Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Augustine and Jerome: Authority and the OT Biblical Canon (Intro)


We live in an era of a fractured church, torn between conflicting doctrines and authorities. One of these conflicts is over the content of Scripture itself. While there is general agreement on the content of the New Testament, the church has not reached a consensus with its Old Testament canon, although each denomination seems settled on the matter. Canonical lists differ significantly between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches and it is easy to miss that some of our most cherished beliefs held today have been influenced by notable figures and trends from the past.

After defining canonical, I will examine two devoted contemporaries— Augustine and Jerome—in their disagreement over which books were considered part of the Old Testament canon. Once I have overviewed some of their influences and reasons for taking their stances, I will consider their reasons and make a case for which canon is more substantive and should be adopted by the church today.


Before launching into a discussion on the books Augustine and Jerome accepted into their Old Testament canon, it is important to establish what is meant by canon in this paper. Dr. Lee McDonald recognizes that “In its popular use today, canon speaks primarily of a closed collection of sacred Scriptures that Jews and Christians believe had their origins in God and are divinely inspired.”[1] This leaves us with the problem of what to call those books believed to be divinely inspired, but have not been fixed by any counsel or Christian group. This is where McDonald acknowledges that Sheppard’s distinction between canon 1 and canon 2 proves useful.

In this paper, I will be using canon 1 to refer to those books thought to be inspired or having the status of Scripture within Christendom without being standardized or fixed by the church of its time. One could say that some books in this category are in the process of being fixed by a council or by some other means, but this is not always the case as some books that were once considered authoritative by certain groups are not anymore. Canon 2 will refer to “a perpetual fixation or standardization, namely, when the books of the Bible were fixed or standardized.”[2]When I analyze Augustine and Jerome’s Old Testament canons, it will be with a canon 1 concept in mind. When their positions and reasons are considered in relation to what he church today should accept, it is a canon 2 that will be in view. In other words, given Augustine and Jerome’s reasons for accepting the books they did (canon 1), which books should we consider fixed or standardized as sacred Scripture (canon 2)?

The Landscape

As the message of Christ spread throughout the gentile world, canonical confusion developed over the Old Testament. At times, it was to such an extent that some Christian leaders, such as Melito, bishop of Sardis, sought out the Jews. The church began within Judaism, so the natural conclusion was that early Christianity would inherit the Old Testament from the Jewish community. But this begs the question: ought the Jews be relied upon when establishing Christian Scripture? There was another issue as well. Many relied on the authority of the Septuagint (LXX)—the Old Testament translated into Greek by the legendary 70 (LXX) who supposedly independently arrived at the same translation and were believed by some to be inspired in their own right.

Furthermore, the LXX was widely used by the apostles themselves in the New Testament, and it often had significantly different wording than the Hebrew in some areas. There were also other books and additions to existing books that were not found in the Jewish canon, but appeared in some of the Septuagint copies. Many thought the Jews had tampered with their own Scriptures to avoid the truth of Christianity. This was the world of Augustine and Jerome (347-430 AD) who lived when ideas on the church’s authority and what constituted Scripture were still in flux, serving as a beginning for the views we hold dear today. The two will serve as teachers, enabling us to challenge and further understand what we consider canonically fixed.

[1] Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority(Peabody: Hendrickson Pub Inc, 2007), 38.

[2] Ibid., 55.

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