Old Testament Canon by Michael Barber

Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament (Part 1)

by Michael Barber © 2006
(***update***: Scot McKnight made a very good criticism of what follows below, and I want to address it here. You will frequently see me talk about Jewish "canons". I simply use the term to describe sets of books read in an authoritative way. Certainly using the term and applying its modern connotations to second Temple Judaism is anachronistic. As you will see in the notes, I cite VanderKam on this [cf. n. 42]).

At the heart of Christianity is the Word of God—the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, and the Word of God inspired, Sacred Scripture. As has been noted by others, there is a kind of analogy between Christology and the Church’s understanding of Scripture. Just as the union of the divine and eternal with the human and historical in the Person of Christ required a certain development of doctrine, so too, a proper understanding of Scripture requires us to take into account its divine aspect, e.g., inspiration, as well as the historical process through which it has come to us, e.g., canonization.

This essay will focus on the latter. Although there was much debate in the first few centuries concerning what exactly constituted the “New Testament,” the list of the twenty-seven books eventually canonized by the late fourth century councils received virtual universal acceptance from that point on.[1] In this essay, we will look at the more complex issue of the Old Testament canon. We will see how, not only the canonical list but, also, the very concept of a “canon” went through a long process of development. In so doing, we will find that many common presuppositions regarding the canonical process are unhistorical—e. g., the notion of a closed Hebrew canon by 100 C. E.; the assertion that the canon contains the exhaustive books of “inspired” books, etc.[2]

Part I: The “Hebrew Canon”

The term “canon” comes from a Greek word which originally meant “reed,” “rod,” or “measuring stick.”[3]In the Greco-Roman world the term came to describe the criterion or standard by which things are judged. Thus Aristotle spoke of the just man as the “canon and measure” of truth.[4] The word was soon applied to literature to describe those works which represented models of literary purity.[5]

The term was first used in Christian circles, not primarily in reference to the recognized sacred books, but, rather, in terms of the "rule of faith" [6] Hence, the earliest Church Councils began to use the term in reference to their decrees—a practice that continued throughout the history of the councils.[7] Eusebius is credited with the application of the term in reference to the Scriptures, although his exact meaning is not clear.[8] Athanasius’ Festal Letter, written in the late 4th century A. D., uses a verbal from of kanw&n (= “canonized”) to define the set list of sacred books received as authoritative for the Church. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the specific term “canon” was used to describe the closed set of all the recognized biblical books.[9] For most of Christian history, then, “canon” was much more related to ecclesiastical decrees and the orthodox “rule” of faith than to a closed set of scriptural books.

“Scripture” in Israel
There is no doubt that the concept of sacred, authoritative books was already present in ancient Israel.[10]Scripture itself records several early instances of “scripture reading”—although using such a term may be anachronistic. Moses is the first to read from the book of the covenant (Ex. 24:7). During the days of Josiah, the “book of the law” was rediscovered in the temple by the priest Hilkiah (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chron. 34). Much later, Ezra reads from the “book of the law” to those who have returned from exile (Neh. 8:18). Likewise, when Nehemiah re-dedicates the temple, we read that the Levites read from the “book of Moses” (Neh. 13:1ff). In the Maccabean restoration, Judas is said to have “collected all the books” (2 Macc. 2:14).

It was once commonly believed that the Hebrew Scriptures gained acceptance in three stages corresponding to its tripartite structure. This view held that the Torah stabilized around 400 B. C. E., the Prophets by 200 B. C. E. and the Writings by 100 C. E. This view, however, has been largely discarded by scholars.

Ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have come to see the problem of referring to a “normative” second Temple Judaism. [11] As the differences between the various Jewish sects of the period are appreciated more and more, scholars now may even speak of first century “Judaisms.”[12] Even the major groups themselves, such as the Pharisees, were divided into different schools.[13]

With the numerous Jewish groups arose diverse conceptions regarding the Hebrew “canon.” The Sadducees appear to have accepted no books outside of the Torah.[14] The Pharisees accepted a broader authoritative collection.[15] Jews in the Diaspora also had a broader list of sacred books.[16] Likewise, the Essenes and those who lived at Qumran seem to have had their own set of authoritative writings.[17]

After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it became clear once and for all that there was no normative Jewish canon in second Temple Judaism. The Qumran collection evidences no hint of a defined canon. There we find the earliest copies of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, excepting Esther.[18] Copies of the “apocryphal” works of Sirach, Tobit and the Letter of Jeremiah are also present.[19] In addition to these books are numerous pseudepigraphical works such as Enoch and Jubilees, along with many other sectarian documents.

