Hello, and welcome to a BOOK podcast voicemail supplement. This is Josh Way. You can leave me a voicemail at 801-760-3013 and I’ll do my very best to address your questions in a future installment. Let’s listen to today’s voicemail message:
“Hi, Josh, my name is Patrick, I am an avid listener of BOOK and I have a question for you. I know that some Bibles, like the Catholic Bible, include additional books that aren’t in the Protestant Bible. And there are a lot of books that could have been part of the Bible, that were either chosen to be in the Bible, or not chosen to be in the Bible. Can you assist us using the lenses of both literature and history to give us some insight why the books that were included in the Bible were included, and why the books that were left out were left out? Look forward to hearing that on a future episode of BOOK. Thanks, Josh!”
Thank you, Patrick! A very appropriate question and one that we were bound to come up against sooner or later.
So, we’ve taken a look at the books which comprise the mainstream Jewish and Christian Bibles, but what qualifies those books as “Scripture,” and what about the books which didn’t make the cut? What are they, and why weren’t they included? This is a fascinating and historically rather messy discussion. There is no single moment, standard, or criteria which one can point to and say “this is when and how the canon – that is, the books which were ‘officially’ included in the Bible – was determined.” It was a long and bumpy process, and one that has left us without a simple consensus. I’ll do my best to recount it, and I’ll probably over-simplify it, but here we go.
It’s important to acknowledge at the onset that the concept of “canonization,” while relevant to both Jews and Christians, is more intense and complicated on the Christian side of the equation, as we’ll see.
Up until the Common Era, the first century AD, the time of the New Testament, the Jewish canon was very simple: it consisted of the Torah, the five scrolls of Moses. Many other books had been written and were considered valuable and even authoritative by Jews, but there was no official “canon” in the way we understand.
The Torah was, of course, written in Hebrew, but it may have actually been a Greek translation – called the Septuagint – which was to pave the way for a “canon” of Scripture. About three centuries BCE, Jewish scholars created the original Septuagint – a translation of the Torah into Greek, the official international language of the day. Over the following centuries, the Septuagint was augmented with more and more Jewish texts, until it became a sort of unofficial “canon” unto itself. In fact, there is reason to believe the Septuagint was the preferred Bible of Jews at the time the New Testament was written. And even though we know the books of the Jewish Bible were originally written in Hebrew, the historical record is such that the existing copies of the Septuagint may be the oldest biblical witness available to us, even older than the Masoretic text from which we get the Hebrew Bible. And thus, appeals to “the original language” are not as straightforward as they might seem.
Now we come to one of the historically fuzzy points. Somewhere around this time, the turn of the millenium CE, the Jewish canon was solidified. The Septuagint was rejected, most likely for its popularity among the new Christians, and the official Hebrew Jewish Bible as we know it today was canonized. The problem is, scholars can’t agree when, where, or how this happened. There are two leading theories: Until the 20th century, the prevailing theory about the Jewish canonization was that it took place at the Council of Jamnia in 90 CE. However, there is now serious doubt as to whether this council ever actually took place. The other theory is that canonization was a reform of the Hasmonean Dynasty, the line of kings which began with the Maccabees and ended with the Herods. Whatever the case, the canon was set, and apparently with little fanfare or conflict. The same can’t be said for the Christian canon…
The development of the Christian Old Testament is an epic tale of councils, reforms, canonizations, and counter-canonizations. Here’s an abbreviated rundown:
The Septuagint became foundational for the early church and is the source quoted by the New Testament authors – including quotes of texts rejected by the Jewish canon, which came to be known as “Apocrypha,” Greek for “hidden.” (We’ll look at these books in more detail in a moment.) As time moved on, Christian founders suggested various configurations of the Old Testament, some which included the apocryphal books, and others which did not. The reasons for including or excluding certain books often came down to the personal convictions of influential individuals. For some it had to do with the theological content of the books in question. For others, it was a stylistic preference, such as a desire to limit the Old Testament to 22 books, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
A fourth century Christian named Jerome produced a Latin version of the Bible called the Vulgate, which omitted (most of) the apocryphal books, though Jerome’s writing indicates that he did consider them to be of value. Later that same century, at a church council under the leadership of a bishop named Augustine, the Septuagint and all of its contents were canonized and the canon was “closed.” For the next millenium, however, debate continued between those who thought like Jerome and those who thought like Augustine.
The next significant development came in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. One of Martin Luther’s tenets was that Bible translations should be based on original language texts – Hebrew and Aramaic – and not the Greek Septuagint OR the Latin Vulgate. So Luther embraced the Jewish canon and relegated all apocryphal texts to second class status. Protestant Bibles didn’t immediately omit the apocryphal material, but the books were sectioned off from the Old Testament proper and it wasn’t long before most reformed Bibles began to drop them altogether.
Not long after, the Catholic Church – in part as a response to Luther – revisited the biblical canon at the Council of Trent, and invented a new name and status for the apocryphal material: They dubbed it “deuterocanonical,” no less authoritative or valuable than the rest of the Bible, but approved under different circumstances.
Now that’s a very truncated version of a long and complicated history, but those are the highlights. The results today are a Jewish Bible and a Protestant Old Testament with almost identical content but different orders, and a Catholic Bible which still includes the apocryphal or “deuterocanonical” material.
