The Broad and Truncated Canons of the Old Testament

The Books called Apocrypha

The Books called Apocrypha

The Christian Church accepted the broader canon of the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) until the time of the Reformation. The Anglican Henry Wace, in his commentary on the King James Version, admits as much when he writes:

When the Reformers denied the inspired authority of the books of the Apocrypha, it was by no means their intention to exclude them from use either in public or in private reading. The Articles of the Church of England quote with approbation the ruling of St. Jerome, that though the Church does not use these books for establishment of doctrine, it reads them for example of life and instruction of manners.[1]

Having already truncated their canon, some Protestants look back to the ancient church for support, citing this or that authority who seemingly support their position. There were individuals who devised lists of books approved for use in the church, such as the listing called the “ruling of St. Jerome.” These lists are occasionally similar to the canon used by Protestants today, but these individual lists were not authoritative in the wider church. Even where the lists of Old Testament books matched those of the Protestant canon, these lists wouldn’t match the New Testament books — and vice versa. (We will provide more detail on this later). St. Jerome was not a bishop, and the ‘ruling of St. Jerome’ was not authoritative anywhere. St. Jerome ultimately accepted the ruling of his bishop, something noted by Martin Hengel: “Jerome himself, who was not only a great and combative scholar but also a smooth diplomat, largely abandoned any effort to defend the Hebrew original in the Apocrypha question.”[2]

St. Athanasius (c. 296-373) is widely cited as having provided the first complete listing of the 27 books of the New Testament. Matt Slick, the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), cites Festal Letter 39 (c. 367 A.D.) as proof that Athanasius condemns the Apocrypha.[3] This is only partially correct. First of all, St. Athanasius was speaking for his own diocese, not the entire Church. Second, there were many different lists being advanced for centuries afterwards.

While St. Athanasius did not approve of all the so-called Apocrypha, his festal letter approved several of them. For example, his list contains “the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book”; “Jeremiah with Baruch”; “Lamentations, and the epistle, one book”; Esther; and Daniel. Baruch is one of the so-called Apocrypha, as is the Epistle of Jeremiah. The versions of 2 Chronicles, Esther, and Daniel judged by St. Athanasius as genuine contain material Protestants judge to be Apocryphal.[4] In the unabridged King James Version, these are called “The Prayer of Manassas” (placed at the end of 2 Chronicles); “The rest of Esther” (material found throughout Esther in the Septuagint); “The History of Susanna” (comes before Daniel chapter 1); “The Song of the Three Holy Children” (comes in the middle of Daniel chap. 3); and “Bel and the Dragon” (comes after Daniel chap. 12). To be honest, if Protestants want to claim Festal Letter 39 of St. Athanasius as sealing the canon of the New Testament, they should also be prepared to accept all the Old Testament Apocrypha cited by Athanasius.

In his book The Divine Names, the author known today as Pseudo-Dionysius (late 5th to early 6th century) quotes from the Wisdom of Solomon, describing it as “introductory Scriptures.”[5] We might be tempted towards thinking this supports the general Protestant view. Paul Rorem and John Lamoreaux say the term “introductory Scripture” merely means that the Old Testament was an introduction to the New; in other words, the entire Old Testament could be termed “introductory Scripture.”[6] The question, then, is how extensive that introduction is.

Among early Protestants, there was substantial disagreement and confusion as to the extent of the Old Testament. For example, John Wycliffe’s Bible translation, first hand-printed in 1382 A.D., contains 48 Old Testament books, as opposed to the 39 contained in the Protestant Old Testament.[7]  We should note the Bibles printed following the Protestant Reformation also include what Protestants call the Apocrypha.[8] For example, Martin Luther’s German translation of 1522 contained the Apocrypha. The English Language Matthew-Tyndale Bible, published by John Rogers in 1537, contained the Apocrypha.[9] Both the Geneva Bible of 1560 and the original King James Version (KJV) of 1611 contained the Apocrypha. Unabridged editions of the KJV with the Apocrypha are still available today, although printed versions are rare in the United States.[10]

Abridged Bibles without the Apocrypha are an American invention. The Continental Congress approved and funded the printing of Bibles without the Apocrypha. Rev. Dr. Will Gafney writes:

Many are unaware that the shorter Protestant bible was created in the new America, during the revolutionary war when a printer took it upon himself without the authority of a church council to print a bible whose contents he chose. That bible, The Aitken Bible[11] is also significant for having been printed with the authority of the Continental Congress.[12]

Modern Protestants use a truncated canon whose origins and history they are unaware of. Moreover, they misread the canonical history of the Old Testament. This does not mean Protestants cannot be saved, of course. What it does mean is that Protestants lack the fullness of the faith.

