In one of the comments on my earlier post, “Answering Nine Protestant Arguments About the Bible,” a reader named Drew asks is the Council of Carthage considered as canonical the apocryphal book sometimes called “Greek Esdras” (also known, confusingly enough as 1 Esdras, 3 Esdras, and Esdras A). The reason there are so many different confusing names is that the Early Church Fathers referred to four different Books as “Esdras” or “Ezra.” These are:
- The Book of Ezra;
- The Book of Nehemiah;
- “Greek Esdras”: Basically, the Book of Ezra with about four chapters added.
- “Latin Esdras”: Sometimes called the Apocalypse of Ezra, it’s a set of prophesies.
Catholics and Protestants agree that #1 and #2 are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that #3 and #4 aren’t. What we can’t seem to agree upon is what to call those four. Jerome called these 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, and 4 Esdras. Simple enough. But the Septuagint treated Ezra and Nehemiah as one Book, called “Esdras B,” and called Greek Esdras “Esdras A.” Modern Bibles make it even worse: they often call the first two Books “Ezra” and “Nehemiah,” and when Greek and Latin Esdras as included, they’re listed as 1 and 2 Esdras. So “1 and 2 Esdras” could refer to the two canonical Books, or the two apocryphal books, depending on who’s writing. It’s a mess. I’m avoiding the numbering and lettering completely, and calling them Ezra, Nehemiah, Greek Esdras, and Latin Esdras.
Basically, Drew’s question is, “What the Council of Carthage said that the ‘two books of Ezra’ were canonical, did they mean Ezra and Nehemiah, or Ezra-Nehemiah and Greek Esdras?” Here’s what he writes:
Evening, all. I’m a Protestant being dragged (at times) and walking whistling (at other times) towards Catholicism, and this post provides some nice responses to commonly raised objections, so I appreciate it (whistle, whistle). I do, however, have a question about the canon of Scripture approved by the Council of Carthage in its 24th canon. Named among the OT books are “two books of Ezra.” In the Vulgate (later, agreed upon version, I suppose), this is 1 and 2 Esdras which correspond to Ezra and Nehemiah in modern Bibles, two books accepted by all. In the Masoretic text, these two canonical books are a single book, Ezra, and that’s the only Ezra-related book included. However, in the Septuagint, Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book so-called Esdras B. Included in some versions of the Septuagint was also Esdras A which corresponds to the non-canonical (for Protestants and Catholics but canonical for a number of Eastern traditions) book of Esdras A (Septuagint) a.k.a. 3 Esdras (Vulgate) a.k.a. 1 Esdras (Protestant reckoning).So, what did the Fathers at Carthage have in mind when they approved two books of Esdras? If they meant Septuagint Esdras B (good) and Esdras A (bad), then I think we’ve hit a tough spot, considering that the Council of Trent affirmed “the first book of Esdras, and the second which is entitled Nehemias” in Session 4 and not the writing contained in Esdras A. Now, I recognize that the Carthaginian canon 24 isn’t super clear about their point of reference. They could have conceivably had the Vulgate in mind since the council was held in 419 and the Vulgate composed by the end of the fourth century, but Vulgate manuscripts from those early centuries are absent or inconsistent, or so I read, and the OT contents continued to be in flux for a good while after Jerome’s work, finally being closed at Trent. If my “facts” are off, please let me know. Following these funny names down historical rabbit holes sometimes leaves me a little lost.
Is this one of those give ’em the benefit of the doubt situations? It’s tough for me, really, since Trent possibly disagreeing with Carthage/Roman approval has some serious implications. I’d appreciate whatever information you can offer. Thanks a million.
This is a very good question, and took a while to find the answers for. In case you’re ever asked this, or ever wonder it yourself, here’s what I found.
First of all, Hugh Pope, O.P., in The Third Book of Esdras and the Tridentine Canon, Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. VIII (1907), available here, starting at page 218, already answered this. Pope’s basic point is that we know that (a) Jerome rejected Greek Esdras, and that (b) Jerome and Augustine debated the proper status of the Deuterocanon. Yet we never see St. Augustine, the great defender of the Council of Carthage, defending Greek Esdras — this suggests, but doesn’t prove, that he didn’t think it was canonical, either.
That argument is good, but I think there’s a way to bolster it. After all, the question Drew’s raising is essentially: did the Council of Carthage recognize Ezra and Nehemiah as one Book or two? If they thought Ezra and Nehemiah were one Book, then the reference to the “two Books of Ezra” must mean Ezra, Nehemiah, and something else. That’s trouble. But if they thought Ezra and Nehemiah were two Books, then the reference to the “two Books of Ezra” obviously meant these two.
That’s a helpful test, because it makes the answer much clearer. If you look at the way that the early Christians, and particularly those early Christians who used the Greek version, spoke of it, it’s clear that they did, in fact, understand Ezra and Nehemiah to be two separate Books put together.
To take the clearest example, Eusebius, in describing the canon used by Origen, said that it included “Esdras, First and Second in one, Ezra, that is, ‘An assistant.’” From his description, there’s no question that Eusebius is referring to Ezra and Nehemiah, grouped together in what the Septuagint called “Esdras B.” and Origen just called Ezra. And we can tell from his testimony a few important things:
- The two Books were called First and Second Esdras;
- The two Books were sometimes grouped together as one;
- Despite being grouped together, Christians were still aware that they were really two separate Books.
(As an aside, many Jewish and early Christian canons lumped the Twelve Minor Prophets together as one Book, but everyone knew that they had separate authors). Now, Origen lived from about 182-253 A.D., and Eusebius lived from 263-339, both well before the Third Council of Carthage in 397. So it’s not as if this is some development centuries after Carthage. It was common knowledge well before.
To take more examples, Athanasius‘ canon (367 A.D.) notes “Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book.” And Cyril of Jerusalem: “the first and second of Esdras are counted one.” And even the dubious Canon LX of the Council of Laodicea numbers the two Books of Esdras as a single Book.
So I think that there’s a wealth of evidence from prior to the Council of Carthage that the early Christians realized that Ezra and Nehemiah (which they called “First and Second Esdras”) were two separate Books, despite being generally grouped as one. Given that, when Carthage refers to First and Second Esdras, it seems plain that they mean the same thing as Eusebius — those canonical Books we now call Ezra and Nehemiah.
Of course, this conclusion not only comports with the other Patristic evidence, but it avoids the pratfalls of the opposite conclusion, that the Church could create a canon and then somehow just forget about one of the canonical Books without anyone noticing. That conclusion, even if it were grammatically possible based upon the wording of the Council of Carthage, frankly seems unrealistic.