I’ve been fascinated by the selective use of history by those who convert to the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes it can be attributed to ignorance. I don’t expect each person making a worldview shift to have the academic abilities to weigh certain levels of complex information. On the other hand, when a PhD from Fordham University, a man who’s authored numerous theological books, and taught philosophy and church-state studies appears ill-informed on basic issues of church history, I’m left with far more questions than answers about the legitimacy of that conversion story.
Francis Beckwith: ETS Shows Sympathies for the Catholic Canon
Consider the following from mega-revert Francis Beckwith’s book, Return to Rome (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2009). While he served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2006 the membership passed a resolution stating: “For the purpose of advising members regarding the intent and meaning of the reference to biblical inerrancy in the ETS Doctrinal Basis, the Society refers members to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).” Beckwith says, “But the Chicago Statement not only does not provide a list of canonical books, it states that ‘it appears that the Old Testament canon had been fixed by the time of Jesus. The New Testament canon is likewise now closed, inasmuch as no new apostolic witness to the historical Christ can now be borne.’ ” The Chicago Statement is indeed accurate. The Old Testament canon was fixed during the ministry of Christ and the apostles.
This statement though from ETS provoked Beckwith to conclude, “This, ironically, means that the ETS is implicitly showing sympathies for the Catholic canon” (p.123). Rather, the irony is Beckwith’s statement. Most Roman Catholics I’ve squabbled with over the Old Testament canon want to argue that it was still in flux during the apostolic era. The argument is presented that the Hebrew canon wasn’t actually closed until very late, perhaps as late as A.D. 90-100. They argue this in order to legitimize the apocrypha. Previous to A.D. 90-100, the Greek Septuagint (the very Bible used by Christ and the Apostles) appears to have included the apocrypha.
For Beckwith, if ETS wants to affirm a closed Old Testament canon during apostolic times, they are admitting to the legitimacy of the apocrypha. Beckwith doesn’t apear to be concerned with typical Roman Catholic polemic concerning an open Old Testament canon.
J.N.D Kelly: The Bulkier Old Testament Canon Included The Apocrypha
To seal the deal of this argument, Dr. Beckwith offers the following quote from Protestant scholar J.N.D. Kelly:
It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than… the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism… It always included, though varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocryphal or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was not the original Hebrew version, but the Greek translation known as the Septuagint… In the first centuries at any rate the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and treated them without question as Scripture.
If you Google search this quote, it proves itself to be a Roman Catholic favorite. I recall the first time I heard it being used was by Gerry Matatics against Dr. White (here’s a short mp3 clip from Matatics from this debate). In response, Dr. White pointed out that current research into the Old Testament canon had reached much different conclusions than that put forth by J.N.D. Kelly.
If you actually read this section from Kelly from which Beckwith took the quote, he readily admits the Palestinian canon was “rigidly fixed“. This of course, was left out by Dr. Beckwith. Kelly does indicate (though with seeming hesitation) that the Hebrew canon was finally universally closed for Judaism in A.D. 90-100 at Jamnia. During this time period he says the Jews were actually uniting against the apocryphal books. They were in the process of finally being repudiated. Kelly goes on to say this was the reason certain Christians like Melito of Sardis eventually went to Palestine to get to the bottom of the confusion of the Jewish canon. By the fourth century, the more scholarly within the Alexandrian church likewise were against the apocrypha, in varying degrees. The Western church though was much more favorable toward the apocrypha. By common use it gained acceptance.
This extra information and context from Kelly shows at least Beckwith didn’t read him carefully. Kelly argues for a fixed Palestinian canon during apostolic times, with the apocryphal books in the larger Greek canon being eventually repudiated by the Jews later in the first century. Kelly’s quote does though still serve Romanist argumentation. If in fact no specific Hebrew canon was fixed for Judaism as a whole, how does one know that Jesus and the Apostles did not use and revere the apocrypha? If the Bible they used included it, and Christ deemed his church the only organization capable of infallible dogmatic proclamation, the fallible Jews late in the first century finalized a fallible collection of infallible books. They left out the apocrypha. Protestants therefore follow the fallible tradition of the Jews rather than the infallible Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
This Romanist methodology though is flawed in a number of ways.
What Books Were in the Septuagint?
