A Fourth-Century Closure of the Old Testament Canon? (Part 1)

Hahneman-book coverOne of the key elements of a modern definition of canon or a list is closure. The question of when was the canon or list of the Old Testament sacred scriptures closed has become the topic of much debate. Furthermore, some scholars have tied the closing of the New Testament canon to the question of the closing of the OT canon.

Geoffrey Mark Hahnman in The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon says:

The Muratorian Fragment as traditionally dated at the end of the second century contrasts greatly with the establishing of the Old Testament in the fourth century. The Fragment clearly represents a New Testament canon. To accept its traditional date would suggest that the Church was engaged in defining a New Testament canon more than 150 years before it began fixing an Old Testament canon. While this is not impossible, it is unlikely, and it must have been such a consideration that encouraged Sundberg to reconsider the date of the Fragment (83).

Hahneman is more concerned with the Muratorian Fragment and its significance for the NT canon than the OT canon. He relies heavily on the arguments of Albert Sundberg for the formation of the Christian Old Testament in this section. It is worth reviewing the lines of evidence he presents.

(1) The NT quotes and alludes to books from the Jewish canon and other religious literature without distinction (74–5). Also, early Christians do not appear to make a distinction between the Jewish canonical books and other books. Therefore, “the Jewish canon appears not to have been closed in the days of the New Testament writers” (75).

(2) The works found at Qumran included quotations from and allusions to the books of the Jewish canon which are indistinguishable from quotations from and allusions to other Jewish scriptures outside the canon. That the sect at Qumran and early Christianity had a similar treatment of religious writings indicates to Sundberg and Hahneman that the Jewish canon had not been closed (75).

(3) Josephus (C. Ap. 1.37-41) and 4 Ezra 14.19-48 (c. 100) with their references to 22 books and 24 books respectively are the first indicators of a closed Jewish canon (75-6).

(4) Jewish disputes over certain books persisted into the second and third centuries. Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs were discussed at Jamnia (c. 90). Esther and Ezekiel were disputed into the third century. Ben Sira / Ecclesiasticus was quoted three times as Scripture in the Talmud, even though it was not part of the Jewish canon. Some rabbis still disputed Proverbs, Esther, Ezekiel, and Ruth (76). Hahneman thus concludes that although the concept of a closed canon was present from the end of the first century, the contents of such a closed canon were still disputed (76).

(5) Confusion over the exact contents of the Jewish canon is evidenced by Christian writers. Hahneman points to Melito’s answer to a brother Onesimus, who is apparently confused on the exact number and order of the books. Melito goes back east to find the answers. Melito provides the contents of the Jewish canon in answer to his brother’s questions.

In the third century, Origen provides a list of the twenty-two Jewish books. Hahneman concludes, “Both lists that Melito and Origen presented are clearly Jewish catalogues and not Christian ones” (77). Hahneman interprets Origen as drawing a distinction between Jewish scriptures and the Church’s scriptures (Ad Africanum 5, 9, 13). Any suggestion by Origen to limit the canon to the Jewish canon is to be chalked up to polemics and apologetic arguments against the Jews. Apparently, he understands Melito’s list the same way (77). A point that needs to be addressed in the next post is why Hahneman omitted any discussion of the so-called Bryennios List at this juncture, since it is an early Christian list with a probable Jewish milieu for its source.

(6) The fourth-century, Eastern Fathers correlated their canon lists to the Jewish canon. They “appear to have accepted the proposition that the Old Testament of the Church should be limited to the Jewish canon….Thus while the Eastern Fathers may have accepted the proposition that the Old Testament of the Church should be limited to books of the Jewish canon, they did not at first completely integrate this conviction into their usage” (80–1). Thus the fourth-century, Eastern Fathers decided to form their OT canon according to the Jewish canon. Sundberg, essentially, says they revised the original, wider Christian Old Testament to the narrower Jewish one against tradition. Hahneman agrees with this conclusion on page 83. But whatever canon they devised, they cited more books than were included in their lists. Hahneman interprets the situation as one of inconsistency, but alternative explanations are at hand and will be presented in the next post.

