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Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

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The White Question

What James White gets wrong about Jews and the Bible

How did the believing Jewish person know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were Scripture fifty years before Christ?” That’s the question that the Protestant apologist James White asked of his (then-) Catholic opponent Gerry Matatics in a 1993 radio debate. And for the next twenty-nine years, he’s repeated this question, even dubbing it “The White Question” after himself. According to White, Roman Catholics don’t have an answer for it.

White’s interest in the question isn’t to prepare for the “first-century Judaism” category on Jeopardy! Rather, it’s to respond to a common Catholic objection against sola scriptura (the idea that all doctrines are derived from “Scripture alone”). The Catholic argument, as it’s often presented, goes something like this: sola scriptura can’t be true, because without an infallible Church to tell you which books belong in the Bible, you wouldn’t have a Bible to begin with; without a Bible, there’s no “scriptura” from which to derive the rest of your beliefs. But as White rightly observes, people were citing various books of the Bible long before the Council of Trent dogmatically defined the canon of Scripture in 1546. But he overstates his case, exaggerating the degree to which Jewish believers at the time of Christ agreed about the canon:

The recognition of the Hebrew Bible by the Jews points out an infallible church is not needed for canon certainty. The Jews were entrusted with the Scriptures, despite the fact they did not have an infallible magisterium. God held the Jews accountable to the books entrusted to them, as demonstrated by the interaction of Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Jesus quoted Scripture, and he assumed those listening knew it was Scripture. None of Jesus’ opponents claimed uncertainty as to what was canonical in counter-arguing with the Lord (“Romans 3:2 and the Apocrypha (Part 1).*

[* Note: All quotes from White are taken from articles on his website, aomin.org.]

But is this true? As it turns out, “The White Question” has an answer, but to get there, we must first clear up several theological and historical errors made by both Catholics and Protestants, including White himself.

Papal infallibility and ‘people infallibility’

The first mistake both sides of the question often make is in thinking that for “the Church” to determine the canon, it must issue an infallible
statement from the pope or an ecumenical council. But that’s not what the Catholic Church teaches, and it’s not what the history of the Bible looked like, either before or after the time of Christ. It’s worth acknowledging here how White might answer his own question.

It’s clear what White rejects: any kind of “external attesting authority for Scripture to be Scripture, like, say, an organization, a magisterium of some sort” (“Beware the Traveler”). In his words, “it was not simply a group of crusty old men who sat down one day before a pile of would-be-canonical writings and decided, by vote or by lot, which would be included and which would not” (“The Early Canon Process of the New Testament”).

So White rejects the idea that the books of the Bible become inspired because the Church says so. But you know who else rejects that idea? The Catholic Church. The First Vatican Council teaches that the Church believes in the inspiration of the seventy-three books of the Bible “not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church” (Dei Filius 7).

The Second Vatican Council repeats this point, stressing that the books are “sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself” (Dei Verbum 11). In other words, the real-life Catholic Church (unlike the strawman White sets up) rejects the idea that the Church gives Scripture its authority. By what means then does White believe that the Jewish believer of the first century could know which books were canonical? He admits that “exactly how the Hebrew form of the Old Testament came about is a matter of much speculation,” but argues:

The important point to notice is that the listing of the books was not immediate but was the subject of discussion and thinking on the part of God’s people. There were no “heavenly indices” delivered by angelic messenger from the divine proof-writer in the sky—rather, God worked through his people and the circumstances of o give shape and form to his word. The role of the people of God in the formation of the Old Testament canon cannot be overemphasized. . . . God’s people, as they experienced God’s leadership and providence in the course of history, recognized the inherent inspiration and authority of the books of the Bible (“The Early Canon Process of the New Testament”).

Sensum fidelium

So how did the Jewish people know which books belonged in their Bible? Because God revealed it, not through another writing (such as a heavenly table of contents) but a body: the people of God.

Although White seems to view this as a rebuttal to the Catholic view, this is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches. In technical terms, this is what the Church calls the sensus fidelium, or “sense of the faithful.” And as the Church has stated repeatedly, the sensus fidelium is infallible. As Pope Francis explains,

In all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization. The people of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo. This means that it does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith. The Spirit guides it in truth and leads it to salvation. As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith— sensus fidei— which helps them to discern what is truly of God (Evangelii Gaudium 119).

