Posts Tagged ‘Protocanonical’

History and Compilation of the Bible

April 2, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the topics which I have always found provocative in conversations with fellow Christians (and non-Christians) has been the discussion of the history of our bible, how it got from the lips of God to the leather bound books we carry today. A few years back, I did a bit of reading and came up with this brief summary of what I found. Feel free to keep it for your reference or comment if you think I’m way off on something.


We are very fortunate in our day to be blessed with one compact volume that contains all the divinely inspired word of God throughout salvation history. This compilation however is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. Let’s take a look at it from the beginning…

The Law (Pentateuch):

-Referred to as the Torah

-Comprise the first five books of the bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

-Traditionally believed to have been written by Moses (around 1200 B.C.)

-The Jewish people generally consider these the most important books


The Prophets (Nebiim):

-Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings)

-Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, counted by the Hebrews as one book)

The Writings (wa-Kethubin):

-Called Hagiographa by Greek (holy writings)

-(Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Wisdom, Sirach/ Ecclesiasticus)


Most of the Prophets and the Writings are believed to have been compiled by Ezra in the early fifth century B.C. during the reconstruction of the Temple. These books comprise what is now known as the Protocanonical Books. Seven books (specifically Tobit, Baruch, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, and 1and 2 Maccabees), and certain additions to others were not associated with Ezra and are known as Deuterocanonical (Second cannon). This term is used to denote books whose canonicity has been questioned. The terms were only introduced in the 16th century however, and are neither chronological nor indicate a lesser importance.

As the Jewish people became more and more engulfed by the surrounding culture, they began speaking in the language of those around them. Specifically, many Jews in the fourth century spoke Greek (since Alexander had conquered the majority of the area) and found it appropriate to transcribe the Hebrew texts into that language. In order to do this a council was called in the 3rd century B.C. in which a group of Jewish elders came together to translate the documents in Alexandria. The most ancient accounts describe a slightly fantastic meeting called by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, King of Egypt (287-47 BC) to have the Hebrew books translated for the Library in Alexandria. According to that tradition there were seventy two translators (six from each tribe), thus the name Septuagint for the translation. Whether or not the translation was made for this purpose or by said number of translators, the text does reliably date back to that time frame and was used and accepted widely, even in Palestine, during the centuries leading up to the birth of our Lord.  Meanwhile, the Palestinian Jews maintained their Documents in the Hebrew language.

The books which compose the Protocannonical books were present in both the Palestinian and Septuagint transcripts. The Deuterocanonical books (Deutero), however, were only present in the Septuagint. One hypothesis holds that all the books were present in both scriptures originally but were removed from the Palestinian literature some time after the 2nd century B.C. Another theory holds that the Palestinian Jews only passed down that which was translated by Ezra, while the Greek Jews continued to compile scriptures as they were revealed.  It should be noted that there was never an actual defined cannon of scriptures before the Christian era and the sacredness of some of the Protocannonical books was even debated into the 2nd century AD by some Rabbis. The first time we see the Jewish people actually define their cannon (as only the Protocannonical books), is in 90 A.D. Early church fathers such as Justin Martyr (C165) however, made it clear that the Christian church was not dependant on the Jewish hierarchy to determine its cannon and that theirs differed from the Jews.

By the time Jesus walked the earth, the Septuagint translation had been widely used and accepted even in Jerusalem. Later, as his accounts were being recorded by his apostles and their followers in the New Testament, it should be noted that in the 350 references to the Old Testament, 300 favor the Septuagint to the Palestinian translations. One should however temper this statement with the fact that neither the Septuagint nor Palistinian versions were kept as single volumes. More regularly there was only a few scrolls here and a few there. Further, it is true that none of the Deutero books were quoted in the New Testament, but neither were Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ezra, or Nehemiah. In addition, there are many verses in the epistles which do allude to the Dueteros (even if not directly quoting them). Furthermore, the book of Jude actually quotes apocryphal books (Henoch and the Assumption of Moses) thereby diminishing the value of New Testament citations in the cannon of the Old.  Also, even though Jesus never directly quoted the Dueteros, check this out….


