Second of three essays
Preface | I: Second Thoughts: Pilgrimage 1993-95 | II: All Scripture Is Inspired by God: Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon | III: Do not Add to His Words: Thoughts on the New Testament Canon
Copyright 1996, 2003 Joel Kalvesmaki
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (II Tim 3:16)
What Scriptures did St. Paul have in mind when he wrote the above to St. Timothy? Was he referring to the 66 books making up the Bible Evangelicals read today? What exactly did Paul mean by "all?"
I was confident that the Protestant canon of the Old Testament was that of the apostles, until I examined the evidence behind it. What I discovered I found uncomfortable. Yet it brought me into a deeper and richer relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian who finds theological correction difficult, then these essays on the canon of Scripture will only annoy you. But if your heart aches to know and indwell the Christian faith, then this might be the start of something new and exciting in your relationship with God.
In this second of three essays we shall look closer at the canon of Scriptures that the Apostles read and used, and we shall contrast that with popular assumptions many Evangelicals make today. In the third and final essay, "Do Not Add to His Words," we will concentrate on the canon of the New Testament and consider the nature and source of authority in Christianity.
In his letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul is not referring to the New Testament. This should be obvious since, after all, books such as Acts and Revelation had not yet been written. Even what had been written was still beginning the process of circulation in various churches. As Evangelicals, however, we generally want this passage to include the New Testament since it is one of the few verses that seem to directly support our position on the inspiration and full sufficiency of the Bible.
Regardless, St. Paul undoubtedly had the Old Testament in mind as he wrote this passage. It was the Old Testament that was read in the synagogue and was instrumental in the "training in righteousness" of Ss. Paul, Timothy and many other Christians from the Church of the first century. But, more importantly, Ss. Paul and Timothy used the Septuagint (LXX).
"The . . . what?" As Evangelicals many of us have never heard of the LXX except in a passing reference from educated preachers or teachers. And those of us who have heard of the LXX rarely give it a second thought. But so important is the LXX for our faith that many aspects of the message of the New Testament cannot be sufficiently grasped without it.
The LXX was a translation, of first the Penteteuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), then of the rest of the Jewish Scriptures. The Penteteuch was translated in the 280s, and subsequent translations of other were added in the next three centuries, thus forming the LXX. The LXX was read in the synagogues and churches of the Hellenistic world. Most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are based on the LXX, not the Hebrew. Of particular interest is Paul's use of the LXX since, as a student of Gamaliel, he easily might have known the difference between the Greek and Hebrew texts.
Most scholars are skeptical of the fabulous details that developed around the story of the translation of the LXX, but the main historical facts have been accepted. This account, from an anonymous Christian of the second or third century, not only relates the story, but reflects the popular opinion of early Christians on the subject.
But if any one says that the writings of Moses and of the rest of the prophets were also written in the Greek character, let him read profane histories, and know that Ptolemy, king of Egypt, when he had built the library in Alexandria, and by gathering books from every quarter had filled it, then learnt that very ancient histories written in Hebrew happened to be carefully preserved; and wishing to know their contents, he sent for seventy wise men from Jerusalem, who were acquainted with both the Greek and Hebrew language, and appointed them to translate the books; and that in freedom from all disturbance they might the more speedily complete the translation, he ordered that there should be constructed, not in the city itself, but seven stadia off (where the Pharos was built), as many little cots as there were translators, so that each by himself might complete his own translation; and enjoined upon those officers who were appointed to this duty, to afford them all attendance, but to prevent communication with one another, in order that the accuracy of the translation might be discernible even by their agreement.
And when he ascertained that the seventy men had not only given the same meaning, but had employed the same words, and had failed in agreement with one another not even to the extent of one word, but had written the same things, and concerning the same things, he was struck with amazement, and believed that the translation had been written by divine power, and perceived that the men were worthy of all honor, as beloved of God; and with many gifts ordered them to return to their own country. And having, as was natural, marvelled at the books, and concluded them to be divine, he consecrated them in that library. These things, ye men of Greece, are no fable, nor do we narrate fictions; but we ourselves having been in Alexandria, saw the remains of the little cots at the Pharos still preserved, and having heard these things from the inhabitants, who had received them as part of their country's tradition, we now tell to you what you can also learn from others, and specially from those wise and esteemed men who have written of these things, Philo and Josephus, and many others. (Pseudo-Justin, Oration to the Greeks 13 [3rd c.])
