Monday, October 29, 2007

St. Melito and The OT Canon

St. Melito, the bishop of Sardis, was regarded as a prophet in his day according to Eusebius. Unfortunately, most of his voluminous work has disappeared. From what remains extant, we can tell he was a gifted writer. Like most of the Eastern bishops, he held to the tradition of celebrating Easter on whichever day of the week it fell on (as opposed to the Western tradition which celebrated it only on Sunday). He is mentioned specifically as a source when Polycrates writes to Pope Victor on the subject. Clearly, Melito was one of the great heroes of the East.

St. Melito gives us the first known Christian canon of the Old Testament. Here it is:

I accordingly proceeded to the East, and went to the very spot where the things in question were preached and took place; and, having made myself accurately acquainted with the books of the Old Testament, I have set them down below, and herewith send you the list. Their names are as follows:-

The five books of Moses-Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua,76 Judges, Ruth, the four books of Kings, the two of Chronicles, the book of the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, also called the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, of the twelve contained in a single book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. From these I have made my extracts, dividing them into six books.
Esdras contains both Ezra & Nehemiah. Since Melito was an Eastern Patriarch, what he refers too probably contained what Protestants now call 1 Esdras - known to St. Jerome as 3 Esdras (1 & 2 corresponding respectively to Ezra & Nehemiah). While Catholics and Protestants both reject 3 Esdras (or 1 Esdras) the Eastern Orthodox accept it as Scriptural. That is our first discrepancy between Melito's canon and ours; the second is the fact that his canon doesn't have Esther. In short, no one today would accept his canon.

He doesn't list the deutero-canonical books. St. Athanasius would later list his full canon including six of the deutero canonical books as 'good but not Scripture'. However, he did list Baruch as canonical which still leaves us with a canon no-one accepts today. Contrary to Protestant attempts to dodge the question of 'who has the authority to declare Scripture?' by such poorly thought out answers as 'the books are self evident' we see very clearly that the books were only self evident to 16th century Protestants and not to the early Christians. (This is to mention nothing of the early uncertainty regarding several NT books).

The Church Fathers opinions on the canon are fairly consistent, but do have significant discrepancies between each other. Jerome's Latin Vulgate would come to reject the 3rd book of Esdras as well as include the book of Esther and the Deutero-canonical books adhering to the authority of the Church. This is another short piece of history that shows the importance of an infallible Church authority and its role in the selection of the canon.


Weekend Fisher said...

I'm trying to think whether anyone besides the Lutheran Church still respects the ancient church's distinction between books useful for reading but not for doctrine, and ones that are accepted full-fledged. Lutherans, out of respect for the ancient church, do not develop dogma out of the books which had not been fully received in the early centuries of the church.

Are you aware of any other church body that still respects the ancient church's reservations about certain books, the recognition of lesser status? Historical/critical studies have shown the early church's reservations about some books were probably well-founded ...

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Seems like a bit of a loaded question but here's my answer. It is clear from studying the various early Church fathers (as I tried to point out in this post) that there was no consensus among the early Church regarding the canon.

Certain books, as you know, were unanimously accepted as scripture. Others were of uncertain authenticity and others were known to be authentic but only suggested as helpful reading (like Hermas or Polycarp).

The Catholic Church affirms the divine right of the Church councils to authoritatively settle the matter. So for us, what a few scattered Fathers believed is irrelevant. Take millenarianism. Just Martyr and several others believed in this doctrine while the Church rejects it. So Athanasius may have considered the deutero-canonical books uninspired yet good for reading that's nice.. but the Church rejects his opinion on the subject. Only when the Church fathers are unanimous on a doctrinal issue do we consider it binding.

Weekend Fisher said...

Well, what fun's a conversation if there's nothing riding on it, y'know?

Starting with where you left off at the end of yours: << Only when the Church fathers are unanimous on a doctrinal issue do we consider it binding. >>

We start from the same point, roughly: only when the early church is unanimous is it binding. And from there we get the fact that, because certain books were not accepted unanimously, they can never have the same standing as those which were always accepted unanimously.

Same starting point, different conclusions.

Kenny said...

Weekend Fisher - you ask whether "any other church body ... still respects the ancient church's reservations about certain books, the recognition of lesser status." The Eastern Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, describes certain books (the ones rejected by most Protestants) as "deutero-canonical," but interprets this differently than either Catholics or Lutherans. For Catholics the deutero-canon is second only in order - that is, these books were fully canonized later than the protocanonicals. For the Orthodox Church, the deutero-canon is secondary. There isn't a specific dogma on what this means - theologians disagree, and the Orthodox also admit of individual opinion about gradations of importance/authority/inspiration within even the protocanonicals - but Orthodox dogma does hold that the deutero-canonicals have a lesser status than the protocanonicals.

By the way, I'm not sure, but I think the Anglican Communion also holds a view similar to the Lutherans.