This is Part 32 of my series on the canon of Scripture; we began way back here.
We are approaching the moment of truth – the discernment of the canon by Catholic bishops at the end of the fourth century A.D. There are still some loose ends to tie up before that. As you may have noticed, when counting up votes in favor of the 66-book canon, popular Protestant authors have an awful lot to ignore. Take St. Athanasius as an example. Protestants often cite his 39th Festal Letter as proof that he rejected the deuterocanonical books:
“There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second 1 being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth 2 as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second 3 are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the Twelve [minor prophets] being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations and the Epistle, one book; afterwards Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.”
As you can see, Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah are included with the book of Jeremiah, a discrepancy from the Protestant canon. A minor detail, the popular authors will tell you. As they try to hurry you along, you might ask them where the book of Esther went – it’s not in Athanasius’ list. In fact, Esther is lumped in with the deuterocanonical books. Athanasius writes:
But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings.
Notice what he said – the deuterocanonicals are NOT Apocrypha! Yet this is exactly what popular Protestant authors insist that they are! St. Athanasius is instructing us that there are canonical books as well as ecclesiastical books, just as many other Fathers admit. Their canon is NOT the canon of the Jews, those Fathers say – it is the Christian canon, which contains both canonical and ecclesiastical books!
As further evidence, note the following quotes from St. Athanasius’ writings. Remember, the formula “It is written” was used to indicate that the subsequent quote came from Scripture.
And they are not ashamed to parade the sacred mysteries before Catechumens, and worse than that, even before heathens: whereas, they ought to attend to what is written, `It is good to keep close the secret of a king [Tobit 12:7];’ and as the Lord has charged us, `Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine [Mt 7:6].’
I congratulate the most excellent Sarapion, that he is striving so earnestly to adorn himself with holy habits, and is thus advancing to higher praise the memory of his father. For, as the Holy Scripture somewhere says, `though his father die, yet he is as though he were not dead: for he has left behind him a memorial of his life [Sirach 30:4].
Since, however, after all his severe sufferings, after his retirement into Gaul, after his sojourn in a foreign and far distant country in the place of his own, after his narrow escape from death through their calumnies, but thanks to the clemency of the Emperor,-distress which would have satisfied even the most cruel enemy,-they are still insensible to shame, are again acting insolently against the Church and Athanasius; and from indignation at his deliverance venture on still more atrocious schemes against him, and are ready with an accusation, fearless of the words in holy Scripture, `A false witness shall not be unpunished [Proverbs 19:5];’ and, `The mouth that belieth slayeth the soul [Wisdom 1:11];’ we therefore are unable longer to hold our peace, being amazed at their wickedness and at the insatiable love of contention displayed in their intrigues.
That’s something the popular Protestant authors aren’t going to tell you. They want to chalk St. Athanasius up as another Church Father “vehemently opposed” to the deuteros. Take such claims with the giant grain of salt they deserve.
It occurs to you that the question of the canon appears to have been quite open until the fourth century! That means that Christians lived and died for over 350 years after the Resurrection without ever knowing for sure which books were God-breathed! In that period of time, Christianity conquered the Roman Empire! How could it happen that Christians, who weren’t exactly sure which books were a part of the Bible and which weren’t, managed to convert the known world? It must have been a reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Christian leadership – it could have been nothing else!
What questionable tactics the popular authors employ! “MANY individuals… vehemently opposed” the deuterocanonical books, they cry – they then list four individuals. Hardly impressive when you can quickly find 26 others who accepted the deuterocanonical books, and can’t quite even make the case that the four listed by Geisler and Nix really definitely rejected the deuteros, considering that they quoted from them and called them “divine Scripture!”
You make a mental note not to be fooled by vague claims that include phrases like “many,” “few,” “almost always,” “hardly at all…” – from now on you are taking a head count!!
