This is Part 22 of my series on the canon of Scripture – 66 books or 73? The series began here. Our Protestant hero is knee-deep in the list of “criteria” which, according to Protestant apologists, the first Christians supposedly used to determine which books were canonical and which weren’t. To his dismay, he is discovering that by consistently applying these supposed criteria, he can rule the books of Job, Ecclesiastes and Esther right out of the Bible!
Back to the issue of the first Christians. The apostles obviously had no problem using the Apocrypha as reference material. That does not necessarily mean that they thought it was Holy Scripture. Did they tell the first Christians that certain books were or were not Scripture? Did the apostles warn their converts against mistaking the books of Tobit, Sirach, Judith, Wisdom, Baruch, I and 2 Maccabees and the additions to Esther and Daniel for legitimate books of the Bible?
Where are those quotes? What did they say again?
It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two, or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism… It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocryphal or deutero-canonical books.
…the church of the first centuries made no essential difference between the writings of the Hebrew canon and the so-called Apocrypha.
Down to the 4th century the church generally accepted all the books of the Septuagint as canonical. Greek and Latin Fathers alike cite both classes of Books without distinction.
According to these scholarly (Protestant!) sources, the first Christians relied on the Septuagint and thought that the deuterocanonicals were Holy Scripture just as were the other books of the Old Testament. That brings up two questions:
Is this correct? Did the first Christians really believe that the deuterocanonical books were Holy Scripture? And if so –
Were they right about that?
You begin searching for historical facts on how the first Christians knew which books were in the Bible. How did they sift the chaff from the wheat? Josh McDowell and Erwin Lutzer both offer many suggestions as to how the selection process worked:
The book had to have “the ring of self-vindicating authority.”
The book had to be written by a prophet, and the prophet’s authenticity needed to be confirmed by “acts of God.” (Apostolic authorship fit this bill as far as the New Testament books were concerned).
The message had to be consistent with previous revelation.
Inspired books “enjoyed immediate acceptance.”
Inspired books had the power to change lives.
“The bottom line, of course, is that the books of the Bible were recognized as authoritative by the people of God.”
Okay, sounds good, but how did all of these criteria work out in practice? Let’s see, inspired books have the ring of self-vindicating authority, meaning… that they claim to be inspired? Hmm…. on the subject of the inspiration of Scripture, 2 Timothy 3:16 comes to mind, the verse where Paul assures us that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” Absolutely true, all Scripture is God-breathed, etc., but Paul is not using that verse to claim that the letter he is writing to Timothy is Holy Scripture – he is merely making a generalized and very valid claim concerning all inspired writing. 2 Peter 1:21 makes that same kind of blanket statement concerning prophecy, not to claim inspiration for 2 Peter itself. It’s hard to think of many books which claim inspiration for themselves – this criterion rules books like James and Esther out of the Bible! Maybe that’s why Martin Luther didn’t like them!
Does “self-vindicating authority” mean that the events chronicled in a book should sound like the work of the Almighty? As you run down a list of inspired Scripture in your mind, many books would certainly seem to fit that bill. Genesis, with the creation of the universe, Exodus, with the miraculous liberation of the children of God, I Samuel with its chronicle of the rise of a shepherd boy to lead the nation of Israel and God’s many triumphs over Israel’s enemies – stirring stuff! So, real Scripture must be awe-inspiring? The prophet Nathan confronting David with his gripping “Thou art the man!” surely sends shivers down your spine! The prophetic books with their thunderous “Thus saith the Lord!” – they would certainly fit the next criterion as well – “the book had to be written by a prophet.”
Was Job a prophet? Did Job write the book of Job? Who wrote the book of Job, anyway?
What about Ecclesiastes? King Solomon would perhaps fall into the prophet category, but Ecclesiastes in your view washes out as far as criterion #3 goes: the message has to be “consistent with previous revelation.”
You are hard pressed to see how “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” and all the gloom, doom and depression laid on so thick in the book of Ecclesiastes can claim that it is “consistent with previous revelation.” “There’s no reason to get up in the morning – life is one big cosmic joke” is hardly consistent with what you believe to be the Christian message! Some of its detractors felt that it taught heresy – the ninth chapter really does seem to be insisting that there is no life after death…. You’ve never really liked the book of Ecclesiastes – you can get very little out of it – and taking your lead from Martin Luther, if it were up to you to make your own canon, you might suggest to folks that they can read Ecclesiastes if they like, but you just can’t “fit your spirit into it!”
And what about people like Mohammed, and books like the Quran? You are fairly certain that the Quran claims to be the inspired word of God. Anybody can write a book and claim to be a prophet – and you are also fairly certain that Muslims would say that Mohammed’s claim to being a prophet was “confirmed by acts of God.”
