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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Formation of the Old Testament

The canon of the Old Testament was not fixed by a decision of some authoritative body. In the New Testament period, we do hear dimly from a few Jewish sources that some books were of doubtful status. The Song of Solomon, Ezekiel, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs were all regarded by some as anomalous or of doubtful status, though it is far from clear that there was ever any suggestion that that they were not yet canonical, or that they should be removed from the canon. Only in the case of Ecclesiasticus is there record of a decision by rabbis to exclude it from the canon. This decision was taken on the grounds that, though edifying, the book was known to have been written (in 180 BCE) long after the time at which, according to Jewish belief, scriptural books ceased to be written (roughly sometime in the fifth or fourth century BCE). (Daniel, though also written in the second century BCE, did become part of the canon, probably because its attribution to a figure of the sixth century was believed to be correct.) The books that form the Hebrew Bible were never controversial. The canon simply grew, as books were gradually accepted as Holy Scripture and revered by successive generations.

The threefold division of the Hebrew Bible reflects, to some extent, the order in which the books came to be recognized as Scripture. The Pentateuch—the Torah—must have been completed at some time during the Persian period, which lasted from 540 BCE or so until 333 BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire. A date sometime in the fifth century BCE is likely. If so, then we have an explanation for the high prestige of this part of the canon: it is the oldest part of the Bible. There may be books, or parts of books, in the Prophets and Writings that are older, taken individually. For example, the books of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah probably include genuine words of those prophets who lived in the eighth century BCE. But as a collection the Torah is older than the Prophets and the Writings.

Possibly the Prophets formed next, with the Writings put together last of all, some time not long before the period when the New Testament was written. This would help to explain why the last books to be written appear, on the whole, in the Writings: Daniel, for example, and probably also Ruth and Esther. By the time these books were written, the Torah already existed as a finished whole. Daniel, in fact, even refers to the book of Jeremiah (see Dan 9.1 ), which indicates that the book of Jeremiah already existed, and possibly that the collection of the Prophets did as well.

Still, there is one piece of evidence that makes it less certain that Prophets and Writings represent successive stages in the formation of the canon. We have already observed that some rabbinic sayings link the two collections together under the single term “Qabbalah.” Moreover, the New Testament also tends to treat them as a single whole, when it speaks of “the law and the prophets,” meaning by this not Torah and Prophets in the technical sense, but Torah and other scriptural books. In other words, for the New Testament writers the distinction between Prophets and Writings seems not to exist. At most there could be an allusion to it in Lk 24.44 , which refers to Scripture as “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms”—the psalms might stand for the Writings. There may also be a reference to the threefold division in the Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, which speaks of “the law and the prophets and the other writings”—though the third category here may mean “other writings in general,” not necessarily “the Writings.” It seems likely that many people, even as late as the New Testament writers (first century CE), were not yet familiar with the threefold division of the canon, and that it was not generally established until some time in the Common Era.

The situation of all the books other than the Torah forming a single, shapeless category as late as the first century CE might help to explain why the Jewish and Christian Bibles diverge in the way they are arranged, and also in which books they contain. Most of the early Christians whose writings are represented in the New Testament were Greek speakers; and many Jews by this time also spoke Greek as their first, or even their only language. For their benefit the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek, mostly in Egypt at Alexandria, during the last three centuries BCE. Moreover, most of the deuterocanonical books, as we have seen, were written in Greek or else existed in Greek translations. For a Greek-speaking Jew living in Egypt it would have been far from clear that (for example) Proverbs, which he or she would know in its Greek version, was Holy Scripture, whereas the (rather similar) Wisdom of Solomon, which was originally composed in Greek, was not. The Jews of Alexandria probably had, alongside the Torah, a rather larger category of second-order books than their fellow Jews in Palestine who knew only the Hebrew books. This “Alexandrian canon” was what the Christians inherited, for most of them lived outside Palestine and did not understand Hebrew: they naturally adopted the Greek version of the Jewish Bible as their own. In arranging the books other than the Torah in a different way from what would become the Hebrew canon, they may not, therefore, have been deliberately changing anything. No one had yet had the idea that there was a “correct” way of arranging them.