Here is a quick list of those apocryphal books:
- The First Book of Esdras is a different form of the biblical book called “Ezra,” which details the return of Jews to Jerusalem after the Persian exile.
- The Second Book of Esdras is a collection of apocalyptic visions attributed to the same Ezra.
- The Book of Tobit or Tobias tells the adventures of an Israelite living in captivity in the pagan city of Nineveh.
- The Book of Judith concerns an Israelite woman who infiltrates the army of Nebuchadnezzar, ingratiates herself to his top general, then decapitates him.
- Six additional chapters of the biblical Book of Esther also appear in the Septuagint.
- Two additional volumes of wisdom writings, one attributed to Solomon and the other to Jesus Ben Sirach are both also featured in the Septuagint, alongside canonized books like Proverbs and Song of Songs.
- The Book of Baruch is a collection of prayers and musings attributed to the scribe (or personal assistant) of the prophet Jeremiah.
- There are three additions to the biblical Book of Daniel: The Song of the Three Children, which is sung by Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, and the stories of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, all of which see Daniel pitted against foes and dangers in the court of the Persian Empire.
- The Prayer of Manasseh, an idolatrous king of Israel who repented while imprisoned by the Assyrians, is mentioned in the book of Chronicles but the actual text of the prayer is contained here in the apocrypha.
- And finally, there are the Two Books of Maccabees, which offer a history of the Judean revolt against the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who besieged Israel and profaned the Temple. The revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus, won temporary autonomy for Judea. The first book was written in Hebrew, and the second is a sort-of revision of the first written in Greek.
A couple of items deserve mention before we move on from the topic of Old Testament canon. One is called “The Book of Enoch,” which appears neither in the Jewish canon nor in the apocrypha. This collection of apocalyptic texts (we’ll do a whole show on those eventually) presents an interesting problem, as it is explicitly quoted in the New Testament letter of Jude. It is perhaps for this reason that it IS considered canonical by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The other item worth mentioning is the vast tradition of extra-biblical Jewish writings, which include the “Pseudepigraphic” books, like “The Testament of Abraham,” “The Book of Jubilees,” “Jannes and Jambres” and others. These were never considered part of the canon proper or the apocrypha, but they are all significant to the development of Jewish literature and thought.
Finally, and briefly, we come to the New Testament. The development of the New Testament canon was not nearly as contentious and dramatic as that of the Old Testament, though it was not without its conflicts and debates. The biggest controversy concerned the book of Revelation, which many early churches refused to accept as canonical. It wasn’t until the fourth century that a virtual consensus was reached regarding what we now know as the New Testament canon.
Most of the material regarded as “New Testament Apocrypha” is dated from the second or third century CE and later, and its exclusion from canon is not loudly disputed (though the alternative materials do have many fans). There are many many apocryphal gospels and epistles, here are a few worth mentioning:
The dearth of material covering Jesus’ childhood in the canonical gospels created a demand for “Infancy Gospels,” several of which were written in the second century, including the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” and the “Infancy Gospel of James.” These were apparently a popular hit, as many manuscripts survive. They are surprising and fun to read.
Perhaps the best known books of the so-called “New Testament Apocrypha” are the Gnostic Gospels. These texts, the most popular being “The Gospel of Thomas” which was discovered in Egypt in 1945, reflect an alternative view on the life of Jesus, combining many sayings known from the original first century gospels, but with an ideological bent which reflects the gnostic, non-Jewish worldview of its authors, who lived a century or more later.
And that’s our quick and dirty look at what’s not in the Bible. A couple of editorial comments in conclusion. There are two unfortunate after effects of the long, sordid history of the canons:
1. Some outside of the biblical tradition are troubled by the messy history of its contents. If the Bible is inspired and authoritative, shouldn’t there have always been a clear consensus about which books belong in it? This objection, much like the concerns regarding “text criticism,” that is the hypothetical redacting and compositing of bible from pre-existing sources, causes many to doubt and criticize the canon. There may be good reason for some of this criticism, but consider this: if we had in our possession an “original,” untouched, “holy” manuscript of the Bible which fell out of the sky and left no question as to precise and perfect form of the text, it would inevitably be worshiped as an idol, as an item holy and magical unto itself. Instead, what we have is a reasonable human witness to the tradition. The truth is, there IS a consensus on the bulk of biblical material, Jewish Bible and New Testament, and the messy edges – in my estimation, at least – provide a reassuring texture of humanity and reality to the study of the Bible. I know many disagree.
2. Some Christians cling so tightly to the canon that they ignore or avoid the apocryphal books, afraid perhaps that they might contain “heretical” or misleading content. This is a shame, since these are some very wonderful and unique books from the same world which produced the canonized texts. The apocryphal works shed light on biblical events, and provide a wider perspective and context for the Bible. Another thing to keep in mind is that the authors of the Bible – and indeed Jesus himself were most certainly familiar with most or all of the Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and they inevitably informed their thinking and behavior. I recommend that anyone with a passing or personal interest or investment in the Bible check out these additional materials. They are worth your time.
That’s it for today. Thanks again for the call Patrick, and remember you can leave me a voicemail too at 801-760-3013. You can also get in touch with BOOK at book.joshway.com. I’m Josh Way, and I’ll catch you next time…