(7) The Western Fathers do not feel the same compulsion to limit their use of the Jewish scriptures to the Jewish canon. Hilary basically aligned his list with Origen’s and therefore the East. The later western church councils at Hippo and Carthage affirmed Augustine’s witness to a larger body of Jewish scriptures than the Jewish canon. Jerome represents a back lash to this conclusion and only accepted books originally written in Hebrew. He rejected the six apocryphal books (81).

Hahneman concludes:

In summary, it is clear that not only did the Church not inherit a canon of Scripture from Judaism, but that the Church was forced to determine an Old Testament canon for itself (81, 83).

In the next post, some response to these lines of evidence will be given as well as a brief hypothesis for the relationship of the closing of the OT canon to the NT canon.

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11 thoughts on “A Fourth-Century Closure of the Old Testament Canon? (Part 1)

  1. Great post. I appreciate your analysis. Do you see a difference between a book being used as scripture or referred to as scripture and that book being canonical?
    Is a canonical list necessarily required to be ‘closed’ for a group of authoritative books to function as scripture and thus canonically?
    I have never understood the distinction between scriptural use and canobical use.

    1. Thanks, Timothy. One minor correction to the way you have phrased matters: all of these works would be considered scripture. The question is over whether they are canonical scripture or useful / intermediate scripture. So the answer to your first question is no, we can’t discern what an author thought based on citations and introductory formulae alone, since these citations usually reveal scriptural status, not necessarily canonical status.

      To your second question, there is more debate since most scholars think that “canon” equals closed list. Thus these scholars would say that communities had sacred scriptures but no canon, no closed, final list of books. Other scholars would respond and claim that although no final list existed (or has been discovered yet), these scriptures were *functioning* as canon from an earlier period than the appearance of the first lists. Thus much of the answer to this question depends on one’s definition of canon. Does this make sense? There will be more on this topic in Part 2 of this series next week.

      Have I understood your questions?

      1. Thanks John. I would love to meet up sometime aslo with Peter too and visit Phoenix Seminary. I was originally going to go to the Oct 27 event at PS but now I may be out of town due to work.

  2. John,

    This is how I understand the problem of the Old Testament Canon.

    It appears that Jamnia had become the religious thought center for the rabbinical school of the Pharisees. This would mean that Judaism today is really Pharisaical Judaism. Thus, since they were faced the fact that early Christians had an affinity with the Septuagint (and, I might add, the Jews of Palestine and the Diasphora also), it is believed that they refined the books traditional to Judaism, particularly the Writings. Jamnia considered 4 criteria to determine which of the Writings – such as Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Song of Songs – should be retained for the Hebrew canon for Judaism:

    1. The book should conform to the Torah.
    2. It was written before the time of Ezra (circa 450 BC).
    3. It was written in Hebrew.
    4. It was composed in Judah or Israel.

    Thus, some of the choices made at Jamnia, and later as well, are a reaction against Christianity.

    This would appear to create a problem with modern historical-critical scholarship since the dates of those included in the OT canon do NOT conform to number 2 above. Number 3 would conform to what Jerome thought on the matter. Furthermore, Jesus’ own statements in Luke 24:27, “and beginning with Moses and all the prophets” [Pentateuch and Former and Latter Prophets; Writings(?)]; 24:44, “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” This would indicate that Jesus broke down the Tanakh into the Law of Moses (Pentateuch), Prophets (Historical Books and Major and Minor Prophets) and Wisdom Literature (Psalms-Song of Songs). I do understand that there is some fluidity in the placements of some of the books of the OT. It appears, though, that the books of what is called the Apocrypha, are not included.

    Finally, just because a book is quoted, or in the case of the DSS, found alongside the known books of the Old Testament books does not necessarily mean that they were considered Scripture or Canon.

    1. Bryant, thanks for your comments.
      Most scholars now do not see Jamnia/Yavneh as making any decisions related to the canon. From the scattered statements from the Rabbis, we can discern some criteria such as the ones you mentioned. Thus it’s not clear that Jews (Pharisaical or otherwise) made decisions on the canon in reaction to budding Christianity’s affinity for the Septuagint. It’s not even clear what “Septuagint” means at this point. Did it include the books called apocryphal or not?

      Part of the trouble with Luke 24:44 and similar statements from this period is that the contents of each part are not clear. You say that the so-called “Apocryphal” books appear not have been included. Perhaps. But not all scholars are as settled on these matters.

      I do agree with your third point. There will be more on this point later in next week’s post.

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