Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso: The Post-Game Show

Scripture cannot be broken,” declared the Lord Jesus. He meant the Old Testament, of course; the New Testament had yet to be written. Today, his words legitimately apply to our entire Bible, but we must be careful not to hurl around the word “scripture” too casually, or to knowingly go beyond what the Lord Jesus intended when he made this powerful and sweeping claim.

My goal in examining the Apocrypha at length was not merely to provide light entertainment by snidely dissing books other people have found spiritually helpful. At the outset, I expressed the hope that the exercise would help us better define what it is about the canonical Old Testament that “distinguishes it from all the other religious writings, folktales, stories and myths with which human history is replete,” and I trust we’ve made good on that to some extent.

Nevertheless, it’s sometimes useful to spell these things out rather than expecting people to read between the lines.

Ten Identifying Features of the Old Testament Canon

So here, in more-or-less descending order, are ten important features of canonical Old Testament books. At least, these things have become important to me. I have no idea what criteria were used by the various individuals and committees that over centuries past made decisions about what to include and exclude in our Bibles, but it seems highly likely some or all of these features would have carried weight with them too.

Not every characteristic is present in every OT book, but I think it’s fair to say every book generally accepted as canonical by Protestants possesses five or more of these characteristics. The non-canonical books accepted by other Christians do not.
  1. It is cited authoritatively by Christ and the writers of the NT. By “authoritatively”, I mean it is used to determine doctrine or practice. Paul quotes heathen poets and prophets to Gentile audiences, but nothing of significance hangs on them. Including quotations they attribute to the Lord Jesus, the writers of the NT make reference to all but five of the OT books as they existed at the time of Christ. (The present 39 books were at that time arranged as either 22 or 24, depending on where you are reading, so a reference to Jeremiah also validates Lamentations, which was included with it, etc.)
  2. It contains no evidence of fraud. By “fraud” I mean a clear and deliberate attempt on the part of the author to deceive his audience about matters of fact. Recording someone else’s lies or mistakes in fact as part of a historical record is not fraud. Numerical inconsistencies or logical scribal errors in parallel passages are not falsehood. On the other hand, a book (the Book of Wisdom) originally composed in Greek that claims King Solomon as its author amounts to transparent shenanigans.
  3. It makes the claim to be speaking for God. Of course the mere claim is not proof in itself: a book in which such a claim is made may disqualify itself on other grounds. But books that assert “God said” demand we consider the evidence of their truthfulness in a way that commentaries, histories and opinions do not. Moreover, if God has really spoken, we would expect him to say so, at least occasionally. Thus the fact that the scribe Baruch makes this claim repeatedly for Jeremiah’s prophecies but never for what is held to be his own writing is significant.
  4. It is historically consistent. By this I do not mean consistent with the claims of historians, which vary from expert to expert and change regularly, but internally consistent with the Old Testament canon. Judith conflicts with the timelines established in Kings and Chronicles. The Book of Jubilees conflicts with the accounts in Genesis. The lion’s den story in Bel and the Dragon even conflicts with other chapters in the book of which it is claimed to be part (Daniel). While there are rare and minor instances within the OT canon where dates do not quite add up, the difficulties in reconciling them amount to a few years, as opposed to decades or centuries.
  5. It is doctrinally and theologically consistent. Can the teachings of one Old Testament writer be made to reconcile with the others without some elaborate contrivance? Generally they can, and sometimes the apparent doctrinal contradictions are quite illuminating. Apocryphal books like Tobit, on the other hand, struggle mightily to approach anything resembling theological orthodoxy.
  6. There is internal and/or external evidence as to a plausible date and logical original language. Internal evidence means the date claims in the text itself, such as “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord” or “In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me.” External evidence involves manuscripts and the expert criticism of texts. If, for instance, as is thought by scholars, the Book of Wisdom was written in Egypt in the Greek language a full 800 years after Solomon died, it self-disqualifies as scripture several times over. In the canon, however, what is written is in harmony with the historical setting in which it is claimed to have been given. (I recognize there are many modern secular critics who late-date the prophets; equally, there are well-established, credentialed defenders of the dates found in the text itself. External evidence need only be given serious consideration when it becomes something approaching unanimous.)
  7. It forms part of the Hebrew text tradition. Paul says, “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Such a statement suggests a local view of what constituted the Hebrew Old Testament would carry more weight than a Gentile opinion, or so it seems to me. So while the (Greek) Septuagint is a highly significant translation which has been extremely helpful to later students of the Hebrew in trying to determine the intended meaning of ancient texts, the fact that it is a translation rather than an original source means the Septuagint cannot serve as the be-all-and-end-all with respect to canonicity. There are ongoing arguments between experts as to the existence of Hebrew text traditions other than the Masoretic for which solid evidence can be produced. If and when these “traditions” can be consistently documented, they will warrant serious consideration.
  8. It is relevant to the Bible’s overarching narrative. As has been noted by even casual Bible students like Jordan Peterson, the Bible tells a story. It has a genuine narrative arc, and is not merely a collection of ancient religious documents that say stuff about God. The risen Christ told his disciples he was the subject of the Old Testament, and he graciously walked them through “all the scriptures” to prove his point. Ian Duguid, among many others, asserts, “The center of the Old Testament is Christ.” Others have done the legwork to demonstrate this is indisputably the case; one good example may be found here. Books like Maccabees and Wisdom, though historically interesting and likely substantially true, fail to add anything of note to that narrative.
  9. It is tonally consistent. Even if the Bible’s characters were simply authorial constructs rather than real people, we would expect inspired writers to keep them in character. Notwithstanding the findings of the “higher critics”, the canonical versions of familiar OT characters consistently ring true. Abraham is Abraham throughout his story, and David is David, with all their attendant flaws and strong suits. When Solomon apostatizes, we are given sound reasons. It is part of his “arc”, and quite believable. But when Daniel doesn’t talk or behave like the Daniel we know (Susanna), there’s an obvious problem. Likewise, when the tone of the historical Old Testament is dispassionate and evenhanded, a sudden burst of rampant patriotic fervor or hyper-editorializing on the part of the writer (2 Maccabees) is more than a little suspect.
  10. It is not redundant. Don’t get me wrong, we’re deeply grateful for every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord, but the Bible is already long enough that it’s hard to get Christians to read it through regularly. It is not unreasonable to suppose God also took this fact into consideration. There’s little value in circulating retreads of the same material, though they might have had some local value at certain points in history. The OT canon displays few instances of what anyone might consider redundancy, and those books that may initially appear superfluous turn out to have significant value. Chronicles, as explained here, reworks much of the material in Kings to to a different purpose for a different audience, with a notable change in emphasis, much like the Gospels in the NT. On the other hand, where 1 Esdras merely recapitulates what we find in Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles, it is unnecessary, and where it diverges, it forces us to choose between truth and error, and in doing so, dismiss along with the errors any interesting extra material it might contain.

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