It is extremely important to note that no distinction is made between these documents. In other words, there is no trace of canonical distinctions between these works, leading scholars to conclude: “There is no list of canonical books at Qumran… Indeed, it appears that some sectarian works… had a much greater use and influence than any of the apocrypha or Old Testament Writings, apart from the Psalms.”[20]

The Emergence of a Three Part Structure
Despite the differing opinions of the various groups, it does seem clear that an early tripartite division of the Hebrew Bible—the Law, the Prophets and the Writings—was already emerging in the second Temple period. 4QMMT, a scroll found in the Qumran collection, refers to the books of “Moses, the Prophets and David.” However, the cryptic reference to David hardly serves as evidence for an early recognition of a closed set of Writings. Instead, it is probably a reference to the Psalms.[21]

The book of Sirach gives us more evidence of an early tripartite structure. The prologue, apparently a later addition to the book, refers to “the law and the prophets and the other books” three times. Interestingly, Sirach makes reference to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets. While the reference to “the other books” is clearly evidence of an emerging tripartite structure, this vague reference says nothing about a closed set of books.[22]

In addition, there are numerous references in the New Testament to “the law and the prophets,” which are clearly meant to describe the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Matt. 5:17, 7:12, etc.). Jesus also makes reference to “the law, the prophets, and the psalms” (Lk. 24:44). However, the term is probably meant to describe simply the psalter and not a third collection of books. It would certainly be a stretch to argue that this is evidence of a closed set of authoritative books![23] Others have argued that Jesus referred to the closed Hebrew Bible when he spoke of the death of Zechariah as the final stage in the history that began with Cain’s murder of Abel (Mt. 23:35; Lk. 11:50). Yet, this interpretation also reads too much into the text.[24]

There is also a possible reference to a tripartite structure in Philo’s work, On The Contemplative Life, 25, in which he describes the “laws and oracles delivered through the mouths of prophets, and psalms and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge.” Here again we must be careful not to read too much into what he says.

Developing a Hebrew “Canon”
The earliest and most explicit testimony of a Hebrew canonical list comes from Josephus:
“For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain all the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death… the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.”[25]

Though scholars have reconstructed Josephus’ list differently, it seems clear that we have in his testimony a list of books very close to the Hebrew canon as it stands today. Nonetheless, his canon is not identical to that of the modern Hebrew Bible.[26] Moreover, it is debatable whether or not his canon had a tripartite structure.[27] Thus, one should be careful not to overstate the importance of Josephus. For one thing, Josephus was clearly a member of the Pharisaic party and, although he might not have liked to think so, his was not the universally accepted Jewish Bible—other Jewish communities included more than twenty-two books.[28]

For a long time it was believed that the Hebrew Bible was closed at the end of the first century C. E. It was believed that a group of Rabbis made an official binding decision at a gathering known as “the Council of Jamnia.” Today, however, it is largely recognized that there is virtually no evidence that such a “council” ever occurred. While some Rabbis may have gathered in Jamnia at the end of the first century C. E. to discuss the status of some disputed books such as Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs, they most certainly did not make any binding decisions about the canon.[29] This is apparent in the fact that rabbinic debate over the canon continued to rage on until 200 C. E.! Strikingly, Sirach is quoted as Scripture in the Babylonian Talmud.[30] In addition, Ecclesiastes was disputed in some rabbinic circles and there remained lingering doubts over the book of Esther.[31]

By the third century B. C. E. there is solid evidence that the Hebrew Bible had begun to be translated into Greek.[32] A legend arose that seventy (or seventy-two) elders had translated it, but the historical evidence for this story is rather sketchy.[33] Whoever the scribes were, it seems as though the Torah was the first to be translated. Beyond that it is virtually impossible to determine when each of the other various books was incorporated.[34]

Indeed, the LXX did not develop among solely Hellenistic circles, isolated from Palestinian Judaism, as was once thought. Scholars believe that many of the books—including Ruth, Esther, Qoheleth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Judith, 1 Maccabees—were translated in Palestine. Wisdom and Sirach were likely translated by an Alexandrian Jew of Palestinian origin. Indeed, it is now recognized that the Greek Bible was even used in Palestine.[35] Most surprisingly, Greek texts have even been found in the highly segregated community who lived in Qumran, a group especially “hostile to all Greek cultural influence.”[36]

The myth that there was a closed Hebrew canon of second Temple Judaism is further challenged by the textual variants found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Up until recently it was assumed that “apocryphal” additions found in the books of the LXX represented later augmentations in the Greek to the Hebrew texts. In connection with this, the Masoretic text (MT) established by the rabbis in the medieval period has been accepted as the faithful witness to the Hebrew Bible of the first century. Yet, this presupposition is now being challenged in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Copies of some Biblical books found at Qumran reveal sharp divergences from the MT. For example, scholars were amazed to find that the Hebrew copies of 1 and 2 Samuel found in Cave 4 agree with the LXX against the MT. One of these fragments is dated into the third century B. C. E. and is believed to be the very oldest copy of a biblical text found to date. Clearly the Masoretic version of 1-2 Samuel is “significantly inferior here to the LXX exemplar.”[37]

F. M. Cross explains his reaction at the time of this discovery:

“I suddenly realized I had found something that to me and to other textual critics of the Hebrew Bible was earthshaking. My manuscript of Samuel was related to the Hebrew manuscript of Samuel used by the Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It proved that the translator of the Old Greek had been faithful to the Hebrew text he was translating. Thus the differences between the traditional Hebrew text and the Old Greek translation, for the most part, rested on different textual traditions of the Hebrew Bible. The manuscript of Samuel promised to break the logjam in text-critical studies of the Hebrew Bible. I held a key discovery.”[38]

Discoveries such as this one have helped to reshape scholarly understanding of the relationship between the MT and the LXX. The great textual critical scholar Emmanuel Tov writes, “The preference for the MT seems to go counter to accepted scholarly procedures.”[39]

