Why do Catholics have a Bigger Bible?

ImageI once had a conversation with a Protestant friend where I was asked, “Why did you Catholics add all those extra books to the Bible?”  To be honest I wasn’t sure how to respond without hurting his feelings because his question displayed a breathtaking ignorance of history.  The Catholic Bible was the standard for 1500 years and it was Protestant reformers who suggested modifying this tradition and eventually took books out of the Bible.  Initially Protestant Bibles simply moved certain books they called the Apocrypha to an appendix.  Luther’s Bible and even the famous King James Bible contained all the original books found in the Catholic Bible.  The idea of printing Bibles without the Apocrypha in the form most modern Protestant are familiar with today, did not come into mass production until after the mid 1800’s under the influence of Bible societies (Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 3, pp 388-393). The Apocrypha controversy (1820-1826) ended with the British Bible Society being prohibited from publishing the Apocrypha or from aiding other societies in publishing Bibles containing these books in 1826 (CHB 3.391).  I know my Protestant friend didn’t know this and assumed that because his NIV or NKJV Bible didn’t contain these books it must have always been this way.

How did we decide which books belong in our Bible?

After all, the Bible didn’t just fall from heaven fully assembled as a book. In fact the very idea of ‘books’ as we know them today–pages in a stack sown together along one edge– are a late second century invention.  Prior to this time, scrolls and parchments were used (2 Timothy 4:13).  The Bible was a collection of scrolls and various people had different collections and editions. The list of books which belong in the Sacred Scriptures today, our modern table of contents, is called the Canon of Scripture.  Canon means rule or standard.  For Catholics the official books of Scripture number 72: 45 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.

The full canon of Sacred Scripture containing both Old and New Testaments was compiled throughout the first centuries after Christ. For the Old Testament, various Jewish groups at the time of Jesus had different official collections.  We must remember that Second Temple Judaism had no central government and there was no United Synagogues of Antiquity. Opinions varied widely between different Jewish groups over what constituted Scripture. Having said this, we should point out that the disagreement between various Jewish groups was not random.  There appears to have been complete agreement that the first five books of the Bible (the Law or Torah) were inspired and belonged in the collection.  There was also a general consensus that the books in the section called the Prophets (Nebi’im) were inspired. The final section of material called the Writings (Ketubim) was still a matter of much dispute.

Once again it is important to recall that at the time of Jesus no specific single canon existed for the Jewish people either in Palestine or abroad.   Jews in various places held different books to be part of their collection of Scriptures.   There was no central Jewish authority to decide this issue officially. It must also be remembered that, like today, very few people could read the Bible in its original Hebrew. Various vernacular translations of the Old Testament arose. The Greek speaking Jews in Egypt translated the Scriptures in to Greek.  We call this collection of translations the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX).  The Scriptures used by the first Christians were the Greek translations of the Scriptures.  The Septuagint was not a book but a collection of scrolls with sometimes multiple versions of the same book of Scripture available, some more literal some more free in their translations.  It would be more accurate to say ‘Septuagints‘ plural.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission notes;

It was generally thought that at the beginning of the Christian era, there existed two canons within Judaism: a Hebrew or Palestinian canon, and an extended Alexandrian canon in Greek — called the Septuagint — which was adopted by Christians.

Recent research and discoveries, however, have cast doubt on this opinion. It now seems more probable that at the time of Christianity’s birth, closed collections of the Law and the Prophets existed in a textual form substantially identical with the Old Testament. The collection of “Writings”, on the other hand, was not as well defined either in Palestine or in the Jewish diaspora, with regard to the number of books and their textual form.[1]

In Palestine many Jews also used Aramaic translations of the OT called Targums.  A smaller number of Jews were still able to read Hebrew. Eventually the Hebrew Scriptures were preserved by a group of scribes known as the Masorites.  The text they preserved is called the Masoretic text (abbreviated MT).

The Early Christians effectively used the Greek (LXX) translation to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the OT. Some of the readings translated from Hebrew and found in various Greek translations more clearly supported Jesus as the Messiah than some other Hebrew editions.  St. Jerome (ca 342-420 AD) complains that when comparing the Greek LXX with the Hebrew text of his day that certain Jewish scribes had favored alternate Hebrew readings of the text to hide the Christian Messianic readings reflected in the common Greek translations.

Intuitively one would normally trust the Hebrew original rather than a Greek translation, but prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls our best manuscript of the Hebrew Masoretic text dates from the Middle Ages.  The newly found Dead Sea Scroll texts of the Hebrew OT (as early 150 BC- 68 AD at least) have shown that many times the LXX represents a more ancient text than the medieval Hebrew Masoretic text.  In other words the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of the OT, which are 1000 years older than the Masoretic text, show that the translated readings of the Greek LXX are in many cases more accurate than the much later Masoretic edition of the Hebrew.

