A defense of the Protestant position on the Apocrypha


As a Protestant I have been asked by several Catholics upon what basis can Protestants reject the Apocrypha from the Canon of Scripture. A Catholic will probably find what follows unconvincing because the presuppositions upon which such judgments are made are different for one already committed to the authoritative words of other men. That is, if truth is what the current hierarchy says it is; something presented to the contrary will not have much sway. In at least the particular case of the Apocrypha, this observation applies to Eastern Orthodox as well as for those in the Roman Church even though they perceive all of their judgments on such matters are rooted in the common belief of the Christian church throughout all time. I will show in what follows that even in their case they are mistaken and even the judgment of history is, if not clearly against them (which I think it is), certainly split. That said, if someone would like to understand the strength of the Protestant position, I’ve endeavored to make this essay a good place to start (though there is certainly much more available than what I will be presenting here).

Also, many converts to Catholicism from Protestantism (perhaps doing a short stay in Purgatory, also known as Anglicanism 😉 ) do so as a result of the arguments of Catholic apologists which go unanswered by their own churches. I hope this essay (as well as others that I intend to publish here) will go some way to aiding in providing answers for these people. While they are probably sincere in their searches, as the Catholic apologists are sincere in there efforts; they are in fact, sincerely wrong. I owe an incredible debt to the great work and priceless gift to the church in the writings of William Webster and Dr. David King for much of what follows. While I think they have a tendency to occasionally overstate their case in their enthusiasm to set the record straight, their contribution to the defense of the Protestant case is the most remarkable I have seen (though my sight is clearly limited), as can be attested to by the amount of ink (electronic and otherwise) they’ve forced the Catholic apologetic community to utilize. They are engaged in a very worthwhile struggle and I pray for their continued ministries.

In what follows, I will show upon what basis the Old Testament Canon should be circumscribed. I will show that the results of the circumscription exclude the Apocrypha from the Canon. I will show that the early church, more frequently than not, used the very same reasoning, and in both the east and the west novelty was introduced during the post Reformation period. Also, that modern Catholic apologists ‘refutation’ of these arguments by quoting some of these very same Fathers use of the apocrypha in their writings is spurious.

Please keep in mind several things while reading what follows. I have many quotes in what follows from the Church Fathers. These quotes are cited for two different reasons neither of which includes the use of the Fathers as final authorities; I do not rest any point with “thus it is written” or “because the Fathers have said.” I need to make this point clear to both Protestants and Catholics. I once had an argument with a Protestant about a particular practice of the Presbyterian church. I went to the Didache to make my point, at which point I was told that I was going outside of scripture to validate the practice we were discussing. In fact, I was using the Didache not as an authority to establish the practice, but as a witness to what took place in the earliest churches. In one sense I cite the Fathers as eye witnesses to history.

Also, since many Catholics do interpret the Fathers authoritatively, I will cite them as authoritative witnesses against the Catholic position. In those cases it is exactly analogous to quoting the Muslim Hadith to point out that they are being inconsistent with their stated authority; it is not that I find any authority in the Hadith. Since the Fathers are to the Catholic, exactly what the Hadith is to certain Islamic sects, I cite the Fathers in exactly that sense explained.

What is the Canon?

What exactly is the Canon? Skipping the droll etymology, the word canon simply means a rule, a standard, a limit or a norm – an established ethical principle; a rule, a prescription. There are many writings that are normative in my own church: The Scripture, The Westminster Confession of the Faith; The writings of John Calvin; The writings of the Church Fathers and the Fathers of the Reformation. There are many senses in which the word can be used. It can also mean a list. In the case of the Canon of Scripture then, it would seem to retain both meaning. Some Eastern Orthodox will say that the Canon is defined by what can be read from in the Liturgy (the closed list of normative literature, perhaps). Then, in this sense of the term, the writings mentioned above would be considered canonical in my church since Reformed pastors will often refer to them in the sermon (which, of course, is the equivalent of the homily in a Catholic Liturgy – at least to the extent that such is considered part of the Liturgy).

In fact, however, when a Protestant refers to The Canon, or The Canon of Scripture, he is referring to “The Norm of Norms;” specifically that list of writings which circumscribe infallible and inspired Scripture; God-breathed revelation; adequate for instruction, reproof, and the establishment and defense of doctrine. There is a sense in which the word Canon is used by the early church which is identical to his understanding, and another sense in which it is used for writings that are “profitable to be read,” or simply “normative.” Many early church writers explicitly make this distinction by qualifying the term Canon. Rufinus, following Jerome, for example says (all emphasis is mine):

“… the Apostle says, ‘All Scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable for instruction.’ And therefore it seems proper in this place to enumerate, as we have learnt from the tradition of the Fathers, the books 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. [… he then enumerates the Protestant old testament …] These comprise the books of the Old Testament. […] These are the books which the Fathers have comprised within the Canon, and from which they would have us deduce the proofs of our faith.

