By Ian Wilson (Rated G)
I’ve participated in cross-denominational dialogue before; regrettably, my lack of wisdom got me into quite a bit of trouble in these discussions. But I learned quite a lot from those experiences, particularly the negative ones. One of the issues frequently brought up between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians is the issue of the canon of Scripture. What scriptures belong in the Bible? Why is the Protestant canon smaller than the Catholic canon? This article is an attempt to answer, or at least discuss these questions.
I must preface this article by stating that I am not a theologian or Bible scholar. I am not an expert on the subject; these are just some conclusions I’ve come to based on discussions I’ve had with more mature Christians from other denominational backgrounds, and other articles I’ve read on the subject. Some of you folks may disagree with my conclusions; that’s okay. Please feel free to comment, and give me reasons why you disagree.
A Cavalcade of Canons
As anyone who’s done any study on this subject at all knows the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. Sometime between 200 and 300 years before Christ, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This translation is what we refer to as the Septuagint. This was because many Jews had spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, and had lost their native tongue. This was the Bible used by the earliest Christians. Greek was essentially the universal language of the Mediterranean region, so the New Testament was also written in Greek.
Now, shortly after the deaths of the Apostles, there were a large number of different scriptural canons going around. It seemed as though every church had its own canon. Many of these canons contained books that were blatantly heretical. The Church Fathers, principally St. Athanasius, drew a line in the sand, stating for the record the canon of Scripture. Athanasius also mentions several other books, which he refers to as “Apocrypha” meaning “hidden” which are considered useful for teaching new converts but are not divinely inspired. These books include (but are not limited to) the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, the book of Judith, the book of Tobias (Tobit), the Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermas. All but the latter two are Old Testament books. The New Testament Apocrypha is a topic for another time.
Added to the confusion is the fact that the Eastern Church and the Western Church maintain two different canons to this day. In the West, the Apocrypha contains 7 books; the East has at least 11, maybe 12 or 13. Why? I don’t know. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that yet. And just for the sake of confounding everyone else, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church has an even larger canon, containing more books than both the East and the West. I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of the Ethiopian canon, so I will refrain from commenting on it here.
The Case of the Missing Manuscripts
Fast forward a couple of decades after Athanasius wrote down his official canon. Another Church Father, St. Jerome, began the work of translating the Holy Scriptures into Latin, the universal language of the West. Simple enough, right? Wrong! Jerome insisted on translating the Old Testament directly from Hebrew, because he considered it more authoritative, being in the original language and all. The Eastern Church objected. They considered the Septuagint more authoritative because it was the Scripture they’d always used, and it was the translation used by the Apostles in their Epistles (try saying that ten times fast). Furthermore, the Septuagint contained the books of the Apocrypha, while the Hebrew did not. Somewhere along the way, the Hebrew manuscripts for the Apocrypha had been lost. Not only that, but several passages of canonical books such as Esther and Daniel are also strangely absent from the Hebrew, and are still controversial today. Well, Jerome resisted the pressure from the East and translated the OT directly from Hebrew. He did, however, also translate the Apocrypha, some of which he included as an appendix.
Fast forward to the 16th century CE. An impertinent German monk asserted that the Church derives her authority not from the hierarchy, but from Scripture alone. Martin Luther wasn’t the first person to believe this, but he was the first one to make it really popular. This attracted the attention of the church hierarchy, and in my opinion, got blown way out of proportion, resulting in the expulsion of Luther and his adherents from the church. His followers became known as Lutherans, and they began a movement that would become known as the Protestant Reformation. Yeah, yeah, I know Lutherans, you’re not Protestant. That bit is irrelevant to this article.
Anyway, Luther translated the Bible into the German of his day, so that the common man could read Scripture for himself. This was made possible by the invention of the printing press. Like Jerome, Luther preferred to translate directly from the original languages. This offended many in the Church, who preferred Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. And the beat goes on…
But what to do with those books for which the original Hebrew had gone MIA? Many Catholics assert that Luther removed the Apocrypha from the canon of Scripture. Sorry, Catholic friends, but this is a lie. Luther did indeed translate the Apocrypha into German and placed them in their own section in his translation. On the opening page of the Apocrypha, Luther wrote that these books are useful for teaching, but are not considered inspired scripture, basically reasserting what Athanasius had already said. This has been the Protestant position since that time. Even John Knox, one of the most radical of all the Reformers, included the Apocrypha in his English Geneva Bible, for which he wrote basically the same heading as Luther.
To complicate matters, by the 10th century, the Jews had completed their newest iteration of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text was a very faithful and authoritative text that became quite popular among the Reformers. It was the basis of the Authorized (King James) Bible, as well as several translations that came after it. The Masoretic Text also does not contain the Apocrypha, or the controversial passages in Daniel, Esther, Jeremiah, etc. However, one should take into account the fact that the Masoretic Text is much younger than the Septuagint, so in many ways, the Septuagint is more accurate than the Masoretic Text.
Lost in Translation
But what is the point of all this? Why don’t Protestant Bibles contain the Apocrypha? You see, Protestants believe that Scripture is inerrant and infallible, but only in the original languages. The real meaning of the words might be lost in translation, or there could be human errors on the part of the translator (cf “Wicked Bible”). So they might contain errors. They might not. We don’t know, so Protestants err on the side of caution. Sorry KJV-Only folks, but no translation is perfect. Now, it is entirely possible that parts of the Apocrypha are indeed authoritative and inspired. They’re referenced by the Apostles a couple of times, so it’s possible that they are; but again, we don’t know, because we don’t have the Hebrew manuscripts.
As to why most Protestant translations don’t include the Apocrypha at all, well I actually don’t have a concrete answer for that. The most likely answer is that the Protestant clergy put pressure on publishers to remove the Apocrypha because they feared the Apocrypha might attract lay people to Catholicism. That’s the simplest answer. Having read much of the Apocrypha, I am of the opinion that Protestants should indeed read the Apocrypha and become familiar with the Apocrypha because those books have played an important part in the Christian tradition. Whether they’re accurate or not is up for debate, but one thing is certain; the Church Fathers knew what they were doing when they put together the Canon under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The Lord will preserve His word. We can trust that.