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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On the Level with HandyGramps


A: The wording of the question reflects a long-standing misunderstanding about seven books which appear in Catholic editions of the Bible but not in Protestant editions (although many newer Protestant Bibles provide the books in an appendix). The truth is, the books -- called Apocrypha by Protestants and Deutero-canonical by Catholics -- were not added by the Catholic Church. Rather, they were removed by the Protestants after the Reformation. To properly understand just what happened, we have to look at how the Bible came to be in the form we have today. Richard Murphy writes in the introduction to his book, Background to the Bible:

"The Bible revolves about a majestic, incredibly magnificent, and wholly breath-taking theme -- God's loving plan for the salvation of man."

As that "loving plan" of salvation unfolded over the course of several millennia, much was spoken (oral tradition) and eventually written about the human experience of God's revelation of Himself. Some of the writings were so important in the message they conveyed that the People of God saw them as being inspired by God. Other writings were seen as good to read, but not necessarily inspired. Over time, those books accepted as being inspired were assembled into what ultimately became Sacred Scripture -- "Holy Writings"  -- the Bible.

What do we mean when we say a particular writing was "inspired"? We can look at 2 Timothy 3:16 which declares, "All scripture is inspired of God...", or at 2 Peter 1:21, "...no prophesy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (RSV). Unfortunately -- from our mortal point of view, that is -- God did not give us explicit guidelines on how to determine that this writing is inspired and that one is not. There is no statement in each book of the Bible that says, "Keep me, I'm inspired." God left it to us to discern the difference. This is where the Christian Community had to place its implicit trust in the Holy Spirit to choose which books would constitute the Holy Writings.

Let's look at the history of the seven books in question. Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1st and 2nd Maccabees, along with portions of Ester and Daniel, were written by Jews who had left Palestine and settled in Alexandria, Egypt. For this reason, this particular collection of writings is sometimes called the "Alexandrian canon". For reasons too involved to discuss here, the Palestinian Jews ultimately rejected these writings, although it is interesting to note one fact that Richard Murphy addresses:

"It is difficult to settle the question of the Old Testament canon on the basis of Jewish practice because the Jews themselves never resolved the question. There is no record of a decision reached by an authoritative Jewish body closing the Old Testament canon." (Background to the Bible, p. 46)

So, as the Christian era began, the Jewish canon was not an absolute, which leaves the question of the seven books open, even in apostolic times. Different ways to answer the question were tried over time. Richard Murphy tells us:

"Some have sought to determine the Old Testament canon by the usage of the New Testament: A book was canonical if the New Testament quoted it. But, the New Testament does not quote some of the canonical books -- Ruth, Qoheleth, Ester, Ezra, Nehemiah, Obadiah, Nahum, and the Song of Songs." (Background to the Bible, p. 47)

So, for the first three Christian centuries, the seven books were accepted as inspired. In the 4th century, a few people raised questions about their authenticity, but they remained a part of the Old Testament canon for Christians. The books were listed as part of the canon at the Council of Hippo (393), the Council of Carthage (397), by Pope Innocent I (405), and the Gelasian Decree (496). The list of inspired books was finally and formally declared at the Council of Trent in 1546.

Thus, the books in question were accepted as inspired by the majority of the Christian Church well into the 16th Century. Significantly, in fact, they were included in the original King James version in 1611. It was only later, at the Westminster Confession of 1648, that the books were deemed by the Protestants as not divinely inspired, and were thus removed from the canon. In the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Confession, they did, however, allow restricted use of the books.

Now, that leaves us in a bit of a quandary, as we still have to identify the measuring stick against which we can test the Scriptures. In mathematics, there is an axiom that states one cannot prove "x" in terms of "x". That makes sense, since the answer will always come out correct, no matter how incorrect the actual data might be. So it has to be with Scripture. One can say with complete conviction that they believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God -- all of us Christians do that; but it still doesn't prove it to be true. Any writing can declare itself to be true using itself as the standard. As Richard Murphy writes:

"...one cannot prove the Scriptures by quoting the Scriptures. They are not self-validating. Some assurance must come from another outside source. (Background to the Bible, p. 61)

That source can only be the Church, that body of believers who are present in and to the world for no other reason than that Christ formed it to be so ("on this rock I will build my Church", Matthew 16:17-19, RSV), and remains with it throughout history ("...and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age", Matthew 28:20, RSV). The canonicity of any part of Scripture was determined not by where a book or passage was written, but by whether or not it carried a part of that "loving plan for the salvation of man". Again, citing Richard Murphy:

"The question [of the Old Testament canon] was settled...not so much on historical as theological grounds: the test of the canon was the Church's own use of the Bible." (Background to the Bible, p. 48)

Thus, it is really a contradiction in terms to say that the Catholic Church -- or any other Christian community for that matter -- measures up to Scripture, since it was the Church itself that is the rod by which the measurement is taken. In short, the Protestant Christian Community has done no different in choosing to exclude the books than the Catholic Christian Community has done in choosing to retain them.

HandyGramps, March 15, 2001