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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

12 September 2005

“Missing” Books of the Bible

Q: I recently acquired a Catholic Bible. A Lutheran friend noticed books in it that are not in hers. These were Tobit, First and Second Maccabees, Wisdom, and Baruch, all in the Old Testament. Why were they not put in the NIV or the King James? Revelation 22:18-19 says not to add or to take away from this book; did the Catholic Church add these books or did some other church remove them?

A: First, a bit on Revelation 22. While serving as a general warning for any part of Scripture, the proscription specifically applies only to Revelation. While the Church later included it among the books of the Bible, “this book” began as an apocalyptic letter to the churches named in its early chapters. The Bible we know took shape gradually, as theologians and church councils debated the authority of individual writings. Whether or not you include the books of which you inquire, the general form of Scripture we use was in place in the late Fourth Century A.D.

The Christian Church from its early years wrestled with accepting or rejecting individual writings from the canon — the accepted texts — of Scripture. A term used to encompass the books you mention is Apocrypha, a Greek word meaning “hidden things.” They are part of some (not all) Jewish Scriptures. They weren’t always included along with the 39 Old Testament books common among all Bibles but were often listed separately and considered to be reserved for the wise.

A few collections include 3 and 4 Maccabees, Enoch, and other writings. Some Apocrypha stand alone; others are considered part of existing texts, such as Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, and the Song of the Three Children with Daniel. Some Bibles count Ezra and Nehemiah as 1 and 2 Esdras and label the Apocryphal books 3 and 4 Esdras. Look for some of these as you compare Bibles with your friend.

Some early Church fathers accepted all of these on the same level as the other books. Later fathers, including Jerome, Origen, and Cyril of Jerusalem were more critical, although they didn’t totally exclude them.

A different set of books competed for inclusion in the New Testament. Generally, the Church restricted the canon to the 27 books with which Christians are familiar. Even among these, levels of acceptance varied. With the exception of 1 John, all the books appearing at the end of our Bible faced some degree of dispute due to questions about their apostolic connection, agreement with the rest of Scripture, universality of acceptance, and liturgical use. These were Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.

Other books which some attempted to include among New Testament writings are lumped together as Pseudepigrapha, Greek for “falsely ascribed.” Some were “Gospels” attempting to fill in the gaps in the life of Christ or to advance private (and false) doctrines. Major works of this nature include writings ascribed to Thomas, James, and Peter.

Several “Acts,” including those of Paul, Peter, Thomas, and Andrew, spread false teaching. Spurious Epistles include Epistle of the Apostles, letters from the Virgin Mary to Ignatius of Antioch, two letters of Peter to James, the Apocryphal Epistle of James, and others. Revelation likewise had pseudepigraphal cousins: Apocalypse of Peter, Apocalypse of Paul, and others.

While no Pseudepigrapha enjoy widespread use, dispute over the Apocrypha continues. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent affirmed 14 Apocryphal books as Scripture. This countered Luther, who kept many of these writings (except 1 and 2 Esdras) in his translation of Scripture, but placed them between the Testaments. He gave them a special label: “Apocrypha. These are books not regarded equal to Holy Scripture and yet useful and good to read.”

The original English Authorized Version (or King James Bible) followed Luther’s lead. Yet within 15 years, some English printings began omitting the Apocrypha. Decisions by the British and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society in 1827 hastened a more general exclusion of these works from English Bibles. Later, many copies of the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible returned these works to their “middle ground” in printed Scriptures; the Jerusalem Bible and newer Catholic translations have always included them.

I agree with Luther and encourage Christians to read these books for personal devotion and edification but not to use them as the basis for doctrinal decisions. One of them, the Song of the Three Children, became a popular canticle in the Christian Church under the Latin title Benedicte, omnia opera domini (“Praise Him, O All You Works of the Lord”), which The Lutheran Hymnal includes.

Hymn settings of it have also been made and it is often used in one form or another during the Great Vigil of Easter. Personally, I love singing “All You Works of God, Bless the Lord!” This joyful hymn by Stephen Starke appears in our Missouri Synod Lutheran Hymnal Supplement 98 and is marked for inclusion in the upcoming (ca. fall 2006) new hymnal, Lutheran Service Book.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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