But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not "Canonical" but "Ecclesiastical:" that is to say, [ … he then lists much of what constitutes the Apocrypha …] all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine. […]” Rufinus – A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.

Rufinus makes a distinction between the Canon proper, and what other fathers call the “Ecclesiastical Canon” (though this term does mean something else to modern Catholics). This distinction is made in other Fathers like Jerome (in many many places), and Athanasius. Since the east has a particular affinity for Athanasius, and since he has even been quoted in support of a Catholic view of the Apocrypha (though I was then, and am now, astonished that anyone that reads Athanasius on the point could even consider doing so) I quote him here:

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. [ … he lists largely the Protestant Old Testament Canon …] […] These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. [ … listing the Apocrypha …] But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read. Athanasius – Paschal letter 39.

Though I cite this to establish the fact that there were various senses of the word Canon (and likewise ‘scripture‘), and though I will deal with the specifics below, it must be pointed out that in Athanasius’ list Esther is consigned to the later category (differing from many other Fathers like Jerome, Cyril, and John of Damascus) and the apocryphal additions to Jeremiah are assumed to be part of the one book of Jeremiah preserved by the Jews and surrendered to the church at the time of Christ. It can readily be assumed that he also included the apocryphal additions to Daniel. It is interesting that every reference by Athanasius to the apocrypha where he assumes they are definitively authoritative comes from only this portion of the apocrypha in all places but his very earliest writings (see the “Spurious Responses” section for a more detailed explanation of Athanasius). His list explicitly excludes virtually all of the books accepted by both the east and west today which the Protestants reject as canonical in relegating them to a sub-canonical status.

Therefore in Athanasius again we see a distinction between what is Canon proper, and what is ecclesiastical canon (canon in the sense that it can be considered normative, and read in the churches – though, interestingly, according to Athanasius, for “those who newly join us.”). Catholics that insist the proper use of the word canon is that which is synonymous with what the Fathers call the ecclesiastical books are failing to make a distinction made by virtually all of the Fathers that dealt with the issue. Defining canon in this sense leaves the concept of Canon Proper; that is, the infallible God-breathed revelation for instruction and reproof in doctrine, often specifically defined by these Fathers, without a referent.

To make the point from modern Catholic sources:

St. Jerome distinguished between canonical books and ecclesiastical books. The latter he judged were circulated by the Church as good spiritual reading but were not recognized as authoritative Scripture. (New Catholic Encyclopedia – The Canon – from various places on the web: The Canon).

For the rest of this post, unless otherwise noted, the term canon will be used as canon proper. I say this now to try to head off equivocation on the part of critics of this essay. This perspective can be summed up in the words of J.N.D. Kelly:

The view which now commanded itself fairly generally in the Eastern church, as represented by Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus and Epiphanius was that the deutero-canonical books should be relegated to a subordinate position outside of the canon proper. J.N.D. Kelly – Early Christian Doctrine

Many Catholic apologists will claim that this bifurcation clouds the issue since many of these same Fathers can be shown to quote the Apocrypha authoritatively and even for the establishment of doctrine. Usually it is they who cloud the issue by allowing the Fathers to contradict themselves rather than understand these quotes in the context of the above distinctions but in any case these details will be dealt with in a later section.

Bounds of the Old Testament Canon

Whether the church determined (in some sense usually not specified by Catholic apologists) the Scripture or whether the reverse (again, in some sense not specified) is the case, is a question for an another essay (which I may write at some point in the future). Personally, I like the way F.F. Bruce puts it:

The Christian church started its existence with a book, but it was not to the book that it owed its existence. […] the Church owed it’s distinctive existence to a person. F.F. Bruce – The Canon Of Scripture, pg 27

For now, it should be enough to show that the principal upon which the Early Church itself often circumscribed the Old Testament was to look back to what was delivered to them by the Hebrew community. Let me proceed by saying explicitly, the Old Testament was delivered to the Church by the care and keeping of the people of God of the pre-Christian era, that is, Israel. Paul says of Israel:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. – Rom 3:1,2

There are two steps in this section’s defense of the Protestant position. One is to show that the bounds of this scripture is exactly coincident with the Protestant Old Testament. This being accomplished, however, does not take us all the way. The Catholic response will undoubtedly be that the extent of the scripture, once delivered to the church could be rightly extended, since the Jews abrogated their ownership of the scriptures. Therefore, just as the church added the New Testament to the scriptures, the Old Testament content was rightly expanded by the church to include other authoritative writings (or so argues the Catholic). This section will address both of these issues.