Important to our discussion of the canon is the discovery of a Hebrew version of the Letter of Jeremiah, excluded by the MT, but included in the LXX. This letter was recognized later by the Church as part of the “deuterocanonical” collection and was included as a sixth chapter to the book of Baruch. Likewise, Hebrew fragments of Sirach have also been found at Qumran and Masada, while an ancient Aramaic version of Tobit was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.[40]

As we have seen, the traditional presupposition that the Hebrew Bible was closed by the end of the first century is simply unhistorical. [41] James VanderKam explains, “As nearly as we can tell, there was no canon of Scripture in Second Temple Judaism.”[42] Moreover, from the variant textual traditions at Qumran, we see that the MT did not represent the Hebrew vorlage known to the translators of some of the books in the LXX. Indeed, not only were there variant canons but variant textual traditions! [43]

The Criteria of the Rabbis
So how did the Jewish rabbis come to agreement over which books to canonize? There is no clear answer. It seems as though the canonical status of the books were decided, at least in part, on the grounds of the date of their composition—no books believed to be written later than the period of Ezra were included. This was based in large part on the Pharisaic thesis that prophetic inspiration ended after Ezra and Nehemiah.[44]However, this presupposition is a problematic criterion for Christians who affirm that the Spirit inspired the books of the New Testament. It is also problematic for some scholars who believe that several canonical books—e. g., Daniel, Esther, Song of Songs, Proverbs, the books of Chronicles—date to a much later period. According to some, Daniel is even later than some of the “apocrypha.”[45]

One thing that is clear about the canonical process used by the Jewish rabbis is that it was motivated in part by an anti-Christian bias.

“Even the final closing of the Hebrew canon by the Pharisaic teachers, constituting themselves as rabbinate toward the end of the first century – a process that lasted into the middle of the second century with respect to individual books and that presupposes a long period of preparation reaching back into pre-Christian times – must be categorized as ‘anti-heretical’, indeed anti-Christian.”[46]

The various discussions in the Mishnah regarding the exclusion of Sirach and the latter apocrypha indicate that they were rejected because they were read among the Christians. It is well-known that the stabilization of the MT text and canon was shaped by an anti-Christian polemic—something many Christian scholars find problematic. [47]

