The Old Testament Periods of Canonization
The time of King Josiah in the history of canonization is almost as significant as that of Hezekiah. The ominous conditions that prevailed with Hezekiah were again extant in Josiah’s day. Only the actors had changed. Instead of the Assyrians threatening the existence of Judah, this time it was the Babylonians. And instead of Ahaz’s evil, which blanketed Judaic society prior to the reign of Hezekiah, this time it was that of Manasseh and Amon. In some ways, the latter apostasy of Manasseh exceeded that of Ahaz.
“So Manasseh made Judah and Jerusalem to err, and to do worse than the heathen, whom the Lord had destroyed before the children of Israel.”
2 Chronicles 33:9
The re-introduction of Gentile paganism during the long reign of Manasseh was accomplished at the expense of Mosaic religion. The Temple services, carefully reinstituted by Hezekiah and Isaiah, again were neglected, and finally ceased altogether. Manasseh (like Ahaz before him) stripped the Temple of its furniture. Even blocks of masonry and ceiling rafters were removed and used in other buildings until the Temple structure itself became practically an empty hulk (2 Chronicles 34:8–11).
The Book of Chronicles shows that the religious condition of Judah during Manasseh’s reign was near the low point, but with the two-year rule of his son, Amon, the situation even worsened. “Amon trespassed more and more” (2 Chronicles 33:21–23). However, Amon was finally murdered by his own servants (2 Chronicles 33:24–25). At this point, Josiah, a mere child, was thrust onto the stage of history.
Josiah was one of the most remarkable men of the Old Testament. In his short life, the Bible states he maintained extraordinary character, even though his father and grandfather had been two of the most evil kings that the house of David ever produced. Despite the religious depravity of the environment into which he was born, Josiah displayed a righteousness rivaling that of David and Hezekiah. In fact, the Bible says he even excelled those kings.
“And like unto him [Josiah] was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.”
2 Kings 23:25
Long previously, in the reign of Rehoboam, a prophecy had been uttered about a certain Josiah who would destroy the heathen altars in the land of Israel (1 Kings 13:1–3). That Josiah had now arrived.
Josiah ascended to the throne at eight years of age. When he was twenty he began to:
“purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images.”
2 Chronicles 34:3
Six years later, having cleansed the land of idolatry, he ordered that the Temple (which lay practically in ruins) be completely repaired and restored to its former splendor. He also ordained that all the priestly functions be reinstated. Josiah renovated the whole religious environment in the land of Judah. It seemed to be a time of renewal like that of Hezekiah.
Then, a significant event took place. While the Holy Place of the Temple was being repaired, Hilkiah, the High Priest and the father of Jeremiah came upon the neglected scroll of the Law (the standard copy placed in the sleeves of the Ark). Recognizing the importance of his find, Hilkiah had this archetype copy taken to King Josiah.
After thoroughly reading it for several days and noticing especially the curse-warnings within the Law, Josiah rent his clothes in repentance for himself and for the people of Judah. He discovered that even in his reformation he had not been accomplishing things in the precise manner required by the Law (2 Chronicles 34:19). Endeavoring to do his best was not good enough for Josiah. He wanted to perform all the religious duties as prescribed by Moses.
In the Law, which he had been reading, were statements that if the people forsook God and his Law, then God would forsake them and send them into captivity. Josiah was terror-stricken when the impact of these warnings became clear to him. He saw immediately that time was running out for Judah. With the new-found Law in his midst, he pursued his reforming policies with even greater diligence. His zeal gained for him a promise from God that there would be peace in Judah for the remainder of his life.
“Because your heart was tender, and you did humble yourself before God, when you heard his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humble yourself before me, and did rend your clothes, and weep before me: I have even heard you also, says the Lord. Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, neither shall your eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same.”
2 Chronicles 34:27–28
These words constituted a promise of peace and safety for Judah during the lifetime of Josiah. Those who shared Josiah’s enthusiasm for reform received these promises with great joy. With Josiah being only twenty-six years old, they fully expected the curses of Deuteronomy 2$ to be delayed at least forty or fifty years.
Even though the rumblings of the Babylonian armies were already being heard in the north, the people of Jerusalem felt those armies would not approach them as long as King Josiah lived. But, the promise depended on Josiah being prudent about his own safety.
