Sacred Tradition and the Development of the Old Testament Canon

In my last post I reviewed the development of the New Testament Canon of Scripture, and how the Catholic Church understands that process to be the work of Sacred Tradition.  For while the apostles left us many writings, they did not leave us a book we know today as the New Testament.  Some books that were ultimately included in the New Testament were often disputed by some as being Sacred Scripture, such as Hebrews, James, II Peter, II John, III John, Jude and Revelation (known as the Antilegomena or “disputed” writings).  Other books that were part of the Antilegomena, like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the first epistle of Clement were seen by some as being Scripture, but were ultimately excluded from the canon.  It remained in the hands of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit to determine which books belonged in the New Testament and produce an infallible table of contents for the infallible texts. 

I also spoke to the difficulty this understanding can raise within Protestantism and a belief in sola-Scriptura whereby Scripture is the only infallible authority and contains all one needs to know for salvation.  Yet the knowledge of which books actually comprise the New Testament itself was necessary and critical, and was delivered as the work of the Church, not from Scripture itself.  So while many try to downplay the role of the Church in this, if you believe the table of contents of the New Testament to be infallible and inspired, it is impossible to ignore the method God used to deliver that knowledge was Sacred Tradition.  As one site I quoted put it, “It was simply a matter of God’s imparting to His followers” which books were inspired.  Simple enough, but it highlights the truth this knowledge was not delivered by Scripture itself.  I will quote multiple times from this “gotquestions.org” evangelical site during this post, and I would ask you to hold on to that thought – “It was simply a matter of God’s imparting to his followers….”

Now we come to the topic of the Old Testament canon of Scripture.  Many, Catholic and Protestant alike, also have little to no knowledge how the Old Testament canon was developed.  Many also do not realize there are seven additional books in the Old Testament in Catholic Bibles than are found in Protestant ones.  These books are 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, Tobit, and Judith.  There are also additional portions of Daniel and Esther found in the Catholic Bible. 

One claim often made by Protestants is Catholics “added” these books to our Bible at the Council of Trent in the 1500s as a result of Protestantism and to support Catholic beliefs they deem to be in error.  This is not true, and can easily be demonstrated to be historically false.  Some claims are a bit more subtle as this one — “While many Catholics accepted the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonicals previously, the Roman Catholic Church officially added the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonicals to their Bible at the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s A.D., primarily in response to the Protestant Reformation.”  (https://www.gotquestions.org/apocrypha-deuterocanonical.html). 

The subtlety there is “officially,” and it is not true that only “many” Catholics accepted these books.  They were in use at the time of the apostles, and have been in every Bible up to the time of Protestantism when they were removed.

In a previous post I reviewed how doctrine develops within Christianity.  The example I used was the development of the dogma of the Trinity.  This dogma was not formally declared until the Council of Niceae in 325, and that Council was convened to address the Arian heresy.  It was not that the Church did not previously believe in the dogma of the Trinity.  But the heresy that had erupted within the Church that Christ was not truly God but rather the first and greatest creature of God, had to be addressed.  The result of addressing that falsehood was a more clear, more focused and more complete statement about the nature of God that left no room for doubt or confusion or argument about who Jesus Christ is.  The Church didn’t change a previous teaching, but it certainly expanded upon it and allowed it to organically grow to meet the challenge of the day.

The first major challenge to whether these books belonged in the Old Testament canon of Scripture came with Protestantism.  So at the Council of Trent, the Church reaffirmed and formalized the Old Testament canon of Scripture.  But to try to make the claim the Church “added” these books at this time is equivalent to the Jehovah Witness claim the Church “invented” the dogma of the Trinity in 325.  The time a dogma becomes more formalized or “official” is in general when a teaching is being challenged and needs to be addressed, not when it was first known and believed.  The fact the Church did not have to “officially” address the Old Testament canon until the 1500s only shows that for centuries these books were accepted by Christians as Sacred Scripture.

