Standing Alone

Bel and the Dragon

Welcome to Part 33 of my series on the discernment of the canon of Scripture. If you would like to begin at the beginning, click here.

As proof that the 66-book canon is the correct one, most Protestant apologists will point to St. Jerome. They feel that his supposedly clear-headed, unequivocal rejection of the deuterocanonical books proves what Protestants contend, i.e., that the Hebrew canon is the correct one, and that the Christian church finally woke up to that fact in the late 4th century. There are a few difficulties with that theory….

Jerome was a 4th-century Catholic scholar adept at Latin, Greek and Hebrew who was asked to translate the Scriptures into a new Latin version. He searched for manuscripts which he felt were the most authentic – and came to the conclusion that the Hebrew text of his time (which did not include the deuterocanonical books) must be the most genuine (although we now know, according to your sources, that the text of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was written long before the Hebrew version that Jerome used – the one he insisted upon as being ‘more accurate’!). Jerome behaved rather like someone who was overawed by Those Who Believe They Know Better. As Origen wrote to Africanus: the Jewish tutors Jerome relied on “as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true reading as they have them.” Influenced as he was by the fact that his tutors considered the deuterocanonical books of the Church too silly to discuss (and ignoring the fact that they felt exactly the same about the books of the New Testament), Jerome cast doubt on the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books, while grudgingly admitting that they were, of course, accepted by Christian churches. (Even the alternate name for the book of Sirach, “Ecclesiasticus,” testifies to this – Sirach was called “Liber Ecclesiasticus” meaning “Church Book!”) While recognizing the fact that the Jews had no right to determine the books of the New Testament, Jerome accepted their claim to the authority to determine which books belonged in the Old Testament.

Jerome himself, though, actually uses the same argument in favor of the canonicity of a New Testament book that other Fathers use to show that the deuterocanonical books should be considered Holy Scripture – a history of usage in the Christian church. When discussing the book of Hebrews, whose authorship was disputed, Jerome maintains that the authorship of the book is not really the main issue. Some churches believe that the book of Hebrews was written by Paul, he says, and others do not. No matter, according to Jerome. He writes:

It is of no great moment who the author is, since it is the work of a churchman and receives recognition day by day in the public reading of the churches. If the custom of the Latins does not receive it among the canonical scriptures, neither, by the same liberty, do the churches of the Greeks accept John’s Apocalypse. Yet we accept them both, not following the custom of the present time but the precedent of early writers, who generally make free use of testimonies from both works. And this they do, not as they are wont on occasion to quote from apocryphal writings, as indeed they use examples from pagan literature, but treating them as canonical and churchly [ecclesiastical]works.

Jerome recognized the “precedent of early writers” who “make free use of testimonies” from the book of Hebrews and Revelation, works that receive “recognition day by day in the public reading of the churches” “treating them as canonical and ecclesiastical works.” This was, he said, a valid reason to consider a book to be Holy Scripture – exactly the point made by Origin and Augustine concerning the deuterocanonicals!
The Canon of Scripture points out that Jerome had no problem with applying this principle to the New Testament books:

Jerome gives the impression that on one or two of the canonical books he has private reservations, but by this time the canon was something ‘given’ and not to be modified because of the personal opinion of this or that churchman, however eminent.

Jerome did not follow his own reasoning when it came to the canon of the Old Testament. His prologue to the books of Samuel and Kings was called the “Helmeted Prologue” – in it he defensively anticipates antagonism regarding his deviation from the tradition of the Christian Church when he advocates the Hebrew canon to the exclusion of books accepted by Christians from the beginning. Yet despite his attachment to the Hebrew canon, in deference to the bishops who requested his help, Jerome agreed to translate deuterocanonical books, as he says in his preface to the book of Tobit, “judging it better to displease the Pharisees, in order to grant the requests of the bishops.”

The problem for Protestants is that Jerome’s commitment to throwing the deuteros out with the bathwater was lukewarm at best. From his letters we can see that Jerome, like so many other Church Fathers, quotes from the deuterocanonicals as if they were Scripture, and even calls Wisdom and Sirach “Holy Scripture”. For example, when an opponent of Jerome’s asked for three proofs from Scripture that he was in error, Jerome retorted:

