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How We Got the Bible (Part 5): Debating the Apocrypha

by Darren Johnson

Here’s the question I started to address in the last installment: Why are some Old Testaments larger or shorter than others? Is it because Martin Luther decided on a whim that he didn’t like certain books and so demoted them to “apocryphal” status? Or did the Roman Catholic Church singlehandedly add extra books to the canon to justify their dogmas?

            The truth of the matter isn’t nearly so conspiratorial. Remember that the early church inherited from Judaism a large body of religious literature in addition to the books most Jews deemed sacred. From the apostolic period forward, Christian leaders often dipped into this wider literary pool when defending the faith and edifying the faithful. But did they regard these works as having the same or comparable authority to sacred texts such as Genesis, Isaiah, or the Psalms?

            Let’s look at the evidence. The first documented effort to nail down the precise contents of the Old Testament was undertaken by Melito, a bishop of the church in Sardis (c. 170). In a letter addressed to his brother, Melito records that he traveled to the Holy Land to find out which books the church should be using. The list he received lines up closely with the judgment of the rabbis from this period, albeit with two notable exceptions. It omits Esther, a book whose status some rabbis continued to debate, and includes the Wisdom of Solomon, a work that was very influential within the early church (Eusebius, Church History, iv.26). Apart from these differences, Melito’s Old Testament canon was the same as that recognized by Protestants today.    

            Origen (c. 185 – c. 253), the most learned biblical scholar of his day, weighed in with similar results. His canon list, which he derived from contemporary Jewish sources, is identical to the 24-book canon (39 by the Protestant numbering) of the rabbis (Eusebius, Church History, vi.25). It should be noted, however, that Origen accepted the Greek versions of Daniel and Esther, both of which contained extra material not found in the Hebrew text. The Greek form of Daniel features an expanded account of the fiery furnace ordeal (Daniel 3) plus two additional chapters that depict the prophet as something of an ancient Sherlock Holmes! Esther in its Greek form contains several prayers that make explicit reference to God—something Hebrew Esther lacks. These “expanded” editions became the default versions of Daniel and Esther within the Greek-speaking church.

            Later church leaders composed similar canon lists. Athanasius (c. 367), for example, endorsed all the books in Origen’s canon except for Esther, which he categorized alongside Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Tobit, and Judith. These writings, while not among “the fountains of salvation,” had been approved by the fathers for instructing converts in matters of piety. Valuable as they were, they didn’t merit inclusion in the church’s canon. Athanasius did, however, recognize Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah as part of the Old Testament; these he appended (along with Lamentations) to the end of Jeremiah (Athanasius, Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter).

            At the risk of oversimplification, here’s how I read the evidence. While the so-called apocryphal books occupied a quasi-scriptural place in the church’s life and were widely cited by the church fathers, early on they were not afforded the same standing as the traditional 24-book canon established by the Jews. Jerome concurred. When the celebrated scholar set out to translate the Old Testament into Latin directly from the Hebrew text, he limited himself to those works recognized by the Jews. “What is outside of them,” Jerome contended, “must be placed aside among the Apocryphal writings” (Jerome, Prologus Galeatus).  (Note: “Apocrypha” comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden.”) Jerome also relegated the Greek additions to Esther to an appendix. Like Melito, Origen, and Athanasius before him, Jerome took Jewish precedent seriously when delimiting the canon of the Old Testament.

            But not everyone agreed with Jerome. His contemporary Augustine of Hippo believed that Jerome was wrong to translate directly from the Hebrew text. He maintained that any Latin translation should be based upon the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), which in his view was an inspired translation. (Coincidentally or not, Augustine didn’t know a lick of Hebrew!) The north African bishop also disagreed with Jerome’s estimation of the “apocryphal writings.” Church tradition and usage, in his view, had cemented their place among the canonical books of the Old Testament. Thus, Augustine’s Old Testament also included the following: Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a., Sirach). Also included were Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah (both appended to Jeremiah) and the additions to Daniel and Esther (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 2:8).

            So, whose canon reigned supreme: the narrower canon espoused by Jerome and his predecessors, or the expanded canon championed by Augustine? Eventually, it was the latter. Canon lists very similar to Augustine’s were adopted by north African councils at Hippo (in 393) and Carthage (in 397 and 419). What’s more, the books that Jerome deemed Apocrypha were routinely included in Greek, Latin, and other translations of the Old Testament throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, there isn’t an edition of the Christian Old Testament in existence that doesn’t include at least some these books until the 1500s!

            Still, Jerome’s view continued to have supporters, albeit mainly in academic circles. One of his most vigorous supporters was an Augustinian (!) friar and university professor named Martin Luther. His reopening of the Old Testament canon debate in the 16th century brought repercussions that are still with us. I’ll have more to say in a future article about Luther and his impact on the Bible.

            Let me say for the record that I think the early church fathers (and Luther) were right to follow Jewish precedent on the Old Testament canon. On the other hand, I regret that most Protestants today take such a dim view of the Apocrypha. Having read these works many times in my own study and devotions, I appreciate why so many within the early church cherished them. They are an invaluable witness to the period between the Testaments and contain much that is useful for our faith. Whether or not these writings are “inspired,” they are most definitely “inspiring”! So, in the words of Augustine, “Tolle lege!” Take up and read!

            Next month, we will proceed to the formation of the New Testament, which is a fascinating—and much less complicated—story to tell. Until then, shalom!            


            Darren Johnson preaches for Central Church of Christ, Cedar Rapids, Iowa  

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