The questions of canon, inspiration, and authority deserve rethinking in our day. I come at things from the angle of early Christian and even earlier Jewish tradition.
In my view, there is no advantage gained by downplaying the extent to which Jews and Christians in antiquity did not agree about which books were suitable to read and teach from in the context of worship. Even when Jews read from the same books in worship, they often read them in textual forms at considerable odds with each other. The proto-MT in the original or in translation was read by some, the received Greek translation of a text sometimes quite different from proto-MT by others. Still others read the Bible in a revised version of the original Greek translation.
Among early Christians, the same variety of text forms circulated, as quotations in the New Testament prove. Textual variety in terms of content and arrangement of individual books and in terms of what books formed a part of the Old Testament is evident throughout antiquity among the Christian churches. Anyone with knowledge of the manuscript tradition of the Septuagint and its daughter translations is aware of this. Evidence for different sets of New Testament texts among the various churches is also extensive. Some of the debate that ensued in the attempt to achieve uniformity is attested in the writings of Eusebius.
In reality, uniformity across the spectrum of the historic Christian churches was never achieved vis-à-vis the contents of either the Old or New Testaments. Uniformity in these matters is hardly a feature of the Christian tradition today.
The attested variety is problematic if and only if one finds it impossible to accept that the God whom Jews and Christians invoke in worship “at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:1). To this day, I would observe, God speaks by the prophets in sundry fashion. God speaks to the Jewish people through the scriptures vouchsafed to them, to the Ethiopian Orthodox through those inherited by them, to Roman Catholics through those held in honor by them, and so on.
To suggest otherwise, it seems to me, involves a failure to come to grips with the persistence of God’s beneficence “to the thousandth generation of those of who love him and keep his commandments” (Deut 7:9). Paul’s language is bolder still: “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). He affirmed this about Jews whether or not they believed on the name of Jesus the Messiah. Either way according to Paul, God’s calling remains in force. Surely the same applies no less to Christians of all persuasions. God speaks to Jews and Christians through the scriptures they read from in worship and otherwise teach from. To suggest otherwise amounts to claiming that God has not left himself a reliable witness among the people he has called and gifted at various times and in various ways.
Paul’s confidence that God has not and will not turn his back on those in times past God mightily gifted leads him to an open-ended view of God’s work among his fellow Jews. The tensions within his discussion (Rom 9-11) are not of his own making. The one who wanted to be “all things to all people” embraced a set of crisscrossing particularisms and univeralisms all of which have roots in the Hebrew Bible. Jewish thinkers who like Paul and even more than Paul have simultaneously embraced particularisms and univeralisms include Franz Rosenzweig and Yehezkel Kaufmann.
Most Jews and Christians to this day are nonetheless at a loss when it comes to articulating a sense of God’s ongoing involvement in the life and worship of those who read more or less the same scriptures as they do, but within the framework of a religious metanarrative incompatible with their own. At the very least, in my view, it might be admitted that God speaks to Jews and Christians of whatever persuasion when Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and so on are read in their presence. Whether they hear rightly, of course, is a separate question.
The historical facts, in any case, are these. All of the texts in the first two divisions of what is now the Tanakh, as well as the majority of the texts in its third division, were accepted by Jews in general for the purposes of hearing God speak and knowing how to speak and “walk” with God from the mid-second century before the current era forward. As the evidence of Old Greek translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests, the situation was nevertheless fluid in terms of the exact content and arrangement of said texts, and the degree to which other texts such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll were held to be binding and revelatory as much as or more than texts now in the Tanakh within specific strands of Judaism.
Among Christians, some books found in all Christian Bibles today, for example Esther and Revelation, were not universally accepted among Christians for the purposes referred to above. On the other hand, additional texts, such as Enoch, Baruch, and 2 Baruch, were deemed fit for said purposes, first by one or more streams of pre-Christian Judaism, then by one or more branches of Christianity. Enoch and Jubilees are accepted for said purposes in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this day.
Four lines of evidence deserve consideration.
(1) The canon lists of the historic Christian churches. A handy but incomplete collection of lists is found here. The Ethiopic Orthodox canon, the Coptic Orthodox canon, and the Armenian Orthodox canon include(d) books that, based on their attestation among the Dead Sea Scrolls, were understood to constitute authoritative revelation by one or more streams of Judaism before the Christian movement came into existence. The following books incontestably fall into this category: Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.
Without a doubt, proponents of said streams of Judaism at some point became followers of the Way and brought their diverse understandings of what constituted authoritative revelation with them. This is also the best explanation for the attributed quote of the book of Enoch in Jude 14-15. The author of Jude regarded the book of Enoch as authoritative revelation, as is the case to this day in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He quotes from it for that reason.
