Did Jesus Use the Hebrew or the Greek Old Testament?

This is the next segment in an ongoing dialogue with Reese Currie on priestly celibacy and (mostly) the Deuterocanon. To make it easier to see what’s been going on to date, I’ve added a “Reese Currie” tag. Just click the tag, and you can figure out what’s going on if you’re a newcomer. As always, Reese is in red, my responses are in black, and my editorial comments are in blue.

If it’s not clear what Reese is arguing here, it’s bascially this: we’d been talking about whether the Hebrew or the Greek Old Testament is the correct canon. The Hebrew Canon is identical to the Protestant Old Testament, and was the canon used by the Pharisees, and eventually, almost all Jews, through the creation of a 14th century translation called the Masoretic Text (MT). The Greek Canon, also called the Septuagint or the LXX, contains 7 more books, and 5 additions to books, which we Catholics call the “Deuterocanon” (Protestants sometimes call it the Apocrypha, meaning “hidden,” but that term doesn’t really make sense or apply here, and since there are a lot of apocryphal, I strongly prefer Deuterocanon or DC). I’d previously argued that since Jesus quotes the Greek Psalm 8:3 in Matthew 21:16 as prophetic, He’s suggesting that the Greek Canon is inspired [the Hebrew version of Psalm 8:3 doesn’t contain the prophesy in question]. Reese’s response here shows an instance where Jesus’ point can only be made using the Hebrew Canon:

2a) As you know the Hebrew canon is arranged in a different order and ends with Chronicles (2 Chronicles to us). When Jesus speaks of the prophets who were killed, he begins with Abel and ends with Zechariah, the last prophet in the Old Testament of Jesus’ understanding.

This is a great argument. Jesus is definitely referring to the order of the books in the Jewish canon (since Zechariah’s is not the last death chronologically). But He’s not “setting the seal” upon that specific canon as the totality of Scripture (or even the totality of the New Testament). Rather, He’s operating within the paradigm of what His audience already accepts as authoritative. Here’s what I mean: in Mark 12, some Sadducees (who we’re told deny the resurrection in v. 18) ask Jesus a mocking question about whose wife a woman who has remarried will be in Heaven. Jesus responds in v. 24, “Are you not misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?” So here we have Jesus turning the debate to the Scriptures, and claiming that they don’t know them. This seems like an attack on the Sadducee canon, because as you may be aware, the Sadducees accepted only the Torah as canonical, not the entire Tanakh. (Origen says as much in Book 1, Chapter 49, of Against Celsus: “the Samaritans and Sadducees, who receive the books of Moses alone…”). But then Jesus does something strange: to prove the resurrection, He cites Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, (the) God of Isaac, and (the) God of Jacob” (Mark 12:26). In choosing this verse, He skips over some much more obvious verses, like Daniel 12:2, “Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake – some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence.” So what’s going on? Is Christ implicitly denying the canonicity of the Old Testament besides the Torah? Of course not. Rather than trying to set the canon with a hostile crowd, He’s taking the canon they know, and using it condemn them.

That’s the exact same thing that’s happening in Matthew 23:35 and its parallel account in Luke 11:50. Jesus is using the Pharisee’s Hebrew Canon (essentially the same canon used by modern Protestants), and using it to condemn them, by pointing out the long line of prophets that they’ve killed. He does some else in this passage, too. Look at Matthew 23:34-35. He says, “I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify…,” etc. Notice what He’s doing: He’s saying, “I’m going to keep sending you prophets, and you’re going to keep killing them as you have done throughout your own recorded history. Not only is He turning their canon against them, He’s also identifying His Church as the continuation of True Israel: He’s saying that the killing of the New Testament Christians is the same as the killing of the Old Testament Prophets – in other words, there’s one People of God, not two. This passage actually gives weight to my earlier point that there aren’t two different churches in charge of setting the canon: a Jewish Church in charge of setting the Old Testament, and a Christian Church for setting the New. Romans 11:16-36 makes it clear that the Gentiles in the Christian Church are in-grafted members of Israel, while those Jews who persisted in disobedience were broken off. In other words, there is one Church in charge of setting the entire canon. That Church did so at numerous points in its history: local councils such as Carthage and Hippo, which were approved by Pope Innocent I, and officially declared Church teaching at the Council of Trent (when they were finally attacked so fiercely that a dogmatic statement must be made). Never at any point in the early Church did a single council declare the Protestant Bible to be canonical. Never at any point in the early Church did any of the Christians say, “we can set the New Testament, but we must wait for those who have denied Christ to tell us what our Old Testament may look like.” Those are both new and ahistorical concepts which cannot be traced to any councils (and in the case of the latter view, can’t be traced even to any individuals).

Finally, even though Jesus restricted Himself to the Torah when dealing with hostile Sadducees, and to the Pharisaic Hebrew canon when dealing with hostile Pharisees, He also quotes from the Greek LXX, or Septuagint. I mentioned last time, for example, that His quotation of Psalm 8:3 in Matthew 21:16 only makes sense if He considers the LXX inspired (since it’s not prophetic in the Hebrew version). So if Jesus thinks the Torah is inspired, the Hebrew Canon is inspired, and the Greek Canon is inspired, He’s got the view consistently held by the Catholic Church. If, in fact, He thought the Greek books weren’t inspired, it seems strangely misleading to quote from the LXX as inspired. Similarly, if someone were (for some reason) reading our correspondence later, they’d find we both cited to the Bible alone as authoritative. They might conclude that I believed in sola Scriptura, but in fact, I’m just aware that citing to a papal document you don’t consider infallible won’t convince you. But if they found writings between me and another Catholic, where I cited to a papal document authoritatively to make a point, it would make it clear that I believe in the Bible plus.

2b) Is it not possible then that the additional books in the LXX were never considered inspired? Many manuscripts, including Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, included NT extra-biblical material such as the Didache and the Epistle of Clement. The mere presence does not indicate canonicity, even in the NT.

I suppose it’s possible, but I’d say rather unlikely. I can’t speak for the Sinaiticus or Vaticanus, but I know that the Clementine Vulgate contained an appendix of non-inspired texts called ne prorsus interirent, or “lest they utterly perish.” In every case that I know of, non-inspired texts included for their edification or historical value were consigned to a separate category, and clearly demarcated as non-canonical. The LXX doesn’t do that. It intermixes the Greek and Hebrew books, and in fact, the books of Daniel and Esther are longer in the Greek: if the additions to Daniel and Esther weren’t canonical, you would think that they would have had the good sense to label which were parts of the original, and which were imaginative add-ons, since the additions do not just come at the end. No, it’s pretty clear that the Greek-speaking Jews viewed all of Greek Daniel and Greek Esther as equally canonical, and that’s why they didn’t label where the Hebrew version ended and the Greek version began, and vice versa.

One final thought, in case it’s not clear: my position isn’t that the Hebrew Canon is uninspired or bad, just that it’s incomplete (which is also my view on the Torah, and even the Old Testament in toto, since I think it needs the New Testament and the Church to fully make sense). Anyways, I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far! I’ll be back with more at 9 AM sharp tomorrow morning!

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