[1] Of course, there are some variant canons in the East, but restraints here do not allow a thorough discussion. On the history of development of the New Testament canon see Cross, F. L and E. A. Livingstone, eds. “Canon of Scripture” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 232-233. One case that should be briefly addressed is the list given by Pope Innocent in the 5th century. When Pope Innocent I wrote a list of the canonical books to the bishop of Toulouse in 405 he omitted Hebrews (Epistle 6.7). However, once one looks at the Innocent’s letter the reason for its silence on Hebrews is clear. In the letter Innocent condemns the reading of the pseudepigraphical writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Thomas. Hebrews was said to be a work of Paul, yet, that was disputed. It seems likely, then, that the pope simply decided not to address the problem of Hebrews. It is extremely important to note that Innocent does not condemn it, even though he mentions many other non-canonical books – much less popular than Hebrews – that are read in the churches. Hence it seems probable that Innocent did not want to deal with the question of its status in the letter—whether to acknowledge its canonical status or to deny it. See Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture(Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1988), 234.
[2] Of critical importance to this work is the recent publication of a collection of essays entitled, The Canon Debate, edited by Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders. The essays contained therein present the most up to date opinions regarding the formation of the Christian biblical canon. J. J. Collins has called it, “without a doubt the most comprehensive treatment ever published of canon formation in Judaism and Christianity” (back cover).
[3] Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origen, Development and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 289; Bruce, The Canon, 17; Beckwith, R. T. “The Canon of the Old Testament,” inThe Origins of the Bible, ed. P. W. Comfort (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 51; Floyd V. Filson,Which Books Belong in the Bible? A Study of Canon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957). 15.
[4] Metzger, The Canon, 289; Bruce, The Canon, 17.
[5] Metzger, The Canon, 289.
[6] Examples of this usage are found in Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria. See McDonald, Lee Martin and James A. Sanders, eds. “Introduction” in The Canon Debate (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 202), 12.
[7] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 291. Indeed, one only needs to take a quick glance at the proceedings from practically any council to see that the decrees are given as “canons.”
[8] This Eusebius does is Ecclesiastical History 6.25.3, where he only uses the term in association with the four Gospels. It is unclear whether his phrase “canon of the church” should be understood as a collection of sacred writings or in reference to the broader “rule of faith” received by the Christian Church. There is also a possible reference in Eccl. History (5.28.13). Regardless, Eusebius’ preferred term for the recognized books of the Church is “en-covenanted” (Eccl. Hist 3.25.6; also see 6.25.1). Typically in Eusebius the term “canon” is associated with church tradition or the rule of faith. See McDonald and Sanders, “Introduction,” 12. Also see Bruce, The Canon, 18: “Before the word ‘canon’ came to be used in the sense of ‘list’, it was used in another sense by the church—in the phrase ‘the rule of faith’ or the ‘rule of truth’. In the earlier Christian centuries this was a summary of Christian teaching, believed to reproduce what the apostles themselves taught, by which any system of doctrine offered for Christian acceptance, or any interpretation of biblical writings, was to be assessed.” Also, see Paul Blowers, “The Regula Fidei and the Narrative Character of Early Christianity,” Pro Ecclessia 6 (1997): 199-228.
[9] McDonald, et al, “Introduction,” in The Canon Debate, 13: “We should be clear, however, that the current use of the term ‘canon’ to refer to a collection of scripture books was introduced by David Ruhnken in 1768 in his Historia critica oratorum graecorum for lists of sacred scriptures. While it is tempting to think that such usage has its origins in antiquity in reference to a closed collection of scriptures, such is not the case.”
[10] James VanderKam, From Revelation To Canon: Studies in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 2.
[11] See, D. Harlow, “Jewish Context of the NT,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation (ed. K. Vanhoozer; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 375.
[12] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 167.
[13] For example, the Pharisees were divided among themselves into different schools of thought. However, they themselves “were not an official body.” Wright, The New Testament, 189. For a full discussion of the Pharisees, see Wright, The New Testament, 181-203. Also see, Julio Trebolle Barrera, The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 223: “Phariseeism has usually been considered as an ‘orthodox’ and official variant of Judaism and Pharisees have been considered as real leaders, political even, of the Jewish people… This view of Phariseeism, however, depends on the witness of rabbinic literature and on Josephus, who provide a distorted version of Judaism before 70 C. E. The Judaism of the Hellenistic period, however, took on very many forms. The Pharisees comprised one of the many groups that did exist, the largest and later the most influential, but not the only representative of ‘normative Judaism.’” Also see S. Mason, “Pharisees,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (ed. C. Evans and S. Porter; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 785.
[14] Albert Sunberg, “Sadducees,” IDB 4:160-3; Gary Porton, “Sadducees,” ABD 5:892-895; Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 217-220. Thus when Jesus responds to the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection of the dead, Jesus turns only to the Torah (Mark 12:26).
[15] Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 222-224. See, for example, Josephus, whom we will talk about later.
[16] Sunberg, Albert C., “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism,” The Canon Debate. McDonald, Lee Martin and James A. Sanders, eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 202), 82.
[17] Here we will not deal with the issue of whether or not the members of the Dead Sea Community were Essenes. Our point here is that there were many Jews in Jesus’ day who apparently held to a rather broad set of authoritative writings. It is clear, for example, that the sectarian documents at Qumran are quoted with the same authority as the biblical and apocryphal books. See B.J. Roberts, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Old Testament Scriptures,” BJRL 36 (1953/54): 84; also see Sunberg, “The Septuagint,” 86. For a full discussion of the Essenes, see Gabriele Boccaccini, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways Between Qumran and Enochic Judaism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.
[18] Bruce, The Canon, 39; Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 227.
[19] Harrington, Daniel. “The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Early Church and Today” in The Canon Debate, 197.
[20] Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha,” in The Canon Debate, 197. For more citations see Sunberg, “The Septuagint,” in The Canon Debate, 86.
[21] 4QMMT 86-103. See Martinez, Florentino Garcia. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Textsin English, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 84. Also see Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 162. That the reference to David refers to the Psalms, see Barrera, “Origins of a Tripartite Old Testament Canon,” The Canon Debate, 129. Other sectarian works at Qumran make similar statements (131).
[22] Some have found the tripartite division in Sirach’s words, “… he who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients, and will be concerned with prophecies” (Sir. 39:1). Those who advocate an early closing of the Writings argue that this passage gives us the outline for the Hebrew Scriptures—“the law… wisdom… prophecies.” However, “wisdom” is more likely a reference to wisdom literature in general, not necessarily specifically Israelite. Barrera, “Origins,” 129; Craig Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers,” in The Canon Debate, 187-188.
[23] Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers,” 187-188; Barrera, “Origins,” 131.
[24] Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers,” 190; Barrera, “Origins,” 131. There is also a possible reference to a tripartite structure in Philo’s work, On the Contemplative Life, 25, in which he describes the “laws and the sacred oracles of God annunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms and all kids of other things by reason of which knowledge of piety are increased and brought to perfection” [trans., C. D. Yonge, The Works of Philo (New Updated Version; Peabody: Hendricksen, 1993), 700]. Here again we must be careful not to read too much into what he says. For further analysis see, L. M. McDonald,Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (2d ed.; Peabody: Hendricksen, 1995), 39; Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus,” 188. However, even if this citation does refer to a tripartite structure, the third set of writings, the reference to “the psalms,” is not clear enough to make much of.
[25] Josephus, Against Apion, 38-40. The Works of Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. Peabody: (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.1987), 776.
[26] “The number of only twenty-two documents raises difficulties since Palestinian Judaism speaks of twenty-four. They were later supposed to have already been available to the ‘men of the Great Assembly’… Either Josephus, like the Church Fathers later, counted Ruth with Judges and Lamentations with Jeremiah, or, as seems more likely to me, he operated with a smaller canon. Perhaps it did not include Canticles or Qoheleth, which were translated into Greek very late and were still controversial among the rabbis of the second century.” Martin Hengel, The Septuagint As Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon (trans. M. E. Biddle; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002), 101.
[27] John Barton, Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile (London: Longman and Todd, 1986), 47.
[28] Jack N. Lightstone, “The Rabbis’ Bible: The Canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Early Rabbinic Guild,” in The Canon Debate, 170-175.
[29] F. M. Cross, “The Text Behind the Text of the Hebrew Bible,” Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed., H.Shanks; New York: Random House, 1992), 152-153. Also see Jack Lewis, “Jamnia Revisited,” The Canon Debate, 146-162.
[30] Jack Lewis, “Jamnia Revisited,” 158 . Sunberg, “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism,” 88.
[31] For further analysis see Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 164-165.
[32] Stanley Porter, “Septuagint/Greek Old Testament,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (eds., C. Evans and S. Porter; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1100; Barrera, The Jewish Bible, 302; also see, H. B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (rev., R. R. Ottley; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17-8.
[33] For a treatment of the legend of the seventy(-two) translators see Hengel, The Septuagint, 25-41.
[34] See Hengel, The Septuagint, 19-101.
[35] Sunberg, Albert C. “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism” in The Canon Debate, eds. McDonald, Lee Martin and James A. Sanders (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 202), 83.
[36] One of the significant findings is 7Q2, the “apocryphal” Letter of Jeremiah written in Greek. For more discussion see, See James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 34-36; Hengel, The Septuagint, 82; Sunberg, “The Septuagint”, 88-89.
[37] Hengel, The Septuagint, 84-85. For a fuller treatment see, VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 129-30.
[38] Hershel Shanks, ed. Frank Moore Cross: Conversations with A Bible Scholar (Washington, D. C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 123.
[39] Tov, Emmanuel. “The Status of the Masoretic Text in Modern Editions of the Bible.” The Canon Debate,244.
[40] See Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha,” 202-203.
[41] See Nancy de Claisse-Walford, “The Dromedary Saga: The Formation of the Canon of the Old Testament,” in Review and Expositor 95 (1998): 3.
[42] James VanderKam, “Questions of Canon Viewed through the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in The Canon Debate, 91.
[43] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 200), 7.
[44] James Sanders, “The issue of Closure in the Canonical Process,” in The Canon Debate, 91.
[45] “The inclusion of Qoheleth, Daniel and Esther (and other relatively late writings such as Canticles, the final version of Proverbs, and the books of Chronicles) was based… on historical error.” Hengel, The Septuagint, 91.
[46] Hengel, The Septuagint, 44.
[47] Hengel, The Septuagint, 44-45. Also see Albert Sunberg, “The Protestant Old Testament Canon: Should It Be Re-examined?” in CBQ 28 (2001): 198ff. Also see Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 31 n. 34.

