Do different Christian communities really consider different books Scriptural?

This is a follow-up to my post about the recent publication entitled A New New Testament.  One of the justifications its editors offer for adding books to the New Testament is this:

Both now and for the past 400 years Catholics and Protestants don’t agree on what is in the Bible, and neither do Episcopalians and Lutherans. Internationally the eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian, and Syriac Bibles all contain different books than the western Catholic and Protestant Bibles.

Now it is true that the Bibles of these various communities contain some different books.  However, we need to make some important observations about this:

1.  None of these Bibles differ when it comes to the New Testament.  All Christians communities agree universally about what books belong to the New Testament.  So these differences do not provide any justification for changing the New Testament canon.

2. The current differences are rather about certain Old Testament books that were added to the biblical canon at the end of the Fourth Century in the Western church, but not in the Eastern church.  No other books have been considered for inclusion since then by any of the communities the editors of A New New Testament mention.  So it’s somewhat misleading to cite these communities in support of adding books to the biblical canon, particularly so many centuries later.

3.  Since these books were added, and especially since the 1500s, the trend in newly-formed communities in the West—Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, and other Protestant—has been towards rejecting these books as canonical.  Only the Roman Catholic Church still considers them fully canonical.  In other words, the percentage of Christians who consider these books Scriptural, even in the West, has been steadily decreasing in recent centuries.  One could posit that the church is actually moving towards a consensus about the canon that would exclude these disputed books.  So the appeal to disagreement among various communities about “what is in the Bible” as grounds for adding to the canon is not really valid.

4.  All of this said, there is still ample precedent for putting different books in Bibles, as the examples below will show.  Nevertheless, this does not provide justification for adding more books to the canon of inspired Scripture.  But that is precisely what the committee of scholars behind A New New Testament wants to do.  As the publisher’s web site explains,  “Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. . . . They voted on which should be added” to the “previously bound books” (that is, the ones previously bound together in the canon).  As I said in my earlier post, it would have been much better to call the publication An Anthology of Early Christian Literature or even An Expanded New Testament, showing that books were being added to a published volume, but not making a claim that they should be accepted as inspired Scripture on a par with the canonical books.

Here are the details about which additional books appear in the Bibles of specific Christian communities. (I am indebted to this article for leads to much of this information.)

The issue is whether followers of Jesus should consider canonical certain books that were written in Greek within the Jewish community in the centuries before Christ.  These books, sometimes known as the Apocrypha, are missing from the Hebrew Bible but they were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was most popular among early Christians.

The Roman Catholic Church, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, includes the following apocryphal books in its Bible because it considers them fully canonical: Tobias, Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Wisdom of Solomon, First and Second Maccabees, and the additions to Esther and Daniel found in the Septuagint.  These books were affirmed as canonical by regional councils at Hipppo in 393 and Carthage in 397, pending eventual ratification by Rome.  Around this same time Jerome included them in the Vulgate, his Latin translation of the Bible.

A manuscript of the Vulgate

However, Catholic theologians describe these books as deuterocanonical, meaning that they belong to a second group of books “whose Scriptural character was contested in some quarters,” as opposed to the protocanonical books, the collection of “sacred writings which have been always received by Christendom without dispute.”  To the extent that a Catholic considered the consensus of Christendom significant, this distinction would have some bearing on the authority attached to these books.

Nevertheless, in 1546 the Council of Trent, largely in response to the way Martin Luther had separated out the apocryphal books and placed them between the testaments in his German translation of Bible, decreed that these books were as fully canonical as the others—finally validating the decision of the Council of Carthage over a thousand years later.  The Council of Trent also decreed that the Vulgate was the authoritative text of Scripture.

This actually sent something of a mixed message about the Apocrypha, however, because Jerome’s prologues were always included in the Vulgate, and in his prologue to the book of Kings, in which he surveyed the entire Old Testament, Jerome specified that the books that had been translated from Greek, rather than from Hebrew, are “set aside among the apocrypha” (inter apocrifa seponendum) and “are not in the canon” (non sunt in canone).  He made similar comments in the prologues to several of the apocryphal books themselves.

So while the Roman Catholic Church’s embrace of these books is explicit, its position on them is not without internal tensions.

Eastern Orthodox Bibles include all the books in the Catholic Apocrypha, plus 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, the Prayer of Manasseh, and Psalm 151.  Greek Orthodox Bibles also contain 4 Maccabees, in an appendix. However, all these apocryphal books are classified as Anagignoskomena (“worthy to be read”), meaning that they are read during services of worship, but that they are not as authoritative as the other books. Orthodox theologians sometimes call the apocryphal books deuterocanonical to indicate their secondary authority, using this term differently from Catholics, for whom it describes how these books were received after first being disputed.

