Friday, June 17, 2016

The Roman Catholic Canon and the Book of Esdras (Part One)

I've been challenged to revisit the controversy about Rome's canonical decrees and the book of 1 Esdras because "This question keeps popping up due to the fans of James Swan, James White, etc... parroting the same erroneous assertion." The controversy involves one of the books of Esdras, the decrees of Hippo and Carthage, and the infallible pronouncement on the canon by the Council of Trent. Did the earlier councils canonize a book that Trent did not? Do the councils contradict each other? The person challenging me says they didn't, and claims an article from 1907 by Father Hugh Pope proves it: The Third Book of Esdras and the Tridentine Council. Pope's basic argument is that when Hippo and Carthage referred to the two books of Esdras in their canon, they meant Ezra - Nehemiah, not the spurious book of 1 Esdras and a second book comprising Ezra - Nehemiah.

What's interesting about Father Pope's article is that in regard to literature about this issue, his work appears to have had little impact on scholarship, either when it was written, or now. It's generally accepted by both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholarship that the early church utilized the spurious book of 1 Esdras, and it's highly likely the Hippo and Carthage did indeed have the spurious book of 1 Esdras in mind when it considered the Biblical canon. As I've surveyed some of the available literature, Pope's article is not typically referred to as any sort of definitive apologetic setting the record straight. A few of Rome's bloggers have certainly picked it up (like this blog for instance), and I have my suspicions that this article may have also used it, but scholarship itself appears to have generally ignored it. In the early 1900's I came across a few mentions of the article, but not meaningful mentions, typically just announcements of the article. Some of Pope's arguments are found elsewhere in credible sources. It seems likely that some sources since 1907 positively utilized Pope's article, but I've yet to find them. Of course, scholarship is not infallible, so it's certainly possible that Hugh Pope is the voice of truth crying in the wilderness of scholarship.

In order to evaluate Pope's article, I'd like to first present some background as to the way this controversy has recently played out. In a future blog entry, Hugh Pope's arguments will be laid out. To try and keep things cogent throughout these articles, I will refer to the disputed book of Esdras as "1 Esdras," though there may be times that "3 Esdras" is used to refer to the same book.

William Webster: The Different Canons of Hippo, Carthage, and Trent
I wrote about the 1 Esdras dilemma in 2006 when I briefly outlined the problem as presented by William Webster in his book, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Vol. 2 (Battle Ground: Christian Resources Inc., 2001), p. 346-348 [Webster's material from his book can be found in this link]. In terms of Internet apologetics and cyber-battles with Rome's defenders, I would posit that it was probably Mr. Webster that popularized the argument about contradictory Councils and the canon with 1 Esdras acting as the grenade. The basic gist is that the Councils of Hippo and Carthage had a different 1 Esdras than Trent did. Mr. Webster argues in part,
Roman Catholic apologists argue that the canon was authoritatively settled for the universal Church at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage. However, the canon decreed by the North African Councils differed from that decreed by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century on one important point. Hippo and Carthage stated that 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras were canonical, referring to the Septuagint version of 1 and 2 Esdras, the Bible their Latin version was based upon. In that version, 1 Esdras was the apocryphal additions to Ezra and Nehemiah not found in the Hebrew Bible, while 2 Esdras was the canonical Jewish version of Ezra-Nehemiah. The Jews only acknowledged Ezra and Nehemiah which they combined into one book. This was 2 Esdras in the Septuagint version. It was Jerome (in his Latin Vulgate) who separated Ezra and Nehemiah into two books, calling them 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras respectively. This became standard for the Vulgate and the basis upon which Trent declared the Septuagint I Esdras to be noncanonical. 1 Esdras in the Septuagint then became 3 Esdras in the Vulgate and the other Apocryphal apocalyptic work of 3 Esdras became 4 Esdras in the Vulgate.
According to Webster, the North African church relied on the Septuagint, and the Septuagint contained the spurious 1 Esdras. There does not appear to be much dispute about this. It's generally recognized that the spurious 1 Esdras was included in the LXX, by both Roman Catholic scholarship and Protestant scholarship. It's not sinister at all: Roger Beckwith notes that Josephus and "the Fathers of the first four centuries" appear to have preferred 1 Esdras over "the corresponding part of Esdras B (Ezra–Nehemiah)," not because they considered it a different book, but because "they regarded it as an alternative (and fuller) Greek translation of the same book" [Beckwith, R. T., The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (London: SPCK, 1985) p. 340]. Brill's Commentary on 1 Esdras states,
1 Esdras is found in a number of early Christian manuscripts and extant in various translations of ancient Christian Bibles. for a case in point, the presence of 1 Esdras in Codex Vaticanus means that it was copied, read, studied, and preached by Christians and for Christians [link].
The Brill commentary also goes on to document the usage of  "1 Esdras as Christian 'Scripture'." This basic point of manuscript existence and church usage is important because Hugh Pope argues that "the oldest LXX MSS which we possess.. came into existence a few years before the African councils [of Hippo and Carthage], as if there is a serious possibility that the extant LXX manuscripts contained the spurious 1 Esdras as a novelty! Pope refers to this as "the one positive argument alleged for identifying Esdras I and II of the African Councils." It seems highly unlikely that, given all the usage of 1 Esdras in the first five centuries of the church that Hippo and Carthage did not understand 1 Esdras to be the spurious 1 Esdras. Pope attempts to downplay these basic facts because granting their truth collapses the rest of his argumentation.

