An Open Canon

Sirach 50:17-24, Luke 14:15-24

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century misunderstood the Bible, and now our understanding of history allows us to see their errors. We can correct their mistakes by opening the canon to include the Apocrypha and other writings from the first and second centuries, which were excluded from the canon created by the church in the fourth century.

The Protestant Reformers hoped to recover the spirit of the first century church, but a lack of accurate historical information led them to make two mistakes. First, they used the Hebrew canon as the basis for their Old Testament translation, thinking it represented the scriptures read by Jesus. Today, however, we know that the Hebrew canon was created after 100 CE.

In the time of Jesus, there was no closed canon of Hebrew scripture. First century Jews (and Christians) were reading books that are now in the writings that Protestants call the Apocrypha. Jesus and his disciples were likely reading these books in Hebrew or in the Aramaic versions called Targums, and probably some Jewish churches in Galilee and Syria continued to read their scriptures in Hebrew or in Aramaic. Before the end of the first century, however, most Christians were Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. And these Christians were reading the Jewish scriptures in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which was completed two centuries before the time of Jesus. 

It is an historical fact that the Greek-speaking church began reading the Septuagint as scripture, and this is why in the fourth century the church used the Septuagint for the Old Testament. Moreover, the books in the New Testament almost always quote from the Septuagint when quoting scripture, even when Jesus is speaking. We do not know that Jesus spoke or read Greek. Yet, in the New Testament gospels he quotes scripture from the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Also, Paul and the other authors of the New Testament epistles refer to the Septuagint in their writings.

The Eastern Orthodox churches continue to this day to use the Septuagint as the basis for the Old Testament, as does the Roman Catholic Church. What Protestants call the Bible is, in fact, the Protestant Bible.

The second error of the Protestant Reformers was an uncritical acceptance of the canon created by the church in the fourth century under the authority of the Roman Emperor. The Reformers did not question the presumed apostolic authorship or direct apostolic connection of the materials included in the New Testament canon. Today, however, it is clear that among the writings excluded from the Christian canon are some as closely related to the life and witness of the first and early second century churches as materials that were included in the New Testament.

Bible scholar F. F. Bruce notes in The Canon of Scripture that the early church would probably not have accepted any book of the New Testament, if it had been known that these writings were not apostolic. Yet, we now know the gospels attributed to Matthew and John were probably not written by these apostles. We also know writings as early as these were also related to the apostles, but were excluded from the canon of scripture primarily because those in power were enforcing a restrictive orthodoxy rather than simply embracing the earliest witness to Jesus Christ.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was used by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century, contains all the books that were included in the Hebrew version of the Jewish canon about three centuries later. There are, however, two differences. Some passages in these books differ in the Hebrew and Greek texts. And the Septuagint includes books that after 100 CE were excluded by leading rabbis from the Hebrew canon.

The Apocrypha, which is how Protestants refer to the books in the Septuagint that are excluded from the Hebrew canon, includes: Tobit, Judith, additions to the Book of Esther (in the Greek version of Esther), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach), Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Azariah and the Son of the Three Jews, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 and 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh. 

When Jerome prepared the Latin Vulgate at the end of the fourth century, he followed the Hebrew canon, but he also included the "apocryphal books" with a comment that they were not in the Hebrew canon. As the Vulgate was copied over the centuries, these comments were not always reproduced. Therefore, during the Middle Ages the Western church read the books of the Apocrypha as scripture.

In the sixteenth century Protestants argued that material in the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew canon, should be excluded from scripture. In reaction to Protestant criticism, the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546 decreed that the Old Testament included the Septuagint (except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras). Today Catholic scholars identify the books authorized by the Council of Trent as "Deuterocanonical," which means "later added to the canon.

Protestant theologians justify their position by noting that none of New Testament books actually quotes from the writings now identified as the Apocrypha. But surely it is relevant that during the first centuries of the church Christian theologians such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian referred to passages from these writings as "Scripture," "divine Scripture," "inspired," and so on. 

Not surprisingly, when the first Wyclif translation of the Bible into English was printed at the end of the fourteenth century, it included in its Old Testament the books that had been in the Septuagint (with the exception of 2 Esdras). Wyclif simply translated the Bible the Western church had used for centuries, the Latin Vulgate.

The first "Protestant Bibles" excluding the Apocrypha were printed in Geneva in 1599. This means the Bible read by Protestants is no older than the beginning of the seventeenth century. The publication of the King James Version of the Bible began in 1611 with a Protestant Old Testament, but in 1615 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that all copies of the King James Version of the Bible were to include the Apocrypha. It was not until the eighteenth century that editions of the King James Version of the Bible without the Apocrypha began to outnumber editions with the Apocrypha.

It is fascinating that Protestants, who excluded the Apocrypha from the Bible, nonetheless used these texts. For instance, the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God" depends on Martin Luther's translation of Sirach 50:22-24. Phrases in the hymn drawn from the Apocrphya include: "Now thank we all our God," "Who wondrous things hath done," "Who, from our mother's arms, Hath blessed us on our way," "And keep us in His grace," "And free us from all ills.

Today, in addition to reading the books of the Apocrypha, Protestants should read first and second century Christian writings excluded from the church's canon in the fourth century. Archeological discoveries of ancient Jewish and Christian texts allow us to correct the mistaken assumption of the Protestant Reformers that the church began with a single understanding of Christ.

Instead, the church began with diverse interpretations. These views are reflected in the four gospels of the New Testament and in the epistles as well. Yet, other first and second century texts now available to us reveal more fully the varied understandings of Jesus that inspired the early churches. For instance, writings like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, 1 Clement, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas were read in second century churches alongside the letters of Paul and the gospels now in the New Testament.

The church began without the Bible, as we know it. The first few generations of Christians were reading Jewish scripture, generally in Greek, and also gospels, letters, and other church writings. The idea of limiting "scripture" to what we know today as the Bible was slow to gain acceptance among Christians, and was resisted even after the canon was officially closed in the fourth century.

The church closed the canon of scripture to defend orthodoxy. Yet, after the canon of the Bible was closed in the fourth century under an Emperor that gave bishops the power to enforce this decision, churches continued to have diverse Bibles. Churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition simply ignored this ruling. The Ethiopian church, founded in 330, has always had a New Testament with 35 books, 8 more than those authorized in Rome that same century.

Our challenge now is to embrace anew the spirit of the Protestant Reformers along with the historical perspective that contemporary scholarship affords us. By opening the canon we need not reject the Reformed doctrine that the Bible is the unique and authoritative witness of the church. Instead, opening the canon may help us open our minds and hearts to the faith of all those who were closest to the witness of the apostles.

Note: For information on the canon I suggest reading the "Introduction to the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (New Revised Standard Version) and also  Lee M. McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (1995 revised and expanded edition). © Robert Traer 2016