This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, so over the last few months, I’ve been writing about some of the important consequences of that event. And one of the biggest consequences of all is the fact that Protestants have adopted a new version of the Bible.
Yes, you read that correctly. If you are a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian or a Lutheran or a Methodist, if you attend a Bible Church or a non-denominational congregation or a house fellowship, then you are using a Bible that is actually less than 500 years old—and, yeah, okay, in 21st century America that sounds really ancient, but, remember: Christianity has been around for two millennia now. But if you are a Charismatic or an Evangelical or a Pentecostal, then you are using a version of the Holy Scriptures that’s only been around for a quarter of that time.
Since you probably find that hard to believe, I will pause for a moment while you go get your Bible or while you open the Scripture app on your phone. Got it? Okay. Look at the Table of Contents: How many books are listed in the first part of your Bible, the part we call the Old Testament?
The number that you will see there is 39. But up until 1517, that number would have been either 46 or 49, depending on whether you were reading the Old Testament in a Roman Catholic Bible or in an Orthodox Bible. So what happened to those ten books in the Protestant Bible?
Well, they were dropped. In older versions of the Protestant Bible, those ten books were often included in a separate section; that collection eventually became known as the Apocrypha, which is a Greek word meaning ‘hidden’. However, most modern Protestant Bibles no longer include these so-called ‘hidden’ books. In fact, most folks in the Assemblies of God and the Churches of Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention aren’t aware that these books even exist.
Since this could very well be the first time that you’re hearing about these books, let me go ahead and give you a run-down of those ten titles: I Esdras, II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, a longer version of Esther, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, III Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach. And, sure, the names of those books sound a bit strange, but that’s just because you’ve never heard of them before. After all, Numbers and Ecclesiastes and Colossians are also Biblical books, but those titles would also sound more than a little odd, if you were hearing them for the first time.
So who made the decision to leave those books out of the Bible? Way back in the first century, the Jewish community made a formal decision about which books were going to be included in their scriptures, and their list did not include the ten books listed above. The Jewish leaders did that, in part, because they wanted to clearly distinguish their community from the Church, and then, over the next fifteen centuries, Jewish scholars continued to maintain those boundaries by working hard to preserve and protect their particular text of the scriptures.
Since most of the early Protestant Reformers were university men, they were very, very impressed with this long tradition of Jewish scholarship and with the Jewish version of what we call the Old Testament. So, Protestant leaders like Erasmus and Martin Luther and John Calvin did something that no Christian had ever done before: They started exclusively using the Jewish form of the scriptures. And that’s how the Old Testament went from 49 books to 39 books.
When most modern day Nazarenes and Anglicans and Disciples of Christ learn about how their Bible was so abruptly edited, they typically respond by saying something like this: “That’s interesting history, but those ten books must not be necessary for our salvation. Otherwise, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would have made sure that those books stayed in the Old Testament.”
But unless you’ve read those books, how could you possibly know that they aren’t necessary for your salvation? Let me just give you an example of the sort of material that is found in those ten books. This is a passage that comes from The Wisdom of Solomon:
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying in themselves, “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions. He reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became a reproof to our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others and his ways are strange…He calls the last end of the righteous happy and boasts that God is his father. (2.12-16)
That’s clearly a prophecy that points to Christ Jesus. It’s like all the other scriptural prophecies that refer to our Lord and Master, but unless you have a version of the Bible that has all 49 books in the Old Testament, then you have never had the opportunity to read that passage.
All of which leads up to a stunning irony: One of the basic principles of the Protestant Reformation is that folks ought to be able to read the Bible for themselves. However, because of decisions made by the early Protestant leaders, for five centuries now, their followers have never had access to the complete Bible.
Thankfully, in our day and age, it’s easy to track down those ten books; in fact, all of them are available, for free, online. However, if you would like to talk about what all this means for your life in the Faith and for your relationship with the Most Holy Trinity, just get in touch with me; I’ll be happy to visit with you.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.