A Muslim, a couple of Evangelicals, a Progressive Christian, and an Orthodox Christian walk into a cafe to talk about Christianity. The Muslim points to the Protestants and says, “Why do you claim to be Bible-based when Martin Luther deleted books from the Bible? Even the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox have those books.” His question is hotly debated for some time.
But here is the answer I provided him about the Old Testament books that seemed to have disappeared somewhere between the 1500’s and the early 1900’s:
1) Martin Luther did not delete those books of the Bible. Even he didn’t have the courage to remove them. He simply put them at the end of the Old Testament (OT) and said they were of lesser importance, calling them the Apocrypha. Due to cutting costs on printing, those books were eventually removed. If you have a Bible printed before the 1900’s (which I do), it probably has those books in them. The complete removal of them, I think, is actually a fairly modern phenomenon.
2) Most of the early Christians outside of Palestine used a Greek copy of the Jewish scriptures called the Septuagint. At the time of Christ, there were actually more Jews living outside of Palestine (called the diaspora) than those that dwelt within. Not very many ancient Jews actually knew Hebrew, so a Greek copy of the scriptures was made a couple hundred years before Christ’s time. Their scriptural canon was not completely closed during that period. The Greek Septuagint survived and thrived among the Christians and is still readily accessible today.
3) Martin Luther declared “sola scriptura” which means a faith based only on scripture. He felt that the OT should be translated directly from Hebrew rather than making a translation of a translation, which was an honorable endeavor.
4) The problem: the oldest Hebrew manuscripts he had access to were from the Massorites. In the 10th century, the Massorites created their own way of writing Hebrew with vowels in addition to coming up with a final canon of scripture that did not include several books that were in the Greek Septuagint. Luther was unable to find the additional books of the OT, and therefore felt they were of lesser importance since the modern Jews did not use them.
5) My conclusion: the Apocrypha was formed due to an honest misunderstanding by Martin Luther and later reformers regarding how and when the Jewish canon of scriptures was formed. The church fathers, and even the NT writers, quote Jewish scripture outside of the Protestant OT. Much of the short book of Jude, for example, comes from the apocalyptic Book of Enoch.
A couple of thoughts regarding the missing OT books:
1. I’m not sure it is necessarily a bad thing. Many Protestants are sola scriptura, meaning that they rely upon the Bible only, and whatever interpretation/meaning they pull from it is often both literal and absolute to them. There is very little consideration for how the scriptures have been understood over the past two thousand years. With that being said, I would hate to see books such as Maccabees used for justifying a war-mongering attitude, or the book of Tobit used for the formulation of “magical” potions for healing.
2. I used to think it was extremely hypocritical to cry out sola scriptura and then pick and choose which books make up one’s acceptable “Bible”. But then I realized that it is actually logically consistent to do so. The canon of scripture is 100% tradition. Aside from a table of contents that was added to the Bible a few hundred years ago, no single book of the Bible lists which books are acceptable nor does it give criterion for determining an acceptable biblical canon. Those who cling to the full biblical canon do so wisely, but they unwittingly are appealing to tradition.
So, that’s it. I’m not going to tie this into Orthodoxy other than to say that I believe that the wisdom from tradition enables us to better interpret the Bible. The main purpose of this post though was simply to discuss how several books of the Bible got dropped over the past few hundred years.
Update from 9/30/2014
I have learned a bit since writing this post and have found that the Old Testament scriptural canon is not quite so cut and dry. There are actually varying opinions on it in Orthodoxy. The best summary may be this: all of the books included in the Jewish canon of scripture are accepted 100%. The role of the books deemed as “apocrypha” or deuterocanonical varies a bit. Opinions usually fall into one of three areas:
- Many fathers consider them at worst to be beneficial or even required reading. They’re not scripture, but many parts of them were inspired by God and written by godly men.
- Others have deemed them to be scripture, but with a bit less authority (no dogma can be created from them, but there are still scriptural).
- They are scripture just like all the other books.
I have heard all three arguments (the first two from highly respected catechism books) and do not wish to make a case for any one in particular.