How many books are in the Bible? Catholics answer the question differently than do Christians whose roots lie in the Protestant Reformation. The history behind this simple question is surprisingly complex, revolving around the inclusion in the canon of Scripture of seven books (Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and parts of Esther and Daniel). The beginnings of the story can be traced to the pre-Christian era, to the nature of ancient Jewish worship and the alterations forced upon it by the Babylonian exile, as God prepared for that perfect moment which he chose to enter into history through the Incarnation and establish his living Body, the Church. It is a history that Martin Luther and his successors never really understood but which is pivotal to understanding why the question still separates Christians.
While the Ark of the Covenant resided in the Temple, Judaic worship centered around two things: ritual Temple sacrifice and the Torah, interpreted by the priests and applied to daily life. The rise of the Persian Empire and its official language, Aramaic, along with the Babylonian Exile and the resulting D.aspora, changed things. The Exile took the Jews away from the Temple, temporarily halting ritual sacrifice, while Persian Aramaic supplanted Hebrew. The synagogue system of studying the Torah developed during the Exile, as the teachers of Israel struggled to preserve the nation's divine heritage. By 530 B.C., when a remnant of the now Aramaic-speaking Jews returned from exile, Hebrew was understood chiefly by the rabbis, not by the Jewish people-Ezra needed translators by his side as he read the Hebrew Scripture aloud to them (cf. Neh. 8:2-8, 13:24). As Hebrew fell out of use, Palestinian Jews developed Aramaic targums, translation-commentaries of sacred Hebrew books. Alexander the Great's conquest of the entire Near East about 334 B.C. added a third language, soon to be used universally in trade, to the mix: Greek. Jews in synagogues throughout the Near East began using Greek translations of Hebrew Scripture, a set of translations commonly called the "Septuagint," which means "the seventy," named for the seventy scholars who supposedly translated the sacred Hebrew books into Greek in Alexandria.
This set the stage for difficulty. Apart from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the teachers of Israel had never made clear distinctions about which books were or were not considered holy. By 130 B.C., Sirach attests to a tripartite structure in Hebrew Scripture-Law, Prophets, and the Writings-but only the Law and Prophets had a fixed list of books; the content of the Writings was uncertain. The Septuagint, on the other hand, arranged books not by content but by style: narrative, poetical, and prophetic. While Moses and the prophets wrote in Hebrew, post-exilic Jews preferred to write in Greek, thus Greek collections soon had books that the Hebrew lists never saw. Because the Septuagint didn't have a standard list or ordering of books, the included books varied according to collection, with no clear distinction made between earlier and later works. By the Incarnation, synagogues throughout the Near East used versions of the Septuagint that included Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), 1-3 Maccabees, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, the Book of Jubilees, 1 Esdras, and additions to Esther and Daniel.
This situation was not considered a serious problem since Jewish religious instruction relied on oral tradition. Even the Torah was read according to oral tradition. The Torah was written as one long word without spaces, punctuation, or vowels-it was literally the word of God. Rabbinical students learned how to read the text by listening to their elders read it over and over again. Rabbis disliked targums because they encouraged private interpretation of Scripture and undermined divinely-authorized oral teaching authority (cf. Matt. 23:2-3: Christ commands the people to respect their teaching authority, but not their lived example). Oral interpretive tradition was the rule of faith for the Jews.
Jesus accepted this arrangement. He spoke Aramaic. He wrote nothing and did not instruct his disciples to write. He commanded them only to preach orally, in the ancient Judaic teaching tradition. He used the Greek Septuagint to teach. Of approximately 350 references made to the Old Testament by the New Testament writers, over 300 refer to the Septuagint. For example, Jesus, when discussing "human traditions" (Mark 7:6-8), quotes a version of Isaiah 29:13 found only in the Septuagint.
By A.D. 70 Jerusalem and the Temple were razed by the Romans, the Levitical priesthood was destroyed and the Jewish faith was hemorrhaging followers to the rapidly spreading belief that Jewish prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus. Because this belief spread most rapidly among the Jews of the Diaspora and the Gentiles of the eastern Mediterranean, the language of trade, koine Greek, and the Greek Septuagint was the common denominator between all the communities.
