Reasons to Believe

How We Got the Bible, Part 2

Last week RTB editor Maureen Moser and I began a discussion of the biblical canon, including the doctrine of inspiration and the criteria for recognizing canon, particularly for the New Testament. But as we noted, the branches of Christendom view aspects of Scripture in different ways. This week we’ll look at the Old Testament and apocryphal literature.

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So, while the New Testament received challenges from the Gnostics, it seems the Old Testament faces a lot of debate within the church. Why do Catholics and Eastern Orthodox accept the Apocrypha, but Protestants don’t?

Yes, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have a handful of Old Testament books that are not in the Protestant Old Testament. These apocryphal works include books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Esdras, and some additions to other canonical books.

However, the Protestants reject the Apocrypha. They point out that Jesus doesn’t quote from them and some of them teach doctrine that seems inconsistent with the broad scope of biblical teaching. For example, 2 Maccabees says it’s a helpful and wholesome thing to pray for the dead. Teachings like that trouble Protestants. What’s interesting is that, to my knowledge, the Catholic Church itself has said that the Apocrypha constitute a secondary canon (deuterocanonical).

What criteria do Protestants use for determining the Old Testament canon?

It would be something similar to what we outlined for the New Testament last week. We want to connect these books to authentic biblical authors, which for the Old Testament would be the prophets. We want to know if these books support overall biblical teaching. And we want to know if these are books that the Jews recognized early on.

Obviously, Jewish people wrote the Old Testament. How did they shape the canon?

Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. These books are inspired and they reflect a historical narrative. Orthodox Jews usually consider the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) the most important part of the Old Testament.

The Jews affirmed their present canon in the first century around AD 90 at the Council of Jamnia. They divide their canon (what we call the Old Testament) into three sections: the Torah (first five books), the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), and the wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.).

What category would history books, such as 1 and 2 Kings or 1 and 2 Chronicles, fall under?

I think those books would fall under the prophets. In Hebrew the Old Testament has 24 books; in the Protestant canon it has 39. It’s the same content divided out differently. For example, the Jews consider 1 and 2 Chronicles one book and they collect the minor prophets, which constitute 12 books for Protestants, into one book as well.

So, even if the history books aren’t “prophetic” a prophet likely authored them?

Exactly. It’s important to remember that while prophets can be people who make predictions, they can also be every bit as much, if not more so, people who make proclamations. I think it’s in that secondary sense that a lot of what Christians call history books would fall under the prophet category.

How do the Jews view the Apocrypha?

The Jews agree with the Protestants and say the apocryphal books are not a part of their canon. At times Jews will agree more with Protestants than they will with Catholics and vice versa.

What’s the difficulty with the apocryphal books associated with the New Testament?

Those books include the Gnostic gospels. They were written a few centuries after the apostolic era and teach that Jesus did not have a physical body. So, these books fail the criteria laid down for recognizing inspired scripture.

Again, it’s helpful to think of canonicity as an implication of the basic view of inspiration. Martin Luther liked to say that when you hear Scripture, you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s book even while it preserves the voices, vocabularies, and writing styles of its various authors.

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Next week we’ll conclude with a look at challenges to the canon from outside the church and ponder how the relationship between Scripture and church tradition impacts Christian apologetics.

Subjects: Bible Difficulties