Thursday, January 08, 2015

Stump the Priest: The Orthodox Canon

Question: "In the Orthodox Study Bible and in other places online, I've seen a chart comparing the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canon of Scripture. My question is from what canon of what council does Orthodoxy draw her canon of Scripture from?"

On the one hand we have a precisely defined New Testament Canon, about which there is no dispute... at least not since the 4th century. On the other hand we have an Old Testament canon that has a precisely defined core, and fairly well defined next layer, and then less clearly defined edges. So why the precision in the case of the New, but not the Old?

The New Testament Canon is fixed, largely due to the false canon of the heretic Marcion. The Old Testament canon has been less precisely defined, and so one still encounters some disagreement on the fringes of the list... though most of the books are not questioned at all. The Church simply has not felt the need to be more precise... but this can be an uncomfortable thing for some folks to deal with. However, if you have the proper understanding of Tradition, it becomes much less of an issue.

If you think of the Tradition as a target, with concentric circles, you could put the Gospels in the middle, the writings of the apostles in the in the next ring, maybe the Law of Moses, in the next, the prophets in the next, the writings in the next, the deutrocanonical books in the next, the writings of those who knew the Apostle in the next, the Ecumenical Canons in the next, etc. The only debate would be which ring to put them... and ultimately, is that the most important question? For a Protestant, this is a huge question. For the Orthodox, it is not so much, because we see Scripture as being part of Tradition, not as something separate to it, and certainly not as something opposed to it.

The term "Deuterocanon" is actually of Roman Catholic origin, but I think it is a useful term. In Russian texts, and some patristic texts, you find the phrase "non-canonical" books, but by this, the distinction is between the Hebrew canon and the books excluded by the Hebrew canon which the Church has embraced. Another term is "Readable book", which means a book can be read in Church.

Yet another term is "apocrypha", which we generally do not use with reference to these books, but Origen had some interesting comments on the origin of the the term "apocrypha." In his letter to Africanus (ANF v. IV, pp 386ff.) he was responding to the question of why he quoted from the portion of the book of Daniel which contain the story of Susanna, which is not found in the Hebrew text. Origen responded that he was not unaware of this fact, and he proceeded to defend its authenticity. His response is detailed, but let me highlight a few points:

"And, forsooth, when we notice such things we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery?! Are we to suppose that that providence which the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things? In all these cases consider whether it would not be well to remember the words, "Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set." Nor do I say this because I shun the labor of investigating the Jewish Scriptures, and comparing them with ours, and noticing various readings. This, if it be not arrogant to say it, I have already to a great extent done to the best of my ability, laboring hard to get at the meaning in all the editions and various readings; while I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy, lest I might to be found to accredit any forgery to the Churches which are under heaven, and give an occasion to those who seek such a starting point for gratifying their desire to slander the common brethren, and to bring some accusation against those who shine forth in our community. And I make it my endeavor not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures. For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true readings as they have them. So far as to the History of Susanna not being found in the Hebrew."

Skipping further on in the text we find Origen saying that the reason for many of the omissions in the Hebrew text are because the Scribes and Pharisees omitted things that made them look bad:

"The answer is, that they hid from the knowledge of the people as many of the passages which contained any scandal against the elders, rulers, and judges as they could, some of which have been preserved in the uncanonical writings (apocrypha) [which gives new meaning to the term "hidden books"]. As an example, take the story told about Isaiah, and guaranteed by the epistle to the Hebrews, which is found in none of their public books. For the author of the Epistle to the Hebrew, in speaking of the prophets, and what they suffered, says "They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were slain with the sword"."

He goes on to mention that, by a tradition contained in the Apocryphal books, we know that the Prophet Isaiah was sawn in half.

The Orthodox Study Bible list of Old Testament books is based on the books included in the Greek Editions of the Scriptures, published by the Church of Greece. The Church of Greece based their decision in part on the decree of the Synod of Jerusalem:

"What Books do you call Sacred Scripture?

