I have been reading stuff on the “canon” of Scripture and I’ve found this to be a fascinating subject. I’ve been surprised about a number of things that I have learned will looking into this subject.
The book that we call the Old Testament is the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus, and the Apostles who followed him, believed in their day that there was a definitive, authoritative body of writings that existed then and they refer to them often. They call these writings by titles like the Law and the prophets, the Law of Moses, the law the prophets and the psalms, and sometimes they refer to them as “the Law” and at other times they referred to them as “the Scriptures.” Jesus also countered His opponents by referring to those same Scriptures by saying “It is written.”
Jesus, His disciples and the other Jews all understood the writings mentioned above to be the authoritative Word of God. These very same Jewish Scriptures became the “Scriptures” and the Bible of the early church. (It took a while before the New Testament was written and compiled so this was the only Bible possessed by the church for a time.)
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew and some in Aramaic. By the time of Christ the common language of the Palestinian Jew’s was Aramaic and not Hebrew. It is also important to remember that in that day there were countless Jews scattered throughout the Middle East. They had been deported from Israel and Judah hundreds of years before by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Many of them settled in far off lands and never returned to the land of Israel. They were what became know as the Diaspora.
By New Testament times many of the Diaspora Jews were Greek speaking. In Alexandria, Egypt there was a large Greek speaking Jewish population and sometime during the middle of the third century BC they began translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. This translation became know as the Septuagint (or LXX), so by Jesus’ day the Scriptures existed in both Hebrew and Greek.
The early Jewish disciple of Jesus brought the Gospel of Christ to a mostly Greek speaking Gentile world. Greek was the common Language of that day, and so it is natural that the Gentile Christians turned to the Scriptures they could read (and it was not Hebrew). The Bible of the early Church was the Septuagint (i.e. Greek) translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
By the time of the early Church there were other writings included in Septuagint that were not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Protestants call these additional writings the Apocrypha and the Roman Catholics call refer to most of them as the Deuterocanonical (second canon) books. There have been differences of opinion about the canonicity of these writings since the earliest days of the Church, and those differences continue even today.
Josephus (37-100 AD) in defending the Jewish faith in the late first century wrote this about the Hebrew Scriptures:
For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them.
In book I of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (series 2) we read the following note on Josephus’s list:
…Josephus is the earliest writer to give us a summary of the books of the Old Testament; and he evidently gives not merely his own private opinion but the commonly accepted canon of his day. He does not name the separate books, but he tells us that they were twenty-two in number (the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet), and gives us the three divisions, so that we are able to ascertain his canon in detail. It was doubtless as follows:-
1-5. Books of Moses.
7. Judges and Ruth.
11. Ezra and Nehemiah.
14. Jeremiah and Lamentations.
17. Twelve Minor Prophets.
22. Song of Songs.
The twenty-two books mentioned by Josephus correspond to the thirty-nine books of our Old Testament. The Jewish Scriptures are arranged differently than our Old Testament. Books, such as I and II Kings, are counted as one book, though we count them as two, and this is true in a number of cases. We number the Minor Prophets separately, but they are all counted as one book in the Jewish version. (Note: See F.F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture for a detailed explanation of how this is.)
The Deutrocanonical/Apocrypha books were disputed in the early Church. Those Christians more closely associated with Palestine tended to have access to the Hebrew Scriptures and so they tended to reject the extra books found in the Septuagint, while the Christians farther away, who were unfamiliar with Palestinian Judaism, were more likely to accept the books as part of the canon.
The earliest known Christian list of Old Testament books is found in Eusebius’ Church history. He quotes a letter written by Melito, bishop of Sardis, in 170 AD. Melito wrote, “Melito to his brother Onesimus, greeting: Since thou hast often, in thy zeal for the word, expressed a wish to have extracts made from the Law and the Prophets concerning the Saviour and concerning our entire faith, and hast also desired to have an accurate statement of the ancient book, as regards their number and their order…”
The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that St. Melito’s list “consists exclusively of the protocanonicals minus Esther.” The protocanonicals (i.e. first canon) are the books of the Old Testament as found in the Protestant Bible. We read this about Melito’s list in book I of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (series 2) “His list really differs from Josephus' only in omitting the Book of Esther. This omission may be accidental, though it is omitted by Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen. He makes no mention of Nehemiah, but that is doubtless included with Ezra, as in the case of Josephus' canon. His canon purports to be the Palestinian one, and hence we should expect it to be the same as that of Josephus, which makes it more probable that the omission of Esther was only accidental.”
Rufinus (345-410) a contemporary of St. Jerome gives us a list of Old Testament books in his commentary on the Creed. He writes “…it seems proper in this place to enumerate, as we have learnt from the tradition of the Fathers, the books of the New and of the Old Testament, which, according to the tradition of our forefathers, are believed to have been inspired by the Holy Ghost, and have been handed down to the Churches of Christ.”