Sometimes the error isn’t what’s said, it’s what isn’t said. Indeed, if one surveys the oldest extant copies and fragments of the Septuagint, one will find apocryphal books. That should settle it for the Roman Catholic side, shouldn’t it? Hardly. William Webster explains:
One of the reasons Roman Catholics argue for a broader canon is that the oldest extant manuscripts of the Septuagint do contain a number of Apocryphal books. These manuscripts are: Vaticanus (early 4th century), Sinaiticus (early 4th century), and Alexandrinus (early 5th century). The Apocryphal books of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Judith and Tobit are included in all three, but there are also differences. Vaticanus does not include any of the Maccabean books, while Sinaiticus includes 1 and 4 Maccabees and Alexandrinus includes 1, 2, 3, and 4 Maccabees and a work known as the Psalms of Solomon. If inclusion of a book in the manuscript proves its canonicity, as Roman Catholics assert, then 3 and 4 Maccabees were canonical. However, we know with certainty that this was not the case. It is also true that the Septuagint included a number of appendices to the canonical Old Testament books such as Esther, 1 Esdras, the additions to Daniel (Song of the Three Children, Bel and the Dragon and Susanna), and the additions to Jeremiah (Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy). But as Henry Swete points out, none of these books, or the rest of the Apocrypha, were part of the Hebrew canon:
The MSS. and many of the lists of the Greek Old Testament include certain books which find no place in the Hebrew Canon. The number of these books varies, but the fullest collections contain the following: I Esdras, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Judith, Tobit, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, i.-iv. Maccabees. We may add the Psalms of Solomon, a book which was sometimes included in MSS. of Salomonic books, or, in complete Bibles, at the end of the Canon.
The only Septuagint manuscript evidence we have now was created by the Christian church. Webster notes: “We do not know for certain that the Septuagint itself included the books of the Apocrypha as canonical Scripture. Secondly… there were books in these manuscripts that were never considered canonical by the Jews or the Church, in particular, 3 and 4 Maccabees. Therefore, just because a book was listed in the manuscripts did not mean it was canonical. It simply means that these books were read in the Church.” Webster cites Lee McDonald who notes,
The biggest problem with the theory of the Alexandrian canon is that there are no lists or collections one can look to in order to see what books comprised it. Pfeiffer himself acknowledged that no one knows what the canon of the Alexandrian and other Diaspora Jews was before the LXX was condemned in Palestine, ca. 130 CE. Long ago E. Reuss concluded that we know nothing about the LXX before the time when the church made extensive use of it. That includes the condition of the text and its form as well as its extent. Another problem with the Alexandrian canon theory is that it has not been shown conclusively that the Alexandrian Jews or the other Jews of the Dispersion were any more likely to adopt other writings as sacred scriptures than were the Jews Palestine in the two centuries BCE and the first century CE. Further, there is no evidence as yet that shows the existence of a different canon of scriptures in Alexandria than in Palestine from the second century BCE to the second century CE. Since the communications between Jerusalem and Alexandria were considered quite good during the first century BCE and CE, it is not certain that either the notion or extent of divine scripture would be strikingly different between the two locations during the period before 70 CE. Although the Jews of the Dispersion were more affected by Hellenism than were the Jews of Palestine, there is little evidence to show that this influence also affected their notion of scripture or the boundaries of their scriptures.
When Dr. Beckwith assumes the Septuagint used during the Apostolic era included the apocrypha, that’s indeed what it is, an assumption. There isn’t historical evidence to verify the claim.
Dr. Beckwith, Meet R.T. Beckwith
Francis Beckwith probably should know the closed Hebrew canon was divided into three major categories: Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa. He did approvingly cite J.N.D. Kelly, and Kelly argues for a fixed Hebrew canon. When Jesus and the apostles appealed to Scripture, they had a specific set of books in view. Biblical and historical testimony affirm this. This threefold specific set of books did not contain the apocrypha. Commenting on this, R.T. Beckwith describes the argument of those who disagree with these facts:
Doubt has sometimes been cast, for inadequate reasons, on the antiquity of this way of [threefold] grouping the Old Testament books. More commonly, but with equally little real reason, it has been assumed that it reflects the gradual development of the Old Testament canon, the grouping having been a historical accident and the canon of the Prophets having been closed about the third century B.c., before a history like Chronicles and a prophecy like Daniel (which, it is alleged, naturally belong there) had been recognized as inspired or perhaps even written. The canon of the Hagiographa, according to this popular hypothesis, was not closed until the Jewish synod of Jamnia or Jabneh about A.D. 90, after an open Old Testament canon had already been taken over by the Christian church. Moreover, a broader canon, containing much of the Apocrypha, had been accepted by the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, and was embodied in the Septuagint; and the Septuagint was the Old Testament of the early Christian church. These two facts, perhaps together with the Essene fondness for the pseudonymous apocalypses, are responsible for the fluidity of the Old Testament canon in patristic Christianity. Such is the theory.
