Early Hints of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear because Paul wrote some widely accepted letters while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his letter similarly, given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut, while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture based on internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worth considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly, which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may, in fact, suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3)

What’s clear from history is that Scripture was not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church but were not placed among the acknowledged books were The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE), wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox.


See Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 12; James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority and Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 12. 

 Lee Martin McDonald, “New Testament Canon”, n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2021]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/ask-a-scholar/new-testament-canon 

Michael D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974), 182–83; Phillip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Calendar: A Study in the Making of the Marcan Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952). 

Why Some Old Testaments Have More Books Than Ours

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome. It adds 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

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; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death .… but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time. (Against Apion 1.8) 

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms, two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14) 

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). 

“The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deuter-Canonical Books.”…most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Deutero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.” (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. [New York: Penguin Books, 1993], 200)

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth. 

The Intertestamental Hebrew Scriptures

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35). The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon. 

When the exiles returnedMaccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset. 

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities. The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community. Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs.  

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community. Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last. Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing. Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten. 

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear. However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community. Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education; to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting — one from the Law and the other from the prophets. The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading. The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years. Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses. Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue. 

Writing the Old Testament

The first instance of recording Scripture occurs at Moses’s hand at the covenant’s inauguration between YHWH and Israel (Exod. 24:4–8). Scholars mostly agree that the Book of the Covenant mentioned there entailed chapters 21–23 of Exodus, but opinions vary. Moses’ upbringing in Egypt explains how he became a scribe in the first place, because they placed a high amount of esteem and respect on the scribe. They believed that a scribe was his own boss and the highest of trades to which one could aspire. Moses obviously had scribal training in Egypt in the first forty years of his life in the higher echelons of society, and that skill would serve him well as the leader of Israel. 

Even in Israel’s later history, we see the scribe as one moving in royal circles ( 2 Chron. 24:11; Esth. 3:12). The scribal chamber was within the palace (Jer. 36:12), and their work often detailed the exploits of the monarchs they served (1 Kings 11:41) as well as the reign of the monarchy itself (1 Kings 14:19, 29). They also served by writing the decrees ordered (Dan. 6:8) and taking dictation (Jer. 36:32). Some might be sent to record the military skirmishes the realm was engaged in (Jer. 52.25), and a useful skill for the scribe to possess in later times was to be bilingual (2 Kings 18:26). Following the station of Moses as a prophet were other prophets who recorded books or records here or there (Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 10:25). Later, we even read about some later holy people referring to what had been written (Dan. 9:2; Neh. 8:1). 

This process led what we know as the Old Testament to be formed around 400 BCE, with some arguing that the Law, or Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible), itself was authoritative by that time if not earlier. By 200 BCE or earlier, the prophets were canonized (cf. Is. 34:16; Jer. 36:6ff). Unlike our Christian Bibles where the Old and New Testaments are major divisions, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) grouped its books differently. There are three groupings of books: 

  1. The Law (Torah)
    1. Gen–Deut. 
  2. Prophets (Nevi’im)
    1. Josh, Judg., Samuel and Kings (Former Prophets)
    2. Isaiah, Jer., Ezek., and the Twelve (Latter Prophets)
  3. Writings (Ketuvim).
    1. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Five Megillot)
    2. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. 

This tripartite division is reflected from Ben Sira, who was the first to refer to it in this way (180–175 BCE), but may be earlier than him. 

Centuries before this time, King Josiah (622 BCE) found a copy of the Law in the temple, and his subsequent reverence of it as such demonstrates its authority in the life of Israelite society (2 Kings 22:3–20). After captivity, Ezra had a copy of the Law in which to lead the nation (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1ff). Centuries before them, Joshua (13th century BCE) read the same (Josh 8:34–35), and King David was to have had a personal copy (Deut. 17:18–20; cf. Deut. 31:9, 25–26). We know David consulted it after Uzzah died (2 Sam. 6:1–10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:1–13), but it’s obvious that it wasn’t central at all times.  

