Slowly but surely, as time went on, God was adding to His Book, until about four hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ the Old Testament Scriptures, in their present shape, were completed.
Many questions have been asked as to how the canon of the Old Testament was formed -- that is, how and when did the Jews first begin to understand that the Books of the Old Testament were inspired by God.
About the first five Books -- the Books of the Law -- there had never been any question. From the very earliest times those Books, so wonderfully given to the people, had been the strength and stay of the Children of Israel.
But many books had been written in the days of the old Jewish kings, and also after the return of the people from Babylon: some of these were very beautiful and helpful. How were the sacred Scriptures first divided from the other Jewish writings?
We do not know. Some have thought that Ezra the scribe, with the assistance of a council of elders, fixed the canon of Hebrew Scripture; others have supposed Nehemiah to have undertaken the work; but most likely it was a gradual process, directed by God Himself, who inspired His servants to carry out His will.
The Christian Bible is composed of two parts, the Old and the New Testament; but the Jews divided their Scriptures -- our Old Testament -- into three parts, and they certainly looked upon some books as far more sacred than others. The 'Torah' -- that is, the Law -- included, as we have seen, the first five books of the Bible. From the very earliest days the Torah was reverenced as containing the commandments and promises of God.
The second division consisted of the 'Prophets,' these being subdivided into the 'Former Prophets' (four volumes) -- Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings -- and the 'Latter Prophets' (three volumes) -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel -- and the Twelve Minor Prophets (which were included in one book).
Next in order of sanctity came the third division, the 'Writings,' and these again were subdivided into three groups: the poetical Books of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job; the 'Rolls' or 'Readings' (seven volumes) -- Solomon's Song, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, and one volume containing Ezra and Nehemiah; and, lastly, in a separate book, Chronicles. Thus the whole Scriptures were contained in twenty-four books.
Indeed, not until the Greek translation was made were the books grouped in the order in which we have them now, and at the same time their number was increased to thirty-nine by taking the writings of each of the prophets separately, and treating Ezra and Nehemiah as different books.
And now God, who has spoken in times past by many different ways and voices, spoke at last to the nations by His Son, 'by whom also He made the worlds.' (Hebrews i.2.)
Let us think for a little while of what was being done with the Scriptures in the days when the Lord Jesus learnt to read their words at His mother's knee; words which from first to last told of Himself.
We have seen that no people could possibly honour the actual letters of the Scripture more highly than did the Jews. The care they took to keep the words exactly as they had been handed down to them was infinite; and God, who knows all things, knew that a time would come when the pure Hebrew words of the old Bible would be eagerly sought for, and treasured by all who truly honour His Book.
Therefore, although the eyes of the learned Jewish scribes were so blinded, that they did not recognize their King and Saviour when He came, yet God blessed all that was true in their work, and it is from the Hebrew copies which they made of the Books of the Old Testament, and not from the 'Septuagint,' or Greek translation, that the Old Testament of our Bible has come to us to-day.
Yet, sad to say, while so careful to preserve the words of the Scriptures, the Scribes and Pharisees forgot its spirit, the very purpose for which the Bible had been given them.
A man might know by memory every letter of the Bible, but unless the Spirit of God were in his heart, helping him to act out in his life the words he repeats with his lips, all his knowledge of the Bible would only lie as a dead-weight upon his soul. 'The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.' (2 Corinthians iii.6.) So wrote the Apostle Paul, who had, as we know, been educated by the Scribes and Pharisees, and when he wrote those words he was recalling his own experience.
Thus, as year by year the learned Jews thought more of the letters of their Bible, they saw less of its spirit; worse still, they began to add to the teaching of the Books of the Law.
Not that they ventured to put other words between those of the Bible, or to alter it as the Samaritans had done; but they invented long explanations of almost every verse, and declared that these explanations must be followed as absolutely as the words of the Bible itself.
For instance, a learned Jewish teacher wrote an explanation of Moses' command about obeying the Levites. (Deuteronomy xvii.11.) Moses had said that the people were to do what the Levites told them respecting the Law of God, neither turning 'to the right hand, nor to the left.' The Jewish teachers declared what Moses really meant was that if a teacher of the Law told you that your left hand was your right you must believe him!
