In continuing my search for a principled basis for the Protestant canon of Scripture, I found what looked to be the perfect fit. It’s a talk called “Why 66?,” an hour long presentation by the Evangelical theologian Brian Edwards, which sought to answer, for a Protestant audience:
(I, 6:37). “So what is the evidence for our collection of 66 Books? How certain can we be, that they are the correct Books that make up our Bible, no more and no less?”
Yes! This is exactly what I was looking for. Edwards is seeking to defend the historicity of the Protestant Bible, and protect it against criticisms from both Catholics and modern Biblical critics. Answers in Genesis, the Evangelical, Young-Earth Creation group responsible for the series, normally charges $12.99 for this talk, but they’re hosting it on their site for free. Because the have the video split into four parts, my citations are to part, then minute and second – so the quote above is from 6:37 into the first part.
I’ll save you $13 and an hour of your time by saying that Edwards’ claims are consistently false, and easily debunked. Edwards makes four major arguments that I disagree with, and one that I very much agree with. Today, I want to focus on debunking three of those four arguments: specifically, (1) that we should accept the Protestant Old Testament because it’s the one that the Jewish people always used, (2) that this is the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used, (3) that we should ignore the canon found in the Septuagint, since we have no reason to believe it reflects the actual Scriptures that Jesus and the Apostles quoted from.
Edwards makes two central claims about Jewish acceptance. The first is an argument from history, and the second from theology, and both can be proven incorrect.
Edwards’ first argument is that the Jewish canon was closed very early on, centuries before Christ, and that the Deuterocanon was never considered part of the Jewish Scriptures:
(I, 6:35) “Now the Jews had a clearly defined body of Scripture. This was fixed early in the life of Israel, and there was no doubt about which Books belonged and which didn’t.”
From later context, he seems to date the fixing of the Jewish canon at around 400 B.C., shortly after the Book of Malachi was written. There are several ways of disproving Edwards’ claim here, although he does a pretty good job of it himself later on, when he says this about the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to the first century A.D.:
(II, 0:28) “The collection of scrolls […] actually does not provide scholars with a definitive list of Old Testament Books. There isn’t such a thing. They were using all the Old Testament Books as Scripture, with the exception of Esther, but it doesn’t actually provide us with a list. Even if it did, it wouldn’t necessary tell us what mainstream, orthodox Judaism believed. After all, the Samaritans used only their own version of the Pentateuch, but they didn’t represent mainstream Judaism, and neither did the community at Wadi Qumran.”
|Samaritan High Priest and “Old Pentateuch” (1905)|
Aramaic and Hebrew copies of the Books of Tobit and Sirach have also been found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, also, so it wasn’t simply that the Essenes rejected Esther. It’s that they apparently accepted two of the Books of the Deuterocanon that Edwards claimed was universally rejected. And yet both the Samaritans and the Essenes at Wadi Qumran were from about a half-millennium after Edwards claimed that the canon was fixed.
So how does Edwards deal with these alternative canons? He simply writes off these sects as outside of “mainstream Judaism.” There’s a problem with that answer, because the Sadducees were well within the Jewish mainstream (and are mentioned several times in the New Testament), and accepted only the first five Books of the Bible. For this reason, Jesus used only the Pentateuch when refuting the Sadducees (see, e.g., Matthew 22:23-33).
Nor was this isolated to a few sects. The Septuagint (more on that later) was the Greek version of the Old Testament used by ordinary, Greek-speaking Jews at the time of Christ, and contained the Deuterocanon (more on that later). Furthermore, the Jewish Talmud, considered by mainstream Judaism to be the holiest texts outside of Scripture, quotes Ecclesiasticus 13:15 as Scripture, explicitly describing it as part of the Hagiographa, the third of the three parts of the Jewish canon. That Book, also called Sirach, is part of the Catholic Deuterocanon that was allegedly never accepted by the Jews as Scripture. Yet here it is, being expressly described as Scripture by the Talmud itself.
