AH! I just discovered that some Christian groups have more/fewer books in their Bible, and now I’m afraid I can’t believe anything anymore! What do I do?
DON’T PANIC! We all agree about the New Testament. In the Old Testament … it’s complicated, but the positions are all reasonable.
At some point, most Christians are going to discover that the hard edges of the canon are not so hard: some Christians have 66 books in their Bible while others have a handful more (and it really is no more than a handful). Initially, many who make this discovery (especially high school or college age Christians) go into panic mode.
What? Why? Who …? Where …? When …? How …?
These are all good questions, or the halting beginnings of them, at least. And there are reasonable answers, so don’t think that somehow the entire Christian faith is beginning to unravel. Quite the contrary. As Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.” Congratulations. Now set yerself down for a bit a’ learnin’.
We Agree About the New Testament
It is very important to realize that when we are talking about differences in biblical canon we are talking specifically about the Old Testament. All branches of Christianity agree about the New Testament canon and have agreed for virtually the entirety of Christian history. In the first four centuries of the Church’s history, there was some discussion about the canonicity of certain books we now include in our New Testament (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and – perhaps most especially – Revelation) and of certain books that we do not now include (e.g., 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache or “Teaching of the Apostles”), but our current list of 27 books was solidified in the 4th century AD (300s) and has never since been seriously questioned.
There is Some Disagreement About the Old Testament, But Not as Much as You Might Think
The differences among the various Christian canons is concerned exclusively with the Old Testament. These differences and the reasons for them are, in a nutshell, that some Protestants accept as canonical only what books have Hebrew/Aramaic originals and are included in the Jewish Tanakh. Orthodox, Catholics, and other Protestants, on the other hand, accept other books which were either originally written in Greek or whose Hebrew original was not preserved (Wisdom of Ben Sira, for example), because they were generally read and regarded as Scripture, if not “officially” canonized, by the early Church. We call these either Old Testament Apocrypha (which means, misleadingly, “hidden away”) or Deuterocanonicals (secondary canon). As indicated by the name “Deuterocanonical”, the deutercanonicals always existed kind of on the edge of canonicity. We can get all nitpicky about the details, but whether or not the book is found in the Hebrew Bible really is the bulk of the reason for the differences in the canons.
The Deuterocanonicals Were Largely Accepted by the Early Church
The earliest Church very quickly (meaning within the first generation) became a predominately Greek speaking Church rather than Hebrew and Aramaic speaking. In fact, it is probable that very few Jews even in Palestine were comfortable in Hebrew and probably spoke Aramaic or even Greek as their day-to-day language. This is especially true of Jews living in the Galilee area, but probably mostly true even of those living in Judaea, meaning the area immediately around Jerusalem. The Jews who would have spoken Hebrew were probably mostly well educated religious leaders.
It is important to realize that Hebrew and Aramaic, while related, are not so closely related that there was much in the way of mutual intelligibility between them the way there is between, say, Spanish and Portuguese. Hebrew and Aramaic split from a common Northwest Semitic root long before the earliest part of the Old Testament was written, so the mutual intelligibility relationship was more like that between, say, English and Swedish, which is practically none despite both languages descending from a common Proto-Germanic root.
So, bottom line, even 1st century Jews, let alone the earliest Christians, were probably never in a position to use the Hebrew Bible in its Hebrew form as their body of authoritative Scriptures. For this reason, the version of the Scriptures that Christianity inherited from its Jewish origin (which did not at first include what we now call the New Testament) was the very popular Greek version of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Bible itself.
Interestingly, the Septuagint included a number of books that did not have Hebrew originals but which were very popular and theologically important among Jews of Jesus’ day. The earliest Church saw no reason to segregate out these books, particularly when the writers of the New Testament made frequent reference to them. These are the deuterocanonical texts that appear in the Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant canons, and they include (in no particular order):
- 1 & 2 Maccabees
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Ben Sira)
- The Epistle of Jeremiah
- Some additions to Esther
- Some additions to Daniel (see our other post, “Q&A: Are the Additions to Daniel Reliable?“)
Including these, the Eastern Orthodox Church also accepts a few more documents, including:
- Some additions to Ezra (aka 1 Esdras, aka 3 Esdras)
- 2 Esdras (aka 4 Esdras)
- The Prayer of Manasseh
- Psalm 151
- 3-4 Maccabees
- The Book of Odes (a collection of songs and prayers from elsewhere in the Bible).
This may sound like a lot, but it really is no. The entirety of the Eastern Orthodox body of deuterocanonical texts can be published in a very slim volume with commentary.
So Were Protestants Wrong to Accept a Narrower Canon?
So the argument for the acceptance of the deuterocanonicals is essentially that this is the Old Testament that was accepted by the early Church, and this is a strong argument. All this might lead to the conclusion that Protestants were presumptuous for omitting the deuterocanonicals from their Old Testament canon. Hold on, though, because the fact is that there was no official statement by the Church concerning the Old Testament canon until after Protestants rejected the deuterocanonicals on the basis of language and, to a lesser extent, doctrine. Catholics officially confirmed the Western version of the deuterocanonicals at the Council of Trent, which was the council of the Counter-Reformation, in response to Protestant challenges to their canonicity. There has never been an “official” statement confirming the deuterocanonicals in the East because it has never been felt to be necessary.
Moreover, the status of the deuterocanonicals before the Protestant Reformation was not as univocally certain as some might wish it were. Their absence from the Hebrew canon was an issue before the Reformation. Even more importantly, however, there has always been some question about the theological and historical reliability of many of the documents in the Apocrypha. Judith, for example, is clearly not historical. While the basic historicity of much of the Old Testament can be argued, the historicity of Judith simply cannot be. The Wisdom of Ben Sira, which is similar in genre to the book of Proverbs, is more vocally anti-female than anything in the Hebrew canon (“Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good”, Sir 42:14 – I would challenge anyone to find anything approaching this thought in the Hebrew Bible). Tobit’s angelology certainly depends more on 2nd Temple period Jewish folk belief than on anything associated with the ancient Hebrew textual tradition. Whatever its historical value, it can be argued that the attitude of Jewish nationalism found in 1 Maccabees runs directly against the trajectory not only of Christian doctrine but even of the Hebrew Bible itself.
So were the Protestants wrong? That is a question that does not have an easy, objective answer. Their reasons for excluding the deuterocanonicals have both objective (linguistic) and subjective (doctrinal) criteria, while the Catholic and Orthodox reasons for keeping the deuterocanonicals also have objective (historical) and subjective (traditional) criteria. The best position is for all of us simply to agree to disagree and to keep this as an in-house discussion rather than letting it be a reason to excommunicate each other. Whether we accept Tobit as authoritative or not has no bearing whatsoever on our mutual confession that Jesus died for our sins, was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will someday return. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles gave us clear instructions regarding to the formation of a canon of authoritative Scripture. We as a Church have followed the leading of the Holy Spirit to best of our ability and have come to some different answers. The ambiguity must be something that God is okay with. Perhaps we have important things to learn from the ambiguity. For this reason, and because they can often shed some light on the texts of the universally agreed upon canon, I encourage Protestants to read the deuterocanonicals, but I do not feel it necessary that they accept them as canonical. Like the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, it is perfectly fine for the Old Testament deuterocanonicals to have a secondary status of “important” without being “authoritative”.