Yesterday, I argued that you cannot derive an accurate Old or New Testament canon from simply following the sources used by New Testament authors. They quote approvingly of Enoch and Epimenides, while failing to mention Esther, yet of the three, only Esther is considered inspired. But there’s a reason that the New Testament isn’t a reliable way of determining the canon of Scripture. It was never intended to do so. And through this, if we pay attention, we can discern what God’s telling us.
In broad terms, at the time of Christ and the New Testament, there were three schools of thought within Judaism about which Books were the inspired word of God:
- The Sadducees taught only the Torah, the first five Books, were Scripture.
- The Pharisees taught that the entire Hebrew TNKH was Scripture. This is the same canon used by modern Protestants.
- The Hellenistic Jews held an even larger canon, the LXX. This is the basis for the Catholic canon. (Other Greek versions of the Old Testament included additional sections which the Catholic Church rejects, like Psalm 151, but which the Orthodox Church considers canonical).
There were a few times in Scripture where Jesus squarely confronted the issue of the canon, and He seems to have gone out of His way to avoid answering them. For example, in Matthew 22:23-33, we hear:
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
So we know that the reason that the Sadducees don’t believe in bodily resurrection is because they have an incomplete canon. There’s an easy answer to this question:
- Sadducees, you have the wrong canon. The Pharisees and Hellenists are right in believing in other Books, which you reject.
- If you listened to those other Books, you ‘d know that there was a bodily resurrection: just look at Daniel 12:1-3, and 1 Samuel 28, and Psalm 16:9-10, etc.
And Jesus almost seems to say this, by telling them they don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God. But then He surprises us. The Scripture He quotes is Exodus 3:6 — that is, it’s from the Scriptures that the Sadducees already believe in. This verse, He shows us, implies that the souls of the faithful departed are not annihilated, but live on. In other words, when Jesus says “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God,” He’s not telling them that their canon is wrong, but their understanding of the canon that they have.
Now, this incident, left alone, might lead us to think that Jesus agreed with the Sadducees’ canon of Scripture — that the Torah alone was inspired. After all, He could have pointed to passages outside the Torah which were much more obviously pro-resurrection. But He chose Exodus, instead, to make His case. But then He goes to the Pharisees, and does something similar.
B. Jesus and the Pharisees
When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.
Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”
One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
In the Pharisees’ canon (as in the Protestant canon today), the murder of Abel was the first murder, and the murder of Zechariah was the last, if you read the full Testament front to back. Zechariah’s is not the last murder in either the Sadducees’ or Hellenists’ canon. In other words, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees using the Pharisee Bible, just as He condemned the Sadducees using the Sadducee Bible.
C. What Should We Make of This?
It seems to me that Jesus’ point is that it’s less important how many Books you have, but how faithful you are to them. That is, the word of God, Scripture, is useful only if it points us to the Word of God, Jesus. The Catholic Church teaches this, as well: “sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2)” (Dei Verbum 7). If we’re not seeing God through the mirror, the mirror is worthless. Likewise, if we’re not following Christ, proclaiming our alleged fidelity to the Gospel does us as much good as it did the Pharisees to proclaim their alleged fidelity to the Mosaic Law.
Look at the way that the early Christian authors were able to prove all of the major doctrines from the first five Books of the Bible alone. In fact, just look at Genesis:
- Genesis 1-2 teaches the Sabbath, and original sin, and the complementarity of man and woman, and the proper role of sex in marriage, and the unitive nature of sex.
- Genesis 1:26 already shows us a God who is One, but who also describes Himself as “We,” because He is Trinity.
- Genesis 3:15 prophesied Christ, the Seed, and His Virgin Mother, the Woman.
- Genesis 15:6 teaches justification by faith (as Romans 4 makes explicit).
- Genesis 22 teaches the role of works in maintaining justification (as James 2:21-23 tells us).
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course. And just one Old Testament Book. How wonderful it would have been to be with Christ on the road to Emmaus, when Jesus showed once for all that every Old Testament Scripture was Christological (Luke 24:27).
If you’ve ever wondered why the New Testament writers relied so heavily on the Pharisees’ canon, instead of the broader Hellenistic canon, you have your answer here: they weren’t trying to settle the debate on the canon, but show their Jewish peers how Christ is contained within every word of the canon that they already acknowledged.
All that said, it’s easier to see God if you have a bigger mirror, so to speak. The resurrection of the dead was in the Torah, but so subtly that the Sadducees missed it. To those Jews blessed with the Book of Daniel, it was plainly clear. The Incarnation of Christ is implicit in Genesis 3:15, but it’s explicit in the New Testament. Having the fullness of Scripture is helpful, since it gives us more tools, even if it’s possible to get by with fewer.
Fortunately, we’re graced to have the New Testament Scriptures implicitly answering the canonical question. In Acts 17:11, we hear:
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Berea, as you may know, is solidly Greek, not far from Thessalonica:
You don’t get more Hellenistic than the middle of Greece. There’s virtually no question that the canon used by the Bereans was the Greek canon — the same Old Testament canon used by Catholics, and rejected by Protestants. And how does Scripture treat that canon? Calling it “the Scriptures,” and praising the Bereans for reading it.
So the Catholic canon is the right one. But Acts 17:11 also serves as a warning for us Catholics. The Thessalonians also had a complete Catholic Old Testament… but didn’t read it. God has blessed Catholics with a broader Scriptural toolkit, so to speak. But all too often, our Protestant brothers and sisters draw so much more out of their limited canon than we do out of our fuller one. There’s a joke that, in their Bibles, Catholics have seven more Books that they don’t read. Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a lot of truth to that grim joke. We should strive to be like the Bereans, using our innumerable gifts to their best advantage.