The Bible is a collection of books written by different human authors over a period of more than one thousand years that are together considered the inspired written Word of God. Very few Christians today who study their Bible or hear it being proclaimed at Church worry about the authenticity of the books as being God’s written Word. They implicitly accept the validity of their church’s estimation of them or of Christianity’s use of them from time immemorial. Yet the canon of inspired Scripture did not just instantaneously come into being. It took time and involved some controversy to establish.
When we speak today of the “canon” of Scripture we mean those collected books accepted by Christians as inspired by God. The term “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon which means a “measuring stick” or a defining rule. It was used by the early Christians to mean a “measure” or “rule” by which to establish what is normative in the Church. It could be used to refer to behaviour but by the 4th century it especially referred to the collection of books belonging to Holy Scripture. There is no Jewish concept exactly corresponding to “canon” but Jewish authorities did speak of “what is read” and “the books” of Scripture in contrast to “the external books” or “books that render the hands unclean” (Joseph Lienhard, The Bible, the Church, and Authority, 1995).
Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians all esteem the Bible as the written Word of God. However, they do not all agree on which books make up the canon of Holy Scripture. There is general agreement on the 27 books of the New Testament. It is the canon of the Old Testament which is more disputed. The Catholic Bible has 46 books in the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) which when added to the 27 books of the New Testament gives a canon of 73 books. The various Orthodox churches have some differences amongst themselves in their canon. They all include the books found in the Catholic Bible but can have extra. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, has an Old Testament of 49 books (48 if we count the Letter of Jeremiah as part of Baruch, as Catholics do) which when added to the New Testament gives a total of 76 books. The additional books not found in the Catholic Bible are I Esdras and 3 Maccabees. Additional passages incorporated into canonical books are the Prayer of Manassah and Psalm 151. The exact status of these additional books and passages in the various Orthodox churches, however, is not clear: are they considered divinely inspired or “ecclesiastical” writings? The Protestant version of the Bible has only 39 books in the Old Testament for a total of 66 books when combined with the New. The parts of the Old Testament not recognized by Protestants as Scripture are the books of Baruch, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, and the Wisdom of Solomon plus the longer versions of Esther and Daniel found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. How did the differences in canons come about?
The process by which the books of the Bible were collected into a closed canon lasted for centuries. Our concern here is with only the Old Testament. According to most scholars the collection of Jewish Scriptures took place in three stages. By the 2nd century B.C. the books were in fact divided in three parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the (other) Writings. Jesus Himself refers to “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Lk 24:44). The first part is the Torah which is also called the Law or the Pentateuch. It was believed written by Moses and long accepted as supernaturally inspired and of divine authority. In fact, the Sadducees of Jesus’ day accepted only these books as divinely authoritative. According to patristics scholar Joseph Lienhard “the Torah, or Pentateuch, reached its final, closed form by 400 B.C., at the latest.”
The second grouping, the books of the Prophets, reached its final form by 200 B.C. The historical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings are included by Jews under this category since believed either written by prophets or containing their lives. The last grouping, the Writings, was closed according to Lienhard, “in the course of the second century A.D.” In other words the Torah, comprising the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), was first to be “canonized.” The second part to be canonized was the Prophets. Prophecy was believed to have ceased during the time of Ezra (450 B.C.). Jewish and later Protestant apologists tried to claim the entire canon was closed by “the Great Synagogue” in Ezra’s time but historical research has shown this to be an anachronism, not attested to earlier than about A.D. 200.
The third group in the Jewish canon is the Writings. It is also the most diverse group and the last to be fixed. It includes a hymn book like Psalms, wisdom literature like Job and Proverbs, apocalyptic literature like the book of Daniel, and short books like Esther that were read at annual festivals. It was not closed until after the rise of Christianity and the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. These events motivated rabbis to a closer consideration as to what books were recognized as divinely authoritative, especially as Christians were now using Jewish Scriptures. This is often said to have happened at a “council” of rabbis held in Jamnia (Javneh) around A.D. 90 but the historical accuracy of this claim is questioned. What is known is that some time around the beginning of the second century A.D. Palestinian Jews closed for themselves the third group of Scriptures, and thus established the current Jewish canon that is recognized by Protestants as comprising the Old Testament in its entirety. The criteria used for including or excluding books are not known. Speaking speculatively it appears to have included: (1) the book having been written at or before the time of Ezra (2) having been written in Palestine, and (3) having been written in Hebrew.
