Keith Hunt - Canonization of the Old Testament - Page Four   Restitution of All Things

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Canonization of the Old Testament #4

THREE divisions!


The Tripartite Divisions

     The Old Testament was originally divided into three parts
called the  Tripartite Divisions. The earliest documentary
evidence that we have available (going back to 180 B.C.) tells us
what the three sections were first called. This information is
found in the Prologue to the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus.
While the man Sirach wrote the book about 180 B.C., his grandson
composed the Prologue about 132 B.C. He mentioned the sacred
books that his grandfather used in the writing of Ecclesiasticus.
In three different statements he referred to the Tripartite
Divisions of the Old Testament.

1) "The Law, the Prophets, and Others of like kind." 
2) "The Law, the Prophets and the Other Books."
3) "The Law itself, and the Prophets, and the Remaining Books."

     While the first two divisions are consistently called "The
Law and the Prophets," the third division was given no technical
name. But since the definite article "the" is used to describe
the second and third occasions of usage, it shows that Sirach's
grandson was no doubt referring to a definite set of books which
then composed the final division. Beardslee, in the Encyclopedia
Americana article "Bible," shows that the terminology imputes a
recognized set of canonical books divided into three divisions.

"In the prologue to Sirach is a reference three times over to
'the Law,' 'the Prophets,'... and the 'Others' with suggestions
of their unique value for culture and wisdom, and of their
fulness and significance. This was written about 130 B.C. It
seems to betoken a complete threefold canonical collection."

     The Prologue is excellent documentary evidence that the
Jewish people had in their midst an authoritative body of books
in three divisions which was considered divine. The unanimous
opinion of early Jewish scholars expressed conviction that the
Old Testament scriptures were selected and placed in an official
order by Ezra the priest (with the help of Nehemiah) in the fifth
century B.C. For rabbinic assessment up to the seventeenth
century of our era we can quote Humphrey Prideaux.

"He [Ezra] collected together all the books of which the holy
scriptures did then consist, and disposed them in their proper
order, and settled the canon of scripture for his time. These
books he divided into three parts: first, the Law; secondly, the
Prophets; and thirdly, the Ketubim or Hagiographa, i.e. the Holy
Writings; which division our Saviour himself takes notice of in
Luke 24:44" (Connection of the Old and New Testaments, vol. 1.
[London:1858], pp.318,319).

     What is important to the whole issue is the acknowledgment
of the official tripartite arrangement by Christ himself. After
his resurrection he rehearsed all the prophecies which were found
in "the Scriptures" concerning himself and his mission. And, most
significant to our present discussion, Christ then defined what
those Scriptures were. His definition is the only one in the
entirety of the New Testament which delineates the extent of the
Old Testament! This affirmation is in the Gospel of Luke (a
gospel intended especially for Gentiles). It was the Gentiles who
needed the Old Testament canon spelled out. Such detail was not
necessary for ordinary Jewish folk in the first century because
they were aware of what books represented the scriptures. This
must be the case because throughout the New Testament (at least
16 different times) the writers simply referred to the Old
Testament as "the Scriptures" - always without enumeration! But
for Gentiles it was a different story. The Gentiles, of course,
would have needed to know what the proper books really were. Even
the apostles themselves may have wanted an authoritative
statement regarding the canon. The definition that Christ gave
could hardly be more official, simply because he confirmed it to
the apostles after his resurrection from the dead! - after he had
once again assumed his glorified position with the Father! This
is when Christ defined "the Scriptures" as the Tripartite

"These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with
you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the
Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning
me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might
understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:44,45).

     Notice that Christ referred to the Third Division as "the
Psalms." There is no doubt that he was alluding to the complete
Third Division, Since that section had no technical name in the
first century (it was either called "the Other Books," or "the
Remaining Books," or "the Writings," even "the Holy Writings"),
it became common to identifyit by the name of the book which
introduced it - the Book of Psalms! There was nothing odd in
using this procedure from the Jewish point of view because they
customarily named the Book of Genesis by the first Hebrew word
that introduced it. This was also true of Exodus, Leviticus,
Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even the Book of Lamentations! There
can be little doubt that Christ was referring to the whole of the
Third Division (all eleven books) when he made his reference to
the Psalms. There is a further proof of this. In Christ's
teaching about the martyrs of the Old Testament period in Luke
11:49-51, we find him saying that the blood of all the prophets
from Abel (the first martyr) to Zacharias (the last martyr in the
canonical order of the Old Testament books) would be required of
that generation to whom he spoke (cf. Matt.23:35). Though in
point of time the last person mentioned in the Old Testament as
having been killed for his righteousness was Uriah (as recorded
in Jeremiah 26:20-23), in the canonical arrangement of the books,
the last was Zacharias mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:20,21. It
must be understood that First and Second Chronicles in our
present Bibles were reckoned as only one book by the early
Hebrews, and that this book was the final one of the Third
Division of the Old Testament! This indication could very well
mean that Christ was referring to all the Old Testament martyrs
from Genesis (book "A") to Chronicles (book "Z"). This is just
another biblical clue that Christ recognized the books within the
Tripartite Divisions (the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms - all
eleven books of the Third Division) as the official ones which
comprised the Old Testament. That these books, and these books
only, have been the authoritative Jewish ones from early times is
a recognized fact! They are certainly the books that now make up
their canon today.