The content and extent of the ‘scriptures’ of Jesus

To answer the first question as to exactly what writings constitute the Canon we need to identify, through the witness of history, the content of these ‘oracles of God.’ It is the contention of the Protestant church that the exact content of these oracles was known prior to the Christian era. Again, as F. F. Bruce puts it:

Our Lord and his apostles might differ from the religious leaders of Israel about the meaning of the scriptures; there is no suggestion that they differed about the limits of the scriptures. ‘The scriptures’ on whose meaning they differed were not an amorphous collection: when they spoke of ‘the scriptures’ they knew which writings they had in mind and could distinguish them from other writings which were not included in ‘the scriptures.’ F. F. Bruce – The Canon Of Scripture, pg 28, 29

The scripture Jesus knew was in three divisions. These divisions are: the Law, the Prophets, and the ‘Writings.’ (The ‘Writings’ was also referred to collectively by it’s largest and most prominent writing, the ‘Psalms’). This three fold division was firmly in place prior to the advent of Christ. As but one ancient witness to this, examine the prologue to the Greek translation of Ecclesiasticus, a writing in the Apocrypha itself, the translation being written about 130 B.C. by the grandson of the original author says:

Whereas many and great things have been delivered unto us by the law and the prophets, and by others that have followed their steps, for the which things Israel ought to be commended for learning and wisdom: and whereof not only the readers must needs become skillful themselves, but also they that desire to learn to be able profit them which are without, both by speaking and by writing: my grandfather Jesus, when he had much given himself to the reading of the law, and the prophets, and other books of our fathers, and had gotten therein good judgment, was drawn on also himself to write something pertaining to learning and wisdom; to the intent that those which are desirous to learn, and are addicted to these things, might profit much more in living according to the law. Wherefore let me entreat you to read it with favour and attention, and to pardon us, wherein we may seem to come short of some words, which we have laboured to interpret; for the same things uttered in Hebrew, and translated into another tongue, have not the same force in them. And not only these things, but the law itself, and the prophets, and the rest of the books, have no small difference, when they are spoken in their own language.

Note also that the author of the above prologue claims that the writer of Ecclesiasticus puts his own work on a lower rank than the law, the prophets, and the other writings and certainly places it in a different category all together.

Jesus himself refers to the three fold division:

These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Luke 24:44

The “illustrious and prolific” first century Alexandrian Jew, Philo provides more evidence that attests to the fact of both this early three fold division as will as the ‘Writings’ being referred to by the Psalms:

“the laws, inspired oracles given to the prophets, hymns (psalms – addition mine) and the other books” – Philo quoted from F. F. Bruce – The Canon of Scripture.

What is the evidence of the constitution of these divisions? We have already seen that the writer of Ecclesiasticus (or at least his grandson as translator) did not consider his writings part of any of these three divisions and I endeavor here to build a larger case. The Babylonian Talmud specifies:

Our Rabbis taught: the order of the Prophets is, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, the twelve Minor Prophets…[Our Rabbis taught:] The order of the Hagiographa (the writings) is Ruth, the book of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentation, Daniel and the scroll of Esther, Ezra and Chronicles – Baba Bathra 14

On this passage William Webster quotes Lee McDonald::

Although preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, this passage is generally understood as a baraita, that is, a tradition from the tannaitic period, 70 CE-200 CE….It is a very important reference because it clearly identifies the writings that make up the twenty-four book collection of sacred writings for the Jews and assumes a threefold division of the biblical canon. – Lee M. McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon – “ quoted from William Webster

This passage is evidence of how early the standard Hebrew ordering of the books of the Old Testament was established and sheds light on this saying of Jesus from scripture:

“so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” – Matthew 23:35

The liberal will point to this as a mistake by Jesus for from … Abel … to Zechariah does not cover chronologically all of the martyrs of the old testament. However, it is the first and last martyr mentioned in scripture according to the traditional ordering of the books. With the traditional order of the canon established in first century Judaism, it is as if Jesus is saying “so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the first of Genesis to the last of Chronicles.” Or perhaps as we might say as Christians today, “Genesis to Revelation.” This provides a definitive bound on the three fold Old Testament, from Genesis to Chronicles.

Did the Jewish Alexandrian canon that differ from a Palestinian canon?

The common Catholic complaint is that while the Palestinian Jews recognized a canon circumscribed to the Protestant Old Testament, the Alexandrian Jewish canon was wider. Hence the Greek Septuagint from Alexandria contained the Apocrypha (as canonical) while the Hebrew scriptures did not. However, what most of these apologists fail to mention is that the REASON that it is supposed that the Alexandrian Jews had a wider canon is BECAUSE of the Apocryphal additions included in the Septuagint. BUT the oldest extant Septuagint manuscripts are not of Jewish origin, but actually from the 4th and 5th century church (which clearly accorded ecclesiastical sanction, if not canonical status, as previously noted, to these writings). The question remains, did the Alexandrian Jews maintain a wider canon and did the Septuagint maintained by the Jewish community to the time of Christ include the Apocrypha?

