Thursday, March 09, 2006

Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament (Part 3)

by Michael Barber © 2006
(Please be sure to read Parts 1 & 2 before reading Part 3).

The Christian Old Testament Canon
The issue of the canon of the Old Testament finally came to a head at the end of the fourth century. The bishop of Rome at that time, Pope Damasus, was intent on reforming the early Christian liturgy.[1] Of course, one part of the Christian liturgy was the reading of Scripture. Thus, Damasus commissioned Jerome to provide the Church with an official translation of Scripture.[2] That translation, as we all know, was the Vulgate.

As we saw last time, Jerome was initially hesitant about using the Greek translation of the Bible (a.k.a., the Septuagint or the LXX) as the basis for his translation. The Septuagint included books and portions of books that were not found in the Hebrew scriptures accepted by the rabbis—this material includes what we now call “the apocrypha.” Jerome argued that preference should be given to the Hebrew text.

Enter Augustine. Augustine staunchly defended the use of the LXX. His most powerful argument was that the New Testament itself often quotes texts that agree with the LXX against the Hebrew Bible. He believed that the Church should recognize the authority of both the LXX and the Hebrew.[3]

As we have seen, the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly favored Augustine’s position. Jerome believed that the divergent material in the LXX was merely the result of additions that had crept into the Greek text. Scholars now know that there were Hebrew texts circulated in the first century that agree with LXX against the MT (Hebrew Bible). One cannot simply assume that the differences between the LXX and the MT can be chalked up to changes made in the Greek text.

As I demonstrated in the last section, Jerome clearly changed his mind on the matter. Sadly, most people completely and utterly ignore this fact. Those who wish to exclude the apocrypha often cite his earlier comments and imagine Jerome had no real compelling reason to change his mind. In fact, I was once in a history class where the Professor argued for the exclusion of the apocrypha, cementing his case by stating: "This was the position of the earliest biblical scholar, Jerome." When I mentioned that he had changed his mind the Professor acknowledged that this was true. However, had I not raised that fact I don't believe he would have given the rest of the story.

The Rule of Faith
At what point was the matter settled? It is often supposed that Augustine simply won the day. Some simply assume Augustine somehow prevailed in a popularity contest of sorts. Of course, that is a gross oversimplification of the matter. As we have seen, various fathers had conflicting opinions on the matter of the canon prior to Augustine and Jerome. What made the difference here was the decree of ecclesiastical councils.

The two most significant councils in this matter were Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). The decree of the council of Hippo is reproduced in the canons Carthage - which incidentally, was largely concerned with liturgical isues. The list was given again in 419 with an interesting and often overlooked appendix:

“But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows: Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy. Joshua the Son of Nun. The Judges. Ruth. The Kings, iv. books. The Chronicles, ii. books. Job. The Psalter. The Five books of Solomon. The Twelve Books of the Prophets. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Ezechiel. Daniel. Tobit. Judith. Esther. Ezra, ii. books. Macchabees, ii. books. THE NEW TESTAMENT. The Gospels, iv. books. The Acts of the Apostles, i. book. The Epistles of Paul, xiv. The Epistles of Peter, the Apostle, ii. The Epistles of John the Apostle, iii. The Epistles of James the Apostle, i. The Epistle of Jude the Apostle, i. The Revelation of John, i. book.
Let this be sent to our brother and fellow bishop, Boniface, and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.”

(Notice that the decree describes book "read in church" - literally, in the liturgy.) Though it wasn’t an ecumenical council, the decree’s ratification by Boniface, the bishop of Rome, as well as other Bishops, led to virtual universal acceptance of the canon.[4]

Augustine’s position on the apocrypha eventually won out—but not simply on his own authority. The canon was only settled because of the existence of a recognized ecclesiastical authority. This can hardly be denied.

The Canon and the Rule of Faith
At the beginning of this study, it was pointed out that the phrase “canon” was originally used to describe, not the collection of biblical books accepted by the Church, but the “rule of faith.” In fact, the development of the canon of Scripture is no doubt related to the “orthodox” Church’s desire to preserve a “unity of faith.” Julio Barrera writes, “The formation of the canon, besides excluding certain books which could not be considered as the ‘norm’ of faith of the churches, performed an equally important task: to bind and unite the traditions of the churches of the Christian East and West.”[5]

Yet, the fathers believed that this unity of faith depended upon the recognition of the Church’s leaders as successors to apostolic authority.[6] Very early on Origen writes:

"Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition" (The Fundamental
1:2 [A.D. 225]).
This could also be seen from Ireneaus’ Against Heresies, dated as early as 189 A.D.:

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about… But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition" (Against Heresies, 3:3:1–2).
Clement of Alexandria also writes,
“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God's will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult… on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from escape the blessed tradition” (The Stromata, 1:1).[7]
It is clear from these passages and from others that apostolic authority was especially linked with the bishop of Rome.[8] Hence, it is clear that all significant canonical decisions were made through Rome.[9]