Jewish Christian oral teaching competed successfully against traditional Jewish oral teaching, and it used Jewish Scripture to do it. This sparked two movements within non-Christian Judaism. First, Jewish scholars began debating whether or not the Christians' "Greek Scripture" was really Scripture. Second, around the year 200 , the rabbis began writing down Jewish religious and civil law and their commentaries on it, creating what would become the Talmud six centuries later. These Jews ultimately refused the deuterocanonical Old Testament books, probably because of theology (for example, 1 and 2 Maccabees teach the resurrection of the dead, while Wisdom chapters 1-5 contains an unsettlingly prophetic description of Christ's passion and death) and because they were written in Greek, not Hebrew.
Meanwhile, Christians had their own problems. While Jewish brethren argued that only Hebrew writings were inspired, Gentile and Jewish Christians, following the tradition of Sirach and the Maccabean authors, were writing numerous Aramaic and Greek works about God's last and greatest intervention in the life of Israel. Lives of Christ and manuals of Christian practice and belief proliferated. Unfortunately, no one was certain which of those writings should be considered sacred. Christians simply couldn't be sure of the sacredness of any of the books in the Jewish tradition after Malachi-even the Song of Songs was contested by some traditional rabbinical authorities. Although Jude 9 alludes to the Assumption of Moses, that book was not in the Hebrew canon or in the Septuagint and is not now considered part of sacred Scripture -- yet some thought it should be part of the Bible. Such arguments led early Christians to distinguish between thehomologoumenoi ("accepted" books) and the antilegomenoi ("contested" books), sometimes also called the amphiballomenoi ("contradicted" books).
While Old Testament arguments revolved around traditional Jewish acceptance of the books as sacred, New Testament difficulties related mostly to authorship. If the book was not clearly apostolic in origin, the Church tended to dispute or reject it. For instance, the Western Church was not convinced Hebrews was written by the apostle Paul, while the Eastern Church was. Meanwhile, the Eastern Church doubted the apostle John wrote Revelation, while the Western Church knew he had. Some New Testament works deemed apocryphal were and are recognized as essentially good-to-excellent theological works -- the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas -- but uncertain authorship prevented their acceptance as inspired. Other apocryphal books were not only of uncertain or flagrantly false authorship, but also had error mixed in with otherwise acceptable theology -- the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Pontius Pilate. Many orthodox Christians fought to include theologically sound works such as the Didache in the canon of the New Testament, arguing for their apostolic origin.
About 140 a man named Marcion exploited this problem to his own benefit. He rejected all Scripture, Old and New Testament, except for portions of the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles. He asserted that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New, that Christianity did not fulfill Judaism but replaced it, and that all creation was evil. Consequently, Jesus Christ, being God, could not really be a man. Denying some portion of accepted canonical Scripture soon became a common facet of heresy. Such heresy forced the Church to accelerate its work in identifying Scripture.
The Scorecard: In 382 Pope Damasus convoked a synod which produced the Roman Code. The Roman Code identified a list of scriptural books identical to the Council of Trent's formally defined canon. In 393 the Council of Hippo reiterated the list, as did the First Council of Carthage four years later. In 405 Pope Innocent I wrote a letter to Exsuperius, the bishop of Toulouse, listing the same books as Scripture. The list was given again in 419 at the Second Council of Carthage.
After roughly three centuries of prayer and discussion, the Church essentially solved the problem during a forty-year burst of activity. In the Old Testament, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, parts of Esther (chapters 11-16), and parts of Daniel (3:24-90 and 13, 14) were recognized as inspired. In the New Testament, the Church accepted Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. Each of the decrees and councils provided the same list of Scripture. No council or papal decree gave a different list. While Athanasius and Jerome had some sympathy toward the Jewish unwillingness to accept the Old Testament deuterocanonical books, both bowed to the authority of the Church, accepting her definitions of Scripture. By 450 today's list of inspired books was almost universally accepted in the Western Church. Mark 16:9-20, Luke 22:43-44, and John 5:4, 8:1-11, while not in the earliest manuscripts, eventually would be accepted. Five hundred years later, Jewish scholars completed codification of their sacred writings with the production of the "Masoretic" text of Scripture. Between 800 and 925, the Jewish family Masorete added punctuation, vowels, and spacing to the Hebrew Scripture. The Masoretic version functionally replaced the original Hebrew text.
By the sixteenth century, the Latin words "protocanonical" (meaning "first canon") and "deuterocanonical" (meaning "second canon") replaced the Greek terms for "accepted" and "contested," while the Greek term "apocrypha" was kept to describe both the Septuagint books rejected by the Church and all other non-Septuagint ancient texts. "Apocrypha" means "hidden," shorthand for "these books are to be hidden from all but the wise," since the books have tended to be misunderstood by those not well-formed in the mysteries of faith.