Rufinus then gives us a list of The Old Testament books. Here is his list “Of the Old Testament, therefore, first of all there have been handed down five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Then Jesus Nave, (Joshua the son of Nun), The Book of Judges together with Ruth; then four books of Kings (Reigns), which the Hebrews reckon two; the Book of Omissions, which is entitled the Book of Days (Chronicles), and two books of Ezra (Ezra and Nehemiah), which the Hebrews reckon one, and Esther; of the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; moreover of the twelve (minor) Prophets, one hook; Job also and the Psalms of David, each one book. Solomon gave three books to the Churches, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles. These comprise the books of the Old Testament.”
Rufinus’ list of the Old Testament is that which is found in the Protestant Bible, but he is not finished. He nexts list the books of the new Testament and then says “But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not 'Canonical' but 'Ecclesiastical:' that is to say, Wisdom, called the Wisdom of Solomon, and another Wisdom, called the Wisdom of the Son of Syrach, which last-mentioned the Latins called by the general title Ecclesiasticus, designating not the author of the book, but the character of the writing. To the same class belong the Book of Tobit, and the Book of Judith, and the Books of the Maccabees. In the New Testament the little book which is called the Book of the Pastor of Hermas, [and that] which is called The Two Ways,150 or the Judgment of Peter; all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine.”
Rufinus admits that the church has inherited other books that he says are not part of the canon, and therefore not to be used for determining matters of doctrine. These books, our Apocrypha/deuterocanonical books, he says are useful for edifying believers, but they were not to be used to determine doctrinal disputes.
St. Jerome was a great linguist of his day. He knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He is also the man who gave us the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the Bible, which was the Bible of the Western Church for over a thousand years. Jerome agreed with Rufinus.
In his Preface to the books of Samuel and Kings, Jerome lists the books of the Old Testament, after which he says “This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a 'helmeted' introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which finally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style. Seeing that all this is so…”
St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo was the younger contemporary of Rufinus and Jerome. He is also a hero of the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant Churches, but on the question at in this essay, he took the opposite position of Rufinus and Jerome. Augustine led two local church councils in North Africa where the Apocryphal books were affirmed as canon.
There were great Christian men on both sides of this issue as the Roman World collapsed in the West. As the ancient church moved into the medieval world, Jerome’s position, not Augustine’s, was the view held by most of the church.
It is interesting that even after the Reformation began a number of important, scholarly Roman Catholics maintained the position of men like Melito, Rufinus and Jerome. One such man is Cardinal Ximenes (1436–1517), bishop of Toledo, Spain. He agreed with Jerome on the Apocrypha.
The same is true of Cardinal Cajetan. Cajetan is famous for his opposition to Martin Luther at Augsburg, but on this issue Luther and Cajetan both followed Jerome’s lead. The Cardinal wrote the following words to his commentary on the Old Testament, which was published in 1532. He said “Here we close our commentaries on the historical books of the Old Testament. For the rest (that is, Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees) are counted by St. Jerome out of the canonical books, and are placed amongst the Apocrypha, along with Wisdom and Ecciesiasticus, as is plain from the Protogus Galeatus. Nor be thou disturbed, like a raw scholar, if thou shouldest find anywhere, either in the sacred councils or the sacred doctors, these books reckoned as canonical. For the words as well of councils as of doctors are to be reduced to the correction of Jerome. Now, according to his judgment, in the epistle to the bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, these books (and any other like books in the canon of the Bible) are not canonical, that is, not in the nature of a rule for confirming matters of faith. Yet, they may be called canonical, that is, in the nature of a rule for the edification of the faithful, as being received and authorised in the canon of the Bible for that purpose. By the help of this distinction thou mayest see thy way clearly through that which Augustine says, and what is written in the provincial council of Carthage.”
It is clear the Cardinal agrees with Jerome and he is also trying to erase the differences that exist on this issue between Jerome and Augustine. But the point I want to make is that this leader of the Roman Catholic response to the Lutheran movement did not believe that the writings which we, along with Jerome, refer to as apocrypha were not to be used to decide matters of doctrine.
It is at the Council of Trent that the Roman Catholic Church breaks with her 1500 year position and officially adopts these extra books, and declares them to be canon or deutro-canonical (a second canon). This was, I believe, an over reaction by Rome to the Reformation.
It will surprise many Protestants to learn that the early Protestant translations of the Bible included the Apocrypha. They were in the Lutheran Bible, as well as the Reformed/Puritan Geneva Bible (English) and even the early King James Bibles. The Apocrypha has been removed from Protestant Bibles because of the Protestant over reaction to the Catholic position at the Council of Trent.
I believe that both groups (protestants and Catholics) have fallen into ditches on opposite sides of the road because to of their over reactions to one another on this issue.