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The Origins of the Reformation Bible

One of the side effects of the Protestant Reformation was intense scrutiny of the biblical canon and its contents. Martin Luther did not broach the issue in his 95 Theses, but not long after he drove that fateful nail into the door of the Wittenberg chapel, it became clear that the exact contents of the biblical canon would need to be addressed. Luther increasingly claimed that Christian doctrine should rest on biblical authority, a proposition made somewhat difficult if there is disagreement on which books can confer “biblical authority.” (Consider, e.g., the role of 2 Maccabees at the Leipzig Debate.) There was disagreement—and there had been disagreement for a millennium or more beforehand. Almost always, the sixteenth-century disputants pointed back to Christian authors in the fourth century or thereabouts for authoritative statements on the content of the Bible.

But fourth-century Christians themselves disagreed on precisely which books constituted God’s authentic revelation. Especially with regard to the books most in dispute in the sixteenth century—the so-called deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament—the fourth century could provide no assured guide because even those ancient luminaries, St. Jerome and St. Augustine, disagreed particularly on the status of these books.

The deuterocanonical books—as they would come to be called by Sixtus of Siena in 1566—are essentially those portions of Scripture that form part of the Roman Catholic Bible, but not the Protestant Bible. (Sixtus had a slightly wider definition of the term “deuterocanonical.”) In this sense, there are seven deuterocanonical books: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, and 1–2 Maccabees. There are also two books with deuterocanonical portions: Daniel and Esther.

In the sixteenth century, it was not clear whether these books belonged in the Bible or not; different theologians and church authorities took different positions on the matter, and there had never been a council that settled the issue for the entire church. While these books appeared in biblical manuscripts and printed Bibles, it was not uncommon in the Latin Church to question their status. For instance, one of the great publishing ventures of the early part of the century was the Complutensian Polyglot, a Bible printed in multiple languages in the Spanish town of Alcalá (Latin name: Complutum), produced under the oversight of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros and granted permission for publication by Pope Leo X in 1520. While this Bible includes the deuterocanonical books, Cardinal Jiménez explains in a preface that they “are books outside the canon which the Church has received more for the edification of the people than for the authoritative confirmation of ecclesiastical dogmas.”

Saint Jerome in His Study 1451 by Antonio da Fabriano II. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When Martin Luther debated Johann Eck at Leipzig in 1519 on various Catholic doctrines that Luther rejected, Luther probably did not feel that he was stirring controversy by disputing the canonicity of 2 Maccabees, since Catholic Cardinals in full communion with Rome were doing the same thing at the time. Such a position became unacceptable for a Roman Catholic only after the Council of Trent in 1546 declared all of the deuterocanonical books to be fully canonical, a position that made many Protestants more vehement in their rejection of these books. But the earlier Protestant position had valued these books for Christian edification. When Luther translated them as part of his German translation of the entire Bible, he sounded much like Cardinal Jiménez in describing them as “books that do not belong to Holy Scripture but are useful and good to read.”

Both Protestants and Catholics pointed to earlier times, especially the fourth century, as confirming their own views.

They were both right.

The origins of the Bible stretch back a long way before the Common Era, but the fourth century CE was an important time for the Bible. One could say that the Bible was invented in the fourth century, since for the first time all of Scripture could be—and was—contained in a single cover (see Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), rather than in small codices or scrolls that included only a few biblical books. It was also a time when some Christians were interested in clarifying which books counted as revelation from God, and which books didn’t. They composed lists of the books of the Bible: these lists were very similar to one another, but they also differed in important ways.

In the West, the biblical canon lists usually (not always) agreed completely on the books of the New Testament. In the East, the New Testament was, again, usually very similar across the lists, though the Book of Revelation was long disputed. But the status of the Old Testament deuterocanonical books in both the East and the West proved challenging. The fourth-century lists in the East—composed by such figures as Origen of Alexandria/Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus—omitted almost all of them, but these books found a warmer welcome in the West.