Following the rule of the Catholic Church, we call Sacred Scripture all those which Cyril [Lucar] collected from the Synod of Laodicea, and enumerated, adding thereto those which he foolishly, and ignorantly, or rather maliciously called Apocrypha; to wit, “The Wisdom of Solomon,” “Judith,” “Tobit,” “The History of the Dragon,” “The History of Susanna,” “The Maccabees,” and “The Wisdom of Sirach.” For we judge these also to be, with the other genuine Books of Divine Scripture, genuine parts of Scripture. For ancient custom, or rather the Catholic Church, which hath delivered to us as genuine the Sacred Gospels and the other Books of Scripture, hath undoubtedly delivered these also as parts of Scripture, and the denial of these is the rejection of those. And if, perhaps, it seemeth that not always have all been by all reckoned with the others, yet nevertheless these also have been counted and reckoned with the rest of Scripture, as well by Synods, as by how many of the most  ancient and eminent Theologians of the Catholic Church; all of which we also judge to be Canonical Books, and confess them to be Sacred Scripture.." (The Synod of Jerusalem (1672) (from the Confession of St. Dositheus).

The Synod of Jerusalem was held in large part to respond to Protestantism, and in this case, they were responding to the general Protestant position on the canon of the Old Testament, which was to adopt the Hebrew Canon, and to reject any Old Testament books not included by the Jews as "apocrypha." The Council of Jerusalem called these books canonical, not non-canonical, or deuterocanonical. However, the Greek Bible used by the OSB includes several more books, which were not mentioned by that council (see: And you will see that the Russian Bible includes some more yet. The Synod of Jerusalem did not specifically address them. The Greek Church probably included them because editions of the LXX have long included these books. The Russian Church probably also included 2nd Esdras (aka 3rd Esdras) because it was included in the canonical list found in the canons of the Holy Apostles, and is also found in the Latin Vulgate (see: Which is also why it was included among the "Apocrypha" of the original editions of  the King James Version.

Why is there no absolutely definitive list? The Church has not felt the need to create one... for the Old Testament. It did in the case of the New because of Marcion, and you do find statements, such as that of the Synod of Jerusalem which defended certain books specifically rejected by the Protestants. But for us, whether or not 2nd Esdras is canonical, deuterocanonical, or simply an appendix, reflecting a book considered to be of traditional importance, is not nearly so big of a deal. But most of the books of the Old Testament are canonical, and there is no dispute about them, and so we do have certainty, just not for every book.

If you have a Revised Standard Version or New Revised Standard Version Bible that includes the "Apocrypha," then you can look at the introduction to each of the books and see who accepts them. The Greeks do not include 2nd Esdras (note the comments below about confusion over the titles of the books of Esdras/Ezra (in the Russian Bible it is called 3rd Esdras). The Russian Bible does not include 4th Maccabees. By the way, neither 4th Maccabees nor 2nd/3rd Esdras is to be found in the Orthodox Study Bible.

Now, if you look at the Orthodox Study Bible, you will see that it has 1st Ezra and 2nd Ezra. Why they did this, and without better notes in the introduction is beyond me. What they call 1st Ezra is a deuterocanonical book, found in the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint, but not considered deuterocanonical by the Roman Catholic Church.  In the Vulgate, and the in the King James, RSV, and NRSV Apocrypha, this book is 1st Esdras. What they call 2nd Ezra, is the book that is called "Ezra" in just about any Bible in English -- and so if you are trying to find a passage in the book of Ezra that most English speakers will have in mind, you will need to look in 2nd Ezra... but most people, who don't look closely, will probably think that 2nd Ezra is either 1st or 2nd Esdras.This is one of my complaints about the OSB: they opted to use non-standard names for many of the Old Testament books, and so they are going to confuse a lot of people who are trying to find a passage of scripture in this or that book. I also think they made a huge mistake adopting the Greek order of the books. They should have used the Vulgate order, because that is the basic order we have used in English Bibles for the past 400+ years.

For more information see:

An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible

Biblical Canon and Interpretation

All Scripture Is Inspired by God: Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon, by Joel Kalvesmaki

Various Canons and comments on the canon of the Old Testament