All Scripture Is Inspired by God: Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon

21 December 2014

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.


All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (II Tim 3:16)

What Scriptures did St. Paul have in mind when he wrote the above to St. Timothy? Was he referring to the 66 books making up the Bible Evangelicals read today? What exactly did Paul mean by “all?”

I was confident that the Protestant canon of the Old Testament was that of the apostles, until I examined the evidence behind it. What I discovered I found uncomfortable. Yet it brought me into a deeper and richer relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian who finds theological correction difficult, then these essays on the canon of Scripture will only annoy you. But if your heart aches to know and indwell the Christian faith, then this might be the start of something new and exciting in your relationship with God.

In this second of three essays we shall look closer at the canon of Scriptures that the Apostles read and used, and we shall contrast that with popular assumptions many Evangelicals make today. In the third and final essay, “Do Not Add to His Words,” we will concentrate on the canon of the New Testament and consider the nature and source of authority in Christianity.

In his letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul is not referring to the New Testament. This should be obvious since, after all, books such as Acts and Revelation had not yet been written. Even what had been written was still beginning the process of circulation in various churches. As Evangelicals, however, we generally want this passage to include the New Testament since it is one of the few verses that seem to directly support our position on the inspiration and full sufficiency of the Bible.

Regardless, St. Paul undoubtedly had the Old Testament in mind as he wrote this passage. It was the Old Testament that was read in the synagogue and was instrumental in the “training in righteousness” of Ss. Paul, Timothy and many other Christians from the Church of the first century. But, more importantly, Ss. Paul and Timothy used the Septuagint (LXX).

The Origin of the Septuagint

“The . . . what?” As Evangelicals many of us have never heard of the LXX except in a passing reference from educated preachers or teachers. And those of us who have heard of the LXX rarely give it a second thought. But so important is the LXX for our faith that many aspects of the message of the New Testament cannot be sufficiently grasped without it.

The LXX was a translation, of first the Penteteuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), then of the rest of the Jewish Scriptures. The Penteteuch was translated in the 280s, and subsequent translations of other were added in the next three centuries, thus forming the LXX. The LXX was read in the synagogues and churches of the Hellenistic world. Most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are based on the LXX, not the Hebrew. Of particular interest is Paul’s use of the LXX since, as a student of Gamaliel, he easily might have known the difference between the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Most scholars are skeptical of the fabulous details that developed around the story of the translation of the LXX, but the main historical facts have been accepted. This account, from an anonymous Christian of the second or third century, not only relates the story, but reflects the popular opinion of early Christians on the subject.

But if any one says that the writings of Moses and of the rest of the prophets were also written in the Greek character, let him read profane histories, and know that Ptolemy, king of Egypt, when he had built the library in Alexandria, and by gathering books from every quarter had filled it, then learnt that very ancient histories written in Hebrew happened to be carefully preserved; and wishing to know their contents, he sent for seventy wise men from Jerusalem, who were acquainted with both the Greek and Hebrew language, and appointed them to translate the books; and that in freedom from all disturbance they might the more speedily complete the translation, he ordered that there should be constructed, not in the city itself, but seven stadia off (where the Pharos was built), as many little cots as there were translators, so that each by himself might complete his own translation; and enjoined upon those officers who were appointed to this duty, to afford them all attendance, but to prevent communication with one another, in order that the accuracy of the translation might be discernible even by their agreement.

And when he ascertained that the seventy men had not only given the same meaning, but had employed the same words, and had failed in agreement with one another not even to the extent of one word, but had written the same things, and concerning the same things, he was struck with amazement, and believed that the translation had been written by divine power, and perceived that the men were worthy of all honor, as beloved of God; and with many gifts ordered them to return to their own country. And having, as was natural, marvelled at the books, and concluded them to be divine, he consecrated them in that library. These things, ye men of Greece, are no fable, nor do we narrate fictions; but we ourselves having been in Alexandria, saw the remains of the little cots at the Pharos still preserved, and having heard these things from the inhabitants, who had received them as part of their country’s tradition, we now tell to you what you can also learn from others, and specially from those wise and esteemed men who have written of these things, Philo and Josephus, and many others. (Pseudo-Justin, Oration to the Greeks 13 [3rd c.])