Endnotes

[1] (Wace 1811, xxxvi) The ruling of St. Jerome was his private theological opinion, was contrary to the practice of the wider Christian Church, and was not accepted as dogma anywhere.

[2] (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 49-50)

[3] (Slick 2014)

[4] The Masoretic text favored by many conservative Protestant scholars did not exist at this time. The favored text in the Church was the Septuagint (see chap. 4.)

[5] (Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite 1987, 81)

[6] (Rorem and Lamoreaux 1998, 48)

[7] The various eBooks and online sources like Bible Gateway only reproduce the part of Wycliffe’s translation that are acceptable to the Protestants. Wycliffe’s complete Old Testament contained the following books considered unacceptable after the Reformation: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon), Syrach (Sirach, a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus), Preier of Jeremiah (Epistle of Jeremiah), Baruk (Baruch), along with 1 Machabeis & 2 Machabeis (1st and 2nd Maccabees). John Wycliffe’s New Testament also contains Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans, a contested document found in no generally accepted version or translation. (Wycliffe 2008)

[8] When asked if The Online Bible (www.onlinebible.net) would be providing a copy of the original King James Version with the Apocrypha,   Larry Pierce, (the founder) responded: “We have no intention of mixing Jewish fables with the infallible Word of God.” (Pierce 2014) Pierce is quoting Titus 1:14 here, equating Paul’s reference to ‘Jewish fables’ with the Apocrypha, an interpretation that cannot be found in the text. Pierce chooses to use an abridged version of the King James Version rather than provide it as it was originally printed. In an email to Pastor EJ Hill, Larry Pierce admitted to redacting and editing other people’s work when they do not agree with his theology (such as Thayer’s 1889 Greek-English Lexicon.) (Hill 2012)

[9] The Matthew-Tyndale Bible, generally known as the Matthew Bible, contains the following books not found in the Protestant Bible: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 3 Holy Children, Suzanna, Bel & the Dragon, Prayer of Mannesah, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. (Rogers and Coverdale 1537)

[10] An excellent resource is the Official King James version online which contains the American truncation of the King James Version, the Apocrypha, and the original 1611 version with the apocrypha. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Apocrypha-Books/

[11] http://www.theworldsgreatbooks.com/Aitken Bible.htm

[12] (Gafney 2013)

Bibliography

Gafney, W. C. (2013, March 17). Jesus’ Bible and the History Channel’s Bible. Retrieved December 7, 2014, from The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.: http://www.wilgafney.com/2013/03/17/jesus-bible-and-the-history-channels-bible/

Hengel, M. (2002). The Septuagint as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Hill, E. (2012). Did Larry Pierce abridge Thayer’s Lexicon? The Online Bible Forum. Winterbourne: Online Bible.

Pierce, L. (2014, May 5). “email conversation”. Online Bible Tech Support. Winterbourne: Online Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite. (1987). Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. (C. Luibheid, Trans.) New York: Paulist Press.

Rogers, J., & Coverdale, M. (1537). 1537 Matthew’s Bible. Retrieved September 1, 2014, from Bibles-Online.net: http://www.bibles-online.net/1537/

Rorem, P., & Lamoreaux, J. C. (1998). John of Scythopolis and the Dionysian Corpus: Annotating the Areopagite. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Slick, M. (2014, November 1). Apocrypha. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from CARM: http://carm.org/early-church-fathers-apocrypha

Wace, H. (1811). Holy Bible According to the Authorized Version (A.D. 1611). (Vol. 1). (H. Wace, Ed.) London: John Murray.

 

The Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism

Herod's Rebuilt Second Temple

Herod’s Rebuilt Second Temple

The idea of the canon as a list of authoritative books would have been strange to Jews of the Second Temple period. For them, the Temple was the center of their religion. Lester L. Grabbe, Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Hull, England, writes:

It is natural that people often assume that Judaism in the Second Temple period was more or less like contemporary Judaism, in which people meet weekly or even more frequently in synagogues to pray, worship, and hear the Bible read. The written scripture and its reading and study are assumed to be the focus of Judaism at all times. …Yet the Judaism of pre-70 times was formally structured in a quite different way from the Judaism of later times. The main religious institution was the Jerusalem temple, and temple worship went back many centuries in Jewish and Israelite history. …The main activity in the temple was blood sacrifice.[1]

Lester L. Grabbe goes on to discuss the issue of the supposed canon during Second Temple Judaism.

