Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Deuterocanon and the Communion of Saints

If Catholics are right about the Books that make up the Bible, then we’re also right about the Communion of Saints. In fact, if the Second Book of Maccabees is true (whether or not the Book is inspired Scripture), then the Catholic doctrines on the Communion of the Saints are true, as well. How can I say that? Because the Communion of Saints, the idea that the faithful departed are alive and interceding for us in Heaven, is clearly laid out in 2 Maccabees.

Before the last battle with Nicanor, Judas Maccabeus armed his men “not so much with confidence in shields and spears as with the inspiration of brave words, and he cheered them all by relating a dream, a sort of vision, which was worthy of belief” (2 Macc. 15:7). 2 Maccabees 15:8-16 then describes Maccabeus’ prophetic dream:
Carl Poellath’s workshop,
Judah Maccabees’ Vision
(c. 1866)
What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.”

Both Onias and Jeremiah have died. Jeremiah died more than four hundred years before the Maccabean Revolt, while the high priest Onias was murdered in 2 Maccabees 4:34-35.  Yet Onias and Jeremiah are clearly alive and interceding on Judas Maccabeus’ behalf. In fact, that’s precisely the way that Onias introduces Maccabeus to Jeremiah: by explaining that Jeremiah is “a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city.

Maccabeus’ prophetic dream is a turning point: it inspires the Jewish forces to directly attack the forces laying siege to their city and their Temple (2 Macc. 15:17-18).  They successfully lift the siege, killing the enemy general Nicanor in the process, and bringing the war to an end.

Here’s where things get awkward for Protestants who deny the canonicity of 2 Maccabees and the intercession of the Saints in Heaven: in John 10:22, Jesus celebrates Chanukah.  Why does that matter?  Two reasons.  First, the only Books of the Bible proscribing Chanukah are 1 and 2 Maccabees (1 Macc. 4:59; 2 Macc. 1:18).  So if Christ isn’t treating the Books of Maccabees as Scripture, He’s relying on extra-scriptural Tradition (which Protestants also reject).

Second, Chanukah is the holiday commemorating Maccabeus’ rededication of the Temple, and the miracle of lights.  But if Maccabeus is a heretic for believing in the Communion of the Saints, and inspiring his men by recounting a vision of the intercession of Onias and Jeremiah, why would Jesus endorse a holiday celebrating his victory?


In an earlier post, about prayers for the dead (which are described in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), I listed this as one of several reasons to accept the canonicity of the Books of Maccabees:
  1. On what basis can you show that 2 Maccabees isn't Scripture?  I've mentioned before nobody in the Early Church thought the 66-Book Protestant canon was the correct canon of Scripture. So if Protestants can't show why their own canon is right, I don't see how that's a basis for rejecting 2 Maccabees.

  2. 2 Maccabees was believed to be inspired Scripture by the early Church. It's affirmed as canonical by Origen, Augustine, Jerome, and a lot of other Fathers. Are there any reasons for believing we know better than them on this issue?

  3. There's sound reason to believe Jesus treated 1 and 2 Maccabees as Scripture. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees' re-dedication of the Temple. Both First and Second Maccabees call for it to be celebrated, and these are the only Scriptures which do so (remember, the Talmud and Mishnah weren't written yet, and were never considered Scripture).  And we see Jesus Christ Himself celebrating Hanukkah in John 10:22

  4. Even if it isn't Scripture, it's still true. Even if one refuses to accept the Second Book of Maccabees as inspired Scripture, that doesn't mean the Book is false. If you don't want to treat it as Scripture, at least treat it as a history book.  And it shows that the pious Jews of Israel believed in praying for the dead. Judas Maccabbeus calls for the praying, and there are no signs that anyone thinks this is strange.  The author of 2 Maccabees even talks about how this practice proves that there's an afterlife, something rejected by many of the Jews who rejected these Books (Luke 20:27). So the controversial part wasn't that Judas was praying for the dead, but that there was an afterlife.

