Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Criticism of the Canon of the Old Testament by William Mcpheeters 1903

CRITICISM OF THE CANON OF THE OLD TESTAMENT By Prof. William M. Mcpheeters, D.D., Theological Seminary, 1903

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The doctrine of the canon has heretofore been generally regarded as of large, if not of fundamental, importance. It is hard to believe that the serious thought of the Church can ever consider it otherwise. Hence the propriety of noting with care the advent or popularization of views which threaten the existence of the very idea of a canon.

Let us define. By a canon we mean, with Westcott, a divinely given, "authoritative written rule of faith and practise."

There are, of course, other definitions of this term that have a certain archeological and academic interest. The definition just given, however, is the one that brings us face to face with those issues that have given real significance to every discussion of the canon. Mr. V. H. Stanton is unquestionably correct in saying:

"The conception of a canon virtually existed long before this precise term was employed. We have it wherever there is the notion of writings marked off as peculiarly sacred and as having a special divine authority."

The idea of the existence of such a collection of writings is one that we can not afford to see carelessly jeoparded, still less to see entirely obliterated except as a memory.

So far as opinions recently advanced tend toward this result, these opinions can not be too promptly challenged and put on their proofs. Whether this is the tendency of the views set forth in the discussions enumerated in the note at the beginning of this article, the reader is invited to judge.

We may begin by considering the following statement made by Mr. F. H. Woods:

"The modern study of the subject does certainly tend in some measure to obscure the lines drawn between the canonical and apocryphal books, and to depreciate relatively some of the former and appreciate some of the latter."

This, to be sure, is cautiously vague. We are left to our own imagination to determine the precise boundaries of the obscurity referred to. Mr. Woods does not pronounce sentence against any book at present in the canon; nor does he undertake even to nominate any particular apocryphal book for "canonization." He simply employs the name of "modern study" with which to conjure up another doubt for our "age of doubt." And yet clearly the tendency of his statement is to create the impression, shall I say? or the vague feeling, or the suspicion, that the boundaries between canonical and apocryphal books can not be very exactly and certainly defined, and are more or less shadowy. The tendency of this leaven of doubt ought not to be hard to see.

But, if Mr. Woods is vague, Professor Charles is less so. Speaking of the pseudepigraph known as the "Book of Enoch," he says, as with authority:

"It was well known to the writers of the New Testament, and to some extent influenced alike their thought and diction. There it is quoted as a genuine work of Enoch by Jude (14). Phrases and entire clauses belonging to it are reproduced in the New Testament, but without acknowledgment of their source. Barnabas (Ephes. iv. 3; xvi. 5) quotes it as Scripture. It was much used by the Jewish authors of the 'Book of the Secrets of Enoch' and of the 'Book of Jubilees'; In the 'Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs ' its citations are treated as Scripture, and in the later apocalypses of Baruch and 4 Ezra there are many tokens of its influence. Thus during the first century of the Christian era it possessed alike with Jew and Christian the authority of a deuterocanonical book.'"

This is illuminating. We begin to get a quite vivid conception of what may be involved in Mr. Woods's cautious vagueness. And additional light comes when we have Professor Charles unfold for us the influence exerted by this "deuterocanonical" "Book of Enoch" upon New-Testament doctrine. On this point Mr. Charles tells us:

"The doctrines in Enoch that had a share in molding the corresponding New Testament doctrines, or formed a necessary link in the development of doctrine from Old Testament to New Testament, are those concerning the Messianic kingdom and the Messiah, Sheol and the Resurrection, and Demonology. . . . First, we should observe that four titles, applied for the first time in literature to the personal Messiah in the similitudes, are afterward reproduced in the New Testament. These are 'Christ' (or 'the Anointed One'). 'the Righteous One,' 'the Elect One,' and 'the Son of Man.'"

If Professor Charles is correct in these assertions, it is hard to see why he assigns to the "Book of Enoch" only "the authority of a deuterocanonical book," whatever sort of authority that may be. For what book of the Old-Testament canon exerted an influence equal to it in shaping Christ's diction and doctrine?

