In the years that preceded the establishment of the Bible canon, the books that were subject to the most dispute were Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Daniel, Jonah, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.
The question of canonicity was generally closed for the Catholic Church by the Trullan Council of 692 A.D. But with the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the question of canonicity was again broached. Martin Luther refused to accept those books known today as the Apocrypha, and he also had serious reservations about the canonicity of the Epistle to the Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. Likewise, that other great reformer, John Calvin, was hesitant about the acceptability of James, Jude, and 2 Peter.
Taking this all into account, the question arises, should the modern-day Christian accept the Bible as it stands, or is canonicity still a matter of individual judgment? Practically speaking, the enlightened student of the Bible does make such judgments by consciously or unconsciously deciding whether any given passage of Scripture reveals to him a true picture of God. He perceives an unfortunate but inescapable fact that crude and inferior concepts of God can be found in parts of the Bible. And to the extent that these passages do not provide a true description of God’s nature and attributes, such places in the Bible cannot be adjudged to be authentic Scripture.
It follows from this line of reasoning that there is a criterion for canonicity which can be profitably employed in making an enlightened judgment on those disputed books listed in the first paragraph above. Just as the criterion for obscenity is “a lack of redeeming social value,” so might the criterion for noncanonicity be “an overall lack of revelatory value.” The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God to man. And the doctrine of Christocentric exegesis qualifies the definition of true revelation as that which accords with the description of Deity given by Christ, who made the final revelation of Godhead. Thus, when the net effect of a book is to cloud man’s view of God, it should be excluded from the canon of Scripture, despite the previous findings of any human institution or authority.
Evaluation of Esther
The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This fact says that the book was not accepted by the Essenes. Also, the Book of Esther never mentions the name of God. And while it does mention prayer and acts of piety, there is no concept of a universal Father of all mankind. It extols vengeance and materialism. It is frankly Jewish propaganda. (In the opinion of Kenneth Taylor, the translator of the Living Bible, “Esther...was a sensitive Jewess, though ruthless in the avenging of her people - a victim of the murderous times, a product of her environment.”) The historicity of Esther is very doubtful. In fact it must be understood that the book is mostly a work of fiction, having been based upon the case of a heroic Persian woman who saved her country from a counterfeit king. Herodotus told the story of an impostor named Guamata, a magus, who hearing that the crown prince Smerdis was dead passed himself off as that royal person. Guamata had a physical defect in that his ears had been cut off because of some previous offense. Otanes, a nobleman, had his daughter, Phædyma, a girl in the harem, touch the offender’s earless head while he was asleep. This she did at great personal peril. There are many parallels between the story of Phædyma and the story of Esther. Furthermore, neither Esther nor any other Jewish girl could have become a Persian queen. The best that she could have hoped for was a place in the harem as a concubine. Also the name of the wife of Xerxes (biblical Ahasuerus) is known. She was Amestris. There is no record of a queen by the name of “Vashti” (Persian, Vashiti: “Excellent, Holy One”) or “Esther” (Babylonian Ishtar). The hero of the book, Mordecai, is named for the Babylonian thunder god Marduk. No wonder that it has been a disputed book! But does it have any redeeming value? Yes. Although not directly attributing the preservation of the captive Jews to God, it, nevertheless, follows a pattern showing the survival of the Jewish race that occurs throughout the Bible and throughout history. The nation of the Jews cannot be destroyed. The Bible says this over and over. The heroism of Esther has inspired the underdog Hebrew people down through the ages. This fact reveals God. He is the God of the downtrodden, and Esther, however indirectly, tells this fact once again. The Jewish sages of old finally decided to retain the book, although with grave reservations, and on this basis it should be accepted still.
Evaluation of Proverbs
That the Proverbs are not all authored by Solomon (see Proverbs 30:1 and 31:1, for instance) has caused some concern in the past, but authorship is not an adequate criterion for canonicity. It must be admitted that some inferior ideas are expounded in this book. Women are generally pictured as seductive and brainless gossips. Shrewd business deals are lauded. Prosperity is in some passages the reward of righteousness, but in other verses it is the privileged status held by oppressors of the poor. Lawsuits are described wholly apart from religious considerations. Happiness is often the result of a full belly, instead of being the beatitude of living in God’s will. Also, since they are assembled in a helter-skelter fashion rather than being grouped as to subject matter, it is possible to spot contradictory sayings. (These conflicts, typical of the varying opinions given by rabbis in the pages of the Talmud, might have been resolved if an attempt at grouping had been made.) But despite these faults, Proverbs does have an overall redeeming value. Its praise of wisdom is prophetic, because it prepares for the coming of Christ, our Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30). Proverbs extols righteousness, justice, mercy, truth, harmony, family obligations, industriousness, and humility. The Bible would be poorer if it were excluded.