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that “the holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office,” and that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12). This doesn’t mean that you and I individually are infallible but that the whole Church is protected from error “when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, [the whole people] manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 92).

And where does the Church get this idea? From Scripture. St. John tells his readers that they “have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 John 2:26-27). Of course, he’s not literally repudiating human teachers: he writes those words at the end of a letter giving instructions and encouragement, after all. Rather,
he’s simply acknowledging that the Holy Spirit isn’t limited to guiding the Church in a top-down fashion.

And it’s with the canon of Scripture that we find one of the clearest instances of the sensus fidelium at work. After all, how do we have the texts that make up the Old and New Testament in the first place? Because the people of God, receiving them, recognized something of God within them and found them worthy of preservation and copying.

Ironically, the language the Catechism uses to describe the sensus fidelum comes from St. Augustine writing about how we can know that the book of Wisdom (which White rejects) is canonical. In Augustine’s words, the judgment of the book of Wisdom ought not to be repudiated since

for so long a course of years that book has deserved to be read in the Church of Christ from the station of the readers of the Church of Christ, and to be heard by all Christians, from bishops downwards, even to the lowest lay believers, penitents, and catechumens, with the veneration paid to divine authority (On the Predestination of the Saints, I, 27).

There are three great ironies here. First, White and the Catholic Church largely agree on how the canon was formed. Second, White’s argument still relies on something outside of Scripture: the trustworthiness of “the people of God.” Third, White rejects the Catholic Bible that the early Christians settled upon.

The Jewish Bibles of Christ’s time

So does this mean that the Old Testament canon was set at the time of Christ, since God was guiding his people? Not quite. Later Christian authors, such as Eusebius, would distinguish between those books that were accepted without controversy and those that were antilegomena (“spoken against”). But this is true of the Jewish Scriptures as well. Some books, like the five Books of Moses, were universally accepted. But other books—indeed, entire collections of books—were controversial in Jesus’ day.

Of course, the Jews don’t call their Bible the “Old Testament.” Instead, they tend to refer to it as the Tanakh, a Hebrew acronym for Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). Despite their names, these distinctions are not strictly thematic. Instead, as White concedes, these three categories “may indicate order of canonization.” In other words, the Jewish people came to early agreement about the authority and canonicity of the Torah, while the compilation of the “prophets” came later, and the “writings” came last. This would explain why the book of Daniel (a prophetic book whose authority was accepted at a relatively late date in Israel’s history) is in the “writings” section instead of the “prophets” where one might expect.

At the time of Christ, the authority of the Torah was universally accepted within Judaism. (Although the Samaritans had their own version of the Torah, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, they weren’t considered fully Jews). The second collection, the Nevi’im, was largely accepted but with one major outlier. According to the early Christians, the Bible used by the Sadducees was only five books in length, since they accepted the authority of the Torah alone. In Hippolytus’ words, they “adhere to the customs of the law,” but “do not, however, devote
attention to prophets, but neither do they to any other sages, except to the law of Moses only” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, IX, 24).
Origen likewise mentions that the “Samaritans and Sadducees” receive “the books of Moses alone” (Against Celsum, I, 49).

The Torah alone

Significantly, in none of his interactions with the Sadducees does Jesus ever rely upon the Nevi’im or Ketuvim: he always refutes them from the Torah alone. And so, when they challenged him about the Resurrection, he doesn’t turn to the explicit biblical support found in passages such as 2 Maccabees 12:43 or Daniel 12:1-2. He instead takes a circuitous route through the only authority that they accept. Quoting to them from the Torah, Exodus 3:6, Jesus points out that God calls himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and that “he is not God of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).

At the time, the third collection, the Ketuvim, was still being hammered out. That is, there was a sense among the Jewish people that there were other books besides the Torah and Nevi’im that were canonical, but there wasn’t agreement about which other books. Today, the Ketuvim contains Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. But it’s clear that its boundaries weren’t yet fixed in Jesus’ day.

One way of seeing this is the lack of reference in the New Testament to “the Tanakh,” or “the law, prophets, and writings.” Instead, Jesus refers to “the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17, 7:12, 22:40; Luke 16:16) or “the prophets and the law” (Matt. 11:13). In one instance, he refers to “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44), but there’s no sense of a third completed collection.

