The Bible is a large book. To many people, that’s about as far as it’s understood: as a single, large, book. Christians and other readers are aware, further, that the Bible has a number of books that make up its contents, and that there’s an Old Testament a New Testament. In our modern and post-modern cultural bias, we see the word “Old” and assume it’s less important than the part labeled “New.”
But honestly, the nature of biblical canon (that is, the ‘rule’ of what is included in the Bible, and why it’s there) is far more complex. The Bible isn’t just one coherent volume, nor is it just two “testaments” stuck together. There are several sections, groupings of books and writings, that have been included under varying circumstances and for different reasons and purposes. In other words, the canon of scripture has many layers, and it can be helpful to understand what some of these layers are, and how they were meant to function together.
1. The Hebrew Scriptures
The part of the Bible known as the Hebrew Scriptures is essentially the Jewish Bible. It contains the same collection of books as the common Protestant Old Testament, but the standard Hebrew versions order those books differently: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
The Torah is the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Torah means teaching, law, or instruction, and I’ve written more about it elsewhere. These five books are really the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures; everything else is built upon them, even legitimized by adhering to the teachings found in this section. In old Synagogue liturgy, the first Scripture reading would typically (or always?) be from the Torah.
It must be remembered that when the first generations of Christians spoke of and referred to the Scriptures, they had pretty much only the Old Testament in writing. The Torah, therefore, was still the foundation of their holy texts, and we would do well to rediscover the centrality of those five books in our own use and reading of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. What these books teach us about God as our creator and redeemer, and teach us about our calling, our sinfulness, and how to approach God, is an invaluable background for reading the rest of the Bible.
Part two of the Hebrew Scriptures is the “prophets” which include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets. We’re used to separating “historical books” out of this, so it’s an interesting challenge to our typical perspective to think about how all of these books despite their different styles and genres, function as prophetic – that is, expounding the word of God as found in the Torah. The second Scripture reading in Synagogue tradition was typically from these books.
The last section of the Hebrew Bible is called the writings, consisting of the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 & 2 Chronicles. Again, a range of writings styles and genres can be found here. The logic of holding these books together as a unit is partly in their age: most of these are newer books, being written or compiled well after the Babylonian Exile was over and the Second Temple was established. They are also of lesser teaching value compared to the Torah, and lesser interpretive value compared to the Prophets, which is why the Synagogue tradition didn’t necessarily include all of these books in their lectionaries.
For the most part, the Hebrew Scriptures were used and preserved primarily by Jewish communities; the impact of these versions upon the Church was generally smaller than that of the Greek Old Testament.
2. The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, or LXX)
Technically the word Septuagint, and the legend behind it of the seventy scholars who independently translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in exactly the same way, applies only to the books of the Torah. But the term quickly came to be used to refer to the entire Greek Old Testament. And, despite the legend, there are multiple versions of the Greek Old Testament just as there are different versions of the Hebrew text. The Septuagint (or LXX for short) was apparently translated from a different version of the Hebrew text than what eventually became standard in the Synagogues, so there are a number of small and large differences between the two textual traditions – the books of Esther and Jeremiah in particular are quite different in length in either version.
Apart from the text, the ordering of the books is also different. The Torah is the same: the heart of this Bible is still the five books of Moses.
But the next section are the historical books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 &2 Chronicles, Ezra/Nehemiah, and Esther (longer version). It was, in part, a Hellenistic influence that caused the distinction of “historical” writings from “prophetic” books. The loss, in this tradition, is of seeing the teaching link in these books back to the Torah. The gain, however, is an easier (and perhaps more logical) reading order for the books of the Bible that’s more learner-friendly.
The prophets, then, are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel (longer version), and the Twelve Minor Prophets. Note Daniel’s inclusion as a prophet in the LXX where the Hebrew Scriptures kept him in the third category of Writings. There are also more books here than in the Hebrew, and we’ll address them in the next section.
The “Writings” in the Greek Old Testament, therefore, are not a tertiary list of later books, but a collection of poetry and wisdom writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus).
Ultimately, the Greek Old Testament is the primary foundation for how Christian Bibles arrange the books of the Old Testament.
