Sunday, May 30, 2010

Melito of Sardis and the Old Testament Canon: Overview & Arguments

Melito of Sardis (D. 170) is one of the earliest voices on the canon. In fact, his Old Testament list is the oldest Christian list extant. Melito actually went to Palestine from Sardis to determine the precise Old Testament canon. His list is preserved as a fragment in Eusebius's Church History:

But in the Extracts made by him the same writer gives at the beginning of the introduction a catalogue of the acknowledged books of the Old Testament, which it is necessary to quote at this point. He writes as follows: “Melito to his brother Onesimus, greeting: Since thou hast often, in thy zeal for the word, expressed a wish to have extracts made from the Law and the Prophets concerning the Savior and concerning our entire faith, and hast also desired to have an accurate statement of the ancient book, as regards their number and their order, I have endeavored to perform the task, knowing thy zeal for the faith, and thy desire to gain information in regard to the word, and knowing that thou, in thy yearning after God, esteemest these things above all else, struggling to attain eternal salvation. Accordingly when I went East and came to the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and send them to thee as written below. Their names are as follows: Of Moses, five books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth; of Kings, four books; of Chronicles, two; the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, Song off Songs, Job; of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah; of the twelve prophets, one book; Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. From which also I have made the extracts, dividing them into six books.” Such are the words of Melito. [source]


Melito's Old Testament Canon

I.The five books of Moses

II.The second group:
Joshua of Nun
Judges
Ruth
4 books of Kings
2 books of Chronicles

III.The third group:
The Psalms of David
Wisdom
Ecclesiastes
The Song of Songs
Job

IV.The Prophets:
Isaiah
Jeremiah
The Twelve in one book
Daniel
Ezekiel
Ezra

Exclusions to Melito's Old Testament Canon
Nehemiah
Lamentations
Proverbs
Esther
The Apocrypha


Possible Solutions For The Excluded Books
Based on earlier lists, it is within the realm of possibility that Nehemiah is included in Ezra. Lamentations could be a part of Jeremiah.

"Wisdom" is the alternate name for the book of Proverbs (F.F. Bruce: "According to Eusebius, Hegessipus and Irenaeus and many other writers of their day called the Proverbs of Solomon 'the all-virtuous Wisdom'" [F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), p.71].

Esther: "The four categories of Melito’s list may correspond to the familiar Masoretic division into the Torah, Former Prophets, Latter Prophets and Writings. But if so, the inclusion of the two books of chronicles among the Former Prophets is worthy of comment. If the four books of Kings and the two books of Chronicles are each taken as single categories in Melito’s list the total number of books would be twenty-one, suggesting the possibility that the omission of Esther may be accidental. Origen makes explicit reference to a canon of twenty-two books for the Hebrew Scriptures and then proceeds to list only twenty-one, omitting the book of the Twelve so-called minor prophets. But that omission is clearly an error in the transmission of Origen’s testimony as witnessed by the fact that Rufinus, in his translation of Origen, includes the prophets in question. The restoration of Esther to Melito’s list would produce a list of twenty-two books. Inclusion of Esther within his second category along with Ruth would result in a curious symmetry in the arrangement: 5 + 6//5 + 6. But the same result could also be achieved with the omission of Esther by dividing his category of the “four books of Kings” into the more familiar canonical categories of the books of Samuel and Kings, which is more likely. Melito is apparently not concerned with the number twenty-two as an organizing principle for the canon of Hebrew Scripture. And though his four categories may reflect the fourfold arrangement of Masoretic tradition, his distribution of Ruth, Chronicles, Daniel and Ezra among the Prophets suggests another conclusion. The Writings as a division of the canon of Hebrew Scripture was in flux. The reason for this state of affairs may be the book of Esther" [Duane L. Christensen, "Josephus And The Twenty-Two-Book Canon Of Sacred Scripture" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 29 (29:41]).

Counter Arguments
Contrary to these suggestions, Roman Catholic apologist Gary Michuta argues,

"We ought to take a closer look at Melito's list, as well, before moving on. A moments reflection reveals that it does not line up with the protestant canon at all. It omits the books of Lamentations, Nehemiah, and Esther - and includes the Book of Wisdom. Even if Lamentations and Nehemiah are present, as some have argued, under the other titles broadly defined, the omission of Esther remains unaccountable. We do know that there were disputes among rabbis in this area concerning Esther's inspired status. Melito's list, therefore, is not identical to the Protestant canon" (Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger, pp. 75-76].

Michuta's opinion seems to be based on an uneven scale when he says the Protestant canon does not line up to Melito's "at all." It certainly does, especially if one compares Melito's canon to that dogmatized by Trent. Michuta also has no clear factual evidence that Lamentations and Nehemiah were not included in other books. Granted, the burden of proof lies on those who claim they do, however, based on previous ways the books were counted in earlier lists,this suggestion is not far-fetched. Michuta even quotes F.F. Bruce on the Wisdom/Proverbs solution, but leaves out Bruce's evidence from church history affirming this solution. True, Esther is missing, but it is common knowledge that the book of Esther was considered antilegomena: a book previously disputed but ultimately considered canonical. Therefore, the book of Esther is simply proving that there were in fact those who doubted its canonicty, both within Judaism and the church. In other words, Esther is living up to its pedigree of antilegomena. So in essence, the Protestant canon lines up with Melito's with the exception of one book. The Roman Catholic Old Testament canon pales in comparison.

Infuriating Factoid: Melito Excludes the Apocrypha
There's really only one response to Melito's exclusion of the Apocrypha. Roman Catholics typically question Melito's integrity: why would Melito go to Palestine for information about the canon when excavations have revealed there was a Jewish population and temple in his immediate area? Some counter that there could have been tension with the Jews or extenuating circumstances provoking Melito's journey. Roman Catholics respond that despite antagonism between Jews and Christians, dialogues did still go on during that time period.

