Comparing Biblical Canons

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been asked to write a new book that presents an introduction to biblical apocrypha for general audiences. Over the next several months, I’ll be writing the book and gearing up for its publication. EDIT: Apocrypha for Beginners is on sale now! Check out all of the posts in this series here.

At the same time, I want to write a series of posts about the subject and what I’m thinking about while I work on the book. So here’s the first post in the series.

First up: What do I mean when I say “biblical apocrypha”? Generally, I mean works that concern biblical subjects, or have been attributed to biblical figures as authors, but were never accepted into the canonical Bible.

When I talk about apocrypha in public, I often get the same sorts of questions:

Answering these questions is not so simple. In fact, the history of Judaism and Christianity means that simple answers do a disservice to these sorts of questions.

Ultimately, these questions revolve around the biblical canon–that is, the contents of the Bible accepted by Christians. But making it even more complicated is the fact that there is no single conception of the biblical canon. Different Christians in different places, times, and cultures have accepted different books as part of the Bible.

One way to begin to grasp the complexities of this subject is to compare different forms of the Bible across different communities.

1611 KJV Original Book Names
Table of contents from the King James Version of the Bible (1611).

The most basic place to start is with the Hebrew Bible. This includes what is known as the “Tanakh,” comprised of the Pentateuch (Torah), Prophets (Nevi’im), and Writings (Ketuvim). For the most part, Christian communities adopted all of these works and labeled them the “Old Testament,” distinguished from early Christian works labeled the “New Testament.” One exception is the Book of Lamentations, not accepted by the Assyrian Church of the East (who consider it apocryphal).

Even though Christians generally accept the Hebrew Bible as their “Old Testament,” they also differ on what else should be included. For a general overview, check out the comparative table here.

To trace distinctions between biblical and apocryphal works, we can start with a set of books called “deuterocanonical” (or “intertestamental”) works. These are all early Jewish works included as additions in the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. These works include:

Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1610-12), at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Baruch
  • Sirach
  • 1-2 Maccabees
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Additions to Esther
  • Additions to Daniel

All of these works appear in Bibles considered canonical by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian Church of the East Christians. There is some complication to this, since Orthodox Tewahedo (Ethiopian) Christians do not accept 1-2 Maccabees (they include other books known as Ethiopian Maccabees).

Christians in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian Church of the East communities also accept a few other works from the same period:

  • Prayer of Manasseh
  • Psalm 151

In the medieval period, these works appeared in all sorts of manuscripts of the translation of the Bible known as the Latin Vulgate, so even Roman Catholics in that period venerated them.

Modern Protestant Christians generally do not acknowledge any of the deuterocanonical works in their bibles. Starting with new translations of the Hebrew Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these books were left out of Protestant bibles. Sometimes Protestant bibles will include these deuterocanonical works, but only in a separate section labeled “The Apocrypha,” often meant to be read only for historical reasons.

Of course, in the early Christian period, Christians also added other books to their conceptions of the Bible: the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, letters attributed to Paul, letters known as the catholic (or general) epistles, and Revelation (Apocalypse). These works form the so-called “New Testament.” For the most part, Christians agree on these books, even though there was quite a lot of debate over some of them in the first few-hundred years after Jesus’ death.

Even beyond the deuterocanonical books and the New Testament, some other works are disputed, and many more were never accepted into any Christian canon. Yet, despite their exclusion from the Bible (in its various forms), some of them had healthy afterlives and have remained influential in Christianity. All of that is more than I’ll address this post, but those apocrypha certainly offer a lot more to consider.

As all of this demonstrates, the contents of the biblical canon is a messy matter to define. The Hebrew Bible obviously remains the core, but there is a substantial amount of variation beyond that. In large part, what is in and what is out is a matter of the community and assumptions of the Christians within that community.

Assumptions are key. For many raised with one conception of the Bible as the Truth, or the only version of the Bible they ever knew, learning about other forms of the biblical canon is a shock. Depending on the sources, the issue of the biblical canon is presented as conspiracy theory or representative of religious suppression of certain books. But historical evidence says otherwise.

These different biblical canons didn’t develop because of conspiracy, or suppression, or the Ultimate Authority and Control of the Church (which is essentializing, totalizing, and historically inaccurate). Instead, different conceptions of the Bible exist because Christianity is not, and never has been, monolithic. In other words, Christianity has always been diverse. There has never been only one version of Christianity, or only one version of the Bible.

But to accept these ideas, we have to be ready to shed our biased assumptions and take a deeper look at the complexity of historical evidence.

Further Reading

Overviews of the development of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible are numerous–any good introduction to the Bible should have an account. One popular book that brings together various views is Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography (New York: Grove Press, 2007).

Many versions of the Bible include the deuterocanonical works, but I especially recommend:
Michael D. Coogan (editor), The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version, 4th edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills (editors), The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (editors), A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), online here.

For an accessible introduction to the historical background and analyses of early Jewish literature (including the deuterocanonical works), check out George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005).

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