[Illustration: PLAN OF A SYNAGOGUE
1. MODEL OF THE ARK WHICH WAS CARRIED BEFORE THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL.2. STAND FOR THE READER. 3. WOMEN'S GALLERY. 4. ENTRANCE]
In this way, while professing to explain God's Word, the scribes and teachers were confusing the simple people who wanted to obey this Holy Law.
The Saviour saw this, and He fearlessly rebuked the teachers of the Law, grieved beyond words that those to whom God had entrusted His Book should make 'the Word of God of none effect through your tradition.' (Mark vii.13.)
His own way of using the Scriptures was very different. From His mother He had first learned to repeat texts from the Old Testament, and with her He had gone to the Synagogue, Sabbath by Sabbath, to hear the Books of the Law and the Prophets read.
As He grew older He would have been sent to school and taught to read and recite the Scriptures, and long before He began Himself to teach the people He had so absorbed the spirit of the Old Testament that His very thoughts seem to have been given in Scripture words.
Perhaps you have wondered why the names of some of the prophets and heroes of the Old Testament are spelt so differently when mentioned in the New -- 'Elias' instead of 'Elijah,' 'Noe' instead of 'Noah,' and so on. This is because the writers of the New Testament quoted from the Greek translation of the Bible instead of from the Hebrew. Names change a little, you know, when translated into other languages. For instance, our name of Mary becomes 'Marie' in French, and 'Maria' in Italian, and yet it is all the while the same name.
Some people think that this, the Septuagint, or first Greek translation, was the special translation of the Bible which the Saviour used. Many of the quotations which He gave from the Old Testament appear to have been from this translation, although some seem taken directly from the Hebrew, and others again from an Aramaic version which has disappeared.
Christ Himself no doubt taught the people in the Aramaic tongue, which was a mixed language, and came into use after the Jews' return from Babylon. Aramaic is called 'Chaldee' in the Book of Daniel.
But while our Saviour constantly quoted from the Old Testament, He never used its words without definite purpose. The Sword of the Spirit in His hands was either turned against the Evil One, or brought directly to bear with overwhelming force on some mistaken teaching which had blinded the people to the true meaning of the Word of God.
The direct and yet simple way in which He reached the point, and once and for all swept away the difficulty, amazed and confounded the learned Jews.
An instance of this is found in His wonderful answer to the Sadducees, who disbelieved in the Resurrection. 'As touching the Resurrection of the dead,' He said, 'have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?' (Matthew xxii.31, 32.) His hearers, of course, had heard these words quoted from childhood, but not till the Saviour explained their full significance -- 'God is not the God of the dead, but of the living' -- did they realize that in the first recorded words spoken by God to Moses lay a proof of the Resurrection and of life after death.
Let us take a look at the first time in which Christ publicly read and explained the Scriptures. It is the Sabbath, and the synagogue of Nazareth is full of people, serious and attentive, for they have met together to hear the Word of God.
Now One stands up to read. The sacred Roll is in His hand; the Roll of the Book of the prophet Isaiah. Listen: --
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
'To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.' (Luke iv.18, 19.)
He closes the Book and sits down.
From the dim ages of the past those words had been read; in the long, long ages to come they will yet be read, until the World shall cease to exist, and time itself be known no more.
But never before and never again could there be so heart-searching or sacred a reading as this, when the Son of God read from His Father's Book in the simple village meeting in Galilee.
And yet His listeners did not understand the reading. Even after His explanation of the words they fell upon deaf ears and raised only anger and surprise. It was then that the first attempt was made to destroy Him. (Verse 29.)
To His own Apostles, enlightened as they were, the message of the Old Testament was sealed until after the Saviour's Resurrection, when He 'opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.' (Luke xxiv.45.) Then only did the wonderful truth dawn upon them that in coming to earth, in suffering, rising from the dead, and ascending to Heaven, their Master had not destroyed the Scriptures, but had fulfilled them. (Matthew v.17.)