History Lesson: Why Not All Bibles are the Same

In one of those random bits of trivia from Sunday School as a child, I learned that the Bible has 66 books. It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I realized it wasn’t that simple thanks to, believe it or not, The Bible for Dummies. In case you aren’t aware, Protestant Bibles are 66 books, but Catholic Bibles have more and if you throw in various Eastern Orthodox churches you get a few more minor variations. Why?

This may be hard to swallow for certain evangelicals who picture God dropping the Bible from heaven one day a couple thousand years ago complete with everything we need for every detail of our lives. If you’re in that camp, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway, but just in case, this is your warning that you’ll probably think I’m a terrible liberal heretic.

I’m going to start with the time of Jesus. The Jewish people at that point had two sections to their Bibles: the Law and the Prophets. When Jesus says that love of neighbour and love of God sums up the Law and the Prophets, he isn’t ignoring the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Kings, Chronicles, etc). Those existed, but they were not considered sacred canon in the same way yet. These Writings, along with some that made it into the Catholic canon but not the Protestant, are referenced throughout the New Testament, though, which probably helped the case for their canonization by Christians and (most of them by) Jews.

Updated note: there is some controversy about the canonicity of the Writings by this time. There are many scholars – the vast majority of both Christian and Jewish I’ve encountered – suggesting what I’ve said here but also some who have said they were canonized by this time. In any case, it isn’t central to my point.

Later, with the Temple destroyed and Judaism scattered, Scriptures became even more important to the Jewish people. Sometime around the 100CE area, Jewish leaders formally brought in most of the Writings, except for 7: Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch. There was a theory that this happened at a Council of Jamnia, but most scholars have now rejected this specific theory but still hold to the general claim that the Writings were canonized around this time. The main dividing line was that these 7 books were written first in Greek while the 39 others were older and at least mostly in Hebrew (Daniel is partly Aramaic). Using Hebrew texts helped separate them from the Christians – mostly Gentiles by this point – who only used Greek texts, those 7 which were written in Greek and the others which were translated from Hebrew.

Christians at this point didn’t have an explicit canon – after all, they were people of the living Word made flesh, not people of the book – but there was a general consensus on almost all of the books as to what would be authoritative Scripture. For example, all agreed that there were 4 and only 4 Gospels: 1st century documents of the story of Jesus. The 7 listed above were lumped in with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, though, as part of the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Contrary to The Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy myths, the canon was settled early and there was little dispute, even though it was not formally stamped by political approval after Rome became Christianized in the 4th century. For the next 1100 years or so, there was little debate about whether those 7 books should be removed (Jerome, the compiler of the Latin Vulgate, did want to remove them but the Pope wanted to keep them as per tradition) or whether anything else should be changed about the canon.

When the Reformation came, Protestants claimed that the Bible was the ultimate authority. But which Bible? Although Calvin and Luther both were tempted to dismiss some books that were not as congruent with their theology – such as the book of James and its emphasis on the importance of works and not just faith – they ultimately left everything in the New Testament the same. For the Old Testament, they adopted the smaller Jewish canon, although with the same classifications and organization as Catholicism. For example, Jewish Bibles put Daniel as a Writing, Catholics had sorted it as a Prophet, and Protestants took the Catholic approach. They also took the versification system of Catholics rather the slightly-different-at-times Jewish Bibles. So now Protestants have 66 books, the same 39 books of Hebrew Bible content as Judaism but in a different form plus the same 27 books of the New Testament as Catholicism.

Now you know.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Always helpful to remember this stuff… I like, especially, the nod to not being “people of the book” but followers of the living way. I think, while Guttenberg helped a LOT with his printing press, the wide distribution of the text has made modern Christianity more of a intellectual exercise rather than a living, breathing faith. We use the book, sure… but our primary revelation is Jesus, the crucified and resurrected…

    Normally I’d reshare this… but I’m afraid, considering current context around my own blog and feeds, folks might get confused and see it as a tacit denial of the inspiration of Scripture…

    • I originally had a bunch of tough questions at the end of this post about what it could mean for our theology of Scripture. I decided to scrap it and stick to a mostly factual one because people would probably start asking those questions anyway.

  • Andrew Mugford

    Ryan, do you have any sources for the council of Jamnia? The very existence of this council seems hotly contested.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I had heard it talked about several times, including I’m pretty sure in seminary classes, but a quick Google search agrees that there is no reason to believe this actually happened and that most scholars no longer accept it. I’ll change the post accordingly.

