Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Gary Michuta, Sirach, and the Threefold Division of the Old Testament
05/20/2007 - James SwanI've been going through Catholic apologist Gary Michuta's new book, Why Catholic bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: The Grotto Press, 2007). The first bit of evidence the book covers is the usage and citations of the apocryphal Book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) and its impact on the canonical status of the apocryphal books. Sirach dates from 200-150 B.C. Protestants have pointed to evidence from the prologue of this book to show that a threefold division within the Old Testament canon existed during this time period. In other words, Sirach may provide evidence the Old Testament canon was fixed and certain before the New Testament period.
The prologue states:
"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."
Key phrases pointing to a three-fold division are "the law, and the prophets, and other books of our fathers" and "the law itself, and the prophets, and the rest of the books."
Mr. Michuta explains this evidence by stating,
"Some Protestant apologists have argued that this introduction speaks of 'the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings'- a threefold division of the Old Testament corresponding to the three-fold division in modern Jewish Bibles... Unfortunately, this line of reasoning greatly overstates the evidence. Sirach's introduction never speaks of 'the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings;' it speaks only of 'the Law, the Prophets, and the other books'- a very unusual piece of language if the now-established terms were already in use. Indeed, in three attempts to reference Scripture in this fashion, Sirach's grandson fails even once to apply what later became the recognized phraseology. Furthermore, such a vague name as the 'other books' may suggest a deliberate vagueness and, in fact, recalls the similar ambiguity employed by some of the early Church Fathers in the decades before a universally recognized New Testament canon was promulgated. At the very least, such an indistinct category cannot be said to effectively exclude much of anything" (p.7).
Michuta doesn't tell us which Protestant apologists he has in mind, so I surveyed a few popular Protestant books on this subject. They simply used Sirach to point to an early example of a three-fold division. The emphasis was not on the phrase, "the Writings," but rather the threefold division implied in the statement. It is simply one piece of evidence in the overall unfolding of the Old Testament canon. The threefold division simply didn't appear out of thin air, nor did Moses say, "I am now writing books to be included in the first section of the threefold Old Testament." No, the threefold division occurred over a period of time, and various bits of evidence substantiate it (see William Webster's helpful overview).
Michuta argues dually a three-fold division in Ecclesiasticus either can't be meant, or cannot be proven to be what the book means because the phrase "the Writings" is not used. With the former, it is spurious logic. Simply because the phrase may not have been employed at an earlier time does not mean it did not refer to "the Writings." The most popular example of such an occurrence would be the term "Trinity." Certainly the writers of the New Testament taught the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God without using this theological term, a term used after the apostolic period. With the later argument, Michuta argues Ecclesiasticus is simply too vague to serve as evidence for a threefold division. Even though logically Sirach mentions three distinct categories, it isn't clear enough to Michuta to imply a threefold division. Mr. Michuta then posits this was left intentionally vague by the writer of Sirach. In other words, the writer of Sirach not only didn't believe in a closed threefold canon, he wasn't sure which "other books" were canonical.
Even with this situation of ambiguity, Michuta argues Ecclesiasticus itself claims to be canonical. While the writer of the book wasn't sure what "other books" may be canonical, he was sure his was. Michuta says, "...Sirach indicates that he did, in fact, believe his book to contain the wisdom that comes only from the Lord, and that it could take a place among the other books of Scripture" (p.7). For substantiation, Michuta cites the preface (quoted above), and also Ecclesiasticus 24:28-31. Re-read the preface above. I don't see the evidence Michuta is referring to. Rather, as Roger Beckwith points out in evaluating the preface,
"It appears, then, that for this writer there are three groups of books which have a unique authority, and that his grandfather wrote only after gaining great familiarity with them, as their interpreter not as their rival. The translator explicitly distinguishes 'these things' (i.e. Ecclesiasticus, or uncanonical Hebrew compositions such as Ecclesiasticus) from 'the Law itself and the Prophets and the rest of the Books'" [Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 111].
Ecclesiasticus 24:28-31 (and also these cross-references mentioned by Michuta: 1; 6:37; and 16:24-25) are supposed to prove that the book claimed it could be placed with other canonical writings. True, these texts speak of wisdom, but they don't speak of looking for a place next to the canonical books. Look them up for yourself.