An important witness to the state of the canon in the first century CE is the Jewish writer Josephus. He lived in Palestine, but was familiar with the Bible in Greek (he wrote in Greek himself). In one of his writings he claims that the Jews recognize only twenty-two books as Scripture. Most scholars think he is referring to the books of the Hebrew Bible as Jews now have it, though this is usually said to contain twenty-four books—the exact number depends on whether, for example, 1 and 2 Samuel are counted as one book or two, whether Lamentations is thought of as part of Jeremiah, and so on. But what is interesting is that Josephus' description of what these twenty-two books contain actually sounds as though he knew them in an order different from any known to us, but having similarities to the Greek Bible—which was to become the Christian Bible. Thus he says that

five are the books of Moses, comprising the laws and the traditional history down to the death of the lawgiver.…From the death of Moses until Artaxerxes, who succeeded Xerxes as king of Persia, the prophets subsequent to Moses wrote the history of the events of their own times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life (Against Apion 1.42).

Like the Hebrew Bible, this appears to lump together the Former and the Latter Prophets, treating their writers primarily as historians. But it also recognizes a category of poetic and wisdom books, which is more like the central, poetic section of the Greek Bible than it is like the Writings of the Hebrew one. Perhaps what Josephus shows us is that Jews had not yet agreed on any particular way of arranging the books outside the Torah, so that he was free to classify them in whatever way would be most helpful to his readers.

At some point all Jews came to the conclusion that only the books that are now in the Hebrew Bible were to be treated as Holy Scripture. Christians, on the other hand, tended to follow the longer selection which we find in the Greek Bible and its descendants, the Latin and Slavonic Bibles. We do not know why Jews opted for the shorter canon, nor why they divided it into the three sections described above. But the threefold division was definitely established by the end of the second century CE.

We also do not know why the Church decided to accept the longer Greek canon. But it is clear that many early Christian writers thought that many of the works only to be found there had great authority. Manuscripts of the Christian Old Testament also contain the additional Greek books. There were occasional disagreements. For example, toward the end of the second century CE Melito, bishop of Sardis (in what is now Turkey), went on a fact-finding tour to the Holy Land and discovered that the Jews there accepted only the Hebrew books. (This is one reason why we know that for Jews the Hebrew canon must have been in force by then.) He decided on the strength of this that Christian Old Testaments ought not to contain the extra books; but no one paid him much attention.

Two later Christian leaders also tried to limit the canon to the Hebrew books. Athanasius (c. 296–373 CE), bishop of Alexandria, maintained that the deuterocanonical books ought not to be part of the canon. He would have reduced the Old Testament to the Hebrew books and treated the other books as non-canonical. Strikingly, however, he himself continued to make just as much use of these books after he had pronounced on the subject as he had before—especially the Wisdom of Solomon, which for him as for many early Christian writers was a favorite text.

In the following century Jerome (c. 345–420) set himself the task of translating the whole Bible into Latin, producing the work known as the Vulgate, which is the official version still used by the Catholic Church. (Latin translations already existed, but they were less accurate than Jerome's.) In the process Jerome learned Hebrew from Jewish friends, and inevitably became aware that the Jews recognized only the Hebrew books. He proposed that the Church, too, should abandon the deuterocanonical works. He engaged in a fierce debate with Augustine (345–430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine believed that the universal consensus among Christians that the deuterocanonical books were part of the Bible should overrule the fact that the Jews did not accept them. The matter was resolved in Augustine's favor, because the Church continued to use these additional books, and Jerome, indeed, translated them despite his misgivings about their status.

It is important to see that the point at issue was whether the deuterocanonical books should be thought of as Scripture. No one suggested that they were bad or worthless. There is no contradiction in thinking a book to be good but not regarding it as part of the Bible! The problem was that the Church always had regarded these books as Scripture. Although they are quoted little in the New Testament, Christian writers throughout the second century CE used them freely, and treated them exactly as if they were on a par with the “canonical” books. Hence writers like Augustine could argue that, whatever Jews thought about the canon, for Christians the matter was settled by a long tradition in the Church.