When and how the present canon became finalized is still not known, despite a number of studies on the subject. Some Jewish groups seem to have accepted a different set of books as authoritative compared to other groups.[2]

Jaroslav Pelikan agrees with Grabbe, and writes:

Not only is the use of the word canon as a designation for an authoritative list of sacred books a rather late phenomenon within the history of the Jewish community, but even the idea of a fixed and final list came about only after a long evolution.[3]

Julio Trebolle Barrera notes the idea of a canon was foreign to the Jewish mind. He notes the word canon is a term connected to “New Testament studies,” and Jews did not use it until “the 4th cent. CE.” He writes:

To apply the term «canon» to the Hebrew Bible, therefore, is quite unsuitable. Hebrew has no term which corresponds to Greek «canon». Rabbinic discussions concerning the canonical or apocryphal character of certain biblical books such as Song of Songs and Qoheleth, turn on the expression «defiles the hands». The supposition is that books of which it is said that «they defile the hands» were considered as canonical, whereas books to which this expression was not applied were excluded from the biblical canon. However, the expression «defile the hands» may have no more significance than to refer to ritual purification to be performed after having used such books and before starting any other secular activity.[4]

Saying Hebrew has no term corresponding to the Greek word ‘canon’ is not precisely true. The Greek word ‘canon’ is itself a loan word from the Semitic languages. In Hebrew, the word is קָנֶה (qaneh) meaning ‘tube’ or ‘reed’. The Hebrew word qaneh is related to the Assyrian word qanu and the Arabic word qanah, meaning ‘hollow stick’ or ‘reed’. While the Greeks and Christians used the word canon in the sense of a rule or measuring stick, this idea comes from Greek philosophy.

The concept of canon as the rule of faith is a Christian idea that developed rather late. The Jews eventually used that idea for the Hebrew Scriptures, but such an idea was unknown in Jesus’ day. Jewish groups knew which books they considered to be Scripture, but there were different Jewish groups with competing ideas as to the extent of their scriptures. More importantly, the concept of canon was a gentile concept; as such it would likely not have been used by Jews to delimit their Scriptures to a specific set of books.

The Swiss Protestant theologian Robert Hanhart, writing in the introduction to Martin Hengel’s “The Septuagint as Christian Scripture”, notes that Jesus ben Sirach’s introduction to Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus) “assumes the three divisions transmitted by the Masoretes”, and draws a distinction between the material described by these divisions and that of his translation of his grandfather’s commentary on Scripture.[5] He concludes that Second Temple Judaism distinguished between canon and Apocrypha. By stating this, Robert Hanhart is reading the medieval Masoretic traditions back into the Second Temple period, two periods separated by nearly a millennium. Lutheran professor and theologian Emil Schürer differs with Robert Hanhart: “The most ancient testimony to the collocation of both collections with the Thorah [sic] is the prologue to the Book of Wisdom. …We cannot, however, determine from it that the third collection was then already concluded.”[6]

The disagreement between Robert Hanhart and Emil Schürer illustrates the manner in which scholars disagree regarding the boundaries of the Old Testament canon in the second temple period and reflects the wide range of perspectives among Jews of the second temple period. The Baptist Professor Jeff S. Anderson writes about the diversity existing within Second Temple Judaism.

What flourished in the Second Temple Period was not a single, fixed, “normative” Judaism, but a developing, evolving religion… No straight evolutionary line of the Jewish faith emerges. Consequently, it is preferable to speak of multiple Judaisms rather than a monolithic ideology that views one brand of Judaism as orthodox and the rest as “sects.” All Judaisms, consequently, competed for an audience and for the authority that accompanies broad-based acceptance.[7]

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310–320 – 403 CE) describes twelve specific sects of the Jews: the Samaritans, the Essenes, the Sebuaeans, the Gorothenes, the Dositheans, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Hemerobaptists, the Nasaraeans, the Ossaeans, and the Herodians.[8] The Jerusalem Talmud (c. 200 – 400 CE) quotes Rabbi Johanan as saying there were twenty-four heretical sects of Judaism in the time of Ezekiel.[9] With different Judaisms competing for acceptance, it is no wonder there was no consensus on the limits of the Hebrew Scriptures.[10] The great Protestant scholar of Second Temple Judaism, Martin Hengel, writes:

We cannot prove the existence of a genuine Jewish, pre-Christian collection of canonical value, unambiguously and clearly delimited, distinguishable through its greater scope from the canon of the Hebrew Bible in the realm of the historical books and wisdom writings and written in Greek. Nor, especially, can it be shown that such a ‘canon’ was already formed in pre-Christian Alexandria. One can only proceed from the fact that the five books of Moses’ Torah, the so-called Pentateuch, were translated into Greek under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246), at the latest toward the middle of the third century [BC].[11]

The picture of Second Temple Judaism is much more complex than is commonly thought. There was the temple cult centered in Jerusalem, and there was the law which Jews agreed was scripture. Most Jews accepted the Prophets as well. Beyond that, we know different branches of Judaism accepted a varying list of writings as authoritative, and possibly as scripture. The canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was not settled until well into the Christian era.