There is ample evidence these books were in the Bible prior to the 1500s.  They were listed as Scripture at the Councils of Rome (382), Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419) which is when the New Testament canon was finalized.  These however were local councils, not ecumenical (of the whole Church) which is why the need arose to reaffirm the canon at the ecumenical Council of Trent.  They were in the Latin Vulgate (382) that Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome to translate.  You can see them here in the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible, approximately 100 years before the Council of Trent.  The claim the Catholic Church “added” these books as a result of Protestantism simply is false and that is easily demonstrated by history.

But what about the Old Testament canon in use at the time of the apostles?  It can be demonstrated quite clearly these books were also in the Old Testament canon used by the apostles.

One of the first things to understand is at the time of Christ, the Jews did not have an official canon, and the various Jewish groups differed in what they accepted as Scripture.  The Jewish Scriptures can be divided into three main parts – the law, the prophets, and the writings.  While the law and the prophets had been fairly well established, the “writings” were less firm at the time of Christ.  But while the Pharisees accepted all three, the Samaritans and the Sadducees only accepted the law portion of the Scriptures.  Even today there is not total consistency among the Jewish people.  For example, The Ethiopian Jews, also known as “Beta Israel” who migrated to Ethiopia approximately 500 years before Christ, have those seven disputed books in their canon of Scripture.  One of the objections Martin Luther had about these books is he didn’t believe they were originally written in Hebrew.  But in the 1940s with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, two of the books (Tobit and Sirach) were found in Hebrew.  The book of Sirach is now considered canonical by the Dead Sea community of Jews. 

Also in use at the time of Christ was a Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures known as the Septuagint (or sometimes the LXX).  The “gotquestions.org” site speaks to this:

“The Septuagint (also known as the LXX) is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language.  The name Septuagint comes from the Latin word for ‘seventy.’ The tradition is that 70 (or 72) Jewish scholars were the translators behind the Septuagint.  The Septuagint was translated in the third and second centuries BC in Alexandria, Egypt.  As Israel was under the authority of Greece for several centuries, the Greek language became more and more common.  By the second and first centuries BC, most people in Israel spoke Greek as their primary language.  That is why the effort was made to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek—so that those who did not understand Hebrew could have the Scriptures in a language they could understand.  The Septuagint represents the first major effort at translating a significant religious text from one language into another.”

https://www.gotquestions.org/septuagint.html

One of the things we know is when the apostles quoted from the Old Testament when writing the New, they almost always used the Septuagint.  In this article from Catholic Answers they cite “Protestant authors Archer and Chirichigno list 340 places where the New Testament cites the Septuagint but only 33 places where it cites from the Masoretic Text rather than the Septuagint (G.  Archer and G.  C.  Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey, 25-32).” 

The gotquestions.org cite on the Septuagint affirms this – “In comparing the New Testament quotations of the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that the Septuagint was often used.  Many of the New Testament quotes from the Hebrew Bible are taken from the Septuagint.  This is the result of the fact that by the late first century BC, and especially the first century AD, the Septuagint had ‘replaced’ the Hebrew Bible as the Scriptures most people used.  Since most people spoke and read Greek as their primary language, and the Greek authorities strongly encouraged the use of Greek, the Septuagint became much more common than the Hebrew Old Testament.”  (https://www.gotquestions.org/septuagint.html)

In fact, the gotquestions.org site affirms the Septuagint should be seen as authoritative – “As faithful as the Septuagint translators strove to be in accurately rendering the Hebrew text into Greek, some translational differences arose.  But the fact that the apostles and New Testament authors felt comfortable, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, in using the Septuagint should give us assurance that a translation of the original languages of the Bible is still the authoritative Word of God.”  (https://www.gotquestions.org/septuagint.html)

What that article fails to tell the reader however, is those disputed books of the Old Testament are contained in the Septuagint.  Those seventy Jewish scholars who translated the Scriptures into Greek included them.  The most common translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ contained those books.  The Old Testament translation used by the apostles contained these seven books.  From the Catholic perspective, if it was good enough for the apostles we are in no position to second-guess them, and therefore it is good enough for us.

