The twenty-second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew records events that took place in the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, after He had openly presented Himself to Israel as their Messiah on the first Palm Sunday, as recorded in chapter twenty-one, and before the Last Supper, in which He partook of the Passover Seder of the Old Covenant with His disciples for the last time and instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist of the New Covenant on the evening of His betrayal, arrest, and trial, as recorded in chapter twenty-six. During that last week, Jesus taught in the Temple and His enemies came to Him posing trick questions in vain attempts to trip Him up. Three such occurrences are recorded in the chapter we are considering, the first and third by the Pharisees and the second by the Sadducees. After the final question – the one about which commandment is the greatest – Jesus turned the tables on His interrogators and asked them a question which they could not answer after which, the Apostle records “neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”
The question from the Sadducees and Jesus’ response is particularly interesting. The Sadducees, whom the Apostle reminds us did not believe in the resurrection from the dead, asked Him:
Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. (vv. 24-28)
Jesus answer is to say:
Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (vv. 29-32)
There are two parts to His answer, the first part which addresses the question posed to Him, and the second which addresses the Sadducee’s heretical doctrine. The first part of the answer raises the question of what exactly Jesus meant when He said that they did not know the Scriptures. It cannot be referring to their rejection of the resurrection as it precedes the περὶ δὲ (“but concerning”) at the beginning of verse 31 with which Jesus turns to this matter. It seems at first glance, therefore, like Jesus is saying that what He goes on to explain about the nature of the resurrection state is explicitly found in the Old Testament Scriptures. If, however, this is what He meant, where are those Old Testament Scriptures that say that in the resurrection “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven”?
The answer, of course, is that nowhere in the Old Testament does it say any such thing about the state of the resurrected. Jesus own words are the first revelation we have on this subject. What then was He talking about when He said that they did not know the Scriptures?
Sadly, few evangelicals will know the answer. This is because most of them have never read the book to which the Sadducees were alluding when they posed their question to Jesus. No, they did not just make it up to suit their purposes. The story of the woman who had seven husbands comes from the Book of Tobit, which is set in Ninevah, after the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom in 720 BC. The book concludes with the destruction of Ninevah in 612 BC, as prophesied in the book of Nahum, but this takes place long after the main narrative has concluded. The title character is a faithful Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali who, like Antigone in Sophocles’ play, gets in trouble with the civil authorities for performing burials that they have forbidden. Blinded by birds after sleeping in the street one night, he sends his son Tobias to a man in Media to collect money the latter owes him. Raphael, “one of the seven holy Angels, which present the prayers of the Saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy one” (11:15) accompanies Tobias and helps him both to accomplish his task, to heal his father’s blindness, and to marry Sara, daughter of their kinsman Raguel. Sara has previously been given in marriage to seven men, but each had been killed on the wedding night by Asmodeus, demon of lust, before the marriage could be consummated. Raphael shows Tobias how to drive the demon away, and so to safely marry Sara.
The Sadducees, in alluding to this story, add the detail that the seven husbands were brothers acting in accordance to the Levirate instructions in Deuteronomy 25, which, although it can be reasonably inferred is not present in Tobit, and, more importantly leave out the more important detail that she was given in marriage an eight time, and this time the marriage was completed. Of these, only the eighth, Tobias, was ever truly her husband in the fullest sense of the term. Thus, “not knowing the scriptures”, they presented a mangled and distorted version of the story. Note that the reason the Sadducees did not know this book very well is the same reason that they did not believe in either the resurrection or angels. They accepted only the Torah (the Pentateuch, the first five books) as canon.