Around the same time, the canonical status of the Christian Old Testament again was called into question, this time by Elias Levita, a Jewish contemporary of Luther. He theorized that Ezra presided over "the men of the Great Synagogue" and closed the canon in the fifth century B.C. His "proof" was Nehemiah 8 and 9, the great assembly of the people to whom Ezra publicly read the Law after the return from Exile. Though no historical evidence of a "Great Synagogue" exists, Luther popularized Levita's idea since it supported his bid to discard the Old Testament deuterocanonical books and thereby strengthened his dubious theology. Shortly after the Reformation began, Protestants began jeering the deuterocanonical books as "apocrypha" in order to disparage the inspired quality of that part of Scripture. The Rationalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries followed suit, since it undermined the authority of the Church.
Today, opponents present two classes of arguments against the books. These center around both the content of the books in their relationship to the rest of Scripture and the determination of who has proper authority to recognize or reject books as inspired.
Five arguments are directed against the contents of the books themselves: God forbids sorcery, yet Tobit uses sympathetic magic to drive away a demon and heal blindness. Scripture is inerrant, yet Judith and Tobit have erroneous geography and history. Similarly, Sirach and 2 Maccabees implicitly deny they are inspired Scripture, since both contain prefaces in which the authors apologize for any possible errors. God forbids lying, yet Judith and the angel Raphael provide sinful examples by giving false information (Tob. 5:5, 5:13, Jud. 9:10, 13). Lastly, none of the books are quoted in the New Testament.
Far from presenting an exercise in magic, Tobit presents the ancient Christological symbol of the fish (who is, in Tobit 6:3, literally a catcher of men) salted and roasted on coals (as Christ was scourged and roasted in the sun on the cross) in order to destroy the power of a murderous demon and drive him away from a virginal bride. The fish is used to heal a blind man (cf. John 9) by making things like scales fall from his eyes (cf. Acts 10:18).
Apparent errors are not restricted to Tobit and Judith. The book of Daniel says the Medes were a world power in the era between the neo-Babylonians and the Persians (cf. Dan. 2:31-45, 7:1-7), but no historical evidence confirms it. Belshazzar was never titled a king, despite Daniel's assertions otherwise, and he was the son of Nabonidus (556-539 B.C), not of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) (cf 5:1-30, 7:1-7, 17, 8:1-27). Daniel records a Darius the Mede. Darius I was really king of Persia (522-486 B.C).
Similarly, other books show dubious statements by the inspired authors. 1 Corinthians 1:15, for example, shows Paul forgetting whom he baptized, while 1 Corinthians 7:12 and 1 Corinthians 7:40 are explicitly asserted to be Paul's personal opinion, not God's word. Likewise, many books of Scripture highlight morally dubious acts. The Hebrew midwives lie to Pharaoh (Ex. 1:19), while Judges, in addition to presenting a situation similar to Judith (Judg. 4:17-22), also shows a man who offers his own daughter as a holocaust (Judg. 11:29-40) and another who gives his wife to a crowd to be raped to death in place of himself (Judg. 19:22-30), while Genesis shows Jacob being rewarded for stealing Esau's birthright (Gen. 25 and 27).
Finally, the lack of quotations applies equally well to Esther, Nehemiah, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Ruth -- none of which is quoted in the New Testament -- yet Enoch and the Assumption of Moses -- two apocryphal books -- are referred to in the epistle of Jude. If New Testament quotations demonstrate Old Testament canonicity, consistency demands that opponents discard the former books while adding the latter two to the canon of the Old Testament. The earliest Christians would have been amazed at this judgment: while the catacombs have frescoes depicting scenes from the deuterocanonical books-Judith with the head of Holofernes, Tobias with Raphael, Judas Maccabeus, the mother of Maccabees with her seven martyred sons, Daniel in the lion's den, and the three boys in the fiery furnace-there are no such frescoes from any apocryphal books. Besides, the New Testament does allude to the books: Matthew 22:25-26 echoes Tobit 7:11, 1 Peter 1:6-7 is reminiscent of Wisdom 3:5-6, while Hebrews 1:3 recalls Wisdom 7:26-27. The same lessons are taught in 1 Corinthians 10:9-10 and Judith 8:24-25, and valorous martyrs are provided in both Hebrews 11 and 2 Maccabees 6 and 7.