Endnotes

  1. (Grabbe 2010, Kindle Locations 536-538; 540-541)
  2. (Grabbe 2010, Kindle Locations 561-562)
  3. (Pelikan 2005, 39)
  4. (Barrera 1998, 148)
  5. (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 2-3)
  6. (Schürer, A History of the Jewish People, Second Division, Volume 1 1890, 308)
  7. (Anderson 2002, 5-6)
  8. (Epiphanius of Salamis 2012, Book 1, Section 1, Parts 9-20)
  9. (Bowker 1973, 161) The Jerusalem Talmud was written well into the Christian era, in a period after many of the competing Judaisms had died out. Thus, the reference to them as ‘heretical sects.’
  10. The scholar April D. DeConick writes: “Judaism and Christianity are companion expressions of Second Temple Judaism, sibling religions that developed simultaneously within comparable historical contextures.” (DeConick 2006, 3)
  11. (Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture 2002, 19)

Bibliography

  1. Anderson, J. S. (2002). The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism: An Introduction to the Second Temple Period. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc.
  2. Barrera, J. T. (1998). The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible; An Introduction to the History of the Text. (W. G. Watson, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  3. Bowker, J. (1973). Jesus and the Pharisees. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. DeConick, A. D. (2006). What is Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism? Retrieved August 7, 2017, from Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism: http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/definition.pdf
  5. Epiphanius of Salamis. (2012, April 25). The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: A Treatise Against Eighty Sects in Three Books. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from Masseiana Home Page: http://www.masseiana.org/panarion_bk1.htm
  6. Grabbe, L. L. (2010). An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: T&T Clark.
  7. Pelikan, J. (2005). Whose Bible Is It: A Short History of the Scriptures (Kindle Edition ed.). New York: Penguin Group US.
  8. Schürer, E. (1890). A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ (Vols. Second Division, Volume 1). (S. Taylor, & P. Christie, Trans.) Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Are the Apocrypha Cited As Scripture?

Judah Maccabee as depicted in an 1860 illustrated Bible

Judah Maccabee as depicted in an 1860 illustrated Bible

Using Merril C. Tenny’s definition of a citation as being “almost exact verbally and which are definitely referred to a given author”, there are virtually no direct citations of the Old Testament Apocrypha in the New Testament.[1] Many quotations, but no citations. This is not really a problem, for the New Testament quotes and alludes to the Old Testament often, but cites rarely. The New Testament was written by people with such familiarity with the Old Testament scriptures that they evidently did not feel the need to give exact citations. Moreover, the writers of the New Testament were not preparing academic papers, and the Chicago Manual of Style did not exist. So they used quotations and allusions freely, assuming a degree of scriptural familiarity on the part of their readers.

Jude is one of two books that cites a source outside the Protestant canon.

It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” (Jude 1:14-15)

This citation of the book of Enoch was one reason why the canonicity of Jude was a matter of dispute among the early church. In the fifth century, the Syriac Church settled on a 22 book canon that does not contain the book of Jude, along with other disputed books (II Peter, II & III John, and Revelation.)[2]This canon is still in use today among the Nestorians.

The books of James and Romans also cite a source outside the Protestant canon. The citation from James is particularly compelling.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. (James 2:21-23)

James cites as scripture a passage found in the first book of Maccabees. “Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?” (1 Macc 2:52) This is a direct quotation, which should put to rest the Protestant argument against their being no quotations from the Apocrypha that cite them as Scripture. The apostle Paul also cites the same passage from 1 Maccabees in his extended argument regarding Abraham’s faith. (Rom 4:13-22)

Game, set, match.


Endnotes

[1] (Tenney 1963, 301)

[2] (Lieuwen, The Emergence of the New Testament Canon 1995)


Bibliography

Lieuwen, Daniel F. “The Emergence of the New Testament Canon.” St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney (Dallas area) Texas. 1995. http://www.orthodox.net/faq/canon.htm#267 (accessed January 15, 2014).

Tenney, Merrill C. “The Old Testament and the Fourth Gospel.” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Theological Seminary), no. 120 (October 1963): 300-308.

The Septuagint and the Canon

Psalm 90 from the Septuagint

Psalm 90 from the Septuagint

The Septuagint is a version of the Hebrew Scriptures that was translated into Greek. At a minimum, the Pentateuch (also known as the five books of Moses), were translated sometime between 285-240 BC, and for sure the rest of the books were translated by 130 BC.  (Gentry 2009, 24) This translation was in widespread use among the Jewish diaspora, who for the most part no longer spoke Hebrew. Even in the Holy Land, most people spoke Greek and Aramaic instead of Hebrew, so the Septuagint was in use even in Jerusalem.

