A Fourth-Century Closure of the Old Testament Canon? (Part 2)

Hahneman-book coverIn the last post, we looked at Geoffrey Hahneman’s reasons for a fourth-century date for the closing of the Old Testament canon. In this post, I supply some response to his interpretation of the evidence.

(1) Hahneman began with the evidence of the New Testament (74–5). Though NT usage of religious literature will continue to be debated, Oskar Skarsaune, in a significant essay in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. 1, concludes:

There has been much scholarly debate on the question of whether “circumstantial evidence” (i.e. the actual use of authoritative books) in the first century CE supports or contradicts the notion of a “closed” canon in that period. If quotation frequency is regarded as significant circumstantial evidence, the New Testament seems to indicate that its authors (with the one exception mentioned [1 Enoch in Jude]) quoted the Hebrew canon, and its books only, as Scripture (445).

According to formal quotation or citation, the NT only uses books from the Hebrew canon. Sundberg and Hahneman argue that NT authors reflect on books from a wider body of literature, but the question is whether that usage constitutes the same appeal to authority as direct quotation/citation. Skarsaune and most discern a difference.

(2) Hahneman appealed to Qumran for a similar picture (75). But like the above point, the question over usage of texts is problematic, since it is difficult to gauge differences between books from this evidence set.

(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). This is true. Josephus does say that these books and only these twenty-two books have been considered worthy of full trust by Jews for a long time. His statement does indicate that the Jews have had a closed canon for some time. Philo’s and the NT’s citations appear to support his statement. Perhaps, the Essenes and the Sadducees less so.

(4) Jewish disputes over certain books persisted into the second and third centuries. Though disputes over certain books persisted, it does appear that these discussions were over whether to keep in books that were already considered to be part of an exclusive list. Perhaps, the very presence of disputes shows a canon only recently closed. But at the same time, Martin Luther continued to dispute the presence of books long considered “in.” On-going dispute does not necessarily show recent decision. It may only show on-going wrestling with the teachings within books already accepted among Jews and Christians.

(5) Confusion over the exact contents of the Jewish canon is evidenced by Christian writers. This point by Hahneman is crucial and it had two parts: (a) Melito went back East to learn the Jewish list and (b) Origen devised a list of Jewish books for polemical purposes.

Regarding the former, Hahneman does not note the difficulty of whether Melito went back East to consult Christians or Jews. It seems clear he believes Melito consulted with Jews. However, it seems far more likely that Melito went back East to consult with Christians, not Jews, since there was a rather prominent synagogue in Sardis, from which he could have gained an answer. Thus one could and probably should interpret the confusion as not over the Jewish canon per se, but rather Christian reception of it. Therefore, Melito’s list should be interpreted as a Christian list from the East that  reflects influence from the Jewish synagogue given its contents. It is not at all clear that this list was put together for Jewish-Christian polemics as Hahneman suggested.

Regarding the latter, no doubt, Origen undertook much scholarship for polemical and apologetic reasons. However, it is not clear from his canon list that is what he was doing. Rather, Origen appears to be limiting the canon of the church to the Jewish scriptures. If he speaks well of or cites other books as scripture in other writings, it may not be an indication that he thought they belonged in the canon but only that he had a high regard for these writings (see (6) below).

As a third point of response, it is interesting that Hahneman does not mention the so-called Bryennios List. Perhaps, it is because Sundberg did not treat it either. However, recent scholarship has shown that we should locate this list of scriptural books in the first half of the second century. This list also largely agrees with the Jewish canon. If this is the case, then we may now add a third list to the second and third centuries. These lists probably show that early Christians consciously formed their Old Testament according to the Jewish canon.

A fourth counter point comes from Skarsaune (see (1) above), who notes that even in the second century, Christian authors seem to have restricted themselves to the books of the Hebrew canon when they formally quoted Scripture (446). Thus the list of Melito matched those scriptural books from which Christians formally cited in the second century.

(6) Hahneman, following Sundburg, supposed that the fourth-century, Eastern Fathers correlated their canon lists to the Jewish canon as a revision to the Church’s tradition. The response to this claim depends in large part on exegesis of those fourth-century lists and also how one interprets the earlier evidence under point (5) above. Some fathers (e.g. Cyril of Jerusalem) claim that their lists go back to Jesus and the apostles of the first century. The proof that their claims are largely correct is that their lists mainly agree with those from the second and third centuries and the pattern of citations from books included in the Jewish canon. The seeming inconsistency between a father drafting a narrower list of canonical books and the same father citing from books not included in his list, even as Scripture, can best be explained when we consider that the canon list does not exhaust all of the books considered to be scripture and there are scriptural books outside the canon list. That is, patristic biblical theory included canonical books alongside useful and beneficial scriptural books not considered to be canonical.

Therefore, Sundburg and Hahneman’s interpretation of the fourth-century, Eastern fathers is tenuous, and thus, problematic for a view that the OT canon was closed in the same century. Instead of being innovative, the fourth-century fathers appear rather conservative with regard to the church’s traditional OT canon.

(7) The Western Fathers do not feel the same compulsion to limit their use of the Jewish scriptures to the Jewish canon. The Latin West has a mixed record, with the later lists favoring the wider OT canon that included the deuterocanonical or apocryphal books. Hilary, Rufinus, and Jerome defined the canon more narrowly along the lines of the Jewish canon, while Augustine and the North African Church defined it according to church usage and what books were already being read as part of the liturgy. The Western Church, therefore, could be the innovative branch of the church on this reading and interpretation of the evidence. But more work on this question needs to be done.

