Old Testament,  Scripture

Did Old Testament Saints Know Scripture was Authoritative?

From our perspective we sometimes take for granted that we have an authoritative canon—a collection of inspired Scripture from God. But it is worth thinking through how the Old Testament saints viewed the collection of authoritative writings. Did Old Testament believers recognize a specialized, authoritative collection of writings? Looking at the Old Testament evidence, it seems that the Jewish people recognized certain writings as authoritative from God, while at the same time acknowledging a different quality of other writings.

image of authoritative writings of Scripture

We see early evidence of Scripture being regarded as authoritative in the book of Deuteronomy. For example, Moses instructed all the people to gather every seven years to hear “this law” (Deut 31:9-11). Further, Moses instructed the Levites to store the book of the law along with the ark of the covenant (Deut 31:24-26). Additionally, Israel was instructed that nothing could be added or deleted from these words (Deut 4:2; 12:32). These passages indicate that the people were to view Scripture as authoritative; and as authoritative it was given a special status among the people.

Another passage that indicates the law of Moses was regarded with a special authoritative status is Joshua 8:35. There we are told that Joshua read exhaustively from the law of Moses before the people. We are told that Joshua added to this authoritative collection of writings, and it is possible that his authoritative additions were kept with the law of Moses (Josh 24:26).

The evidence seems to indicate that writings that were authoritative were treated as special and kept in the sanctuary. This is supported by 1 Samuel 10:25, where Samuel wrote down the rights and duties of kingship and “laid it up before the Lord,” presumably with the other writings. Further evidence that authoritative writings were kept in the sanctuary comes from 2 Kings 22, where, after a dark period in Israel’s history, a revival takes place when the people find the authoritative writings of Moses in the temple (2 Kings 22:8).

Many of the above examples relate to the law of Moses, which unquestionably was viewed as an authoritative, prophetic writing. The above argument shows this, but the New Testament also demonstrates that Jews utilized the law of Moses in an authoritative manner. Jesus quotes from Genesis 1 and 2 to support his arguments about marriage (cf. Matt 19:4-6), and the Law is viewed as the paradigm for purification (cf. Luke 2:22-24).

In addition to the authoritative law of Moses, there is evidence that other prophetic works were viewed as authoritative immediately following their writing. One such example is the book of Jeremiah, which indicates that Micah’s prophesy was considered authoritative (Jer 26:17-19). Additionally, Daniel considered Jeremiah’s prophecy as authoritative (Dan 9:2). Perhaps most fascinating about Daniel’s example is the fact that Jeremiah was numbered “in the books,” indicating that there was a collection of authoritative writings.

What this evidence demonstrates is that very early in Old Testament history, the people of God gave special status to a collection of authoritative writings that were prophetic in origin. Although there were other resources from these time periods (e.g., The Book of Yashar in 2 Sam 1:18; Diaries of the Kings in 2 Chron 16:11), the fact that these sources did not survive indicates a different view of their value in comparison to the authoritative writings which were kept in the sanctuary. The Old Testament saints were well aware of the different kinds of writings that were available, and they recognized that certain writings were authoritative directly from God.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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