Beckwith spends a considerable time demonstrating the historical evidence demonstrates the unity and closure of the threefold Old Testament canon, comprising a specific set of twenty-two books. He then describes the Septuagint and the broader canon:
How, then, has it come to be thought that the third section of the canon was not closed until the synod of Jamnia, some decades after the birth of the Christian church? The main reasons are that the rabbinical literature records disputes about five of the books, some of which were settled at the Jamnia discussion; that many of the Septuagint manuscripts mix apocryphal books among the canonical, thus prompting the theory of a wider Alexandrian canon; and that the Qumran discoveries show the apocalyptic pseudepigrapha to have been cherished, and perhaps reckoned canonical, by the Essenes. But the rabbinical literature records similar, though more readily answered, academic objections to many other canonical books, so it must have been a question of removing books from the list (had this been possible), not adding them. Moreover, one of the five disputed books (Ezekiel) belongs to the second section of the canon, which is admitted to have been closed long before the Christian era. As to the Alexandrian canon, Philo of Alexandria’s writings show it to have been the same as the Palestinian. He refers to the three familiar sections, and he ascribes inspiration to many books in all three, but never to any of the Apocrypha. In the Septuagint manuscripts, the Prophets and Hagiographa have been rearranged by Christian hands in a non-Jewish manner, and the intermingling of Apocrypha there is a Christian phenomenon, not a Jewish one. At Qumran the pseudonymous apocalypses were more likely viewed as an Essene appendix to the standard Jewish canon than as an integral part of it. There are allusions to this appendix in Philo’s account of the Therapeutae (De Vita Contemplativa 25) and in 2 Esdras 14:44-48. An equally significant fact discovered at Qumran is that the Essenes, though at rivalry with mainstream Judaism since the second century B.c., reckoned as canonical some of the Hagiographa and had presumably done so since before the rivalry began.
The Septuagint manuscripts are paralleled by the writings of the early Christian Fathers, who (at any rate outside Palestine and Syria) normally used the Septuagint or the derived Old Latin version. In their writings, there is both a wide and a narrow canon. The former comprises those books from before the time of Christ which were generally read and esteemed in the church (including the Apocrypha), but the latter is confined to the books of the Jewish Bible, which scholars like Melito, Origen, Epiphanius, and Jerome take the trouble to distinguish from the rest as alone inspired. The Apocrypha were known in the church from the start, but the further back one goes, the more rarely are they treated as inspired. In the New Testament itself, one finds Christ acknowledging the Jewish Scriptures, by various of their current titles, and accepting the three sections of the Jewish canon and the traditional order of its books; one finds most of the books being referred to individually as having divine authority- but not so for any of the Apocrypha. The only apparent exceptions are found in Jude: Jude 9 (citing the apocryphal work, The Assumption of Moses) and Jude 14, citing Enoch. Jude’s citation of these works does not mean he believed they were divinely inspired, just as Paul’s citation of various Greek poets (see Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Tit. 1:12) does not attribute divine inspiration to their poetry.
What evidently happened in the early centuries of Christianity was this: Christ passed on to his followers, as Holy Scriptures, the Bible which he had received, containing the same books as the Hebrew Bible today. The first Christians shared with their Jewish contemporaries a full knowledge of the identity of the canonical books. However, the Bible was not yet between two covers: it was a memorized list of scrolls. The breach with Jewish oral tradition (in some matters a very necessary breach), the alienation between Jew and Christian, and the general ignorance of Semitic languages in the church outside Palestine and Syria, led to increasing doubt concerning the canon among Christians, which was accentuated by the drawing up of new lists of the biblical books, arranged on other principles, and the introduction of new lectionaries. Such doubt about the canon could only be resolved today, in the way it was resolved at the Reformation- by returning to the teaching of the New Testament and the Jewish background against which it is to be understood [R.T. Beckwith, “The Canon of the Old Testament” in Phillip Comfort, The Origin of the Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2003) pp. 57-64].
Perhaps in Dr. Beckwith’s zeal to convert, he didn’t get a chance to read the materials put out by the other Dr. Beckwith. The other Dr. Beckwith’s major work on the Old Testament canon is entitled, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985). While no longer in print, it is available in electronic form from Logos. I’ve only presented a sparse overview. The extent of the Old Testament canon is much more complicated than simply posting an edited snippet from J.N.D. Kelly. Perhaps if Francis Beckwith revises Return to Rome, we can look forward to sympathy for the actual Old Testament canon fixed by the time of Jesus and the apostles.