The interlude from the reading of Joshua until the next reading is a noted period of silence of public readings. During that time, the united kingdom of Israel was divided, and the northern kingdom following an idolatrous path while the southern kingdom sinned as well, but with periods of reformation. The next public reading came after the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Hilkiah took the book to the king’s secretary who then took it to the King. Upon hearing the words of the Book of the Law, King Josiah grieved and sent to inquire of the Lord because all the curses of the book were to be rendered to the unfaithful people of Judah (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). When Josiah assembled the people to have the Book of the Law read in their hearing, Josiah led a covenant renewal to which the people consented. However, because of so many years of apostasy that began with King Solomon, changing the trajectory of Judah was unrealized because of so many years of neglecting to read the Law. Therefore, the land was purged of its inhabitants so that it could undergo a period of cleansing (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22).

This points us to the authority the Law and Prophets had. What we find was that those who were well regarded, adhered to the Law. We also note that the absence of it from the life of Israel resulted in an ignorance that permitted apostasy.  

The Genesis of the Bible (for the average Christian)

We have in our possession a sacred book that is nonetheless a book. Scripture was written over 1,400 years by various authors. The Bible wasn’t put together until centuries after all the writings were collected, but some writings remained together as a corpus (e.g., Torah). How did this process occur? That’s what many wonder. How and who created the Bible is remarkable and something that isn’t required to know but is very enlightening. 

Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of pertinent events as it relates to writing altogether and the Bible.  

3200 BCE — Writing began in Sumer through pictographic means. 

3000 BCE — Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed. 

2100 BCE — Abraham lived around this time. 

1800 BCE — An alphabet is created in Egypt. 

1500 BCE — Moses lived around this time. 

1200 BCE — Ugaritic, a language from Ugarit—a northwestern area in Syria—is used, and Exodus 15 and Judges 5 have stylistic patterns that resemble them. These similarities lead linguists to conclude that these two chapters are the oldest in the Bible and date to 1100–1200 BCE. 

1000 BCE — The monarchical period of Israel’s history begins. 

1000–900 BCE — The earliest Hebrew inscription on a potsherd is discovered (Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon). 

516→ BCE — We have manuscripts dating to this time period, known as the Second Temple Period, with the oldest dating to the late 4th century BCE. 

250→ BCE — Dead Sea Scrolls 

This timeline provides us a rough idea and overview of what we know about written communication. This information results from linguists, philologists, archaeologists, and other related areas of study.  

Materials used in writing were stone (Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 27:2–3), clay (Ezek. 4:1), wood (Is. 30:8; Hab. 2:2), and leather (Jer. 36:23). Additionally, papyrus leaves were mostly that upon which the New Testament was written. These plants grew along the Nile River and had been used as far back as 3000 BCE, but became common among the Greeks and Romans for making a book (codex) or books (codices). The average roll was 30 feet long and 9–10 inches high. Scribes would write on one side mostly and occasionally on both sides (cf. Rev. 5:1). Animal skins, referred to as either vellum or parchment, were another common material used in making a letter. 

Whenever you hear about the discovery of a manuscript or something that scholars date to thus-and-such a period, they base this off the material upon which it was written, the language, dialect and syntax, and even carbon dating. Because we know that certain materials were used by particular people during a specific time period, this allows archaeologists to pinpoint a general time frame that contributes to our overall knowledge of the history of a text. 

The Birth of the Bible

It’s difficult to fix a date when the Bible was written or began to be written. Believing that Moses lived around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to his authorship would have been written sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, with redactions throughout the centuries (cf. Num. 12:3; Deut. 34:5–6). However, the book of Job is believed to have been written in the second millennium BCE, or it at least is about that period if it was written later. To put it in perspective, Job is believed to have been a patriarch akin to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their time. 