Eventually, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. a group of Rabbis formed a new school at Jabneh (also spelled Jamnia). It is often argued that this group proposed a new more restrictive canon allegedly based on the Hebrew originals and Rabbinic tradition which proposed a shorter 39 book canon for the OT. This group of Rabbis was from the Pharisaic tradition and held unique views which were not generally accepted by other Jews of the time. It actually took hundreds of years for the Jewish consensus to reach a 39 book closed canon (More on this: Steve Ray: The Council That Wasn’t).

In fact it was the Christians who first closed the canon of Scripture though apostolic tradition and the shorter canon of the Jewish tradition was most likely later a reaction to Christian evangelization. During this time period certain other texts were esteemed by groups by both various Jewish and Christian communities. These texts varied from the helpful and theologically correct writings of the early Church fathers, to outright heretical materials.  Even many of the heretical texts claimed to be written by the Apostles (the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Judas, the Revelation to Peter), but their doubtful origin and questionable teaching caused suspicion among many within the Church.  Ultimately, it was the authority of the Church which determined the canon of both the Old and New Testaments.  The common usage of the Church was soon formalized beginning with the pronouncements at the Council of Hippo (393) and the Council of Carthage (397). It should also be pointed out that around this time the Sacred Scriptures were first put into the form of a book or codices, such as the Codex Vaticanus. The 72 books of the Catholic Bible were bound together in one large volume. This became the standard in the West until well after the Protestant Reformation.

How Did the Church Decide What to Include or Not Include?

The Church employed four criteria to discern which texts should be part of the cannon.  The widespread usage of the text by the Church in teaching and liturgy was the first criteria.  This was not the final criteria as many otherwise pious texts used in liturgy in different parts of the early Christian world were later rejected as non-canonical (i.e. the Shepherd of Hermas and 1 Clement).  Secondly, the authority of the author was an important indicator.  Was the book written by an apostle or a member of the apostolic circle?  For example tradition records that Mark’s Gospel was written by John Mark who was the scribe of the Apostle Peter.  Third, the antiquity of the text was important.  Does the book go back to the age of the Apostles or is it more recent?  In a sense this is merely a measure of the authenticity of the claim for authorship.  If the book alleges to be written by the Apostle Thomas but is known to be from the early third century, then obviously the claim to authorship is false.  Finally, the orthodoxy of the teaching contained within the text was essential.  Every inspired text had to accord with the Gospel as handed down in the Tradition of the Church.  The Early Fathers call this the ‘rule of faith.’ It is only logical that God as the primary Author of Scripture would not contradict Himself when speaking to the Church through her living Tradition.  While the Church certainly affirms that all Scripture is inspired by God, obviously the mere claim to be inspired must be vetted through these other criteria and ultimately by the authority of the Church before being accepted.

LutherThe Councils of Florence (1431-1445) and Trent (1546) reaffirmed the declarations of the early Church.  At the time of Trent, the authority of the canon was questioned by the Protestant Reformers.  The Reformers decided that different criteria were needed to determine the canon, including the original language of the text and its agreement with the teaching of various new Protestant traditions which allegedly were based on the Bible.  It should also be pointed out that by studying Hebrew traditions the Protestant Reformers were influenced by Jewish scholarship which affirmed a shorter cannon. The Council of Trent infallibly defined the canon of Scripture to remove any doubt about the true ancient canon and the authority of the Church who promulgated it from the beginning.  It is not correct to consider the canon to have been defined for the first time at Trent.

A More Detailed Look: What Would Jesus Do?

Unfortunately some modern Protestant apologists have tried to make the argument that Jesus already accepted a closed and shorter Jewish canon which matched that of the much later consensus of next era of Rabbinic Judaism (post 200 AD).  This is based on a series of historical fallacies.   One such false belief is to treat the Rabbinic  school at Jabneh as if it is was Jewish council of bishops who ruled on this matter for the entire Jewish faith.  Although there was a school at Jabneh, these Rabbis had no central authority over other Jews and they did not issue a list of the complete books of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Ancient texts refer to Jabneh as a beth din, “law court”, a metibta, “academy,” a yeshivah and beth midrash (“school” or college”) but not to a convention or council. The only canon related decision offered by this school was that Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes “render the hands unclean” meaning they are part of Sacred Scripture (M. Yad. 3.5).  The Rabbis at Jabneh did not represent any central or hierarchical authority—it took years to convince most Jews to follow their position. (s.v. JamniaThe Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 866).

Much later Rabbinic traditions (post 200 AD) expand to claimed that God inspired Ezra with the correct list of scrolls even their exact textual readings when Israel returned after the destruction of the first Temple. Modern Jewish scholar, Emanuel Tov, a leading expert on the text the Hebrew Scriptures, notes a completely different pattern in the manuscript tradition. Tov believes that the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls points to textual plurality which gradually became more uniform. He notes that the rejection of the textual tradition of the Septuagint(s) by Judaism is “not a consequence of the process of textual transmission” but “due to political and socio-religious events” meaning the acceptance of this tradition by Christians. (Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, p. 194). According to Tov, the reason the later Jewish Scribes (Masorites) rejected the Hebrew text underlying the Old Greek Translation (LXX) was not because they saw the textual tradition as inferior but because it was being used by the Christians. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Pharisees emerged as the victors among other Jewish groups and slowly developed into the later Rabbinic Judaism we see in the Mishnah and Talmuds, Prior to this there were many different canons or collections of Scripture in use, even in Palestine at the time of Jesus.