The Coptic (Ethiopian) Church traditionally considered all of the books in the Catholic Apocrypha canonical, along with 3 Maccabees, the Letter of Jeremiah, and  Psalm 151.  However, according to the Coptic Encyclopedia, “At the beginning of the twentieth century and by order of Cyril V (1874-1927)” all the apocryphal books were “removed from the canon,” although they are still “normally included in the Coptic versions of the Bible.”

Anglican or Episcopal Bibles typically include the Apocrypha, and the Book of Common Prayer prescribes readings from it.  However, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England specify that the canonical books are those “of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church” (that is, only the protocanonical ones, and not the deuterocanonical ones, in the Catholic sense of those terms).  As for the apocryphal books, these “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”

Lutheran Bibles also typically include the Apocrypha, but not mixed in among the Old Testament books; rather, as noted above, they are in a separate section between the testaments.  Martin Luther wrote in his preface to this section that they were “books which are not held equal to the Holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read.” (Das sind Bücher so nicht der heiligen Schrift gleichgehalten: und doch nützlich und gut zu lesen sind.)

Other Protestant Bibles contain the same Old Testament books as the Hebrew Bible.

So once again, the only differences between Christian communities when it comes to the biblical canon have to do with books that were added by the Catholic church to the Old Testament in the Fourth Century.  The trend in the following centuries has been away from accepting these books.  This hardly provides a precedent for adding books to the New Testament today.

Two notes about the New Testament itself:

The publishers of A New New Testament probably refer to the Syriac Church for the following reason.  Tatian, a second-century Christian writer and theologian, created a harmony of the four gospels called the Diatessaron.  Because Tatian’s influence was felt strongly in Syria, the oldest Syriac Bibles include the Diatessaron in place of the four gospels themselves.  But by the middle of the Fifth Century, the separate gospels had been reintroduced in Syriac Bibles, displacing the Diatessaron.  There is therefore, as noted above, no difference among contemporary Christians about the New Testament canon.  And the very fact that Tatian created a harmony of the four canonical gospels shows that the church accepted these, and no others, as inspired Scripture.  This example, therefore, hardly makes a case for adding any new gospels.

The editors of A New New Testament also claim that Martin Luther himself tried to remove some books from the New Testament, and successfully did so from what he called the Old Testament.  We’ve just seen  that Luther actually removed the Apocrypha, which had always been disputed by the Eastern church, from the Old Testament, and put it in a section between the testaments.

As for the New Testament, in the earliest editions of his German Bible,  Luther moved Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, which he said were inferior books, to the back. But he soon reconsidered this opinion, restored these books to their original places, and wrote more appreciative prefaces to them.  In addition, as this site explains, “In all the editions of Luther’s Bible translation after 1522, the Reformer dropped the paragraphs at the end of his general Preface to the New Testament which made value judgments among the various biblical books.”

So it’s not really fair to Luther to say that he tried to remove some books from the New Testament when he only entertained this idea briefly, then reconsidered, and even retracted his earlier negative comments about books such as James.

Why do some scholars want to add more books to the New Testament?

Q. Recently, A New New Testament, published by Hal Taussig, has incorporated 10 new books into the New Testament.  Most of these texts are Gnostic.  Can you shed some light on the claims of the “Bible scholars” behind the project as to why these texts should be added to the canon?

Your specific question is why a group of scholars wants to add particular books to the New Testament when these books are “Gnostic,” that is, they “come from a different time period than any New Testament document, and they represent a fundamentally different worldview,” as one reviewer has observed.  I will answer that question first.  But this new publication also raises the issue of whether anyone can add any more books to the New Testament at this point, and if so, how and why might that be done?  I’ll respond to that question as well.

I have not seen a copy of A New New Testament, but in my doctoral studies I did read some of the extra books it contains, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

The publisher’s web site, in “A Conversation With Hal Taussig,” explains that the committee of scholars behind the edition wanted to include these books precisely because they represent a fundamentally different worldview.  Taussig says that the new books will show that “some of the narrow-minded doctrines of orthodox Christianity and the old-fashioned ideas of the traditional New Testament are not the only way that the early Christ movements expressed themselves.”  He says that the expanded collection “opens the door to a wider set of expressions, practices, stories, and teachings than [Christians] have previously known.”

In other words, the scholars on the committee behind this publication (a complete list of them can be found in this article) didn’t like traditional Christian beliefs and practices, they wanted to challenge them by adding other kinds books to the Bible, and they’re hoping this will attract  people to their own beliefs.

No one can do this.  No self-appointed, narrowly-defined committee (this one excluded any scholars who didn’t find orthodox Christianity narrow-minded and the ideas of the New Testament old-fashioned) can decide on its own what books should be in the Bible.  The canon of the New Testament was not established by a committee or council of church leaders.