In their attempt to blunt even the affect of a narrower Palestinian canon, various Catholic apologists insist that the Septuagint was used by both the Palestinian Jews as well as the Alexandrian Jews, and therefore the entire Jewish community used the wider canon. That is, until the Jewish council of Jamina in 90 AD rejected the authority of these books. But by this point, the argument goes, the church was already the bearer of the ‘oracles of God.’ However, if the earliest Septuagint didn’t include the Apocryphal writings, then it immediately follows that all of the arguments for the Alexandrian communities acceptance of these writings are spurious. And likewise, then admitting the use of the Septuagint in Palestine (which was certainly known and quoted from by the time the books of the New Testament were being written, even if they were not used in the synagogue by Jesus), harms rather than helps the Catholic cause. Here I offer two pieces of evidence that show that the Alexandrian Jews did not include the Apocrypha in the Septuagint.

On the Alexandrian Jew Philo, F.F. Bruce says:

Philo of Alexandria (c 20 BC-AD 50) evidently knew the scriptures in the Greek version only. He was an illustrious representative of Alexandrian Judaism, and if Alexandrian Judaism did indeed recognize a more comprehensive canon than Palestinian Judaism, one might have expected to find some trace of this in Philo’s voluminous writings. But in fact, while Philo has not given us a formal statement on the limits of the canon such as we have in Josephus, the books which he acknowledged as holy scripture were quite certainly books included in the traditional Hebrew Bible. He indicates that special veneration is paid to ‘the laws, inspired oracles given to the prophets, hymns (psalms – addition mine) and the other books […]’ […] He shows no sign of accepting the authority of any of the books which we know as the Apocrypha – F. F. Bruce – The Canon of Scripture, pg 46.

Granted, this alone is not conclusive since the absence of evidence does not constitute proof of absence. It is, however, incremental and inductive evidence in support of the protestant position. That said, let’s move on to a more ‘authoritative’ voice of Cyril:

[…] earn also diligently, and from the Church, what are the books of the Old Testament, […]. And, pray, read none of the apocryphal writings: for why dose thou, who knowest not those which are acknowledged among all, trouble thyself in vain about those which are disputed? Read the Divine Scriptures, the twenty- two books of the Old Testament, these that have been translated by the Seventy-two Interpreters (i.e. The Septuagint).

[…] Of these read the two and twenty books, but have nothing to do with the apocryphal writings. Study earnestly these only which we read openly in the Church. Far wiser and more pious than thyself were the Apostles, and the bishops of old time, the presidents of the Church who handed down these books. Being therefore a child of the Church, trench thou not upon its statutes. And of the Old Testament, as we have said, study the two and twenty books, which, if thou art desirous of learning, strive to remember by name, as I recite them. For of the Law the books of Moses are the first five, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And next, Joshua the son of Nave, and the book of Judges, including Ruth, counted as seventh. And of the other historical books, the first and second books of the Kings are among the Hebrews one book; also the third and fourth one book. And in like manner, the first and second of Chronicles are with them one book; and the first and second of Esdras are counted one. Esther is the twelfth book; and these are the Historical writings. But those which are written in verses are five, Job, and the book of Psalms, and Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, which is the seventeenth book. And after these come the five Prophetic books: of the Twelve Prophets one book, of Isaiah one, of Jeremiah one, including Baruch and Lamentations and the Epistle; then Ezekiel, and the Book of Daniel, the twenty-second of the Old Testament.

Here we have a church Father, by all counts, specifically stating what was originally translated into the Septuagint. There is a repeated emphasis in both the fathers and the first century Jews on twenty-two books which; one for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Though some fathers split them up slightly differently (Athanasius divides Ruth from Judges and excludes Esther) – there is precedent in Jewish literature for this enumeration, though traditional Jewish sources, which split Ruth from Judges and Lamentations from Jeremiah, have the number at twenty

Therefore, if anything the evidence is against the Septuagint containing a wider canon than was recognized in Palestine and, according to the early church witness, if it contained anything of the Apocrypha, it was Baruch and the letter of Jeremiah alone. Not only is there no evidence that a different canon was was promulgated by the Alexandrian Jews, there is no evidence that ANY canon was promulgated from the Alexandrian Jews who, in all likelihood, followed the lead of the Palestinian Jews (for that is where the temple and the high priest were).

Josephus, a first century Palestinian Jew who’s works clearly quote from the Septuagint, indicated the content of the and definition of the canonical books of the Jewish community while comparing the Jewish historical records to that of the Greeks as follows:

We have not myriads of books, disagreeing and conflicting with one another, but only twenty-two containing the record of all time and justly accredited.

