While those in the Eastern Orthodox Church claim the Jews once had a wider canon than they do now, such a statement far exceeds the actual evidence. Rather, when looking at the evidence, we find that the early Church, "with regard to the Old Testament", "appears to have remained in conscious and intentional accord with the Jewish community”(Ellis). Along with other reasons for thinking this is the case (which will be covered later), there are multiple sources that point us in the direction of a canonical list much like the Protestant and Hebrew Old Testament.
Josephus proves helpful again as he gives his gentile audience some information on the Hebrew Scriptures. "For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine.” Josephus goes on to explain somewhat the content of these books, their threefold division, along with the time frame in which they were written. From this record as well as what can be gathered from other lists, the content is almost if not exactly what we have in our Protestant Bibles.
Jubillees, a book widely known in the earlier Christian Church and reflected in Christian literature in the mid second century, supports Josephus’ claims. While a significant piece to this discussion is missing in the Ethiopic text, there are several sixth century Greek writers and others from the third century who quote or show that they had access (some independent) to Jubilees. The quotation itself reads something like, "God, as it says, created (22) works in the six days, wherefore also there are 22 letters among the Hebrews and 22 books, and 22 founding fathers from Adam to Jacob." The number twenty-two has shown up again and, is continually mentioned as to assume the contents were well known.
This is a prologue attached to a Greek translation of Jesus, son of Sirach whose Hebrew work originated in Palestine in the early 2nd cent BC. "My grandfather Jesus [devoted himself] to the law and the prophets and the other ancestral books. [In Greek translation] not only this work but even the law itself and the prophecies and the rest of the books differ not a little [from the original]." It would appear that certain books had canonical status, even in the second century (probably even earlier). This passage is significant because it is already translated into Greek and is also divided into three parts just like the canonical books of Josephus and another Jewish historian, Philo.
The passage itself reveals that certain books had canonical status early on. The fact that it was translated into Greek and follows the same three part division as Josephus and Philo makes it likely to have the same content. The absence of any explicit mention of the book titles is nothing unusual. There was no need to list out what was already obvious and common knowledge. Later, we find more specific listings once the content was needed to be clarified to the Gentile Christians.
Even though there are not many early Christian writers who “give a precise list of Old testament books used in their own circles,” there are some that do. For instance, from the East, Melito, bishop of Sardis gives a list around 170AD. He presents a list of Old Testament books, as preserved by Eusebius, in the form of a letter to his friend, Onesimus. He clears up the confusion in his region over the number of books when reports both the name and number of books. His list likely has all of the books in the Protestant canon except for Esther.
"...When I came to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts... These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua Son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of kingdoms, two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon's Proverbs of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [Minor Prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras."
In this list, Samuel is put in with Kings, Lamentations in Jeremiah, Ezra-Nehemiah are put as Esdras and “Solomon's Proverbs of Wisdom” are most likely another name for Proverbs if we follow the labels of Eusebius, Hegesippus and Irenaeus. The book count will still differ (from the 22) because Samuel and Kings are counted as four, Judges and Ruth as two and the same for Chronicles. This way of numbering gives us a count of 25 books. These differences are explained by the ways in which the books were kept. In the beginning, books were kept on scrolls and sometimes certain books were kept together on one scroll or just divided or ordered differently (differences in order can be seen even later); also, sometimes smaller books were placed in with others.
The list has all of the Old Testament except for Esther. This could be due to a scribal slip or the similar appearance of the words in Greek. There is also the possibility that it was purposely left out since Esther is not found at Qumran either.
Another list of Old Testament books is drawn up by Origin (AD 185-254), “the greatest biblical scholar among the Greek fathers”(Bruce). One of the many works he is known for is his compilation of the Old Testament which is represented in six columns called the Hexapla. One of the columns, the Septuagint, was given particular attention by Origen. Here, he distinguishes between where the Septuagint omits parts of the Hebrew text or adds something not found in the Hebrew text. Such meticulous care shows up in his list of Old Testament books.
Origen says, “We should not be ignorant that there are twenty-two books of the [Old] Testament, according to the tradition of the Hebrews, corresponding to the number of letters in their alphabet…. These are the twenty-two books according to the Hebrew:” Origen follows the “twenty-two” book formula found in the earlier source Jubillees. This lends support to his list going back much earlier. If this is the case, then we have a list (also supported by other lists) possibly predating Josephus.