James White vs. Gary Michuta vs. William Webster 
In 2004, Dr. White debated Roman Catholic apologist Gary Michuta on the Apocrypha. He raised this very issue (fast forward in the video to 1:39:15). Responding to Dr. White,  Mr. Michuta says, "William Webster is wrong" because Trent chose to pass over 1 Esdras "in silence" and not make a decision one way or the other in regard to the canonicity of the book. A few years later Mr. Michuta published Why Catholic Bible Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007) and used the same argument. I wrote about Mr. Michuta's argument a number of times when his book came out (see for instance, this link).

This may seem like a reasonable solution to keep the integrity of Rome's decrees in unison. Unfortunately, while one problem may be solved (the councils do not contradict each other), others surface. Let’s grant that Trent "passed over in silence" on ruling on the book of 1 Esdras. This means the possibility exists that the book in question is canonical, but not currently in the canon. Therefore, it is possible that the Bible is missing a book, in which case, Roman Catholics cannot be certain they have an infallible list of all the infallible books. Their arguments stating they have canon certainty crumbles according to their own worldview. It would also mean, the canon is still open. Even more troubling for Michuta’s position are the statements put forth on the closed canon from the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Catechism states, “It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books. This complete list is called the canon of Scripture. It includes 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New.” Notice the words, complete list. If a book is passed over in silence, and may in fact be canonical, the list is not complete. On a theological level, what does it say about Rome's version of the Holy Spirit for an infallible council to pass over something that may be Holy-Spirit inspired Scripture? 

If Mr. Michuta is correct about Trent "passing over in silence" on 1 Esdras, then yes, there is a narrow sense in which William Webster could be wrong that the councils contradict each other. That is, if 1 Esdras is in some sort of conciliar holding pen waiting to be ruled on, the only option to keep Rome's councils from contradicting each other is to deem the book to be sacred Scripture. Will this happen? I doubt it. Rome doesn't appear these days to care about 1 Esdras. Webster's argument has been placed in a conciliar holding pen that's long since been forgotten by Rome's magisterium. If they know where this holding pen is, they don't appear to care.  

