Can Protestants Rely Upon Jewish Consensus to Establish the OT Canon?

GotQuestions.org, in one of its central arguments against the Deuterocanon (what Protestants call the Apocrypha), raises three major points:

When it came to the Old Testament, three important facts were considered: 1) The New Testament quotes from or alludes to every Old Testament book but two. 2) Jesus effectively endorsed the Hebrew canon in Matthew 23:35 when He cited one of the first narratives and one of the last in the Scriptures of His day. 3) The Jews were meticulous in preserving the Old Testament Scriptures, and they had few controversies over what parts belong or do not belong. The Roman Catholic Apocrypha did not measure up and fell outside the definition of Scripture and has never been accepted by the Jews.

These three arguments are easily refuted, and two of them I’ve already addressed:


For the first: Last month, I explained that you can’t create the Old Testament canon from New Testament citations and references, since there are favorable citations to the Book of Enoch (Jude 1:15), the Assumption of Moses (Jude 1:19), and the pagan philsopher-prophet Epimenides (Titus 1:12), and no references to Esther, Judges, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Ezra, or Nehemiah.  GotQuestions tries to cover this flaw in their argument by including “allusions.”  But there are allusions to the Deuterocanon as well, including some of these. So either way you cut it, the first argument fails.

For the second: It’s true that Jesus referenced the Pharisaic canon (the modern Protestant Old Testament) in Matthew 25:35, when He was condemning the Pharisees. But when He was condemning the Sadducees, He used their canon (which including only the Torah, the first five Books), instead, in Matthew 22:23-33.  As I explained here, He wasn’t establishing the canon, but showing that even with the partial-canons of the Sadducees and Pharisees, there was enough to prove His claims.  He Himself referenced both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament (the Greek version is the modern Catholic Old Testament), and both He and the Apostles treated the Greek version of the canon as inspired.

For the third:  A growing mass of evidence shows that the claim that there were “few controversies” over the Jewish canon of Scripture is just false. As I mentioned, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Greek-speaking Hellenists each had their own separate canons of Scripture during the time of Christ.  Seton Hall’s Dr. Jeff Morrow has an interesting post showing that the confusion over the proper canon was probably even more widespread than we’d previously realized. For example, it appears from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Qumran community: (a) considered Tobit and Sirach canonical, (b) considered some of their own writings canonical, and (c) rejected the Book of Esther. If that’s true, Catholics agree with them on (a), and reject (b) and (c).  Protestants, who claim to derive their canon from Jewish consensus, reject (a), (b), and (c).  Now, we still don’t know with any certainty that these scrolls represent all and only those Books the Jews at Qumran held canonical (it’s possible that some of these Books were preserved for other reasons, and it’s possible that there are other canonical Books which were destroyed).  But:

We do know, however, that certain Jewish communities did in fact use the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Bible, and that they included the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. Although far from certain, the Book of Sirach appears to have been according canonical status among some of the early rabbis (more on this in a future post). A recent discovery of medieval manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah has shown that Jews in the medieval period in Africa, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, continued to use the LXX (more on this in a future post). To this day, Ethiopian Jews use the LXX as their Bible, including the deuterocanonicals. Some Jews in antiquity used, and some Jews today continue to include the deuterocanonicals in their Scripture. More on this in future posts.

Dr. Michael Barber agrees with Morrow, and links to an essay which concludes:

In this essay we have traced the development of the Old Testament canon. Along the way we have seen that many presuppositions regarding the canon are now understood to be historically inaccurate. These include:
  1. The myth that the Palestinian canon was closed by 100 C. E.
  2. The notion, even held by Jerome, that the divergent readings of the Christian LXX could simply be chalked up to Hellenizations. Scholars now recognize that the varying readings of the LXX and the MT have their origins in different Hebrew Vorlage.
  3. (Closely related to 2): That the MT reading represents a more ancient textual tradition than that of the LXX.
  4. The idea that the criterion used by the rabbis to determine the canonical status of the Biblical books was based on solid historical evidence. (In fact, anti-Christian prejudices shaped in their determination.)
  5. That when the fathers speak of “canonical” books they always referred to the exhaustive list of books they consider part of Scripture. Indeed, there was not even a neatly divided list of protocanonical and deuterocanoical books – many included Esther in the category of disputed books.

So for centuries, even into the Middle Ages, controversy raged amongst Jewish religious groups as to which canon of Scripture was correct.  This is a far cry from the claim that the “Jews were meticulous in preserving the Old Testament Scriptures, and they had few controversies over what parts belong or do not belong.” And of course, a Christian can’t comfortably accept the Jewish canon, once it was decided, since so many of the motivations were specifically anti-Christian.  After all, one of the reasons the Greek Books were rejected was a belief  that Scripture was revealed only in Hebrew (something all Christians know is false, since we have numerous Greek New Testament Books).  Another was that the Deuterocanonical Books and Greek version of the Old Testament were viewed as more Christian and Christological (compare, for example, the Hebrew and Greek prophesy in Isaiah 7:11, or Hebrews 10:5-7 or Acts 15:17).  So none of GotQuestion’s three points for why the Deuterocanon isn’t Scripture stand up to any real scrutiny — in fact, all three are outright wrong.

2 Comments

  1. Must you also ask though that by this logic someone could look back at the Christian faith and argue that the New Testament is not acceptable because there was such controversy?

  2. I don’t think so.

    There was almost unanimous consensus on what’s called the New Testament protocanon. From the NT protocanon, particularly places like Matthew 16 and Acts 15, we clearly see the establishment of a Catholic Church able to act authoritatively. This wasn’t just some abstract exegesis, either, but actual history. That is, nearly anyone reading the Gospel of Matthew or the Book of Acts was introduced to it through the Catholic Church.

    So even though the Church had not yet defined what the appropriate canon was, it was clear She had the authority to do so. To accept Christianity was to accept the Church. Hilarie Belloc makes the case from historical records here (http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2010/10/early-church-was-single-organized.html) and here (http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2010/10/historical-claim-for-catholicism.html), and I think that case is rock solid.

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