So the Jewish canon was not, at the time of Christ, a fixed thing that excluded the Deuterocanon. The Jewish Virtual Library’s own article on the subject notes that the majority of scholars believe that the Jewish canon was not completely closed until sometime in the second century A.D. There is plenty of evidence of the gradual acceptance (or rejection) of specific Books: as noted above, there are ancient Jewish texts like the Talmud speaking of Books as part of the canon that are no longer part of the Jewish canon. There are also Books that moved in the other direction, apparently including the Book of Daniel. Daniel is found in the “Writings” section, instead of the more-logical “Prophets” section, likely because the “Prophets” section was closed before the Jewish community determined that Daniel’s writings were Scripture.
The obvious question that all of this raises is: so what? Even if the Jews prior to Christ had only the 44 Books of the Protestant Bible, why is that binding on Christians? After all, both Protestants and Catholics (and all other Christians) believe that the Jews have an incomplete canon. Edwards seems to answer this by suggesting that this Jewish witness shows that the Holy Spirit went quiet for several centuries. In making this argument, he transitions from bad history to bad theology:
(II, 1:40) “So, for the Jews therefore, Scripture as a revelation from God through the prophets ended around 450 B.C., and beyond there, there was (according to them) no voice of the Spirit in the land. The close of the Book of Malachi finished their canon. This was the Bible of Jesus and His Disciples, and it was precisely the same in content as our Old Testament.”
Simeon the Righteous (1830s)
In other words, we can know that the Deuterocanon doesn’t belong, because the Holy Spirit stopped speaking around 450 B.C., with the close of the Book of Malachi. But that argument, taken seriously, wouldn’t just be a reason to reject the Deuterocanon. It would be a reason to reject the entire New Testament. If the Holy Spirit stopped inspiring Scriptures a half-millennium before the Gospels were written, then the Gospels aren’t inspired Scripture.
Earlier, Edwards argued against the Deuterocanon specifically by claiming that:
(I, 11:50) “The Jews clearly ruled them [the Deuterocanonical Books] out, by the confession that throughout that period, the period between Malachi and Matthew, around 400 years, there was no voice of the prophets in the land.”
Of course, Jews don’t make that confession, since they don’t confess Matthew (or any of the New Testament) as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Mainstream Judaism teaches that Scripture stopped in 450 B.C. permanently. Only Protestants hold to a belief in this un-Scriptural notion that there were 500 years of Divine silence.
But let’s directly address the notion that the Spirit went quiet from Malachi to Matthew, anways. There are serious problems with this claim. First, Luke 2:36 refers to the prophetess Anna as being active at the time of the birth of Christ, and she’s already “very old” by the time of His Birth. Second, Jesus explicitly says that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13). So Old Covenant prophesy continues through to John the Baptist, meaning right up until the point that Jesus Christ begins His public ministry (John 3:30; Mark 1:14). All of this is direct refutation of the notion that the voice of the Spirit went quiet in 450 B.C., either permanently, or until the Gospel of Matthew.
Towards the end of the first part of his talk, Edwards directly attacks the Catholic Bible for including the Deuterocanon. He begins his argument like this:
(I, 11:28) “There is a cluster of fourteen Books (the number depends which way you count them and include them, fourteen or fifteen), known as the ‘Apocrypha,’ a word that refers to ‘hidden writings.’ They were written sometime between the close of the Old Testament, around A.D. 400 [sic – he means 400 B.C., presumably], and the beginning of the New. They were never considered part of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. The Jews clearly ruled them out, by the confession that throughout that period, the period between Malachi and Matthew, around 400 years, there was no voice of the prophets in the land. Josephus, the historian, never used them as Scripture. And very significantly, Jesus and the Apostles never quoted – ever – from the Apocrypha. And on that authority alone, we would say they should never be added to the Bible.”
|Bernardo Strozzi, The Healing of Tobit (1635)|
Note the three things that Edwards has done in the first sentence:
- First, he’s grouped the seven Books of the Catholic Deuterocanon into a “cluster of fourteen books” along with several (unnamed) books that aren’t considered canonical by either Catholics or Protestants.
- Second, he’s given all fourteen books (the Catholic seven, and the non-Christian seven) the pejorative title “Apocrypha,” instead of the more accurate (and precise) “Deuterocanon.”
