Tobias and the Archangel Raphael

Here is Part 14 of my series on the canon of Holy Scripture – you’ll want to start with Part One if you’re new to this! In this part of the series, the Protestant protagonist is investigating the beliefs of the 1st-century Christians concerning the Apocrypha. He is using the writings of Protestant scholars, Protestant Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias in his research. Some of the sources he is relying upon are the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (the product of scholars from the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion), the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (originally produced under the general editorship of James Orr, Presbyterian minister), the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (edited by scholars affiliated with Oxford University), and the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (based upon the encyclopedia by German Reformed minister J.J. Herzog). All of these are mainstream, broadly acceptable Protestant reference materials.

Our Protestant protagonist, bewildered by the Reformation confusion over the canon of Scripture, has decided to investigate what the early Christians believed about the Bible. He has learned from scholarly sources that the early Christians relied on something called the Septuagint (also known as the LXX). This was a version of the Old Testament Scriptures translated into Greek in the 3rd century B.C., necessary because many Jews of that era spoke Greek rather than Hebrew. Protestant scholars such as J.N.D. Kelly (professor, Oxford University), W.O.E. Oesterley (professor, King’s College, London), and Arthur Patzia (professor, Fuller Theological Seminary), as well as Bible commentaries such as the above-mentioned New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia and the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, claim that the Septuagint contained the Apocrypha, which the early Christians accepted as Holy Scripture.

Uncomfortable with the apparent early Christian embrace of the deuterocanonical books, our hero has decided to research back even farther in time, to the time of Jesus and the apostles, to find out their attitude toward the canon.

You know already that there were at least three groups of Jews in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes (as well as the Samaritans, a heretical offshoot of Judaism). You don’t hear about the Essenes in the Bible, but you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the property of the Essene sect of Judaism, hidden in caves not far from Jerusalem, not found until the twentieth century, a treasure trove of information for Bible scholars. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, as everyone knows, figure prominently in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus the Messiah; they were always trying to trick him into saying something that would make Him look bad. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were rival Jewish sects with different beliefs on different issues. You remember hearing a radio preacher state that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible, the law of Moses, as binding. This led them, he said, to reject the idea of a future resurrection of the dead. He quipped, “…and that’s why they were SAD, YOU SEE!”

Ya gotta love the radio preachers!

You note from your encyclopedias that Josephus, a Jewish historian, writes about the Zealots, a “Jewish sect,” and Philo, a Jewish philosopher, compares and contrasts the lifestyle of the Essenes with that of the Therapeutae, a Jewish group whose members lived a life of contemplation and practiced “entire simplicity,” praying twice a day, meeting together on the seventh day (with the women separated from the men) to hear an elder expound on “the precise meaning of the laws.” Philo describes them:

And in every house there is a sacred shrine which is called the holy place, and the house in which they retire by themselves and perform all the mysteries of a holy life, bringing in nothing, neither meat, nor drink, nor anything else which is indispensable towards supplying the necessities of the body, but studying in that place the laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection.

You search through some of the books your pastor let you borrow. On the subject of Judaism at the time of Christ, the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible makes an interesting point:

A host of groups, such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the various unnamed groups reflected in the Pseudepigrapha arose, competing with one another for the allegiance of the people, and, hence, the right to define Judaism on their terms. This diversity, combined with the lack of a clear victor in this period, suggests that before 70 there was no single ‘normative’ or ‘official’ Judaism; rather, there were many ‘Judaisms’.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia‘s article on “Essenes” lists the Boethusians and the Ossaeans in with the “many ‘Judaisms'”, and Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature by McDonald and Porter adds “the scribes” in the category of “primary Jewish religious sects.”

Come to think of it – add one more group! Your pastor told you that Christians, when they first began to preach the Gospel, met in the Temple and were viewed as just another Jewish sect!

So there were several possible views of the canon of Scripture in Jesus’ day, right? At one end of the spectrum the Essenes’ library, as represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, contained the whole Old Testament as we know it (except the book of Esther), plus the books of the Apocrypha, plus books that nobody nowadays considers to be Holy Scripture. At the other end of the spectrum, the Sadducees thought that only Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were Holy Scripture, with the other books being perhaps profitable for reading but not authoritative (shades of the Reformers!). Philo talks about the Therapeutae’s “laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection,” but nobody knows exactly which books that would have included. We know that the Pharisees accepted many more books than the five of the Pentateuch, but the question is – which books? Would they have accepted the Apocrypha? And even if they did, did Jesus and his disciples?

WWJC? What was Jesus’ canon?

Hmm…. time to start digging!

For Part Fifteen please click here


On the memorial of St. Felipe de Jesús

Deo omnis gloria!


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