Evaluation of Ecclesiastes
This book is the Book of Proverbs gone sour. It purports to give out advice but has no advice to give, except that “all is vanity.” (Kenneth Taylor, translator of the Living Bible, calls Ecclesiastes “a dirge of despair, the thoughts of a man who, despite his opportunities, knew all too little of God.”) It contains the mumbling fears and doubts of an old Jewish cynic - very much like the frankly agnostic work of another old cynic, Omar Khayyam. But whereas Omar at least found some pleasure in his loaf of bread and jug of wine, our pessimistic Preacher says there is no good in wine or women or wealth or wisdom (1:18, 7:16). He declares women inferior (7:27-29) and offers the amazing advice within the pages of Holy Writ, “Do not be too good” (!) (7:16). He resigns himself to life’s brevity and has no hope of immortality (3:19-21, 9:5). Almost grudgingly he admonishes at the close of his message that man should fear God out of a sense of duty. The only value to be found in this dismal book is to show a Christian what not to believe and to provide a picture of the hopelessness of Judaism before the advent of the Gospel. It is a black blot on the Bible that should be erased.
Evalution of the Song of Solomon
The Book of Canticles (or the Song of Songs) was not composed by Solomon but by a later admirer, who was evidently impressed by the famous king’s sexual prowess. It was not Solomon’s wisdom but his desire for wives and concubines that inspired this love poem. Why this could possibly make any book a serious candidate for inclusion in religious literature (except an entirely erotic religion, of course) is beyond comprehension. Centering around the admission of a new girl into the king’s harem, the poem is a provocative account of their amorous desires, trials and separations, and fleshly consummations. The book abounds with erotic euphemisms and symbols of sensuality. It is largely based on a Canaanite hymn, or hymns, to the love goddess Astarte, whose other name, Shulmanitu, was converted to “Shulamite” in the Jewish version of the poem. Aside from giving some balance to the Old Testament’s rather prudish view of sex, the book is without value. If the test of Scripture is whether or not it reveals God, this plagiarized pagan poem fails in that aim.
Evaluation of Daniel
With Daniel, as with the Book of Revelation, the question of canonicity hinges on the value of apocalyptic prophecy. Early considerations of authorship, dating, obscurity, and historicity that caused disputation about the book will not generally affect the assessment of spiritual content, which is the most important factor. According to the criterion which is the main premise of this study, what is sought is how clearly one can see God through the book. And here it must be admitted that the book’s deliberate obscurity is not an asset. All the visions about fabulous beasts and monsters, about warfare between national guardian angels, and about symbolic days, weeks, years, and “times” have only served to perplex succeeding generations. But over it all runs the theme that history is moving toward God’s goals of victory, justice, life, and reward. Righteous men need this assurance, else their labors are for nought. So God is indeed pictured, behind a maze of mysticism, as a personal Being concerned with His world, and Daniel is needed in the Bible to make that plain.
Evaluation of Jonah
Jonah’s big fish has been hard for many literalists to swallow. And Jonah’s historicity is doubtful. The description of Nineveh as having the diameter of a three-days’ journey (3:3) is preposterous. Also, that Nineveh ever experienced a mass conversion to Judaism is unfounded. (The basic elements of Judaism: circumcision, kosher food laws, the name of Yahweh, the sabbath, etc., are not mentioned in Jonah. It is significant that no Assyrian king’s name carries the divine element “yah,” which denoted devotion to the Jewish God.) Having God “repent” of His intended destruction of the city (3:10) is a primitive theological concept. But questioning the historicity of Jonah is like questioning the historicity of the Prodigal Son parable or of the Book of Tobit or of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Jonah is an allegory. And it is from allegories (or parables, with Jesus) that religious adherents get their most profound pictures of God. Jonah’s concept of a universal Father of all mankind is like a ray of light in the Old Testament. God so loved the world that He sent Jonah...and Jesus. The presence of Jonah in the Bible canon is absolutely necessary.
Evaluation of Hebrews
Disputation over the canonicity of the Epistle to the Hebrews has centered around the question of authorship. Lacking sufficent evidence to ascribe authorship to Paul or one of the Apostles, many early Christians spoke against the book. The Epistle to the Hebrews is entirely orthodox, however, and contributes significantly to the message of the New Testament. It shows conclusively that the Law has been supplanted by the Gospel and argues for the superiority of Christ in comparison to angels and Old Testament personalities. It is a valuable part of the Bible canon.
Evaluation of James
As stated above, both Luther and Calvin disliked James. (Luther’s view of the Bible books was that some were gold, some silver, some wood, and some stubble. In his opinion, James was “an epistle of straw.”) It represents a retrogression from New Testament faith to Old Testament works-salvation. With James, faith is mere intellectual belief (2:19). If it were a pre-Christian work, its message would be defensible, but it does not belong in the New Testament. It is one of the causes of major schism and misunderstanding in the Church. Catholics and the like defend their emphasis on sacramental deeds of merit (penances, fasts, rituals, indulgences, etc.) by citing James. Thus the harm attributable to this book is greater than the benefit of retaining it in the canon. Paul condemned such Judaizing teaching. His greatest obstacle was “men from James” (Galatians 2:12) who subverted his ministry. Therefore, either Paul or James must go.