- Third, he’s made sure that his audience knows that Apocrypha is a bad word, with connotations of hidden Gnostic Gospels.
As I said in response to Mark Driscoll (who did the same three things in his argument against the Deuterocanon): “It’s a dangerous and misleading argument. It would be like Catholics grouping the writings of Luther and Calvin in with the writings of Muhammad and Joseph Smith, Jr., and claiming that these writings should be rejected since ‘many of them claim to be post-Biblical revelations.’ That claim, while perhaps technically true, would be wildly misleading, and unfair to Luther and Calvin.”
After starting out in this manner, Edwards then argues against the Deuterocanon on the basis that “They were never considered part of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures,” and that the “Jews clearly ruled them out, by the confession that throughout that period, the period between Malachi and Matthew, around 400 years, there was no voice of the prophets in the land,” both of which claims were shown to be false in the prior section.
But the meat of his argument is in that last sentence, that “Jesus and the Apostles never quoted – ever – from the Apocrypha. And on that authority alone, we would say they should never be added to the Bible.”
This is a genuinely fascinating claim: that Jesus and the Apostles are exercising their authority to reject Books from the Bible simply by not quoting from them directly. Edwards actually claims this as a sort of foundation for Protestant Evangelicals to base their Bibles on:
(I, 12:22) “It should be noted, of course, that the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches do accept some of the Apocrypha as Scripture, because as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, for example, the Book of Maccabees supports the praying for the dead, and it’s rather difficult to find any support for that in the 66 Books of the Bible. So it was necessary to add a few to it. But as far as the Protestant Evangelical is concerned, the authority of Jesus and the Apostles is final. Never once do they quote from the Apocrypha.”
Ignore, for now, the ugly suggestion that Catholics and Orthodox intentionally undermine Jesus and the Apostles, as well as the historically-absurd claim that the Catholic Church added the Deuterocanon to the Catholic Bible (and, apparently, to the Orthodox Bible) in order to justify praying for the dead.
|Eastern Orthodox Icon of the Prophet Nehemiah|
For now, focus solely on his final boast: that, for Protestant Evangelicals, a Book that isn’t quoted by Jesus or the Apostles cannot be accepted, without usurping the final authority of Jesus and the Apostles. Is this true? Not even remotely: “Of Old Testament books quoted in the New Testament, it is generally agreed that Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are not explicitly cited. To this list some would add Lamentations, others Chronicles.” In fact, you could arguably add Joshua, Judges, 2 Kings, Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah to the list as well. Yet every one of these Books is in the Protestant Bible, nonetheless. Edwards is claiming as “the authority of Jesus and the Apostles” a standard that neither he nor his Evangelical brethren are living up to.
That is bad enough. What’s worse is that Edwards actually seems to be aware of this. When considering the Protestant Old Testament, he subtly lowers the bar, to include Books that are alluded to, but never quoted, saying that there are “literally hundreds of direct quotations or clear allusions to Old Testament passages by Jesus and the Apostles, it’s evident what the early Christians thought about the Hebrew Scriptures” (II, 2:31). Why does that matter? Because the Deuterocanon can meet this lower standard (see, e.g., Hebrews 11:35-37, which alludes to 2 Maccabees 7).
In other words, Edwards is applying one standard for those Books that he accepts, and a much stricter standard for those he rejects, the sort of hypocritical special pleading I’ve criticized before. I suppose it is worth mentioning that Edwards is making up both standards, and then accusing Catholics and Orthodox of not considering “the authority of Jesus and the Apostles” to be “final” when our Bibles (like his) don’t meet the higher of his two made-up standards.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of the canonicity of the Deuterocanon is that it’s included as Scripture in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament used by the overwhelming majority of Jews (up to and through the time of Christ) and Christians (from the time of Christ onwards). Most significantly, Jesus and the Apostles repeatedly quote from this canon, and certain prophesies only work if the Septuagint translation is correct.
