Befriending the Old Testament: Part 3


Elizabeth Julian RSM.

In the third part of this series about the Old Testament, we will look at how many books there are in the Old Testament and how that total came about.

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm

How many books are there in the Old Testament?

When we ask this question we are dealing with the canonical question – a difficult and complicated question. The word ‘canon’ comes from the Hebrew word for a reed (qaneh) used as a measuring stick. So, the Old Testament canon refers to the official writings ‘measured’, that is deemed acceptable and authoritative within the synagogue and the Christian churches. Although much research has been carried out it’s virtually impossible to be certain about how the canon was formed. Some Old Testament books probably contain material dating back to the early centuries of the first millennium.

The canon was decided upon after a long period of time. It was a difficult process because Jews, Catholics and Protestants disagreed on what to include. The Jewish canon contains only 39 books, the ones written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Rather than having the Septuagint (more about this word later) as their sacred text, Jewish scholars accepted only the books written in Hebrew or Aramaic, rather than Greek, resulting in a Bible in three parts:

  • the Torah or Law;
  • the Prophets (the former Prophets or Historical Books and the Latter Prophets or the Writing Prophets; and
  • the Writings (Psalms, Wisdom writings, the five liturgical scrolls [Song of Song, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther], Daniel, and the postexilic history [Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles].

Protestant churches have also accepted these 39 books as the Old Testament. However, the Old Testament for Catholics contains 46 books, an extra seven.

How did this difference come about?

The original language of the Old Testament was Hebrew but with the influence of Greek culture during the centuries prior to Jesus’ birth the Old Testament was translated into Greek – the language of many Jews living throughout the Mediterranean world at this time This translation was called the Septuagint – the Greek word for 70 – commonly written LXX. It was probably produced by a number of translators over the last three centuries before Christ. Legend has it, however, that 72 translators (six from each of the twelve tribes) all working independently arrived at the same translation in 72 days. Now while we may dismiss the legend, its significance is important because it suggests that the translation was inspired by God. We’ll be dealing with inspiration later.

As well as the original Hebrew books Catholics included seven others, which had been written in Greek in the 200 years before Christ:

  • Judith,
  • Tobit,
  • 1 and 2 Maccabees,
  • Wisdom of Solomon,
  • Sirach (Ecclesiasticus); and
  • Baruch.

Note that Sirach was originally written in Hebrew but then translated into Greek. These 46 books were decided upon in the 4th century but not given solemn approval until the Council of Trent in 1546. However, language was not the only criterion used for inclusion in the canon. Liturgical usage was an influencing factor. Furthermore, only those books thought to have been written before the end of the authentic prophetic period (400 BCE approximately) were considered to be inspired.

The seven books, not part of the original Jewish canon, are called ‘deuterocanonical’, that is a ‘second’ canon to indicate the Jews do not accept them into their canon. For Christians in the early Church the common book of the Bible was the Septuagint Greek Bible, not the Hebrew one.

What has all of this got to do with Bibles today?

In the sixteenth century, the Reformers demanded a return to the Hebrew Scriptures, so the Protestant Churches adopted the Jewish canon and the Catholics continued with the Septuagint. Protestants today refer to the extra seven books as the ‘apocrypha’ (set apart, inspiring but not inspired). For Catholics the term is deuterocanonical (second canon). Today, these books are usually included in Protestant Bibles but are normally found between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

To further complicate matters there are about 65 other Jewish books including Enoch, Jubilees and the Assumption of Moses. Catholics refer to them as apocryphal. Protestants classify them as pseudepigrapha (falsely ascribed) because they are attributed to people who could not possibly have written them.

So there we have it, a library or collection of 46 books that together we call the Old Testament. And what a marvellous story it tells! That story will be our topic next month.

Published in WelCom May 2019

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