Evaluation of 1 and 2 Peter
The First Epistle of Peter may or may not have been written by the Apostle, but like Hebrews its orthodoxy is essentially sound. It does reflect the questionable idea that Christ descended into Hades (3:19), but this is a minor issue. Its magnification of Christ is as undoubtedly inspired as it is inspirational. The Second Epistle of Peter, on the other hand, is an obvious counterfeit. Its authorship is set at 150 A.D., beyond the lifetime of the Apostle Peter. It is essentially an apocalyptic work that borrows liberally from Jude (compare 2 Peter 2:1-3 with Jude 4-8) and from current Jewish eschatology. It predicts the destruction of the world by fire, a Stoic concept not found elsewhere in the Bible. One purpose of the book was to affirm the canonicity of the letters of Paul (3:15-16). Since it is merely a poor imitation of John’s Revelation, its loss from the canon would be beneficial.
Evaluation of 2 and 3 John
The canonicity of these two short notes is not worth arguing about. Several early Christian scholars spoke against Johannine authorship. But there is nothing to be found in them that would be odious to orthodoxy. They are simply warm, personal exhortations to exercise Christian love in everyday life. “God is love” is a message the world needs to hear.
Evaluation of Jude
Dropping Jude from the canon would solve the sticky theological problem that the book quotes as Scripture two pseudepigraphal works, the Assumption of Moses (Jude 9) and the Book of Enoch (Jude 14). Its overall tone is vindictive with un-Christlike threats of fire and brimstone. Withdrawing it from the canon would be a net gain.
Evaluation of Revelation
The canonicity of Revelation has been questioned by Eusebius, Cyril, Gregory Nazianzen, Philastrius, and the Council of Laodicea. Martin Luther was vocal in his judgment against it. And in modern times it has been classed as an inferior book by Harry Emerson Fosdick, primarily because its bloody nature is so unlike that of Christ. It is, like Jude, vindictive and, like Daniel, obscure. But just as Daniel was needed in the Old Testament, so is Revelation needed in the New. The images and symbols may confuse and cause wrangling in the Church, but in a more liberal age these impediments may be overlooked to arrive at the central truth of the book, “Christ shall reign!” To lose this book would be to give up its Hallelujah chorus. And this would be too big a price to pay for just avoiding silly controversies over the Millennium.
Since the Book of Revelation is so controversial, however, a further evaluation, that of Martin Luther, is also worth considering:
About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion or judgment; I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic. First and foremost, the Apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear, plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the Gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak of Christ and His deeds without figures and visions; but there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so out and out with visions and figures. And so I think of it almost as I do of the Fourth Book of Esdras, and can nohow detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.
Moreover, he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly - more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important - and threatens that if anyone takes away from it, God will deal likewise with him. Again, they are to be blessed who keep what is written therein; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep. Many of the fathers, too, rejected this book of old, though St. Jerome, to be sure, praises it highly and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words; though he cannot prove this at all, and his praise is, at many points, mild.
Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit gives him to think. My spirit cannot fit itself into this book. There is one sufficient reason for me not to think highly of it: Christ is not taught or known in it. But to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle is bound, above all else, to do, as He says in Acts 1, “Ye shall be my witnesses.” Therefore, I stick to the books which give me Christ, clearly and purely.
It will be noted that Luther’s criterion for canonicity closely matches that given herein, namely, whether a writing reveals God or clouds man’s view of Him. One other test may be applied, however, and this can be used to check the primary evaluation. This test is whether or not a book in the Bible has been susceptible to counterfeiting in the secondary “scriptures” that are called apocalyptic works.
Using this new criterion, it will be found upon analyzing the apocryphal books that every one of them has a striking counterpart in the Bible canon. And what is more surprising still, these counterparts have all been disputed as to their canonical status.
The following tabulation shows notable cases of writings in apocryphal literature that have a parallel relationship with certain canonical books:
Canonical Apocryphal Similarity
Esther Judith A Jewish heroine saves her nation.
Proverbs Wisdom Wise sayings by “Solomon.”
Ecclesiastes Ecclesiasticus Advice from a cynical old rabbi.
Jonah Tobit Nineveh setting; big fish story.
Daniel Additions A wise Jew solves problems.
to Daniel (Susanna, Bel and the Dragon)
Song of Sol. Psalms of Sol. Poetry by “Solomon.”
Ezra 1 Esdras History of Return from Captivity.
Revelation 2 Esdras Prophecy of the End Times.
The apocryphal writings, excluded from the Protestant canon, correlate directly with some of the canonical books that were hotly contested before being admitted into the canon. One discovers from the preceding analysis that books of questionable canonicity have been susceptible to imitation by later counterfeiters. It would seem that it is easier to imitate an inferior writing than an inspired masterpiece. One can therefore conclude that the existence of these imitations is a potent argument for the lesser inspiration of these scriptures and an additional reason for excluding some of them from the canon.
And finally, it is well to remember what Luther said about this entire matter of canonicity: “I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas.” Soul competency is a Free Church principle that cannot be relinquished or denied. As stated by Paul, an enlightened Christian should be able to “discern between (good and evil) spirits” and to “rightly divide the word of truth.” This means that obviously inferior writings in religious literature (whether in or out of the Bible) must be forever subject to the censuring authority and the cleansing touch of the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth.
Richard L. Atkins