The closing of the New Testament canon is a different question than the one I am answering presently. However, if the closing of the OT canon is construed along the lines presented above, then it seems clear that the church formed and fixed the OT canon consciously according to the Jewish canon before the fourth century. The evidence appears to indicate a date for a Jewish canon sometime in the first century or probably even earlier, but questions still remain. This makes possible for Christians to form or recognize their Old Testament according to the Jewish canon in the first or second century. If this is the case, a pattern for forming and fixing the NT canon earlier than the fourth century becomes clearer. This still does not mean we should necessarily date the Muratorian Fragment to the second century. It only means that the obstacle of an unsettled OT canon in the second century is no longer a problem to the early dating of the fragment, since an OT canon, with some on going dispute about Esther, was probably in existence by that time.


12 thoughts on “A Fourth-Century Closure of the Old Testament Canon? (Part 2)

  1. A careful thorough culling of evidence. Nice work.
    How should MSS evidence play into the question of canon? Do you think counting the number of extant copies of certain books from the earliest centuries is indicative of canonical attitudes?
    Again, great post.

    1. Thanks, Timothy. Quantity of MSS may be of some value. How much does it matter that no fragments of Esther surfaced at Qumran? Probably, this omission is significant, and all the more because the slightly later period reveals the disputes over this exact book. Charles Hill has shown some interesting results with Gospel MSS compared with non-canonical Gospel MSS. So I do think there is some value to counting MSS as a gauge of scriptural significance as long as we note the proper caveats and limitations of such evidence like maybe a certain book or evidence for that book was simply lost over time. Ed and I treat this matter at some length in chapter one of our forthcoming book.

      Thanks again for your questions.

  2. John,

    Well-reasoned article. What I do find of interest is that the Tanakh is already considered closed even when there is not “formal” declaration by a council, synod, etc. The same action had already occurred with the New Testament. The quotes of the Tanakh in Hebrew, while few in number, compared to the number of quotes of the Tanakh in Greek in the New Testament, should cause one to pause before making any outrageous claims about the canon. The Tanakh was the Scriptures of the early church.

    The authors of Scripture, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James and Jude had a very good understanding on what the parameters of the canon were in the First Century CE. One would think that they, and others, would have had a good understanding as to their role within the Church to be able to recognize what was and what wasn’t canon. The fact that Josephus, ca 95 CE and 4 Ezra have a limit on the number of books in the canon does indicate that those books that were part of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha to not be canon; although, why Esther is not included in the DSS can only be postulated, it does indicate that the scribes of Qumran (Essenes?) did not think highly of the book.

    Several questions, though, still remain. First, would a literal versus allegorical hermeneutic allow for the differences between OT canons, i.e. Tertullian, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Papias, Augustine. Athanasius, and Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Augustine? Second, would the 2nd Century CE reaction to Marcion and the Gnostics have the effect of determining the NT canon as well as the OT canon? Is there any indication that the OT canon was closed even by the time of the Alexander IV, “Ephiphanes,” and the Maccabees? I have not found any information accept by Josephus in quote above, but I wonder. Do the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds give an indication on the canon?

    1. Good questions, bryantiii.
      (1) I don’t know whether hermeneutics plays a role in canon formation among Christians. Often the canon would be viewed as opening up hermeneutical possibilities.
      (2) I think the Christians would have had an OT canon before Marcion’s NT canon. The Bryennios list, Melito’s list as well as the role of the synagogue all but ensure early Christians had an Old Testament. So I don’t believe Christians are indebted to Marcion for a canon principle, even though his canon may have been one of the factors in NT canon formation.
      (3) Some have held to a closed Jewish canon by or around 150 BCE. The evidence is usually the Prologue to Ben Sira and 2 Macc. 2:13.
      (4) The Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 14b (c. 200 CE) provides a Jewish canon list.

      I hope this helps.

  3. The discussion of a closed canon, and when that is to be the case seems to vary in importance depending upon which “branch” of the Church one comes from. Aren’t there branches of Coptic Christianity which say the canon is still open?

    I appreciate that you discuss both the East and the West churches approached this topic with little difference.

    Would this discussion be as strong if there were not opponents saying that our Christianity is a 4th-5th CE creation by Constantine and his successive generations of leadership?

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure about Coptic Christianity, but the Ethiopic church does appear to have an open canon. But many of our canon lists in the book were translated into these other languages for these churches so historically, at least, they would have exclusive lists. Does this make sense?

      There is much confusion about Constantine’s role in the fourth century. But I’m not sure about how much significance to attribute to the misunderstanding. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. JM,
    First, I am glad to have found you here through the ETC blog! Second, while not the main point of this article, you have referenced here and at ETC how early church Fathers viewed books as scripture but not canonical. I would be interested in you explaining this is more detail, have you written on this?

    Specifically, would these scripture, but not canonical be used for doctrine or edification or both?

    Anyhow, thanks for this post!


    1. Hi Tim, I guess you found me :).
      Though not a major argument in the Canon Lists book, we note several places where early fathers make a trinary description in religious literature: canonical-intermediate/useful scripture-apocryphal. Typically, these fathers are clear that the books in the middle tier are not canonical/not in the canon but nevertheless they are useful for edification, reading to catechuments, etc. Only the books in the first tier were authoritative for doctrine. Does this make sense?
      I have two papers in books coming out next year (I think) that will hit on this issue, but certainly won’t be the first to make this point.

      1. JM,
        Thanks, this does make sense and clarifies the issue. Your book on the Biblical Canon Lists is next on my purchase list. Running a business, pastoring multiple Assisted Living and Memory Care congregations and old age have slowed my reading😎 I look forward to word on these others as well.


      2. Tim,
        There is a sale on OUP Religion titles. I’ll try to announce it again soon. But it brings the cost of Canon Lists down to 31.50. So hang tight. Don’t have time right now to post link.

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