In our popular literature apologists claim that the LXX is very close to the Hebrew text we have today. This claim aims at validating modern Western translations of the Bible, which are based on the Hebrew text. Is this true? And how close is close?
To answer this question you must study the LXX and comparing it with modern translations. When I first started to read the LXX, many things surprised me. Working through the Pentateuch, I made note of the many significant differences between the Hebrew and the Greek. God's curse on Cain is a case in point.
Genesis 4:7, LXX
Genesis 4:7, Hebrew (AV)
|Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly divided it? Be still, to thee shall be his submission, and thou shalt rule over him.||If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.|
Likewise, the genealogy from Adam to Noah in the LXX places the flood 2242 years after Creation. But our modern translations based on the Hebrew text indicate a lapse of 1656 years. This difference springs from the LXX putting the birth of the first-born sons of various patriarchs later in their life than that reported by the Hebrew text.
The last ten chapters of Exodus and the entire book of Jeremiah contain a number of different passages where verses are either omitted, paraphrased, or completely rearranged. Sometimes the Hebrew has more text than the LXX, sometimes vice versa.
In I Kings 12-14, the events surrounding the life of King Jeroboam are arranged in a different order and include a story not reported in the Hebrew text, an account of how he came to marry Ano, the eldest sister of the wife of Susakim, the then-current pharaoh.
These are four of the many differences between the LXX and the Hebrew. Having been led to believe the text was basically the same I was quite disappointed. For instance, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, calls the LXX "very close" to the Masoretic. How close is close? Had Mr. McDowell really read the LXX?
The LXX helps explain what Paul might have meant by "all Scripture." As previously mentioned, this is the version Paul most often quotes. And in some cases the claims of the New Testament theologically depend on the peculiarities of the LXX.
For instance, Hebrews 10:5 quotes Psalm 40:6 as a messianic prophecy:
Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, "sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me."
The author has directly quoted from the LXX Psalter. A quick turn to our modern Bibles will confirm that the Hebrew text reads:
Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; My ears Thou hast opened.
Based on the Hebrew text, the author of Hebrews has not only misquoted the passage, but has made his mistaken citation a central part of his argument. Only the rendering of the LXX justifies this as a Messianic passage. Did the author of Hebrews get it wrong? Was it an inspired mistake?
In Acts 7:14 St. Stephen relates the story of the Israelite nation, and refers to seventy-five people who traveled from Canaan to Egypt in the emigration of Jacob's family. This is not what Genesis 46 states in our Bibles, where it catalogues seventy sojourners. But the LXX lists seventy-five people, confirming St. Stephen's account, with the differences accounted for by the grand- and great-grandchildren of Joseph (Gen 46:20-22).
Most importantly, it is only in the LXX that Isaiah's prophecy of the Virgin Birth makes its bold appearance (Is 7:14). The Hebrew text uses the word "woman" ("marah") instead of "virgin" ("parthenos"). In their earliest confrontations with Christians, Jews objected most strongly to this verse being used to support Jesus' Messiahship. The Jews claimed that Isaiah was prophesying of King Hezekiah and he knew nothing of a miraculous virgin birth. The Septuagint, they said, had been tampered with. The early Christians responded by claiming that it was not they, but the Jews who had cut passages out of the Hebrew text out of envy. (Justin Martyr, Trypho, 71-73)
If we agree with the ancient Jews that the LXX translation was a faulty translation, then why is such a substandard text part of Holy, Inspired Scripture? Doesn't the New Testament suggest that the LXX was considered not just trustworthy, but even preferred by the Apostles? This is not out of harmony with the testimony of the Early Church, which regarded it as a sound and inspired translation.
As a Bible believing Christian, facing this dilemma was not easy. I felt that by trying to honestly grapple with textual issues, I was questioning the authority of God's Word. This is not at all what I intended. I simply wanted integrity in my Christian faith. With time, as I struggled through some of these facts, I realized I needed to come to Scripture on its own terms, not on my expectations as a twentieth century Westerner. This desire for integrity aided me as I swallowed hard and proceeded to study the canon of the Old Testament.
All Scripture is inspired and, in both St. Paul and St. Timothy's mind, that meant the LXX. So much is clear. But the LXX included the books we know today as the Apocrypha.