Rather, as I explain in this post, “books that stood the test of time through continuous use in diverse Christian centers were eventually accepted by almost all believers.”  The formation of the canon was a process that unfolded over centuries.  I believe, by faith, that through this process the Holy Spirit was bearing witness to the church corporately about which books were Scriptural.  (For specifics about the virtual consensus among Christians regarding the canon of Scripture, see this post.)

If we were going to add any more books to the canon, the same process would have to unfold in the centuries ahead.  For example, suppose we discovered another letter by the apostle Paul—his letter to Laodicea, for instance, mentioned at the end of Colossians but not known now to survive in any copies.  This letter would have to stand the test of time and continual use in diverse Christian communities, as the other New Testament documents have, before it was accepted as part of the word of God.

And the individuals who contributed to this ultimate determination would all have to be active community followers of Jesus.  The committee behind A New New Testament included a Jewish rabbi and an “expert in yogic and Buddhist traditions.”  While such people may have an academic background in biblical studies, by their own admission they are not part of the living Christian community that is animated and directed by the Holy Spirit.

I can, however, think of one good use for the extra books in question.  Recognizing that “early Christ movements expressed themselves” in ways different from the ones we know today can help us appreciate the good reasons behind many of the beliefs and practices we have adopted.

For example, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla, thinking she is about to be killed in the arena by wild beasts, baptizes herself.  Her life is miraculously preserved and when she finds Paul afterwards, she tells him, “I have received the baptism.”  Paul does not correct her, from which we understand that in the circles in which this work originated around AD 80-160, self-baptism was considered acceptable.  But over time, Jesus’ followers recognized that baptism had to be the community affirming the work of God’s Spirit in an individual’s life, and so the practice of self-baptism was abandoned.

Since there is value in seeing that our beliefs and practices are the result of careful deliberation over time among alternatives, I think it’s helpful for people to know about early books that describe some of these alternatives.  But if we’re going to put these books together with the New Testament documents, I would call the whole collection An Anthology of Early Christian Literature.  That’s the title that many universities now use for what used to be called courses in “New Testament.”  Saying “Early Christian Literature” gives assurances that the enterprise is secular and historical.  The title of the new publication, by contrast, is a bid to change what people believe and practice as Christians by changing their Scriptures, and we should rightfully be concerned about this.

Another response to this questioner is offered in this post on Stephen Miller’s blog.

Didn’t the Holy Spirit place Luke with the other gospels, and not with Acts, as the Bible was taking shape?

Q.  Didn’t the Holy Spirit, in His wisdom, intend for Luke and Acts to be separated?  Since the biblical canon in its final form was designed with them separated, aren’t we violating inspiration if we put them back together?

Q.  I think your decision to place Luke and Acts together is misguided. While other books were split because of their length (1 Samuel through 2 Kings), or were ordered with no regard for their content (the Pauline epistles), Luke and Acts were separated in order to place the gospel of John as the last gospel.  If you have any faith in the efficacy of the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries, you have to trust that God was at work in the construction of the canon. If you’re going to re-order the gospels, you’re starting to question the construction of the canon–in which case you have bigger problems than separating Luke from Acts.

Q.  It seems to me that we must respect the tradition of the church, believing that the Holy Spirit continued to work through his people as the books God inspired were recognized, put in the category of Scripture, and organized in a certain way. The “four-fold gospel” is a significant indicator of God’s intentions in the NT. Acts placed between the gospels and epistles is a significant indicator of movement within the NT. The church itself has not been unanimous on how the NT books should be ordered, but neither was it unanimous about which books should be included. Without tradition, how would we even know which books to include in the NT?

All three of these questions suggest that if we put Luke-Acts back together as a 5807single work, as they are presented in The Books of the Bible, and as they are treated in the Luke-Acts study guide, we are overlooking and perhaps even resisting the role that the Holy Spirit played in the preservation, recognition, and collection of the biblical books—a role that may have extended to their ordering.  And so, on the authority of centuries-long church tradition, which presumably reflects the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t Luke and Acts be kept as separate books, and all the gospels kept grouped together?

It is true that church tradition exerts significant authority over our understanding and treatment of the Bible.  However, I think most of us would agree that the Spirit’s hand is not evident in every single aspect of tradition as it relates to the Bible.  Many of us would be prepared to dispense, for example, with the chapter and verse divisions, even though these are the aspect of tradition that certainly influences contemporary readers of the Bible the most.  (By frequently running paragraphs run right through badly-placed chapter breaks, many modern publishers show openly that they don’t adhere to this part of the tradition.)

How, then, can we determine which aspects of tradition reflect the Spirit’s hand, and which ones don’t?  I think that most people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God would agree that the determination of the contents of the canon reflects the Spirit’s influence, while the placement of chapter and verse divisions does not.  But what about something in between, like the order of the books in the canon?  I think some would see the Spirit’s hand in this, and others wouldn’t.  In other words, this is a matter of individual conviction, not of doctrine.

