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The Canonization of Scripture

I. Which Version of the Old Testament?

Today, it is very common to know the list of Bible books “down pat” among Evangelicals – our kids sing songs in Bible School, etc. Every Bible keeps the books in the same order, and divides the Old Testament nicely into “the Law,” “The Prophets,” and ‘The Writings,” or sometimes, “the Law,” “History,” “Poetry/Writings,” and “Prophets.” However, this neatly tied up little package was not that neat in Apostolic days.

In fact, at that time, the Jews had not yet made a definitive, declaratory statement as to what WAS Scripture, and what was not, and the divisions we take for granted today were very fluid. In fact, Jesus Himself calls the Old Testament divisions “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” in Luke 24:44; then, in John 10:34, Jesus says, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods?,” which, in fact, is a quote from the Psalms, not the “Law” which we usually see as the first five books of Moses. Now, either Jesus is mistaken in His theology (certainly not the position I would take!)or, we have strong evidence that the systematic division and enumeration of the Bible was not ‘set in stone back then as it is today.

The actual books that constituted Scripture were not consistent from place to place among Jews. Even though we think of Jews as speaking Hebrew, and even though the Romans occupied the Mediterranean at this point, the language of the common people – Jews included – was Greek. In fact, archaeologists have uncovered signs from around the Temple area from this era, all written in Greek. Now, there were certain collections of Scripture in Palestine written in Hebrew, and certain sets of manuscripts in Syriac/Aramaic as well. But in the few hundred years before the Incarnation, a group of Greek-speaking Rabbis began a Greek translation of the Old Testament in Alexandra, Egypt. This version is commonly called the Septuagint, or, for short, LXX.

The LXX contained more books than are currently found in Protestant Old Testaments today. They include 1, 2, & 3 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, Wisdom, Esdras, and longer versions of Daniel and Esther. Some scholars believed these to be unique to the Alexandrian Greek-Jewish community, but fragments of all of them have been found in Hebrew and/or Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls, so they had wide, multi-lingual circulation.

In addition to the additional books, the LXX does contain different phrases and words that set it apart from the Hebrew. The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 says “a young woman will conceive,” which is consistent with what follows: Isaiah’s wife conceives. The LXX makes it clear that “a virgin” will conceive, thus setting the stage for the Incarnation and the New Testament era. There are MANY such differences.

Now, here is an important point: The early Church Fathers, and the apostles themselves during the New Testament era, when quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, exclusively quote the LXX version of the text. The most astounding example is in Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, where the apostles must decide whether gentiles must conform to Jewish ritual to become Christians.

In rendering the Councils’s decision, James quotes Amos 9:11-12, and in our New Testament(NIV), it is quoted thus:

“After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. It’s ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name….

However, if you turn to your typical Protestant Old Testament, Amos 9:11-12 reads as follows:

“In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all nations that bear my name…”

Both of these are possible renditions from the transcripts that we have. But the difference is huge: the LXX says that the Gentiles will seek the Lord; the Hebrew version says that “they” [The jews] will possess the gentiles! It would humorous (if it wasn’t so tragic) that most Protestant-version Bibles use the LXX quote in the New Testament, but if you cross-reference back to the Old Testament, they use the Hebrew rendering.

Not only does James quote the LXX – but in every case where the Hebrew and Greek texts differ (85% of the time!), the New Testament writers quote the LXX.

Add to this the fact that the Church Fathers quote ALL of the deuterocanonical books as Scripture (Tobit, Sirach, etc), The Song of the Three Children (in the complete) Book of Daniel, has been used as Morning Prayer in all Liturgical families of Churches for almost 1800 years.

In AD 70, the Jewish Temple was destroyed. The Rabbinical schools that had previously fought with each other in Jerusalem temporarily united at a new Rabbinical school on the coast at Jamnia. In AD 90, they held a Rabbinical Council, specifically to deal with the “problem” of Jewish converts to Christianity. As part of that Council, the Old Testament canon was finally “decided” upon, and is today called the Masoretic Text (except for Esther, whose status remained in controversy after the close of the Council). The Council also specifically forbade the use of the LXX – specifically because it was being used so successfully by the Christian sect in converting Jews.

However, as this was taking place in AD 90, the Church was already using the LXX as their Old Testament, and the Fathers continued to use it, quote it, and incorporate its words into the Liturgy (in fact, Sirach is often called Eccelesiasticus, or “Church Book,” because it is used so extensively in the liturgy). St. Irenaeus (c. 177), St. Justin Martyr (c. 150), and yes, even Jerome – who is often dishonestly misrepresented in the matter – supported the use of the Deutercanonicals and quoted from there in their apologetic arguments.

During the first few hundred years of the Church, the Church had to deal with the same issues as the Jews re: canonization of Scripture. While St. Athanasius drew up a list in 367 AD, and the Roman Pope did the same towards the end of that century, the first Synodal decision was made at the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. At that time, the current list of New Testament books was finalized and the LXX was re-affirmed as the Old Testament of the Church – including the deuterocanonical books, each of which was specifically named. The canons of this Council were specifically adopted by those parts of the Church participating at the 2nd Council of Constantinople; Thus, they remained part of the Church’s Old Testament from the days of Christ right through the Reformation.

Additional proof of the early use of these books can be seen by the fact that the Oriental Orthodox (who were separated from much of the Church before the 2nd Council of Constantinople), and the Indian Churches (who were separated by distance even before then) also consider the complete list of Deutercanonicals as Scripture.

