It was one of the odder things about returning to the Catholic Church.
Suddenly I realised that I had seven more books, and a few extra chapters, in my Bible than I did as a Protestant. This is because the Protestant Bible has 39 books in the Old Testament, the Catholic Old Testament has 46 (yay more bible!). It seems we can’t agree on how many books we should have in the Old Testament.
These disputed books are called the deuterocanon (if you’re Catholic) and apocrypha (if you’re Protestant). There are plenty of good theological arguments for the deuterocanon/apocrypha, but today, I want to look at the history.
Also, I’ve abbreviated Deuterocanon/Apocrypha to AC/DC for ApoCrypha/DeuteroCanon (pronounced Acca Dacca) because I’m Australian and I refuse to use long, appropriate words when I could use slang, kitschy, and totally inappropriate ones.
So, shall we?
The Jewish Bible
The Christian Old Testament is basically the Jewish Bible. The debate over the Christian Old Testament comes from the fact that the Jewish Bible wasn’t set at the time of Christ or the beginnings of Christianity.
The Hebrew canon was solidified somewhere between the 2nd Century BC and the 2nd Century AD. For example, at the time of Christ, the Sadducees accepted only the Torah, the Pharisees had roughly the modern Jewish canon, Jews in the Diaspora had a wider canon that included the AC/DC and other groups like the Essenes had different lists of authoritative books too.
The Greek Septuagint
To really understand the differences, however, we have to know about the Septuagint and its importance to early Christians.
At the beginning of this period of canonisation for the Jewish Bible, Jewish scholars in the Diaspora (and possibly the Holy Land as well) translated the Hebrew texts into Koine Greek to create the Septuagint. This translation probably took place from the 3rd Century BC to the 1st Century BC. It is said to have been commissioned by the Pharaoh Ptolemy II and carried out by 70 or 72 Jewish scholars in Alexandria — which is why it’s the Septuagint, meaning seventy. As such, it’s also referred to by it’s Roman numerals LXX. (See, acronyms are cool!)
At the time, there were many Jews living in Egypt as part of the Diaspora, as well as throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Their lingua franca was Greek and the Septuagint is in Koine Greek, just like the New Testament is.
Importantly, the New Testament almost exclusively quotes from the Septuagint. (It’s why sometimes the quotes OT as quoted in the NT is slightly different from the OT itself.) The early Christians also used the Septuagint almost exclusively and Christians kept using it. In fact, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox still use the Septuagint. (Some believe the translation is divinely inspired.)
Canon of the Septuagint
The canon of the Septuagint, however, isn’t identical to the modern Jewish Bible. (Remember, there was a number of different biblical canons at the time.) The Septuagint had (give and take) seven to ten “extra” books.
- 1 Esdras (also called Esdras A or 3 Esdras just to confuse everyone – the whole situation with Ezra is rather complicated)*
- 1 Maccabees
- 2 Maccabees
- 3 Maccabees*
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Wisdom of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus)
- Epistle of Jeremiah*
There were also additions to Esther, Daniel, and sometimes a total of 151 psalms.
The canon of the Septuagint is the same used by Catholics and Orthodox to this day. (The Ethiopian and other Orthodox churches have an even bigger – and stranger – canon.)
The Problem of Canons
The Septuagint itself wasn’t 100% set and there were variations within its canon too. So while the Orthodox have 49 books in their Old Testament, Catholics have 46.
Catholics have all of the books listed above expect for 1 (or 3) Esdras and 3 Maccabees. (Marked with asterisks above.) We also have 150 psalms and we include the Epistle of Jeremiah in Baruch. So it’s actually a difference of 2 books that because of our counting systems, comes out as 3. These differences come from the different canons of the Septuagint circulating at the time.
There were also quite fluid concepts of what was truly canonical, what was deuterocanonical (and what that meant), and what was apocryphal. If the boundaries of the New Testament were still a little “porous” at the time, that’s nothing compared to the Old Testament.
It was messy.
Sometimes, the Church Fathers quoted from the deuterocanonical books as Scripture, other times they distinguished them from Scripture. Often, the same Church Father would do both – along with occasionally quoting as Scripture other things no one accepts anymore, and even rejecting other things we all agree are Scripture as not Scripture.
The Latin Vulgate
By the end of the 4th Century, Christians in the Latin West had settled the matter of the deuterocanon, accepting the seven books of our current canon as Scripture. The Synod of Hippo in 393 and the Council of Carthage in 397 confirmed this.
This process of solidifying the canon was helped by the translation of the bible into the Latin. In 382, Pope Damascus I commissioned St Jerome to translate the whole Bible into Latin, the vulgar or common tongue of the West (hence, Vulgate).
St Jerome was unusual for his context, however, because he thought that the AC/DC was apocryphal and didn’t belong in the Bible. Luckily, he was over-ruled — further proof of how well accepted the AC/DC was even at this early date.
Thus, between the Septuagint and Vulgate, the vast bulk of Christians for the first 1,500 years had Bibles with the AC/DC in them.
The Protestant Old Testament
Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation, and these “extra” books were “removed” from Protestant Old Testaments.
This is because they weren’t in the Jewish canon, specifically in the Masoretic Text, a 7th to 10th Century AD Jewish standardisation/translation of the Hebrew texts.
As mentioned above, the Jewish canon was finally set around the 2nd Century AD — and a good two centuries after the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the biblical canon of Rabbinical Judaism, which emerged after the destruction of the temple and the rise of Christianity.The Protestant Reformers believed that this was a far more reliable translation than the Vulgate and Septuagint. (This is doubtful…)
In fact, the evidence suggests that it the Septuagint with its wider canon fell out of favour with the Jews because it was seen as being too Christian.
So Protestants re-classified the deuterocanon as apocrypha, and that’s how we find ourselves in the mess we’re in today.
Protestants and Catholics disagree over the Old Testament canon because the canon of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, was still pretty fluid at the time of Christ.
To put it simply, Catholics and Orthodox follow the canon of the Septuagint, the translation used by the New Testament writers and early Christians, while Protestants follow the canon of Rabbinical Judaism that was set after Christianity began.
I said I wasn’t going into theological arguments… but I know which one I’d choose!