Gary Michuta, Josephus, and the Twenty-Two Books of the Hebrew Bible

Catholic apologist Gary Michuta has released a new book, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: The Grotto Press, 2007). Michuta scrutinizes the Protestant assertion that the canon of Jesus and the Apostles was closed and fixed. Calling it a “Protestant tradition” (p.50), he notes the writing of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-101) serves as an important source for Protestant argumentation to substantiate this tradition.
   Josephus gave early testimony to the canon used by the Jews, giving a precise number of the canonical books. The numbering of the books by Josephus (“only twenty-two books“) provides evidence the Jews did not consider the apocryphal books to be sacred Scripture, for if they did, the number would have been larger. Josephus notes those books written after the time of Artaxerxes (i.e. the apocryphal books) were not of the same authority. Michuta realizes the weight of this argument, and spends a few pages attempting to defuse the Protestant use of Josephus.
   Josephus wrote against the Alexandrian pagan grammarian Apion. Apion had asserted the historical facts presented by Josephus in The Jewish Antiquities couldn’t be true, because the best Greek histories do not contain information about the Jews being an ancient people. Josephus counters by giving a precise description of the Hebrew Bible, the primary historical record of the Jews:

   “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” [Against Apion 1.41].

   One can see the powerful nature of this quotation. Josephus affirms the Hebrew canon, and also downgrades the apocryphal books. Truly, Catholic apologists have a historical problem on their hands. How then does Mr. Michuta handle this citation? Michuta wants his readers to keep the context of the Apion / Josephus dialog in mind. Apion questioned the veracity of the earliest Jewish sacred records. Were they reliable? Josephus counters with affirming the reliability of the Hebrew Biblical writings. In disarming this citation,Michuta introduces a rather unique interpretation:

   “What Apion questioned was the veracity of the earliest sacred records. Thus, Josephus felt compelled to vindicate only the writings which came before Artaxerxes (the Deuteros were, of course, written after that time)” (p.54).

   So, according to Mr. Michuta, Josephus was only defending the reliability of the canon up until the time of Artaxerxes. In other words, Josephus was not defending the entire scope of the Hebrew canon. Problem solved, Citation defused! But does this interpretive solution really work? Keep in mind Josephus says the Jews have “only twenty-two books” that are sacred. That word only really does seem to be a problem for Michuta’s position, especially since Josephus doesn’t explicitly qualify his statement as Michuta has explained it. Further, Josephus states the canon text is fixed, and no one dared to add or take anything away from it. Well, Michuta has an explanation for this as well:

   “Scholars who specialize in the writings of Josephus candidly admit that he frequently resorts to bombast and exaggeration, especially in his controversies with pagans. Against Apion 1.41 is a good example. Immediately after his comments on the twenty-two books, Josephus writes, ‘so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them [the twenty-two books of Scripture], to take any thing from them, or make any change in them.’ We now know, from the discoveries made in Qumran that the text of Scripture, in both Hebrew and Greek, circulated in a variety of different versions in Josephus’ day. Some Jewish sects, like the Essenes of Qumran, showed no scruples about editing the sacred text to their liking. These variant texts could not have escaped Josephus’ notice; therefore, his words must be taken as hyperbole. However, if Josephus was willing to over exaggerate knowingly the widespread existence of a fixed text, can we trust him in his assessment on the twenty-two books in Against Apion? As a historical source, Josephus’ comments are certainly impeachable” (p. 55-56).

   So for Michuta, the bottom line is Josephus can’t be trusted when he speaks about twenty-two books! Now this interpretation and the one previous must be weighed together. In the first instance, a qualifier is introduced to not limit the Hebrew canon as to include the apocrypha (Josephus was only talking about pre-Artaxerxes Biblical books). When the citation goes on to provide evidence Michuta’s qualifier is spurious by defining a twenty-two-book canon, Josephus can’t be trusted.
   I find this a striking example of forcing a text to make one say what one wants to. Perhaps the canon of the Jews is not a Protestant tradition as Michuta asserts. Perhaps in fact, history has evidence that cannot be smoothed over by Catholic apologetics, and Protestants are simply reading historical documents in context.