Mr. Webster responded to Mr. Michuta by saying, "Trent has spoken quite clearly. 1 Esdras is not canonical. Nowhere in the official list of canonical books is 1 Esdras to be found. The only books that are canonical are those listed by Trent." On Webster's side is the New Catholic Encyclopedia which states of 1 Esdras, "The Council of Trent definitively removed it from the canon." Also in editions of the Vulgate after Trent's decree 1 Esdras placement is tenuous. The 1590 Vulgate omits it, while the 1593 Vulgate places it in an appendix with a preface that says, 
Porro in hac editione nihil non canonicum, nihil adscititium, nihil extraneum apponere visum est: atque ea causa fuit, cur libri tertius et quartus Esdrae inscripti, quos inter canonicos libros sacra Tridentina Synodus non annumeravit, ipsa etiam Manassae regis Oratio, quae neque hebraice, neque graece quidem exstat, neque in manuscriptis antiquioribus invenitur, neque pars est ullius canonici libri, extra canonicae scripturae seriem posita sunt.[link]
 Also on Webster's side is that Trent's canon is held to be definitive by Roman Catholic sources, and in fact, other than Mr. Michuta, I've not yet come across any of Rome's defenders saying the canon is theoretically still open because of Trent's silence on 1 Esdras. No, quite the contrary: Rome's defenders typically battle with the understanding that the canon was settled once and for all by their infallible magisterium. 

Is Gary Michuta Making Up "Passed Over in Silence"?  
What can be said about Mr. Michuta's claims that 1 Esdras was "passed over in silence"? Did he make it up? No, I don't believe he did. In his book, he states the following:
The question was (and still is) 'is Esdras a separate book that happened to use an awful lot of canonical material,' or 'is it an early recension of Scripture with some additional non-canonical material added?' No one knows. The only thing certain about Esdras' canonical pedigree is that it is uncertain.
Many things are questionable about Esdras. The Council of Carthage may have included Esdras on its list. We don't know for certain. Esdras may be an individual book or it may be a recension. No one knows. A few Church Fathers may have used Esdras as a canonical book, but this usage disappeared around the fifth century, although it remained in the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint. By the time of Trent, the exact nature of the Esdras, both its form and its canonical status, was open to doubt. The best move for Trent was not to move at all.
The fourth question of the Capita Dubitationum asked whether those books that were not included in Trent's list, but were included in the Latin Vulgate (e.g. The Book of Esdras, 4 Ezra, and 3 Maccabees), should be rejected by a Conciliar decree, or should they be passed over in silence. Only three Fathers voted for an explicit rejection. Forty-two voted that the status of these books should be passed over in silence. Eight bishops did not vote The majority won, and Trent deliberately withheld any explicit decision on these books. In post-Tridentine editions of the Vulgate, Esdras and the others were moved to an appendix in the back.
Those who claim then, that Trent" rejected Esdras are mistaken. It did not. In fact, any rejection or affirmation was purposefully withheld. If there was no decision, then Trent cannot be said to have contradicted Carthage. The question of Esdras' canonical status was left theoretically open. [Gary Michuta, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007), p. 240-241].
The information from Mr. Michuta that's most important to this discussion is Trent's vote. Gary documents the information as coming from Peter G. Duncker, The Canon of the Old Testament at the Council of Trent [The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3 (July 1953), p. 293-294]. The pertinent section from Duncker isn't that long:
The difficulties made against the wording of the decree, that concern us, are expressed in the following of the 14 “capita dubitationum”:
4. Whether the so-called apocryphal books that are usually included in all the Vulgate codices of the Bible with the sacred books, are to be “nominatim” rejected by this decree, or to be silently omitted.
We may be very brief here. This point arose as a result of an observation of some of the Fathers about such books as 3-4 Esd and 3 Mc; but there was no question that they should be regarded as Sacred Books. The term “apocryphal״ has here undoubtedly the sense, as we Catholics understand the word, applied to the books that non-Catholics call “pseudepigraphic.” The result of the vote indicated that only three Fathers wanted the books to be rejected expressly, eight did not express themselves, forty-two preferred that nothing be said about them. In the later Vulgate editions 3-4 Esd and the prayer of Manasse were added, but as outside the Sacred Books.
The point to keep in mind here is that Duncker states that Trent debated "the so-called apocryphal books that are usually included in all the Vulgate codices." Trent recognized that 3 Esdras (remember- also known as 1 Esdras!) was in the earlier Vulgate. Where does this information come from? Duncker utilized Societas Goerresiana, Concilium Tridentinum (CT). Throughout  the article he relied on reliable primary sources (p.277).

