Saturday, October 15, 2011

Augustine and Jerome: Authority and the OT Biblical Canon (My Reasons and Conclusions Alongside Theirs)

Apostolic Authority
After looking at the reasons and motivating factors behind Augustine and Jerome’s separate conclusions on the Old Testament canon, it is time to consider their reasons and motivations and decide which is something closer to what we should adopt. Both men used apostolic authority as one of their most important criteria and this should also be one of ours. After all, if we believe the New Testament writers are inspired, then naturally what they deem as authoritative should be readily accepted. It is true that the apostles quoted the Septuagint in an authoritative manner. Does this mean we should accept the whole Septuagint and all its additions and deletions uncritically? Jerome has already alerted us to the fact that the Septuagint omits parts of the Old Testament that Christ and the apostles appeal to as authoritative and so we already have good reason to be wary of giving the Septuagint priority over the Hebrew. Also, it should be understood that the New Testament writers (or “apostolic men”) do not authoritatively quote from any books that are additional to the Hebrew canon, but do extensively quote from books in the Hebrew canon in an authoritative manner. The only book that comes close to being an exception to this is the book of Enoch (from Jude 1:14-15), which is not in anyone’s canon except officially[1] in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Further, mere usage of a work by a New Testament writer does not guarantee the writer sees it as canonical in any sense since even pagan sources are sometimes used in the New Testament.[2] Finally, since the word of “apostolic men” weighs heavily with us, we should take heed to Paul’s word when he says in Romans 3:2 that the Jews were “entrusted with the oracles of God.” If this is the case, then our Old Testament is inherited from them from at least the time where Christ himself lists the major categories of canonical books since God Himself had entrusted the Old Testament to them.[3] One can only wonder if this is why there is complete agreement on the New Testament among all the Christian churches, but not in regards to the Old Testament.

Another part of apostolic authority Augustine thought key was the church's agreement in the form of apostolic succession, bishops and councils. Unfortunately, there was no unanimous agreement in his time and there isn’t in ours either. In fact, even within those churches claiming to still be within apostolic succession (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) there is disagreement when it comes to their Old Testament canon. Still, the reason why councils, apostolic succession, and bishops were appealed to was to get at the words and thoughts of the apostles. Jerome’s ad fontes approach seems most reasonable in this case as he not only uses the concept to go back to the Jewish source, but gives the apostles themselves priority. If we already have their words and thoughts and they are sufficiently clear (for instance telling us that God entrusted the Jews with the oracles), it seems more prudent to go with what the apostles themselves have said especially if certain ideas otherwise known to be false are accepted merely “by force of habit.”

The Authority of the Seventy
Additional books should not be considered canonical on the basis of the legend of the Seventy or the fact that certain books contained in the “Septuagint” are present there. Today it is believed that the Letter of Aristeas was written “not at a time contemporaneous with the events it describes, but in the second century B.C.E.” (a hundred years later)[4]in order to get certain Jews on board with a Greek version of their Scriptures. While it is generally agreed upon that the first five books were translated for the Alexandrian Jews the rest is uncertain and could have been translated from anywhere by anyone.  “Writers subsequent to the Letter of Aristeas add little information of substance”[5] and much embellishment. The term Septuagint itself is used to refer to more than was translated into Greek for the Alexandrians and this use of terminology often causes confusion as some would appeal to the “Septuagint” as a collection as proof of the canonicity of apocryphal literature even if the legend itself is no longer widely appealed to. When making a case for the canonical status of apocryphal books in his book Orthodox Christian Beliefs About the Bible, Stanley Samuel Harakas says,
These ten books are found together in the first translation ever made of the Hebrew Bible in the version known as the Septuagint Old Testament. It represents what Jews believed their Scriptures to be about a century before the time of Christ. It was not until after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, toward the end of the first Christian century, that these books were excluded by Jews because they were written in Greek.[6]
The Septuagint is a collection of writings and not representative of the Hebrew canon. At one point, only the five books of Moses were translated and only later were other books added, some of which the question of where the books were translated and by whom they were translated is unknown.[7] Even the term Septuagint can be confusing since it “gives the inaccurate impression that this document is a homogeneous unit….Strictly speaking, there is really no such thing as the Septuagint…which was produced by many people unknown to us, over two or three centuries, and almost certainly in more than one location.”[8]Besides, it is not unreasonable to assume that books highly prized, but not considered canonical by Jews such as Josephus would want these other works translated eventually as well. So, it is a big mistake for Stanley Harakas to say that the content of Septuagint copies “represents what Jews believed their Scriptures to be about a century before the time of Christ” since it betrays a lack of knowledge over what the Septuagint actually is as well as its process of coming together.