      • Andrew Mugford

        Glad to be of help. Great post, 🙂

  • Justin Boulmay

    I don’t know if you’re planning to do another post on the issue, but I’ve heard Protestants claim that the 7 books aren’t to be included because the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (per Romans 3:2) and they didn’t see them as Scripture. Any thoughts?

    • Yes, that is the usual claim as to why Luther, Calvin, and others opted for the smaller Jewish canon. I’m not sure if they directly said that themselves or not, but it does make a lot of sense.

      I would probably argue that like many other things, the early Protestants were often just trying to find whatever ways they could to distinguish themselves from Catholics and this was a fairly obvious differentiation to take.

      I also wonder if the spiritual-warfare theme that is extremely strong in the deuterocanon was enough of a threat to the predestination worldview to also be another motivation. Those texts tend to make it pretty clear that while God always wins, there are other wills – human, demonic, angelic – also at play.

      Doesn’t mean they were wrong to take those books out – I personally do think that the Jewish argument makes a lot of sense – but I’d bet that the other two were also motivations.

      • One thing we talked about in seminary concerning the canonization of Scripture is that the canon is the acceptable books of the Bible indicated as specifically the “standard” against which all other writings were to be tested… This goes back BEFORE the Reformation to the original canonization. The distinction that people miss in this is that this does NOT proscribe or prevent the believer from reading OTHER writings that are written, including the deuterocanonical writings, as they may also have texts that are inspirational in them… but that they were to be tested against the canon for veracity and faithfulness to accepted teachings…

        This helped me a lot, actually, because it meant that there should be no fear of reading from, learning from, quoting from folks like Ignatius, Augustine, etc., in discussing theology, but that there was simply a standard against which those writings could be compared to aid in discerning truth.

  • Harry Fox

    The Jews in Jesus’ day had three divisions, the Law, Prophets and the Writings. But the first book in the writings, and by far the largest book, was the Psalms, so the divisions were sometimes called the Law, Prophets and Psalms. That is why the risen Christ, when He wanted to explain that the entire Bible (our Old Testament) testified about Him, He specifically listed the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44). So you are in error when you say that the writings were not canonized until later.

    • On the off-chance that every one of my professors and pastors have been wrong, can you please provide a good scholarly source?

      • Harry Fox

        I thought I did — Doctor Luke.

        • That passage proves that Psalms was considered worth listening to, probably even inspired in some sense, which is what I said above. It says nothing about official canonization. Every thing I can find on the topic still suggests that the Writings were not official canon until late first century after the fall of the Temple.

          • Harry Fox

            Let me be as kind as possible. You need to consider the possibility that you have been highly selective in your sources. So let me help you out.

            One source that I like is The Expositors Greek Testament (TEGT), which makes the point that Luke 24:44 refers to three divisions comprising the Old Testament canon. The portion of the TEGT on Luke (by A.B. Bruce) cites Meyer – Comentary on the New Testament (6th ed.) Meyer — 8th ed. by J. Weiss; Hahn — Das Evangelium des Lucas (two vols.).

            Most modern commentaries make the same point –see Ray Summer’s Commentary on Luke.

            You might look at the writings of Josephus (A.D. 37-95) Contra Apionem who holds to the three-fold division, and also maintained that the writing of inspired scripture ended at the time of Artaxerxes (i.e. Malachi was the last canonical book). This is the same three-fold division as the Masoretic text.
            He used a 22 book canon, but the content was the same as our 39 books.

            This agrees very well with the list composed by Bishop Melito of Sardis, written ca. 170 A.D.

            Note also that the apocryphal book, Ecclesiaticus (ca. 190 B.C.) by Jesus ben Sirach refers to a three-part canon. Even The Cambridge History of the Bible (Volume 1, page 136 admits that the antiquity of the three-part division is strong. This means that according to the Cambridge scholars the three parts of the OT canon were present in the time of Jesus.

            The same point is made (see pp. 70-71) in Gleason Archer’s classic work “A Survey of Old Testament Introduction.”

            I turned up all this in about five minutes, from the shelves of my tiny library. Are you sure that your can’t find ANY evidence of a three-part canon at the time of Jesus?

            You might want to look at your professors and pastors with a tiny bit of skepticism.

          • Ah, some sources! Thank you. That’s what I was looking for.