One objection regarding these books is the apostles never quote from them in writing the New Testament.  But if that is a requirement for being considered canonical, then eight other books would have to be eliminated as well — Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Obadiah, Nahum and Zephaniah.

And while there may not be direct quotes, there are certainly references.  This can be shown by the original printing of the King James Bible in 1611.  Few also realize these books were contained in that printing, although they were gathered together and placed in a section labeled “Apocrypha.”  This was a change from how they were seen as a legitimate part of the Old Testament at the time of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s.  But the original KJV has eleven New Testament cross-references to these books, and 102 Old Testament ones.  You can see the New Testament ones on this site:

http://www.handsonapologetics.com/King%20James%20Bible.html

Another objection often given to the use of these books is they contain both historical and theological “errors.”  While the gotquestions.org site refers to the Septuagint that contains these books as the “authoritative Word of God,” their article on the these specific books contains links to other articles that show what they believe to be “errors.”  Frankly, this type of scholarship reminds me of the multitude of non-Christian sites that report on the “thousands” of errors contained in the Bible with no regard to context, genre, or the lived understanding of the Church who received these Scriptures.  I expected to see a lot of examples, but only a few were given.  One that seemed to be consistent is these books contain references that indicate almsgiving can cleanse one from sin (Tobit 4:11, 12:9, Sirach 3:30) and that is viewed to be a theological error.  But Christ himself said “But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41), so claiming these things to be “errors” does not seem to be substantiated. 

Another objection often given is few of the early Christians believed these books belonged in the Old Testament.  It is interesting that while the apostles were definitively using the Septuagint they never made mention of any concern the books it contained were not all legitimately Scripture.  There is some truth that not all of the early church Fathers thought they belonged.  Frankly, not all of them thought all of the New Testament books belonged either.  But the majority of them quote from these books in their writings as Scripture.  In his book “Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger,” Gary Michuta identifies numerous church Fathers who quote from these books, and identifies St. Jerome (340-420) as the first to question their inclusion.  St. Jerome does of course yield to the decision of the Church, and proceeds to translate these books into Latin to be included in the Latin Vulgate.

When Martin Luther makes his case to remove these books from Scripture, he abandons the tradition of the apostles and turns instead to Jewish scholars after Christ.  Around the year 80, Jewish rabbis from a rabbinical school in Javneh met and eliminated these books from their canon, even though they had been part of the Septuagint which had been used by the majority of Jews during the time of Christ.  It is important to note they also rejected the Christian claim that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and fulfilled their Old Testament prophecies.

So, back to my original request to “hold that thought.”  When the Church determined the New Testament canon, they included an Old Testament canon based on the version of Scriptures used by the apostles themselves – the Septuagint.  In their listing of inspired Scripture from those councils, included with the correct list of New Testament books is a list of Old Testament books that match the Catholic canon even today.  So if we believe the New Testament was canonized correctly because “It was simply a matter of God’s imparting to his followers” the correct books, what are we to believe about the Old Testament?  Are we to believe God was working through the Jewish leaders that had rejected Christ?  Are we to believe God inspired the Church to determine the correct understanding of the New Testament but at the same time failed to “impart to his followers” the correct understanding of what constitutes the Old Testament?  From the Catholic perspective the answer to this question is clear.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church correctly produced an infallible table of contents for both the Old and New Testaments.  To believe otherwise would have to lead to the question – if they erred on the Old, how can we be certain they didn’t err on the New?

And for those who hold to sola-Scripture, the answer should be clear as well.  Is it really possible to believe the Bible alone is authoritative but then to believe an accurate version of the Bible that did not contain false books was only available to the church 1500 years after the time of Christ?  That prior to that, the version used by the apostles and Christians for 1500 years contained books that were in error?  How that view can align with a belief in sola-Scripture would seem to be most problematic indeed. 

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