3. The Ecclesiastical Books (Deuterocanon or Apocrypha)
The Greek Old Testament, as we began to note in the above section, typically ended up with more books than the Hebrew Scriptures had. Virtually all of these additional writings were originally in Hebrew; they’re usually just best-preserved in their Greek versions. These books came to be labeled as “apocrypha” because their origin and in the canon was “hidden” or the purpose for their inclusion unclear. They were all pious and godly writings, of course, else they would not have been included, but debates cropped up at different times in the Jewish communities and in the Christian churches as to the appropriate extent of the use and inclusion of these books.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the uncertainty surrounding these books is the differing lists of which ones to include in the lectionaries of different traditions. The Synagogues eventually ruled all them out, preferring the Hebrew text tradition over against the Greek versions. The Roman canon included the longer versions of Esther and Daniel, and the additional books of Baruch (with the Epistle of Jeremiah), Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, and Sirach. The Anglican canon acknowledged those books, adding 1 & 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, yet stipulating that all these books were to be included in the lectionaries for their godly content and not for doctrinal foundation. The Eastern Orthodox canon typically adds 3 Maccabees and Psalm 151. Also floating around out there is 4 Maccabees and a handful of other books usually termed Pseudepigrapha because they are given the names of authors who didn’t write them (such as the Odes of Solomon, or the book of Enoch).
During the Reformation, the Roman Church adopted the term deuterocanon, which means second or secondary canon, acknowledging both the canonicity of these books and the reality that they were later additions to the textual tradition. Protestants typically stuck with the term apocrypha, which often came to take a more negative connotation. Some Anglicans with a more balanced perspective between those two views came up with the name ecclesiastical books, which I find to be much more appropriate and helpful.
4. The New Testament Homologoumena
In the Early Church, and on rare occasions throughout the Medieval period, there was occasional disagreement about how to identify the New Testament. The term homologoumena refers to the books that are the same in everyone’s accounting of the New Testament. These books are Matthew through Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. Very little disagreement was raised concerning the canonicity of these books, and they were therefore considered the basis of the Church’s teachings on Jesus and the Apostolic tradition.
5. New Testament Antilegomena
Other New Testament books were considered antilegomena, or disputed. These include Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Revelation. It took longer for these books to be accepted by the church as a whole. Even at the end of the Medieval period, it was still possible for someone like Martin Luther to question the position of James in the New Testament. To this day, the East Orthodox Church doesn’t use the book of Revelation in its lectionaries, preferring instead to use its hymnic portions in song, much like how some Protestants only use the Apocrypha in liturgical bits but not as straight-up Scripture readings.
The primary distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena for us today is the clarity of doctrine. Especially the books of James, Hebrews, and Revelation can very easily be used (well, abused) to teach doctrines that do not accord with the rest of the New Testament such as justification by works, repentance as a one-shot-deal, and the rapture. It is general good practice, to this day, for interpreters to deal with these books with the clearer books of the New Testament setting the doctrinal baseline.
6. Post-Apostolic Writings
Some of the early lists of New Testament books included writings that were eventually not admitted into the canon. The major candidates for inclusion that didn’t make it were two epistles (1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas), the Didache (teaching of the twelve), and a series of visions of The Shepherd by Hermas of Rome. Clement was ruled to be too late – a member of the second generation of Christians rather than the first, even though he knew (and was probably taught and ordained by) some of the Apostles. Barnabas and Hermas, too, were of the second generation of Christians, and their writings were more visionary and subjective than what was ultimately considered appropriate for the canon. The Didache, though attributed to the twelve apostles and theoretically old enough for that story to be true, was only of great influence in Palestine, and reflected Palestinian Christian tradition more specifically, rather than holding catholic or global significance.
There was also an epistle to the Laodiceans floating around, purported to be that of St. Paul, referred to at the end of Colossians. This epistle, however, is generally considered to be a hoax, a mashup of Pauline writings into a largely unoriginal composite – so even if it’s authentic it neither contributes anything new to the Bible nor enjoys catholic (global) acceptance as canonical. It did pop up in Bibles and canonical lists here and there throughout the Medieval period, nevertheless.
Working with these layers
It may still be a mistake to conclude, after all this, that some parts of the Bible are “more canonical” than others. But what should be acknowledged is that the different parts of the Christian Bible enjoy different layers of purpose and levels of usefulness. The Torah’s foundational position in the Old Testament establish them of a ‘higher’ rank or status than other books therein. The difficulties of James, Hebrews, and Revelation often give them a ‘lower’ position compared to other New Testament writings. The Anglican reading of the Ecclesiastical Books give them a place of secondary importance where their teaching authority is limited to life and morals and not theological doctrine as such.
Understanding these layers of interplay between the different parts of the Bible can be immensely helpful for us as we read and study this sacred book. Sometimes the black and white “in or out” approach to biblical canon is helpful, but it can do us and our interpretation thereof a disservice. Not all parts of the Bible have the same purpose and function, and if we ignore how some parts relate or rely on other parts then we’re going to misinterpret things and create confusion.