Regarding what’s extant, the tenth-century BCE potsherd known as Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is the eldest. This dates to the reign of King David and was found on the north side of the valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:1–3). Differing interpretations of what it says exists, so suggesting it is Scripture may not be altogether true. However, this discovery also can’t be ruled out as unreflective of Scripture. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, however, are among the oldest finds that contain language akin to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and date to the seventh century BCE. Since many scholars believe that the Old Testament is primarily a product of Israel’s post-exilic period, these two finds cast that conclusion into doubt, given the language they each demonstrate.

Behind these fragmentary pieces, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest full-manuscript evidence of our Old Testament. They are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered around Qumran from 1947–56. Copies of every Old Testament book except Nehemiah and Esther were found in 11 caves around the Dead Sea, and the oldest dates to the third century BCE. Before this discovery, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest Old Testament manuscript, dating to 1008 CE. Scholars compared the two texts, being greater than a millennium apart, and found that little had changed. This attests to the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible transmission. The notion supported by Bart Ehrman and company that we can’t fully trust Scripture because of the lack of original copies is a bit of a farce when one considers the accuracy between these two texts.  Stay tuned!

Isaiah’s Call

What does it mean to see God? We know that no one has seen God because the gospel tells us this (John 1:18; 6:46). Isaiah didn’t see God so much as his glory (John 12:41), but what he saw in this vision was life changing. Some may wonder why this isn’t the first chapter of the book. After all, the calling of a prophet should precede his message. The greater part of the first five chapters are poetry, setting the conditions that spurred God’s employment of Isaiah. There’s a literary genius to the structure, but we’ll not delve into literary criticism. Not only did Isaiah’s life change, but the makeup of Judah did too.   

There’s a particular irony in Isaiah’s calling. He was given a vision of heaven’s court in the year King Uzziah died (6:1; 740 BCE). The irony is that King Uzziah was banned from the temple—a shadow of a heavenly reality (cf. Heb. 9:11–12, 23)—after he presumptuously entered to burn incense on the altar of incense—something only a priest could do. This specific altar was outside the holy of holies, and as close as one could get to the literal presence of YHWH. Uzziah was subsequently struck with leprosy and lived the rest of his life as a leper, banned from the temple. During his isolation, his son served as coregent, overseeing the affairs of the kingdom (2 Chron. 26:16–21). While the king was prohibited from the temple, Isaiah sees something greater than the temple—he sees God in heaven. This scene expresses the changing of an era. An age of stability has ended, and the ensuing problem of the Assyrian threat began. 

What Isaiah saw was the actual temple—doorposts, smoke, altar, and burning coals. Yet, it’s the heavenly temple and not the one at which he worshipped in Jerusalem. The year of Judah’s king dying, Isaiah sees the king of heaven—seated on a throne, high and lifted up. He’s not in a palace, but a temple (v. 1). The reminder is that YHWH still reigns and is in control no matter who reigns and wars on earth. Isaiah seeing God as reigning, surrounded by hosts, was to reinforce to the prophet and Judah that despite threats on earth, God wars in the heavenly places against those evil forces (cf. Eph. 6:12). 

Isaiah, next, sees seraphim. This is the only place they are mentioned, but elsewhere, the term is used in reference to serpents and their venom (Num. 21:4–9). The conclusion has been made by some that these angels were winged serpents of some sort. The Nehushtan was destroyed during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kings 18:4) and may have very well occupied space in the temple when Isaiah received his commission. Next is the trisagion chanted by the angels—it is antiphonal and causes the foundations to shake. This reminds me of a passing car whose bass is so loud that your car or windows rattle. Such is the nature of their voices and praise. YHWH is one of the “hosts.” Other passages attest to God being surrounded by multitudes (cf. Deut. 32:8 [LXX]; Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6; Ps. 82; 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 14:4–5), but this might be better rendered “armies.” Isaiah would have understood it that way, and in the coming struggles with the Assyrians, it would have been significant (Is. 13:4; 24:21; 31:4). 

