This post considers the rationale behind Melito's failure to mention certain books included now in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. After brief discussions of the cases of Lamentations and Nehemiah, we will spend more time investigating Melito's omission of Esther.
Lamentations was commonly included as a part of Jeremiah in Christian lists. Melito's list is the first Christian list, so we can't be sure that the same was true for him, but the practice is so common later on that it would be foolish to say Melito must have omitted the book.
The absence of any mention of Nehemiah by Melito can probably be explained similarly. In Jewish and Christian tradition, Nehemiah was commonly counted as one book with Ezra, which is included in Melito's list under the title 'Esdras'. That title probably refers to 1Esdras, which includes only a bit of Neh. 8. [On the other hand, Sundberg (p. 133) suggests that "[i]n Melito's list Esdras probably designates Ezra-Nehemiah," but it seems more probable that the bare title 'Esdras' in Greek would refer to 1Esdras.] It is probable that when the Fathers thought of 'Esdras' (whether 1Esdras or 2Esdras or both [see here to sort out the names of these books]), they assumed they were getting a version of the Ezra-Nehemiah story equivalent to those books in circulation among the Jews. After all, the title of the Ezra-Nehemiah book in the famous baraita in b. B. Bathra 14b is "Ezra." The upshot of all this is that when Melito listed "Esdras" as one of the biblical books, he probably assumed this title was comprehensive of whatever material the Jews included under the title "Ezra" (= Ezra-Nehemiah).
Melito's list does not include the Book of Esther, which was never included with any other book, as we have seen was the case for Lamentations and Nehemiah. Some scholars (e.g., Ellis, p. 11) suggest that Melito or his source accidentally left Esther out, and that it should really be in the list. I incline to the view that this omission was intentional. The book is omitted also in the lists of Gregory of Nazianzus (Carmen 1.12) and Amphilochius of Iconium (Iambi ad Seleucum 261-89); this latter writer mentions that some include the book of Esther in the canon. Athanasius puts Esther among the outside useful books (Ep. fest. 39). Also, of course, it has not been found at Qumran (see here and here), and some Rabbis had some difficulties with the book (cf. Meg. 7a; on all this see Beckwith, pp. 291-97, 314-15; Leiman, pp. 200-1 n. 634). In view of the questions regarding the book entertained by some ancient Jews and Christians, it seems likely that Melito's source harbored similar doubts and did not include Esther in the list he transmitted to the bishop.
But why was Esther omitted by Melito or his source? Hennings thinks that the Jewish doubts about the book influenced Christians, or, alternatively, that the Christians regarded the book as too 'pro-Jewish' (p. 151 n. 85). On the other hand, Leiman thinks that omission of Esther was due to Christian ambivalence toward books not translated by the Seventy. This is an interesting idea that I'd like to discuss a little further. Leiman's suggestion has a certain plausibility to it, since Christians did commonly regard every OT book in Greek as part of the inspired LXX translation; books that could not claim the authority of the LXX were held in suspicion (this is, in fact, the argument in my book, pp. 92-98). After establishing that the Church Fathers were often more concerned with the number 22 than with the actual books of the canon (for more on this, see my book, pp. 85-92), Leiman writes:
Esther, rather than another biblical book, was excluded from some lists because it was the last title on most of the lists which included it [cf. Origen, Bryennios List, Epiphanius 3x, Jerome, Hilary], and because Melito had established a precedent for omitting Esther. It was last on the lists, and omitted by Melito, not because of Jewish doubts about its canonicity, but because the colophon to the Greek Esther indicated that it was the only Greek translation of a biblical book, included in LXX [sic], and yet not part of the original LXX translation. (p. 160 n. 239)The colophon in question reads thus (trans. Karen Jobes, NETS):
Lysimachus of Jerusalem is credited with translating "the above letter about Phrourai," where Phrourai is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic form of the word Purim, and so the whole phrase--the letter about Phrourai--is equivalent to our "the Book of Esther" (see Bickerman, pp. 349-51).In the fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Kleopatra, Dositheos, who said he was a priest and a Leuite, and Ptolemy his son brought the above letter about Phrourai, which they said existed, and Lysimachus son of Ptolemy, one of those in Ierousalem, translated it.
Leiman's argument makes some sense. Presumably, in ca. 180 CE, if Melito had asked a Palestinian Jew for a list of canonical books, Esther would have been included. Possibly not, but probably. [Note Talmon, p. 266: "in the third century CE, the Book of Esther had definitely been accepted as part of the Hebrew Bible."] Leiman does point out (earlier in the same note) that the Church Fathers who stress that their list of OT books derives from Jews (e.g., Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome) do include Esther. Earlier, Josephus seems to have included Esther among his 22 books (cf. Beckwith, p. 322). Apparently 4Ezra 14:45 also regarded the inclusion of Esther in the canon a foregone conclusion (assuming Esther was among the 24 books). If it was doubted earlier by some Jewish groups (e.g., Qumran) and would continue to be questioned by certain Rabbis, that apparently had little effect on its position within the scriptural canon of the post-70 Palestinian Jews.
Christians were another matter. If they did pay much attention to the colophon, that would show that the Greek Esther had not originated with the original LXX and would raise some doubts. But, there are still some questions I have about this: (1) I'd like a Church Father explicitly to attribute his doubts about Esther to the colophon; (2) a doubtful Greek translation does not necessarily lead to doubts about the book itself.
In other words, I argue in my book (pp. 92-98) that the desire to include certain 'extra' books ('extra' in the sense of 'beyond the Jewish canon,' e.g. Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, etc.) led to the placement of these books in the 'LXX' (both physically--in a codex--and conceptually, thinking that these books were translated also by the Seventy). This was true even for some books (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon) that were originally written in Greek.The point is, the Fathers (I argue) worked with a theory such that OT books should have been originally delivered to the ancient Hebrews, and thus should have originally been written in Hebrew. If a book was originally written in Greek, this criterion would tell against its canonicity. And so if a Father wanted to include in his canon a work originally written in Greek (like 2 Maccabees or Wisdom of Solomon), he might include it in the 'LXX' translation, and this would imply that it had a Hebrew original, whether it really did or not. (For more on this, see here.)
But this is not what's going on with the Esther colophon. The colophon makes clear that the Book of Esther did have a Hebrew original and that it was not translated by the Seventy. Of course, just because it had a Hebrew original did not necessarily make it canonical. That was a necessary criterion but not a sufficient criterion. If Leiman is correct, and it was the colophon that caused doubts among Christians, perhaps it worked this way. Maybe the very early Fathers assumed that if Esther was not translated by the Seventy, that means that it did not form a part of the scriptures at the time of the translation, and thus should be rejected by the Church. If it was added subsequently to the canon by the Jews, Christians also knew the Jews to have altered other features of the received biblical canon (cf. Origen's Epistle to Africanus).
If this reasoning lies behind the omission of Esther in Melito's list, we can draw two further implications. (1) Apparently Melito consulted Christians in Palestine rather than Jews. This issue will be discussed further in a subsequent post, but for now, see my book, pp. 22-24, for an overview. (2) The Esther colophon does not seem to have caused such concerns for many Christians, because many OT canon lists do include the book.