The Witness of Second Maccabees

     It was a well recognized belief near the end of the second
century B.C. that the canon of the Old Testament was completed
about three hundred years before the time of the Maccabees, in
the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Notice 2 Maccabees 2:12-15.
Speaking about the Feast of Tabernacles, its author said:

"Solomon also kept the eight days. The same thing was related
also in the records and memoirs about Nehemiah, that he founded a
library and collected the books about the kings, and the
prophets, and the works of David, and royal letters about sacred

     The author then related that the Holy Scriptures had been
regathered after the Maccabeen War (from 168 to 165 B. C.) and
again could be read and followed. Notice that this reference has
Nehemiah building a library and collecting the sacred books! This
ties in well with the teaching of Josephus that the 22 books of
the Old Testament were brought together and canonized in the time
of Ezra and Nehemiah (Contra Apion, I.8). The library of Nehemiah
(who was a high government official in the Persian Empire) could
easily account for the mention of many ancient historical works
in the Book of Chronicles [which we will refer to later].
     Chronicles, the last book of the Old Testament, describes
events which dovetail well with the historical environment during
the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. There were, however, editorial
remarks recorded in the book (genealogical records, etc.) until
the time of Alexander the Great (c. 330 B.C.).

     Let us now notice a point made in Second Maccabees about the
canonization of the Old Testament. It said the literary works of
"the kings and the prophets" were gathered together in the time
of Ezra and Nehemiah! This indication could well be a reference
to the Prophets' (the second) Division of the Tripartite
arrangement of the Old Testament. This is because the books about
the "Kings" (our present books of Samuel and Kings) are
immediately followed in the canonical order by the Major Prophets
(Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) then the twelve Minor Prophets. And
it is exactly this order that we find recorded in Second
Maccabees! But there is more! Second Maccabees then states that
those "kings and prophets" were followed by "the works of David."
Again, this is the precise order of the Jewish canon. The fact
is, the Third Division of the Tripartite arrangement begins with
"the Psalms of David," which even Christ himself recognized as
the book which introduced the final division of the Old Testament
(Luke 24:44,45). But the reference in Second Maccabees doesn't
terminate with "the works of David" (the Psalms). It continues to
state that the books to follow were "the royal letters." And in
the biblical canon maintained by the official Jewish authorities,
all the rest of the books in the Third Division were indeed
"royal" or "government" documents just as the Book of Psalms
itself was "royal" in origin. This fact has not been noticed by
most people, but look at all the books in the Third Division -
they have the theme of "royalty" running through them all just as
Second Maccabees records.

     The Book of Psalms (the first book) is a book authored by
King David (Psalms 1 through 71), then a book by or for King
Solomon (72), then those by the priests of David (73 to 88), the
one for King Josiah (89), then the millennial or kingdom of God
Psalms (90 to 106), followed by sundry Psalms of David (107 to
150) - including the Degree Psalms (120 to 134) which were
composed for King Hezekiah (as we will also observe later). Thus,
the Book of Psalms which introduces the Third Division is a book
which has royal persons as authors or it presents themes which
concern the kingdom of Judah, Israel, and the kingdom of God!
The royal Book of Psalms is followed by the Book of Proverbs.
This book was authored primarily by King Solomon, with a section
devised for King Hezekiah (chapters 25 to 29 inclusively), and
Agur the King of Massa (30) and finally King Lemuel (31). The
whole of Proverbs is a "royal document" as Second Maccabees
describes the books positioned after those of the Prophets.
But it doesn't stop there. In the canonical order of the Old
Testament books, the Book of Job follows Proverbs. Job was
described as a king and represented royalty (29:25). The Book of
Ruth comes next, and is manifestly a work about the early
ancestry of King David (it is a royal book which gives the
genealogical history of David). Then follows the Book of
Lamentations. This was written by the prophet Jeremiah for, as we
will see later, King Josiah of Judah. It also is a "royal book."
Then we have Ecclesiastes which was traditionally composed by
King Solomon. After that, in the canonical order, is the Book of
Esther. She was Queen of Persia (again, a clear royalty
indication). Following Esther is Daniel. This book is one of
"royal" character. Not only does it discuss at length the history
of royal rulership from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar of
Babylon until the kingdom of God appears on earth, but it was
written by Daniel who was of royal Davidic stock - "of the king's
seed, one of the princes" (Dan.1:3). The next book in order was
that of Ezra (responsible for re-establishing the official
government of God in Jerusalem). With him was Nehemiah who may
have been of Davidic blood (cf. Nehemiah 6:6,7 where it states
the Jews wanted to make him king - and only those of Davidic
ancestry could then legally become king in the biblical sense).

