Welcome to the twenty-first part of my series on the canon of Scripture! You’ll need to begin with Part One if you’ve come late to the party! Our Protestant hero, shaken by the eerie correspondence between Matthew 27:43 and Wisdom 2:18, is continuing his search to determine how the canon was originally discerned by the first Christians. He is now examining so-called “proofs” which Protestant apologists claim rule the deuterocanonical books out of the Bible. The problem is, none of these “proofs” hold up to scrutiny….
You rub your aching temples as you stare up at the clock. It’s two hours past your bedtime already, but you are determined to settle this before you go to church tomorrow morning. What began as an idle question, something not really even worth worrying about, has turned into a major issue – one that will give you nightmares unless you wrap this up before you go to bed. How do we know that the 66 books of the Bible are all writings that belong in the canon of Holy Scripture, and how do we know that no writings that belonged in the canon were somehow left lying by the side of the road of history somewhere back in time? If someone had asked you this question this morning you would have given them some quick comeback, “We know because these 66 books are the ones that have always been recognized as Scripture!” or “We know because the Holy Spirit Himself witnesses to their inspired nature!” or “We know because the Bible says that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training, etc.!” That last one strikes you now as particularly unhelpful – noting the fact that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching hardly helps you sort out whether the books of Esther, I Maccabees, Sirach or James are Scripture! And now that you know that a respected Bible teacher like R.C. Sproul has admitted that we must consider the Bible to be a “fallible collection of infallible books” (which you simply cannot accept), you are pulling out all the stops, searching desperately to find proof that we KNOW which books belong in the Bible and which don’t. So far the “proofs” offered against the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books, what you used to call the Apocrypha, have proved pretty lame. They include:
“Proof”#1: The Apocrypha was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and appeared at a later time. The Dead Sea Scrolls collection contained the books of Sirach and Tobit a century before the birth of Christ – both written in Hebrew. Even if the books of the Apocrypha were not written in Hebrew – who says that this is a criterion for canonicity? Most of the books of the New Testament are believed to have been written in Greek! Many popular authors try to make it sound like there was the “real” Hebrew Bible circulating in Palestine at the time of Jesus, and then there was that “fake” Greek translation, adulterated with the Apocrypha, circulating among the know-nothing Jews outside of Palestine. And yet, the Septuagint was definitely circulating in Palestine before the time of Jesus – fragments from the Septuagint version of Leviticus and Numbers have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls! No one back then, not even a former
Pharisee like the apostle Paul, seems to have observed this cut-and-dried division between the “real” Hebrew Bible and the “wannabe” Greek Old Testament….)
“Proof” #2: It is inconceivable that the New Testament authors could have considered… the Roman Catholic Apocrypha canonical and never once quoted from or alluded to any of them.
Your research has shown
that the New Testament authors did allude to the Apocrypha in many places, and as for the crack about not quoting from it – if the same argument were applied to the books of Esther, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, the canonicity of which was long-disputed, they would be out of the Bible as well!
“Proof” #3: The Jews realized that special revelation ceased with the prophet Malachi (c. 400 B.C.) – Tell that to the conservative Protestant Bible scholars on whose writings you are relying! According to them, the Jews as a group never agreed on a canon of Scripture until after the time of Christ, and even then the poor book of Esther was disputed for a long time to come – a Christian bishop named Melito traveled to Palestine to learn the Jewish canon in the second half of the second century A.D., and the canon he brought back to his church in Sardis didn’t include Esther! You are being asked to reject the beliefs of the first Christians! The first Christians, according to the historical evidence, whole-heartedly embraced the deuterocanonical books!
“Proof” #4: The Jews never did (and still don’t) accept these books as inspired on par with the rest of the OT Scripture. You’ve found that the Jews must have had the Apocrypha in their Greek translation of the Old
Testament – what led the first Christians to believe, mistakenly or not, that the deuterocanonical books were to be considered Holy Scripture if they weren’t in the Septuagint? Why would the chief priests, scribes and elders have alluded to the prophecy in the second chapter of Wisdom, taunting Christ with the claim: “He said, ‘I am the Son of God,'” if they considered Wisdom to be outside the canon of Scripture?? Their quote in Matthew 27:43 mixes Psalm 22:8 (definitely Scripture!) with Wisdom 2:18! And who better to know what first-century, pre-Resurrection Jews considered to be Scripture than the chief priests, scribes and elders???