“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take your yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

~Matthew 11:28-30

“Come aside to me you untutored, and take up your lodging in the house of instruction; How long will you be deprived of wisdom’s food, how long will you endure such bitter thirst? I open my mouth and speak of her: gain, at no cost, wisdom for yourselves. Submit your neck to her yoke, that your mind may accept her teaching. For she is close to those to the one who is in earnest finds her. See for yourselves! I have labored only a little, but have found much.”

~Sirach 51:23-27

(In case you were curious, even some Protestant concordances see the link…)


The New Testament Cannon also provided a great challenge to the early church. There were a considerable amount of documents floating around claiming to be of apostolic origin which needed to be evaluated for divine inspiration. Some were more widely accepted while others where held in question. The gospels which we hold today, along with most of Paul’s epistles to specific communities were well accepted, and noted by Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, but his letter to the Hebrews along with many of the “Catholic books” (James, 2-3 John, Peter, Jude and revelation etc) were questioned along with some which are not part of our cannon including the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepard of Hermas and the Didache. In addition, certain passages in the gospels (ie woman caught in adultery, close of st Mark’s Gospel, and apparitions of Jesus after the resurrection) were held in question.


These problems only grew more difficult as the church began to spread and more documents began popping up. The first place we see an official church gathering which defined canonical books was a Synod in Africa (Hypo) in [358] which was later ratified by Rome.  We also see a Synod called by Pope Damasus in 382 in which the complete Canon was defined with the help of St. Jerome among others (even though he didn’t actually believe the Old Testament Deutero books to be valid). The actual document promulgated from this Synod was “Decretum Gelasii de recipiendis et non recipiendis libris”. In 397, the council of Carthage also defined the cannon (same as the other 2) and this was also ratified by Rome. So by the end of the 4th century A.D. the cannon of the bible was defined by the Church. There was little debate about the New Testament from this point until the Protestant Reformation, but the Old Testament actually was still under debate.

Even though Jerome was instrumental in the Synod which defined all the inspired books of both the Old and New Testament, he disagreed on the validity of the OT Dueteros. This was especially problematic since he was the one who translated them into the Latin Vulgate (which is still the baseline for most of today’s translations). When he did, he wrote a prologue to the Deutero books which pretty much stated them to be non-canonical (even though the Synod had determined them to be otherwise). Since this was the official translation for the Church. That prologue followed the Bible everywhere it went leading to a great deal of confusion throughout the centuries even affecting Thomas Aquinas. Remember, they did not have the internet, or even the printing press, in the early church. Knowledge of church teaching was mainly passed down by word of mouth and what documents were available. The bible was understandably the most available document, thereby making Jerome’s prologue more accessible than the 4th century councils.

During the Protestant Reformation, this debate was very convenient for Luther’s theology. Since the books contradicted his beliefs (i.e. purgatory in 2 Mac 12:46) he removed them from his cannon. He also removed many of the contested New Testament epistles, mentioned earlier (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation), considering for example the epistle of James to be “an epistle of straw” (fitting since James 2:24 directly contradicts the concept of salvation by faith alone). It should also be noted that Luther actually added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 so that it read “we are justified by faith alone, without the works of the law.” By the 18th century however, the Catholic and Protestant churches were at least back on the same pages in the New Testament.



“ Its sole absolute criterion, therefore, is the Holy inspiring Spirit, witnessing decisively to Itself, not in the subjective experience of individual souls, as Calvin maintained, neither in the doctrinal and spiritual tenor of Holy Writ itself, according to Luther, but through the constituted organ and custodian of Its revelations, the Church. All other evidences fall short of the certainty and finality necessary to compel the absolute assent of faith. (See Franzelin, “De Divinâ Traditione et Scripturâ”; Wiseman, “Lectures on Christian Doctrine”, Lecture ii; also INSPIRATION.)”



-(> (search for “old testament Cannon”, “new testament cannon”, and “Septuagint”)

– “Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church”, Henry G. Graham