Some authors try to make it sound like it was a case of the poor benighted Christian church gradually realizing that they had been wandering in a desert of ignorance for more than three hundred years, when some of the ‘more scholarly’ Church Fathers began to wake up to the fact that – oh my gosh! – the Hebrew canon doesn’t contain Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom, Judith, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees or the extra parts of Daniel and Esther! But Christians as far back as the 2nd century noted that the Jews had a different canon! Justin Martyr in his “Dialogue with Trypho” (c. 150 A.D.) complains that he has to be careful which passages of Scripture he cites as proof of doctrine when he dialogues with Jews:
But I am far from putting reliance in your teachers, who refuse to admit that the interpretation [the Septuagint] made by the seventy elders who were with Ptolemy [king] of the Egyptians is a correct one; and they attempt to frame another. And I wish you to observe, that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures from the translations effected by those seventy elders who were with Ptolemy, and by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying; but since I am aware that this is denied by all of your nation, I do not address myself to these points, but I proceed to carry on my discussions by means of those passages which are still admitted by you.
And the notion that the ‘more scholarly’ Christians gradually began to realize that the Jewish canon was the ‘real’ one doesn’t jibe with what Origen said, does it? Hardly an intellectual slouch (his claim to fame was his Hexapla, the Old Testament written in six parallel columns consisting of the Hebrew, the Hebrew transliterated into Greek characters, the Greek translation of Aquila, the Greek translation of Symmachus, the Septuagint translation, and the Greek translation of Theodotian), Origen knew very well that there were many differences between the Hebrew and the Christian Old Testament; in fact, he writes to Julius Africanus:
I have to tell you what it behooves us to do in the cases not only of the History of Susanna, which is found in every church of Christ in that Greek copy which the Greeks use, but is not in the Hebrew, or of the two other passages you mention at the end of the book containing the history of Bel and the Dragon, which likewise are not in the Hebrew copy of Daniel; but of thousands of other passages also which I found in many places when with my little strength I was collating the Hebrew copies with ours…. Nor do I say this because I shun the labor of investigating the Jewish Scriptures, and comparing them with ours, and noticing their various readings. This, if it be not arrogant to say it, I have already to a great extent done to the best of my ability, laboring hard to get at the meaning in all the editions and various readings; while I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy [the translators of the Septuagint], lest I might to be found to accredit any forgery to the churches which are under heaven, and give an occasion to those who seek such a starting point for gratifying their desire to slander the common brethren, and to bring some accusation against those who shine forth in our community. I make it my endeavor not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures. For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true reading as they have them. So far as to the History of Susanna not being found in the Hebrew.
So Origen knew perfectly well what the Hebrew canon consisted of, but he defended the Christian canon of the Old Testament just the same as the one handed down to the church.
And what about John Chrysostom, whom the History of the Christian Church calls “the soundest and worthiest representative of the Antiochian theology,” who “still enjoys the highest honor in the whole Christian world”? He certainly appears to have embraced at least four deuterocanonical books as Scripture. And since when is Augustine of Hippo not numbered among the ‘more scholarly’ of the Church Fathers, the man The History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures proclaims “undoubtedly the greatest theologian of the early church”?? You find his list of the canon:
Now the whole canon of Scripture on which we say this judgment is to be exercised, is contained in the following books: Five books of Moses, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; one book of Joshua the son of Nun; one of Judges, one short book called Ruth, which seems rather to belong to the beginning of Kings; next four books of Kings, and two of Chronicles – these last not following one another, but running parallel, so to speak, and going over the same ground. The books just mentioned are history, which contains a connected narrative of the times, and follows the order of the events. There are other books which seem to follow no regular order, and are connected neither with the order of the preceding books nor with one another, such as Job, and Tobias, and Esther, and Judith, and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Ezra, which last look more like a sequel to the continuous regular history which terminates with the books of Kings and Chronicles. Next are the Prophets, in which there is one book of the Psalms of David; and three books of Solomon, viz., Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. For two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach. Still they are to be reckoned among the prophetical books, since they have attained recognition as being authoritative. The remainder are the books which are strictly called the Prophets…: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; then there are the four greater prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel. The authority of the Old Testament is contained within the limits of these forty-four books. That of the New Testament, again, is contained within the following: Four books of the Gospel, according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John; fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul – one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews: two of Peter; three of John; one of Jude; and one of James; one book of the Acts of the Apostles; and one of the Revelation of John.
Augustine’s canon contains exactly the same books as you find in your great-aunt’s Catholic Bible. (He does not mention Lamentations, Baruch or the Letter of Jeremiah, but Protestant scholars assume that at that time they were considered to be part of the book of Jeremiah as a matter of course).