My conclusion? I think that the vote did occur and Trent passed over 1 Esdras in silence. It was probably a pragmatic solution for an issue that Trent's participants didn't really care that much about. It appears to me that Trent's participants were aware of the spurious nature of 1 Esdras, and this can be verified that after Trent, as Duncker states, "In the later Vulgate editions 3-4 Esd and the prayer of Manasse were added, but as outside the Sacred Books." Does this "silence" on 1 Esdras mean William Webster was wrong? No. If Carthage and Hippo really had 1 Esdras in their canon, then most certainly Trent does not officially have it in its canon... yet.

All of this tedium about William Webster, Gary Michuta, and Trent's vote on 1 Esdras demonstrates that Trent recognized there was a problem with 1 Esdras, and that 1 Esdras had been around in the church's usage and manuscripts. While this excursion does not definitively interpret what Hippo and Carthage meant by the two books of Esdras, it does speak to the fact that 1 Esdras was not definitively renounced by the pre-African Council church. If Hugh Pope's paradigm were true, there should not have been any sort of debate at Trent in regard to the book. Pope would have his readers believe that 1 Esdras was rejected previous to the North African Councils, yet Trent demonstrates the book was never definitively rejected, and if Michuta is correct, it hasn't been rejected to this day.

Was 1 Esdras Considered Canonical Previous to the Vulgate?
Was 1 Esdras actually the book in view by Carthage and Hippo? If it was, then all bets are off for Rome's defenders. Mr. Michuta does not deny that the book the Council of Carthage canonized was the spurious 1 Esdras. He says, "Carthage did, indeed, accept 'Esdras, two books" and the identity of these two books seems straightforward enough" (p.238). Gary asks, "[W]hat did the Council of Carthage mean when it called for a canon with 'Esdras two books'? Did it mean Nehemiah alone, or did it mean Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esdras proper? It is difficult to tell. It appears that Carthage would have more likely included Esdras, not omitted it. However, neither case is certain" (p.239). Mr. Michuta documents this by referring to Francis Gigot, General Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1900), p. 121. Gigot  is far more certain than Mr. Michuta. He states,
The Third Book of Esdras.
The second apocryphal writing now placed at the end of the authorized editions of the Latin Version, is the third book of Esdras, thus called in the Vulgate because our canonical books of Esdras and Nehemias are known respectively as the first and the second book of Esdras. In the old Latin, Syriac and Septuagint versions, it was named the first book of Esdras from its position immediately before our canonical books of Esdras and Nehemias. This latter name has great historical importance, inasmuch as when early Councils and writers of the Church speak of the first book of Esdras they have in view our third book of  that name, and when in their lists of sacred books they mention only two books of Esdras, the first to which they allude is our third book, while their second corresponds to our canonical books of Esdras and Nehemias counted together as one work.  
The nomenclature just referred to is found in the African councils of Hippo and Carthage, in the writings of St. Augustine, Pope Innocent I and Cassiodorus, and proves beyond doubt that at a given time the canonicity of the third book of Esdras was officially recognized, at least in the Western churches. About the same period, the sacred character of this book was taken for granted by the leading writers of the East, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, who agree with St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and others in the West, in quoting as Holy Writ passages found nowhere except in the third book of Esdras. It is not therefore surprising to find that in presence of such unanimity of the East and of the West, up to the fifth century of our era, some writers should have affirmed that this work is truly canonical and inspired. They remark that the Catholic Church, far from rejecting it positively as apocryphal, has allowed its use and inserted it in its official edition of the Vulgate and of the Septuagint ; that by far the largest part of its contents is simply a duplicate of canonical passages in the second book of Paralipomenon and in the first and second of Esdras ; and that, finally, it is difficult to see how the fact that the writing in question has ceased to be in use since the fifth century of our era, can invalidate the earlier positive testimony in its favor. (p. 121-122)
Utilizing Gigot, Mr. Michuta provides a helpful breakdown of exactly what is contained in 1 Esdras. It is a nine chapter book that takes sections from Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah and also adds in approximately two chapter of unique material, 1 Esdras 3-5:6  (Michuta, p.239; Gigot, p.122). The text of 1 Esdras can be found here.

