Friday, February 12, 2016

Those Other Books: Where did the Bible come from? Part III

            First of all, I hope you are enjoying the start of this merciful season of Lent. And just as a reminder, don't forget to take the blog survey by clicking here if you haven't already. Your input is greatly appreciated.

            One of the more common questions I get asked about the Bible is Why do Catholic and Protestant Bibles differ? or Why do Catholic Bibles have more books than Protestant Bibles? The answer – and the purpose of last week's post on the Greek period of Jewish history – lies with something called the Septuagint [sep-TOO-ah-jint]. I know, it sounds all sorts of crazy fancy... and you're right. It is! So get ready to impress your friends at cocktail parties with phrases like, "Yes, well personally I don't think that will have as much impact on the Lakers' game as the Septuagint did on biblical literature." Meanwhile, your friends will cock their heads to one side and wonder why you're bringing up the Septuagint in a conversation about the NBA.

            So what is the Septuagint anyway? Simply put, it is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. If you recall from last week's post, Jews were scattered all over the Mediterranean, and, as it happens when populations move and assimilate, these Jewish communities ceased speaking their native tongue and adopted the common language of the day, Greek. Thus there became a need for translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into a language that was more accessible for study and worship. The name "Septuagint" comes from the Latin septuaginta meaning "seventy." The seventy refers to an ancient legend that there were 70 or 72 different Jewish scribes charged with the task of translating the Torah.[1] Supposedly, they were all separated from one another in the process, and despite being sequestered as they worked, they all miraculously turned up with the exact same translation of the Torah! Personally I don't buy that story, but  regardless, there were definitely Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures at least as early as the 2nd century BCE – probably even earlier – and if you recall, that century was wrought with turmoil thanks to that son of a beast, Antiochus IV.

            Much of the translating is thought to have occurred in or around Alexandria, Egypt, where a rather large population of Diaspora Jews lived. (See more in last week's post about the Diaspora). I'd imagine that some copies of these translations would have been stored in the famous Library of Alexandria back then. Unfortunately, this library suffered a series of fires and was destroyed in ancient times. If you're a nerd like me, I'm sure you'd agree that the single greatest tragedy in human history – other than any which involved the loss of human life, of course – is the destruction of the Alexandrian Library. Oy! To think of what information we might know today, had it not been for that terrible decimation of books and scrolls! After reading this post, do me a favor and hug a book.

            Thankfully, plenty of Greek copies of Jewish texts were composed and circulated in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and well into the 1st century CE (Common Era, or A.D.). Not surprisingly, later editions of the Septuagint differed from the earlier translations – kind of like today when a new edition of a college textbook comes out. The new algebra book might have only changed slightly, or maybe a new chapter or two was added, but you still have to pay through the nose for that brand new copy, dagnabit! Likewise, these later editions and manuscripts varied in content. Some manuscripts were strictly the books of the Torah. Some included the Prophets and the Writings as well as those books of the Bible which are not in the today's Jewish and Protestant canons (i.e. the Apocrypha, a.k.a. deuterocanonical books). And here is where things get kind of complicated.

            Since the list of books varied in these Greek translations, it is highly unlikely that there was ever a singular canon of scriptures – a definitive collection of sacred books – to come out of Alexandria.[2] This is probably because there wasn't such a thing as a "closed canon of Scripture," – that is, a list of authoritative books to which no more could be added or removed – until much later in history. There had not yet been a definitive agreement that these books were authoritative and those books were not.

            Some Septuagint manuscripts included books like Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, The Book of Sirach (a.k.a. The Wisdom of Ben Sira), The Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and longer versions of Daniel and Esther. These books are the seven books (plus the additions to Daniel and Esther) which the Catholic Church refers to as "detuerocanonical" (i.e. second or later canon). Most Protestants will refer to these as "Apocrypha" which simply means "hidden." Interestingly enough, there were other apocryphal books than just these seven which had also been included in the Septuagint. Some Eastern Orthodox churches consider these books authoritative as well and include them in their canons of scripture: for example, The Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, and 3 Maccabees.

            So why did these books eventually get the boot? Why don't they appear in the Jewish canon of Scripture? A few reasons. When it came to which books were authoritative in the minds of the Jewish rabbis of the 1st & 2nd century CE, two rules of thumb held sway: Older is better than newer, and Hebrew is better than Greek. If the book had some pedigree and withstood the test of time, like the Torah or the prophets, then it ought to be canonized as Scripture. The Johnny-come-latelies, like those books mentioned above, just hadn't been around as long as the others. Not only that, but they were written in Greek! The language of the Gentiles! Now granted, some were probably originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and some Hebrew and Aramaic copies of these texts have since been discovered. But they were probably more widely known in their Greek form. The Septuagint as a whole was held suspect by some Jewish leaders because, as the phrase goes, every translation is an interpretation. Did the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures corrupt the original meaning of the Hebrew? Such was their concern.

            However, what really got the rabbis' goat about these books and the Septuagint as a whole was that the new Christian movement – which, for all intents and purposes, must have seemed like one giant heresy to them – used the Greek Septuagint to justify its claims about Christ. All of the New Testament was written in Greek after all. This Greek translation of their sacred texts, which had been translated for Jews by Jews, was now tainted by these Christians (of both Jewish and Gentile origin) who referenced it.