 Michael Barber   

Loose Canons: The Development of the Old Testament (Part 2)

by Michael Barber © 2006
(Please read Part 1 first)

In the second part of this essay I want to deal with the issue of the use of the “apocryphal” or “deuterocanonical” books in the early church. In the last section we mentioned several unhistorical assumptions often made about the Hebrew scriptures of the second Temple period—e.g., that there was a universally recognized canon within Judaism, that canonical status was determined at a council of rabbis at Jamnia, that there was only one Hebrew text tradition in the first century and that this tradition was transmitted solely through the MT, etc. In this section, I want to deal with some of the misconceptions regarding the use of the apocrypha in the early Church.

Jesus’ Citations of the Old Testament
When looking at any question regarding the Christian faith it is of course important to turn first to Jesus. In looking at the Old Testament canon debate the question inevitably arises: which books did Jesus and the New Testament recognize? In close connection with this, it is often deemed important to ascertain whether or not Jesus quoted from the MT or the LXX. The underlying assumption often made here is that the two textual traditions preserve two rival canons in use during Jesus’ day: a “Palestinian canon” used by Jews in Jerusalem that contained only the “proto-canonical books” and an “Alexandrian canon” that, it is said, included the apocrypha, which was accepted by Jews in the Diaspora. Jesus’ support of the LXX would therefore imply his recognition of the apocrypha. However, this line of reasoning is full of historical misconceptions.

First of all, as we saw earlier, it is quite clear that there was no normative canon in Palestinian Judaism in Jesus day—the notion of a universally accepted “Palestinian canon” is a myth and flies in the face of all the historical evidence. Secondly, we have no reason to think that Jews in the Diaspora were any more united on the matter than their Palestinian counterparts. There is practically no reason to think that Jews in the Diaspora had a uniform opinion regarding which books were to be read. The most famous “Alexandrian Jew” of them all, Philo, never once cites from the apocrypha! Finally, while it is abundantly clear that the apocrypha were included in the LXX of the later centuries, we have very little data about the LXX used in Jesus’ day. As mentioned in Part 1, the Old Testament books were included in the LXX over time—beginning with the Pentateuch.[1] Even if it could be established that Jesus used the LXX, it would not necessarily follow that Jesus accepted the deuterocanonical books.

The whole question is moot though because the citations found in the New Testament do not universally conform to the MT or the LXX. This is not really surprising. As we saw in Part 1, there were variant textual traditions in Jesus’ day—even beyond the classic LXX/MT division. The Qumran library evidences both “proto-Masoretic” and “proto-Septuagintal” Hebrew texts as well as manuscripts similar to neither the MT nor the LXX.[2] It should not be surprising therefore that some of Jesus’ citations agree with the MT text (e. g., Mk 4:26-29=MT Joel 4:13; Mt. 11:29=MT Jer. 6:16), some with the LXX (e.g., Mark 7:6-7=LXX Isa 29:13; Mark 10:8=LXX Gen ; Luke 23:46=LXX Ps 31:5) and others with Aramaic versions similar to neither (e.g., Mark 4:12= Targum Isa 6:9-10).[3]