With the emerging popularity of books such as The Gospel of Thomas many have called for a re-opening of the canon. Yet, as Philip Davies explains, without a recognized Ecclesiastical authoritative structure, the confusion over the canon will continue to escalate. He concludes, “Indeed, there are signs that the canon itself can be remade.”[10] The present situation only underscores the point that, “Canon and authority go hand in hand.”[11]
In this essay we have traced the development of the Old Testament canon. Along the way we have seen that many presuppositions regarding the canon are now understood to be historically inaccurate. These include:
1. The myth that the Palestinian canon was closed by 100 C. E.
2. The notion, even held by Jerome, that the divergent readings of the Christian LXX could simply be chalked up to Hellenizations. Scholars now recognize that the varying readings of the LXX and the MT have their origins in different Hebrew Vorlage.
3. (Closely related to 2): That the MT reading represents a more ancient textual tradition than that of the LXX.
4. The idea that the criterion used by the rabbis to determine the canonical status of the Biblical books was based on solid historical evidence. (In fact, anti-Christian prejudices shaped in their determination.)
5. That when the fathers speak of “canonical” books they always referred to the exhaustive list of books they consider part of Scripture. Indeed, there was not even a neatly divided list of protocanonical and deuterocanoical books - many included Esther in the category of disputed books.
The major case against the apocrypha has been based on several arguments, many of which are based on some of these false historical assumptions. The Christians did not "add" to the Jewish canon - there was no normative Jewish canon at the time of the coming of Christ. The neat distinction between protocanonical and deuterocanoical books did not exist in the early church.
Because of this, many Protestant scholars are now reconsidering the rejection of the apocryphal books from the canon. In his article, “The Protestant Old Testament Canon: Should It Be Re-examined?,” Albert C. Sunberg explains how he, as a Protestant scholar, has come to the conclusion that the canon as defined by Carthage represents the true Christian Old Testament. After examining all of the historical reasons for the Protestant exclusion of the apocrypha, he concludes that “…any Protestant doctrine of canonization that takes seriously the question of Christian usage and historical and spiritual heritage will lead ultimately to the Christian OT as defined in the Western Church at the end of the fourth century.”[12]
Sunberg is not alone. Other prominent names in Protestant scholarship, including Hengel and Gese have added their voices in support for the inclusion of the apocrypha. Gese agrees with the arguments of Sunbreg, saying “we no longer have scientific grounds for separating the apocrypha.”[13] However, Gese goes on to raise a more foundational issue. He believes that to accept two contrasting traditions from two different interpretive communities—one from the rabbis who believed prophecy had ended and one from the Christian tradition that defined the New Testament—creates a fundamental hermeneutical crisis. [14] How is interpretation even possible without a unified canonical tradition?[15]
It is the prayer of this author that, regardless of denominational (and thus, canonical) differences, this discussion on the canon of the Word of God will help its author and its readers come to a deeper relationship with the one who is the Word through reading it. “For all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

[1] M. H. Shepherd, "The Liturgical Reform of Damasus I," in Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten (ed. P.Granfield and J.A.Jungmann; Munster: Aschendorff, 1970), 2:847-8.
[2] It is important to realize that the canon was essentially about a liturgical decision. For more discussion and citations see, Scott Hahn, "Worship in the Word," in Letter and Spirit: Reading Salvation: Word, Worship, and the Mysteries 1 (2005): 102-3.
[3] City of God, 18.44.Augustine also argued that the translators of the LXX had been themselves “inspired” in translating the Hebrew text.
[4] The Eastern Church basically holds the same canon, although in the form held by Athanasius. It recognizes a bipartite structure to the Old Testament, holding the “apocrypha” to be of lesser authority, yet maintaining its status as true Scripture. See Hengel, The Septuagint, 125. Although there are a few rare exceptions, the question of the status of the apocrypha was not questioned again until the Reformation.
[5] Berrera, The Jewish Bible¸ 252.
[6] Clement of Rome, 1 Corinthians, XLIV, LVII; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39 (citing Papias); 4:21.
[7] The Stromata, 1:1.
[8] See Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, 4. For a thorough analysis of the primacy and authority of Rome in the early church, see Steve Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).
[9] “From the start, but especially in the anti-Gnostic period, the contacts which the various churches were initiating with a view to setting up a canon, all passed through the church of Rome… The churches and the great Christian figures which helped to set up the Christian canon also made connections with Rome or through Rome… Rome was the center of all these movements.” Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 252.
[10] Philip Davies, “The Jewish Scriptural Canon in Cultural Perspective” in The Canon Debate, 51.
[11] Davies, "The Jewish Scriptural Canon," 51.
[12] Sunberg, “The Protestant Old Testament Canon,” 202.
[13] Cited and (thankfully for this author) translated in Hengel, The Septuagint, 126.
[14] “A Christian theologian may never approve of the Masoretic canon. The continuity with the New Testament is in significant measure broken here. It seems to me that, among the effects of humanism on the Reformation, the most fateful was that the reduced Pharisaic canon and the Masoretic textual tradition which was appealed to as a ‘humanistic’ source were confused with one another and the apocrypha were set aside. With the thesis of the essential unity of the Old and New Testaments, of the one biblical tradition, the precarious question of the Old Testament was settled. . . The New Testament brought the formation of the Old Testament tradition to an end, a final conclusion. The formation of biblical tradition is thus, as a whole, concluded and thus, for the first time, in a deeper sense, canonical.” Cited in Hengel, The Septuagint, 126-27.
[15] “The canon does not contain its own self-justification but rather directs our attention to the tradition which it mediates. For to say the least which has to be said, without tradition there is no shared memory and therefore no community.” Joseph Blenkinsopp, Prophecy and Canon: A Contribution to the Study of Jewish Origins (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977),152.


John McBryde said...

Thanks for an interesting and informative series.


Anonymous said...

Hi, after months of study I have arrived your same conclusions. May Jesus bless you and for quoting Sundberg

Anonymous said...

I think your last sentence is your best argument. Surely if there was a defect in the scriptures common among the Greek speaking Jews, shouldn't Paul have pointed it out to Timothy?