Friday, August 05, 2005

The Old Testament Canon

Open your bible to the Index page. (Or if you're Jewish, look at your copy of the Tanakh.)

How many books does the Old Testament (Tanakh) have?

Chances are, if you're Catholic, the bible in your hand has 46.
If you're Protestant or Jewish, you're looking at 39.

Hmmm. Ever wonder why the difference?

We just learned a little of the history behind this. Here's the scoop:

At the time of Christ, there were two versions of the Jewish scriptures: one was in Hebrew (with small portions in Aramaic), and the other was in Greek. The Hebrew version was used by those living in and around Jerusalem. The Greek version (called the Septuagint) was more common among Jews who were scattered throughout the Mediterranean, where Greek was the prevailing language. The Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (and was so named because of a legend about 70 scribes who independently translated the scriptures under God's command, and all arrived at the exact same translation). The Septuagint, however, also had 7 more books (Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees) as well as a few more passages in Daniel and Esther. Some of these extra books are known to have first been available in Hebrew; some not. In either case, they were all well-established with Greek-speaking Jews.

So at the time, there was no settled "canon", or list, of the "official" scriptures. By the end of the first century, however, sometime after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jewish community started moving in the direction of adopting only the Hebrew scriptures as the "official" version. That is why, to this day, the Tanakh only contains the 39 Hebrew writings.

In Christendom, the matter wasn't settled so soon. As Christianity spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, it was only natural that most Christians accepted the Septuagint. Yet the matter was never settled universally, and did vary among localities and bishops. In the beginning of the 4th century, St. Athanasius did not include the seven books in his list of inspired scripture. Later that same century, when St. Jerome translated the scriptures into Latin, he included them, but cautioned against developing doctrine from them. St. Augustine, however, saw the matter differently, and put them on equal footing. At any rate, by the end of the 4th century, the matter was beginning to be settled, as all 46 books of the Septuagint were listed among the inspired scriptures at the Council of Hippo in 393, and the Councils of Carthage which occasioned in 397 and 417.

While those African councils were only "local" councils, and not binding upon the universal church, they do seem to have in practice settled the matter, as further challenges to the Septuagint ceased, and Jerome's latin translation became the common book of scripture.

Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation, when Christendom was splintering. Doctrinal controversy abounded. The reformers, disagreeing with some doctrines taught by Rome, also disagreed with the content of the biblical canon. They desired to return to what they viewed as the more "pure" version of scripture. To support their position, they noted (correctly) that there had been voices of dissent in the early church over which scriptures were authentic. Further reason for their position (although in fairness we shouldn't place too much emphasis on this speculative point) may have been the fact that some of the disputed books in the Septuagint lent more sympathetic support to Catholic doctrines with which the reformers disagreed. (e.g.: A portion in Maccabees illustrating the efficacy of prayer for the dead was, and is, often cited by the Catholic church as evidence supporting the doctrine of Purgatory.)

In an effort to halt the developing schism, the Catholic church convened the Council of Trent in 1545. Although it clearly did not succeed in preventing the schism, it was enormously successful in reigning in various corruptions of the day and in boldly reaffirming Catholic doctrine, ultimately ushering in a spiritual rennaissance in the Catholic church. It also weighed in on the subject of the scriptural canon. Noting that, with only a few exceptions, the Septuagint had been the predominantly accepted canon by Christians throughout the 1500+ years of Christianity (including the writers of the New Testament), and had even been affirmed by the African local councils, all 46 books could thus be considered to be authentically inspired. The Council then established St. Jerome's 4th century latin translation (known as the Vulgate), which included the Septuagint, as the official canon of Scripture. As this was an Ecumenical council (as opposed to a "local" council), this thus settled the matter once and for all throughout the entire Catholic church.

So that is why, today, Protestant bibles (and Jewish scriptures) do not include 7 Old Testament books that are found in the Catholic bible. For Protestants, these books are labeled "Apocryphal" ("Hidden") writings (which amounts to saying "non-inspired"), whereas for Catholics, they are labeled "Deuterocanonical" ("Second Canon"), to be considered on par with the rest of the books of the Old Testament.


At 8/05/2005 10:37 AM, Anonymous Marsha said...

Great explanation! Thanks! (Now if I could only remember it and explain it to someone else.


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