Of these, five are the books of Moses, containing the laws and the history handed down from the creation of the human race right to his own death. This period falls a little short of three thousand years. From the death of Moses to the time of Artaxerxes, who was king of Persia after Xerxes, the prophets who followed Moses have written down in thirteen books the things that were done in their days. The remaining four books contain hymns to God and principles of life for human beings.

From Artaxerxes to our own time a detailed record has been made, but this has not been thought worthy of equal credit with the earlier records because there has not been since then the exact succession of prophets.

To recap, Josephus, the Palestinian Jew, who’s primary scripture was the Septuagint, provides the count of the number of books and categorizes them by their content, but also brackets their legitimate chronology, then explicitly precludes by this chronology the majority of the Apocrypha (see the emphasized section of the above quote). He is not quoting a recent decision but clearly a long standing tradition of his people; that these particular books, specifically excluding the Apocrypha, have been esteemed by his people to “contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them.” (- which the church preserved version of Josephus includes in this context – though I am skeptical of the purity of this MSS) F.F. Bruce says of his numbering:

When Josephus speaks of twenty-two books, he probably refers to exactly the same documents as the twenty-four of the traditional Jewish reckoning, Ruth being counted as an appendix to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah.

To this point I have shown that the Jewish Canon inherited by the first century church did not include the apocrypha. This has been done with Jewish sources, New Testament scriptural source, early church sources, and direct statements of the Apocrypha itself. There are many many mores quotes that can make this point even more firm from Jewish, extra-biblical (pseudepigraphal, e.g. 4 Ezra), and early church sources. If someone were to tell me that the above is not enough I may entertain expanding this section. As it is, I’ll let it stand until I feel it needs to draw from the plethora of resources in support of this position. It’s time to move to the second step in this defense.

The principal of defining the Old Testament as that preserved by the Jewish community

“So what?” the Catholic interlocutor may respond. “What if the first century Hebrew Bible inherited by the church didn’t contain the Apocrypha? Do you intend to preclude the New Testament itself on such a basis? If the church can add the New Testament to the ‘oracles of God’ then why not the deutero-canonical books?” This line of argumentation has several serious problems. The largest one being that the ‘church’ did not, by fiat, add anything to the oracles of God, but God added special revelation and the church recognized it for what it was. I do not intent to defend that statement here, though it is eminently defendable and will be defended if I get around to writing the aforementioned additional essay. For the time being however it would be consistent with the Catholic (mis-)use of Vincents dictum were I to simply show that at least some of the Fathers themselves often held to the principal so stated; that the Old Testament is circumscribed by the oracles of God handed down by the Jews to the Church. Also, it should be enough to show (as I have provided several examples already) that many did not hold much of the apocrypha on the same level with divine Holy Scripture.

There is no doubt that under the influence of the early church, various apocryphal writings were appended to the writings circulated among the churches. As previously noted, as the church spread from Palestine the scripture it read was the Greek Septuagint. This Septuagint contained the Apocrypha and even though many early writers (Athanasius, Melito of Sardis, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Rufinus, etc.) testify to the fact that these additional writings were recommended as inspirational reading, but not as inspired writing, it should be noted that copies of the Septuagint contained these writings side by side without distinction as to which books were part of the Hebrew canon and which were not. With the binding of scripture into a codex (a new invention in the Church) in such a way that the books of the Hebrew canon were alongside of the books that were simply recommended for reading and edification, it is no surprise that the distinction would be lost as you move farther in both times and space from the Hebrew source. It is for this reason that the further you get from Palestine, the more likely you are to find the acceptance of the Apocryphal books.

… it now became possible for canonical and Apocryphal books to be brought into close physical juxtaposition. Books which heretofore had never been regarded by the Jews as having any more than a certain edifying significance were now placed by Christian scribes in one codex side by side with the acknowledged books of the Hebrew canon. Thus it would happen that what was first a matter of convenience in making such books of secondary status available among Christians became a factor in giving the impression that all of the books within such a codex were to be regarded as authoritative. Furthermore, as the number of Gentile Christians grew, almost none of whom had exact knowledge of the extent of the original Hebrew canon, it became more and more natural for quotations to be made indiscriminately from all the books included within the one Greek codex – Bruce Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (quoted from William Webster).

There is no doubt that much of the church, especially in the west, accepted the Septuagint, along with the apocryphal additions (known as the ‘Septuagintal-plus’) as divinely inspired scripture, but they did so precisely against the recommendations of many Eastern Fathers. The early (pre-Jerome) version of the Scriptures circulated in the Latin west was that of the Old Latin translation of the Septuagint, which again, made no reference as to which books had a Hebrew source and which did not.