(2) Examples of the use of an excerpt from a book in the liturgy of one or more branches of Judaism or of one or more branches of Christianity. A distinction must be made between attributed and unattributed use. The unattributed use of parts of the Hebrew ben Sira tradition in Jewish liturgy to the present is one thing. The attributed use in worship of a passage of 2 Baruch to which lectionary manuscripts of the Syriac church tradition attest is another, and much stronger witness to the sense that Syriac-speaking Christians had that God continued to speak to them through said 2 Baruch.
(3) The great Bible manuscripts of antiquity. The Hebrew and Aramaic Codex Aleppo and Codex Leningradensis, the Greek Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus, the Syriac Codex Ambrosianus, and the Latin Codex Amiatinus come immediately to mind. The inclusion of books like Joseph and Aseneth and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs in Armenian manuscripts of the Bible attests to the fact that said writings were deemed worthy of devoted study in the context of a larger authoritative corpus. Whether or not Joseph and Aseneth and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs were read in worship or taught to catechumens are separate questions.
(4) Attributed and unattributed quotes from a particular text in teaching documents of synagogue and church suggest that said text was deemed suitable for the purposes of teaching in a given time and place. For example, attributed quotes of Greek ben Sira, sometimes introduced by a phrase like “scripture says,” are found in teaching documents of the early church. Attributed and unattributed quotes from Hebrew Ben Sira occur in the Talmuds and other rabbinic documents.
I look forward to the day in which distinctions made in antiquity by the likes of Athanasius, Rufinus, and Jerome will be reappropriated by Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, and evangelical Christians alike. With regard to Jewish literature inherited by the church, they advocated a three-way distinction: the “canonical” books (those to which one may appeal to establish a point of doctrine); the “read” books (those that are read in the churches, but which are not suitable for the establishment of doctrine); and the “apocryphal” books (literature unsuited to be read in the churches and unreliable on questions of doctrine, but still of interest for other purposes). If the “twenty-two books” Jerome regarded as canonical and the text form (proto-MT) that served as Jerome’s primary but not exclusive point of departure for his translation of them came to be valued as “The Scriptures Held in Common” by Jews and Christians of all persuasions, the common good would be served.
At the same time, a daily reading program might be developed that familiarizes those who use it with selections from the entire range of texts that have been read in synagogues and churches down through the ages and into the present.
Whether the public reading of excerpts from extra-canonical books will ever be widely countenanced among, say, Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist Christians is difficult to say. In those contexts, it is nonetheless easy to imagine using the following texts and many more in the form of unison prayers, responsive readings, or explanation on appropriate occasions: Tobit 8:5-16; 13:1-17; Judith 16:1-16; Esther (Greek) 14:1-19; Wisdom 6:12-25; ben Sira 28:12-26; 50:22-24; Baruch 5:1-9; The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews among the Additions to Daniel; and Prayer of Manasseh 11-15. Given the understanding of canon and the function of preaching characteristic of the churches of the Reformation, it is possible to cite passages from non-canonical books as illustrations in a sermon based on a canonical text, but it is not possible to make a non-canonical text the unsupported foundation as it were, of a proclamation of God’s word.
In what sense and to what degree a non-canonical text that is consonant with the witness of texts within the canon might be used in worship by Baptists and Pentecostals, for example, is a question I do not know how to answer.
For my part, I will continue to teach and preach from ESV or (N)RSV as the case may be in accordance with practice in my neck of the religious woods. Precisely those books Jerome regarded as canonical, it might be remarked, are contained in many editions of the above translations. The text form (proto-MT) that served as Jerome’s primary but not exclusive point of departure for his translation of the “twenty-two books,” furthermore, served the same purpose for ESV in particular. To be sure, I do not hesitate to depart from a standard translation in the text I presuppose and the nuances I highlight if my conscience so prods. My parishioners know I work from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I work in references to the wording in the original languages as the occasion permits.
I may never cite them or expound on them for more than a sermon illustration, and I may never include more than a few lines from them as part of a unison prayer, but I still want both the Hebrew and Greek ben Sira traditions in the next study Bible I purchase. On top of the other extra-canonical books printed in the NRSV study Bibles available today, add in Enoch, Jubilees, 2 Baruch, Psalms of Solomon, and Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as well. The matrix from which rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity developed is documented by these writings in unique and illuminating ways. And if you are like me and hold a position like that of Jerome, for whom “all the apocryphal books” contain “many faulty elements in them,” but still some “gold in the mud,” I say to you as I do to myself, let the gold rush begin.
NB: The Jerome quote in the last sentence is from Epistle 107,12 (trans. F. A. Wright, Select Letters of St. Jerome (Loeb Library) as cited by H. F. D. Sparks in his indispensable essay on “Jerome as Biblical Scholar” in The Cambridge History of the Bible. From the Beginnings to Jerome (ed. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) 510-40.