A few years later, Josiah ventured north to confront the Egyptians and the Babylonians at the place that later became known as Armageddon. Within days, shock seized the Jews. They received news from a messenger that Josiah had sustained a severe wound from a chance arrow. But they were paralyzed with horror when the next messenger reported that Josiah had died at the youthful age of thirty-nine. The prospect for two or three more decades of God’s protection, in which the God-fearing Jews had taken comfort, vanished overnight. Since Josiah was dead, nothing lay ahead for the Jews but certain drought, plague, invasion and captivity.
All hopes for the peace of Jerusalem appeared lost. The evils of Deuteronomy 28 were then expected to occur. Not only had an excellent king been taken from them, but his death also meant the prophesied captivity upon the Jewish nation could then occur. Thus, “all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah” (2 Chronicles 35:24). It is no coincidence that from this time forward Jeremiah began his series of prophecies about the imminent captivity of Judah. Even at the critical moment of Josiah’s death, Jeremiah composed an important work about the significance of that event.
“And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah: and all the singing men and the singing women spoke of Josiah in their lamentations to this day, and made them an ordinance in Israel: and, behold [said the author of Chronicles], they are written in the lamentations.”
2 Chronicles 35:25
This is a remarkable reference to the writing of an Old Testament book: the Book of Lamentations. It was a prophetical song, to be sung in the minor or mournful key. The composition was written to commemorate the slaying of Josiah, and it carried with it a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem and Judaic society. Jeremiah even referred to the death of Josiah in the Book of Lamentations. “The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord [Josiah], was taken in their pits, of whom we said, under his shadow we shall live among the heathen” (Lamentations 4:20).
Jewish history since the time of Ezra mentioned that this Book of Lamentations was commissioned to be sung in the Temple as an “ordinance” for all the Jewish people. 1 It was ordained that Lamentations was to be sung each year on the eve of the 10th day of the month Ab, the anniversary of the burning of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. Even now, Jews read this composition of Jeremiah annually in commemoration of that destruction.
There is another writing of Jeremiah written in mindfulness of Josiah’s death. This was Psalm 89. The latter part of the psalm speaks about a great calamity that had occurred to Judah. An anointed person had been cast off (Psalm 89:38). His crown had been destroyed (verses 39, 44) and the covenant of protection given to David and his descendants seemed to be broken (verse 39). The king had recently been killed in battle (verse 43) and while he was only a youth (verse 45). The enemies of Judah were now in much rejoicing (verses 41–42, 51) and the strongholds of the country were expected to be broken down (verse 40).
This lament is found at the end of Psalm 89 and it describes the historical situation that existed in Judah at the death of King Josiah. Indeed, the previous eighteen psalms (comprising the “Asaph Division” — the third section — of the Psalms) had as their general theme the destruction of the land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple. It appears that Jeremiah wrote Psalm 89 to conclude the “Asaph Division” to the Book of Psalms. 2
The final touches of the canonization, which started in the time of King Josiah, took place in Babylon after the Jews had been taken captive. Jeremiah had first gone to Egypt, but he returned to be with the Jews in Babylon (because he recorded events which happened in Babylon some 26 years after the final captivity — Jeremiah 52:31–34). Jeremiah was then able to hand over to Daniel, the Jewish prince in Babylon, any remaining prophecies which he had written (or other documents which he may have rescued from the Temple). Thus, the canonization, which began in the time of King Josiah, ended with the final activities of Jeremiah in Babylon. 3
After Jeremiah’s departure from the scene, Jerusalem and Judah continued in a desolate state for many years while the Jews remained in Babylon. But the preservation of the various books was not left, during this period of captivity, to unauthorized members of the Jewish community. We read that Daniel (who was of royal stock, “of the king’s seed, and of the princes,” Daniel 1:3) had been given a high literary position in Babylon.
“[Daniel] was well favored, and skillful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans.”
Lange’s Commentary amplifies the meaning of this verse. Daniel’s “learning” was “all literary knowledge.” The phrase “skillful [cunning] in knowledge” signifies that he was adept in “various fields of knowledge as contained in books.” Daniel was one who had “acquaintance with literature.” 4
In effect, Daniel was chosen to be one of the librarians (later the chief librarian) in the court of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon. The nature of Daniel’s work brought him into contact with all types of literature that existed at the time. This included works that had been rescued from the Temple at Jerusalem. He was familiar with:
This latter prophecy is the most detailed prediction found anywhere in the Bible and it contains considerable information about events even future to us.