One other typical line of thought that I want to mention is the one which argues that since the New Testament does not explicitly quote from the apocrypha the deuterocanonical books should not be considered canonical. This criterion, however, would force us to discard many of the canonical books since not all of them are directly quoted.[4] Moreover, it should be noted that though Jesus and the New Testament writers do not explicitly quote from the deuterocanonical works, scholars now recognize many allusions to them.[5] In the end, however, those who make this argument often recant when they realize that canonical status cannot simply be based on New Testament usage since, for example, Jude clearly quotes from the book of Enoch—a book they do not recognize as canonical either.[6]

Early Christian Sources
From the very earliest times Christians used the apocrypha with the other scriptures. It is not uncommon at all to find the very earliest Christian sources directly quoting from the apocrypha. Outside of the New Testament, the letter of Clement to the Corinthians, (circa. 97 C. E.) is probably the earliest Christian work. In it Clement alludes to Wisdom 2:24, making no distinction between it and the other Old Testament books he quotes (1 Corinthians 27).[8] He also mentions Judith alongside Esther (1 Corinthians 55).[9] Many of the other earliest works also cite the apocrypha, oftentimes weaving them in with Old Testament citations (e.g.,Didache,[10] Epistle of Barnabas,[11] Polycarp [12], Irenaeus,[14] Hippolytus,[15] Cyprian of Carthage[16]). There is no evidence that these sources had any misgivings about the apocrypha.

However, there are other patristic sources that seemed uncertain about the use of the deuterocanonical books. The first list of Old Testament books complied by a Christian source is given to us by the fourth century historian Euesibius. Eusebius describes the collection of a second century bishop, Melito.[13] His list seems to follow the order of the books presented in the LXX, yet he excludes the apocrypha as well as the book of Esther.

While Melito's list clearly excludes the apocrypha and Esther, other sources are not so clear. In sum, although there was a certain degree of hesitation on the part some regarding the acceptance of apocrypha, the fathers often cited as opposed to their inclusion are often unclear or inconsistent on the matter. Furthermore, many of those who are hesitant to accept the apocrypha also follow Melito in rejecting Esther. Here I want to look at some of those critical sources.

Eusebius gives us the list of canonical books listed by Origen (d. circa. 254 C. E.).[17] Origen begins his list with the words, “The twenty-two books of the Hebrews are the following…” However, it is possible that Origen intends to relate, not necessarily those books accepted by the Christians, but those counted by the Jews.[18] After all, it was Origen who famously laid out the various textual traditions of the Old Testament books in his Hexapla. Indeed, Origen seems to imply that he often restricted himself to the Jewish canon whenever he debated Jewish scholars, though he personally accepted a different “Christian” canon:

“And I make it my endeavor [sic] 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.”[19]

Whatever his meaning here, one must also recognize that Origen’s other writings clearly indicate that he accepted the apocrypha.

Origen defends the scriptural status of the apocryphal story of Susanna.[20] In his argument against Celsus, Origen refers to the book of Sirach as “Scripture.”[21] Notwithstanding Origen’s apparent omission of the books of Maccabees from the list cited above, he also cites them as part of the “holy Scripture”: “But that we may believe on the authority of holy Scripture that such is the case, hear how in the book of Maccabees, where the mother of seven martyrs exhorts her son to endure torture, this truth is confirmed…”[22] From this it is clear that Origen’s presentation of the “canon” as found in Eusebius did not represent what he considered the exhaustive list of “scriptural” books. While Origen was aware that the Jews excluded the apocrypha, he also seems to have recognized them himself.[23] For Origen, while there may be a differentiation between the books of the Hebrew Bible and the books received by the Christians, they were all considered “scripture.”

In his thirty-ninth Festal Letter, Athanasius (d. circa. 373 C. E.) gives us his list of the books of scripture. This list may be divided into three sections. First, Athanasius lists the books of the Old Testament, which includes the books of the Hebrew Bible and (like Melito) excludes the apocrypha and Esther. [24] Notably, the Letter of Jeremiah is included in this list. Next, he describes the books of the “New Testament,” including all twenty-seven books acknowledged as canonical today.[25] Finally, he describes other books also read in the Church, including Wisdom, Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit.[26] The Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas are described as “apocryphal.” He is silent regarding the books of Maccabees. In summary, then, Athanasius’ list consists of the “Old Testament,” the “New Testament” and the “Ecclesiastical books.”

When one looks at Athanasius' works, it is clear that he consistently used the apocrypha as scripture in his writings. He cites the story of Susanna with the rest of the scriptures.[27] Similarly, the so-called “apocryphal” story of the three young men is quoted with the other canonical works.[28] Still also, the story of Bel and the Dragon, also considered part of the “apocrypha” today, is cited along with the canonical books.[29]

Cyril of Jerusalem
Like Josephus and Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem (d. circa. 385 C. E.) limits the number of the “Old Testament” books to "twenty-two". Cyril includes the book of Baruch in his list as well as the Letter of Jeremiah. He then urges his readers to “read the two and twenty books, but have nothing to do with the apocryphal writings.”[30]

However, despite his warning to believers to stay away from the apocrypha, Cyril used them along with the Old Testament books in his own works! One of the most striking instances occurs in his defense of the doctrine of the ascension of Christ into heaven, where he quotes from the apocryphal story of Bel and the Dragon, citing it with other Old Testament passages.[31] Likewise, to defend the unity of God, Cyril cites Sirach with the books of Psalms and Job—making no canonical distinction between them.[32] In yet another place the book of Wisdom is cited as support for Jesus’ divine nature.[33]

Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus[34] (d. circa. 367 C. E.) includes a list of the biblical books in one of his poems.[35]Gregory’s list contains only the books of the Hebrew Old Testament, again excluding the apocrypha and Esther. Yet, like many of the fathers mentioned above, Gregory frequently quotes from the apocrypha and uses them in his writings making no distinction between them and the books he recognized as canonical. For example, in his Orations, Sirach and Wisdom are used along with Proverbs and Psalms.[36] Gregory also seems to use the phrase “as it is written” (a term used for Scripture) in connection with the book of Wisdom in his Second Theological Oration.[37]

Amphilochius of Iconium
Another list is found in a poem attributed to Amphilochius of Iconium (Iambics for Seleucus). His list excludes the apocrypha and Esther. Again, Esther is dismissed with the deuterocanonical books.

Epiphanius lists twenty-two Old Testament books, and then says,

"There are also two other books near to them in substance, the Wisdom of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, besides some other apocryphal books. All these holy books also taught Judaism the things kept by the law until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Panarion 8.6).

He goes on to relate the status of Wisdom and Sirach to that of the New Testament books, calling them all "divine writings" (Panarion, 76).

Apostolic Constitutions
This document is dated by most scholars to the end of the fourth century. In it certain books of the apocrypha are included (Maccabees, Judith, and Sirach). The list also excludes the Apocalypse and includes the letters of Clement in the New Testament.

Rufinus (d. circa. 406 C. E.) gives us a canonical list that includes all of the Old Testament books. He then mentions a separate collection, the “Ecclesiastical books,” that includes the apocrypha. In this, Rufinus' list is much like Athanasius'.

Jerome, had studied with the Rabbis in Palestine and was persuaded by them that the Christian LXX was inferior to the Hebrew Bible.[38] As a result, he argued that the apocrypha should be included as a separate collection. Setting them aside as a separate collection, he wrote in his preface:

“As, then, the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures, so let it read these two volumes for the edification of the people, not to give authority to doctrines of the Church.”[39]

However, Jerome later changed his mind on the matter. This is often overlooked by historians. He writes:

"What sin have I committed in following the judgment of the churches? But when I repeat what the Jews say against the Story of Susanna and the Hymn of the Three Children, and the fables of Bel and the Dragon, which are not contained in the Hebrew Bible, the man who makes this a charge against me proves himself to be a fool and a slanderer; for I explained not what I thought but what they commonly say against us. I did not reply to their opinion in the Preface, because I was studying brevity, and feared that I should seem to be writing not a Preface but a book.”[40]


So while it is true that Jerome was once suspicious of the apocrypha, he later viewed them as “Scripture.” This is clear from his epistles. For example, in the letter to Eustochium, dated to 404 C. E., Jerome quotes Sirach 13:2, saying, “…for does not the scripture say: ‘Burden not thyself above thy power?’”

The usual explanation of the history of the canon usually describes two sets of Old Testament books, the protocanonical and the deuterocanonical books. According to the way the story is often told, certain fathers accepted the inclusion of the apocryphal books based on usage in the LXX, while others disputed their status and did not receive them as scripture. As we have seen, this reconstruction is grossly inaccurate.

As we have seen, many of the fathers who gave us lists excluding the apocrypha also excluded Esther. Origen is a kind of excpetion in that, in his list, he excludes the apocrypha and includes Esther. In other words, Esther was viewed with a greater amount of suspicion than is normally recognized. The simple distinction between a well recognized set of "protocanonical" books which includes Esther and a second set known as "deuterocanonical" fails to represent the complexity of the issue.

Likewise, many of the fathers who excluded the books from their official list of twenty-two went on to use them and cite them as Scripture. Cyril even uses the apocrypha in establishing Christian doctrine! Again, the issue of the use of the apocrypha is more complex than is often admitted.

In addition, we should recognize something else regarding the term "deuterocanonical." The phrase "deuterocanonical" is applied to books of the Old Testament which were not universally accepted. Shouldn't the same phrase, however, be used of New Testament books like Revelation or 2 Peter, which were also disputed in many circles?

In summary, then, the case against the apocrypha is, I believe, overstated. What can be said of the apocrypha can also be said of many of the books now universally recognized as also part of the Christian canon of scripture. Was there debate about their inclusion? Yes. Was there an overwhelming consensus as to their canonical status in the first three centuries? No. Was there an overwhelming consensus as to the status after the first three centuries? There certainly seems to be.

Oftentimes the jump is simply made from the early Church to the age of the Reformation as if the opinion and usage of the Christians for 1200 years has no bearing on the question. Why should the question of consensus only be relevant in the first three centuries and then post-Reformation? That will be the topic of the next installment.