What is evident is that before Christianity began Judaism had a fixed corpus for the Law and the Prophets but not for the Writings. “Writings” were still being composed, translated and circulated. The early Church had thus inherited a still open canon from Judaism. It disregarded any later decisions of Jewish rabbis as no longer authoritative or binding. The Holy Spirit had come upon the Church at Pentecost to guide it in such matters. The Church’s revealed teachings and tradition would be used to discern truth from error, inspired writings from uninspired.
Before going any further we need to examine another factor that influenced the formation of the Church canon. Ever since the Babylonian Exile large populations of Jews resided in regions outside the Holy Land – and non-Jewish cultural influences were found within it. One effect of this was that Hebrew became essentially a dead language read only by rabbis. By Christ’s day the vernacular language of Jews in Palestine was Aramaic while Jews in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean used “koine” (common) Greek. If Jews were going to appreciate their Scriptures some form of translation would have to be made. In Palestine, targums, Aramaic paraphrased commentaries of sacred books, were used. Outside Palestine Diaspora, Jews relied on a Greek translation of Jewish Scripture. The Greek translation was called the Septuagint (Latin for “seventy” and hence often abbreviated as LXX). It was begun in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century B.C. The Septuagint was quoted by Jewish historians, poets and philosophers and also used in synagogues – that is until the end of the first century A.D. when many Jews ceased to use the Septuagint probably because of Christian adoption of it.
The Septuagint contained a Greek translation of the books found in the later Jewish canon but also other books. Some of these other books were originally written in Hebrew while others were composed by Jews in Greek. The Septuagint typically had a different three-part structure. It arranged books by style: Narrative, poetical and prophetic. Further, since most post-exilic Jews wrote in Greek or Aramaic, it added historical books not found in any Hebrew versions. Because the Septuagint did not have a standard ordering or a completely standard list of books (the Jewish canon still being relatively open) the books included varied according to collection. The books found in it (depending on the collection) that varied from the later Jewish canon are: Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), 1-3 Maccabees, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, the Book of Jubilees, 1 Esdras, additions to Esther and Daniel, and less commonly 4 Maccabees. Since none of these books contained law or prophecy they all properly belonged to the Writings. A substantial number of them, but not all, were recognized by the Catholic Church as divinely inspired.
We know that from the beginning the Church made use of the Septuagint because it is extensively quoted from in the New Testament as well as in contemporaneous and later Christian writings. A conservative estimate puts over two-thirds of the Old Testament citations found in the New Testament as taken from the Septuagint. A higher estimate claims it to be about 300 of a total 350 quotes. The Septuagint influenced the New Testament profoundly. Terms used and even created in the Septuagint became part of the New Testament vocabulary. Probably the most famous and controversial reference to it is Matthew 1:23 citation of Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…” The Septuagint renders the passage from Isaiah exactly in this manner while the Hebrew version appears more ambiguous.
The Christian Church used the Septuagint for evangelization as well as making the first translations of the Old Testament into Latin from it. Early Christian authors referred not only to the books of the Jewish canon found in it but also to the books later rejected by the Jews. In the 16th century, Sixtus of Siena coined the term “protocanonical” to refer to the undisputed books of the Old Testament and “deuterocanonical” (second canon) to refer to the disputed texts. The term was not meant to suggest these books suffered from an inferior sort of inspiration but simply that controversy attended their acceptance by the Church. Protestants refer to them by the mildly pejorative term first used by Jerome of “Apocrypha” meaning “things that are hidden.”
Disputes in the Church over which books were inspired and thus canonical were not restricted to the Old Testament. Prior to the Church councils of the late 300s, there was a wide range of disagreement over some of the books of the New Testament. Certain books, such as the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and most of the epistles of Saint Paul had long been agreed upon. However a number of the books, most notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Revelation remained disputed until the canon was finally settled. These are, in effect, New Testament “deuterocanonicals” books. Other books often cited by early Christian writers and sometimes even thought inspired included the Didache, 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Letter to Barnabas. Their non-canonical status was eventually established but they were still recognized as morally edifying to read. They are thus more properly classified as early ecclesiastical writings.
As well as entire books of the New Testament being contested so were some individual passages. For example, in the Gospels Mark 16:9-20; Luke 22:43-44; John 5:4 and John 8:1-11 are not found in every ancient manuscript. Yet how many Christians today worry about the inspiration of these verses which tell us about the woman caught in adultery, of Jesus’ sweat dripping like blood during the Agony in the Garden, of an angel that stirred the pool of Siloam, or describing Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdelene? Why would one accept such deuterocanonical New Testament books and passages while rejecting deuterocanonical Old Testament books and passages? If the Popes and the Church councils can be wrong on the Old Testament, logic dictates they can be wrong on the New Testament. If the Church is not infallible in its universal decisions, including its decisions about the canon of Scripture, then how can anyone be certain that they have a true canon of Scripture?