From Noah to Abraham ten generations passed away (Genesis 11:10-26) and from Abraham’s time to David’s, fourteen more (Matthew 1:17), and these twenty-four generations make up, taken together, two thousand one hundred and seventeen years. Yet the Holy Spirit in the thirty-ninth psalm, while lamenting that all men walk in a vain show, and that they are subject to sins, speaks thus: “For all that every man walketh in the image”(Psalm 39:6). Also after David’s time, in the reign of Solomon his son, we read a somewhat similar reference to the divine likeness. For in the book of Wisdom, which is inscribed with his name, Solomon says: “God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity” (Wisdom 2:23). And again, about eleven hundred and eleven years afterwards, we read in the New Testament that men have not lost the image of God. For James, an apostle and brother of the Lord, whom I have mentioned above–that we may not be entangled in the snares of Origen–teaches us that man does possess God’s image and likeness. For, after a somewhat discursive account of the human tongue, he has gone on to say of it: “It is an unruly evil … therewith bless we God, even the Father and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.”(James 3:8-9) Paul, too, the “chosen vessel,”(Acts 9:15) who in his preaching has fully maintained the doctrine of the gospel, instructs us that man is made in the image and after the likeness of God. “A man,” he says, “ought not to wear long hair, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God.”(1 Cor 11:7) He speaks of “the image” simply, but explains the nature of the likeness by the word “glory.” Instead of the three proofs from Holy Scripture which you said would satisfy you if I could produce them, behold I have given you seven.”

As we can see, Jerome believed that Solomon wrote the book of Wisdom, and called it Holy Scripture! Again, in one of his letters he writes:

Do not, my dearest brother, estimate my worth by the number of my years. Gray hairs are not wisdom; it is wisdom which is as good as gray hairs. At least that is what Solomon says: “wisdom is the gray hair unto men.” (Wisdom 4:9)

Jerome employed the traditional “as it is written” before quotations from the deuterocanonical books, implying that they were Scripture:

As in good works it is God who brings them to perfection, for it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that pitieth and gives us help that we may be able to reach the goal: so in things wicked and sinful, the seeds within us give the impulse, and these are brought to maturity by the devil. When he sees that we are building upon the foundation of Christ, hay, wood, stubble, then he applies the match. Let us then build gold, silver, costly stones, and he will not venture to tempt us: although even thus there is not sure and safe possession. For the lion lurks in ambush to slay the innocent: “Potters’ vessels are proved by the furnace, and just men by the trial of tribulation” (Sirach 27:5) And in another place it is written: “My son, when thou comest to serve the Lord, prepare thyself for temptation” (Sirach 2:1). Again, the same James says: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only. For if any one is a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (James 3:22).

And he came right out once with the statement:

“Does not the Scripture say: ‘Burden not thyself above thy power?'” (Sirach 13:2)

It was Jerome’s objections to the deuterocanonical books, however, that were enshrined in his Prologues, which were included in his Vulgate translation. He was alone in his opinion that the Christian Church should adopt the Hebrew canon, as many reference books point out to you. An Introduction to the Books of the Apocrypha, An Introduction to the Apocrypha and An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek tell you, respectively:

During the first two centuries, at least, the early Church both east and west, as represented by Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, accepted all the books of the Apocrypha as inspired, i.e. as Scripture; the last two quote from almost every book.

Jerome, standing in this respect almost alone in the West, spoke out decidedly for the Hebrew canon….

From the end of the fourth century the inclusion of the non-canonical books in Western lists is a matter of course.

And in the East you find no one advocating the same canon as Jerome:

– Melito’s canon (excludes Esther, includes the book of Wisdom)

– Origen’s canon (admits that the Hebrews have a canon of 22 or 24 books, but insists that the Christian Church has its own canon)

– Athanasius (excludes Esther from the ‘canonical’ books, but includes Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, and most likely the extra Greek passages in Daniel)

– Cyril of Jerusalem (includes Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in the canon)

– Gregory of Nazianzus (omits Esther from his canon)

As Westcott summarizes the situation:

Thus not one of the Eastern Bibles contained exactly the Books which we receive and those only, though their variations are included within very narrow limits….

And the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia states bluntly:

The only one who in the ancient Church opposed the Apocrypha was Jerome; and this was no doubt due to his Hebrew studies and his zeal for the ‘body of truth in the Hebrew.’

Not much support from his fellow Christians for his stand against the deuterocanonical books! Looks like Jerome pretty much had to go it alone….

Even Martin Luther, who could have embraced Jerome as someone who saw the light and recognized the deuterocanonicals as substandard, is quoted in Table Talk as saying:

Jerome should not be numbered among the teachers of the church, for he was a heretic; yet I believe that he is saved through faith in Christ. He speaks not of Christ, but merely carries his name in his mouth.

And yet this canon of Jerome’s – this opinion of one man who actually waffled back and forth, sometimes referring to deuterocanonical books as if he had forgotten that they weren’t Scripture – this is the canon we accept unconditionally.


Are we saying Jerome was infallible? That he couldn’t be wrong on this?

What led Protestants to decide that Jerome was right – and every other Church Father was wrong??

For Part 34 please click here


On Friday within the Octave of Easter

Deo omnis gloria!


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