What’s in Your Bible? Probably Not the Apocrypha
By Beth Demme
For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at “What’s In Your Bible?”
When I looked to see what was in my Bible, I found questions and notes leading to questions. I think questions are good stuff! I can’t imagine reading the Bible without questions popping up.
In addition to looking at questions, we looked at how meaningful and important handwritten notes and highlighting in a Bible can be. We can’t write a book, poem, or blog post and have it included in the scriptural canon (aka Bible), but in our own small way, we can add meaning to scripture when we make a note in our Bible.
This raises an important point: How did we get the scriptural canon as we have it today?
There are some books in the Bible that aren’t necessarily part of every church’s scriptural canon. (Canon, not cannon. A canon is a group or collection of exemplary literary works. A cannon is a huge gun.) As we look at the Apocrypha, I’m going to get into the weeds a bit. Don’t abandon me! Knowing a little bit about these things will make the Bible, and Bible study, more manageable and meaningful.
How many books are in the Bible?
If you said 66, you’re right.
And you’re wrong.
The better answer is, it depends. The New Testament consistently includes 27 books, but the Old Testament varies.
As a Protestant, the Bible I use has 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament for a grand total of 66 books.
If you are Roman Catholic, the Old Testament in your Bible has 46 books. This plus the 27 of the New Testament brings your total to 73 books.
Wait a minute. How many books are in the Old Testament? Is it 39, 46, or 49?
The Old Testament is comprised of Jewish scriptures. As Rev. Christopher Bryan, Ph.D., explains:
The question of precisely which books constitute the Old Testament is complicated by the fact that at the beginning of the Christian era the canon of Jewish scripture was still fluid. … In other words, though the church inherited scriptures from Judaism, it did not inherit a canon of scripture.” (As God Spoke)
The Hebrew Scriptures were translated for Greek-speaking Jews about 250 years before Christ. This was done in Egypt and the completed work is called the Septuagint or LXX. Early Christians accepted the Septuagint as the complete Old Testament.
Later, there was disagreement between the Jews in Israel and the Jews in Egypt about which works should be considered “Jewish Sacred Writings.”
At the end of the first century (about 60 years after the crucifixion of Christ and about 20 years after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem), a group of rabbis met in Palestine and established the Hebrew canon.
They excluded works not originally written in Hebrew, works of recent origin, and works with doubtful authorship or “want of prophetic sanction.” Part of their motivation for establishing a canon may have been a desire to separate themselves from the newest Jewish sect, the Christians.
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The rabbis excluded seven books: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1&2 Maccabees. These seven books were in the Septuagint, but were not ultimately “ratified” by the Jewish rabbis.
These seven books are the difference between the 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament and the 46 books in the Roman Catholic OT canon.
The Eastern Orthodox churches include those seven books plus three more—2nd Esdras, 3rd Maccabees, and the Epistle of Jeremiah. They have 39+7+3, for a total of 49.
I often see Martin Luther credited (blamed?) for separating the Apocrypha from the canon, but that’s not quite right. A 4th century priest named Jerome undertook a two-decade quest to create a solid Latin translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Initially, he used the Septuagint, but ultimately he went to the Hebrew sources.
Jerome found that some of the books included in the Septuagint had no Hebrew source. The church thought he should include these books because they were part of the Septuagint. Jerome complied, but he collected them together at the end of the Old Testament, called them Apocrypha and included a note saying they should not be read for doctrine. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, the common language of the church in his day, is called the Vulgate.
In the middle 1500’s, Martin Luther agreed with his church ancestor, Jerome. During the Reformation, Luther sought to exclude those seven books from the canon. The church disagreed and in 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the Vulgate as its official canon. Luther included the seven apocryphal books in his biblical translations, leaving them between the Old and New Testaments as Jerome had done a millennium before. (Read more here.)
So, how many books are in the Old Testament?
If you answered, “it depends,” you’re right! I couldn’t have said it better myself.
If you read the Bible, as I do, primarily because of the opportunities it creates to know and interact with God, this history may not make any difference to you. I’m not trying to persuade (or dissuade) you from reading the Apocrypha, but I think it’s important to acknowledge it exists.
Have you read the Apocrypha? What did you think? Or, maybe you didn’t know that different churches use different canons of scripture. If so, what do you think now that you know this? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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