Mysteries of the Kingdom

            in awe of scripture, viewing it through the lens of the kingship of Jesus

Questioning Josephus' Canon

The ancient historian Josephus offered the oldest known "canon" list of Jewish Scriptures, but Jewish Rabbi, historian, PhD, and Harvard professor, Shaye Cohen openly criticizes Josephus' list, stating, "Josephus is either poorly informed or deliberately misleading..." Let the reader judge whether or not Cohen is correct to have censured Josephus.

Of the five primary branches of Christianity, Protestants alone reject as divinely inspired any Old Testament book which modern Judaism rejects. As detailed here,
all four of the ancient branches of Christianity affirm the divine inspiration of seven Old Testament books which Judaism rejects. Protestants often quote Josephus as proof that these seven books should be rejected, thereby inadvertently accusing all of Chrisitianity to have been led astray all over the world for 1,500 years on the crucial topic of the canon of Scripture. The European reformers alone would then have had the capacity for identifying Scripture, without respect for the ancient African Christians of Egypt and Ethiopia as well as the ancient Asian Christians of Armenia, Persia, Russia, India, and Georgia, not to mention the ancient Christians of Greece and wider Europe.

To clarify my approach, I must note that early Christians disagreed with utter charity regarding the canon of Scripture. Until consensus was reached, disagreements on the topic were merely disagreements, not bones of contention. While I believe Protestantism errs in rejecting those books which the historic and global Churches affirmed, I do not disagree with any animosity whatsoever. I frequently address this topic only in hopes that many Protestants will begin to enjoy those living waters of Scripture from which the rest of the global Church drinks. Officially, Protestantism regards these books as profitable for reading, but not valid sources of doctrine. What hinders then, such profitable reading?

Josephus wrote "against Apion" at the end of the first century AD or early in the second century. Historians generally consider Josephus to have penned in that book the first "canon" list of divine Scriptures. Therefore, if Cohen is right to disagree with Josephus' accuracy, then another witness is removed from those who reject the historic and global Christian testimony on this topic. Crucially, we must note that Cohen specifically disagreed with Josephus' central claim in "Against Apion" that Jews universally reckoned 22 books as divinely inspired. Often, opponents of the historic Christian canon quote Josephus without the greater context, which follows:

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. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; 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 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; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them.1

Cohen points first to the number of books, citing the Babylonian Talmud as counting 24 books rather than 22.2 He offers the possibility that Josephus simply counted 4 of the books as 2, but such would be a defense from silence, made problematic by the much later Jewish agreement regarding the inspiration of Esther. Next Cohen refers to 4th Esdras. 4th Esdras not only listed 24 books to be offered "to the worthy and the unworthy," but an additional 70 books to be read by the wise. Cohen omits mention of the latter 70.

Then Cohen, surprisingly for someone of the Jewish faith, refers to the testimony of Ancient Christian canons to refute Josephus' number of books:

The most striking evidence, however, is provided by the manuscripts of the Greek translation of the Bible and by the patristic lists of the canonical books. Although both of these sources are of Christian origin, many scholars argue that they reflect, at least to some degree, the biblical canons used by the Jews of the Greek Diaspora.3

Cohen does not offer the following argument, but we ought to consider: Since Christianity sprang from Jewish roots, the ancient Christian canons would either limit themselves to Jewish canons or defend the reason for which other books should rightly be added to the Jewish canon. Since ancient Christians did not defend their having added books to the Jewish canon, we must either conclude that the ancient Christian Old Testament canons were thoroughly Jewish, or else that all four branches of ancient Christianity were so ignorant that none of them noticed (much less defended) the fact that they had added a great number of books to the Jewish canons.

In discussing Josephus' number of books, Cohen notes the abnormal categorization of books. Josephus followed protocol by claiming five "books of Moses" to which we all can agree. Yet he then claimed 13 books as written by the prophets after Moses. Since Josephus offered no names for these books, we are left entirely to conjecture as to which books he considered prophetic. If the 12 minor prophets are counted as one book, then we arrive at approximately six prophetic books by the traditional categorization. If the 12 minor prophets are counted as 12, we reach the sum of 17 books by the traditional categorization.

Finally, Josephus counted 4 of his 22 books as "hymns to God, and precepts." If we attribute Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes to this group, we are left with perhaps Lamentations as the fourth, subtracting it from the prophetic books which never added up to 13 anyway. Since Josephus did not name the books which he affirmed, arguments which claim his authority are based on presuppositions which are not supported by his categorization of the wrong total number of books and the wrong categorical number of books within that total.

To claim the support of Josephus against the historic Christian canon is to claim to support of one who was, as Cohen puts it, "either poorly informed or deliberately misleading." Josephus argued against Apion that Jews were superior to Greeks because Jews had an established canon of 22 books categorized as 5 books of Moses, 13 books by the prophets, and 4 books of hymns and precepts. Josephus did not accurately portray Jewish approach to Scripture as evidenced by the Talmud, by 4th Ezra, nor by the early Christian canons.

Neither however did Josephus or any other singular source prove which canon is correct. Rather, the formation of both the Old and New Testament canons was a lengthy process, filled with charitable disagreements, a process which sporadically developed over the course of centuries. Let the proponents of both sides of the debate review all of the Scripture canons offered by Christian scholars and apostolic bishops over the first 800 years of Christianity. Let us not select a favorite hero for this disagreement, but rather learn from the exquisite charity shown through the centuries on this topic.

By the 8th century AD, all four apostolic branches of Christianity had unique canons, with 73 books gaining global acceptance by every branch: 46 books of their Old Testament canons and 27 in their New. If we continue to disagree, let us do so in friendship and peace. Most importantly, please let us all actually read the seven books which Protestantism deems "profitable for reading" and which all other branches deem to be Holy Scripture. We can then at least express mutual appreciation of the books over which we charitably disagree.

  1. Quoted from Project Gutenberg,
  2. 4 Esdras 14:45-46
  3. Cohen, Shaye, "From the Maccabees to the Mishnah" 3rd Edition, (Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press) chapter 6, Kindle edition, location 4290 of 9682.
"Questioning Josephus' Canon" by Matthew Bryan was first published at on September 21st, 2016. All rights are reserved.