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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Introduction to the Old Testament

John Barton

A. The Old Testament Canon.

1.

‘The Old Testament’ is the term traditionally used by Christians and others to refer to the Holy Scriptures of Judaism, which the Church inherited as part of its Jewish origins and eventually came to see as a portion of its own composite Bible, whose other main section is the New Testament. The early Church recognized as Old Testament Scripture both those books which now form the Hebrew Scriptures accepted as authoritative by Jews, and a number of other books, some of them originally written in Hebrew but now (with a few exceptions) found only in Greek and other, later, translations. Since the Reformation, the Hebrew Scriptures alone are recognized as part of the Bible by Protestants, but Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to acknowledge also these ‘Greek’ books—sometimes called the ‘deuterocanonical’ books—which are referred to as ‘The Apocrypha’ in Protestantism. In this commentary all the books recognized by any Christian church have been included, just as they are in the NRSV, but (again as in the NRSV) we have followed the Protestant and Jewish custom of separating the Apocrypha from the Hebrew Scriptures.

2.

The official list of books accepted as part of Scripture is known as the ‘canon’, and there are thus at least two different canons of the OT: the Hebrew Scriptures (for which Jews do not use the title ‘Old Testament’), and the OT of the early church, which contained all the Hebrew Scriptures together with the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books. This second canon has in turn been received in a slightly different form in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, so that there are a few books in the Orthodox canon which do not appear in the Catholic Bible (e.g. 3 Maccabees, Ps 151 ) and one book (2 Esdras) which is often found in Catholic Bibles but is not extant in Greek and therefore not canonical in the Orthodox churches. The Protestant Apocrypha has traditionally included the deuterocanonical books of the Catholic rather than of the Orthodox church. For a comparison of the Hebrew and Greek canons, see the chart at 1.

3.

How did this situation arise? There are many theories about the origins of the various canons, but one which is widely accepted is as follows. By the beginning of the Common Era, most if not all of the books now in the HB were already regarded as sacred Scripture by most Jews. Many, however, especially in Greek-speaking areas such as Egypt, also had a high regard for other books, including what are now the deuterocanonical or apocryphal books, along with others which are no longer in any Bible. The early Christian church, which was predominantly Greek-speaking, tended to accept this wider canon of books. In due course, mainstream Judaism decided to canonize only the books extant in Hebrew, but the Christian churches continued to operate with a wider canon. Certain Church Fathers, notably Melito of Sardis (died c.190 CE) and Jerome (c.345–420) proposed that the church should exclude the deuterocanonical books, but this proposal was not accepted. It was only at the Reformation in the sixteenth century that Jerome's suggestion was reconsidered, and Protestants opted for the shorter, Jewish canon of the Hebrew Scriptures as their OT. The Catholic Church continued to use the longer canon, and the Orthodox churches were unaffected by the Reformation in any case. Some Protestants, notably Lutherans and Anglicans, treated what they now called the Apocrypha as having a sub-scriptural status, but Calvinists and other Protestants rejected it entirely. (See Sundberg 1964; 1968; Anderson 1970; Barton 1986; 1997a ; 1997b ; Beckwith 1985; Davies 1998 .)

4.

Since we have included a separate Introduction to the Apocrypha in this Commentary, little more will be said about these deuterocanonical books here. But it is important to grasp that the term ‘Old Testament’ does not identify a corpus of books so simply as does the corresponding ‘New Testament’, since different Christians include different books within it. ‘Hebrew Bible’ or ‘Hebrew Scriptures’ is unambiguous and is nowadays often preferred to ‘Old Testament’, but it cannot be used to refer to the longer OT of the ancient church.

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