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Debunking a Protestant Case Against the Deuterocanon

Protestant arguments for a shorter Old Testament canon are contradicted by the biblical and historical evidence

Trent Horn

In his recent book Why Protestant Bibles Are Smaller, Protestant apologist Steve Christie claims that all Christians should accept the Protestant Old Testament canon and reject the deuterocanonical books of Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, 1and 2 Maccabees, and portions of Daniel and Esther.

In order to justify that claim, Christie would have to present a standard that tells us what writings prior to Christ are inspired and why we should accept that particular standard. And, as it turns out, Christie’s book fails to produce any such standard. Moreover, his arguments for a shorter Old Testament canon are contradicted by the biblical and historical evidence.

The Great Synagogue?

Let’s start with the last books of the Protestant Old Testament, which Christie and many other Protestants says are Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century B.C. Christie claims the Hebrew canon was closed by Ezra and other learned men at an event called the Great Synagogue. However, the earliest evidence for this alleged event comes 600 years afterward, in the second century after Christ. It is not mentioned in any book of the Bible, protocanonical or deuterocanonical, nor in any ancient nonbiblical witnesses such as Josephus or Philo.

In fact, as Baptist scholar Lee Mcdonald points out, the book of Malachi only implores its listeners to remember the law of Moses, which would be strange if there were a fixed set of writings established by Ezra called “the prophets” at this time. That’s why Protestant scholars since the nineteenth century have taken the position Herbet Ryle did in saying the legend about the Great Synagogue was “wholly untrustworthy.”

Christie also cites Geoghan and Homes’s book The Bible for Dummies in favor of the Great Synagogue, but on page 11 the authors make no mention of the Great Synagogue or of Ezra’s canon being identical to today’s Protestant Old Testament. Instead, they describe Ezra bringing scrolls to Jerusalem and a process of later works being written that gradually developed into what they call “a relatively complete Jewish Bible.” But they also acknowledge some Jews accepted the deuterocanonicals as Scripture and that “many Christian communities embraced these works as part of the Bible.”

God stopped speaking?

What about the deuterocanonical books of Scripture written in the 400 years before Christ’s birth? Did their authors believe God had stopped speaking decades or centuries earlier? No. In fact, the authors of these texts, such as Sirach, described writing down God’s wisdom to indicate they were writing Scripture, which wouldn’t make sense if they thought the canon was closed.

None of the authors of the deuterocanonical books refer to a delineated list of “writings” (Hebrew, Ketuvim) within a closed Hebrew canon that did not include their own works. According to Old Testament scholar Otto Kaiser, the deuterocanonical books “presuppose the validity of the Law and the Prophets and also utilize the Ketubim or ‘Writings’ collection which was, at the time, still in the process of formation and not yet closed” (Old Testament Apocrypha, 2).

Did some Jews during this time recognize the inspiration of these texts? Yes, and Christie admits they did, though he thinks we can discern which Jews had the correct canon of Scripture. More on that in a moment.

For example, the Essene Jews, whose writings have been preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls, recognized the deuterocanonical books as Scripture. According to Dead Sea scholar Emanuel Tov, “There is a special layout for poetical units that is almost exclusive to biblical texts (including Ben Sira) and is not found in any of the nonbiblical poetical compositions from the Judean desert” (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 102-103).

Another piece of evidence against Christie’s claim that divine revelation ceased during the time of the deuterocanonical books is that the people of Jesus’ time believed there were contemporary prophets who spoke on behalf of God, such as John the Baptist and Jesus. No one ever says the gift of prophecy or divine revelation had returned after being absent for several centuries.

Pharisaical canon = Protestant canon?

Christie claims we can know God inspired the Protestant Old Testament canon because God chose Paul, a Pharisee, to be an apostle. The Pharisees had unique teaching authority in Israel, and the Pharisees’ canon was essentially the same as the Protestant Old Testament canon. He writes, “As a Pharisee, the apostle Paul would have understood ‘the Law and the Prophets’ to refer to only those writings found in Protestant Old Testaments today.” But this argument fails for the following reasons.

First, Christie’s argument for the Pharisee’s canon being identical to modern Protestant Old Testament comes from a selective quotation from my colleague Jimmy Akin. However, he should have cited what Jimmy said immediately before that quote: “It wasn’t entirely clear to every group of Jews exactly what books belonged in the Old Testament.”

Akin goes on to write that “Jesus and the apostles went a bit further” than the Pharisees on the issue of the canon. That’s because they quoted primarily from the Septuagint, or the Greek Old Testament. Timothy Michael Law, who serves as the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook on the Septuagint, says the deuterocanonical books “were included in the Septuagint” and that “it would also be mistaken to imagine that they have never been read as divine Scripture.”

