An Almost Total Lack of Evidence

Tobias saying good-bye to his father

This is Part 15 of my series on the canon of Scripture.  Please start with Part One if you’re new to this! 

Our Protestant hero is contrasting the information he gets from popular authors like Loraine Boettner, Norman Geisler, Josh McDowell, Erwin Lutzer, and from online sources who parrot them, with works of contemporary conservative Protestant scholarship – and he is finding some discrepancies. Among the books our protagonist is relying upon are Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature by the Rev. Lee Martin McDonald (President Emeritus of Acadia Divinity College) and Dr. Stanley E. Porter (President of McMaster Divinity College), as well as Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, edited by Dr. D.A. Carson and Dr. John D. Woodbridge (both Research Professors at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). In other words, this is not liberal, Bible-doubting “fringe” that he is consulting. These are works of contemporary conservative Protestant scholarship.

Our hero is wading through all the Protestant claims concerning why Catholic Bibles contain 7 books, the Apocrypha, that are not found in Protestant Bibles. His search has led him to investigate the canon of the first Christians, which has in turn led him to ask, “When was the canon of the Old Testament discerned, and by whom?” He has learned thus far that different Jewish groups of Jesus’ time had different canons of Scripture. This point is very important – this illustrates the fact that, in Jesus’ day, the canon of the Old Testament had not yet been decided. Notice how this conflicts with what some popular Protestant literature and websites want you to believe….

In your notes from websites and in the popular literature from your church’s library you notice many mentions of something variously called the Jewish, Hebrew or Palestinian canon of the Old Testament (as opposed to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament which contained the Apocrypha). A General Introduction to the Bible informs you that:

The true canon is the Palestinian Canon. It was the canon of Jesus, Josephus and Jerome, and for that matter, the canon of virtually every qualified witness from before the time of Christ to the present.

The Palestinian canon didn’t contain the Apocrypha. Two notes you made from online sources state:

The Jews never did (and still don’t) accept these books [the Apocrypha] as inspired on par with the rest of the OT Scripture.

The Jews were meticulous in preserving the Old Testament Scriptures, and they had few controversies over what parts belong or do not belong. The Roman Catholic Apocrypha did not measure up and fell outside of the definition of Scripture, and has never been accepted by the Jews.

“…they had few controversies over what parts belong or do not belong…..” So you gather from the popular authors and websites that the Jews of Jesus’ time were united in their understanding of what was Scripture and what was not. And yet… how does that mesh with the fact that the Sadducees were willing to accept only the Pentateuch as authoritative? To them, all other books were iffy, if not outright apocryphal – that’s why Jesus, when He disputed with them concerning the resurrection, quoted from the book of Exodus (“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”), where the idea of a resurrection is only implicit, to prove His point. He knew that if He quoted a more explicit reference to the resurrection (from the book of Daniel, for instance) that they would yawn and say, “That’s interesting, but that’s not authoritative!”

McDonald and Porter confirm this:

Although there was no final fixed canon of the OT, whether in Greek or Hebrew, in the time of Jesus, it is likely that the books now recognized as the OT were generally thought of then as authoritative by most Jews in Palestine. Only the Sadducees held to a more conservative biblical canon, accepting only the five books of Moses.

So, the Jews of Jesus’ time didn’t agree on the canon? Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature tells you:

There was no normative Judaism in the time of Jesus with a universally fixed and accepted Scripture: rather, there were competing sects of Judaism, of which the Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Christians, as well as Samaritans, were all a part.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church also tells you:

By the time of Christ, Jews everywhere recognized the Law and the Prophets as Holy Scripture, but the exact compass of the ‘Writings’ was still undefined…. The canon of the Jewish Scriptures was perhaps settled at about the end of the first century A.D., though some scholars favour a rather later date.

The introduction to The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible states simply:

At the time of Jesus and rabbi Hillel – the origins of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism – there was, and there was not, a “Bible”…. There was a Bible in the sense that there were certain sacred books widely recognized by Jews as foundational to their religion and supremely authoritative for religious practice. There was not, however, a Bible in the sense that the leaders of the general Jewish community had specifically considered, debated, and definitively decided the full range of which books were supremely and permanently authoritative and which ones – no matter how sublime, useful, or beloved – were not. The collection or collections of the Scriptures varied from group to group and from time to time.

“The collection or collections of the Scriptures varied from group to group and from time to time” – it sounds like they had the potential for a lot of disagreement on the canon of Scripture!

Again, this is soooo different from what the popular authors want you to believe. The New Evidence Which Demands a Verdict states point-blank:

The evidence clearly supports the theory that the Hebrew canon was established well before the late first century A.D., more than likely as early as the fourth century B.C., and certainly no later than 150 B.C.

That’s funny – the Protestant scholars you’ve been reading don’t seem to be aware of that “evidence”! The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible makes a very pertinent point:

It is important to note that Jesus and the earliest Christians referred only to “the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17; Luke 16:29), “the scriptures” (Mark 12:24; Gal 4:30; Rom 1:2; 3:21), or “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44; Acts 1:16). That is, the NT books themselves contain evidence that the Hebrew scriptures were not yet finally and fully defined; the Torah and the Prophets were canonized, but the Writings were still in the process of being so until the end of the first century C.E.

So, the canon wasn’t even closed until… when? Again, the Mercer Dictionary:

The Torah, which had its origins in the work of Moses, was fixed by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh 8:1-9). The Prophets, both Former and Latter, seem to have become recognized as complete by the second century B.C.E. (see the
prologue of Sirach). The remainder of the Hebrew canon was not defined until the famous Council of
Jamnia, about
90 C.E., after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the permanent dispersion of the Jews from their homeland.

