Welcome to Part 17 of my series on the canon of Scripture! Part One began here.
As we have seen, many popular Protestant authors claim that the Apocrypha can’t possibly be Scripture because the Hebrew canon was discerned long before the time of Christ, and it did not contain the Apocrypha. These folks use Scripture to try to prove that in Jesus’ day the Old Testament canon was already settled. “Luke 24:44, Luke 11:49-51, and Romans 3:2 prove that the Jews had already closed their canon,” they say. But as we have already learned from the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible: “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.”
Why do many popular Protestant authors insist in the face of all evidence to the contrary that the Old Testament canon was settled BEFORE the time of Jesus? This position grants them the “high ground” – the Old Testament canon was OBVIOUSLY closed by the Jewish people, they can say, and then the books of the Apocrypha were ADDED to it, books which most certainly did not belong in there! This story was the standard Protestant position until recently. However, modern-day conservative Protestant scholarship is honestly advertising the historical evidence that the Old Testament canon was STILL OPEN in Jesus’ time, and that there is no certain date of its closure by the Jewish rabbis.
Thus some popular authors are now turning away from the “pre-first-century closed canon” story to the “Council of Jamnia” theory, the idea that a Jewish council at the end of the first century A.D. closed the Old Testament canon. Again, there is no evidence for this. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states, “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.” The rabbis at Jamnia achieved two objectives- they rejected the Septuagint version of the Bible because the Christians were using it to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, and they rejected the Christian New Testament. According to the popular authors, this “closed” the Old Testament canon. There is, however, historical evidence that the Jewish rabbis were still debating their canon in the second century, asking whether the books of Esther, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon were Holy Scripture. So the rabbis at Jamnia can be said to have “refined” their Old Testament canon, definitively ruling against the Septuagint version of the Old Testament and against the Christian books, declaring them uninspired and outside the canon of Holy Scripture. Remember, to the rabbis, there was no “Old Testament”; there was only “the Scriptures”, and they in their wisdom decided that the writings of the Christians did not belong in the Scriptures.
Why in the world would Protestant authors side with the rabbis who rejected the Gospel? Why would they promote the idea that the Pharisees living 70 years after the Resurrection had the God-given authority to decide the canon of the Old Testament, in light of the fact that Jesus established His Church to make authoritative decisions?? Because for years, the proposition that the Old Testament was “set in stone” centuries before the time of Jesus made the 66-book canon look like a slam-dunk. The legitimacy of the deuterocanonical books did not even need to be debated; according to Protestants, they were obviously apocryphal. As Protestant scholarship has gradually pushed the date of the closing of the Old Testament to the end of the first century A.D. and beyond, Protestant apologists want to stick with the story that has served them so well for so long. These authors are desperate to prove that the canon of the Old Testament was legitimately closed by the Jews who rejected the deuterocanonical books. They therefore have to take the attitude that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In other words, they will agree with anything that discredits the Catholic Church’s authority to definitively discern the canon of Holy Scripture. The fact is that the rabbis at Jamnia rejected the Septuagint because various prophetic passages in that Bible version, including passages in the deuterocanonical books themselves, witnessed to the fact that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah! Of course they rejected this! “Now, the rabbis were wrong when they rejected the New Testament writings” Protestant authors will tell you, “but they had the God-given authority to decide the Old Testament canon!” Seriously? Seventy years after the Resurrection, seventy years after Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose to His apostles, the Jewish leadership had the God-given authority to decide ANYTHING for Christians?? St. Peter, St. Paul, St. James, St. John, all the apostles were just sitting around waiting for the Jewish leadership to close the Old Testament canon?? Where’s the historical evidence for that??
The idea that the Jewish leadership was authorized by God to simultaneously reject the Apocrypha AND the New Testament writings in order to close their canon is pretty close to horrifying, but Protestant authors are willing to embrace it if it makes their 66-book canon look legitimate.
Our Protestant protagonist is feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the proposal that the legitimacy of the 66-book canon relies on a decision made by the Jewish leadership nearly 70 years after the Resurrection, a decision that went “unheeded by the Church”….
