In 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.