The church historian Eusebius records the efforts of Melito of Sardis to ascertain an “accurate statement of the ancient book” with respect to their content. Eusebius says what Melito was doing was producing a “catalogue of the acknowledged books of the Old Testament.” And how, exactly, does Melito go about this task? He heads to Palestine to determine what the canonical Hebrew scriptures of Christ were:

But in the Extracts made by him the same writer gives at the beginning of the introduction a catalogue of the acknowledged books of the Old Testament, which it is necessary to quote at this point. He writes as follows:

"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, I have endeavored to perform the task, knowing thy zeal for the faith, and thy desire to gain information in regard to the word, and knowing that thou, in thy yearning after God, esteemest these things above all else, struggling to attain eternal salvation. Accordingly when I went East and came to the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and send them to thee as written below. Their names are as follows: Of Moses, five books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth; of Kings, four books; of Chronicles, two; the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah; of the twelve prophets, one book ; Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. From which also I have made the extracts, dividing them into six books."

Such are the words of Melito. Eusebius – Church History

Here is a conserted effort on the part of an ancient Bishop to ascertain the true canon of the Old Testament. The fact that he needed to speaks volumes about the confusion in the church at the time but his selected methodology shows the general acceptance of that which was Scripture to Jesus and the Apostles as circumscribing the old testament. Athanasius, was quoted previously but if we back up a few lines we see this:

‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal (my note: Athanasius is not here referring to the apocrypha as we know it – those books included in the apocrypha as we know it he enumerates later and that part of the quote was dealt with above), and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; […]

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; […] Athanasius – Paschal letter 39.

Note that Athanasius’ reasoning behind the twenty-two books is that it is what was handed down as divinely inspired Scripture from those who were eyewitnesses of the Word. That is, the Canonical Scriptures known to the Apostles and to Jesus himself. As previously shown these did not include the Apocrypha but were precisely the Hebrew Scriptures. The principle he uses here is to trace back that which was handed down from the Apostles, whose Scripture during their eyewitness was the Hebrew Scriptures, in total, without addition.

Finally, one of the clearest statements of this position can be found in the writings of Jerome. Jerome’s influence on the scriptures can be felt right down to our own day for it was his Latin translation that replaced the Septuagint in the west. Jerome’s working premise was that, if it was not among the Hebrew scriptures, then it was “Apocyphal.” He was the one that coined the term as the category within which these books were to be placed. Here is a clear statement of this premise. In his preface to the books of Samuel and Kings, after enumerating specifically the books of the Hebrew Canon/Protestant Old Testament, he writes:

And so there are also twenty-two books of the Old Testament; that is,[…]

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. […]

It will be readily admitted that this attitude was not universal. The clearest examples of Fathers that recognized the extent of the Hebrew canon yet claimed the Church’s canon was wider was Origen and Augustine. Origen seemed at times when dealing specifically with the issue to stumble, as it were, yet he found so much worth while in the deutero-canonical books that he thought it absurd to give them up. Personally, it seems to me that since Origen’s allegorical exegetical methodology could have created a grandiose Apocalypse out of Mary Had A Little Lamb, he should have readily moved on. However, he clearly thought these books special and on an equal footing with the rest of Scripture. It seems he only recommended against their use for pragmatic reasons when discussing Christ with Jews since he knew they would not accept them as authoritative.

Augustine, a contemporary of Jerome, also recognized that the Hebrew canon did not contain the Apocrypha, yet, believing the Septuagint itself inspired, he accepted the Apocrypha as Scripture. Catholic apologists love to point this out. However, what they will usually fail to add is that Augustine recognized a diversity of opinion on this point in the Church. Augustine limits the “Canonical” books to the Hebrew canon AND the apocrypha and then says:

Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal. Augustine – On Christian Doctrine – Book II, Ch 8

This quote tells us two things. One, that Augustine himself thought that not every book in the Canon of the Old Testament was on an equal footing and provides a formula to rank each books importance. This formula would clearly put all of the Hebrew Scriptures at the very highest level (with the exception of Esther) followed by Esther, then the Apocryphal additions to Jeremiah and Daniel, followed by the rest of the Apocrypha (in what order I cannot begin to guess). This text also tells us very clearly that not all of the books were equally esteemed within the Church.

Spurious Responses

What’s with all of the Apocryphal quotes in the Fathers, even those Fathers that you’ve quoted?

Yes, many of the Fathers quoted from the Apocrypha. And I quote from the Westminster Confession of the Faith (WCF) when I’m discussing with other Presbyterians. I will even quote it authoritatively, not because it is divinely inspired and good for the derivation of doctrine (like some Presbyterians seem to treat it), but because it summarizes our common ground. If someone were to take my writings where I quote authoritatively from the WCF in order to claim I gave it Canonical status while I explicitly state elsewhere what I consider canonical (and what I mean be canonical), I would be rather perturbed. There is no doubt that while the Apocrypha was explicitly not elevated to the level of Canonical Scripture by many of these Fathers, they ALL had respect for these writings.