Many Calvinists today deny that this passage in the Gospel of Matthew – which is also found in Luke and Mark – alludes to the Book of Tobit, but in support of this denial, they can only point to the differences between the Tobit account of the woman with seven husbands and the Sadducees version when, as we have seen, these differences are precisely what Jesus was calling attention to in rebuking them for not knowing the Scriptures. The real problem Calvinists have with seeing the allusion to Tobit here is that they, like the Sadducees, do not regard the book of Tobit as Scripture. In this they disagree with the vast majority of Christians throughout history and, if the text does indeed allude to Tobit, with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
The book of Tobit belongs to those books which in Martin Luther’s German Bible of 1534 and in the Authorized English Version of 1611 were printed in a separate section between the Old and New Testament and dubbed, “The Apocrypha”. This is a misnomer, as the books which can be found in these sections are not the Gnostic, heretical, and pseudepigraphal writings to which the early church first applied this term. In the Bibles of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as the ancient Churches of the Near East these are found within the Old Testament itself. They are not printed at all in most bibles that evangelicals use, such as the popular New International Version. It is a widespread notion among evangelicals that the Bible consists of sixty-six books and that the books contained in the so-called “Apocryhpa” were added by the Roman Catholics at the Council of Trent. This is a distortion of history, and it does not represent the viewpoint of the Protestant Reformers.
When Martin Luther moved these books, in his translation of the Bible, from the Old Testament into the “Apocrypha”, he defined “Apocrypha” as meaning “books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.” This does not mean that he considered them as being down on the level of his own writings, or even those of the Church Fathers. It meant that he considered them unequal to the books which he left in the Old and New Testaments, but still worthy of being set higher than all other Christian literature by being printed in the Bible itself. This was the same position taken by the Church of England in the Sixth of its Thirty-Nine Articles, which is why the Book of Common Prayer includes readings from them in its lectionary (the readings for the weeks of the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, the Twenty-Third through Twenty-Sixth Sundays after Trinity, and the Last Sunday before Advent) and why it was included in King James’ Authorized Bible in the same position as in Luther’s Bible. Although the evangelical/fundamentalist idea that these books don’t belong in the Bible at all and perhaps should be avoided as being “popish” came, as we shall see, out of the Calvinist tradition, it does not represent John Calvin’s own views. Calvin, on this as on many other matters, was much closer to Martin Luther and the English Reformers than he was to those who would call themselves “Calvinists.”
Those who argue for the “Calvinist” position on the canon – that I and II Esdras (III and IV Esdras in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles which count Ezra and Nehemiah as I and II Esdras), Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, the Prayer of Manasseh, I and II Maccabees, and the LXX versions of Esther, Jeremiah (including Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah), Daniel (including the Song of the Three Children, Susanna and the Elders, and Bel and the Dragon) – are no part of the Bible and should be regarded with suspicion as popish additions will often maintain that neither Jesus nor His Apostles cited these books in the New Testament and that the earliest non-canonical Christian writings did not do so either. Neither of these claim is true.
The allusion to Sara and her seven husbands in Matthew 24 is not the only reference to Tobit in the New Testament. The Book of Revelation reads like a written tapestry in which threads of imagery are plucked from throughout the Old Testament and woven together. In the eights chapter St. John writes that “I saw the seven Angels which stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. And another Angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer, and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all Saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.” (vv. 2-3). The seven angels who stand before God and offer up the prayers of the saints comes from the fifteenth verse of the eleventh chapter of Tobit (quoted above). John Calvin saw a reference to the fourth chapter of Baruch in the tenth chapter of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians where both speak of sacrifices to idols as being made to devils. Later in the same epistle, his reasoning in the verse which speaks of those “who are baptized for the dead” is identical to that used in II Maccabees 12:43-45 to explain Judas Maccabeus’ actions in sending two thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering on behalf of his slain comrades. Indeed, there are multiple references to the Maccabees throughout the New Testament. In the Olivet Discourse Jesus references the book of Daniel when He speaks about the “Abomination of Desolation” but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for “whoso readeth” to “understand” what Daniel was talking about without the illumination provided by the books of Maccabees. In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus goes to Jerusalem to participate in a festival established, not in the Torah, but in the Maccabees. The author of Hebrews includes a reference to II Maccabees chapter seven in his list of heroes of faith in chapter 11 (verse 35).
Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem, citing F. F. Bruce and Roger Beckwith as authorities, states that “In fact, the earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture, but the use of the Apocrypha gradually increased in some parts of the church until the time of the Reformation.” (1) John Piper makes similar statements. This is utterly fantastical nonsense, however. Apart from the New Testament itself, of which vide supra, you do not find earlier “Christian evidence” that St. Clement of Rome’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, The Epistle of Barnabas, (2) the Didache, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna’s Epistle to the Philippians. In these Wisdom, Sirach, and Tobit are all cited authoritatively like any other Scripture.
