Wednesday after Pentecost 5
July 4, 2012
The Lord be with you
This is now the third (and final) post about the Old Testament canon and how it came to be recognized as the inspired word of God by Christians. As mentioned earlier, during the days of Jesus the Old Testament documents were not contained in a book but on scrolls. The development of books was actually advanced by Christians who wanted an easier way to reference their scriptures. (Imagine how hard it would be to find Jeremiah, chapter 33, or Psalm 101, if you had to keep rolling through a scroll!).
Rome conquered Jerusalem in 70 ad, destroying the Temple and sending the Jews into exile. The Christian Church had been around for about 40 years. The Jewish scriptures survived for several reasons. First, the Jews of the Diaspora had copies of the LXX. Second, many Jews saw the handwriting on the wall and fled before Rome attacked. Some of these took copies of the scriptures in Hebrew with them. Third, Hebrew copies of the scriptures could be found in at least some of the synagogues. Fourth, the Christians had inherited the Jewish attitude of accepting the scriptures of the Old Testament as the word of God, and so had many copies of the LXX. Of course, as indicated earlier, there was still some debate as to which of the scrolls should be considered the inspired word of God and which were written by deeply devout authors, but not exactly inspired.
With the destruction of the temple, the position of the Sadducees, that only the first five books of the Bible had authority as the word of God, was lost. The temple was their power base. They were the ones who offered the sacrifices. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had a canon that included what we call the Old Testament. Depending on whether you were a Palestine Jew or a Jew of the Diaspora determined what books were included in your scriptures. However, the LXX was considered on equal footing with the Hebrew Scriptures. The story about its origin underscored the assumed divine affidavit. When Jews and Christians engaged in conversations about the Old Testament and how it should be understood, it was based on the LXX.
The leaders of the Jews became acutely aware of several things. One, based on the LXX translation of the Old Testament, many passages were congenial to the Christian understanding of their history. Two, several books of the LXX were originally written in Greek. There was no Hebrew original. Third, there were additions to some of the books that were not represented in existing Hebrew texts and they were unknown to the Jews in Palestine. So, over a couple of hundred years, a group of Jews known as the Massorites, produced a Hebrew text known today as the Massoritic Text. This text came to be regarded as the authoritative text for Jews. Christians, however, continued to use the LXX. This translation continues to be the source for the Old Testament for the “Orthodox” or “Eastern” Churches to this day. They have the largest number of books in their Old Testament.
Moving over to the West, Rome made their presence known in Palestine during the days of the Maccabees. Once invited in, they never left. With Rome came the Latin language. Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. As it moved west, it moved into areas where Latin was the dominant language. To accommodate the Christians in these areas, Latin translations were made of the Old Testament by various people. The quality was uneven and they were based on the LXX.
Pope Damasus I, in 382, commissioned Jerome (347 – 420) to make a revision of the old Latin translations so the Latin-speaking church could have a dependable translation. It was expected that Jerome would also base his translation on the LXX. However, Jerome learned Hebrew to make his translation. He discovered the same thing that the Massorites had discovered. Jerome, though, had far too great a respect for the LXX and the role it had in the Christian Church to just dump the portions of the LXX that didn’t have a background in existing Hebrew texts. Who’s to say that God couldn’t inspire something in the Greek language? He did it with the New Testament. Who’s to say that the translators of the LXX didn’t have earlier copies of Hebrew manuscripts that had been lost in the 500–plus years between the development of the Massoritic Text and the LXX translation?
Jerome hit upon a compromise, of sorts. He translated the Old Testament from the Hebrew. (This is that portion of the Bible used by Jews today and called the Tanakh.) Then he translated the portions not found in his Hebrew text, but found in the LXX, and put those in a separate section between the Old and the New Testaments. His translation is known today as the Vulgate, from Latin meaning “common.” The Vulgate was the Bible for the “common man.”
Skip ahead a thousand years. The books in this middle section of the Vulgate, while greatly prized, had lost some of their authority. In other words, in the West, they were not considered inspired by God. This was the attitude that Jerome had and, over time, it carried the day. The Church in the West was basically using the same books as Jews for the Old Testament Canon. Something was about to happen that would change that.
In the 1500s, the Reformation broke out in Europe. One of the tenants of the Reformers was that all Christian doctrine needed to be founded on the Scriptures. A number of the doctrines of the Roman Church came under fire because they had no scriptural support. Such things like Purgatory and Indulgences were especially attacked as lacking support in the Bible. The Council of Trent (December 13, 1545 to December 4, 1563) was convened to respond to the challenge of the Reformation. One of the things they did was revisit the books Jerome had placed in-between the Old and New Testament. In them they found several passages which, if understood from a certain angle, could provide them with the much desired “biblical support” for their views. So the council selected a number of these books and declared them to be scriptural. (The Orthodox Churches had been accepting these books all along.) Trent called them “deutero-canonical,” meaning “second canon,” as they said their canonicity was recognized only later. Thus the Roman Catholics have a larger Old Testament than most Protestants, but a smaller one than Orthodox believers.
This basically concludes what I want to say on this topic. Some may object to this ending, noting that I haven’t said which books I think belong in the Old Testament. To make such a judgment would lead me to those “theological” considerations I mentioned in the first post. There are plenty of people who weigh in on this topic. As a Lutheran minister, I subscribe to the Book of Concord as a faithful expression of my Christian Faith. This book contains a number of different documents. One of them is the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. On this topic it reads, “We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone”. It never numbers or lists which books are “prophetic and apostolic.” In that spirit, I am also not going to list “John’s official list of books in the Old Testament.”
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
Blessings in Christ
Pastor John Rickert