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The Marvelous Story of Esther, Absent From Early Canons of Scripture

The teaching in church this week centered on the inspiring story of Esther. In a nutshell when Xerxes was king of Persia the Queen was named Vashti. And in a moment of defiance Vashti refused the command of the King. After consulting with his advisers the king decided on a process to find a new Queen, and the beautiful Queen he chose was Esther. Esther had been warned of by her kinsmen Mordecai to not advise the King that she was a Jew because of animosity towards the Jews. As it turned out an Agagite named Haman conspired to get rid of all the Jews and in a thrilling story of bravery and courage Esther is instrumental in ridding the Jews of this direct attack, in elevating her kinsmen Mordecai and in providing for the welfare of all the Jews under Xerxes.  It is an amazing story of bravery, and deliverance.

As much as I love the story of Esther however I must report that there is considerable evidence that Esther, whether true or not, was not a book of the Old Testament according to at least some writings of the day.

Look at this quotation from you Eusebius’ church history:

Melito to his brother Onesimus, greeting! Since you have often, in your zeal for the Word, expressed a wish to have extracts made from the Law and the Prophets concerning the Saviour, and concerning our entire Faith, and have also desired to have an accurate statement of the ancient books, as regards their number and their order, I have endeavored to perform the task, knowing your zeal for the faith, and your desire to gain information in regard to the Word, and knowing that you, in your yearning after God, esteem these things above all else, struggling to attain eternal salvation. Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms, 1 two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, 2 Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, 3 the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. 4 From which also I have made the extracts, dividing them into six books.[i]

Notice in the above listing that the book of Esther is missing.

With that  again I have to say that it pains me to have to present this because to me the story of Esther has always been a thrilling and inspiring story. But, besides being our Savior, the Lord Jesus was also the greatest prophet ever and he said this about reading the Scriptures:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, (Joh 5:39 ESV)

While the story of Esther is certainly one of the Jewish people being saved at the time it holds the distinction of being one of two books (the other being Song of Solomon) that do not mention God.  It does not include any of the genealogy of the bloodline of our Savior. While Esther is a story of deliverance it doesn’t testify of jesus.   And as noted above it was left out of at least some of the early Christian centuries’ canons of Scripture.  Also throughout the centuries it has not been accepted universally.  Look at this quote from a website called patheos.com:

John Calvin did not include the book in his biblical commentaries and only referenced it once in the Institutes(see 4.12.17). Though he included it in his Bible, Martin Luther was highly ambivalent about it. “I am so great an enemy to . . . Esther, that I wish [it] had not come to us at all, for [it has] too many heathen unnaturalities,” he said in Table Talk 24. And in one exchange with Erasmus he said it “deserves. . . to be regarded as noncanonical.”[ii]

What this suggests is significant in a number of ways:

  1. the Canon of Scripture might not be as divinely inspired as some would have us believe.
  2. The statements of belief of many Christian churches today includes the statement that the 66 books included in the modern Christian Bible are divinely inspired, and the word of God. This is a relatively recent doctrine and not something that has consistently been believed throughout the ages.

I have said elsewhere in places on this website that many churches teach that they are the first century church living in the 21st century. But this is clearly not the case. There were at least some of the earliest church fathers who did not hold that Esther and some of the other books in the Bible were divinely inspired by God. And hundreds of years ago in the forming of the Reformation the founding reformers also challenged some of the books that current statements of belief propound to be true. In other words, churches in Melito’s time, in Luther’s time, in Calvin’s time would not have made the statement that the 66 books of the Bible are all divinely inspired pieces of the word of God.

It is vitally important to me to remember that the true word of God is not a book as much as it is the person of Jesus Christ. And it is helpful in recognizing that much of the disagreement among churches centers around a dogma that God authored the 66 books and the arguments that promote divisions weaken when we acknowledge that that statement of belief is a modern invention and not one held by the reformers nor the early Christians.

The faith of the early Christians as well as the reformers like Luther and Calvin was not based on the doctrine that the 66 books of the modern Christian bible are the word of God, and neither should ours be.

[i] The Face of the Early Fathers, William a Jurgens, volume 1, p.81. This is a quote by St. Melito of Sardes which is a fragment in Eusebius, history of the church, book 4, chapter 26. The estimated date of this citation is 170 AD.

[ii] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joeljmiller/2013/06/youre-reading-the-wrong-book-of-esther/

August 20th, 2018 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation | no comments

Oral Transmissions of Religious Accounts Have Safeguards to Ensure Accuracy

I have heard people say they are suspicious about the accuracy of traditions that are passed down by word-of-mouth. Anyone familiar with the “telephone” game knows that in any given crowd if one person passes a sentence to another person and so forth, that the resulting sentence by the 10th or 20th person sometimes bears no resemblance to the original.  By this reasoning, a lot of people have discounted ancient oral traditions as being unreliable.

The passing of oral tradition, in reality, however, usually came with stringent safeguards. Nicholas Wade, in his book, The Faith Instinct, says,

“there are two reasons why some hunter gatherer religions may still reflect the ancient forms.