Imagine for a moment seeing the most august scene ever. There’s the majesty of God, flanked by fiery angels from whose wings you can feel the breeze. They continually chant this chorus with such beauty that it sends chills down your spine. At the same time, their voices are so rich and powerful that the foundations quake. Not only do the words of their chorus strike you, but the performance of them is something you feel pierce your very being. Smoke engulfs the area, and it reminds you of what you’ve heard your ancestors saw in Sinai many centuries ago. The effect is terror. You pause from the awe of taking it in to the realization of where you are and what you’re like, and who you’re before. 

‘Woe is me; I am  lost!” Why does he feel so? The ending of the passage tells us why, but not so much in English as in Hebrew. “The king, the LORD of hosts, my eyes have seen.” It’s vital to note here that the term used of Uzziah is the same used of God—hammelek. The death of the king threatens stability, but God is all the stability that Judah needs. Isaiah appears before God in a state of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. In our present existences, no one can see God and live (Exod. 33:18–20; cf. Gen. 32:30; Judg. 6:22). This was what frightened Isaiah. He assumed the sins of the people as well as his own and believed there was no way to survive this. However, the very God whose holiness can consume the profane (cf. Lev. 10:1–2; 2 Sam. 6:6–7), can also cleanse. In similar temple imagery, one of the seraphim takes burning coal to cleanse the prophet, atoning for his sin. Isaiah need not fear. He is cleansed. He can remain. 

Isaiah’s commission began with seeing God. Now, it turns to hear him. Isaiah readily accepts God’s commission, but the message he is to deliver will fall on deaf ears. The wonders that he’ll work will be seen by blind eyes. The hearts of the people are already turned against God, and Isaiah’s ministry will be unsuccessful in terms of people responding positively to it. When the prophet inquires how long this will last, we see that God has decided to judge Judah. It’s going to last until judgment comes. Why bother? God bothers because he cares. He bothers because he wants them to know that they have heaped up judgment on themselves, not only through Isaiah’s ministry, but even through all those who’ve come before him. Success here isn’t defined by how many people respond to the prophetic call, but how faithful the prophet is to God in delivering the message. Fidelity to God—that’s success. 

A Prelude to Isaiah

The above image is a painting by James Tissot (c. 1896) titled “Isaiah,” from the Jewish Museum

The prologue to Isaiah in The Wycliffe Bible reads, “Isaiah is worth to be said not only a prophet, but more, a gospel, for he declares so openly … of Christ and of [the] Holy Church, that you guess him not only to ordain and profess a thing to come, but to ordain a story of things passed.” Reading Isaiah as Christians leads us to look for nuggets of Messianic material. Having read the New Testament, Isaiah is quoted at large, with passages being connected to the life of Jesus. I want us to resist the urge to read Isaiah that way primarily. Why? That’s likely not how the original audience read it. They were concerned with their lifetimes and the prevailing circumstances and not something centuries ahead. Nevertheless, in the unseen and distant future, some things would occur, and in the immediate context, we’ll see how they would have understood it and how it became just a part of the larger story of God’s people—even to the time of Christ. 

Isaiah was written during a crisis by a prophet bearing that name—which means “Yah is Salvation.” So anytime you see a name ending with –ah or –el, that’s Hebrew for God’s name. For example, Samuel means “name of El” or “El has heard.” Jeremiah’s name means either “Yah will exalt” or “appointed by Yah.” The first thirty-nine chapters detail the crisis Isaiah faced, spanning four kings, the prophet having access to them (7:3). Isaiah’s ministry was from 740–681 BCE, receiving his prophetic call when Uzziah died (Is. 6:1), 740–739 BCE. His access to the kings and priests (8:1–2) has led to the suggestion that he was aristocratic, royalty, or priestly. 