A second prominent historical error is the idea that there were two ‘canons’ of scripture at the time of Jesus;  comprising a shorter so-called ‘Palestinian’ canon following a Hebrew text, and a so-called ‘Alexandrian’ canon with an expanded list of books following the Septuagint.  Modern scholarship has conclusively demonstrated that this is a completely false picture.  Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Palestinian archaeological sites reveal that even in Palestine different canon lists were in use by various Jewish groups. Even the Septuagint tradition of manuscripts comprises more than 2000 separate manuscripts of various Biblical and non-biblical writings.  There are often multiple varying translations of the same Hebrew text. It would be difficult to treat even this data as a single ‘Alexandrian’ canon.

The original Catholic canon included 7 books which were later rejected by post 70 AD Rabbinic Judaism: Judith, Tobit, Baruch, I and II Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), Wisdom of Solomon, and parts of Daniel and Esther. Catholics call these books Deuterocanonical rather than using the Protestant term Apocrypha. Both Jews and Christians used the additional 7 books as Scripture at the time of Jesus. Although not directly quoted in the New Testament there are hundreds of verbal allusions to the 7 additional books in the New Testament (cf. Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, Index III).

calvin fireA third historical error is the belief that the Deuterocanonical books should be rejected because they are not part of the Hebrew tradition.  This is usually a subset of the false idea that there was a shorter 39 book Palestinian canon in Hebrew at the time of Jesus.  It is true that even Catholic scholars such as St Jerome were nervous at the lack of Hebrew manuscripts for the Deuterocanonical books during his time period.  Apparently the lack of Hebrew manuscripts also bothered the Reformers, who followed evidence and traditions of the medieval Masoretic Jewish tradition.  Protestant reformers were influenced by this Jewish tradition and downgraded these 7 books as Apocrypha. They were placed in an appendix in Protestant German and English Bibles.  With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls modern scholarship has shown that the logic of medieval Masoretic Jews was false. Evidence at Qumran does not support the notion that the third section of the Jewish canon was viewed as a closed canon, as many other writings in their original languages are also preserved in the caves at Qumran.

The Qumran finds lends some other interesting insights.  The caves yielded some 800 scrolls of all the books of the Bible, except Esther, Psalm 110, and Psalm 111. The scrolls also contain 8 other psalms previously unknown in the familiar Masoretic (some, however, are known in Greek and Syriac!!). Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of Tobit were discovered at Qumran, as was Baruch 6.  Furthermore, though not yet found at Qumran, Judith is also believed to be originally composed in Hebrew.  Other Archaeological evidence confirms the hypothesis that the Deuterocanonical books were all originally written in Hebrew. Patrick W. Shehan, cites evidence for a Hebrew version of Ben Sirach in the first century B.C. community of Masada which was written “stichometrically” meaning each verse receives a full line. This practice of writing indicates a high reverence for the text usually reserved for the Torah. This would be very unusual if the scribes copying Ben Sirach believed the book was not inspired nor part of Sacred Scripture (Patrick W. Shehan, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, Anchor Bible, Vol. 39. New York: Doubleday, 1987, p. 20).  Hebrew fragments of Ben Sirach were also found in Cave 2 at Qumran. There is no reason to doubt that all of the Deuterocanonical books were originally written in Hebrew.  Since there was no such thing as a shorter 39 book ‘Palestinian’ canon at the time of Jesus, I am left wondering why this detail even matters? Parts of the Old Testament (even the Protestant version) are already written in the more modern Aramaic language!

Dr. Flint, Protestant Scholar and leading expert on the Dead Sea scrolls writes;

 What the scrolls are telling us,” says Flint the scholar, “is that when the canon was incomplete, there were different versions of certain books: the Septuagints chose one version, and the Masoretics chose the other.”. . . “While we know that at the time of Jesus there were different canons of the Old Testament because the canonical process was not yet complete, the glorious truth is that God has invited humans to be partners in the putting together of Scripture.  I think the implications are that you cannot have Scripture without the community of faith.  It’s not just a private revelation.  God gives us Scripture, but then the community of faith, by God’s guidance, has to choose what’s in and what’s out. (Flint, Christianity Today, Oct. 1997)

Ultimately it is the Church who gave us the Bible.  The normal way to talk about this even in the New Testament was to refer to Tradition (Gr. paradosis).


[1] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People And Their Sacred Scriptures In The Christian Bible http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/pcb_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020212_popolo-ebraico_en.html


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