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A question about Jesus and the canon of Scripture

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 9/15/13 at 11:59 PM

 

A reader writes

I saw your article on Five Myths about Seven Books and wonder if you think that the question posed to Jesus in Mark 12 about the resurrection is rooted in Tobit 3 and confirms that this book is part of the Canon?

I don’t think Jesus is really particularly interested in arguing the question of whether Tobit is inspired or not, so I’m skeptical that approaching this story as a coded affirmation of Tobit’s inspiration is a wise way of reading it.  Jesus' habit is not to argue about canonicity issues, but to simply deal with people where they are.  The Sadducees rejected the resurrection because they only believed Torah to be inspired and ignored the rest of Tanakh as merely human books.  Jesus therefore argues with them from Torah instead of trying to make them believe Isaiah, Ezekiel and 2 Maccabees (which all bear witness to the resurrection) are inspired. His point is that even the books they acknowledged bear witness to the resurrection since "God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not God of the dead, but of the living" (Mark 12:26-27).  That is a quote from Exodus, which even the Sadducees acknowledge as inspired.  Jesus' comment means that even the books that the Sadducees bear witness to as inspired testify to him, since (of course) all the stories and sayings in Mark's gospel (as in all the gospels) are there as a lead up to a real live bona fide genuine resurrection.  His focus is not on ironing out which books are inspired, but in getting Israel to see that he is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, whichever books your particular sect of Jews happens to accept.  That's what the gospels are: passion and resurrection narratives with long introductions.  And the introductions get even longer when you factor in the reality that the gospel writers are convinced that the Holy Spirit inspired the Old Testament writers to foreshadow Jesus in their writings.

So if Jesus had no burning interest in establishing a canon of Scripture, why do we have one?  Because the Church, under the guidance of the Spirit, selected the books we now call the Bible and used them in liturgy.  Those books reflected the faith of the Church. The Old Testament was basically just the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, used all over the ancient world for a simple reason: everybody spoke Greek.  Tobit's in it, so Tobit got read along with all the rest for the excellent reason: "If it's good enough for the apostles, it's good enough for us."

Okay, but what about the New Testament?  Interestingly, for roughly the first two centuries of the Church, if you had asked any Christian what the new “diatheke” (covenant or testament) was, they would not have said “a book”.  They would have said, “the Eucharist” because that’s what Jesus said: “This is the new diatheke in my blood.”  The New Testament got the name “New Testament” because these were the books read in close liturgical proximity to the Eucharist.  Moreover, the canon of scripture (till the late fourth century, not formally canonized) was finally given its current form in the Catholic Bible during a push by Pope Damasus to regularize the entire liturgy.   In other words, the book of liturgical Scripture readings we call the Bible got regularized along with all the rest of the liturgy, because the Church saw it as the written part of the Church’s liturgical worship.  Since lex orandi, lex credendi (The law of worship is the law of belief), the reasoning of the Church was, "If these books are not inspired, we wouldn't be reading them in the liturgy."  In short, the assumption was exactly what Jesus taught the Church: that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into all truth, including which books were inspired by Him.

By what right does the Church, then, get to decide which books go in the Bible?  Pretty much by the same right you get to decide which pictures go in your family photo album.  It's your family photo album, dude.  You decide which pictures really capture who your family is.  The Church, under the Spirit's guidance, decided which books really captured what the apostles actually taught and which were bogus.  The apostles taught (among other things) the Septuagint, so into the the Bible it went, Tobit and all.