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Josephus: Historical Evidence of the Old Testament Canon

The clearest testimony of the extent of the Hebrew canon comes from the first century writer Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100). He said that the Jews held as sacred only twenty-two books (which include exactly the same as our present thirty-nine books of the Old Testament). He wrote:

We have but twenty-two [books] containing the history of all time, books that are justly believed in; and of these, five are the books of Moses, which comprise the law and earliest traditions from the creation of mankind down to his death. From the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the successor of Xerxes, the prophets who succeeded Moses wrote the history of the events that occurred in their own time, in thirteen books. The remaining four documents comprise hymns to God and practical precepts to men (William Whiston, trans., Flavius Josephus against Apion, Vol. I, in Josephus, Complete Works, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1960, p. 8).

What We Learn From Josephus

There are at least four important things can be derived from this statement of Josephus.

  1. Josephus includes the same three divisions of the Hebrew Scripture, as had the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus and Philo.
  2. He limits the number of canonical books in these three divisions to twenty-two. This would be the same as the current twenty-four – Ruth was attached to Judges, and Lamentation attached to Jeremiah.
  3. He says there has been no more authoritative writings since the reign of Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes (464-424 B.C.). This is the same time of Malachi – the last book in the Old Testament.
    We know that Artaxerxes ruled for forty years. Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of his rule. The Bible says:

    Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king (Ezra 7:8).

    Nehemiah came in his twentieth year:

    In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before (Nehemiah 2:1).

    Therefore the last canonical books were composed in this period.

  4. Between the time of Malachi and Josephus’ writing (425 B.C. to A.D. 90) no additional material were added to the canon of Scripture. Consequently there was the notion of a long period of time without a divinely authoritative Word from God.

The People Were Willing To Die For The Scripture

Josephus also declared the willingness of the Jewish people to die for their sacred writings:

And how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them or take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willing to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in numbers, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws, and the records that contain them (Josephus, Ibid. p. 609).

Josephus Was Aware Of Other Writings Apart From The Hebrew Scriptures

Josephus also wrote concerning books that were composed after the completion of the sacred books.

From Artaxerxes to our times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit, with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets (Against Apion 1:41)

From this statement we learn that other writings had been composed after the completion of the Old Testament. However these books were not considered to be divinely authoritative as was the Scripture. There had been no authoritative Word from the Lord after Malachi.

The views of Josephus would have represented those of Palestinian Judaism in the first century.