Sacred Tradition of the Old Testament

This is part of a series on Roman Catholicism. See this index.

During the Q&A segment of the debate between Catholic Tim Staples and Reformed Baptist James White, Staples claimed that the validity of the Jewish canon required sacred tradition outside of the canon itself. This claim requires that the words of God contained within the Jewish canon are not, of themselves, sufficient: some external sacred tradition is required to validate the canon.[1]

Sacred Tradition

Tim Staples described his position this way:

“You cannot answer the question of how you know the canon is inspired apart from the existence of sacred tradition. The way that the Jewish people understood which books of the Bible were the Bible did not come from the Bible itself alone. It came from an adherence to sacred tradition, just as in the NT we are taught that we adhere to sacred tradition as well.”

This creates a serious problem as history tells a different story. There was no universal sacred tradition among the Jews. The canon differed among the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. The canon also differed among the versions of the Septuagint used by the Greek-speaking Diaspora.[2]  There was never a top-down, centralized authority determining a consistent canon. The Jewish people had no such understanding: it was anachronistic. Professor Timothy Lim summarizes the point:

“Despite what some ancient sources state, the Bible did not drop down from heaven. It is the community that decides which books are to be included in the canon.”


“The Jewish canon was not directed from above but developed from the “bottom-up.” Ancient Jews did not have a council in the way that the Christian did, and while the Temple in Jerusalem kept some scrolls, it did not do so to prescribe the books of the canon.”

This is basic historical fact. Not only did the community decide, but there were different communities. Each community decided that its version was “the” Bible. By contrast, the top-down approach to canon is essentially an invention of church councils hundreds of years later. Athanasius, writing in AD 367, gave a different canon from the one later canonized by the Catholic church at the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s (and he is not the only one to do so). There was never an established Jewish canon.[3][5]

This creates a problem for the Catholic church, which supposedly bases its chosen and exclusive canon on divine authority.

Divine Authority

If top-down authority is the only valid means of determining canon and it was not determined by divine authority until hundreds of years after Jesus, then how could the Jewish people have understood scripture in the same way that the Catholic church understands authority and inspiration? Of course they couldn’t have, and they never did. James White described it like this:

“How did a man who lived 50 years before Christ know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were scripture? Obviously they did as Jesus held them accountable to scripture. They did not have an infallible Magisterium. If you say it was the Jewish people, the Jewish people reject your canon. They did not embrace the Apocrypha. So what was their infallible authority? And if they could know what scripture was without this external infallible authority, then my question to every Roman Catholic is why can’t I do that today if they could do it back then?”

Staples then stated that Jesus was infallible, that he did not speak the traditions of man, but that of God. In giving Peter authority over the church, the Catholic canon is valid because of successive apostolic church authority, that is, the authority of the sacred tradition of church fathers, especially those in the papal line. But as shown, the claim that the Jewish people had just one sacred tradition does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

If sacred tradition is necessary for the formation of New Testament canon then, by implication, the Old Testament was not fully scripture until Peter’s successors made it so, as previous sacred traditions were many in number and necessarily of man[4]. There was no external, sacred, infallible authority that determined a specific Jewish canon.

Jesus never declared a canon by divine authority and the Jewish people didn’t have a unified canon. However, Jesus taught from scripture and his hearers accepted scriptural authority. They understood it so well, that they accused Jesus of blasphemy for his claims based on those scriptures. Beyond this, the New Testament writers referred to the unstable canon as scripture.

The problems do not end there, as the Catholic canon includes the Deuterocanonicals.


If we look to Jesus, we find that he used the sections of Jewish canon most closely aligned with the Pharisees, the one that aligns with today’s Protestant canon. This canon did not include the Deuterocanonicals. Timothy Lim describes it this way:

“By the first century, it is clear that the Pharisees held to the twenty-two or twenty-four book canon, and it was this canon that eventually became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism because the majority of those who founded the Jewish faith after the destruction of Jerusalem were Pharisees.”

Many Jews in Jesus’ day accepted the Deuterocanonicals as scripture in the Septuagint.[2] Even if we accepted the tradition of the majority, the Catholic church cherry-picked which books were canonical and which were not. The Catholic canon is not identical to the list of books in the Septuagint. There was never an established, universal Jewish canon that has since matched the OT canon of the Catholic church (which includes the Deuterocanonicals).[3]

If Jesus is the authority for canon, what Jesus considered canon is of utmost importance.  Jesus never quoted from the Deuterocanonicals, but since Jesus never quoted from a lot of individual books (e.g. Judges, Ruth, Esther) does this matter? It is fallacious to say that quotation implies  canonicity, since the New Testament quotes from pagan documents and the Deuterocanonicals. Ironically, the fallacy is used to refute the Protestants position on this topic.

