Sunday, December 30, 2012

William Webster and the Canon of the Old Testament

William Webster has published a very helpful and well-researched booklet (187 pp.) entitled, "The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha."  The book is organized into three sections (chapters):
  1. The Canon of the Jews
  2. From the Jews to Jerome
  3. From Jerome to the Reformation
Webster synthesizes a number of other writers, including the excellent work of Roger Beckwith.

In the first section, Webster explains that the Jewish canon of Scripture was 22 or 24 books (depending on how you count them), which correspond to the 37 books of the "Protestant" Old Testament.  Webster demonstrates this from ancient Jewish witnesses, including the New Testament, Josephus, Philo, the Babylonian Talmud, Ecclesiasticus (LXX version), 1 Maccabees, Latin IV Esdras (2 Esdras in the NRSV), and the Essene book of Jubliees.  This witness is confirmed as being the Jewish canon by Christian writers such as Jerome, Augustine, and Origen.   Webster also explains how Aquila's and Theodotian's translations provide evidence of the 22/24/37 book canon. The New Testament confirmation for this includes, Jesus use of Abel to Zecharias, which appears to confirm the 22 book order, which begins with Genesis (Abel) and ends with 2 Chronicles (Zacharias):
Luke 11:51
From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.

Matthew 23:35
That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.
Webster also point that there was also already a three-fold division of the text by that time: the books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa also referred to as "the Psalms" because that was by far the largest book of the group.  This three-fold division is seen in the New Testament in various places, such as especially:
Luke 24:44
And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
Webster takes time to explain the problems with the argument from the inclusion of some apocrypha in the three ancient great codices of Vaticanus,  Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus.  Some RC apologists will argue that the inclusion of apocrypha in those codices show that the works were part of "the Septuagint " and that they were therefore generally accepted as inspired Scripture by the Alexandrian Jews and Christians.

Webster notes that those codices do include Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Judith, and Tobit, but that when it comes to the books of the Maccabees, Vaticanus omits the books, Sinaiticus includes books 1 and 4, and Alexandrinus includes all four of the books, and additionally the apocryphal book known as the Psalms of Solomon.

Webster also reminds the reader that Josephus used the Septuagint of his day and held to the shorter 22 book canon.  Similarly, one assumes that Philo (from Alexandria) used the Septuagint, but likewise has a shorter canon.

Webster points out that the discovery of ancient Essene materials at Qumran is not the silver bullet that RC apologists seem to think.  While it did provide some substantiation for the theory that some of the LXX books had a Semitic archetype, it did not do the same for others, and more significantly confirmed that the book of Jubilees was present in that community.

Webster cites Beckwith, who points out that the probability is that the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all had the same canon.  Some people (even some fathers) mistakenly believed that the Sadducees held only to the Pentateuch, either by confusing them with the Samaritans, or perhaps misunderstanding a portion of Josephus' writings that describe Sadducean rejection of Pharasaic (alleged) oral tradition.

Webster also refers to the objection that allegedly there are quotations from or allusions to the Apocrypha.  Interestingly, though, the only apocryphal work that arguably is assigned prophetic character in the New Testament would be 1 Enoch, a work that the Jews never considered canonical, and which the RCs likewise do not consider canonical.

The rebuttal that some of the OT books likewise are not quoted as authoritative in the New Testament cannot serve as a legitimate rebuttal, even though it is true that not every OT book is quoted as authoritative in the New Testament.  We do not say that a book has to be quoted int he New Testament to be authoritative.  Our comments regarding the absence of such quotations of the Apocrypha is evidence that confirms that the Palestinian Jewish Apostles and our Palestinian Jewish Lord agreed with the other Palestinian Jews about the canon.

The second section of the book relates to the early church up to Jerome. Webster explains the complexity of the situation with respect to the canon of Scripture. Specifically, he explains that the Eastern Church held to a more nuanced view and generally to the shorter 22 canon, with the exception of Origen. Origen, nevertheless, is a testimony to the fact that the Jews held to the shorter canon as discussed above. Clement and Cyril of Jerusalem are two examples of eastern fathers who have a shorter canon. Athanasius of Alexandria is another example.

Webster seems to think that the Western church, however, generally accepted a longer canon. However, even then, there were exceptions, such as Hilary of Poitiers. Rufinus and Jerome, in the West, are the last two examples of Western fathers (to the time of Jerome) who held to be shorter canon. Although the Council of Rome did seem to reject Amos and Obadiah they apparently accepted all of the deuterocanonical works that are accepted by Roman Catholics today. Adding to the complexity of the situation, is the fact that the term as dress could referred to several different books. Finally, Webster points outside until the Council of Trent. There was no definitive allegedly infallible list of books in the last.

In the third section, Webster begins from Jerome (giving Jerome a little bit of double coverage) and discusses the church from Jerome to the time of the Reformation. Webster's claim may seem a little surprising:
The overall practice of the Western Church with respect to the canon from the time of Jerome (early fifth century) until the Reformation was to follow the judgment of Jerome. The apocryphal books were accorded a deuterocanonical status, but were not regarded as canonical in the strict sense. That is, they were not accepted as authoritative for the establishing of doctrine but were used for the purpose of edification. Thus, the Church retained the distinctions established by Jerome, Rufinus and Athanasius of ecclesiastical and canonical books.
Webster provides evidence from Strabo et al.'s Glossa Ordinaria.

Webster documents a litany of post-Jerome Western theologians who held to a shorter canon, including many luminaries:

(see the endnotes here, for documentation of these assertions)

Webster also points out that the edition of the Bible printed by Cardinal Ximines and approved by Pope Leo X, followed Jerome and included all of Jerome's prologues, including those identifying the apocrypha as extra-canonical.

Webster's work in regard to documenting the existence of the shorter canon of Scripture down through history is notable, but is not the first such effort.  The great Anglican bishop of Durham, John Cosin, provided "A Scholastical History of the Canon of the Holy Scripture," which was first published in 1657.  The works of the editor in attempting to verify and document Cosin's citations in the edition from Cosin's works (linked above) was itself an enormous effort.

I believe that Webster probably was at least partially reliant on Cosin in locating some of the many testimonies of the medieval authors.  The result of Cosin's and Webster's work, however, is quite impressive.

And it is by no means exhaustive.  In a later post we may explore at least one area where Webster's research can be augmented.

- TurretinFan

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