Here’s how Edwards treats that inconvenient reality:
(I, 12:54) “The Old Testament had been translated into Greek around the third century B.C., around 250 B.C. The translation is known as the Septuagint, a word meaning ‘seventy,’ after the supposedly seventy men involved in the translation. Now, since Greek was the common language of the day, it was the Greek Septuagint that the Apostles and Jesus frequently used in their New Testament letters. Whether or not the Septuagint also contained the Apocrypha is impossible to say for certain. But if it did, and I say that because the earliest Septuagints we have are fifth century A.D., they do contain the Apocrypha, but that doesn’t tell us what they started out with in the year 250 B.C. But even if it did, it’s all the more significant that Jesus and the Apostles never quoted from the Apocrypha, though they quote from the Old Testament literally hundreds of time.”
At the 13:24 mark, as he says “Whether or not the Septuagint also contained the Apocrypha is impossible to say for certain,” he puts up a slide going even further, saying that the Septuagint “Probably did not include Apocrypha.” And he claims all this while admitting that the earliest existent copies (in fact, every known copy) of the Septuagint all contain Deuterocanonical Books.
His whole argument turns on the passage of time: that since the copies of the Septuagint we have are from the fifth century, the Deuterocanon must have been added somewhere along the way. No further reason is given. What’s amusing about this is that later in the talk, Edwards mocks liberal Biblical scholars for making this exact argument:
Dead Sea Great Isaiah Scroll, Isaiah 53(IV, 0:28) “Now, you’ve often heard it assumed that, since our earliest existing manuscripts are dated hundreds of years after the original autographs were written, there must be thousands of mistakes. Now before I close, I want to check that one out, and add a few little bits as a post-script. It’s not directly concerned with the canon, but it’s of interest.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered from 1947, Cave 1 contained a well preserved copy of the entire prophesy of Isaiah. It was dated around 150 B.C. That makes it almost 1000 years older than our oldest copy up until then. Plenty of time for all these thousands of errors to creep in, right? In fact, there is a remarkable agreement between the Dead Sea Isaiah and the earliest copy there, called the Masoretic Scrolls, the Masoretic Text. And bear in mind that the Dead Sea community were not professional scribes, they were writing in their own dialect of Hebrew, so most of the differences between them were matters of pronouns, numbers, or spelling. […] The Dead Sea Scrolls, far from showing a mass of copyist errors, actually show how accurate the copyists were.”
(IV, 3:35) “Did you know that the earliest complete text of Josephus’ Antiquities are 1,300 years after his death?”
So Josephus’ writings (which weren’t considered inspired) can be preserved whole and intact for 1300 years without fear of error, and the Book and Isaiah can be preserved (even by amateur copyists) for 1000 years, yet we’re supposed to believe that the Septuagint (considered at the time to be both inspired Scripture and a divinely-inspired translation), somehow picked up entire Books over the span of a few centuries?
|The Codex Sinaiticus, Matthew 6:32-7:27|
Once again, Edwards is engaging in special pleading: a reasonable standard for Books he likes, and a ridiculous standard for Books he doesn’t. Perhaps nowhere is this special pleading clearer than when he talks about the Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the Septuagint:
(IV, 4:40) “By contrast to the less than handful of texts of early Greek texts for Josephus, Caesar, and Tacitus, we have around 5,500 Greek texts including full texts, collections, sections, and small fragments to help us put our New Testament together.
The best known and most complete is the Codex Sinaiticus. Written in Greek capitals, it’s the earliest complete copy of the New Testament in a bound Book so far discovered. […] It’s dated around the middle of the fourth century A.D. It was discovered in 1859 at a monastery on Mount Sinai, hence its name. It originally contained the whole Old Testament plus six Books of the Apocrypha, although parts have been destroyed with age.”
He’s trying to simultaneously use the Codex Sinaiticus as proof of what the early Christians held as canonical of the New Testament, while simply waving away the implications for what this says about the early Christian Old Testament (since the Codex includes a substantial portion of the Deuterocanon).
That’s enough for today, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll address the final of the four bad arguments Edwards raises: that none of the Early Church Fathers quote from the Deuterocanon as Scripture. Then I’ll turn towards the one argument on which we most certainly agree, and show why that supports the Catholic canon of Scripture, rather than the Protestant one. Tune in tomorrow to see what that argument is, and why it supports the Catholic position.