So you like to read the Bible!
Do you know where it came from? Why it contains 66 books rather than 83 or 102? Why the Roman Catholic Old Testament has 7 books more than the Protestant or Jewish versions?
The development of the Bible was a two-step process. First, God gave His prophets messages for His people. Some of those messages were recorded as letters, others as law, poetry, history, or visions of the future. Such inspired writings, as Paul noted, “are able to instruct you for salvation” and are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15–17, RSV).* So, the inspired writings that we think of as the Bible are for the daily guidance of God’s people.
But how did the various writings of the prophets become the Bible that we know today? That question brings us to the second step in the process.
the development of the Old Testament
The Bible doesn’t tell us how the Old Testament was put together, but we know that by the time of Jesus the Jewish people had collected what they called the Tanakh, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Jesus explicitly spoke about that collection of sacred writings. He told His followers that they could learn about Him through studying “the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44, RSV).
Josephus, a Jewish historian contemporary with Paul, referred to that same threefold collection of sacred Scripture when he wrote that the Jews had “only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them, five belong to Moses, which contain his laws, and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. . . . [But from the] death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes [423–415 B.C.]. . . the prophets . . . wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.”
The three divisions of the Bible that Jesus and Josephus mentioned still form the basic divisions of the Jewish Bible—the Torah (law), the prophets, and the writings. And Josephus’s 22 books contain exactly the same material that make up the 39 Old Testament books found in Protestant Bibles today. The difference between the Old Testament and the Jewish Bible is the way the books are counted. In the Jewish Bible the 12 minor prophets are counted as one; the books of First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah are each thought of as one; and Ruth and Lamentations are combined respectively with Judges and Jeremiah.
The Jews of the late first century had other books they considered important, but they didn’t count them as part of their official collection of authoritative biblical writings. Speaking of these books Josephus wrote, “Our history hath been written since Artaxerxes . . . but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.” These nonscriptural writings came to be known as the Apocrypha. We will return to them shortly, but first let’s examine the formation of the New Testament.
the development of the New Testament
The Bible of the early Christian church was the Jewish Bible, which came to be known as the Old Testament. Other sources of authority in the earliest days of the church were the sayings of Jesus and the letters and the spoken words of the apostles. The apostles were authoritative partly because they had known Jesus and were witnesses to His resurrection and partly because the Holy Spirit led them in a special way. Then again, just before Jesus returned to heaven He passed on His authority to them with the commission that they teach others all that He had commanded them to do (Matthew 28:18–20).
Jesus didn’t write any books, but because His followers considered His words very special, various teachers and preachers passed them along orally. Then, within a few decades of Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit led Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John to collect His sayings and the stories of His actions (especially His death and resurrection) and develop them into a new type of literature that came to be known as Gospels, which literally means“good news.”
Eventually, the early church began to regard the counsel of the apostles as having special weight in deciding various issues. Some of that counsel found its way into letters. Paul had no doubt that his letters had authority (2 Thessalonians 3:14), because he wrote “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 6). Peter also recognized the divine authority of Paul’s letters and even equated them with the Old Testament. “Paul,” he said, “wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15, 16, RSV; emphasis added).
We know that some of Paul’s letters were circulated to be read before various congregations (Colossians 4:16), and that was also probably the case with the letters of the other apostles. Eventually, the apostolic letters were collected in the same way as the Gospels. The first known collection is that of the heretic Marcion (A.D. 140–150). However, Marcion had a theological agenda that conflicted with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, so other people developed collections of the New Testament to represent those teachings more accurately. One such collection, the Muratorian Canon (about A.D. 170), listed all the books that are found today in our New Testament except Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter. But the Muratorian Canon also included some books that are not in our current Bibles.
Various other canons of New Testament books were developed over the next two hundred years. Gradually, a consensus developed based on the proximity of the various authors to Jesus and the apostles. So the continuation of apostolic authority until the end of time became a major basis for determining the contents of the New Testament. In A.D. 367, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, produced the first list containing all 27 books of our New Testament and no others. By the end of the fourth century the Christian church had accepted that canon, and all branches of the Christian church—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—still regard it as the New Testament.
But agreement on the New Testament did not mean that there was unanimity on what constituted the Old Testament.
what about the Apocrypha?
The major difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles is that the Roman Catholic canon of the Old Testament contains 46 books rather than 39. These extra books are called the Apocrypha. Where, you may ask, did these 7 extra books come from?
Part of the answer is that they are found in the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint version of the Old Testament was completed before the beginning of the Christian era and was widely used by the writers of the New Testament.
Why, then, don’t Protestants accept the Apocryphal books? The main reason is that the Jews never accepted them. In fact, there’s no evidence that the Apocryphal books were even a part of the Septuagint as a Jewish book. All copies of the Septuagint that exist today are of Christian rather than Jewish origin, and the earliest one is dated to A.D. 350—some five hundred years after the Septuagint was completed.
Beyond that, Jewish users of the Septuagint, such as Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. to A.D. 50), don’t quote from the Apocryphal books, even though they do from the canonical books. Likewise, the authors of the New Testament quote from 19 of the 22 books of the Jewish Bible but never once quote from the Apocryphal books. These books just weren’t considered authoritative by either the Jews or the apostolic church.
However, during the first few hundred years of the Christian era the Old Testament Apocryphal books found increasing usage in the Western church. Yet even then they weren’t regarded as canonical in the same sense as the books in the Jewish Bible. They were accorded less authority than the rest of the canon.
The issue came to a head during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformers took the Apocrypha out of the Old Testament and placed it between the two Testaments, thereby proclaiming its status as noncanonical. So even though the Apocrypha generally appeared in Protestant Bibles up through the mid-1800s, Protestants didn’t regard it as part of the Bible.
The Protestant positioning spurred the Roman Catholic Church into action. After all, certain of the Apocryphal teachings rejected by the Reformers (such as purgatory) couldn’t be sustained by either the Jewish Bible or the New Testament. In order to protect such teachings, in April 1546, the fourth sitting of the Council of Trent decreed that the Apocryphal books were equal in authority and canonical value to the other books of Bible. To make the decree effective, the council added:
“If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate Edition . . . let him be anathema.”
To a certain extent our acceptance of the biblical canon rests upon faith, just as do our beliefs in Creation, Jesus’ incarnation, and His resurrection. But that faith isn’t groundless. It firmly believes that the God who cared enough about His people to inspire the prophets also cared enough to preserve for them those sacred texts that contain the information needed for salvation.
It seems that the position of the earliest Christian church is the safest one to hold. They accepted only those Old Testament books that the Jews and the apostles regarded as divinely inspired. And they accepted as New Testament only those books that are closely related to apostolic authority and that don’t contradict the Old Testament.
We can be thankful that God cared enough to preserve the most important documents in the history of humankind.
* Scriptures quoted from RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.