Many people find it curious that when the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, the quotations often don’t match. The reason is that the Masoretic Text, which is the primary source material for English language translations, did not exist at the time of Christ. It is possible to trace the Masoretic Text back to some text contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the Masoretic Text itself is an edited text, a fixation of a particular strain of Jewish interpretation.  (Clarke 1833, iii)

The Septuagint was the Bible for the earliest Christians. This presents all manner of difficulties for conservative Protestants, who have a marked preference for the Masoretic Text, and a formal, literal, word for word translation. The Septuagint, by contrast, represents a grab bag of translation techniques. Bruce Metzger informs us the translators “avoided literalistic renderings of phrases congenial to another age and another language.” (Metzger 2001, Kindle Locations 266-267) Peter J. Gentry, writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, describes the translation styles as follows.

Individual books [of the Septuagint] vary in character and quality of translation and exhibit a full spectrum from extreme formal correspondence and literal translation to dynamic and functional translation and even paraphrase. (Gentry 2009, 24)

We therefore have to deal with the fact that the early church, and indeed Christ Himself, used a bible that not only was based on different texts than ours, but was translated using a variety of methods that would not pass muster with most people today. And yet, the Septuagint was referred to by the New Testament writers as Scripture, and was the Bible for the early church.

When I was still a Lutheran, I raised the question of why we didn’t use the Septuagint instead of using the Masoretic text as the basis for our Bible — to which one pastor replied: “Which Septuagint?” Not a bad question, since the Septuagint is not a book in the modern sense, but instead an amorphous collection of scrolls. (In this way it is similar to the Hebrew Scriptures, which also consisted of a similar collection of scrolls.) In fact, given the rather fluid condition of Judaism at the time of Christ, it can be argued that until the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism existed in multiple sects, using multiple and somewhat undefined canons. Instead of asking “Which Septuagint”, one might as well ask “Which Bible”, as even today there are multiple canons in use amongst the different Christian communities.


Bibliography

Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible: containing the Old and New Testaments, with a commentary and critical notes. Royal Octavo Stereotype Edition. Vol. I. New York: B. Waugh and T. Maxon, 1833.

Gentry, Peter J. “The Text of the Old Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological 52, no. 1 (2009): 19-45.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2001.

 

 

The Development of the NT Canon

The Supposed Timeline of the New Testament Canon

The Supposed Timeline of the New Testament Canon

The modern conception of canon as a list first began with the dispute between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, each of whom made the issue of the canon part of their dispute. But as there has never been a Reformation among the Orthodox, the issues of canon and canonicity are of no dogmatic importance in the East. Any splits among the Orthodox, including the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, were about Christology, not the Canon; each collection of authoritative writings arose by common consent among the different groups, rather than as part of a formal dogmatic stance.

The Ecumenical Councils were generally uninterested in the issues of canon and canonicity. Dr. Constantinou writes:

By that time, certain books were unquestioned, while most apocryphal works were recognized as such and universally rejected. But individual churches and bishops exercised their own discretion among disputed works. Clearly the issue was not resolved at Nicea because no pressing need to create a definitive canon was perceived: the question of the canon was simply not a divisive issue. This lack of concern among the participants of the Nicene council with respect to the canon indicates that opinions about the canon were not essentially dogmatic. Two persons could disagree about the canon and both could be entirely orthodox in doctrine. (Constantinou 2008, 38)

So how were the limits of our current canon determined? Initially, while Christian writings were shared between the churches, the title of Scripture was reserved only for the Old Testament, while the boundaries of the Old Testament were somewhat undefined. (McDonald 2007, 22) Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

Until the end of the second century, the term “Scriptures,” referred exclusively to the Jewish scriptures. Just as they had been the sole Scriptures for Christ and the apostles they remained the only Holy Scripture of the Church for many decades. Christ himself had quoted them, appealed to them, interpreted them and, most of all, fulfilled them. The Law and the Prophets had been normative for so long that it was difficult to conceive of any other writings achieving such high status. Although it appears that Christian documents were read within the context of Christian worship services by the early second century, another hundred years passed before they were recognized as possessing a level of authority that placed them on par with the Old Testament. (Constantinou 2008, 32)

Over time, certain writings from the New Testament period were considered to be Scripture by various churches, but sometimes that status was granted and then taken away. Lee McDonald writes:

When a particular writing was acknowledged by a religious community to be divinely inspired and authoritative, it was elevated to the status of Scripture, even if the writing was not yet called “Scripture” and even if that status was only temporary. For example, the noncanonical writings Eldad and Modad, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius were initially given this status in the church, but in time that practice ceased. There was limited discussion or agreement in the early church on such matters, and in the first two centuries only selective agreement on books acknowledged as Scripture took place. (McDonald 2007, 23-24)

