In his book, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger, Catholic apologist Gary Michuta Argues Protestant apologists misuse these words from the Jewish historian Josephus:
“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…”
“Josephus is here stating, according to Protestant apologists, that all prophecy ceased after the time of Artaxerxes (i.e. the time of the events recorded in the book of Esther); it is impossible, therefore, for the Deuterocanon to be inspired Scripture because only prophets can write divinely inspired books. Josephus, in other words, believed that a closed fixed canon of only twenty-two books (i.e. the equivalent of the Protestant Old Testament canon) had existed for hundreds of years by his time and no other works were considered Scripture. (Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger p. 52)
Are Protestant apologists arguing Josephus says all prophecy ceased, therefore the apocrypha is not canonical? In his book, Michuta doesn’t give any examples which Protestant apologists he’s speaking of. This would indeed be helpful in evaluating his claim to determine whether or not it is a strawman. Indeed, Protestant apologists cite Josephus, but the emphasis is on his mentioning a twenty-two book Jewish canon, and his non-canonical treatment of those books which came after the time of Artaxerxes.
The entire key to this discussion is the interpretation of the words, “exact succession of prophets.” Michuta, who says he’s following the interpretation of Rebecca Gray, concludes the phrase means “a continuous and sometimes overlapping historical narrative” (p.54). In other words, the books previous to the apocrypha cover all the years of Jewish history consecutively, whereas the apocryphal books contain gaps in the historical years they cover. Therefore, this does not mean that Josephus believed all of prophecy ceased. Michuta points out, “Josephus never stated that all prophecy ceased after Artaxerses, nor did he say that a succession of prophets ceased. He writes instead that an exact succession of prophets ceased” (p.53). Michuta also points out Josephus does mention prophets and prophecy after the time of Artaxerses. This leads Michuta to conclude Josephus was only defending the canon previous to Artaxerses, and then when Josephus speaks of a twenty-two book Old Testament (similar to the Protestant canon), Josephus can’t be trusted (see my previous entry).
What of this interpretation? First, it is an awkward interpretation, failing to interpret the context of Josephus words reasonably. Michuta’s conclusion has to arrive at Josephus can only be trusted with facts that support the Roman Catholic view of history. The statements from Josephus about a twenty-two-book canon do not sit well in popular Catholic apologetic argumentation, therefore, Josephus can’t be trusted on certain statements in the immediate context of Against Apion 1.41.
Second, his interpretation has to conclude that the post-Artaxerses books mentioned are really held to be sacred scripture by Josephus. Michuta argues Josephus really did believe the apocryphal books were sacred scripture (p.54-55), even though the Jewish historian clearly says they are not (“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“). This conclusion cannot make any sense of Josephus stating the Jews are willing to die for twenty-two canonical books. How odd for Josephus to make such strong statements delineating two types of Jewish books, if in fact, as Michuta argues, there is not really a difference! Michuta has to account for why Josephus would make such a perilous distinction, if in fact there isn’t one.
Third, Michuta fails to entertain any counter explanations to the phrase “exact succession of prophets.” That is, are there any other interpretations that stand stronger than that put forth in Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger? On what basis of comparison did Michuta determine that his conclusion of interpretation is the only, or correct conclusion? What would happen if an interpretation of this phrase in Against Apion 1.41 put all the facts together coherently? What if an interpretation could be provided that does not have to resort to “Josephus’ comments are certainly impeachable” (p.56). This would be a conclusion that I would want to hear, or at least be aware of if it were my book.
Michuta is correct that a survey of Josephus’ writings show he did not hold the phenomenon of prophecy ceased to exist. The question is, what is the difference between the pre-Artaxerses prophecy and the post- Artaxerses prophecy for Josephus? There is an interpretation that gives coherence to the phrase “exact succession of prophets” and answers this question:
Josephus is quite clear in formulating a qualitative difference between prophecy prior the period of Artaxerses and prophecy following the period of Artaxerses. So long as there was an exact succession of prophets, from Moses on, literary prophecy was possible. Once there was a break in that exact succession of prophets, after the period of Artaxerses, isolated instance of prophecy were possible, but not literary prophecy. Perhaps, for Josephus prophecy and history were integrally bound up with each other and linked to Moses, the greatest prophet and historian. The stress may well have been on the historical aspects of literary prophecy. Only a continuous history could be deemed inspired. Interrupted or sporadic histories are by definition incomplete and therefore inferior. Once the chain was broken, nothing new could be added to the biblical canon” [Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata (ed.), Josephus, The Bible, and History (Brill Academic Publishers, 1989 p.56)] (Emphasis mine).