You feel slightly sick, and realize that you haven’t had dinner. Wandering into the kitchen, you grab an apple out of the fruit bowl and head back to your notes. Like a planet being sucked into the gravitational field of a black hole you wonder – where is the light? How do we know which books are in the canon? We obviously can’t depend on the Hebrew canon, apparently not decided until long after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. One quote from F.F. Bruce preys on your mind:
‘Greek Judaism’, it has been said, ‘with the Septuagint had ploughed the furrows for the gospel seed in the Western world’; but it was the Christian preachers who sowed the seed. So thoroughly, indeed, did Christians appropriate the Septuagint as their version of the scriptures that the Jews became increasingly disenchanted with it. The time came when one rabbi compared ‘the accursed day on which the seventy elders wrote the Law in Greek for the king’ to the day on which Israel made the golden calf. New Greek versions of the Old Testament were produced for Jewish use…
Fuller Theological Seminary’s Arthur Patzia makes basically the same point:
Once Christians began using the LXX for missionary and apologetic purposes, it began to lose favor with the Jews. Their earlier acceptance of this version waned when they found how consistently and effectively it was used against them in arguments. More and more the LXX became identified as the Old Testament of the Christian church. This led to a Jewish rejection of the LXX in its current form….
You read what the ISBE says about the Jewish rejection of the Septuagint:
The Jews in the early Christian centuries had really two Bibles: (1) There was the Hebrew Bible which does not include the Apocrypha and which circulated in Palestine and Babylon; (2) there was the Greek version (LXX) used by Greek-speaking Jews everywhere. However, instigated by the use made of it by Christians against themselves, the Jews condemned this version and made the Hebrew canon their Bible, thus rejecting the books of the Apocrypha from their list of canonical writings, and departing from the custom of Christian churches which continued with isolated remonstrances to make the Greek OT canon, with which the Vulgate agrees almost completely, their standard.
So this means that at the same time that the Jewish leadership turned sour on the Greek translation of the Bible (because the Christians were using it to prove their doctrines), they also rejected the Apocryphal books. The Jews did away with both the Septuagint and the Apocrypha in an attempt to cut the legs out from under the Christian testimony to Jesus as the Messiah! But their rejection of the Septuagint apparently had no effect on the Christians – The Oxford Dictionary tells you:
The Jewish rejection of certain books c. A.D. 100 was unheeded by the Church, which continued to reckon all books in the Septuagint as Scripture.
Using the Jewish rejection of the Apocrypha doesn’t really prove much; after all, the early Christians were apparently totally unfazed by the Jewish rejection of those books! Looking back at The Doctrines That Divide, another strike against the Apocrypha from Pastor Lutzer bothers you:
Finally and most important, we must remember that the Apocrypha was never part of the Old Testament Hebrew Canon. We have already emphasized that Christ assumed that the Hebrew canon ended with the Hebrew Scriptures. The Apocrypha was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and appeared at a later time.
“The Apocrypha was written in Greek….” Now wait a minute… your pastor gave a sermon once in which he talked about the languages of the books of the Bible. You remember distinctly that he told you that portions of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic – several chapters in the book of Daniel, in Ezra, and a verse in Jeremiah. Nobody claims that they aren’t Holy Scripture because they weren’t written in Hebrew! And besides, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible has pointed out to you that copies of Sirach were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, written a century before the time of Christ, written in Hebrew (a fragment of the Letter of Jeremiah was found, written in Greek, and several scrolls containing the book of Tobit written in Aramaic and in Hebrew). You can find a quote from as far back as 1542 by the Reformer Petrus Cholinus stating that Sirach was written in Hebrew, and W.O.E. Oesterley, writing in 1935, points out that some books of the Apocrypha were “translated from Hebrew.” So no matter from what angle you look at it, the objection that these books could not be Scripture because they were “written in Greek, not Hebrew” goes out the window.
And Pastor Lutzer’s assertion that “Christ assumed that the Hebrew canon ended with the Hebrew Scriptures” is something that you cannot verify anywhere.
These popular Protestant authors certainly seem to be out-of-step with Protestant scholars…. It’s almost as if they’ve got something they’ve got to prove….
You rest your head in your hands. All these different stories…. “The Old Testament canon was decided centuries before the birth of Christ!” “No, no, the Old Testament canon was decided at Jamnia 70 years after the Resurrection!” “No, actually, the Old Testament canon was still being debated by Jewish rabbis in the second century!” What a headache!
Where was Jesus in all of this? What was His stance on the Apocrypha? Did He or His apostles ever give any hint of which canon was the right one?
On the memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius
Deo omnis gloria!