  5. Even if it were false, it'd still tell us something.  Even if the author of 2 Maccabees were completely making up this account, we'd still be able to tell that some of the Jews before Christ believed in praying for the dead.  After all, the author explicitly praises the practice.
Applying those same points here, it’s clear that Judas Maccabeus, the Maccabean Jews, and the author of 2 Maccabees believed in the Communion of the Saints.  The same can be said for the Jewish and Christian communities that embraced this Book as Scripture, as well as those individuals who considered it historical (whether or not they accepted its historicity).  And since Jesus Christ celebrated Chanukah, we (whether Protestant or Catholic) have sound reason to trust in the historicity of 2 Maccabees ourselves… which means that we have good reason to believe that Maccabeus’ prophetic dream is true.

All of this is a long way around of saying that the Saints who have departed this life before us are interceding for us to God, and that we can know this on the basis of 2 Maccabees, whether you treat that Book as Scripture, or simply as history. 

9 comments:

  1. Brilliant. This blog must continue even as you go into seminary

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    1. Thanks, Brantly. For what it's worth, I wrote that post during a chunk of free time during orientation week.

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  2. I'm glad you wrote this Joe cuz when i knelt at the communion rail last Sunday i saw the saints kneeling on the other side. And i am sure it wasn't just my imagination....

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  3. Say Joe, I am a Catholic but I had a thought: Wouldn't Jeremiah and Onias be in the vestibule of Hell awaiting for Christ to come and lead souls into Heaven? I thought that was Catholic teaching regarding the Old Testament holy men and women. Christ seems to indicate that even Abraham was in the vestibule, so that would probably include Jeremiah as well.

    That still doesn't disprove your point about Communion of the Saints, since it is Catholic teaching that we have Communion with both the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering. It would just be a case of something along the lines of the Church Suffering being demonstrably near us, but if one is true, the other is true as well.

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    1. Jonathan,

      Thanks for pointing that out: that was just an elementary mistake on my part. You're right in your conclusion, too. The fact that the intercession of the Saints was happening while they were still in limbus patrum is quite beautiful, since we can say with full confidence that their intercession only increases upon arriving in Heaven.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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  4. I first heard of the Jeremiah vision of 2 Maccabees 15:8-16 the other day. Seems this also explains why when Jesus asks "who do men say I am?" in Mt 16, part of the answer is "Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." Why Jeremiah? 2 Maccabees 15:8-16.

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  5. This passage from Maccabees can be combined with St. Paul's request in ! Thessalonians 5:25, "Beloved, pray for us" for a logical rationale for requesting the saints' intercessions. However, it seems to be rely on logic, rather than clear scriptural example. "Praying TO the saints" is thus a pious traditional practice, neither prohibited nor enjoined by scripture, as I see it.

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  6. Hi Joe,

    I would appreciate if you could expand on this in another post, as it's a problem I've had with the doctrine of communion of saints.

    As you know, I come from a tradition that teaches "soul sleep." One response to soul sleep proof texts like Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 and Psalm 115:17 is that they describe things as they were before the Harrowing of Hell. But that doesn't really work if the saints could commune with those on Earth and intercede for them even before the crucifixion.

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  7. Hey Joe,

    Not sure if you're still checking this thread. You've done great work on the deuterocanon. One aspect of the debate that I feel is missing from Deuterocanonical apolegtics is an examination of the probative value of showing that the Jews had a closed canon. Even if Protestants can show that the canon was definitively closed by the reigning authority in Jerusalem say, 100-200 years B.C., it is not clear how exactly this tilts the situation in favour of the Protestants. All that does is show that the early church deviated from mainstream Jewish tradition, which is...erm...what Christianity was all about anyway?

    I'm writing a short article on it which I'd like to send to you for your comments. If you're interested, do comment on this post.

    Best

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