Digging into your Bible dictionaries, you learn that the Pharisees were the Jewish sect which assumed power in the last part of the 1st century. They met at the end of the 1st century, some seventy years after the resurrection of Christ. Nineteenth-century scholars decided that they must have closed the canon of the Old Testament at that time, but you note that since the middle of the twentieth century that idea has been disputed. Many Protestant scholars don’t even like the term “Council of Jamnia” that you read in the Mercer Dictionary because they claim that it ‘reads too much’ into the gathering. These scholars claim that there is no evidence that the canon was closed at the “Council of Jamnia,” only that the Septuagint version with its Apocryphal books was rejected at that time, as well as the Gospels used by the Christians (no surprise there!). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church points out:

After the fall of Jerusalem (A.D.70), an assembly of religious teachers was established at Jamnia; this body was regarded as to some extent replacing the Sanhedrin, though it did not possess the same representative character or national authority. It appears that one of the subjects discussed among the rabbis was the status of certain biblical books (e.g. Eccles. and Song of Songs) which some said did not ‘defile the hands’ – a phrase taken by many scholars to refer to their canonicity (cf. Mishnah, Yadaim, 3.5). The suggestion that a particular synod of Jamnia, held c. 100 A.D., finally settled the limits of the OT canon, was made by H. E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to substantiate it.

So, there is “no evidence to substantiate” the idea that the canon was settled by the end of the first century – that idea was cutting-edge scholarship in the 19th century, but modern-day Protestant scholars think otherwise. In fact, no consensus was really reached on whether the books of Esther, Song of Solomon or Ecclesiastes belonged in the canon until sometime in the second century, depending on which source you listen to. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia actually tells you:

During the 2nd century AD, doubts arose in Jewish minds concerning four books, Proverbs, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. In a certain Talmudic tractate it is related that an attempt was made to withdraw (ganaz, “conceal,” “hide”) the Book of Proverbs on account of contradictions which were found in it (compare Proverbs 26:4-5), but on deeper investigation it was not withdrawn. In another section of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba is represented as saying concerning Canticles: “God forbid that any man of Israel should deny that the Song of Songs defileth the hands, for the whole world is not equal to the day in which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.” Such extravagant language inclines one to feel that real doubt must have existed in the minds of some concerning the book. But the protestations were much stronger against Ecclesiastes. In one tractate it is stated: “The wise men desired to hide it because its language was often self-contradictory (compare Ecclesiastes 7:3 and Ecclesiastes 2:2; Ecclesiastes 4:2 and Ecclesiastes 9:4), but they did not hide it because the beginning and the end of it consist of words from the Torah (compare Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).” Likewise Est. was vigorously disputed by both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Gemaras, because the name of God was not found in it….”

So in the 2nd century after the birth of Christ, Jewish scholars were still arguing over Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and Esther, or as the ISBE puts it, “real doubt must have existed in the minds of some” even in the 2nd century. It’s hard to believe that books like Esther were still “vigorously disputed” by the rabbis after the canon had been closed….

And David Dunbar, the president of Biblical Theological Seminary, writes in a chapter of Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon that these claims of a “closed canon” are based on some pretty shaky assumptions:

Placing a terminus ad quem on the completion of the Old Testament canon is difficult, partly due to an almost total lack of evidence.

“An almost total lack of evidence” – one author points out that even in the second century A.D. there appears to be no concept of a biblical canon in rabbinic Judaism – and yet the popular authors write as if the pre-Christian “closed Hebrew canon” were some kind of established historical fact!

According to what you’ve been reading, the canon of the Old Testament had apparently not been decided upon at the time of Jesus – if it had, there would have been no need to discuss whether books like Esther, Song of Solomon or Ecclesiastes belonged in there sixty years (or more) after the Resurrection. Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature did say:

Although there was no final fixed canon of the OT, whether in Greek or Hebrew, in the time of Jesus, it is likely that the books now recognized as the OT were generally thought of then as authoritative by most Jews in Palestine.

But F.F. Bruce, the “dean of evangelical scholarship,” counters with:

When we think of Jesus and his Palestinian apostles . . . We cannot say confidently that they accepted Esther, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs as scripture, because evidence is not available. We can argue only from probability, and arguments from probability are weighed differently by different judges.

So, Protestant scholarship asserts that there was “no final, fixed canon,” “no universally fixed and accepted Scripture” at the time of Jesus – and the popular authors for some reason insist on a pre-Christian, final, fixed canon. Interesting! Why the discrepancy? And, who’s right?

For Part Sixteen, please click here


On the memorial of St. Josephine Bakhita

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. russ said:

    Renee, the work you are doing here is very important. In a non-polemical way you have used extensive Protestant theological sources to disprove the misrepresentations that have been leveled so often against the Church regarding its definitive canon of Scripture. Let us hope and pray that others will be open to what you are researching and presenting here. God bless. This should be available as a e-book download at some point 😉

  2. Thank you! I was shocked when I found out how widely the stories of the popular Protestant authors diverge from what conservative Protestant scholars are writing. If you believe the myth that the canon of the OT was all settled BEFORE the time of Jesus, then there’s no reason to lie awake nights worrying that the 66-book canon might not be correct. That myth has no basis in fact, according to Protestant scholars. Those men go on to say that, no matter how long after the Resurrection the Hebrew canon was decided, it was for the Jews to decide BECAUSE THE CHURCH HAS NO AUTHORITY TO MAKE THAT DECISION.

    I think you can list that as Reason # 445 Why I Am Catholic….

  3. Mrk said:

    Made it this far. I think I’ll reserve the rest of my commnents until the end. thanks,

    • That’s fine, although I was looking forward to your perspective on each post. I realize, though, that that might not be practical.

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