The Prophet Daniel was a very important link to the story of biblical canonization because he was the responsible person through whom the divine documents of the Temple were preserved at Babylon. This enabled those official documents to be returned to Jerusalem by Ezra in later years.
We now come to the period of Ezra and the Great Assembly. Although we have previously mentioned some reasons for the final canonization during Ezra’s time, there are other observations to be mentioned which can give us a better understanding of the subject.
One point should never be forgotten: all of the canonizations preceding that of Ezra are only of historical interest to us and they do not involve what books belong in the Old Testament canon for us today. The question of exactly which books represent the complete Old Testament for us, can only be answered by understanding the canonization of Ezra and those one hundred and twenty priests who comprised the Great Assembly. It is Ezra’s final work which is most important to us and to later Judaism.
The reason for this should be apparent. While we can know when and by whom many of the books or portions of books were written, there are other books of the Old Testament about which we are uncertain. What about the books by Hosea, Joel, Job, Amos, other parts of the Psalms or Proverbs? Until the time of Ezra, we have no certain knowledge of how and when they were reckoned as canonical, or if they ever were in early times.
Furthermore, though various suggestions as to which books David, Solomon, Hezekiah, etc., saw fit to canonize have been made in previous pages of this book, this was mainly possible because of hints given in Ezra’s Book of Chronicles, it was Ezra (the “Second Moses”) who gave to the Jewish world the official (and final) Old Testament to be read in the Temple and synagogues. This makes the canonization by Ezra the most important of all.
There is a most important aspect of the Old Testament’s final canonization. This concerns certain editing in the Bible for which Ezra was responsible. At first it might seem almost irreverent to suggest that editing the Bible could be permissible to anyone, regardless of how important his office. Some might say: “Leave the Bible alone; don’t touch a single letter of it.” This may appear proper to us today, but Ezra felt that the Old Testament needed editing to allow the Jewish nation of his time to have the complete and full revelation of God in the Hebrew language.
Ezra’s additions were not vast changes in the text of the Old Testament. He simply made small edits, mostly in earlier portions of the Law. His editorial comments were principally restricted (among other things) to simple parenthetical expressions explaining to the Jews of his time the contemporary geographical names of ancient places and towns that had been changed over the years.
Reference to a good biblical handbook will give the majority of these editorial remarks. One can be found in Genesis 36:31–39 which records the names of Edomite kings down to the time of King Saul. Moses could not have written this section because he would hardly have known the names of Edomite kings living three hundred years after his death. Such indications as Judges 18:30, which records events seven hundred years after the period of the Judges, is a further example of editing.
Ezra simply went through the early books of the Old Testament and brought them, in some important sections, to a contemporary relevance with accurate geographical or historical facts pertinent to his own time. Moses did the same thing when he originally wrote the Law. He adopted the principle of bringing earlier historical documents of his time up-to-date. Even Moses introduced into the ancient records geographical terms familiar to Israelites of his time (Genesis 2:14). This procedure adopted by Moses also prompted Ezra to do the same.
The prophet Samuel did a similar type of editing in his day. This occurred when the people demanded a king. “Then Samuel told the people the manner of the Kingdom, and wrote it in the book and laid it up before the Lord” (1 Samuel 10:25). Samuel wrote “in the book” the manner of how a king was to govern, and what the rules of his kingdom were supposed to be. Samuel wrote it not just in any book, but also in “the book” which was “laid up before the Lord.” The only writing in existence with Samuel which was placed “before the Lord” was the Law of Moses. Thus the section about a king in Deuteronomy 17:18 was not written by Moses. This was the addition to the Law that Samuel the prophet included as an edit.
“And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites.”
Prof. Kirkpatrick remarks pertinently that Samuel:
“wrote it in a book, and laid it up before the Lord. Literally, in the book. Possibly this important chapter [concerning the kingdom] was added to ‘the book of the law’ kept by the side of the ark ‘before the Lord’.”