A Unique Interpretive Authority?
Augustine thought the Septuagint had a unique interpretive authority and so did Jerome. Their difference was in the kind of interpretive authority. Augustine thought it was prophetic and sourced in the Holy Spirit and Jerome moved away from that sort of thinking, but still seemed to ascribe a spiritual or allegorical authority to the Septuagint. Is this something we should accept? Reliance on the legend of the Seventy and their inspiration is not under consideration here and was addressed earlier.  The question is more over whether or not there is something to the idea of assigning a unique interpretive authority to the Septuagint. I don’t think we should accept its authority in an inspired sense. It is certainly an interpretation, but an infallible authority? Maybe only in so much as it can tell us how other people interpreted certain texts as they translated and give us insight into a possible different version of the Hebrew text. Still, this idea may be useful when applied to the apostolic use of the Septuagint. If we take the Septuagint as not just a translation, but an interpretation or additional insight appropriated by inspired men, then this may resolve the tension of believing the Hebrew to be over all more authoritative, but allowing for very specific exceptions. Admittedly, this understanding relies on the presupposition of apostolic authority being the highest authority and indicates that it is because they are using it and the way they are using it that the Septuagint passage has authority. Authority is not intrinsic to the Septuagint itself. This understanding also veers away from supposing all the additional books contained under the umbrella of Septuagint also have authority along with other idiosyncratic additions and omissions.

The One vs the Many and Force of Habit
Initially, I was uncertain about how to address Augustine’s “one verses many” argument and wondered if it really was an argument at all. Maybe it is better thought of as a setup that bothers him. Still, it appears important to Augustine. He simply could not believe that so many Latin and Greek authorities could be wrong or that the sheer number of the Seventy translators could be challenged by Jerome. Such a setup is difficult to answer because it is not as much cognitive as it is emotional. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge that all those authorities Augustine could not believe were mistaken in fact were. In hindsight, it is easier to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, but it wasn’t so easy then and this can serve as a lesson to some of the doctrines and views we hold today that may not be true, but that we cannot imagine being anything but true. There are many ideas and misconceptions we hold to by force of habit, and perhaps cling to no matter what evidence or criticisms are put forward because to believe otherwise might cause a rift between us and our church or cause further division within the church’s if certain ideas became more wide spread or maybe we think it will give critics of the church a foothold. Still, we are presented with the choice of accepting the truth and its consequences or leaving it for later generations to discover and sort through.

Going Back to the Jewish Source
If we are already convinced we should go back to the Jewish source, the next question arising is which Jewish source and what books the Jews accepted in their canon. Many are quick to point out the different groups within Judaism and competing canons of each. Which Jews should be take as authoritative? The Pharisees? Essenes? Samaritans? The most likely place to look would be the context of Jesus when He gave the major categories of the canonical books and the majority of the apostles— and that would take us to the Palestinian Pharisaic canon. Since we do not have sources that are contemporary with Jesus that spell out a canon for us, we must rely on sources that are close to His time. There are several reasons to think the canon the Jews and Protestants hold to now was more similar t0 the canon of Christ and His apostles.

First, there is the “centuries of silence” to consider. We saw earlier that even Augustine was aware that the prophetic voice had stopped until the advent of Christ beginning with the father of John the Baptist. The Jews also believed this. For instance, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus who has been key to our modern understanding of the political, social, and intellectual context of the Bible proves helpful to us in this instance. Josephus tells us how many books were in the Jewish canon, somewhat the content, the nature of other historical books, and the existence of the silent period. When it comes to the centuries of silence, Josephus says, “It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time (emphasis mine).”[9]This tells us the time frame of the centuries of silence and mentions the resulting lack of inspired books during these centuries. Even 1 Macc 9:27 says, “So there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them (emphasis mine).”[10] Those in the Maccabean period acknowledged prophecy had ceased and were distressed by it. This agrees with Josephus’ account as does several others.
Also, in 2 Baruch 85:1-3 it is said,
Know ye, moreover, that in former times and in the generations of old those our fathers had helpers, righteous men and holy prophets; nay, more, we were in our own land, and they helped us when we sinned and they interceded for us to Him Who made us, because they trusted in their works, and the Mighty One heard their prayer and forgave us. But now the righteous have been gathered, and the prophets have fallen asleep, and we also have gone forth from the land, and Zion hath been taken from us; and we have nothing now save the Mighty One and His Law (emphasis mine). [11]
If there was no prophetic voice at the time the apocryphal books were composed and we do not buy into Augustine’s reasons for the apocryphal books having apostolic authority behind them, then we cannot accept them as inspired works. There are other reasons for thinking the Pharisaic Jewish canon was limited to what we have now as well. Josephus even tells us his canon is limited “For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine.”[12] Afterwards he also mentions there are other books that are highly prized, but not to die for. Knowledge that there were other Jewish books read often and considered important, but not canonical explains how the later gentile Christian community could have become confused later as to which books belonged to the Old Testament and which ones did not. It was not so much a conspiracy to suppress books on the part of the Jews as it was that they never held those books to be canonical to begin with.

