What is Scripture?

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

2 Timothy 3:16 (KJV)

Scripture – What is Paul referring to here in his letter to Timothy? Of course we, a couple thousand years later, love to use this verse in reference to the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but that’s not what Paul is referring to. The New Testament, as we know it, didn’t exist during the time of Paul’s writings. The only Scripture that Paul knew was the Tanakh. In fact, every time you read the word “scripture” in the Bible, the New Testament isn’t part of it.

That’s a bit shocking, isn’t it? But before any wrong impressions are assumed, let’s agree the books of the New Testament are inspired, and they are sacred. But the words of Yeshua when he speaks of scripture, or the writings of Paul and the other Apostles that refer to scripture, they are only referring to the Tanakh (the Old Testament). So which books were those? Which books were the ones the Apostles and Yeshua relied on, measured everything against, and lived by?

First, according to Rabbinic acceptance, the books must have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, in square script, on parchment, and in ink… and foremost, to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Obviously this included the five books of Moses, the Torah. All other books to be considered canon must be measured against the Torah because it was given from the mouth of God himself.

Secondly, any writings to be considered scripture must have been written prior to the cessation of prophecy. They believed prophecy ceased in Israel sometime during the late Persian period or the early Hellenistic period. If the Spirit no longer prophesied, then surely the books were not inspired by God, according to them.

Thirdly, a strict clause supporting the first note, ruled that no book written in Greek would be considered part of the canon. This was because they believed the holy language was Hebrew. In their eyes, Hebrew was the only language worthy of transmitting divine inspiration.

Fourthly, any books that challenged halachic teachings of the rabbis were also excluded from canon and did not carry the term scripture. This meant that anything considered scripture must not be contrary to any Talmudic, or oral laws which the rabbis passed down from age to age.

With all these rules, which books actually carried the title of Scripture during the time of Paul? Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who lived during the time of Paul writes:

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, eight 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. […] 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.

Josephus, Against Apion 1.8

When listed out, the Scripture accepted at Paul’s time of ministry were these:

Torah – 5 books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

Prophets – 13 books (Joshua, Judges/Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah/Lamentations, Ezekiel, the Twelve (minor prophets), Job, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Esther)

Four books of Hymns and Precepts (Psalms, Proverbs, Qohelet, Song of Songs)

These are the books that Paul was referring to when he wrote his letter to Timothy. Anything else is assumed and added by us and not in line with the intended meaning of Paul. I can hear your questions. What about the Lxx which Paul used? What about the Apocrypha? These are all good questions that require detailed study. I’m providing what the general accepted canon was (which was still being argued during the time of Paul), and mind you, the canon wasn’t even closed yet. But unlike Christianity today, the rabbis had little issue with quoting, reading, and using non-canonical writings to support their messages. Paul, a rabbi, did this as well when he quoted Cleanthes and Aratus (Acts 17:28) and Menander (1 Cor. 15:33). Jude also does this when he quotes from the book of Enoch. But they did not consider those writings to be Scripture.

Scripture was what they lived by, it was what they measured everything else against, and it was what they upheld in their teachings. And finally, it was all they required to teach about Yeshua and convert Gentiles into the fold. Can you imagine that? Do you know the Tanakh well enough to convert others, can you teach about Yeshua solely from those writings? Next time you open the Bible, rather than skipping ahead to the end of the book, why don’t you try reading it from the beginning. In the beginning God created…


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