But it is in Professor Bennett's inaugural address that the tendency to which reference has been made comes to its completest self-revelation. Speaking in this of "the use of Jewish literature made by the New Testament," he declares, "the influence of the Apocrypha can be traced in almost all the books. Our Lord's discourses are said to show that He had studied the non-canonical Apocalypses."

"Thus the Holy Spirit clearly indicates that the New Testament is not intended to give any inspired dictum on such matters " [i.e., as the authorship, the text, and the canon of the Old Testament].

"The Church took over its canon of the Old Testament from the Jews; but in the time of Christ and the apostles there was no agreement, either official or popular, among the Jews as to his canon, i.e., as to the books to be included in their Bible. Some, like the Pentateuch, Isaiah, Psalms, etc., were universally accepted; but there were many, including the Old-Testament Apocrypha, Esther, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and the 'Book of Enoch,' which were accepted by some Jews and not by others."

Summing up this part of his address Professor Bennett says:

"Hence if the usage of our Lord and of the writers of the New Testament is to be taken as giving an authoritative decision as to the canon, our Old Testament would have to include some or all of the Apocrypha of the Greek Bible, together with the 'Book of Enoch' and other known and unknown works."

There is neither vagueness nor reserve here. There is, on the contrary, a climax of clearness that is rather startling. The Jewish Church of Christ's day, we are told, had no canon, and so, of course, it could not transmit one. The Holy Spirit has fairly warned us not to look to the New Testament to supply this deficiency. And, finally, if we turn to the usage of Christ and His apostles for an authoritative decision as to the canon, we are admonished that we will find ourselves with such a canon on our hands as "never has been and never would be accepted by any Christian Church."

Almost beyond belief tho it may seem, I cite the very words of Professor Bennett. Having said:

"Hence if the usage of our Lord and of the writers of the New Testament is to be taken as giving an authoritative decision as to the canon, our Old Testament would have to include some or all of the Apocrypha of the Greek Bible, together with the 'Book of Enoch' and other known and unknown works,"

Professor Bennett's very next words are:

"Such a canon never has been and never would be accepted by any Christian Church."

Is not this as much as to say, that if, in the absence of a formal adjudication of the question of the canon in the New Testament, we seek to devise a canon for ourselves and allow decisive weight to "the usage of Christ and the writers of the New Testament," we may expect to find ourselves with an impossible monstrosity on our hands? If this be true, is not the effect to refer the very notion of a "collection of writings " marked off from all others, "as peculiarly sacred and having a special divine authority" to the dim region of idealities and abstractions? Is our spiritual insight likely to be superior to that of "our Lord, the writers of the New Testament"? But according to Professor Bennett they either framed no canon, either for us or for themselves, or, if they did, it was one such as no Christian church ever has accepted or ever would accept. And no wonder, for according to Professor Bennett, it contained among other books, not only the puerilities of "Tobit, Susannah, Bel and the Dragon," but also the "Apocalypse of Elijah," the "Ascension of Isaiah," and the "Book of Enoch," not to mention "other known and unknown works."

The correctness and value of these new views may be tested: (1) By comparison with those of the "scientific" authorities on the canon; (2) by the evidence adduced in their favor; or (3) by the insight exhibited by their promulgators. The first of these tests will be applied in this paper.

A comparison will be our best method of measuring the "advance" represented by the position of Professors Charles and Bennett. Schurer, Ryle, and Buhl shall furnish us our standard. No taint of "traditionalism" attaches to any of these names. They have all won for themselves conspicuous positions as representatives of unfettered scientific inquiry. It will be worth while, then, to note what Schurer, Ryle, and Buhl have to say on this matter of the Old-Testament canon. Schurer, as the earliest of the three to state his views, may be cited first. He says:

"In Palestine the canon attained a settled form about the second century before Christ. Later works, even when they appeared under the name of sacred authorities and found approbation, were no longer incorporated therein." He adds, it is true, in the very next sentence: "Among Hellenistic Jews, on the contrary, the boundaries still fluctuated for some centuries."

