Why the difference between the Old Testament canon in different Christian traditions?

Caravaggio, ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ (circa 1598—1599). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Caravaggio, ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ (circa 1598—1599). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[Comparison table] [Why the difference?]

In our previous post (29 August), we compared the canon of the Old Testament books in four different Christian traditions: the Protestant Old Testament, the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Slavonic Bible used by the Russian Orthodox Church.

You can find our comparison of the different Old Testament canons here.

For the sake of brevity we laid aside the question of why the different Christian traditions each have a different Old Testament canon. We consider that question now.

Why the difference?

“The different extents of the Old Testament canon in different Christian traditions are largely owing to how different movements within Christianity — for example the Protestant Reformation — have interpreted the relative significance of early debates within the Christian Church.”

The different extents of the Old Testament canon in different Christian traditions are largely owing to historical reasons, and in particular to the way translations of the Old Testament came into different languages used by the Christian Church with different extents.

Also of great importance is how different movements within Christianity — for example the Protestant Reformation — have interpreted the relative significance of early debates in the Christian Church over the extent of the Old Testament canon. We will consider this particularly in relation to the difference between the Protestant Old Testament and the Roman Catholic.

Development of the Jewish canon (Tanakh)

At some point during the early centuries A.D., the canon of the Scripture accepted by Orthodox Judaism (the Tanakh) came to be fixed as the 39 books now found in the Protestant Old Testament — albeit reckoned as 24 books within Judaism, as numerous books which are considered separate in the Christian Old Testament are reckoned as one book in Judaism; for example the Twelve Minor Prophets are considered to be one book.

“What is clear is that by the latter part of the fourth century A.D., Orthodox Judaism had developed a clear canon of Scripture comprising the 24 books [of the Jewish Old Testament]. This is shown by an important passage by Jerome.”

There was a theory that the Jewish canon of Scripture was finalized at the Council of Jamnia circa A.D. 90,[1] but that theory has now been largely rejected.[2]

What is clear, however, is that by the latter part of the fourth century A.D., Orthodox Judaism had developed a clear canon of Scripture comprising the 24 books.

This is shown by an important passage by Jerome (A.D. 347—420[3]), in his Preface to the Books of Samuel and Kings of the Latin Vulgate Bible — a translation which he made of the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin around the end of the fourth century, and which was the Catholic Church’s standard edition of the Bible almost down to our own time.[4]

Jerome was natively a Latin speaker, from Aquileia in Italy, but moved to the East and learned Hebrew from a Jewish Christian. This would prove of immense value later when he came to make his new Latin translation.[5] In the above preface he lists the 24 books of the Hebrew canon, and goes on to say:—

“And so there are also twenty-two books of the Old Testament; that is, five of Moses, eight of the prophets, nine of the Hagiographa,[6] though some include Ruth and Kinoth (Lamentations) amongst the Hagiographa, and think that these books ought to be reckoned separately; we should thus have twenty-four books of the old law. And these the Apocalypse of John[7] represents by the twenty-four elders, who adore the Lamb, and with downcast looks offer their crowns, while in their presence stand the four living creatures with eyes before and behind, that is, looking to the past and the future, and with unwearied voice crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who were, and are, and are to come.’[8][9]

It would appear that Orthodox Judaism accepted as divinely inspired Scripture only books which had been written in Hebrew or Aramaic (a few parts of our Old Testament were written in Aramaic), and were not deemed to be of late origin (i.e., later than the Persian period).

The Septuagint and its influence on the Christian Old Testament

However, in the first century A.D. the Jewish writings later to be known as the Old Testament were not only to be found in Hebrew and Aramaic.

“In the largely Greek-speaking world of the Roman Empire of the first century A.D., the Septuagint became an important document in the beginning of Christianity. It was the Bible of Gentile Christians; and even though the majority of the New Testament was written by Jewish believers, most of its quotations from the Old Testament are drawn from the Septuagint translation rather than from the Hebrew.”

During the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek at Alexandria. The story goes that this was at the behest of Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who wanted a copy of the Jewish writings in Greek for the library at Alexandria. So he had seventy Jewish scribes brought over to Alexandria to make a translation, which consequently became known as the Septuagint (= Latin ‘seventy’).[10]

In the largely Greek-speaking world of the Roman Empire of the first century A.D., the Septuagint became an important document in the beginning of Christianity. It was the Bible of Gentile Christians; and even though the majority of the New Testament was written by Jewish believers, most of its quotations from the Old Testament are drawn from the Septuagint translation rather than from the Hebrew.[11]

For our purposes the important thing to note is that, somewhere in the process of translation into Greek, a number of additional Jewish writings appeared in the resulting collection. These included:

These additional books and parts of books, found in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Old Testament, are what we call the ‘Apocrypha.’

Because in the early centuries the majority of Christians would have spoken either Greek or Latin, not Hebrew, it was the Septuagint that came to be regarded as the Christian Old Testament, along with its additional material.

Thus almost from the outset we find Christian theologians quoting from the Apocrypha as Scripture. For example, Clement of Rome, writing around A.D. 95, in chapter 55 of his Epistle to the Corinthians, refers to the book of Judith as Scripture:

“Many women also, being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed numerous manly exploits. The blessed Judith, when her city was besieged, asked of the elders permission to go forth into the camp of the strangers; and, exposing herself to danger, she went out for the love which she bare to her country and people then besieged; and the Lord delivered Holofernes into the hands of a woman.”[12]

Doubts over the longer Old Testament canon

Although the Old Testament represented by the Septuagint continued to be used and quoted, with its additional material, doubts about the canonical status of the extra books surfaced from time to time.

