Nov 15, 2008

On Esther & Canonicity I

Recently I left a comment on Kent Brandenburg's blog wherein I doubted the inspiration and canonicity of the Book of Esther. Tom Ross, a well known Baptist pastor and writer, took issue with me and we have exchanged comments on the subject, which is still ongoing. See here
I will begin posting some of my notes and comments on this topic.

"The story of Esther is built predominantly upon action, not character development or theological reflection. A major feature of the story is the motif of reversal of fortunes (Berg, 103-13; Fox, "Structure"). By the end of the book, Mordechai, Esther, and the Jews all have been exalted and delivered from their enemies through dramatic turns of events."

"An important motif that emerges from the book is the nature and
significance of the festival of "Purim" ("lots")
(Berg, 31-57). The lottery itself is not a major component of the book, but it is a part of the reversal motif (cf. 3:7; 9:26), and one of the book's appendices (9:20-32) gives formal instruction for the festival's celebration (B. S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 603-5)."

Prepared for the NIDOTT, July 5, 1990
by David M. Howard, Jr., Ph.D.

"Although the events of the Book of Esther show little correlation with those of the actual reign of Xerxes I, the story does reveal considerable knowledge of Persian customs, and it may be based on the deliverance of Jews from a local persecution in Persia. In its present form, however, it is essentially a secular historical romance, expressing a strong concern for Jewish patriotism and national survival. God is not mentioned, and religious practices are scarcely mentioned."

"Recent scholarship indicates that the Book of Esther was composed in the 2nd century bc. Because of its vindictive tone and secular character, early Jewish commentators were reluctant to include it in the Hebrew canon, but it was finally accepted in response to popular demand and because it offered an account of the origin of the feast of Purim. The Greek version of the Book of Esther contains 107 additional verses that are not found in the Hebrew original. They were composed in Greek, probably in the 1st century bc, with the intention of making the story more religious in character and more relevant to the situation of the Jewish people. In Protestant Bibles, these passages are included as a separate book in the Old Testament Apocrypha. In most editions of the Bible used by Roman Catholics they are included with the original version of the book." (encarta)

"Other books‚ Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Esther‚ were hotly contested before finally being admitted to the canon. So even though these books were all in existence during the time of Jesus, not all Jews would have accepted them as authoritative Scripture at that time."

"As we have seen, before about the end of the first century, the actual contents of the Old Testament were up for grabs, even among Jews in Eretz Israel. The situation is even more complicated than that, however. Alongside the books that would eventually become the Scriptures of Judaism were other texts, some of which had been included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament."

"Furthermore, Athanasius discussed the biblical canon in his Paschal letter of AD 367. After discussing the contents of both testaments, the bishop of Alexandria states,

For the sake of greater accuracy I must needs, as I write, add this: there are other books outside these, which are not indeed included in the canon, but have been appointed from the time of the fathers to be read to those who are recent converts to our company and wish to be instructed in the word of the true religion. These are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith and Tobit, the so-called “Teaching of the Apostles” [The Didache] and the “Shepherd” [The Shepherd of Hermas]. But while the former are included in the canon and the latter are read, no mention is to be made of the apocryphal works."

"Now it may be true that Protestants share the same OT canon as Jews today; however, the situation was a little different during the time of Jesus. The Jews before the 2nd century A.D. did not appear to have a rigidly defined OT canon. In the words of James King West, a Protestant Bible scholar:

The Scriptures of Judaism were not, therefore, a precisely defined body of literature absolutely set apart from all other literature, but a central body of material, the Torah (i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deut.), which from the time of Ezra had remained fixed as... the Scriptures par excellence, surrounded by other interpretive material of varying degrees of importance and authority. [S&W, p. OT 432]

By the time of Christ, all Jews accepted the five Books of Moses - the Torah - as Scripture; however, Books, like Esther and Ecclesiastes, were debated. From the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jews at Qumran apparently read and copied Tobit, The Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch 6) and Sirach as Scripture, while Esther is missing from the scrolls. [JBC, pp. 522 & 565] Unfortunately we can only speculate on what Jesus thought on this issue. No where in the New Testament (NT) does Jesus or His Apostles present a complete list of the OT Books or even discuss this issue.

Others like Gregory Nazianzen also excluded Esther from the Bible [JBC, p. 522].

The Councils of Hippo and Carthage in the late-4th century were the first real attempts by the Church to end the confusion over the OT canon.

"In the year 367 an influential bishop named Athanasius published a list of books to be read in the churches under his care, which included precisely those books we have in our Bibles (with this exception — he admitted Baruch and omitted Esther in the Old Testament). Other such lists had been published by others, as early as the year 170, although they did not all agree."

"Then we must ask, how did the elders of the churches decide which writings should be read in church as authoritative? The answer is simple: They received the writings of the apostles and their closest companions, and the writings endorsed by them. The entire Old Testament was received by the implicit endorsement of the apostles."

Today we have no good reason for doubting the canon of the New Testament. It would be wrong for me to suggest that everyone needs to investigate these matters and decide for himself which books he will receive as Scripture, without any respect for the decisions of the early churches. We are not in such a position to judge as the early church was, and we are bound to respect the well-nigh unanimous opinion of so many Christians of the past.

Apostolic use of the Septuagint. The quotations of the Old Testament in the New show that the apostles often
used the Septuagint, because it was generally known to those in the Church and usually adequate for their purposes. Some people in looking at these quotations have been troubled by the fact that they are sometimes not very accurate translations of the Hebrew. Did the apostles not know their business? Of course they did. They did not concern themselves with corrections when the translation served well enough for their purpose, but when it did not they quietly offered their own translation of the Hebrew. Then they usually offered a better translation. The apostles did not see fit to produce a complete version of the Old Testament in Greek for the use of the churches."

(Michael Marlowe - "Our Reception of the Bible")

"If a genuine apostolic writing were rediscovered in our day, this principle would demand the writing’s immediate acceptance in the canon. Yet God evidently did not intend all inspired utterances to be included in the canon (John 21:25; 2 Cor 2:3–4[?]; Col 4:16), and it would seem strange that he would permit the Church to function for some 1900 years without a book that would have been inspired and written in the first century.

This criterion tends to circular reasoning. Orthodoxy must be defined by the canon, and here it seems that the canon is defined by orthodoxy.

This appears to be a vicious circle. We were asking: “How do we recognize an inspired book so as to include it in the canon?” It is tautological to say, “We recognize it because it is inspired.” In other words this criterion does not advance us by even one inch in our search.

We know a book to be inspired because it is canonical. We do not know how to recognize infallibly inspired books so as to assign them a place in the canon.

If this principle were as simple as it is thought to be by its advocates it is difficult to understand why it took the Church some 300 years to make up its mind on the exact list of NT books and why the problem of the OT Apocrypha still plagues some of us to this day."

("The Canon Of The New Testamentby" Dr. Roger Nicole, Th.D, Ph.D)

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