Jubillees, a book widely known in the earlier Christian Church and reflected in Christian literature in the mid second century, supports Josephus’ claims. The quotation reads something like: God, as it says, created (22) works in the six days, wherefore also there are 22 letters among the Hebrews and 22 books, and 22 founding fathers from Adam to Jacob”[13] The number twenty-two has shown up again and, is continually mentioned as to assume the contents were well known.[14] The number matches what Jerome who claimed to be informed of Jewish practices also said of the number of their books. The number rules out many apocryphal additions.  Another source indicating an earlier canon comes from Melito, bishop of Sardis who gives a list around 170AD. He presents a list of Old Testament books in the form of a letter to his friend, Onesimus. He had made a journey to consult the Jews in order to clear up the confusion in his region over the number of books when reports both the name and number of books. His list likely has all of the books in the Protestant canon except for Esther. Melito informs us:
…When I came to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, and learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, I set down the facts… These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua Son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of kingdoms, two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [Minor Prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras.[15]
In this list, Samuel is put in with Kings, Lamentations in Jeremiah, Ezra-Nehemiah are put as Esdras[16] and “Solomon’s Proverbs of Wisdom” are most likely another name for Proverbs if we follow the labels of Eusebius, Hegesippus and Irenaeus.[17] The book count will still differ (from the 22) because Samuel and Kings are counted as four, Judges and Ruth as two and the same for Chronicles. This way of numbering gives us a count of 25 books which is due to the books being kept on scrolls. In all, Melito’s account helps us understand not only what the Jews considered authoritative, but the problem the earlier Christian communities were having with the Old Testament when they first started becoming confused about which books were canonical and witch ones were merely good for reading.

Lastly, there is the source widely used by Jerome, Origen (AD 185-254). Origen embarked on a major project representing the Old Testament in six columns. His work is known as the Hexapla. He did this so that people could be aware of the different textual traditions and make comparisons. He noted where the Septuagint omits or adds to parts of the Hebrew text. His count for the Old Testament books accepted by the Jews is similar to the others numbering at 22.[18] He also gives lists of the books with the Hebrew alongside the Greek and Esther is included.[19]

[1] When I visited Ethiopia and spoke to many of the Orthodox members it became clear that most of them did not even use the book in every day reading or worship. Many did not even know there was a book of Enoch.
[2] One example is Paul’s use of hymns originally directed to Zeus in Acts 17.
[3] We can assume he listed categories with the understanding that the Jews actually knew what content made up those categories at the time.
[4] Karen Jobes, Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 34.
[5] Ibid., 36.
[6] Stanley Samuel Harkas. Orthodox Christian Beliefs About the Bible (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Company, 2003) 46-47
[7] Martin Hengel, 19-20,25.
[8] Jobes and Silva, 29-30.
[9] Josephus , Against Apion, 1:41.
[10] Also see Macc4:46 and 14:41.
[11] Rev. Canon R. H. Charles. The Apocalypse of Baruch and the Assumption of Moses (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929) 94.
[12] Josephus, Against Apion ,1 8:38.
[13] Roger Beckwith, 236.
[14] Jesus also seems to assume common knowledge of the canonical books when He mentions the Law, Prophets and Psalms in Luke 24:44. Dr. Lee McDonald on p93-100 in The Biblical Canon gives probably one of the best critiques along with two other widely used passages: Luke 11:48-51 and Matthew 23:34-35.
[15]F.F. Bruce. The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988) 71.
[16] Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity (Tubingen: J.C. B. Mohr, 1991) 10.
[17] Bruce, 71.
[18] Bruce, 73.
[19] 1 and 2 Esdras are Ezra-Nehemiah according to Jerome’s Vulgate. See Bruce 74.