The Reformers followed not the early Christian church, but the post-Resurrection Jewish leadership! Rather than taking their lead from the first Christians (who accepted the deuterocanonicals as Holy Scripture), the Reformers adopted the Hebrew canon which was decided after the Resurrection of Jesus! The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states:
It is known that the Reformers were careful students of the Bible, and that in OT matters they were the pupils of Jewish scholars – there were no other competent teachers of Hebrew. It might therefore have been expected that the OT canon of the Reformers would agree in extent with that of the Jews and not with that of the Greek and Latin Christians.
The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible tells you:
The OT canon recognized by early Christianity came into dispute during the Protestant Reformation when Luther chose to base it on Hebrew originals and thus rejected several writings included in the Greek OT known as the Septuagint.
And the Oxford Dictionary concurs:
At the Reformation, Protestant leaders, ignoring the traditional acceptance of all the Books of the LXX in the early church, and desiring to return to Biblical authority purged of medieval tradition, refused the status of inspired Scripture to those Books of Vulgate not to be found in the Hebrew Canon.
Were the Reformers right to blindly accept the Hebrew canon handed to them by the Jewish scholars of the 16th century? Did they know what they were doing?
And the last “proof” you’ve read against the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books is a doozy:
“Proof” #5: The Reformers were also forced to face the canon issue. After the Reformation the books of the canon were widely agreed on. Instead of the authority of the Church, Luther and the Reformers focused on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Oh, right! – after the Reformation the books of the canon were widely agreed on – after a hundred years of wrangling! All the confusion was due to the fact that Luther and the Reformers focused on their subjective feelings of “I can get nothing out of this book!” and “This book is Scripture because I say so!” and “This book is not Scripture because my opponents are proving my doctrine wrong by quoting from this book!” and the ever-popular “Methinketh…!” Widely agreed on… my foot!!! If you believe this, you’ll believe anything!
Lutheran scholar Edward Reuss put it well when he pointed out that the Reformers’ attempt to determine the canon by the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit” just didn’t work:
Still the conscientious historian cannot help showing that this theory, in spite of its intrinsic truth, its elevated point of view, and its conformity with the essence of the Gospel, has proved to be insufficient in practice, and that those who had formulated it were the first to diverge from it, and to drift into strange inconsistencies.
Evangelical David Dunbar brings up an important point in his commentary on the writings of Lutheran scholar A.C. Sundberg, Jr. According to Dunbar, Sundberg claims that after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, “Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways and thus established the bounds of the canon relatively independently of one another….” Dr. Dunbar admits:
The implications of Sundberg’s position for Protestants are serious. Since the early days of the Reformation, Protestant theologians have supported their more restrictive view of the Old Testament canon by appeal to the presumed canon of Jesus and the Apostles.
Sundberg points out that the Reformers may have had their facts wrong:
It now appears that the bases upon which Luther and subsequent Protestants separated the books of the Apocrypha from the Christian Old Testament are historically inaccurate or misleading. Not only was the so-called Palestinian or Hebrew canon not closed in Jesus’ day, but a de facto Hebrew canon paralleling the later Jamnia canon did not exist either.
Dr. Dunbar then goes on to explain why he disagrees with Dr. Sundberg; he believes that the early Christians most likely accepted the extra books of the Apocrypha due to confusion over which books were really canonical, or as he puts it: “increasing ignorance among Gentile Christians of Jewish views on the subject.” But you note that Dr. Dunbar himself is relying on the assumption that “at least a century before the Christian era, the Jews were conscious that prophecy in its classical form belonged to the past,” meaning that he subscribes to the theory that Sundberg calls “historically inaccurate or misleading,” that the canon was closed before the time of Jesus.
No, that’s out the window as far as you are concerned. The Jewish canon was NOT closed until after the time of Christ, and it was closed at that later time because Christians were using deuterocanonical prophecies like Wisdom 2:12-22 and Baruch 3:37 to prove that Jesus was the Messiah! This pushed the Jewish leadership into ruling against the Christian books of the New Testament as well as the Septuagint version of the Old Testament – they did this to cut Christian evangelization off at the pass!
And you’re being asked to accept the decision of those folks who threw the deuterocanonicals out of the Bible….
On the memorial of St. Paula Montel Fornés de San José de Calasanz
Deo omnis gloria!