(For full bibliographic information see Part 1)
[1] See Hengel, The Septuagint, 19-101.
[2] Tov, “The Status of the Masoretic Text in Modern Editions of the Bible,” The Canon Debate, 244.
[3] France, Jesus and the Old Testament, 259-63; Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus,” 191-195.
[4] Sunberg argues that had New Testament citation been the standard for canonicity the following canonical books, not explicitly cited, must also be excluded: Joshua, Judges, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Zephaniah and Nathum. Sunberg, “The Protestant Old Testament Canon: Should It Be Re-examined?,” 200.
[5] Here we can list only a few examples. See T. Francis Glasson, “Colossians 1, 18, 15 and Sirach XXIV,” inNovum Testamentum 11 (1969): 154-156; Catherine Cory, “Wisdom’s Rescue: A New Reading of the Tabernacles Discourse (John 7:1-8:59) in JBL 116 (1997): 95-116; William Kurz, “Intertextual Use of Sirach 48:1-16 in Plotting Luke-Acts,” in The Gospels and the Scriptures of Israel (ed. C. Evans and W. R. Stegner; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994): 308-324. Also see Fitzmeyer’s discussion of the relationship between Wisdom 13:1-19 and 14:22-31 with Romans 1:8-32. Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 272. One might also look at Paul Ellingworth’s conclusion that the author of Hebrews uses Wisdom 7 in Hebrews 1:3. Paul Ellingworth, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), 98-99.
[6] Tertullian did seem to accept Enoch as an inspired book. However, there is very little evidence that it gained widespread support. For discussion on the early Church’s opinion of Enoch see Hengel, The Septuagint, 55.
[7] See Bruce, The Canon, 84-87.
[8] For text click here.
[9] He here seems to refer to Judith 8:30.
[10] In Didache 3:10 we read, “The workings that befall thee receive as good, knowing that apart from God nothing cometh to pass.” This has been rightly identified as an allusion to Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) 2:4. Another reference to Sirach occurs in 4:5, which advises, “Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive and a drawer of them back to give.” (Sir 4:31). For text, click here.
[11] Epistle of Barnabas 6 conflates a passage in Isaiah with one from the Wisdom of Solomon: “For the prophet speaks against Israel, ‘Woe to their soul, because they have counseled an evil counsel against themselves [Is. 3:9] saying, ‘Let us bind the just one, because he is displeasing to us [Wis. 2:12]’”
[12] Epistle to the Philadelphians 10 cites Tobit 12:9: ““When you can do good, defer it not, because ‘alms delivers from death’”
[13] Ecclesiastical History 4.26:12-14.
[14] Irenaeus quotes from the “apocryphal” story of Susanna, included in the LXX version of Daniel (Against Heresies, 4:5:2). See Translator n 51.
Likewise, Irenaeus cites from Baruch 4:36-5:9, which was read as part of the book of Jeremiah (Agaisnt Heresies 5.31.1).
[15] Commentary on Daniel 6 citing the apocrypha portion of Daniel as well as Tobit 3:17; Against the Jews6 citing Wisdom 2; Against Noetus 2 citing Baruch 3:25-38. For texts click [16] Treatises, 12:3:4 citing 2 Macc 9:12 and 1 Macc 2:62,63; Treatises, 12:3:15 citing Wisdom 3:4-8; Epistle 51/55:22 citing Wis 1:13;Treatise 4.8 citing apocrypha story of the three youths [Dan 3:51]; Treatise 4.32 citing Tob 12:8; Treatise 7,9 citing Sir 2:5.
[17] Ecclesiastical History, 6:25:2.
[18] “To be sure, this learned list is not meant simply to reproduce the Old Testament books used in the church; Origen was much too aware of tradition for this.” Hengel, The Septuagint, 63.
[19] Origen, Letter to Africanus, 5. Origen goes on to say, “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.” It is clear, however, that Origen believed he could show that the story of Susanna was rightfully part of the Scriptures, as he says later in the same letter: “What I have said is, I think, sufficient to prove that it would be nothing wonderful if this history were true, and the licentious and cruel attack was actually made on Susanna by those who were at that time elders, and written down by the wisdom of the Spirit, but removed by these rulers of Sodom, as the Spirit would call them” (Letter to Africanus, 9).
[20] See note above.
[21] Against Celsus, 7:12.
[22] De Principiis, 2:1:5.
[23] At one point, he even accepted the book of Enoch as Scripture. However, he apparently later changed his mind. William Adler, “The Pseudepigrapha in the Early Church,” in The Canon Debate, 218.
[24] Thirty-ninth Festal Letter, 4.
[25] Thirty-ninth Festal Letter, 5.
[26] Thirty-ninth Festal Letter, 7.
[27] Discourse Against the Arians, 1:4:12.
[28] Discourse Against the Arians, 2:71.
[29] Discourse Against the Arians, 3:26:30.
[30] Catechetical Lecture, 4:35.
[31] Catechetical Lectures, 14:25. He also cites from the story of Susanna, another portion of Daniel considered to be part of the apocrypha (Catechetical Lectures, 16:31)
[32] Catechetical Lectures, 6:4.
[33] Catechetical Lectures, 9:2,3.
[34] Also known as Gregory “the Theologian”.
[35] The excerpt of the poem can be found in the Appendix included in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV.
[36] Oration II, 50, 116; Oration IV, 1, 14.
[37] Second Theological Oration, 8.
[38] Jerome believed that the differences between the LXX and the Hebrew text of the rabbis were the result of Christ additions. See Jerome’s Letter to Augustine, Letter LXXV: V, 19. Of course, Jerome did not have the benefit of the Dead Sea Scrolls which indicates a Hebrew vorlage for the LXX variants.
[39] From Jerome’s Preface to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Cited in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. VI.
[40] Against Rufinus 2:33.


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 issues. 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 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 RomeRome 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.