One is that many preliterate or primitive peoples place great importance on carrying out rites exactly as their forebears did. The justification of their rituals is that this is how they have always been performed. So religious practice is handed on with as much fidelity as possible. Among the Klamath and Modoc Indians of the northwest coast of America, certain myths may be recited only in the presence of three people who know the story, and can check the rendition for accuracy, and the myths may not be told by children less they garble them. These rules are reported to keep the myths intact over many generations.”[i]

(It is important to note the word myth as used here means “a traditional story, account, or history” as opposed to the other meaning of myth which is “a false belief”.)

This is very insightful.  Kids aren’t even allowed to recite the traditional accounts.  When the accounts are recited by adults a number of others have to be present to ensure the accuracy of the recital.  This looks like pretty good security.  This practice is not new; it is ages old.

I find this very reassuring.  Sure, unchecked retelling of events is going to get garbled as it passes from person to person, but I always thought it was foolish to think that people didn’t realize this and put safeguards in place to ensure accuracy.

Wade’s insights about how modern tribes ensure accuracy shows that oral traditions can be reliably transmitted.

[i] The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade, The Penguin Press, London, p. 99

October 2nd, 2014 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation | no comments

Codex Sinaiticus, World’s Oldest Bible, Available Online

Would it surprise you to know that the bible read in the fourth century was not the same as the modern bible?  Most of it is the same, but there are some surprising differences. Codex Sinaiticus is called the world’s oldest bible (earlier manuscripts were probably burned by persecuting Romans, or simply didn’t survive the ages.)   As such it gives us an amazing insight into what the bible was and how it has changed since then.  And it is available online at http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx.

But first a definition is in order. What is a codex?  A codex is a stack of pages bound together in a manner similar to the modern book form.  This is, of course, different from the roll form of document used in Hebrew worship.  Christians were among the first to use this style of document making.[i]

Codex Sinaiticus dates back to the 4th century. It is thought to be one of the 50 copies of the Bible commissioned to Eusebius by Constantine about 332 A.D.[ii] (Similarly, codex Vaticanus is thought to be another of the copies although it is not as complete.)[iii]

One of the first things you notice about this “bible” is that books are not exactly the same as modern versions, and the order is not the same.  The Pauline Epistles with Hebrews are between the Gospels and Acts.[iv] The Shepard of Hermas and The Gospel of Barnabas are listed after Revelation.[v] Glancing through the whole book you will find that the order of the books differs dramatically from the current order standard throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

The Shepard of Hermas was used as scripture by Iranaeus, Tertullain, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.  The Gospel of Barnabas was called “catholic” by Origen, and Clement of Alexandria wrote a commentary on it.[vi]

The differences between Codex Sinaiticus and modern Greek texts are not just in the New Testament.  Sinaiticus includes 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach, which now are part of what is now called the Apochrypha, but that distinction did not exist then.  In Old Testament times there is no evidence that there was any concept of a bible as a complete set of collection of authorized books, rather there were individual “books”, which in the Greek is “biblion”.  These were individually recognized as part of the Law and the prophets.  In ancient times this collection of books was called “ta biblia” (“the books”) which Latin speaking Christians shortened to the singular, the book or Bible.[vii]

Codex Sinaiticus is recognized as part of the Alexandrian family of texts.  It does not have some of the errors of the Received Text.  For example, compare these readings from Codex Sinaiticus with the forgeries talked about in Examples of Scribal Forgeries in the Bible:

and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13)[viii]

And he said to them: This kind can come out by nothing but by prayer. (Mark 9:29)

[no verse] (Matthew 17:21)

[no verse] (Mark 16:9-20)

In these lay a multitude of sick persons, blind, lame, withered. (John 5:3, verse 4 is missing)

John 7:53 to 8:11 is missing

It is amazing to me that it took centuries for scholars to get the accepted text back to a form closer to Codex Sinaiticus.  In fairness, it wasn’t available to Erasmus and his successors when they first tried reconstructing a reliable Greek New Testament.  It was found in the late 18th century at the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, hence the name “Sinaiticus”.

As far as Matthew 28:19, the reading is the full Trinitarian formula:

Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

Codex Sinaiticus is a fascinating bible.  I believe the above examples show that it is a better text than those used for the Received Text.  The order that the books are presented suggests loudly, to me at least, that the order of the books has been an arbitrary decision all along.  And likewise the additional books in both the Old and New Testaments, I think,  are a protest to the divine status given to the creation of the canon, as opposed to the divine “thus spake the Lord” terminology much more easily seen in and/or concerning the individual books of the Law and the Prophets.

[i] THE MAKING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, Arthur G. Patzia, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995, p. 118-119
[ii] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M. Metzger, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-826954-4, p. 207
[iii] ibid.
[iv] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p. 295
[v] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, Bruce M. Metzger, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-826954-4, p. 65
[vi] THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p. 188
[vii] THE BOOKS AND THE PARCHMENTS, F F Bruce, Fleming H Revell Company, 1962, p. 11
[viii] This and all the readings are found on the website at http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

April 17th, 2011 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation | no comments