The fact of the matter is that the books that in Luther’s Bible and the KJV are called “The Apocrypha” were part of the Septuagint or LXX. This was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was said to have had been made by seventy-two Jewish scholars for the Macedonian King of Egypt, Ptolemy II, who wanted copies of all the world’s books of wisdom for the library in Alexandria. (3) According to legend each was required to translate the whole of the Hebrew sacred writings independently of the others and miraculously they all agreed. Whatever truth there may or may not be to that story, it was the LXX and not the Hebrew Masoretic Text that became the Old Testament of the early Church. The books that were in the LXX, but not the Masoretic Text, were accepted as Scriptures – not without dissent, but by a broad consensus – by the Christian Church, from its earliest days, and long before the Council of Trent. N.B. they are included in the canons of the Eastern Churches that broke with Rome in 1056 AD, a good five hundred years before the Council of Trent, and by the Near Eastern Churches that broke with the Greek and Latin Churches almost five hundred years before that.
The dissenting voices to the broad consensus wherewith the LXX, including the books not found in the Masoretic Text, was accepted as Old Testament Scriptures represent a minority, regional, tradition. It was primarily followers of Origen of Alexandria, such as Pamphilus and Eusebius of Caesarea, who argued against the LXX. This was a school of thought that, while highly regarded for its scholarship was not known for its orthodoxy. Origen, notoriously, fell into a sort of proto-Arianism of which Eusebius was also later accused. On the other hand, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy and Eusebius’ chief opponent, also took Origen’s position on the Old Testament canon, arguing that the canon should be limited to the books of the Masoretic Text, minus the book of Esther, but that a second category of “ecclesiastical books” needed to be recognized, consisting of writings approved by the Fathers for edification and instruction. In this category he placed Esther, the LXX books, and certain early non-canonical Christian writings like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. (4) St. Jerome was of the same opinion, although he included the LXX books in his Latin translation of the Old Testament. Apart from St. Athanasius and St. Jerome, there were very few others among the unquestionably orthodox Fathers who did not fully accept the canonicity of the LXX.
In arguing against the canonicity of the books found in the LXX but not the Masoretic Text these men used the lack of Hebrew originals and the fact that the Jews did not accept the books in their own canon as reasons for excluding them from the Christian canon. The first of these reasons is partially out-of-date as Hebrew copies of some of these books have since been discovered – portions of Sirach and Tobit in Hebrew, for example, were discovered among the scrolls in the caves of Qumran in the twentieth century. The second reason is not a valid reason for excluding these books from the Christian canon. No matter how it is parsed, what it is ultimately reduces to is the idea that a religion that rejects Jesus Christ as the Messiah is a more trustworthy authority as to what books belong in the Bible than the broad consensus of the Christian Church from the earliest days. (5)
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the English Reformers, while they accepted the arguments of Sts. Athanasius and Jerome, did not remove the “ecclesiastical books” from the Bible altogether, but rather set them apart, between the Testaments, in a section that they unfortunately and inaccurately dubbed “The Apocrypha.” The position of these Reformers was that of the Church of England in its Thirty-Nine Articles declared of these books “And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (6) Note that this is identical to the distinction Martin Luther drew between the literal interpretation of the Scriptures and the other three interpretations of the traditional quadriga (allegorical, moral, and anagogical). The latter interpretations are only to be considered valid if established elsewhere in the Scriptures literally, and doctrines can be supported from the deuterocanonical books if established in the protocanonical books. Luther frequently quoted the deuterocanonical books in this way and while Calvin was less liberal in his use of the deuterocanonical writings, he did often appeal to Baruch and the Wisdom of Solomon.