The earliest copies of the Greek Bible we possess, such as the Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Siniaticus (4-5th centuries) include the Apocrypha. The apocryphal books are not placed in a separate section in the back of the codex, but are rather interspersed by book according to literature type?the historical books with Kings and Chronicles, the wisdom literature with Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, and so forth.
The Apocrypha retained respect in various Jewish communities, including the Essenes and Hellenized Jews, until around thirty years after Paul's death. From that point, Pharisees began to assume more and more control over the Jewish community, and the Pharisees, probably in the late first or second century, decidedly rejected the apocryphal books.
It seems unusual that most Evangelical Christians today, often by pointing to the school of Jamnia, embrace the Pharisees as arbiters of their canon. After all, these men were not Christians. In fact, they vehemently opposed Christ and the Apostles, and they intended to drive Christian influence out of the Jewish community.
The early Christians paid no heed to the Pharisees, and continued to use the apocryphal books, and with good reason. Often they saw in them prophecies of Jesus Christ. Read, for instance, what is written in the book of Wisdom:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, Reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the Lord. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, Because his life is not like other men's, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father.
Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him. (Wisdom 2:12-20)
Is such a powerful Messianic passage, written before Christ, merely a coincidence? Or could the Apocrypha be inspired Scripture?
What? The Apocrypha inspired? Never! As Evangelicals we have been raised with the understanding that there are only 39 books of the Old Testament, unique and unlike any other. No Christian could seriously believe in the Apocrypha! This attitude is exemplefied by Geisler and Nix, who, in their book From God to Us, give reasons why the Apocrypha cannot be accepted: because...
It is true there is no direct quotation in the New Testament of the Apocrypha. But, before smugly moving on, we should recognize that the New Testament alludes to and uses the Apocrypha.
For instance, when the Sadducees came to Jesus to challenge him on the issue of the Resurrection (Mt 22:23-33), they referred to seven brothers among them who, each in turn, married the same woman, dying before having children. This story is neither ludicrous nor an invention. Rather, it is a speculative question probably based on the situation of Sarah in Tobit (Tob 3:7-17). She found herself facing childlessness as seven marriages had resulted in death, each husband dying on the night of their marriage. "In the resurrection therefore, whose wife of the seven shall she be?" asked the Sadducees regarding Sarah's plight.
Jesus' parable of the widow and the uncaring judge (Lk 18:1-8) is a variation of a set of proverbs found in the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclus 35:13-15).
St. Paul often alludes to the wisdom and power of God, and his treatment shows a strong affinity with the Book of Wisdom, the theology of which is strongly Christian. One fine example of this is in Romans:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mean, because all sinned. (Rom 5:12)
St. Paul's understanding of the Fall does not depend only on Genesis 2-3, which does not explicitly state that sin entered the world because of Adam's transgression. It can be interpreted this way, but St. Paul's exegesis depends more on the book of Wisdom:
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it. (Wis 2:24)
It is true that the authors do not call these books inspired. But what books do the NT authors declare to be inspired? The argument can work the other direction. There are seventeen books the New Testament does not quote, e.g., Joshua, Judges, Ezekiel, Ezra/Nehemiah and Chronicles, to name but a few. Are these then dubious? Using Geisler and Dix's rule, shouldn't we exclude these from the canon? The nearest citation to the Chronicles is, with a stretch of details, a reference by Jesus to the killing of a certain Zechariah (Mt 23:35, Lk 11:51). Does an indirect reference like this really establish that the Chronicles are inspired? In fact, the Bible doesn't specifically call any book inspired. Why should we?
The purpose of local synods, before the advent of the ecumenical councils, was to decide regional disputes, not to establish the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Establishing a "canon of Scripture" was never up for discussion. The earliest synods to make a statement about what was in Scripture were in North Africa, around A.D. 400. Even then, though, the statement was made in light of regional problems in North Africa. The rest of the Church did not seem to notice, or have the need of convening a council to declare what was in the "canon." But even if the had, the Apocryphal books would have certainly received a warm response. Here are excerpts from the acts of two early local synods.
