Someone phoned me, the other day, and asked me a question I did not expect. He wanted to know about the extra Bible books, the ones Protestants don’t include in their Bibles. There are at least seven extra books in Roman Catholic Bibles, and even more in Orthodox Bibles. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the most liberal, with the most books in their official Bible.
Strangely, this is an issue for many young people today.
I thought this was a boring topic that only a few scholars cared about, but now we have a younger generation, and they have questions. When was the last time you had a conversation about the Apocrypha, the Deuterocanonical Books, or the Septuagint?
The question from my friend was from someone who doesn’t read the Bible, I think. He never mentions it. The question about those extra books is like a challenge; ‘If you people can’t decide on the official version, I won’t start reading the Bible.’ We talked, and I hope the conversation was useful to him.
When I was a boy, we had a song about the sixty-six books of the Bible. Sixty-six is the number of books in the Protestant Bible, so we were not singing a Catholic or Orthodox song. The song named all of the Bible books, in order, and some of my friends could sing that song from memory. In my church, I was the Boy Scout who never wore the official uniform, with the Smokey Bear hat. Clearly, I was a nonconformist, and I also didn’t memorize the names of the books in the Bible. I still need to look in the index for some of those small books.
Now, I live in the world where people don’t read any part of the Bible; and that includes some Christians who go to church regularly. The Bible is an icon, a little black book that people hold for the camera. I think my friend’s question was a picture of his confusion. If we think he should believe, why don’t we take things more seriously? Why should he join something that we don’t really care about? Believing is the commitment of a life time, at least as serious as getting married.
If you want to understand those large and confusing words: “Apocrypha” and “Deuterocanonical” refer to those extra books in the Catholic Bible. The “Septuagint” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It was translated in the city of Alexandria, in Egypt. Alexandria was the center of the ancient book trade, and Greek was the language of business. The Jewish Bible was one more text the scribes could copy and sell, on papyrus paper, which only came from Egypt. The ancient library of Alexandria was a source of business revenue. The Greek merchants in Alexandria had a monopoly, and their Jewish Bible, translated into Greek, included some extra books.
The original Hebrew Bible was written in the Hebrew language, except for a few sections in Aramaic, a closely related Language. Jesus spoke Aramaic and He probably never read the Septuagint in Greek. Devout Jews have always limited their Bible to the books from Genesis to Malachi, and they always prefer their Bible in the Hebrew language.
Jesus showed His limits when He said: “As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time; from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Matthew 23:35) The limits were from Genesis [Abel] to Zechariah, who wrote the second-last book of the Hebrew Bible. Malachi, who wrote the last book, lived at the same time. Those are the limits of the Hebrew Bible.
In early Christian times, a man name Jerome decided to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin, the language of Western Europe. He avoided the Greek Septuagint, and went directly to the source. The work of his lifetime was to learn ancient Hebrew, from a few Rabbis who still knew it, and to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin. That became the Old Testament of the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Jerome also translated some extra books, but they were not from the Hebrew Bible, and he did not claim that they were.
For centuries, those extra books were interesting and historical, but then Protestants like Martin Luther made a clear distinction between the Hebrew Bible and those extra books, and the Roman Catholic Church reacted to this challenge of their authority. A Catholic Bible today, includes several extra books, between the Old and New Testaments. Martin Luther translated those extra books into his language of German, as Jerome did into Latin, but he limited the Old Testament to the Hebrew Bible.
If you are wondering, the Christian New Testament has less controversy. It came to us from the Greek language, and even the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has the same books as everyone else, in their New Testament.
So, does this old argument have a modern solution?
The answer for my friend and anyone else, is to listen to the voice of God. Arguing about a book that we don’t read, is hypocrisy. That’s like Christians who defend the beliefs of their church; the one they don’t go to, or anyone who defends the religion they don’t practice. The ancient Rabbis knew the limits of their Hebrew Bible; Genesis to Malachi. We have known for thousands of years that God speaks to us from those pages.
The next step is to listen.
Lord, through all the generations you have been our home! Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, from beginning to end, you are God. (Psalm 90: 1 and 2)