     It should be understood that in the original Jewish
numbering of the Old Testament books, the present two of Ezra and
Nehemiah were always reckoned as one. Thus, the predominant
person who put into action the affairs of state was Nehemiah. He
was probably of royal ancestry and responsible, so said Second
Maccabees, of collecting the books for his library and selecting
a divine body of books for posterity. The last book of the Third
Division was that of Chronicles. It takes little study to see
that this book focuses on the establishment of Jerusalem and the
family of David as the legitimate rulers for the divine
government on earth! It is indeed a royal book too!

     Thus, all the books of the Third Division. (which commenced
with the Psalms) were royal books, or, as Second Maccabees called
them, "the royal letters." With this information in mind, it can
be seen that by 100 B.C., when Second Maccabees was written, the
Old Testament was already canonized and in the exact order as
maintained by the Jews today and also by Christ in Luke 24:44,45.
Christ called the Third Division "the Psalms." The use of
introductory books or even words to describe biblical divisions
or sections was common by the Jews. See Mishnah, Taanith 4:3;
Meg. 2:3; 3:4,5,6; 4:10.

     This practice of using introductory words as titles of whole
sections or even divisions of literary works was well known. When
the Nag Hammadi Library of ancient books was discovered in 1945
it was soon found that the introductory words of a work gave the
whole composition its title. Prof. Frederik Wisse made this
comment: "It is not unusual for the opening words of a tractate
to function as the title for the whole tractate" (The Nag Hammadi
Library, p.394).
     And so it was with the Third Division of the Old Testament.
It was called "the Psalms" by Christ because that was the book
which introduced the division. This designation was also followed
by the Jewish scholar Philo Judaeus who lived in the time of
Christ. He regarded the Jewish canon as "the laws, and oracles
that have come through the prophets, also with the hymns (psalms)
and the other books" (Cont Life). This is a reference to the
Tripartite Divisions.

The Apostolic Constitutions

     The Apostolic Constitutions was written about A.D.200. It
purports to give some of the original teachings of the apostles.
And while the work was trying to bring in Old Testament authority
for some of its claims, it inadvertently confirms the commonly
understood order of the books and Tripartite Divisions of the
canon. It states that the Old Testament was composed of the Law,
the Kings and Prophets, and the hymns of David (Constitutions of
the Holy Apostles, 1.2.5). It is important to note that the Third
Division is again called "the Hymns," just as Second Maccabees
and Philo do. Such a description was a common variant of the name
"the Psalms" which Christ used in Luke 24:44,45. Ancient literary
usage shows this to be correct.

The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan

     In regard to the Tripartite Divisions of the original Hebrew
canon, attention ought to be made to these two Targums. In the
first century before Christ, many of the common people of Judaea
spoke an Aramaic dialect which had become popular among the Jews
while they resided in Babylon. Aramaic was akin to the Hebrew in
many ways, but it still represented a different language. Even
Ezra had to interpret the intent of the original Hebrew of the
early Old Testament because the Jews had forgotten the Hebrew
while in Babylon (Neh.8:1-8). From the time of Ezra onwards, it
became common to make Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament.
These works are called Targums. Near the time of Christ there
were two Targums which reached a type of official status among
the Jews. These were the Targum of the Law by Onkelos, and the
Targum of the Prophets by Jonathan. The Talmud reveals that these
two Targums were even used in synagogue services. And while the
first two sections of the Tripartite Divisions were recognized as
proper books to be read in synagogue services, the Third Division
(which existed at the time) was not permitted to be paraphrased
(so the story goes) because of a divine messsage against it
(Megillah, 3a, The Babylonian Talmud). Though the Third Division
was not at first paraphrased, this is still a testimony that that
particular section of the Scriptures was already recognized as
inspired and a part of the canon by the time of Christ.

     And as far as the Talmud itself is concerned, it clearly
supports the Tripartite Divisions as representing the official
canon. Since the fifth century, the Jews have had a special name
for the Old Testament. They call it the Tanak. This word is a
manufactured one derived from the first letters of the titles of
the threefold divisions. The Law (the first five books) was known
as the Torah. The Prophets' Division was called the Nebi'um. And
the Psalms' (or Writings') Division was known as the Ketuvim. In
referring to these three divisions, they simply took the initial
letters of the three titles (i.e. T, N, K) and formed the word
Tanak. The Jews use this word to refer to the Old Testament canon
as commonly as Christians use the word "Bible."

     This practice shows the Jewish steadfastness in maintaining
the Tripartite Divisions of the Old Testament which tradition
(and the early records) show was handed down from the time of
Ezra and Nehemiah. And since we have the express testimony of
Christ himself that "the Scriptures" represented "The Law of
Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (the Third Division)" (L
24:44,45), it seems odd that any Christian today would question
the legitimacy of its official character. Should not Christ's
appraisal be sufficient?

     It is my belief that these ancient divisions ought to be
retained in all versions of the Bible today. When this is done we
will be afforded a better understanding of the Bible.


To be continued

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