Even the four Gospels were not considered to be Scripture, on par with the Old Testament, until the end of the 2nd Century. Evidence for this is shown by the heretic Marcion, who rejected the gospels with the exception of Luke, and who produced a redacted version of Luke. Then there was Tatian the Assyrian, whose Diatesseron harmonized the four gospels into a single book, a book which replaced the four Gospels in the Syriac churches until the 5th century. Eusebious reports that Tatian also attempted to rewrite the gospels, which itself is a testament to their not being considered on par with Scripture. (Constantinou 2008, 32-35)

The canon of Scripture gradually coalesced around a common core of books, but a number of books remained in dispute, with different bishops and regional councils weighing in on the issue. Constantinou writes:

It can only be said that by the end of the fourth century a consensus existed in both the East and West for the core of the canon: our present fourfold gospel corpus, Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of PauL, 1 John and 1 Peter. However, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation remained disputed at least to the extent that they were not universally accepted. (Constantinou 2008, 39)

The Book of Revelation is unique among the New Testament books, both for its claim to divine inspiration, and to its strange canonical history. In the 2nd century, Revelation was widely accepted as authoritative on the basis of its authorship and apostolicity; however, by the 4th century it had fallen out of favor — primarily because of the influence of the Montanist heresy. Constantinou writes:

Montanist prophecy was primarily eschatological in orientation. The message contained chiliastic and apocalyptic expectations which were associated with the Revelation of John, such the promise of a New Jerusalem. The three prophets proclaimed the imminent coming of the end of the world and professed to be the divinely appointed agents sent to warn Christians that the second coming of Christ was at hand. (Constantinou 2008, 65)

The Montanist heresy was so pervasive as to have drawn away the founder of Latin Christianity, Tertullian. The response to the Montanists was an attempt to discredit the writings that had been used by the Montanists — in particular, the Book of Revelation. (Constantinou 2008, 68-71)

Another reason why Revelation lost its canonical appeal was that the symbolism was mysterious and no longer understood. Revelation was written to the seven churches of Asia Minor, who presumably understood its cryptic imagery due to their familiarity with the author. But later generations did not have that intimate connection with the author’s meaning, and it was easily misinterpreted. In addition, the apocalyptic imagery of the Revelation arose from a Jewish apocalyptic tradition, a tradition which was foreign to the increasingly gentile Church. (Constantinou 2008, 72-73)

Around 332 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine the Great commissioned Eusebius to provide fifty copies of the scriptures for the churches in Constantinople. Unfortunately, none of these copies exist today, and Eusebius does not tell us which books were included. Some authorities contend they only contained the gospels; others think they would have contained only the books Eusebius considered canonical, which would have excluded the book of Revelation. (Constantinou 2008, 92) F. F. Bruce believes it would have contained our current 27 book canon, including Revelation. (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 204) However, Bruce fails to mention that the canonicity of Hebrews was disputed in the west (due to its unknown author) for at least another hundred years. (Constantinou 2008, 92) Moreover, Bruce fails to provide convincing evidence for the inclusion of the Revelation, supposing that it would have been included because emperor Constantine the Great used its imagery as “imperial propaganda.” (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture 2010, 204) However, since the Byzantine lectionary (or cycle of bible readings) dates to the 4th century and did not include the book of Revelation, an argument can be made for its not being part of the bibles produced by Eusebius.

Some point to the works such as the Synod of Laodicea (363 A.D.), the festal letter of Athanasius (367 A.D.), or the Third Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) as evidence that the canon of the New Testament was closed, when in fact what this shows is the matter was in some dispute, leading various bishops and regional councils to weigh in on the issue. The Council of Trullo (692 A.D.), known as the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, ratified the conflicting canons of the previous councils and apostolic fathers, yet failed to settle the issue. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

With regard to the canon of Scripture, rather than creating clarification, the Council of Trullo only compounded the confusion. The question of the New Testament canon of the East remained hopelessly muddled and even contradictory because the Quinisext synod did not compose its own list of canonical Scripture but only ratified earlier decisions, ignoring the fact that the canons of Scripture enumerated by earlier councils and various Fathers were not in agreement, especially with respect to Revelation. For example, Athanasius, Basil the Great and the Synod of Carthage accepted Revelation, while the Council at Laodicea and the 85 Apostolic Canons rejected it. They ratified Aniphilochios’ canon, but it is unclear whether he accepted or rejected Revelation or the catholic epistles. On the other hand, the   85 Apostolic Canons accepted 1 and 2 Clement as Scripture, something which earlier synods and the ratified Fathers did not. All of these synodal decisions and patristic canons of Scripture were ratified at Trullo. (Constantinou 2008, 107)

Unlike what many of us were taught, and what seemed reasonable (given the Protestant understanding of the canon), the development of the list of New Testament books occurred over some time, in fits and starts. The early church had the regula fidei, the rule of faith, as their guide. This rule of faith led them to gradually accept certain books as scripture, and reject others as either not consistent with the rule of faith, or not rising to the level of scripture. I was taught that the New Testament canon was closed with the death of the apostle John, who before his death was able to grant his apostolic seal of approval to all the New Testament books. But the historical evidence does not support this idea. Instead, what we see is the process of the Church gradually coming to a consensus on the limits of the New Testament canon, a process guided by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Church, the Bride of Christ.