That being the case, the Fathers certainly believed the facts recorded in the Apocrypha and would liberally use examples of say, the suffering of the martyrs in Maccabees. This would be no different than my writing about the religious persecution of early Protestants on the basis of Puritan writings.

It is also readily recognized some of the Fathers were more consistent than others. Not all of the Fathers were completely consistent on this point. Some may have not held the same opinion through all of their writings and some, drawing unattributed quotes from from that great single bound book, did so without the distinction they employed when specifically dealing with the issue of the canon. Athanasius is a particularly good case for each of these points. For example, his earliest writing (retained within Philip Schaff’s Nicean and Post-Nicean Fathers II series) Contra Gentes contains many authoritative quotes attributed to God Himself and Divine Scripture from Wisdom. This writing is dated to about 321 AD. Athanasius’ 39th Paschal Letter, within which he outlines the Canon proper, is dated to 367 AD. There are almost no references to the Apocrypha as Scripture after Contra Gentes (again, I am limited to Philip Schaff’s english translation of Athanasius and cannot make definitive statements as to the rest of his writings). Those very few that are reveal his tendency to quote from the one great book as a whole. For completeness they are all dealt with here:

1) Though, in this first example Athanasius does not attribute the quote to Scripture or to God, because someone claimed that he did I am dealing with it here. Athanasius quotes Wisdom 3:5-7 when he says in Apologia De Fuga:

Nor yet were these their sufferings without profit to themselves; for having tried them as `gold in the furnace,’ as Wisdom has said, God found them worthy of Himself

Wisdom3:5-7 (not Wisdom 3:57 as the person that emailed me claimed – while he obviously used Schaff’s collection (since the misprint is there also) he (also obviously) never looked up the quote itself. It seems strange that someone that is defending the Canonical status of the book of Wisdom would be so unfamiliar with it to know that there are no where near 57 verses in any single chapter in it)

And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself. As gold in the furnace hath he tried them, and received them as a burnt offering. And in the time of their visitation they shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble.

Now, it should be clear that Athanasius points out that Wisdom says that “God found them worthy.” And I concur completely. Wisdom says that God found them worthy of Himself. So? He does not attribute the book of Wisdom here to God’s inspiration.

2) Again, this is to clarify a misunderstanding that someone sent to me. In his Discourse II, he writes:

in the Apocalypse it says, `And the third part of the creatures in the sea died which had life;’ as also Paul says, `Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving’ and in the book of Wisdom it is written, `Having ordained man through Thy wisdom, that he should have dominion over the creatures which Thou hast made.’ And these, being creatures, are also said to be created, as we may further hear from the Lord, who says, `He who created them, made them male and female’ and from Moses in the Song, who writes, `Ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one side of heaven unto the other’ And Paul in Colossians, `Who is the Image of the Invisible God, the Firstborn of every creature, for in Him were all things created that are in heaven, and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created through Him, and for Him, and He is before all

Here he is listing authoritative references. The use of the term ‘further’ at the point after the quote in Wisdom could have appeared anywhere. He basically is simply saying ‘The Apocalypse says such and such, and Wisdom says such and such, and the Lord says (quoting the words of Christ from the gospel of Mathew) such and such and Moses says such and such and Paul says such and such.‘ I could have easily put the word ‘further’ after any ‘and’ in the preceding paraphrase without changing a thing.

3) Again, this was brought to my attention and was clearly misinterpreted. From Discourse II:

[a large number of Scriptural quotes to show the Father and the Son, share the same essence] For such illustrations and such images has Scripture proposed, that, considering the inability of human nature to comprehend God, we might be able to form ideas even from these however poorly and dimly, and as far as is attainable. And as the creation contains abundant matter for the knowledge of the being of a God and a Providence (`for by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionably the Maker of them is seen’ [Wisdom]), and we learn from them without asking for voices, but hearing the Scriptures we believe, and surveying the very order and the harmony of all things, we acknowledge that He is Maker and Lord and God of all, and apprehend His marvellous Providence and governance over all things; so in like manner about the Son’s Godhead, what has been above said is sufficient, and it becomes superfluous, or rather it is very mad to dispute about it, or to ask in an heretical way, How can the Son be from eternity? or how can He be from the Father’s Essence, yet not a part? since what is said to be of another, is a part of him; and what is divided, is not whole.

Supposedly this is again an explicit calling of Wisdom Scripture. Unlike the Contra Gentes (where he does do that in a few places) however, a plain reading says nothing of the sort. He is comparing the light of creation to the light of revelation. He says quotes Wisdom to sum up the light of General Revelation to add to the light previously listed of Special (Scriptural) Revelation. As a note, there are two places in this treatise where he does the exact same thing with the same quotes.

