Canons of the Hebrew Bible
As children, many of us Protestant Christians struggled in Sunday School class or in Vacation Bible School to remember all the books of the Bible in order. We even sang songs to help us remember whether Proverbs came before or after Psalms or where Hebrews was located. It never occurred to us that there might be more than one way to arrange the books of the Bible, or even that there might be more books in some Christian’s Bibles than we had in ours! It was just, well, the Bible.
As accustomed as many of us are to seeing the books of the Bible in a certain arrangement, it is easy to forget that such arrangement is the product of a certain religious tradition, and that other religious traditions might have other ways of seeing the biblical books. For some, their own particular arrangement or selection of books to include is just the truth of the matter, and they will defend their own tradition’s perspective. Others see the authority of Scripture as partly a function of use within the community of Faith over the centuries, and therefore place more emphasis on the message of Scripture rather than the particular books.
In any case, the issue here is the nature of the canon, the authoritative collection of books that we generally call Scripture. The word canon comes from a Greek word that means "standard" or "measurement." It simply refers to the list of writings that are considered authoritative within a religious group.
There was no "official" canon for either Judaism or Christianity until tensions between the two traditions forced official lists to be made. The Jewish canon is usually associated with the Council of Jamnia around AD 90, while the Christian canon was not defined until the fourth century and could still be debated in both Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism as late as the 16th century.
Generally, for the Old Testament books the Christian tradition simply accepted the Jewish collection of books that were considered authoritative by their use in the community. However, since the Jewish canon was not officially set, some books were in use within Judaism that had not yet reached the status of being authoritative. That fact allowed different branches of the Christian church to take slightly different views of some of these books, primarily those that dated to the intertestamental period of the first three centuries BC. For example, some writings were accepted in the Western Church that were not as readily accepted in the Eastern churches (see further below).
The Christian churches tended to follow the arrangement of Old Testament books within the third century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint. These were basically arranged topically, with the so-called "law" books first, followed by historical books, and ending with the prophetic collection. This arrangement fit well with the categorical thinking influenced by Greek philosophy, and also fit theologically with the role of prophets as understood in the early Church. Ending the Old Testament canon with the prophets, understood as predictors of the future, set the backdrop for the New Testament writings.
However, the Jewish tradition chose a more theological organization for the Old Testament canon. There is debate as to whether this was the retention of an older arrangement or was a deliberate attempt to distance itself from the Christian canon. In any case, the arrangement reflected the relative status of the three major divisions of the Hebrew canon. The Torah was the primary foundation of the community. The Prophets both Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Book of the Twelve), were the practical outworking of those foundational tenets. The Writings were the reflective and liturgical dimensions of the tradition. This difference in approaches to the canon explains the different order of books between the Jewish and Christian versions of the Hebrew Bible.
In the Jewish canon, the books of The Torah have different names than in the Christian canons, taken from the first Hebrew words of the book: Berishit ("in beginning"), Shemot ("names"), Vayikra ("and he called"), Bemidbar ("in the wilderness"), and Debarim ("words"). The Christian names of the books are from the titles in the second century Greek translation, the Septuagint.
During the 200 years before the birth of Jesus and into the first centuries of the Christian era, in both Judaism and Christianity there were a great number of writings circulating within the various communities in addition to what we think of as the biblical books. Generally in Judaism, in spite of some other writings appearing in the third century BC Greek translation (Septuagint) only the books that had gained authoritative status prior to the third century BC were accepted as part of the Jewish canon. This left out most of the apocalyptic works that flourished from 200 BC to the first century AD. An exception to this may be the Book of Daniel, which some scholars date to around 165 BC, a product of the Maccabean Wars.
However since there was as yet no official New Testament canon, the early Christian churches were more open to these newer writings. Many were widely circulated and read in churches throughout both western and eastern areas of the Church. Over time, various Christian communities and traditions came to acknowledge some of these as authoritative.
Many of these writings were included in the lists of authoritative books in various places in both Eastern and Western churches as early as the fourth and fifth centuries. Yet they were not officially recognized by Roman Catholics until the 15th century (Council of Florence, 1431-1449) nor by Eastern Orthodoxy until the 17th century (Council of Jerusalem, 1672). These authoritative books that are not a part of the Hebrew Old Testament are sometimes referred to as Deuterocanonical or a "second canon." This distinguishes them from the books that are shared by both Catholic/Eastern and Protestant traditions, sometimes referred to as Protocanonical Books ("first canon").
There were also other mostly Christian writings, although considered helpful in some way, that were not considered authoritative for doctrine. These "helpful" but not authoritative books are often referred to as the Apocrypha. However, since this term is used in various ways in different church traditions it is somewhat ambiguous.