Bibliography

Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. 3rd. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

 

 

Merrill F. Unger and the Protestant Canon

Unger's Bible Dictionary

Unger’s Bible Dictionary

The late Merrill F. Unger, former professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, provides a series of arguments for the Protestant’s shorter canon. Although I once accepted these arguments without question, they now seem quite odd.

They abound in historical and geographical inaccuracies and anachronisms. (Unger 1966, 70)

This is a most curious argument, given that the Sacred Scriptures are full of seeming inconsistencies, contradictions, pre-scientific descriptions, anthropomorphisms, and even what some might call actual errors of fact. If the arguments for inerrancy apply to the Protestant canon, why would they not apply to the Apocrypha? But as we shall see in Part II, the existence of supposed errors is not an argument against inspiration, for the Bible never claims to be inerrant.

They teach doctrines which are false and foster practices which are at variance with inspired Scripture. (Unger 1966, 70)

The argument here seems to be that of Martin Luther, who desired to exclude from the canon any books that disagreed with his interpretation of Scripture. The reasoning is that as we do not hold to certain doctrines, we cannot accept as canonical those books which teach doctrines contrary to ours. It is circular reasoning at best.

They resort to literary types and display an artificiality of subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired Scripture. (Unger 1966, 70)

This is a curious statement, given that the bulk of the New Testament consists of letters, Gospels, an apocalypse (Revelation), and a theological treatise (Hebrews), literature not found in the Old Testament Scriptures. The only historical book is Acts; the only wisdom literature is the book of James. The Old Testament does not contain an apocalypse, a style of writing that was in fashion from the time of the Maccabees until the destruction of Jerusalem, but absent from the Old Testament.[i] So basically, nearly all of the New Testament is made up of “literary types” and contains “subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired Scripture” — at least depending on your point of view.

They lack the distinctive elements which give genuine Scripture their divine character, such as prophetic power and poetic and religious feeling. (Unger 1966, 70)

I’m sorry, professor Unger, but this is not only completely subjective, but utter nonsense as well.[ii] First, let us examine Unger’s critique that the Apocrypha lack prophetic power. In his book “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”, Alfred Edersheim points to the almost hypostatic conception of the Logos in the Apocrypha, “especially the Book of Wisdom — following up the Old Testament typical truth concerning ‘Wisdom’ (as specially set forth in the Book of Proverbs) almost arrived so far as to present ‘Wisdom’ as a special ‘Subsistence’ (hypostatising it).” (Edersheim 1993, 32) The book of Barach takes this even further, going so far as to hint at the Incarnation of the Logos (something we will mention again in Part IV).

Hear, Israel, the commandments of life: give ear to understand wisdom. …Thou hast forsaken the fountain of wisdom. For if thou hadst walked in the way of God, thou shouldest have dwelled in peace for ever. …O Israel, how great is the house of God! and how large is the place of his possession! Great, and hath none end; high, and unmeasurable. …Who hath gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? …This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him. He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved. Afterward did he show himself upon earth, and conversed with men [emphasis added](Baruch 3:9, 12-13, 24-25, 29, 35-37).

As for “poetic and religious feeling,” let us read the supplicatory prayer of Judith, which will hold up to anything in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For, behold, the Assyrians are multiplied in their power; they are exalted with horse and man; they glory in the strength of their footmen; they trust in shield, and spear, and bow, and sling; and know not that thou art the Lord that breakest the battles: the Lord is thy name. Throw down their strength in thy power, and bring down their force in thy wrath: for they have purposed to defile thy sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where thy glorious name resteth, and to cast down with sword the horn of thy altar (Judith 9:7-8).

And again this, from Judith’s song of rejoicing:

I will sing unto the Lord a new song: O Lord, thou art great and glorious, wonderful in strength, and invincible. Let all creatures serve thee: for thou spakest, and they were made, thou didst send forth thy spirit, and it created them, and there is none that can resist thy voice. For the mountains shall be moved from their foundations with the waters, the rocks shall melt as wax at thy presence: yet thou art merciful to them that fear thee. For all sacrifice is too little for a sweet savor unto thee, and all the fat is not sufficient for thy burnt offering: but he that feareth the Lord is great at all times (Judith 16:13-16).