            As for those questionable books found within the Septuagint, these were thoroughly Jewish, written by Jews and most of which (if not all) before the time of Christ. However, since they were written much later than most of the other Jewish scriptures, they reflected later theological developments. Some of these concepts resonated very much with the Christian movement – things like "innovative ideas about the afterlife (Wisdom of Solomon)... [or] the concept of heavenly reward for martyrdom (2 Maccabees)."[3] As a result, these books fell out of favor among the Jewish rabbis in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, and when the Jewish leaders did have a definitive canon of scripture, these books were not included among them. And that, my friends, is how these books became the red-headed step-children of Scripture. (For the record, I have absolutely nothing against step-children or people of red hair.)

            But these books have not always had an easy go among Christians either. Some of the leaders of the early Church (2nd – 5th centuries) felt that the Septuagint and even the later books contained within it were legit – guys like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Augustine. St. Jerome (346-420 CE), however, was like that one out of five dentists who does not endorse Trident sugar-free gum. Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin in what is known as the "Vulgate." He wasn't crazy about some of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books. Much to the surprise of his contemporaries, he preferred translating and revising from the Hebrew texts as much as he could, rather than from the Greek Septuagint. He begrudgingly translated Tobit and Judith from Aramaic sources, but he did not translate or even revise Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Sirach, or Wisdom of Solomon, as they were not in Hebrew canons. Copies of those books circulated in older Latin versions of the Bible that existed before Jerome's translation, so they found their way into the Vulgate in their old Latin form untouched by Jerome.

St. Jerome Writing, Caravaggio, 1605-1606
St. Jerome: Patron saint of biblical scholars and grumpy, old men

            So what happened to these books in the Protestant Bibles? Why did they get removed from their canon of Scripture? For one, these later books of Scripture had always had an iffy history, as evidenced by St. Jerome's indifference toward them. During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, greater emphasis was placed on Scripture – case in point, Martin Luther's famous adage, sola scriptura (Scripture alone!). And much like the ancient rabbis, the reformers felt that, when it came to the Old Testament, older was better than newer, and Hebrew was better than Greek... and definitely better than Latin. Besides, the Jewish canon of Scripture had long since omitted these later books, so, in their opinion, why differ from the original receivers of the Scriptural tradition? Thus, whenever Protestant editions of the Bible were printed, the apocryphal books were only added as an appendix, if added at all. They weren't viewed as bad, just not canonical or authoritative.

            The Eastern Orthodox Church maintained the apocryphal books including 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees, which are not in the Catholic canon. Some, like the Russian Orthodox Church or the Ethiopian Church, consider even more books to be canonical. Interestingly – and this was news to me before researching for this post – the Catholic Church accepted the books of 1 & 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh as sacred up until the Council of Trent (1546)! It was the Council of Trent, which followed on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, that more or less closed the Catholic canon of Scripture. No more books would be added, and no other books would be removed. Those seven deuterocanonical books plus the Greek additions to Daniel and Esther were there to stay.

            So in the grand scheme of things, should these books drive such a wedge between Protestants and Catholics today? Should Catholic and Orthodox Christians be criticized for including them, or should Protestants be criticized for omitting them? Personally, I don't think so either way. The Catholic Church believes the deuterocanonical books to be inspired and uses them in liturgy. I find them rather interesting, especially Tobit – that book can be laugh-out-loud funny at times – and ultimately, I believe they have sacred value. Is reading them or not reading them essential for salvation? Nah, I don't believe so. I do believe, however, that as we nurture our relationship with God, we benefit well from reading/hearing the Word of the God in Scripture, especially the Gospels. If you believe that these later books were inspired by the Holy Spirit, great! If not, well, there are 66 other books of the Bible for you to enjoy and be nourished from.

            Since this post had so much to do with the Apocrypha/deuterocanonical books, my scriptural recommendations for this week come from some wisdom literature of the 2nd century BCE, the Book of Sirach. An excellent passage on honoring your parents can be found in Sirach 3:1-16. Or for a great passage on mercy toward the poor, see 3:30-4:10. And lastly, I recommend the passage on true friendship in 6:5-17.

            As you read from this ancient Jewish sage, ask yourself: What do I find challenging in these passages? What do I really like about them? How have they made me rethink about my attitudes toward my parents, or those in need, or about what constitutes a true friend? What is God saying to me through these words? What Truth do I hear?

            If you don't own a Bible that includes Sirach, no worries. I always link the chapter and verses to, so you can click on those and read the passages on-line. Finally, as is routine for me to say, I encourage comments and questions via the comment box below, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail. So until next time...

Peace and all good [4]

Also, don't forget about the survey.

[1] Jennifer M. Dines, The Septuagint, (New York: T&T Clark LTD, 2004), 1.
[2] Ibid, 12.
[3] Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 348.

[4] This post would not have been possible without these other sources.

Collins, John J. “Apocrypha.” The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Edited by Richard P. McBrien. San Francisco: Harper, 1995.

Hartman, L. F., B. F. Peebles, and M. Stevenson. “Vulgate.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Edited by Berard L. Marthaler. 15 vols. New York: Gale, 2003.

Schiffman, Lawrence H. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1998.  

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