...Holy Scripture meets and warns us, saying...."And fear not the words of a sinful man, for his glory shall be dung and worms. Today he is lifted up, and tomorrow he shall not be found, because he is turned into his earth, and his thought shall perish (I Mac 2:62,63)." Cyprian, Ep. 14, 2nd council of Carthage, AD 252, (ANF V:339)
Quietus of Baruch said: We who live by faith ought to obey with careful observance those things which before have been foretold for our instruction. For it is written in Solomon: "He that is baptized from the dead, (and again toucheth the dead,) what availeth his washing (Ecclus 34:25)?" 7th council of Carthage, AD 256, (ANF V:568)
Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Athanasius are specifically cited by Geisler and Nix as speaking against the Apocrypha. This is quite an interesting allegation because anyone familiar with the writings of these, and other Church Fathers, will know that precisely the opposite is true.
Origen, in his commentaries on the Gospels of St. John and St. Matthew, cites Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Daniel and Esdras I. Other Fathers before Origen, such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus all quote from the Apocrypha. It is difficult to find a Father who does not quote the Apocrypha and treat it as Scripture.
St. Athanasius, in his festal letter of 367, lists the books of the Old Testament and includes in his canon those parts of the Apocrypha associated with Jeremiah and Daniel (all the while he excludes Esther!). He also commends other books of the Apocrypha as suitable for the instruction of new Christians, although he does not rate them as Scripture. St. Athanasius's wrote the letter to exclude the apocryphal and spurious gospels of the second century and later, not the writings we know today as the Apocrypha.
It is true that the Reformers generally subscribed to the Hebrew canon. And yet even then they were not hostile towards the Apocrypha. Luther included them in his translation of the Bible as being helpful to read. Editions of the King James Version until the 19th century included the Apocrypha. According to the Book of Common Prayer "the [English] Church doth read [the Apocrypha] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine..." (Art 6). What a long way we have come, where these books, once honored by Protestants, have fallen from to derision!
Although the council of Trent was late, it did not mark a change in the canon, but rather reflected what had been used as Scripture for the previous fifteen centuries. Generally, if an issue is not disputed, it doesn't need to be clarified. Up to then Rome had no need to define her canon. No church in the world, from Armenia to Ethiopia to Rome, had questioned the Apocrypha. Only Protestants, preferring their own wisdom to that of the rest of Christendom, prompted the canon to be defined.
As mentioned before, the testimony, or lack thereof, of these Jewish scholars carried little weight with Christians in the early centuries. Should it be any different for us? Were the sons of the Pharisees spiritually fit to establish the canon? In trying to direct authority to the Jews, Geisler and Nix state:
"Palestine was the home of the Jewish canon, not Alexandria, Egypt. The great Greek learning center in Egypt was no authority in determining which books belonged in the Jewish Old Testament." (Geisler & Nix, 96)
Certainly Alexandria was not the "home" of the Jewish canon, but this misses the point. Does the Old Testament belong to Jews or Christians? The question for us revolves around, not what was in the Jewish Old Testament, but what was in the Christian one! Who are the competent authorities on this question? If we respect the Jewish decision on the canon, should we then reconsider our position regarding the Messiah, the Sabbath, and the Law? Why should we care what the Pharisees determined?
The opinions of one man do not form the mind of the Church. St. Augustine, his contemporary, begged to differ with him, as did previous and later Fathers.
Geisler and Nix cite Cardinals Cajetan and Ximenes as distinguishing the Apocrypha, in an effort to show that Rome was divided on the subject. This may result from our long misunderstanding of Catholicism. Through history Catholics have recognized differences within the Old Testament, not just of the Apocrypha, but of the Histories, Prophets, and the Law. The Roman Catholic Church still recognizes that distinction by calling the apocryphal books deuterocanonical (second canon). Catholics distinguish, but do not separate, the Apocrypha. This harmonizes nicely with the teaching of Cajetan and Ximenes.
There are passages of the Apocrypha that many Evangelicals find disturbing or problematic. And yet, if we are honest, those passages have counterparts in the Old Testament.
For instance, much has been made of what seems to be an occultic use of animal parts in the book of Tobit. But before rejecting this story, pause for a moment. Think of how Jacob bred his flock (Gen 30:25-43). Doesn't it seem that Jacob used folk magic and dowsing techniques? If this story had not been included in the canon and we read it for the first time today, wouldn't we react just as strongly? Don't Jacob's actions seem to smack of God-sanctioned occultic practices just as much as Tobit's do? Possibly our reaction to these kind of stories result from our being raised in a secular culture that scoffs at the miraculous and God working through the physical.