During his tenure as a prophet, he’d see the tiny kingdom of Judah exist in a world of three superpowers—Egypt to the south, Assyria to the north, and Babylon to the east. In 721 BCE, he’d see the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians. Judah sought the military aid of Egypt to protect them from Assyria, but Isaiah would preach that Judah needed to trust in God alone. In 701 BCE, he’d see the Assyrians attempt to besiege Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. After, Hezekiah invites the Babylonians over to see the wealth of Judah and to provide protection from the Assyrians. Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah for this, saying that Babylon would destroy Judah—something that would occur in 586 BCE. In 681 BCE, he detailed the Assyrian King, Sennacherib’s death (37:38), being put to death himself during Manasseh’s reign by, according to tradition, being sawn in two. 

We all have ideas of what a prophet is, but we need to understand (biblically) what a prophet did. The Hebrew nabi is translated as “prophet” but can also be translated as “spokesman.” The prophet spoke for God, delivering His message. But, as Isaiah 6 will disclose, they also saw visions of heavenly matters to talk to their current events (cf. 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 1, 10; Dan. 7:9–14). One way to think of a prophet is to think of a holy person who counsels kings, peoples, and priests. Their counsel was often the word of the Lord, but at times, it was based on just natural wisdom from being a holy person of God (cf. 2 Sam. 16:23). Prophets could also have a voice in the heavenly court through prayer (Gen. 20:7, 17; 1 Kings 13:4–6), and Moses was said to have received the law through the mediation of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2) when he was immersed in the clouds (Ex. 24:1–2, 9–11, 15). 

His message is one of judgment and hope. God’s judgment will purify Jerusalem to make it possible for God to fulfill His promises. The first promise is a Davidic king whose kingdom is forever established (2 Sam. 7:12–16). All kings of Judah were descendants of David, but their kingdoms were only temporary. The Kingdom of God through Jesus would be this specific rule of which the Lord promised on the grand scale, while in the context, it may refer to Hezekiah. The second promise was fidelity to the covenant (Exod. 19:5–6). The third promise was that Israel would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2–3). 

I’m going to suggest we read Isaiah the following way: 

  • Isaiah 6 details the prophet’s call and the focus of his message. 
  • Isaiah 1–6 speaks about Old (current) Jerusalem and New (future) Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 7–12 addresses King Ahaz. 
  • Isaiah 13–23 tells about the fall of Israel’s neighbors, including Babylon. 
  • Isaiah 24–27 speaks about the lofty city (sinful Jerusalem).
  • Isaiah 28–35 detail the rise and fall of Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 36–38 records the rise of King Hezekiah. 
  • Isaiah 39 records the fall of King Hezekiah. 

This is only the first section of the book with its themes. Once we get to the second section, we’ll set a similar structure, and I’ll address the notion of 1 & 2 Isaiah. 

Caring Enough When a Christian Needs Restoration

Christians aren’t immune to worldliness and sin. If anything, we may be more susceptible to it because of our profession of faith. Before, we didn’t give as much conscientious thought to trying to be good. We either were or weren’t. It’s easy to be unattached and just live life, but when we confess Jesus and are baptized, we often paint a target on our backs not only to the adversary but to anyone who wishes to troll our imperfections in light of our faith. 

The majority of Scripture doesn’t paint a picture of unblemished saints but people in covenant with God who often stray from the precepts of that covenant. If you’ll notice, a more significant percentage of the New Testament is devoted to correcting misbehavior than is not. Think about it. Can you name a book of Scripture that doesn’t expose the sins of God’s people? Maybe Esther? Yet, throughout the whole of the Bible, we see God’s love for an often straying people. 

Several passages speak about a Christian who has departed the faith or is overtaken by sin and what the rest of us, who are not, should do. 

