copyright 1985-2004, Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament, © 1986, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
Email comments to pdflan@catholicapologetics.org

Last Updated: July 17, 2004