There are unusual things waiting for new readers of the Apocrypha. Yet there is much that is already familiar to us. It is genuinely Christian. Some Evangelicals find that, after reading these books, they return to familiar Scriptures and discover a new depth and authenticity to them. Others begin to realize that the Old Testament canon is not as black and white issue and they were taught.
Such a statement may come as a shock. If anything sounds like an attack on Scripture, this does.
Some background is necessary. In pre-Christian synagogue worship, when Scripture was read, the congregation responded differently to various sections of the Old Testament. The historical books "ranked" lowest, and above that came the Psalter and the Prophets. But when the Law was read, everyone in the synagogue stood. Here, for them, was the core of God's revelation and, above all other books, the Law of Moses merited full attention.
The same happened in early Christianity after the Apostles died. But instead of the Law, it was the Gospels that compelled the faithful to stand in respect. The words and deeds of Jesus were seen as the pinnacle of the revelation of Scripture. The early Christians' hermeneutic of the rest of the Bible began and ended with the words of Christ. The Gospels were the core of their canon. St. Paul was understood in the light of Jesus, not vice versa.
Is this ordering of Scripture so strange? We do it ourselves, although we do not readily admit it. If we consider all the sermons we have heard, cataloguing the references used, we will find that some books typically merit more thought and discourse than others. In many Protestant churches Romans and Galatians are focused upon while II Peter, James, and Jude are not. In the Old Testament, the Psalms are read more frequently than Numbers. If any church or tradition really sought to cover Scripture equally they would have to slate four times more sermons on the Old Testament than on the New!
The Eastern Orthodox Church has been most faithful to the apostles' Old Testament. They still use the LXX and usually base their translations of the Old Testament on it. Without needing objective proof for the veracity of this translation, they have simply held to what the apostles gave them. Their approach to the canon has not been philosophical or deductive, but spiritual, trusting that God established and is now watching over the Church He established.
In the West we have tended to mock this kind of childish faith, preferring that which is more concrete and objective. Yet there has been a striking vindication of Eastern simplicity this century. The Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the general reliability of the LXX. As the various passages of the Bible have been translated and published, scholars have realized that previous dismissal of the LXX has been premature. Qumran passages from the Law and historical books have uncovered evidence for a separate Hebrew textual recension that underlies the translation of the LXX. More times than not the ancient manuscripts of Qumran disagree with the Masoretic Text, and often support the LXX.
It seems now that, to scholars engaged on this work in the future, Qumran has offered a new basis for a confidence in the LXX in at least the historical books, which should allow them to accept the better readings of that version almost as readily as if they were found in the Hebrew MT. In other words, each reading must in future be judged on its merits, not on any preconceived notion of the superiority of the Hebrew version, simply because it is Hebrew. (Allegro, 81)
Qumranic scholars have not exalted one textual tradition over another, but have reopened the question of translation of the Old Testament. The answer to the direction of future translations, now, could be pivotally determined by theologians rather than textual scholars. Allegro, and others, argue for an eclectic translation of the Old Testament that might provoke all and satisfy none. However, in the future, we may find ourselves asking not, "Which version seems best?" but, "Which version best reflects Christ?" For the answer to the latter the LXX has been long in waiting.
Most Evangelical arguments for the Old Testament canon are, at best, ad hoc. Our leaders and teachers paint a simple, pristine picture of the transmission of Scripture, as if the canon was all but leather-bound and cross-referenced. "This canon is true because it is self-evident, internally consistent, and all sensible early testimony agrees with us," goes the typical argument. And when, in opening the record of history, we find this to be not the case, we add a long string of exceptions to our original claim. This cannot not go very far. With such an approach to the Scriptures, trying to take them out of their place in history, is it any wonder why so many Bible-believing Christians have lost their faith to liberals, who are willing to deal more thoroughly, and oftentimes more honestly, with the historical record?
As Jesus says, "Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you." (Gospel of Thomas 5)
What? Jesus never said that!
How do you know? Who says the Gospel of Thomas should not be in the New Testament? We will look at the answer to this, and examine the canon of the New Testament in our next essay, "Do Not Add to His Words."
May 1996, rev. 2003
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