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20; cf. 1:15)

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1; cf. 2:11-13)

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6; cf. vv. 14-15; 2:15)

But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. (1 Cor. 5:11)

Here’s the rub: most of us feel inadequate and unqualified to be the person who points out another person’s sin and draws a line in the sand. The people who feel qualified make us question their motives and character because, after all, only the self-righteous Pharisee is comfortable doing that. Right? Meanwhile, the rest of us struggle with our temptations, and some of us with our private sins. So why should we point out another person’s sins?

There’s a difference between being a struggling sinner and an embracing sinner. We who struggle with our sins may feel remorse. We often also pray for forgiveness and try to do better. Whether or not we succeed is another matter, but it is a struggle. For others, they don’t struggle with sin. They simply embrace it and make it a part of who they are. I believe this is the difference between the Christian who has strayed and the one who has not. We don’t have to draw a line in the sand because God has done that for us. However, one might wonder when to take action if that line is somewhat obscure.

For example, what does it mean to “wander from the truth,” be “overtaken in any trespass,” or to walk “disorderly?” Furthermore, the sins Paul mentioned to the Corinthians are generic. We can define them however we’d like, either broadly or narrowly. I’ve seen brethren use it in ways that I’m not sure the Holy Spirit intended. “Wander from the truth” means different things to different people, but what did James mean? Walking disorderly is the same, so I have many questions about this process. I believe we should care for our brethren, the good and the bad. We should encourage them all, but those who have wandered and been overtaken should be loved back to God. 

This specific query is focused on knowing when to take restorative actions. If it’s something that alienates a person from God, then we should act. On the other hand, if it’s a matter of personal scruples (Rom. 14; 15:1), we should learn to bear with those and not make them points of faith, which many in the churches of Christ tend to do, sadly. Unfortunately, some people make things a matter of faith that are scruples.  

How do we proceed from here? I believe, first, that we should heed the warning that Jesus gives (Matt. 7:1-5). Next, we deal with ourselves as a starting point, and then we determine the sort of judgment we’re using. Is it of God or man? Is it Scripture-based or tradition-based? Is a soul in peril, or do they just have a different point of view from me? Finally, we should carry out this task according to Paul’s instructions: “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). 

The New Testament Canon

The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament appear in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (c. 367)—a prominent bishop—and this is the typical starting point for many as to their history of the canon. Because of such a detailed letter regarding the New Testament, some have concluded that the canon was a late invention considering the letter’s dating. Still, as our last lesson demonstrated, the canon was emerging in the first century itself and is evident in the writings of the early church fathers as functional before the fourth century. Athanasius wrote this letter to end the disputes about other orthodox letters believed to be equal to apostolic writings—Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas. It also detailed Peter’s epistles and Revelation’s authenticity, something that was questionable to some.

Earlier than his festal letter, a catalog from North Africa listed twenty-four books, named the Mommsen Catalog (c. 359). Cyril of Jerusalem had earlier listed all the books except Revelation (c. 350), but the Council of Nicea is often the canon’s accepted settling point (c. 325). However, the council’s entirety wasn’t about the canon, but the divinity of Jesus, hence the Nicean creed. Because they affirmed the canon doesn’t mean that they “created” it. Similarly, regional church councils also acknowledged the canon, but they also didn’t determine it. As Michael Kruger puts it, “These councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.” 

Around 250 CE, the early church theologian, Origen produced a list of the New Testament in his commentary on Joshua.

Matthew … Mark also; Luke and John each … Even Peter … in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John … through his epistles, and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles … in fourteen of [Paul’s] epistles.

Hom. Josh. 7.1; cf. Hom. Gen. 13.2

This list would have included Revelation in John’s epistles and Hebrews would have counted as a letter of Paul because many in the early church believed that Paul wrote Hebrews. 

What, however, precipitated the list and the official declaration of the canon? It all began around 144 CE because of an early church heretic named Marcion. He only listed the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, omitting the pastorals and Hebrews. A harmony of the four gospels appear in 170 CE by Tatian and entitled Diatessaron. About the same time, Melito of Sardis identified the Old Testament canon used by the Jews. The earliest response to Marcion’s list with a list is what’s called the Muratorian Canon (c. 180), so named after its discoverer. It contains twenty-two of our twenty-seven books, omitting James, 1 & 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews. Interestingly enough, around the same time as the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus was the first to refer to a New Testament (Adv. Haer. 4.15.2).  