However, the inverse (not being quoted implies no authoritativeness) is not (by logic) necessarily false. Jewish canon was divided into sections: law, prophets, and writings.[5] Jesus quoted from all sections of the Hebrew scriptures. There is little question that Jesus accepted the whole sections that contain the works that he didn’t quote from.[6][7] The Pharisees, with whom Jesus (and Paul) most closely aligned, accepted a canon that did not include the Deuterocanonicals. Moreover, the Jews as a whole never canonized it.[5] The first major body to formally canonize the Deuterocanonicals was the Roman Catholic church’s leadership.


The bottom-up, community-based sacred tradition of the Jewish people, early Christian church, and Protestants stands at odds with the development of a top-down, episcopal sacred tradition. In the face of an apparent contradiction, the RCC must claim that the canon was not yet completed.[5] But if it was not completed, then this is another example of the church’s circular reasoning. The canon is completed because the RCC declares it so. The church’s authority to determine canon is assumed (“Jesus granted the church authority”) in order to show that the church has the authority. The acceptance of the Dueterocanonicals amounts to self-authentication.

The Catholic may counter that without the episcopal leadership of the church, with the Pope at its head, knowledge of the sacred scriptures would descend into ambiguous chaos. No one would be able to distinguish the truth from the fiction. This argument fails, for that is exactly the state of affairs before Jesus. Somehow, without the printing press or high literacy rates, the Word of God was not only preserved, but spread throughout the Greek-speaking world.[8] James White noted:

“God has inspired his word and he has a purpose in giving his word. It is a mockery of the sovereignty of God to think that he could inspire that which is a light to our feet and a guide to our path and then cause it to be lost and that he would not have the capacity outside of creating an entirely new authority structure unknown in scripture of leading people to recognize his word.”

Without the support of sacred tradition, the Catholic claim of inspiration rests on circular reasoning: The canon is inspired because Jesus says in the inspired canon that he authorized the very church to select the inspired canon that grants its authority.

[1] He does not say what that tradition might be, so I’ll try to avoid speculation as much as possible while refuting his claim.

[2] None of the Septuagint codices we have contain the same combination of books, but there is some debate about why. One alternate possibility is that 1st and 2nd century Christians created a versions of the Septuagint different from the Jewish one. This is equally critical to the Catholic understanding as early deviations from the established Jewish understanding are evidence against divine inspiration of the Catholic canon. It is circular reasoning: the changes to canon that Christians made are authoritative because the Christians who made them were given authority by the texts they authorized. Moreover, the mere existence of different versions is enough to show that there was no such thing as a unified “Septuagint canon” from which to claim inspired sacred tradition.

[3] The Council of Jamnia allegedly chose the first Jewish canon, but even then it never matched the Catholic canon. The Ethiopian Jews later chose a compatible canon that aligns with the Catholic canon.

[4] “Necessarily” by logical conclusion from the Catholic argument. If a top-down, authoritative sacred tradition is required, the Jewish people did not have one. So their traditions must have been from men. The Jewish and Protestant positions do not require this.

[5] From “How to Defend the Deuterocanonicals” on

“The Old Testament took over one thousand years to compile, and the list of inspired books grew continuously as God’s word was revealed. This gradual accretion indicated that the Jewish people felt no need for a static canon but remained open to further revelation. They divided their sacred writings into three parts: the law, the prophets, and the writings (which were canonized in that order). By the time of Christ, the law—and most likely the prophets—was set in number, but the writings were not yet closed.”

“If anything is certain, it is that there was no common canon among the Jews at the time of Christ.”

“Ultimately, [Jerome] recognized that the Church alone had the authority to determine the canon.”

[6] It is a curious argument for the Catholic to make. A book like Ruth is in both Protestant and Catholic canon. Even though Jesus never quoted from it directly, it is undoubtedly part of the canon that he and most of his fellow Jews accepted. If these books should not be in the canon, then the Catholic church is wrong about that too. This would be awkward for the Protestant to admit, but it would be fatal to the Catholic church’s “infallible” position. The burden of proof is entirely on the Catholic to prove that the Deuterocanonicals belong.

[7] We accept the sections, even though Jesus didn’t quote from every one. Similarly, we accept all of Isaiah, even though Jesus didn’t quote every verse.

[8] It is in this fertile environment that the Septuagint spread and Christianity was launched to both Jew and Gentile.


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