Gigot is an older source, yet similar findings were noted in Brill's Septuagint Commentary on 1 Esdras by Michael F. Bird. He states:

The Brill commentary also goes on to document the usage of "1 Esdras as Christian 'Scripture'." It seems highly unlikely that, given all the usage of 1 Esdras in the first five centuries of the church that Hippo and Carthage did not understand 1 Esdras to be the spurious 1 Esdras.

Addendum: A Breakdown of 1 Esdras (The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Although not belonging to the Canon of the Sacred Scriptures, this book is usually found, ne prorsus intereat, in an appendix to the editions of the Vulgate. It is made up almost entirely from materials existing in canonical books. The following scheme will show sufficiently the contents and point out the canonical parallels:
-III Esdras, i and 2 Chronicles 35, 36 — History of the Kingdom of Juda from the great Passover of Josias to the Captivity.
-III Esdras, ii, 1-15 (Greek text, 14) and I Esdras, i — Cyrus's decree. Return of Sassabasar.
-III Esdras, ii, 16 (Gr. 15)-31 (Gr. 25) and I Esdras, iv, 6-24 — Opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple.
-III Esdras, iii, 1-v, 6 — Original portion. Story of the three pages. Return of Zorobabel.
-III Esdras, v, 7-46 (Gr. 45) and I Esdras, ii — List of those returning with Zorobabel.
-III Esdras, v, 47 (Gr. 46)-73 (Gr. 70) and I Esdras, iii, 1-iv, 5 — Altar of holocausts. Foundation of the Temple laid. Opposition.
-III Esdras, vi, vii and I Esdras, v, vi — Completion of the Temple.
-III Esdras, viii, 1-ix, 36 and I Esdras, vii-x — Return of Esdras.
-III Esdras, ix, 37-56 (Gr. 55) and II Esdras, vii, 73-viii, 12 — Reading of the Law by Esdras.
The book is incomplete, and breaks off in the middle of a sentence. True, the Latin version completes the broken phrase of the Greek; but the book in its entirety probably contained also the narrative of the feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8). A very strange feature in the work is its absolute disregard of chronological order; thehistory, indeed, runs directly backwards, mentioning first Artaxerxes (ii, 16-31), then Darius (iii-v, 6), finally Cyrus (v, 7-73). All this makes it difficult to detect the real object of the book and the purpose of the compiler. It has been suggested that we possess here a history of the Temple from the time of Josias down to Nehemias, and this view is well supported by the subscription of the old Latin version. Others suppose that, in the main, the book is rather an early translation of the chronicler's work, made at a time when Paralipomenon, Esdras, and Neh. still formed one continuous volume. Be this as it may, there seems to have been, up to St. Jerome, some hesitation with regard to the reception of the book into the Canon; it was freely quoted by the early Fathers, and included in Origen's "Hexapla". This might be accounted for by the fact that III Esd. may be considered as another recension of canonical Scriptures. Unquestionably our book cannot claim to be Esdras's work. From certain particulars, such as the close resemblance of the Greek with that of the translation of Daniel, some details of vocabulary, etc., scholars are led to believe that IIIEsd. was compiled, probably in Lower Egypt, during the second century B.C. Of the author nothing can be said except, perhaps, that the above-noted resemblance of style to Dan. might incline one to conclude that both works are possibly from the same hand.


Scott Windsor, Sr. said...

"Rome has spoken, the case is closed" - to paraphrase St. Augustine. Regardless of debates which may have taken place prior to the Council of Trent, the fact remains that Trent infallibly decreed the Canon of Sacred Scripture - end of story - the canon is closed.

James Swan said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for taking the time to read my entry.

Scott Windsor, Sr. said...

You're welcome. I actually enjoyed reading through it. The facts are interesting - the bottom line fact though doesn't change... the canon is closed. I posted a little more of a response on my blog too.