Other writings, many of which claimed authority by linking to some prominent figure of the past, such as The Gospel of Thomas, are called Pseudepigrapha by Protestants ("false writings," referring to the inauthentic connection to some authority figure). However, these books are also called the Apocrypha by Catholics ("hidden things"). The Pseudepigrapha were never accepted as authoritative by the larger Church. However, the New Testament Book of Jude references both The Assumption of Moses (Jude 9) and The Book of Enoch (Jude 14-15). Some scholars argue that influences from these and other pseudepigraphic writings can be discerned in both New Testament Gospels and Epistles.
During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, some of the Reformers rejected these Deuterocanonical books, both on historical and theological grounds. They accepted only those Old Testament books that were included in the Hebrew Bible, so the Deuterocanonical books are not generally included in the Protestant canon. However, in some Protestant traditions, such as Anglicans, the Deuterocanonical books are still included and are used in the cycle of lectionary readings for worship.
Some Protestants, following Martin Luther, have tended to refer to the Deuterocanonical books as the Apocrypha. In some circles, this took on strongly pejorative connotations implying "suspect" or "of questionable origin." However, in many cases Apocrypha was simply a designation for the Deuterocanonical books, and the terms were used interchangeably. These "apocryphal" books were included with the 1611 Authorized Version (King James Version) yet were gradually eliminated from most Protestant Bibles beginning around the middle of the 17th century.
Several New Testament books were challenged by some of the Reformers, such as Hebrews and the book of James, but they were eventually fully accepted. The New Testament canon is virtually identical in all branches of Christianity.
These differences in the Old Testament canon between Christian traditions should not obscure the fact that the canon of the Old Testament is very similar for both Christians and Jews, as well as for different groups within Christianity. It is helpful to understand the differences and the reasons for them. But there probably should be more attention paid to the similarities, and the implications that has for understanding the Bible as Scripture for the Church.
Deuterocanonical books are in italics
*There are several branches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition that have minor differences in their canons of Scripture.
1 In the Greek tradition (the Septuagint and some modern traditions that follow the Eastern church tradition), 1 and 2 Samuel are combined with the books of Kings, known as 1-4 Kings or 1-4 Kingdoms. In most Protestant canons of the Western Church, the books are known as 1-2 Samuel (1-2 Kings) and 1-2 Kings (3-4 Kings).
2 1 Esdras in the Eastern canon is a Greek version of the book of Ezra that contains 99 additional verses not included in the Hebrew version. It is accepted as canonical by the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
3. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally combined into a single book. The combined book, Ezra-Nehemiah, was sometimes referred to as Esdras (Heb: Ezra, Gk: Esdras) but called 1 Esdras in the early Greek translations to distinguish it from another book from the same period (containing 2 Chron 35-36, Neh 7:38-8:12, plus other material not found in the Old Testament) that was also known as Esdras. While this second book was sometimes also called 1 Esdras it later came to be known as 2 Esdras. Still a third pseudepigraphic book of apocalyptic visions entitled Esdras was circulated a little later and was also know as 2 Esdras. After Ezra-Nehemiah was split into two books, Ezra was known as 1 Esdras, Nehemiah as 2 Esdras, the expanded OT version book as 3 Esdras, and the apocalyptic book as 4 Esdras. In the Eastern canon, Ezra and Nehemiah are still combined as one book called 2 Esdras.
4. The Book of Esther in the Catholic and Eastern canons adds 103 verses that are not in the Hebrew version or the Protestant canon.
5. The Book of the Twelve contains the remaining 12 prophetic books: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. These are sometimes called the Minor Prophets in Christian tradition due to their shorter length, while the longer prophetic books are called the Major Prophets.
6. The Book of Odes is a collection of fifteen songs or prayers from both the Old Testament (for example, First Ode of Moses, Ex 15:1-19; Prayer of Habakkuk, Hab 3:2-19), and the New Testament (Magnificat, Lk 1:46-55; Nunc Dimittis, Lk 2:29-32). It also contains material from various Deuterocanonical writings (Prayer of Azariah, Deuterocanonical Daniel 3:26-45; Song of the Three Hebrew Youths, Deuterocanonical Daniel 3:52-88), as well as Canticle of the Early Morning, composed from various passages in both Testaments. While it appears in some manuscripts it is not considered canonical by Orthodox traditions. It is usually published as an appendix to the Psalter.
7. Song of Songs is also known as Song of Solomon.
8. Also known as the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira.
9. In the Roman Catholic canon, Baruch includes The Letter of Jeremiah; in the Eastern Orthodox canon The Letter of Jeremiah is a separate book. Neither are present in the Jewish or Protestant canons.
10. Catholic and Eastern canons include Deuterocanonical material in Daniel that is not present in the Jewish or Protestant canons: The Prayer of Azariah, Song of the Three Hebrew Youths, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.