Posts tagged Apocrypha

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 3 of 3)

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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.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 1 of 3)

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I went to a lot of different schools growing up, but a large chunk of my early education was spent in Christian schools of one sort or another: Catholic, Wesleyan, and fundamentalist Baptist.  I am not a big fan of most Christian schools, but there were a few advantages to such environments, one of them being my increased familiarity with various Bible-related things.  At the fundamentalist Baptist school, for example, I had to memorize the order of all the books of the Bible, as well as their spelling.  While obviously not as important as knowing the content and heart of the Bible’s message, as a teenager I was still a little surprised to first realize that many adults didn’t know these things I’d learned in middle school.

Whether or not you know where to turn to read Luke or Isaiah or Leviticus, however, really has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence.  Instead, it reflects simple exposure to the Bible and the level of emphasis placed on learning such information—and precise memorization of book order is only marginally relevant, anyway, when you have a table of contents!

Still, I think it is helpful to have some general idea of what sorts of things come where in the Bible.  Here, then, is a basic summary of the Protestant Bible’s contents:

The Old Testament/First Testament/Hebrew Bible

  • Pentateuch/Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy)- The first five books of the Bible, containing the story of Israel’s beginning and the Jewish law.
  • Historical Books (Joshua-Esther)- These books continue to tell the story of Israel via narrative.
  • Wisdom Books (Job-Song of Songs, also called Song of Solomon)- There are a few different genres here (poetry, proverbs, etc.), but what holds it all together is the wisdom emphasis.
  • Major Prophets (Isaiah-Daniel)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are longer in length.
  • Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are shorter in length.

The New Testament

  • Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)- Four biographies of Jesus with a good deal of focus on his death and resurrection (though some teaching of Jesus remains in all).
  • History (Acts)- This is really Luke, Part 2.  The majority scholars accept that Luke and Acts have the same author writing to the same audience.  (There is a dissenting minority, however.)
  • Pauline Epistles (Romans-Philemon)- These are the epistles (letters) attributed to the apostle Paul, written to various churches under his care.
  • General Epistles (Hebrews-Jude)- These are the epistles attributed to authors other than Paul, written to various churches.
  • Apocalypse (Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John)- There are some brief more personal letters to churches in Revelation, but a large part of it is based on a vision, expressed with lots of violent imagery, dualism, and other interesting literary devices.  Revelation belongs to a genre called apocalyptic literature (apocalypse simply means “revelation”), which will have to be discussed another day.

If you’re less familiar with the Bible’s content and organization, I hope this list provides a starting point for your explorations of Christian Scripture.  In future posts, I will try to give an overview of these various sections to give a sense of what all 66 books of the Bible have to offer.

Before that, though, it is important to note two things:

(1) Jews divide the Hebrew Bible differently than Christians divide the Old Testament, and hence, there is a different order to the same books.  Personally, I’ve come to really appreciate the Jewish way of ordering things.  But again, that’s for another post…

(2) Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians use all of these books, but they also include some other books in their Old Testament.  These books are called the Apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning “hidden”) or Deutero-canonical books (also from Greek, meaning “second canon”).  Since these books are considered Scripture for some Christians but not others, we will also deal with them separately.

This series is continued in Pt. 2.

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