So why do evangelicals dissent, not only from the vast majority of Christian Churches (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and ancient Near Eastern Churches all accepting the full canonicity of the “ecclesiastical” or “deuterocanonical” books) but the Protestant Reformers (who kept the books in the Bible, as in Luther’s translation and the KJV, but in a subordinate position, appealed to for instruction, edification, and support, but not establishment of doctrine), and take the unhistorical position that these are “popish” books, added by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent?
Today’s evangelicals are basically liberal fundamentalists, that is to say individuals who have a mostly fundamentalist theology with considerably less rigidness and strictness – often on things that they ought to be rigid and strict about. Fundamentalism was a late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century movement, based primarily in North America, and descended theologically from the Puritanism of the late sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, in England and her North American colonies. Puritanism was the radicalized form of Calvinism, brought back to England from Switzerland after the reign of Bloody Mary. In addition to being the ancestor of fundamentalism and through fundamentalism modern evangelicalism it was also the ancestor of political liberalism (of which the “conservative” republicanism of the country to our south is a variety).
The Puritans were religious and political extremists. By contrast with Luther and the English Reformers, who reformed Church practices in accordance with the Normative Principle (established church customs that are not forbidden in the Scriptures are allowed to be retained) they followed Calvin’s Regulative Principle (whatever is not authorized by the Scriptures is forbidden) and took this much further than Calvin himself. This principle is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXI, paragraph 1) (7), which is the first Confession to go further than the Reformers on the deuterocanonical writings and take the hard position that “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (Chapter I, paragraph 3). The men who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith were rebels, revolutionaries, seditionists, and terrorists, waging war against their king and the established Church, who three years after writing their Confession, illegally put their king to death, and established the tyrannical junta that would be the prototype of subsequent, secular, totalitarian states such as the first French Republic, and those of the Communists and Nazis. In placing the LXX books outside the Bible altogether, as the earlier Reformers were careful not to do, not wanting to be guilty of subtracting from the Scriptures, they chose to believe that the religion that rejects Jesus Christ as Messiah is right about the Old Testament canon and that the broad consensus among those who have confessed Jesus Christ is wrong, and were guilty of countless other counts of Judaizing as well. (8)
Today’s evangelicals would do well to reject this heritage, and return to that of the earlier, saner, evangelicalism of Luther and the English Reformers.
(1) Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994)
(2) Not to be confused with the heretical Gospel of Barnabas.
(3) The title of the translation refers to the number of translators, rounded down to the nearest ten.
(4) St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Festal Epistle for 367 AD.
(5) This argument against the exclusion of these books from the Christian canon is all the stronger if, as has long been believed, Judaism did not come to a decisive decision as to its own canon until after the destruction of the Second Temple. The theory, based upon a passage in the Mishnah portion of the Talmud, that this took place at a Council held in Yahvneh or Jamnia in the late first century AD, has gone out of vogue among scholars, but the evidence does suggest that until the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AD) necessitated the translation of Jewish identity out of the terms of the nation Israel and into those of the religion Judaism, there was no consensus among the sects of the first century Jews as to the canon of their Scriptures. As noted in the text of this essay, the sect of the Sadducees had an extremely limited canon, and while the sect of the Pharisees may very well have accepted a canon closer to that of present day Judaism, the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus speaks of twenty-two books that were divinely inspired and authoritative (the canon of the Tanakh currently recognized by Judaism contains twenty-four books, Ezra and Nehemiah being considered one book, as are the twelve minor prophets), other Jewish groups, such as the one in Alexandria to which the philosopher Philo belonged, used the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence that Hebrew originals of the LXX books not found in the Masoretic Text were used by the Essenes, and, ironically, all branches of Judaism continue to celebrate as a major festival each year, Hanukkah, which was established in the Maccabean books.
(6) For a fuller look at the original Protestant position on the canon see D. H. Graham’s article “The Protestant Bible: A Touchstone of Orthodoxy,” which can be found in Anglican Tradition, Volume I, (2012-2015), pp.25-52.
(7) Ironically the chapter previous to this is the one on “Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience.”
(8) See Eliane Glazer, Judaism Without Jews: Philosemitism and Christian Polemic in Early Modern England, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), pp. 30-63 and Norman Podhoretz, Why are the Jews Liberal?, (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp, 73-80.
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