In his work The Bible is a Catholic Book, Akin notes of the Pharisees’ canon that “the boundaries of this collection were still somewhat fuzzy.
. . . Some rabbis opposed the scriptural status of six books—Ruth, Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solo-mon, and Ezekiel. By contrast, some quoted Sirach as a book of Scripture, though it was eventually excluded. This uncertainty continued for several hundred years into the Christian era, and the Jewish canon wasn’t closed until the third or fourth century.” Timothy Lam, in his book Formation of the Jewish Canon, agrees:

Paul belonged to a Jewish sect that had a canon that was determined but not yet defined. . . . [W]e do not know the extent of his canon. Paul’s letters were occasional, and the scriptural texts that he cited and used were determined largely by the circumstances in which he was writing.

Even if the Pharisees had a canon that matched modern Protestantism’s, his argument doesn’t work, because it relies on a mistaken assumption about the Pharisees’ authority. The Pharisees did not have unique doctrinal authority over all other Jews since, Jesus said the Pharisees shared the seat of Moses with the scribes (Matt. 23:2), some of whom were not Pharisees.

Christie also claims Jesus’ reference to the Pharisee Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10) meant the Pharisees had unique teaching authority over other Jews. But renowned Protestant Greek grammarian Bill Mounce says Jesus’ reference to Nicodemus as “the teacher” of Israel is actually a sarcastic rebuke. Mounce writes, “Nicodemus politely says Jesus is ‘a’ teacher; but when Nicodemus does not understand the necessity of a spiritual rebirth, Jesus questions his status as ‘the’ teacher, an authoritative rabbi” (“A Teacher” or “The Teacher”?).

Although the Pharisees had authority regarding ritual practices, they did not have doctrinal authority over other Jews, including those who came to believe Jesus was the messiah. Since Christians are not bound to accept their ideas about what Scripture meant regarding the messiah or the need to follow the Mosaic law, we aren’t bound to follow what they considered to be the boundaries of the canon, which was disputed even among the Pharisees.

Paul the Pharisee?

Christie’s argument continues to fall apart because it assumes Paul retained a pharisaical identity into his ministry as an apostle. But Paul stopped being a Pharisee after he became a Christian.

Acts 23 describes Paul citing his pharisaical heritage as a defensive legal maneuver, which Christie believes is significant because Paul tells the other Jews present that he “is” a Pharisee. However, in Acts 26:5 Paul tells King Agrippa that he lived (past tense) as a Pharisee. He says in Philippians 3:7 that whatever gain he had as a Pharisee he “counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” In Galatians 1:13 he calls his Jewish zealotry a “former way of life,” and in 1 Corinthians 9:20 Paul explicitly says he was not under the Mosaic law, which was a non-negotiable belief for the Pharisees.

Also, Paul drew extensively on themes from the deuterocanonical works in his own writings. For example, Denver seminary professor Joseph Dodson says, “Scholars for at least three centuries have found value in comparing the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom and Romans” (“The ‘Powers’ of Personification: Rhetorical Purpose in the Book of Wisdom and the Letter to the Romans”).

Finally, Christie’s “Pharisee argument” for the Protestant Old Testament canon fails because its logic can be used to make a similar argument for a completely different Old Testament canon. For example, Jesus said among those born of women none was greater than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28)—and John was not a Pharisee. In fact, Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, and John Bergsma has provided evidence in his book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls that John belonged to an Essene sect at Qumran, whose members embraced a wider canon than the one Christie is defending.

So, if the greatest of those born before Christ wasn’t constricted to accepting the canon Christie is defending, then we shouldn’t be compelled to do the same, either. Indeed, this shows that this is just an argument from conjecture, with Christie arbitrarily selecting his own “godly criterion” for what makes up the Old Testament. Instead, we should listen to Christ, his apostles, and the Church they founded for the answer to what constitutes Sacred Scripture.

Jesus, the apostles, and the deuterocanon

Christie claims that Jesus’ declaration to the Pharisees about “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari’ah the son of Barachi’ah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” was actually an endorsement of the Protestant Old Testament canon. He claims this shows Jesus believed the Old Testament was confined to Genesis (or Abel) and 2 Chronicles (or Zechariah).

But there are many problems with this speculative argument.

First, ancient Jews kept their books in a series of scrolls and not in a single book, so it’s anachronistic to say this refers to the table contents in a book. The earliest codex we have is the tenth-century-A.D. Aleppo codex, and it places the book of Chronicles at the beginning of the Writings (or ketuvim) and not as the last book of the Hebrew bible.

Second, the Zechariah killed in 2 Chronicles was the son of Jehoiada, not Berechiah. This has led biblical scholars to make a variety of proposals for the identity of this Zechariah. For example, it may be a reference to the minor prophet Zechariah (who was killed in the temple according to the Targum on Lamentations) as opposed to the Zechariah in Chronicles. Or, since Jesus said the Pharisees in his presence murdered this person, it could refer to one of Jesus’ contemporaries. In fact, Josephus recorded a Zechariah being killed in the temple thirty-five years after the crucifixion (Jewish War 4:5:4).