In the 18th century, the scholar, Johann Salomo Semler, tried to explain why a large part of the Christian world used a longer canon than the Jews or the Protestants of his day by postulating that at the time of Jesus the Jews actually had two closed canons of Scripture: the shorter Palestinian canon and the longer Alexandrian canon. He conjectured that Gentile Christians, who predominated, took over the longer canon of the Hellenistic Jews. The double closed canon theory became popular later among Protestant apologists when the claims made for the Great Synagogue of the 5th century B.C. fell apart. It made the Palestinian canon sound more authentic and superior. The problem with the theory of a closed Alexandrian canon in Judaism, as American scholar Albert Sundberg demonstrated (The Old Testament of the Early Church, 1964), is that there is no evidence for it. It is a magnificent theory constructed without anyone noticing that it lacked historical foundations.
There is no doubt that the New Testament authors used the Septuagint but did they make reference to its deuterocanonical books? While there is no exact quote from the deuterocanonical books in the New Testament there are a number of probable allusions made. The enthusiastic German, E. R. Stier, in 1828 published a collection of 102 New Testament passages that he believed resembled the Apocrypha. A more conservative estimate would put the number at over two dozen (David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, 1996). For example, the Gospel writers tell of a question put to Jesus by the Sadducees of a widow who had been married to seven brothers (Matt. 22:25; Mark 12:20; Luke 20:29). This may be an allusion to the book of Tobit (3:8 and 7:11). Jesus’ description of hell where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) is an image used in the book of Judith (16:17). In 1 Cor. 10:1 Paul’s statement of “our fathers being under the cloud passing through the sea” is described in the book of Wisdom (19:7). Some of the parallels are much clearer in Greek than in English, but even in English James 1:19, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak,” is very similar to Sirach 5:11, “Be swift in listening, but slow in answering.”
While allusions to a text or even quotes from it made by New Testament authors obviously carries some weight, it does not in and of itself prove a book inspired. For example, the New Testament never quotes from the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Obadiah, Zephaniah, Judges, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations or Nahum which are nonetheless accepted as Scripture. It does, however, allude to the Assumption of Moses and refers to the Book of Enoch (in the Letter of Jude 9 and 14) and to the writings of pagan poets like Epimenides, Aratus, and Menander (quoted by Paul in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus), which are not accepted as Scripture or the authors as inspired.
The early acceptance by Christians of the deuterocanonicals as Scripture is clearly demonstrated by history. On the walls of the catacombs one can find scenes depicting the three young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion’s den, Tobit, Raphael and the fish, Judith with the head of Holofernes, Judas Maccabees, and the martyred mother and seven sons. All these images are based on persons or events recorded in the deuterocanonical books. No scene strictly found in a book the Catholic Church considers apocryphal is depicted in the catacombs.
The Protestant patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly concedes: “It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive [than the Protestant Bible]…It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called apocrypha or deuterocanonical books.…In the first two centuries…the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. Quotations from Wisdom, for example, occur in 1 Clement and Barnabas…Polycarp cites Tobit, and the Didache [cites] Ecclesiasticus. Irenaeus refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon [i.e., the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel], and Baruch. The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary” (Early Christian Doctrines, 53-54). Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Origen, and others at times explicitly refer to certain deuterocanonical books as “Scripture.”
With the exception of Melito of Sardis (A.D. 160), and to a lesser extent Origen, Christian writers of the first three centuries treated the deuterocanonical books as they did the protocanonical ones. (Origen accepted Esther and probably Baruch as Scripture but not the books of Maccabees.) It was not until the 4th century that some of the Fathers, most notably the great biblical scholar Jerome, began to have reservations concerning them. Jerome counseled that the deuterocanonical books not available in Hebrew or not considered canonical by the Jews could be permitted as models of faith and conduct but should not be used to establish doctrine. In other words he was recommending they be treated like other books found in some editions of the Septuagint that are not considered inspired but are treated as “ecclesiastical” books (e.g. 3 Maccabees and the Book of Jubilees). Such a change of view is difficult to explain. In the case of Jerome he may have been influenced by Jewish teachers who instructed him in Hebrew. In a reply to Rufinus, however, Jerome did defend the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel as Scripture even though the Jews of his day did not accept them as such. A near contemporary of Jerome, Athanasius, disputed the inspiration of the deuterocanonicals except the “epistle of Baruch” which he included as part of the Old Testament (Festal Letter 39). Cyril of Alexandria included Baruch and Esther but excluded the rest from his listing of Scripture (he also excluded from his New Testament listing Hebrews and Revelation). The patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus, fails to mention any of the deuterocanonical books – as well as Hebrews and Revelation – in his listing of Scripture.