Here we come to Jerome and Augustine, the greatest biblical scholar and the greatest theologian, respectively, in the early Latin church. These two churchmen composed lists of Old Testament books within a few years of each other, during the last decade of the fourth century. As for the deuterocanonical books, Augustine did not even mention the issue within his discussion of the canon; he quietly listed all these books in their respective sections of the Bible.

Jerome, the primary translator of the Latin Vulgate, took the opposite path. Not only did he exclude the deuterocanonical books from his biblical canon, but he was far from silent on the issue. In his most well-known statement on the matter—a preface to his translation of the books of Samuel and Kings—Jerome listed all the books of the Old Testament in (what he took to be) the order of the Jewish Bible, thus without the deuterocanonical books. Then he brought up the issue, asserting that the books we call deuterocanonical are actually “apocrypha” and should be excluded from the Bible.

Like the Protestants and their Catholic opponents, neither Jerome nor Augustine were coming up with a new teaching on the biblical canon—they were both passing along what they took to be Christian tradition as they had received it. Augustine was right that for many Christians, particularly in the West, the deuterocanonical books had functioned as Scripture and appeared in canon lists for decades before the late fourth century. Jerome was right that for many Christians, particularly in the East and those Latin-speakers influenced by the East, the deuterocanonical books had not been considered on par with the other books of the Bible and had consequently been omitted from many biblical canon lists.

Catholics and Protestants have different Bibles today because of the disputes of the sixteenth century, when the opposing sides each claimed that the early church supported their own views.

The bottom line is: they were both right.

Featured image credit: Saint Jerome in His Study by Vincenzo Catena  (1470–1531). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Benjamin Murray

    This is quite a coincidence that Ben Witherington just posted an article similar to this in the most recent JETS

  2. John Meade

    Thanks for this comment, Benjamin. I was unaware of Witherington’s article. His interesting point seemed to be focused more on the text of the reformers than the matter of the canon of scripture in dispute at that time. But maybe I missed the specific points you were thinking of.

  3. Sandy O'Seay

    Well, that’s a fine case of rewriting history from a Protestant viewpoint.

  4. J. Bob

    Looking at the Orthodox OT list of Canon books I see the deuterocanonical books, and a few more.

  5. CJK

    There is quite a bit of “cognitive dissonance” contained in this very Protestant view of the Biblical cannon. Jerome and Augustine were pretty much about as Roman Catholic as you can get (“Doctors of the Catholic Church”) and would surely have called out Luther, Calvin, and other reformers for heretical teachings in the 16th century (1500 years after the institution by Christ of His church on earth.)

  6. John M.

    The Bibles of my Lutheran great grandparents included the books of the Apocrypha, even the US printered German translations of their Bibles included the Apocrypha — when English was published the books were removed — I’m sure it was done to be more American..

  7. Lawrence Hall

    “The bottom line” is a tired metaphor, and “they were both right” is no conclusion at all. Do choose a side, please; I’m sure you have one.

  8. Francis Miniter

    In 367 CE, Athanasius, the powerful Bishop of Alexandria, put forth a letter in which he named the 27 texts constituting the New Testament. As a result, those books which were determined not to be included in the New Testament were of necessity considered heretical. Were it no for conscientious monks in a monastery near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, who buried the excluded texts, which were then found in 1945 by a farmer, we would have little or no knowledge of what these texts are.

  9. Tom Phillips

    As an Anglican, we take the view that the apocrypha are good for education and edification, but not for doctrine.
    I’ve always considered the division coming with the Hebrew and Greek texts The LXX contained the apocrypha and that was the Bible of the primitive church. In the Council of Jamnia, late first century, the Jewish leadership stuck with their Hebrew scrolls and discounted the LXX additions. This may have been in reaction to the Christian’s.

  10. Tom Schultz

    It would be interesting to find an article about the doctrinal issues of including the apocrypha. My impression is that they are pretty boring reading but can support the idea of purgatory.

  11. trevor collins

    Jerome…..a Roman Catholic??? NO. he was a Catholic!!!

  12. Mary

    Just an aside—- I have a peave. There is BC and AD. CE is not correct. It is to appease people who do not like using AD and it is wrong! If no one uses it, it will go away. Everything does not have to be politically correct.

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