II. New Testament Canonization by Church Councils

While the books we currently consider to be “scripture” were all written in the first century, the fact is that the Church – for 4 centuries – operated without voluminous copies of those scriptures, and without consistency between churches:

From the beginning of the Church to at least 397 AD, the church at Antioch quoted and treated The Didache and 1st Clement as “scripture,” and rejected 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The Church at Alexandria also rejected most of those books, but accepted Jude and also Barnabas.

The earliest existing list, from the late 2nd C (called the Muratorian Canon) leaves out Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter, 3 John, and James, but adds Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter

Compilations from the 4th Century (including the Alexandrinus and Sinaiticus texts) were still including books such as 1 Clement, Barnabas, and Hermas. Eusebius, the renowned 4th Century Church Historian who attended the Council of Nicaea, reported in his History of the Church that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, James, Jude, & Revelation were still all “disputed” books, and he still includes 1 Clement in his list of accepted new testament canon. A harmony of the Gospels called the Diatesseron persisted even as long as the year 500 in Syria.

In 367, St. Athanasius of Alexandria listed all of the current New Testament books in his Paschal Letter, but continued to quote The Didache as authoritative for the Church. Meanwhile, Rome rejected Hebrews, but accepted the Shepherd of Hermas.

Several important conclusions can be drawn from this.

First, *none* of the early Church Fathers or writers referred to a single, uniform set of “Scriptures” as we currently imagine them. The lists were fluid and subject to later Church synods and Councils to standardize them.

Second, the early councils – particularly Nicaea in 325 AD and Constantinople in 381 – developed and articulated important issues such as the nature of the Trinity and the relationship between the Son and the Spirit and the Father – all without a uniform set of New Testament canon. The Nicene Creed – the most universal statement of Christendom accepted even in RC and Protestant circles – was developed by the Bishops of the Church *prior to* the Church’s formal canonization of Scripture.

The first official council that accepted the present New Testament canon was a local synod, the Council of Hippo in 393. The minutes of that council have been lost, but they were read into the record at the Council of Carthage in 397. Canon 24 from that Synod reads as follows:

Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of divine Scriptures. Moreover, the canonical Scriptures are these: [then follows a list of Old Testament books, including all of the deuterocanonical books]. The New Testament: the Gospels, four books; the Acts of the Apostles, one book; the Epistles of Paul, thirteen; of the same to the Hebrews; one Epistle; of Peter, two; of John, apostle, three; of James, one; of Jude, one; the Revelation of John. Concerning the confirmation of this canon, the transmarine (ie, Rome, across the Mediterranean Sea) Church shall be consulted. On the anniversaries of martyrs, their acts shall also be read.

While this is the first record of a formal decision regarding the books of the New Testament canon, it still was a local Synod, and needed to be accepted by the entire Church, which did happen in time. It was not until 692 AD that the Sees of Constantinople and Antioch adopted all of the canons of Carthage within the second canon of what is known by those Sees as the Quinisext Council of Trullo.

This entire process is entirely consistent with the Church’s actions in the Book of Acts, Chapter 15, where a Council of Elders met to decide how to handle gentile converts. After the leaders of that Council came to a unanimous decision, James wrote, It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.. (Acts 15:28)

In other words, the mechanism used by the Holy Spirit to make His will known was through the Council of the Church leaders. This was the understanding of the early Church from the time of James letter to the gentiles all the way until the protestant reformers, a church span of some 1500 years. It is also the mechanism used to canonize scripture: The Holy Spirit descended upon and acted through the Councils to enable the Church to authorize Her Scriptures.

Those who believe in a sola scriptura position are in a hopeless quandary: If one doesn’t trust in the Authority of the Holy Spirit acting through Church Council, then one has no assurance that the Bible contains all the scriptures!

III. Protestant Influences

In attempting to reform the errors that had crept into the Roman Church between 1054 and 1500, the Reformers (especially later Anabaptists and radical reformers) seemed bent on also ridding the Church of most of the teachings that had existed from Apostolic days as well: A clear case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The Deuterocanonicals posed a particular problem for the Protestant Reformers, especially for Calvin and Luther. First, as I previously wrote, 2 Maccabees give a clear instance of Jeremiah and the High Priest Onias, in Heaven, interceding for and praying for the Jews on earth. The “intercession of the saints” was something the reformers specifically wanted to eliminate. Second, Sirach 15:14-15 reads: “When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose [present tense], you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to do his will.” Such a verse would make a good Calvinist uneasy, since the Calvinist and Lutheran schools taught that man had no free will.

Martin Luther wrote extensively about getting rid of the deuterocanonical books, because they were not in the then-current Hebrew Old Testament. However, as earlier explained, the Hebrew Bible was not formalized until 90 AD, AFTER the Church began using the LXX, and the Hebrew-language Jewish version was chosen, by the Rabbis at Jamnia, specifically to STOP the spread of Christianity.

Luther also had other targets, as he also suggested that James, Jude, and Esther be removed (James was entirely too “works-oriented” for his “faith-only” religion). The original King James and the original Geneva Bible KEPT all these books; by the early 1600’s, however, as the reformers were tossing out most of the traditions kept by Rome, they fell by the wayside. American Anglicans consider them good reading for edification according to their 39 Articles of Religion, but not for doctrine; Roman Catholics and the Orthodox generally make no distinction between the deuterocanonicals and other Scripture, following the earliest practices of the Church Fathers.

And so, we have a Protestant Bible that excludes books that were considered by the 1st Century Church Fathers and Apostles as Scripture, quoted by them, used by them, and reaffirmed by them in 397, in favor of a watered-down version that excludes the very Old Testament verses – such as the virginity of Mary – that pointed to the birth of the Church.

Glory to God forever and ever. Amen.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

August 17, 2012