He then goes on to list these books with the Hebrew names set alongside the Greek ones. The list contains all of the books within the Hebrew and Protestant Old Testament, including Esther. The book of the Twelve Prophets is accidentally dropped out in the process of transmission, but this is clearly an error since Origen needs it to complete his list of twenty-two books.
It is also important to draw attention to the Letter of Jeremiah that is attached, along with Lamentations, to Jeremiah. Scholar Earle Ellis points out that this can either be an appendix to Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible or a scribal gloss on Origen’s list. His reasons for it being a scribal gloss are compelling. First, the Jews don’t have or read Baruch. Second, when other fourth century lists combine the Letter of Jeremiah and Baruch with Jeremiah, they reflect the content of the Latin and Greek Bibles being used at the time. Lastly, scribal “mending” is known elsewhere and was used to conform texts to the current use.
While it may be the case that we in our modern era do not have an ancient manuscript predating Josephus that explicitly lists the Old Testament books, that should not be a concern. The Palestinian Jews were not confused over the content of their canon and felt comfortable loosely referencing them or assuming the books of Moses upon occasion. Later, when there was confusion over the Hebrew canon in Christian circles, they would go back to Palestine and receive the needed content. In the case of Origen, he received that content along with the “twenty-two” book label present in early referencing.
1.For the other greek writers contributing to this view of Jubillee see: John Constantinople, Symeon Logothetes, Georgius Syncellus and Georgius Cedrenus, Origen, Julius Africanus and in the beginning of Credrenus's history.
2. Why else think the Jews didn't use Baruch? Epiphanius and rabbinic tradition excludes Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah from the Hebrew canon.
3.Philo also follows a three fold division. See Philo, De Vita Contemplativa 1f., 25, 28f.
4. Jesus also seems to assume common knowledge of the canonical books when He mentions the Law, Prophets and Psalms in Luke 24:44. Dr. Lee McDonald on p93-100 in The Biblical Canon gives probably one of the best critiques along with two other widely used passages: Luke 11:48-51 and Matthew 23:34-35.
5. 1 and 2 Esdras are Ezra-Nehemiah according to Jerome’s Vulgate. See Bruce
6. Some good support for the Hebrew Old Testament not listed can be found from: Philo, De Vita Contemplativa 1f., 25, 28f, Qumran and Baba Batra.
7. Readers whose LXX copies had I Esdras (alongside of Ezra-Nehemiah), Origen's statement may have been misunderstood and interp to mean that I Esdras was part of the Hebrew canon.
Earle Ellis "The Old Testament in Early Christianity"
Josephus "Against Apion"
Roger Beckwith "The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church"
F.F. Bruce "The Canon of Scripture"
Hebrew/Protestant OT Canon
Scholar E. Earle Ellis says that when looking at the evidence, we find that the early Church, "with regard to the Old Testament", "appears to have remained in conscious and intentional accord with the Jewish community"(Ellis P6). He also lists five reasons why he believes this is the case:
1. The early Christian writings reveal no trace of the friction that supposedly existed with the other Jewish groups over which carried divine authority. This is still the case by the second century. If such a large amount of friction existed between the Jews and Christians over canonical authority, we would expect the disagreement to show up in Justin's Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. It doesn't. Instead, the only differences cited are passages in books from the LXX that Justin thought were deleted from the Hebrew texts by the rabbis.
2. After the Diaspora, when the church was mainly gentile, and the precise extent of the Old Testament books were needed, they sought the "Jewish or Jewish- Christian communities in Palestine" (see Melito in 2nd cent, Origen in 3rd and Jerome in the 4th).
3. "In what has been termed 'the crisis of the Old Testament canon,' the second century church raised questions, in fact, not about the authority of the Old Testament but about its interpretation and
4. the heretic Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament, represented an abbreviation in Christian practice that was uncharacteristic even of heretical movements."
5. Parts of the church gave canonical status to certain Jewish apocryphal books only later. Ellis sees this as an outgrowth "of a popular and unreflective use of these writings, a case of custom triumphing over judgment."