Augustine may have had the best of the argument. If we thought of the deuterocanonical books as books added to the Bible by Christians, it would be natural to say that the “original” Old Testament did not contain them. Then we might, with Jerome, think they should be removed. But as we have seen, this way of thinking is not likely to be the explanation of the longer canon in the Christian Bible. There are two more likely explanations. One is the “Alexandrian canon” theory, which says that some Jews already had a longer canon in the New Testament period. The shorter canon is the Bible of Palestinian Jews, the longer is that of the Jews of Alexandria. Everyone agrees that the majority of the Greek books in the longer canon, after all, are Jewish in origin—no one is suggesting that Christians wrote them, only that they accepted them. The other plausible explanation is that in New Testament times neither Jews nor Christians had yet decided on the exact selection of books they would regard as canonical. When they did eventually decide, Jews opted for the shorter, Hebrew canon, Christians for the longer, Greek one. In other words, Jerome's argument rested on what Jews in his own day thought about the limits of Scripture, but this is not necessarily what Jews had believed several centuries earlier.

After Augustine the matter was regarded as closed in the Christian Church, and throughout subsequent centuries Christian Bibles always included the deuterocanonical books, incorporated into the main body of the Old Testament in the way we have described. It was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that the matter was discussed fully again. The major Reformers, Luther and Calvin, both went back to Jerome and Athanasius, and argued strongly that only the Hebrew books should be accepted as Holy Scripture. However, even within Protestantism there were differences of opinion. Calvin and those who followed him in the Reformed tradition regarded the deuterocanonical books as no different in principle from any other ordinary books, and wanted them to have no special position in the Church at all. Sometimes they even argued—which was not strictly necessary to this point of view, as we have seen—that the deuterocanonical books were badly flawed. Luther, on the other hand, regarded these books as good and edifying, and wanted to see Christians continue to read them. But he placed them in an appendix to the Old Testament. In practice Lutherans do not make much use of these additional books, and most Lutheran Bibles do not contain them. Of the other churches of the Reformation, the Anglican (Episcopalian) churches have adopted a position like the Lutheran one, but have tended to use these books in worship and private reading to a greater extent. According to the Church of England's thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571) “the other books [that is, the deuterocanonical books] the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” Even so, few Anglicans know these books at all well, and they are read in Church rather seldom, though the Book of Common Prayer includes the Song of the Three Jews in its service of Morning Prayer, and Anglican lectionaries have always drawn on the Apocrypha to provide readings for saints' days. Sirach 44.1 ff. is familiar to many as a reading for All Saints' Day, is commonly used in Britain at memorial services, and will be familiar to many from the opening of the film “Chariots of Fire.”

The Catholic church had to react to the Reformers' decisions about the deuterocanonical books, and did so at the Council of Trent in 1546. The traditional teaching that all the books of the Latin Bible were to be regarded as canonical was reaffirmed, and the special place of the Vulgate translation was emphasized. The Council expressed doubts only about the books usually called 1 and 2 Esdras (see above), which it placed in an appendix following the New Testament. The First Vatican Council in 1870 reaffirmed the position set out at Trent.

Because of the special status allowed for the deuterocanonical books in the thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the translators of the King James Version translated these books, which therefore form a third section to this Bible, between Old and New Testaments, called “The Apocrypha.” Consequently their influence on English literature has been greater than might be expected on the basis of official pronouncements about their status.

In the twentieth century nothing has changed regarding the status of the deuterocanonical books. Catholics still regard them as part of the Bible, on an equal footing with the universally accepted books. In the Orthodox churches there have been no debates about them like those at the Reformation in the West, so they remain firmly in place within that religious tradition. The Protestant churches have continued to reject them or to be ambivalent about them. Consequently it is possible to buy Bibles either with or without the Apocrypha. The NRSV is the first western Bible to include the books which are not recognized even in the Catholic church, but only by the Orthodox churches. In this it recognizes an important fact about this vexed issue, namely, whatever status the churches officially claim for the deuterocanonical books, they are certainly important, and deserve to be read and studied. In practice all students of the Bible, whether they are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or of no religion need to know about these books. Discussion of the status of the Apocrypha does not seem to be on the agenda in any of the churches; in practice old feuds about them have become rather less important in the modern period.

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