Finally, as H.G.L. Peels notes in his study of the passage, Jesus is not marking beginning and end points in time but rather is contrasting Abel’s secret death in the wilderness with Zechariah’s public death in the Temple. He says, “Jesus’ words would have sounded exactly the same if the narrative of Zechariah’s death had occurred in the book of Kings or in the Psalms. . . . [These verses] cannot figure as crown witnesses for the view that the Old Testament canon in Jesus’ days was fixed and closed” (“The Blood from Abel to Zachariah”).

Also, Christie claims, as do many Protestants, that Jesus and the apostles endorsed only the Protestant canon because they never explicitly cite the deuterocanonical books of Scripture. But Steve can’t construct a Protestant canon out of what Jesus and the apostles cited because, as Protestant scholar Bruce Metzger observes, “Nowhere in the New Testament is there a direct quotation from the canonical books of Joshua, Judges, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum; and the New Testament allusions to them are few in number” (The Cambridge History of the Bible, 148).

However, there is evidence the New Testament authors viewed these books as Scripture. According to Methodist scholar David A. deSilva, “New Testament authors weave phrases and recreate lines of arguments from Apocryha books into their new texts. They also allude to events and stories contained in these texts. The word ‘paraphrase’ very frequently provides adequate description of the relationship” (Introducing the Apocrypha, 22).

Many Protestant scholars say Wis-dom 2 either contains a messianic prophecy or Matthew used this passage as a template when he described Jesus’ crucifixion. Verse eighteen describes the enemies of the righteous one, saying, “If the righteous one is the son of God, God will help him and deliver him from the hand of his foes,” which parallels the Jewish authorities’ taunts during Jesus’ crucifixion recorded in Matthew 27:43: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Hebrews 11:35 describes a group of people in the Old Testament period who “were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they may rise again to a better life.” The only record of this is found in 2 Maccabees 7, which describes brothers who accept torture at the hands of the Seleucids instead of eating pork and violating Jewish law. And since the context of Hebrews 11 includes “the men of old [who] received divine approval” (v. 2), it follows that the books describing the Maccabean martyrs were part of the Old Testament that was used by the author of the letter to the Hebrews.

The apostolic ages and the Old Testament canon

What about after the apostolic age? Our two sources of evidence during this period would be Jewish and Christian authors.

When it comes to ancient Jewish authors, Christians shouldn’t be con-cerned if they, like most Jews today, didn’t believe the deuterocanonical books were Scripture. They also didn’t believe the Gospels or other New Testament documents were inspired, so they don’t have a great track record when it comes telling us what is and isn’t Scripture. Moreover, there was diversity of thought among Jews until the second century after Christ over what constituted the Hebrew canon.

For example, although Josephus seems to defend what is equivalent to the Protestant canon, scholars recog-nize his propensity for exaggeration. In his study of Josephus and the Hebrew canon, Jonathan Campbell points out that the roughly contemporaneous text of 4 Ezra assumes the existence of ninety-four Jewish scriptures. Campbell states that when it comes to Josephus’ claims about a universal Hebrew canon, as well as an entire manuscript tradition that had never been altered, “Josephus’s rhetoric has run ahead of reality. . . . [It undermines] the theory that there was a single canon by the late first century C.E.” (The Scrolls and Biblical Traditions, 41-43).

Indeed, the Talmudic tract Sanhedrin 100B refers to rabbis “with-drawing” Sirach, or declaring it to be no longer inspired and thus withdrawn from synagogue reading. Enough Jews were reading the deuterocanonical books that a leading rabbi at the time had to declare that they were not Scripture. This means that there was no single, closed Hebrew canon during the time of Christ, and some Jews considered the deuterocanonical books to be Scripture.

Christian authors, however, never present a list of inspired books written before the time of Christ that matches the Protestant Old Testament canon. Origen and Melito present lists that modern scholars recognize are of Jewish origin and so they lack the deuterocanonicals, but even these lists are missing books such as Esther and Lamentations. What we can find in the writings of the Church Fathers, however, are hundreds of citations of the deuterocanonical books as inspired Scripture.

Cyril of Jerusalem refers to Baruch as “the prophet,” cites Baruch 3:35-37 in defense of the deity of Christ and includes Baruch in the writings of Jeremiah in his list of the canon. Athanasius likewise calls Wisdom and Judith “Scripture” and appeals to Wisdom 7:25-27 as evidence for the deity of Christ. St. Jerome, who was skeptical of the manuscript history behind these books, even tells us that at the Council of Nicaea the deuterocanonical work of Judith was considered part of the canon of Scripture.

The Protestant Old Testament canon is also not what we find in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, such as codex Sinaticus and codex Vaticanus, which date from the fourth century after Christ. Instead, these manuscripts contain the deuterocanonical books, and they correspond to the Church councils of this era such as Hippo and Carthage that also affirmed the inspiration of these books.

As the Protestant scholar J.N.D. Kelly said, for the great majority of the early Church Fathers, “the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense” (Early Christian Doctrines, 55). It would behoove us, then, to follow in their example and praise the gift of God’s word that comes to us in these writings and critically examine arguments such as those presented by Steve Christie that would tempt us to reject a portion of God’s sacred revelation.

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