4) There are a few (and very few) places outside of Contra Gentes where he does attribute words from the Apocrypha to God or Scripture. In his letter to the Bishops of Egypt he attributes the phrase “Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner [Ecclesiasticus]” to ‘words spoken by the Spirit’ (and again in the 7th Paschal Letter). In his Apologia Contra Arianos he attributes a verse from Ecclesiasticus to “somewhere [in the] Holy Scripture” Finally in On the Opinion of Dionysius, in quoting Dionysius’ Scriptural references he includes the word breath in a list of descriptive names for Jesus (among other words like word, brightness, power, wisdom, etc) which is a reference to Wisdom 7:25.

Athanasius quotes from the Apocrypha in Contra Gentes four times and each time it is explicitly listed as God given scripture. Then, in all of the years he quotes from the Apocrypha after that only in the few cases mentioned does he do so clearly giving it the same state. I have tried to show that the situation in the early church was not always clear to everyone so is it unfair to say that Athanasius, at some point after writing Contra Gentes, changed his opinion or at least moderated his use of the apocrypha. Understanding that he accorded these writings a very high standing, that they were considered certainly accurate and historical (that, for example, Solomon wrote Wisdom, etc), that they were bound in the same codex as the rest of Scripture goes a long way to explaining his use of them in all other cases.

It can even be said that some, though giving a lower state to those books outside of the canon proper, still considered the books of the apocrypha as specially inspired by God at some level between common writing and the Holy Divine Scripture. This is likely given the prevalence of the myth that the Septuagint translation with the apocryphal additions was itself was divinely inspired. Much of the church persisted in the attitude that can only be described as an ancient form of the modern “King James Only”cult.

Why do you follow the post-Christian Jewish council of Jamina?

Catholic’s will claim that the Jewish “(so-called) council of Jaminia” closed the Jewish canon in 90 AD. They do for two reasons depending on how much they have already conceded to the argument. If they refuse to recognize that the Jewish Canon PRIOR to Jamnia included the apocrypha, they will claim that this change was instituted there. The argument is, why should the already established church follow the dictates of apostates? The church had the scriptures in tact (at least in Alexandria) and there is no reason to except further meddling by an outside group. Would we feel obligated to follow the Jews (the Catholic will ask) if they were to remove the book if Isaiah from their canon today?

On the other hand, if the Catholic acknowledges the strength of the argument that the Apocryphal writings were not in the ‘Scriptures’ that Jesus knew, they will claim that the canon simply was closed in 90 A.D. by the Jews. But why should church follow those dictates? The church rightly chooses not to recognize the authority of Jaminia.

Both of these are non-sequiturs. If the points I’ve tried to establish in the essay are conceded then the issue of Jamina is moot. The former issue is readily handled by pointing out the fact that the Hebrew scripture, in Alexandria as well as Palestine, never contained the apocrypha. The later by pointing out that the apocrypha was never added, at least universally, and that the methodology employed by many of the Fathers to determine the bound of the canon made reference to the Canonical Scriptures of Jesus and the Apostles; what was handed down.

That said, this objection turns on a misunderstanding of what Jamina was and what it accomplished. The status of the apocrypha was never even considered and the only apocryphal book even mentioned there was Ecclesiasticus. “Their ‘discussions have not so much dealt with the acceptance of certain writings into the canon, but rather their right to remain there’” (F.F. Bruce – The Canon of Scripture, pg 43, quoting A. Bentzen). And in that context the apocryphal writings were not discussed.

The theory that an open canon was closed at the Synod of Jamnia about AD 90 goes back to Heinrich Graetz in 1871, who proposed (rather more cautiously than has since been the custom) that the Synod of Jamnia led to the closing of the canon. Though others have lately expressed hesitations about the theory, its complete refutation has been the work of J.P. Lewis and S.Z. Leiman. The combined results of their investigations is as follows:

(a) The term ‘synod’ or ‘council’ is inappropriate. The academy at Jamnia, established by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai shortly before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, was both a college and a legislative body, and the occasion in question was a session of the elders there.

(b) The date of the session may have been as early as AD 75 or as late as AD 117.

(c) As regards the disputed books, the discussion was confined to the question whether Eccelsiastes and the Song of Songs (or possibly Eccelsiastes alone) make the hands unclean, i.e. are divinely inspired.

(d) The decision reached was not regarded as authoritative, since contrary opinions continued to be expressed throughout the second century. – William Webster quoting from Roger Beckwith

You didn’t mention Hippo or Carthage

I did say this was only a place start. The details of the church councils, ecumenical and provincial, and arguments on both sides of the issue from that perspective can be found in the following exchange between William Webster and the Catholic Apologist Art Sippo:

  1. William Webster’s original article called The Canon – Why the Roman Catholic Arguments for the Canon are Spurious

  2. Art Sippo’s sad response

  3. William Webster’s absolute destruction of Art Sippo’s reasoning (so called) with details on the councils galore.

(my personal opinion on the quality of each argument linked to above doesn’t come through too much, does it?)

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