Organizing the Bible (Pt. 3 of 3)
I’ve explained the basic organization of the Christian Bible and the special organization of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) used in Jewish circles. However, there is a final topic which I alluded to in my original post: the Deuterocanon/Apocrypha.
The Deuterocanonical books make discussing the organization of the Bible tricky, since they can be put several places, depending on the tradition and the specific Bible. They appear between the Old and New Testaments, after the New Testament, or woven into the Old Testament itself. Many Protestant Bibles don’t contain these books at all, though some (especially Anglican) Bibles do. Roman Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain most of these books, but there is disagreement between them (and even between various Eastern Orthodox traditions like Greek, Russian, etc.) about which books should be included.
Why are there inconsistencies among Christian groups about which books belong in the Bible? And why these books, in particular? After all, nobody is still bickering about what to include in the New Testament. The process of canonizing these books may have been complex, but the reason why is actually quite simple: they appear in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), though not the Hebrew version (the Masoretic text).
Many think the additional books in the Septuagint were originally written in Greek, while a few may have simply not survived in their Hebrew form. Either way, they were composed later in Jewish history, and since some decided there were no truly inspired Scriptures after the time of the Jewish exile, these later books became suspect. (It should be noted that a few Old Testament books may have been composed on the late side, as well, but because they discussed earlier periods, they were “safe.”) For this reason, soon after the time of Jesus, Jews decided these additional books did not belong in their canon. Christians kept them around for a while—though in various locations, various books were accepted.
They weren’t always given the same status as the books of the Old Testament, however. When most Christians spoke Greek—the language of both the New Testament and Septuagint—it was easy to simply accept the Septuagint’s canon. However, the church inevitably faced a decision about the inclusion of these books when the everyday language of the people switched to Latin and a new translation was needed.
Jerome, a Christian who translated the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) in the late fourth century CE, felt strongly that it was appropriate to translate the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint. While he did use the Septuagint to translate the Deterocanonical books, as well, he added prefaces noting their special status. Throughout history a minority made a similar distinction, but because Jerome’s prefaces were left uncopied in many Latin Bible editions, a majority of people accepted the Apocrypha without question.
The real controversy over these books came with the Reformation, when Protestants decided these books should not be considered authoritative. This was partially because the Jews had already rejected them from their own canon, but the theological content of some of the books was also a factor. For example, parts of 2 Maccabees were traditionally used to support the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayers for the dead, which Reformers like Luther and Calvin thought were theological mistakes on the part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Protestants decided these questionable books should either be noted in the Bible as non-authoritative or they should be left out of it completely. Today, the latter is more common, though some Protestants acknowledge the usefulness of these books for understanding Second Temple period Judaism (the time between the construction of the second temple in 515 BCE and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE). Indeed, there are some interesting developments of Jewish thought evidenced in these books, such as reflections on “original sin,” discussion of angels and demons, and the hopes of the Jewish people for the awaited Messiah, as well as the resurrection of the dead. While I don’t consider the Deuterocanonical books to be Scripture and haven’t gotten to read them all yet, I look forward to incorporating them into my future study for this reason. It’s exciting to learn more about Judaism from around the time of Jesus and the role these books have played in shaping Christian thought in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.