William Webster speculates Melito's list came from a Christian Church near Palestine- thus Melito's list reflects "a Christian perspective and a consciousness of the Hebrew numeration and canon" (Holy Scripture vol. II, p. 336].

The simple fact of the matter is we only have Melito's testimony of where he received his list from: "Accordingly when I went East and came to the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament...". Or as another translation says,

"you [Onesimus] have been desirous to obtain an accurate account of the ancient books, both as to their number and their order; I have taken pains to accomplish this, knowing your earnestness in respect to the faith, and your desire for instruction in regard to the word; and most of all, that you, while striving after eternal salvation, through desires after God, give a preference to these things. Making a journey therefore into the east [Palestine], and having arrived at the place where these things [i. e. scriptural events] were proclaimed and transacted, I there learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, which I here arrange and transmit to you."

Does this sound like the words of an untrustworthy man? If he says he went to Palestine for an accurate list, then he did. For a Roman Catholic to question the integrity of Melito ignores the testimony of Church history. Moses Stuart comments:

My first remark on this testimony of Melito is, that it comes from a very distinguished and enlightened man. Cave says justly of him: "Vir pietate non minus quam doctrina clarus;'' and Tertullian (a contemporary) testifies of him, that most Christians called him a prophet; in Hieron. de Script, c. 2, 4. His knowledge was acquired, moreover, by a special effort and much caution; for he was not content with what he learned at Sardis, but must needs go to Palestine itself, in order that he might know the exact truth, of the whole matter respecting the Jewish Scriptures.[source]

8 comments:

Lvka said...

Exclusions to Melito's Old Testament Canon: Nehemiah, Lamentations, Proverbs, Esther, the Apocrypha.


Uhm... no. When he says simply `Ezra` or 'Jeremiah' he includes Nehemiah, as well as Baruch, Lamentations, and the Epistle [of Jeremiah], because he has the Septuagintal namings in mind. -- The same goes for 'Daniel', etc.

James Swan said...

Uhm... no. When he says simply `Ezra` or 'Jeremiah' he includes Nehemiah, as well as Baruch, Lamentations, and the Epistle [of Jeremiah], because he has the Septuagintal namings in mind. -- The same goes for 'Daniel', etc.

1. Your argument is more against Roman Catholic apologist Gary Michuta than anything I've written. Michuta states: "A moments reflection reveals that [Melito's list] does not line up with the protestant canon at all. It omits the books of Lamentations, Nehemiah, and Esther - and includes the Book of Wisdom."

2. As to the Septuagint, the oldest extant manuscripts of the Septuagint are of Christian origin from the 4th and 5th centuries, so we don't know for certain that the Septuagint included the Apocrypha as canonical scripture.

These old copies do contain a number of Apocryphal books. None of the oldest Septuagint copies contain the same Apocryphal books, and some include books that aren't even thought to be canonical by Romanists (3 & 4 Maccabees).

There is no compelling evidence that the Jews of Alexandria held to a broader canon than those in Palestine.

Lvka said...

That Melito had the LXX in mind is clear (case in point: "four books of Kings"). -- and I also bet he said Paralipomena, not Chronicles.

Also, I didn't say that his canon included self-standing apocryphal BOOKS (it obviously didn't.. well, with the exception of 'Wisdom'). But the problem is that many of the so-called apocrypha AREN'T BOOKS: they're CHAPTERS: chapters *OF* books: CANONICAL books!

Daniel has three such chapters; Jeremiah-Lamentations has two; Chronicles has [at least] one; the Psalms have also one; etc.

I also don't understand why you assume he spoke to the Jews: there's a Christian Church in Jerusalem: it was there from Pentecost; it never went away.

James Swan said...

I also don't understand why you assume he spoke to the Jews: there's a Christian Church in Jerusalem: it was there from Pentecost; it never went away.

You'll find this offensive, but your comment demonstrates you have poor reading comprehension.

Nick said...

I don't see how this post helps either side, though I'd consider it a blow to the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura by the simple fact anything less than the full and "correct" canon makes SS functionally impossible.

The Catholic position doesn't hang on whether any given father wrote down the "correct" canon while the very rule of faith for the Protestant has scant testimony.

Churchmouse said...

I don't see how this post helps either side, though I'd consider it a blow to the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura by the simple fact anything less than the full and "correct" canon makes SS functionally impossible.

The Catholic position doesn't hang on whether any given father wrote down the "correct" canon while the very rule of faith for the Protestant has scant testimony.


Not necessarily. When one realizes that everyone is fallible, including those who use their personal fallibility to determine such a thing as an "infallible" church, one realizes that to discredit SS because of discertainty regarding the canon, is a matter of epistemology. This article explains exactly what I mean: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/content/Parchmentandpen/In-Defense-of-Sola-Scriptura.pdf

Nick said...

Churchmouse,

The issue is a matter of logical consistency and who's position provides greater plausibility.

In this example, Melito could not practice Sola Scriptura by definition, for without the right canon it is *functionally impossible*. In terms of plausibility, I see scant evidence of any Fathers promoting the full "Protestant canon", implying most of the Fathers and Christians in history weren't led by the Holy Spirit to be able to recognize the supposed crystal clear, black and white fact of 66-book canon.
I say such a set up fails on both accounts (consistency and plausibility).

Churchmouse said...

Nick, you're just repeating the same thing you stated before. Did you read the article. The Catholic argument that SS cannot work without infallible certitude fails from the onset. Especially when the Catholic cannot move towards the "infallible" realm without imposing his/her own fallibility. In light of this, SS clearly is the more logical choice.