This may be thought to point to two different canons—one Palestinian, the other Hellenistic. It clearly points to at least one. Further it is to be noted that our Lord was a Palestinian Jew; Paul a Pharisee of the Pharisees; and Peter, James, and John "Apostles of the Circumcision." But more than this Schurer affirms that

"The Jews of the Dispersion, indeed, always possessed on the whole the same Scriptures as those of Palestine."

The following statements from the same source will also be found instructive:

"It cannot be proved of other books than those of our present canon that they were ever reckoned canonical by the Palestinian Jews, altho the 'Book of Wisdom' was so highly esteemed that it was sometimes cited 'in a manner only customary in the case of passages of Scripture.' It was only the Hellenistic Jews who combined a whole series of other books with those of the Hebrew canon. But then they had no definite completion of the canon at all."

"In general, however, the Nebiim and Kethubim participate in the properties of the Torah. They are all 'Holy Scripture'...Nay, the Nebiim and Kethubim are sometimes quoted as 'the law.' And there is perhaps nothing more characteristic of the full appreciation of their value on the part of the Jews than the fact that they, too, are not first of all to Jewish conviction didactic or consolatory works, not books of edification or history, but also 'law,' the substance of God's claims upon His people."

Now it is peculiarly to the point to note that in adducing evidence for this last position Schurer cites Rom. iii. 14; 1 Cor. xiv. 21; John x. 34, xii. 34, xv. 25—all from the New Testament. Schurer then holds that there was in Palestine in the time of Christ a well-defined canon; that this canon contained those books at present constituting our Old Testament; and finally that this was the canon of Christ and His apostles.

To this position likewise both Ryle and Buhl stand committed. The former, while he fixes upon the year 100 A.d. as "the terminus ad queni in the gradual formation of the canon," is careful to add:

"It marks, however, only the official conclusion. Practically, we may be sure that its bounds had long before been decided by popular use."

Again he expresses himself as follows:

"But there are good grounds for the view that all the books eventually included in the canon had obtained some sort of recognition before the close of the second century B.C, and before the death of John Hyrcanus II. (105 b.c.)."

"The references in the New Testament to the Old Testament lead the unprejudiced reader to suppose that the Jewish Scriptures were regarded in the middle of that century as a complete and finished collection, the sanctity of which would utterly preclude the idea of any further alteration."

"It was thus divinely ordered that we should be enabled to know the exact limits of those Scriptures upon which has rested the sanction conveyed by the blessing and usage of our divine Master."

Buhl is not less explicit. A single statement from him will suffice. Speaking of the witness of the New Testament to the completion of the Old-Testament canon, he says:

"But more important than all this is the names under which the Old Testament is referred to. The use of the Greek language and, besides, the well-known formulae of quotations, put a clear and conscious distinction between Holy Scripture and any other sort of literature, and so give ground to the conjecture that the limits, still undetermined in days of Ben Sirach, with reference to the third part of the canon, had meanwhile become more sharply fixed.

Of course it would be easy to add to this list of authorities for the view that the Jews had a canon, and that it had been virtually, if not officially, closed for at least one hundred years before our Lord's day. Such, for instance, not to mention others, is the position of Dr. Sanday, of Bishop Westcott, and also, apparently, of Dr. Samuel Davidson. But it is not necessary to multiply quotations. Those already made show with perfect distinctness the great gap between the views of Professors Charles and Bennett, and those that have heretofore prevailed among the great majority of those regarded as authorities on the subject of the canon. Even Reuss's view is comparatively less revolutionary. It is true that at one place in his not very clear presentation of his views he declares that in the times (or should I say in the writings?) of the apostles there is an "absence of any decision definitely and vigorously limiting the canonical code, and enumerating the books which it ought to include." But in another place he asserts quite as roundly that:

"In all the New Testament no one has ever been able to point out a single dogmatic passage taken from the Apocrypha and quoted as proceeding from a sacred authority. Hence, whatever may have been the practise followed in the various Christian communities, it must be said that the apostolic teaching, so far as we are acquainted with it, adhered to the Hebrew canon."

Thus far the test of authority only has been applied to these latest views. It remains to apply to them, in a subsequent paper, the far more important tests furnished by evidence and insight. They have failed utterly to stand the first test; their failure to stand the others will be found to be not less fatal.

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