Kirkpatrick, The First Book of Samuel 5
This seems certain. Samuel inserted the rules concerning kingship into the Law of Moses — the books which were preserved in the sleeves of the Ark (see also Deuteronomy 31:26). It is evident that the Law did not contain the rules of the kingdom prior to Samuel. Note that when the people clamored for a king in Samuel’s day, they presented no appeal to the Law of Moses for support. Samuel himself was upset by the mere suggestion of having a king. Had the rules concerning the kingdom been already within the Book of Deuteronomy, there would have been no need for Samuel to express displeasure.
“This narrative [in the book of Samuel] shows no indication of the law in Deuteronomy [concerning the kingdom] having been known in fact, either to Samuel, or to the people who demanded of him a king: Had such been the case, it is incredible either that Samuel would have resisted the application of the people as he is represented as doing, or, that the people should not have appealed to the law, as a sufficient justification for their request.”
Samuel Driver, Commentary on Deuteronomy 6
Samuel took to himself the authority to write out the rules concerning the kingdom and he placed them in “the book which was laid up before the Lord.” This example of Samuel gave Ezra even further historical precedent for adding a few editorial remarks to the Law of God in his time.
One more example will show Ezra to be the most important editor of the Old Testament. At the end of Deuteronomy we find some remarks concerning the death of Moses. “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab but no man knows of his sepulchre unto this day” (Deuteronomy 34:5–6).
It is hardly possible for Moses to have recorded his own death and then, in some curious prophecy, tell later people that his burial place was unknown “unto this day.” These are clearly editorial remarks added by Ezra at the final canonization, proof that the editor could be none other than Ezra is found in Deuteronomy 34:10. “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” It was promised in Deuteronomy 18:15–19 that there would arise a major prophet like unto Moses in power and authority. That prophet was to be so great that his words would be like those of Moses.
But of all the prophets who preceded Ezra, not one of them was the lawgiver (like Moses) or the maker of the New Covenant with Israel as a new Moses. So Ezra was informing his readers in his time through this editorial comment that none of the earlier prophets (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel) was the prophet ordained to be like Moses. Ezra, the compiler of the Hebrew Bible, directed the Jewish people in the 5th century B.C.E. to look forward to a future time for the coming of the great prophet. The Jewish people in the time of Jesus were doing just that (John 6:14 and 7:40), and Christians came to believe that the prophet was Christ.
It should be remembered that even after Ezra’s death, some later members of the Great Assembly (the authorized supreme religious court of the nation) carried the genealogical tables of important priestly families down to the time of Alexander the Great. 7
In conclusion, let us notice some books which are mentioned in the Old Testament but are not found in the pages of our Bible.
Do these “lost books” belong in the sacred canon of the Old Testament? They do not. Ezra in the Book of Chronicles referred to the last seven of these ten books, and it was he who was responsible for canonizing the complete Old Testament. He mentioned these historical documents to support the truth of what he wrote in the Book of Chronicles, but he did not include any of them as a part of divine scripture. Had he wanted them in the canon, he could easily have placed one or all of them within the divine collection. He did not.
These were simple books of history that contained truthful records of the past (much like First Maccabees in the Apocrypha), but Ezra did not accord them with divine status. This is significant. If Ezra did not reckon them as canonical, neither should anyone else who respects the office of Ezra and the Great Assembly. This is the case with all other books mentioned in the Old Testament and not found within the present biblical canon.
1 See both Josephus, Antiquities, X.78 and Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 15a, at www.come-and-hear.com/bababathra/bababathra_15.html.
2 For more information on this important matter, see Appendix One. This, again, shows an authorization of scripture by Jeremiah.
3 Jeremiah was a priest and his father (Jeremiah 1:1, and 2 Kings chapters 22–23; 2 Chronicles chapters 34–35). Jeremiah was granted favor with Nebuchednezzar (Jeremiah 39:11–12) and the command was given for the captain of the Babylonian army to give to Jeremiah anything he wanted. It is reasonable to presume that preservation of the Temple writings would have been of greatest importance to Jeremiah. DWS
4 See “Daniel,” in Lange’s Commentary, vol. 13 (New York: Scribner, 1877), pp. 59, 61.
5 A.F. Kirkpatrick, The First Book of Samuel, vol. IX, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891), p. 112.
6 Samuel R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy, 3rd ed. International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1895), p. 213.
7 Nehemiah 12:11, 22; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XI.7,2 ¶302.
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