But what of the second general objection? Who has proper authority to recognize the books of Scripture, each individual Christian or ecumenical councils headed by the pope? Opponents assert that it cannot be the latter, since Trent was the first ecumenical council to use the word "canon" in its definition of inspired books. Such a late definition means Christians were left without a clearly-defined word of God for well over a millennium-a preposterous idea. Trent, they say, arbitrarily added the Old Testament deuterocanonical books to Scripture to protect flawed Catholic theology. This argument ignores history. The canon was ratified in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The Second Council of Nicaea (787) formally ratified the African Code, which contained what Trent would name "canonical," while the Council of Florence (1441) defined a list of inspired books identical to both. Although only Trent used the words "canon" and "canonical," its list was identical with every list the Church had provided since the late 300s. Trent's Sacrosancta decree (April 8, 1546), the first formal canonical definition of Old and New Testament Scripture, was the third formal affirmation of their inspiration in ecumenical council and at least the eighth affirmation overall.
In fact, since 382 only one council or pope had appeared to deny the canonicity of an Old Testament deuterocanonical book. Gregory the Great, writing in his Morals on the book of Job around 600, said of 1 Maccabees, "We are not acting irregularly, if from the books, though not canonical, yet brought out for the edification of the Church, we bring forward testimony. Thus, Eleazar in the battle smote and brought down the elephant but fell under the very beast that he killed" (1 Macc 6:46). This was not a formal universal teaching to the faithful; rather, it was private theological commentary on the book of Job. Such a teaching is not a statement invoking papal authority, nor is it subject to or preserved by the charism of papal infallibility.
Further, consider the ramifications if the authority of the Body of Christ since 382 is wrong. If Trent's Sacrasancta decree incorrectly added Old Testament deuterocanonical books, how do we know it correctly defined the New Testament canon? After all, the arguments against the New Testament books are identical to those against the Old: Jewish scholars rejected New Testament writings, and Trent added them to Scripture to support flawed theology. Luther made an argument similar to this when he attacked Revelation, Hebrews, Jude, and 2 Peter, and he seriously considered "throwing Jimmy [the epistle of James] into the fire" because it contradicted his faith-alone theology. Standing in judgment of Scripture, Luther called James "an epistle full of straw," while regarding all five of these books as quasi-canonical. Interestingly, Luther did not completely discard the deuterocanonical Old Testament books he attacked, he merely relegated them to an appendix between the Old and New Testaments. For three hundred years, many Protestant translations retained this appendix because the books were recognized as useful for moral instruction. Indeed, the Protestant kings of England imposed the death penalty on anyone who omitted the deuterocanonical appendix. The books were discarded completely only as late as 1827, by the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Supposedly, Jewish authority is accepted for Old Testament definition but rejected for New because Jewish scholars who rejected Christ could know nothing about the New Testament, while they knew the Old Testament because they lived it. This falsely separates the two Testaments of Scripture. Since the New Testament lies hidden in the Old, while the Old is fulfilled in the New, the Old Testament is just as permeated with Christ as is the New. Jewish scholars who rejected Christ rejected the guidance of the Holy Spirit and thus could not properly recognize either Old or New Testament Scripture.
Luther claimed to accept the Hebrew canon only because the Jews knew better than anyone what books constituted the Old Testament. Yet Luther's sermons showed little respect for Jewish theological opinion in other areas or for Jews in general. He ignored Old Testament Midrash commentaries or targums. Though the Jews have long prayed Q'addish, an eleven-month prayer of purification for the recently deceased, he rejected purgatory, claiming his newly-defined canon had no prayers for the dead. He ignored the fact that all first-century Jews accepted the Septuagint. He ignored the fact that the non-Christian Jews upon whose opinion he relied for Old Testament canonicity rejected the entire New Testament. In short, Martin Luther pretended to rely on the authority of Jewish Scripture scholars, the same Jews upon whom he poured verbal vitriol from the pulpit, so he could subvert the authority of the Body of Christ. If the ability or authority to determine the canon of Scripture rests in the individual Christian, upon what grounds could Marcion-who claimed to be led by God in using a severely mangled canon to deny Christ's humanity-be fought? According to Matthew 18:17, the Church has final authority to settle disputes between Christians. Certainly the decision concerning what is truly God's word is within her authority