As we can see, none of Merrill F. Unger’s reasonings stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, it would appear that his opposition to the Apocrypha being in the canon is ultimately subjective, based on unstated and perhaps unwarranted assumptions.


Bibliography

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: New Updated Edition. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Unger, Merrill F. Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.

 


Endnotes

[i] Even though the New Testament contains an apocalypse, many in the ancient church rejected the Revelation of St. John precisely because of its mysterious symbolism and apocalyptic character — something the heretics were able to twist to their advantage.

[ii] I do not wish to be too hard on Mr. Unger, whose book was written before the implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls were widely known. Still, he lived until 1980 and never updated this portion of his Bible Dictionary.

The Closed Canon?

The Four Evangelists, by Rubens

The Four Evangelists, by Rubens

F. F. Bruce, in his book “The Canon of Scripture”, writes approvingly of the canon of Sacred Scripture being closed.

The words ‘to which nothing can be added … and from which nothing can be taken away’, whatever they precisely meant in this context, seem certainly to imply the principle of a closed canon. There are some scholars who maintain that the word ‘canon’ should be used only where the list of specially authoritative books has been closed; and there is much to be said in favour of this restrictive use of the word (a more flexible word might be used for the collection in process of formation), although it would be pedantic to insist on it invariably. (F. Bruce 2010, 22)

The idea of nothing can be added and nothing taken away comes from a variety of sources. F. F. Bruce cites from the Old Testament (Deut 4:2; cf 12:32), the New Testament (Rev 22:18 f.), the Didache, and Josephus. Of all these citations, Bruce says: “This language can scarcely signify anything other than a closed canon.” (F. Bruce 2010, 23) The impression is given that these citations apply to the Word of God as text, rather than the doctrinal substance of the books. Certainly in the case of Josephus this is a reasonable interpretation, but the other citations are more problematic.

In Deuteronomy we read: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you” (Deut 4:2). If this implies a closed canon, how are we to account for the remainder of the Old Testament since, apart from the book of Job, none of it had been written yet? Equally important for we Christians, how are we to account for the New Testament, given that it not only speaks of the fulfillment of the law of Moses in the person of Jesus Christ, but also reveals the Triune God, something never made explicit in the Old Testament, and not even made implicit apart from the reading of Christ back into the Old Testament

Historically, the canon of the Old Testament was accepted by the Christian Church up until time of the Reformation. Henry Wace, in his commentary on the King James Version, admits as much when he writes:

“When the Reformers denied the inspired authority of the books of the Apocrypha, it was by no means their intention to exclude them from use either in public or in private reading. The Articles of the Church of England quote with approbation the ruling of St. Jerome, that though the Church does not use these books for establishment of doctrine, it reads them for example of life and instruction of manners.” [emphasis added] (Wace 1811, xxxvi)

There were individuals who devised lists of books approved for use in the church (such as the “ruling of St. Jerome), lists similar to that used by Protestants today, but these were not authoritative in the wider church. It should be noted that the Bible texts created prior to the Protestant Reformation included what Protestants call the Apocrypha. The Geneva Bible of 1560 and the original King James Version (KJV) of 1611 both contained the Apocrypha, and versions of the KJV with the Apocrypha are available today (although printed versions are quite rare in the United States).

But the situation is more complicated when we discuss the lectionaries, the appointed Scripture readings for the Church year. The King James Bible with Commentary contains, in its introduction, a history of the gradual elimination of the Apocrypha from the Common Lectionary of the Anglican Church. Originally the Lectionary included the Apocrypha with the exception of the books of the Maccabees. Henry Wace notes: “Among the Puritan complaints in the reign of Elizabeth, objections to the public reading of the Apocrypha had no prominent part.” (Wace 1811, xxxvi) Various redactions were made over the years, and while the revised lectionary of 1867 contained readings from the Apocrypha only on weekdays, readings from the Apocrypha were reduced from two months to only three weeks. Of the Anglican Lectionary of 1867, Wace writes:

So small a portion of the apocryphal books has been retained in the present Lectionary that the retention of any would seem intended for little more than an assertion of the Church’s right to use these books if she pleases in public reading. This is still more true of the American Church, which entirely discontinued the use of lessons from the Apocrypha on ordinary week-days ; but still uses such lessons on two or three holy days. The Irish Church on its last revision of the Lectionary has not even retained so much as this. (Wace 1811, xxxviii)

The complete elimination of the Apocrypha from the life of the Protestant Church turns out to be a relatively recent innovation, one which would not have been acceptable to the Reformers.

Bibliography

Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Kindle Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Wace, Henry. Holy Bible According to the Authorized Version (A.D. 1611). Edited by Henry Wace. Vol. 1. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1811.