At the heart of being an Evangelical Christian, one of the key components is fidelity to the Bible. Therefore, one needs to be absolutely sure what the Bible is. For the New Testament there is no serious dispute. The Old Testament, however, has some thorny unresolved issues. Everyone agrees on the basic 66 books which show up in the Medieval Hebrew Bible. But then Roman Catholicism adds a few more things:
- an expanded chapter 3 in Daniel , plus chapter 13 & 14
- expansions to various chapters in Esther
- the Wisdom of Solomon
- the Wisdom of Jesus ben-Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus)
- I Maccabees
- II Maccabees
And to make matters more complicated, the Eastern Orthodox Churches add yet more:
- III Maccabees
- II Esdras (or III Esdras, if Ezra is I and Nehemiah is II)
- the Prayer of Manasseh (usually appended to the end of II Chronicles)
- Psalm 151
I’ve been keeping my eyes out for Early Church statements concerning the Old Testament canon, to see who’s right – the Protestant churches with 66 books according to the Medieval Hebrew text, the Eastern Church with 75 books according to the Greek Septuagint text, or the Roman Church with a compromise of 73? Sadly, I’ve found nothing particularly clear and useful. They sure quoted from all of these books, but just because people quoted something, doesn’t mean they think of it as Scripture.
A few months ago, I finished reading through the books in the Roman Catholic list above. I’ve also read the Prayer of Manasseh plenty of times; that just leaves III Maccabees and II Esdras to check out eventually. For the most part I found all these books fine reads. Thus far I’ve written at least twelve articles on this blog that quote from them. And in some cases, their value in terms of pointing to Christ is quite excellent.
So what are we to think? There are three approaches to this question.
#1 – Call them Deuterocanonical
Deuterocanon means “second canon.” This is the approach taken by the East and by Rome; they’ve decided these books belong in the Bible as a sort of “second round” of Old Testament writings. They aren’t as old as the rest of them, hence their rejection by Jews, but they still pre-date Christ and represent the history and progress of Jewish thought and religion in the Second Temple era – after Israel’s return from exile.
This problem with this view is that some of the Early Church writings indicate that the Church should only count as canonical (for the Old Testament) the same books that the Jews do. It’s not a unanimous or clear voice, but the objection existed.
#2 – Call them Apocrypha
Apocrypha means “hidden” or “uncertain” or “false.” This is the approach taken by Protestant churches; they’ve sided with certain 16th-century Reformers who argued that the books not found in the Hebrew Bible don’t belong in the Christian Bible either. Therefore we should just forget about Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and the rest; we don’t know much about their origins anyway. It’s not like the Jews have these writing in their Bible, after all.
The problem with the view is that we don’t know much about the origins of the rest of the Old Testament either. Who wrote Joshua and Judges and the books of Samuel and Kings and Chronicles? How much of Jeremiah was written down by him versus by his scribe? Who arranged the Psalms in their current order? Additionally, although the official teaching of the Early Church is unclear regarding these books, they certainly quoted them an awful lot – sometimes more than the undisputed Old Testament books. So ignoring them completely seems too much of an extreme. Finally, many who consider these books apocryphal point to the fact that the Jews (also) reject them from the canon. But they never made any statements of their canon until after Christ – why on earth should Christians be taking their cues from the generation of Jews who rejected Christ?
#3 – Call them “the other books”
It seems a middle ground is needed, here. We can’t throw them out completely, and the evidence for their full inclusion is inconclusive, so how do we make a mature judgment here? Once again I’m thankful for the thoughtful spirit of the English Reformation, as represented in the sixth Article of Religion:
And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:
- The Third Book of Esdras,
- The Fourth Book of Esdras,
- The Book of Tobias,
- The Book of Judith,
- The Song of the Three Children [addition to Daniel 3],
- The Story of Susanna [Daniel 13],
- [The story] Of Bel and the Dragon [Daniel 14],
- The rest of the Book of Esther,
- The Book of Wisdom,
- Jesus the Son of Sirach,
- Baruch the Prophet,
- The Prayer of Manasses [King Manasseh],
- The First Book of Maccabees,
- The Second Book of Maccabees.
Three things are going on here.
- A judgement call has been made on which Early Church source to go with. St. Jerome was chosen. The explanation of this comprises the next two points.
- The Church does read these books. This is not just a take-home “recommended reading” list for our personal devotions, this is an endorsement of reading these books in Church.
- These books will be not used for establishing doctrine, but for us to learn from the good things that are in them.
Earlier in Article 6, we read “In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” This may be taken as an admission that the “other books” might be understood to be Scripture after all. But in the end, a line is definitely drawn between the proper Old Testament and the “other books.”
Ultimately this sets up for us a two-tiered Bible. On one level we have the definite scriptures (the Old and New Testaments) and on the other level we have the semi-scriptures. We treat them equally by virtue of the fact that we read all of them. We treat them differently by virtue of the fact that we stick to the stricter Canon when talking theology.
This may not be the best solution, but in my opinion it’s the best we can do under the circumstances.