What you’re having trouble finding is a canon that agrees with the one in your own Bible. Jerome’s seems to match – it depends on whether you take him at his word when he waffles to exclude certain deuterocanonicals or to include them. No Church Father in the first four centuries unequivocally embraces the Protestant canon, and yet many popular authors at this point begin to make misleading comments like Westcott’s in The Bible in the Church: “the Bible of Athanasius is essentially identical with our own” – NOT!!! Your Bible doesn’t contain the book of Baruch or the Letter of Jeremiah! In fact, both F.F. Bruce and Edward Reuss claim that Athanasius’ canon must have also included the extra chapters of the book of Daniel as well! And what about Esther, which Athanasius left out of the Old Testament to include among the books “appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness”? Athanasius’ Old Testament canon is NOT the canon of 21st-century Protestants! The popular sources are just trying to sweep under the carpet all the differences between these conflicting canons, and they are getting a very lumpy rug.
Westcott candidly lists some of these differences in a comment on the books of Esther and Baruch:
Esther is omitted by Gregory of Nazianzus, Amplochius (doubtfully): admitted by Cyril of Jerusalem. (Council of Laodicea), Epiphanius. Baruch and the Letter are admitted by Cyril of Jerusalem. (Council of Laodicea), Epiphanius (once): Baruch is omitted (silently) by Gregor. Naz., Amphilochius ; and, as not in the Hebrew canon, by Epiphanius (once). But it may be added that the writers who omit Baruch also omit Lamentations, which was reckoned with it as an appendix to Jeremiah ; and there can be little doubt that from a mistake as to the extent of the Hebrew book of Jeremiah, dating from the time of Origen, Baruch and the Letter were generally received in the Greek Church in the 4th and 5th centuries. Didymus (De Trin. I. p. 80) expressly says that the book ‘of Jeremiah and Baruch is one.’
And Reuss states bluntly:
Up to this point I have been collecting the testimonies of the principal Greek Fathers of the second half of the fourth century. We have seen that these testimonies do not at all agree with one another, neither regarding the canon of the Old Testament nor regarding the elements of which the sacred collection of the New Covenant ought to be composed. In other words, we have seen that regarding several writings, the general opinion was not at all fixed.
It’s funny – your Protestant sources seem to have all the evidence in front of them – but they are looking for something else, so they just don’t see it! As an Evangelical, you realize that when scientists begin their investigation of the origin of the universe convinced that ‘There is no God; therefore, the universe was not created’ and proceed from there, it’s not surprising that they just can’t see the evidence for creation. Could the same principle be at work here? The Protestant sources BEGIN with the belief that ‘The Apocryphal books are not Holy Scripture’ and proceed from there; in other words, they are assuming what has yet to be proven! Then, any inconvenient historical facts are obligingly ‘tweaked’ to fit what the investigator already believes! You remember how Josh McDowell opined that there has been “no serious questioning of the twenty-seven books accepted books of the New Testament” since the fourth century – you really have to have some BIG BLINDERS on not to see the serious questioning that went on in the 16th and 17th century! In the same way, Westcott admits that the canons of the 4th century differed from one another and from the modern-day Protestant canon, and yet he so badly wants to find a Protestant canon that he would have you believe that “the Bible of Athanasius is essentially identical with our own”! These folks really, really want the sum of all of these conflicting canons to somehow add up to the 66 books Protestants use today! The fact that no individual unhesitatingly promotes a canon identical to ours is simply unacceptable to them – therefore, it cannot be. But you must beg to differ – the majority of Church Fathers, erudite and otherwise, appear to have accepted at least some of the deuterocanonical books as inspired Scripture, and none of them categorically promoted a canon identical to the Protestant 66 books – some came close, but they always included Baruch in with Jeremiah, or left out Esther, or 2 Peter, or Revelation, or included Wisdom, or the Shepherd of Hermas or the Didache…. That a Hebrew canon existed – that was a fact that many Fathers pointed out, but those same Fathers believed that the ‘ecclesiastical’ books were a part of the “divine record handed down to the churches by the apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit!” Only one Christian championed a canon identical to the Protestant 66 books, but his commitment to it left something to be desired….
On Wednesday within the Octave of Easter
Deo omnis gloria!