This leads to the truth that some books we now acknowledge as inspired weren’t always regarded as such by everyone in the early church. Athanasius explained the reasoning for excluding two well-regarded writings, but a few were disputed earlier such as 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude and James. Other writings were outright rejected: Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 3.25). 

The Emergence of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear, because Paul wrote some letters that were widely accepted while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his own letter similarly given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as being Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture on the basis of internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worthy of considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may in fact suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3

What’s clear from history is that Scripture were not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church, but that were not placed among the acknowledged books, was The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE) wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, the reason these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon was because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox. 

To Include or Exclude the Apocrypha (Deutero-Canon)?

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome and 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

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; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death …. but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but has not been esteemed of like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.

Against Apion 1.8

First, Josephus only identifies twenty-two books. What you have to keep in mind is that some of the books were one volume. For example, the minor prophets, which are twelve, were all one book then. Ezra-Nehemiah was one book, so some of these historical factoids explain why the Jews had fewer Old Testament books than what we have in our Bibles.

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms [1 & 2 Samuel and Kings], two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras [Ezra-Nehemiah].

Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). When you consider how active the Reformation was at this time, it necessitated an answer from both the Catholic and Orthodox churches regarding the Old Testament canon. Even in our own time, Orthodox bishop and theologian, Kallistos Ware, recognizes that these books weren’t present in the Hebrew text.

The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deutero-Canonical Books.” … most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Detero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 200.

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth.

The Law in the Intertestamental Period

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35).[1] The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon.

When the exiles returned Maccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset.

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities.[2] The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community.[3] Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs. 

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community.[4] Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last.[5] Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing.[6] Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten.[7]

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear.[8] However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community.[9] Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.[10]

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education;[11] to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.[12]

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets.[13] The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading.[14] The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years.[15] Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, [16] so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both.[17] The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.[18]

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses.[19] Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue.


[1] What’s unclear is if all Deuteronomy, or Exod. 21–23, or some other portion of the law was intended by this command. We call Torah Gen–Deut., but that may not have been what Moses meant.

[2] Josephus seemed to posit that some might have lived in cities (Wars 2.8.4), but Philo posited that they lived in isolated villages (Quod Omn. Prob. xii [76]) and cities (Hyp. [11.1]).

[3] 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.6, 12; Quod Omn. Prob. xii (75).

[4] 1QS I, 13–15.

[5] 4Q266 fr. 11; 270 fr. 7 ii.

[6] 1QS viii, 6.

[7] Quod Omn. Prob. xii (82, 84); 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.5.

[8] Philo Som. 2.18; cf. Contra Apion 2.18. The Theodotus Inscription on a first-century Judean synagogue read that the synagogue was “for the reading of the Torah and studying the commandments.”

[9] Cf. Bab. Tal. Taan. 4.2–3; 4 Macc. 18:10–11.

[10] Philo Vit. Cont. 9–10; Cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.18.

[11] Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27

[12] Bab. Tal. Sot. 7.7, 8; Bab. Tal. Yoma 7.1–3.

[13] Bab. Tal. Megillah 4.1–5; cf. 3.4–6; Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14.

[14] Acts 13:15; 15:21

[15] Megillah 29b

[16] Bab. Tal. Gittin 5.8

[17] Cf. John 7:14–15. On the literacy of Jesus see Tor Vegge, “The Literacy of Jesus the Carpenter’s Son: On the Literary Study in the Words of Jesus,” Studia Theologica 59, no. 1 (2005): 19–37.

[18] Megillah 4.4

[19] Acts 12:12; 17:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; et. al.

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