The recognition of the deuterocanonicals as part of inspired Scripture given by individual Fathers was more formally and authoritatively given by the Church when it met in synods or councils. The results of such deliberations are especially useful because they do not represent the views of only one person, but what was accepted by the Church leaders of whole regions. The canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was given at the Synod of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was reaffirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the First Council of Carthage in 397. In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the canon in a letter dispatched to Exuperius, bishop of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage in 419 reaffirmed the canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to “confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.” All of these canons were identical to the modern Catholic Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonical books.
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However, these early regional councils and papal letter are not universally binding and definitive. This might explain why Eastern Orthodox churches often have more books in their Scriptures than just the deuterocanonicals affirmed by the Catholic Church. They do accept as divinely inspired all the books recognized by the Catholic Church. For example, at the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 the Orthodox churches’ expressed their reaction to the Protestant canon by affirming Tobit, Judith, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Wisdom, the additions to Daniel, and 1 and 2 Maccabees as canonical. But with no definitive listing of the Old Testament canon made before the Eastern Schism of 1054, Orthodox churches also include other books and texts found in various collections of the Septuagint. Another explanation may be the Orthodox churches’ tendency to react negatively to Catholic dogmatic pronouncements made after the Schism. They may be overemphasizing the status of books previously treated as ecclesiastical writings in response to the Council of Trent. The eastern Council of Trullo (A.D. 692), considered by Orthodox churches as an ecumenical extension of the Third Council of Constantinople, did adopt the Catholic canon of Carthage (A.D. 419).
In 1441 the Council of Florence promulgated the Catholic canon for the Jacobites as is found in the 4th and 5th century councils. But it was only at the Ecumentical Council of Trent, in 1546, that a universally binding and definitive listing of the canon of Scripture was given. This was long after the Eastern schism and in response to the Protestant rejection of the deuterocanonical books. In doing this, the Council did not at that point add the deuterocanonicals to Scripture but simply reaffirmed what had been believed since the time of Christ and stated by the earlier councils.
What led to the Protestant rejection of books held universally by Christians, East and West, as inspired for 1500 years? Interest in the Hebrew language and in things Jewish (like the Kabbalah) had been growing among Christians in Europe for more than two centuries before the Reformation. The Christian Humanists became interested in the Hebrew language and those who learned it naturally favoured the Hebrew books. Early in the 16th century the Dominican Johannes Reuchlin had published a Hebrew grammar in Latin and became the first modern Christian to translate part of the Bible directly from Hebrew. All this focused new attention on the shorter, Hebrew canon, and helped raise questions about the accuracy and value of the Latin Vulgate.
Then in June and July of 1519 Martin Luther engaged in a historic debate with Johannes Eck at Leipzig, Germany. The topic of the debate was Purgatory. Luther appealed to the Bible as the final authority. Eck quoted 2 Maccabees 12:45: “It is a holy and salutary thought [to pray for the dead]. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.” Luther admitted the accuracy of Eck’s quotation but challenged the place of Maccabees in the canon. Eck conceded that Maccabees was not in the Hebrew canon, but appealed to the Church’s canon and to Augustine. Luther appealed to Jerome and the “Hebrew verity.” Luther thus denied the right of the Church to decide in matters of canonicity, instead it was to be determined by the internal worth of the book (Sundberg, The Old Testament of the Early Church). * Luther made the canon an acute issue for the Church and eventually all the Reformers insisted on the shorter Hebrew canon. For three centuries they still continued to print the deuterocanonical books in their Bibles (such as the King James Version) but in an appendix as “Apocrypha.” The deuterocanonicals were treated as worth reading for moral instruction but not as sources of Christian doctrine (i.e. “ecclesiastical” writings). Today some English Protestant Bibles still contain them as an appendix, but not all. In 1827 the British and Foreign Bible Society was the first to drop them completely from its published editions. Thus we have the situation as it stands today.
By Fr. Ignatius
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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.