That being the case, I think it’s reasonable for resources such as The Books of the Bible and the Luke-Acts study guide to be made available for those whose convictions about the Spirit’s role in the presentation and transmission of the Scriptures permit them to explore what additional perspectives and further insights can be achieved when the books are placed in new orders.  Putting Luke and Acts back together as volumes 1 and 2 of a unified history, whose overarching structure and unfolding message then become much more evident, can open up great vistas into the meaning of the life of Jesus and the story of his early followers.  I think that by making this possible we’re working with, not against, the Holy Spirit.

Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400
Russian icon of St. Luke from around AD 1400

Indeed, The Books of the Bible seeks to draw upon the best in the church’s tradition of the biblical book ordering even as it arranges the books innovatively and creatively.  As its New Testament introduction explains, “The order of the New Testament books in this edition seeks to express the ancient concept of the fourfold gospel in a fresh way.  The traditional priority of the stories of Jesus is retained, but now each Gospel is placed at the beginning of a group of related books.  The presentation of four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus the Messiah is enhanced by a fuller arrangement that will help readers better appreciate why the books of the New Testament were written and what kind of literature they represent.  The four sets of books, each headed by a  Gospel, form a cross, as it were, around the central figure of Jesus.  Each sheds its light on his story in a unique way.”

One final observation.  It’s a demonstrable fact that the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries have done so in a great variety of orders.  (I document this in my book After Chapters and Verses.  In fact, as Bruce Metzger notes in The Canon of the New Testament, “While the gospels . . . are always kept together, they are found in nine different sequences, including two in which Luke is placed last and followed immediately by Acts, possibly out of a desire to keep the two volumes of this historical study together.”)  Even if we assume that this great variety of orders simply reflects a stage on the way to the ultimate emergence of the Holy Spirit’s chosen order, how do we know whether we’ve arrived there yet?  How do we know that The Books of The Bible, for example, isn’t instead part of the Holy Spirit’s effort to keep shuffling the books until they get into the real “God-intended” order?

In other words, if you prefer a particular book order because it’s the outcome of a long historical process, how do you determine the end point of that process?  On what basis do you pick 1500, when the order we know today was established basically by printers?  Who’s to say that the process isn’t still continuing?  Or that it didn’t end in A.D. 240?  The real problem here is that authority is being divided between Scripture and tradition, that is, between fixed texts and an ongoing historical process.  My commitment is to the authority of Scripture, and in treating Luke-Acts as a single work, my goal is to keep the Bible’s interpretation from being limited to what is implied by the historical shaping the Bible has received to date—because I believe, as John Robinson said, that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

How did the Bible come to contain the books it does?

Q. A student I know is exploring the different religions right now.  He recently asked me how the Bible came to contain the books it now has in it.  Why were these put in, and others left out?  And why does the Catholic Bible have more books than the Protestant Bible?  What would you recommend I tell him?

The formation of the biblical canon (the collection of the books in the Bible) is easier to see first in the case of the New Testament, because that process was witnessed by history.  No one person or group sat down and decided what books would be in the New Testament (despite what you or your friend may have heard people like Dan Brown claim about the Council of Nicea, which never actually discussed the canon).  Instead, books that stood the test of time through continuous use in diverse Christian centers were eventually accepted by almost all believers. Books that were judged inconsistent with the other approved books came to be recognized as edifying, but not scriptural. This process was basically complete by the time Athanasius of Alexandria wrote his festal letter for AD 367, which contains the first listing of the New Testament books as we know them today.  A few remaining differences among centers were ironed out in the years that followed.  We can infer that a similar process of community acceptance and use over time had earlier created the Old Testament canon.

This is the historical perspective.  But from a theological standpoint, as one of my seminary professors once put it, “The Holy Spirit bore witness to the church corporately about what books should be included.”  In other words, the contents of the Bible were ultimately determined not by human authority, not even by the authority of the worldwide community of Jesus’ followers, but by divine authority.  No sooner did the church recognize these books than it submitted itself to them.  The church does not say, “The Bible is our book, and we can do with it whatever we want” (including dropping or disregarding teachings or whole books that are no longer in favor).  Rather, the Bible is God’s book, and the church is responsible to understand and obey its message.

An icon of St. Athanasius, who did not determine the biblical canon, but who was the first to list the New Testament books as we know them today.

The Catholic Bible has some extra books because it includes several that were written within the Jewish community in Greek before the time of Jesus.  (The Old Testament books were written instead in Hebrew and Aramaic.)  Catholics describe these books, which Protestants call the Apocrypha, as deuterocanonical, meaning that they were first disputed before they were accepted.  Eastern Orthodox Christians use this same term to mean that these books are of secondary authority.  For fuller details about these extra books, see this post.

This is a short answer to a very involved question, but I hope this information is helpful.