But this is also clear from the rabbinical debates recorded in the Talmud. According to Mishnah Yadayim 3:5, “all the Holy Scriptures defile the hands.” But the text goes on to quote Rabbi Judah that “the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but there is a dispute about Kohelet,” while Rabbi Yose says that “Kohelet does not defile the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs.”

That is, Judah argues that Song of Songs is Scripture, but Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is disputed. Yose responds that Kohelet isn’t Scripture, and it’s unclear if Song of Songs is. Rabbi Shimon is then quoted as saying that the ruling about Kohelet “is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel,” referring to the two major rabbinical schools of the time of Christ. Clearly, we can see two biblical books whose authority was being debated during (and long after) the time of Christ.

Nor was it these two books alone. In Megillah 7a:7-9, there’s an extended treatment of Rav Yehuda’s argument that the book of Esther isn’t Scripture. In contrast, there are several instances in which the book of Sirach is quoted as Scripture and explicitly described as being one of the books of the Ketuvim (Bava Batra 98b:6; Bava Kamma 92b), although Sirach is eventually rejected from the Jewish canon (Sanhedrin 100b:3).

Michael Satlow, professor of Judaic studies and religious studies at Brown University, admits that “the entire process of canonization is murky” since “scholars are simply unsure how certain books ultimately became authoritative and others did not.” He speculates that Sirach’s “acceptance by Christians might have pushed the Rabbis in the other direction” in the third or fourth century (Michael L. Satlow, “The Wisdom of Ben Sira: How Jewish?”, thetorah.com).

When White argues that “an infallible church is not needed for canon certainty” since there was no uncertainty about the Old Testament canon at the time of Christ, he’s misrepresenting the historical evidence from the New Testament, early Christian writings, and early Jewish writings. And what’s more, he seems to know better. In his more “scholarly” works, he admits that “certainly there was dissension and discussion about certain books—the so-called ‘antilegomena.’ But there is everything right in carefully examining, for example, Esther, to determine whether it should be canonical or not” (“The Early Canon Process of the New Testament”).

The measuring tape

While much of the canon of Scripture (in both Judaism and Christianity) was determined by God guiding his people in a sort of “bottom-up” way, there were certain disputed books that needed some top-down interventions. In the case of Christianity, this took the form of episcopal interventions, regional councils, statements from the pope, and eventually ecumenical councils (Florence first, followed by a dogmatic definition at Trent). So how should we make sense of those two ideas? Did the sensus fidelium fail?

Perhaps it helps to think of it in terms of measurement. After all, the word canon itself “derives from the ancient Greek kanon meaning a ruler or measuring rod” (Joshua B. Fisher, “Changes in the Canon,” The Renaissance Literature Handbook). Basic measurements can be done without precise equipment. You don’t need a measuring tape to tell the difference between a nine-foot ceiling and a twelve-foot ceiling. You
can “eyeball” it.

And so it is with the sensus fidelium: there’s a lot in Christianity, including a lot of the Bible, that we can reliably “eyeball.” It was immediately clear to Christians (collectively) that certain books were definitely in and certain ones were definitely out. This is one of the chief ways that God works, and we overlook it to our own detriment. Technical equipment—such as a ruler or measuring tape in measuring, or top-down interventions of the Magisterium in theology—are really needed only when something’s too close to eyeball. In the case of the canon, those “too close” cases were the antilegomena of the Old and New Testament.

Finally, White has rightly pointed out that it’s impossible for us “to believe that God would go through the work of inspiring his word so as to provide for his Church guidance and instruction and encouragement; but then, having inspired his word, be shown incapable of protecting and preserving it and leading his Church to recognize it for what it is” (White, Scripture Alone). If you understand why God reveals himself through Scripture, then you’ll understand why God would do everything necessary to lead his people into a perfectly accurate canon of Scripture.

White is right: it makes no sense to believe that God “revealed” himself but didn’t reveal where he’d revealed himself. But of course, this is fatal to the Protestant case, which relies on believing that God misled (or allowed his Church to mislead) his people into the wrong canon of Scripture. We might take White’s point a step further. It makes little sense to believe that God “reveals” himself in Scripture but doesn’t reveal to his Church what that Scripture means. After all, as St. Jerome points out, “the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter but the meaning,” (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians 28).

And so we ought to look to the Church not only for the proper (seventy-three–book) canon of Scripture but also for the meaning of those books. Or, in Jerome’s words, “we ought to remain in that Church which was founded by the apostles and continues to this day.”

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