Of course, then criterion #3 kicks in – the message has to be “consistent with previous revelation.” That rules the Quran out right there.
But come to think of it, as far as “consistent with previous revelation” goes, the Jewish leadership basically used this criterion to kick the New Testament out of the canon – according to their subjective opinion, the New Testament wasn’t “consistent with previous revelation.” If they read verses like John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” or John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life,” they said, “That could not possibly be Holy Scripture! It’s not consistent with previous revelation!” In other words, it wasn’t consistent with previous revelation as they understood it; they decided on their theology first and then used it to rule the Gospels out of the Bible!
You remember thinking about that earlier in the day – it’s hard to see how many parts of the Old Testament, with their “wipe ’em off the map” mentality, jibes with the Christian message of “Love your enemies!” Your pastor has always been very insistent that BECAUSE we know that those books are inspired Scripture, we THEN reconcile apparently conflicting messages into one coherent whole. Criterion #3, however, urges us to settle on a theology that appeals to us and then boot anything out of the canon that doesn’t agree with that theology…..
But that then makes it criterion #3 virtually worthless! In fact, wasn’t it #3 that got Luther into so much trouble? You leaf back through your notes:
With Luther the Reformation was based on justification by faith. This truth Luther held to be confirmed (a) by its necessity, nothing else availing, and (b) by its effects, since in practice it brought peace, assurance, and the new life. Then those Scriptures which manifestly supported the fundamental principle were held to be ipso facto inspired, and the measure of their support of it determined the degree of their authority. Thus the doctrine of justification by faith is not accepted because it is found in the Bible; but the Bible is accepted because it contains this doctrine.
He decided on his doctrine FIRST – then he went through the Bible and weeded out the books that didn’t meet his expectations. That can’t be how we decide which books are canonical!
You make a mental note to dump criterion #3!
“Inspired books enjoyed immediate acceptance.” Oh, no – there goes the book of Esther! Poor Esther was disputed for centuries! You can’t understand this – Esther has always seemed to you to be a very inspiring story of the hand of God working through the life of a brave Jewish girl, saving the entire people of God through her heroic intercession. If it came to a vote, you would vote for Esther. Criterion #5 states that inspired books have the power to change lives – you would be willing to bet that many folks down through the ages have read the book of Esther and have decided, based on her example, to take a stand for what’s right. And yet Esther was viewed with suspicion for centuries by Jews and Christians– Athanasius in the 4th century expressed skepticism regarding Esther’s canonicity, and Luther was still carping about Esther in the 16th century!
In reading a summary of the books of I and 2 Maccabees, they sound every bit as inspiring as Esther – you can’t find anything much more inspiring than the story of a group of faithful Jews braving incredible odds and even horrific torture rather than betray their beliefs! God’s intervention on their behalf is directly evident when He miraculously aided them in celebrating the rededication of the Temple – He caused one day’s supply of oil to burn for 8 days! In fact, the story of the Jews’ refusal to compromise with evil is so inspiring that the author of Hebrews apparently refers to it (11:35):
Some were tortured and would not accept deliverance, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
This, the cross-references in the King James Version tell you, refers to 2 Maccabees 7 where one of the Jewish martyrs proclaims:
It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him.
What a great witness to the hope of resurrection! These Jewish martyrs are listed in the book of Hebrews not as merely important historical figures, but as “great heroes of the faith,” in the same list with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses – kind of misleading if you don’t want anyone to mistakenly assume that the books that chronicle their exploits are not inspired Scripture….
And, checking your references, it appears that Jesus Himself gave His stamp of approval to the story of the Maccabees. In John 10 we see Him standing in the courtyard of the Temple during the Festival of Lights (what we call Hanukkah – the menorah with its eight candles symbolizes how God miraculously kept the Temple light burning for 8 days). Jesus takes advantage of this occasion to declare that He is “the one whom the Father set apart!” He was using an “Old Testament type” of Himself, the Temple which was rededicated and “set apart” in the books of the Maccabees, as a sign pointing to its fulfillment in Him! If He wanted to warn his followers away from the unscriptural books of the Maccabees, He certainly picked an odd way of doing it!
Esther and Maccabees certainly strike you as books that “have the power to change lives,” and yet they were both regarded by Luther as books that just ought to have been left out of the canon.
All of this is so subjective! It seems as if many different books could be included in or excluded from the canon if you rely on a list like this. Could this really be how we know which books are Holy Scripture? Are these really the historical facts concerning how books were declared canonical? If this was truly the selection process followed by the first Christians, then there is simply no explaining what Esther is doing in your Bible….
What you need to find is some authoritative statement in the Bible itself, something along the lines of “this is how to tell inspired Holy Scripture from an uninspired book,” or better yet, an inspired “table of contents!”
On the memorial of St. David of Wales
Deo omnis gloria!