“Whilst the Old Testament was universally accepted and revered within the Christian Church, the extent of the Old Testament canon wasn’t seriously debated until the fourth century. In particular, around the end of the fourth century a vigorous literary debate took place over the status of the Apocrypha between Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.”

Whilst the Old Testament was universally accepted and revered within the Christian Church, the extent of the Old Testament canon wasn’t seriously debated until the fourth century. In particular, around the end of the fourth century a vigorous literary debate took place over the status of the Apocrypha between Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.[13]

Augustine, who spoke Latin, was in favour of the longer canon represented by the Septuagint; Jerome, who, as has been mentioned already, spoke Hebrew and was well acquainted with the Hebrew canon, favoured the shorter Old Testament which it represented.[14]

Notwithstanding Jerome’s protests to the contrary, for a time the question of the extent of the Old Testament was settled by the decision of three North African Councils — the Synod of Hippo in 393, the Council of Carthage in 397, and the Council of Carthage in 419 — in favour of the longer canon.[15]

In spite of the decision of these Councils, doubts about the status of the Apocrypha continued to be expressed down the centuries. The longer canon of the Old Testament was reasserted by the Council of Florence in 1442.[16] (Note: This Council was only recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, not by the Eastern Churches.) During the sixteenth century these term ‘deuterocanonical’ was coined, apparently by Sixtus of Siena, to refer to the books in the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate Bibles not contained in the Hebrew.[17]

Rejection of the Apocrypha by the Protestant Reformers

“[The Apocrypha] the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”

Church of England, 39 Articles: Article VI, ‘Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.’

Because of the historical doubts over their authority, and in particular because of the objections of Jerome, the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century rejected these additional books and parts of books as Scripture, adopting Jerome’s term of ‘Apocrypha’ to refer to them.[18]

Although not regarded by the Reformers as divinely inspired Scripture, the Apocrypha were always included in Protestant Bibles of the sixteenth century — albeit placed in a separate section on their own, instead of being scattered amongst the rest of the Old Testament as per the Latin Vulgate.[19] They regarded them as — in the words of Article VI of the Church of England’s 39 Articles — to be read “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”[20]

Today

“It is important to note that the inclusion or exclusion of the Apocrypha in the canon of the Old Testament has no bearing on the thorny ethical questions which are plaguing Christians in the West in contemporary debate. For example, there is no need to have recourse to the Apocrypha in debates about the Church’s teaching on same-sex relationships.”

Today amongst Protestants in the West, the Bible is seldom printed with the Apocrypha included at all. Catholic Bibles — such as the Jerusalem Bible — continue to retain it, of course; as do ‘ecumenical Bibles’ such as certain editions of the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version.

It is important to note that the inclusion or exclusion of the Apocrypha in the canon of the Old Testament has no bearing on the thorny ethical questions which are plaguing Christians in the West in contemporary debate. For example, there is no need to have recourse to the Apocrypha in debates about the Church’s teaching on same-sex relationships.

In fact, it is remarkable how little the Apocrypha adds to Christian faith doctrinally, which is not to be found either in the Hebrew parts of the Old Testament, or in the New Testament. The only significant exception to this is a passage in 2 Maccabees which supports the saying of masses for the dead.

My personal view

The argument that the status of the Apocrypha has always been in doubt is a compelling one.

“To me, the most compelling argument against accepting the Apocrypha as Scripture is the Apocrypha itself.”

To me, however, the most compelling argument against accepting the Apocrypha as Scripture is the Apocrypha itself.

Whilst some of the books in the Apocrypha are very noble and good reading — personally I particularly like 1 Maccabees — others are silly and, in my view, unworthy of a place in the Old Testament.

Particularly so is the book of Judith, a book which purports to tell the story of a brave and godly woman who single-handedly delivered the Israelites from the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar; but which in reality is an absurd story which is riddled with anachronisms and has seemingly no idea in which century it is supposed to be set.

 

 

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[1] As mentioned, for example, in The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical Books (Expanded Edition). Collins, reprinted 1995. Contents: pp. xii-xiii; and in William Barclay, The Making of the Bible. Lutterworth Press, London, 1961: p.36.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Jamnia

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgate

[5] See Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. VI: Jerome: Letters and Select Works. Prolegomena to Jerome: Life of Jerome. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.iv.III.html

[6] By which he means approximately our ‘Wisdom Literature’: he lists the Hagiographa as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs; Daniel; 1 & 2 Chronicles (as one book); Ezra & Nehemiah (as one book); Esther.

[7] i.e., the book of Revelation

[8] Revelation 4:4-11

[9] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. VI: Jerome: Letters and Select Works. Prefaces to the Books of the Vulgate Version of the Old Testament: The Books of Samuel and Kings. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vii.iii.iv.html. You can also find this passage, alongside its Latin original, at http://www.bible-researcher.com/jerome.html. Note: I have very slightly adapted this above quotation into more modern English.

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septuagint

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_of_the_Bible#Protocanonical_books_of_the_Old_Testament

[12] Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. 55. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.ii.lv.html

[13] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical Books (Expanded Edition). Collins, reprinted 1995. Preface: pp. viii-ix.

[14] Ibid.

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_Old_Testament_canon#Augustine_and_the_North_African_councils

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_Old_Testament_canon#Council_of_Florence

[17] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical Books (Expanded Edition). Preface: p. ix.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Article VI, ‘Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.’ See http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html

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