Article 18: Catechism of the Catholic Church series
Father John G. Hillier
Among the most popular television programs are game shows. Millions of people follow with intense interest the fate of those who play “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” or “500 Questions,” just as they did in the 1950′s when watching “You Bet Your Life,” “21″ or “The $64,000 Question.” Why? Because while watching people compete or otherwise struggle for success, the television audience also struggles to answer question after question
Now, suppose you were a contestant … and you were asked: “How many books are in the Old Testament?” How would you answer?
The correct answer, of course, is 46 (assuming you are answering as a Catholic). As a faithful Protestant, you would answer “39.” The Protestant, King James version of the Bible (begun in 1604 and completed in 1611), has 39 books in the Old Testament. That is the way King James of England wanted it, as did his great-great-grandfather, King Henry VIII, before him, as well as, other Protestant reformers like Martin Luther.
I have often yelled at the TV from my place on the sofa: “no, not 39 but 46.” For more than 1000 years, before the Protestant Reformation, the number of books present in “the canon of Scripture [was] … 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New” (ccc 120).
The easy way to explain the discrepancy is to say that Protestant reformers like Martin Luther from Germany and the King of England removed the 7 books that contained material contradicting their theology. This, however, is not technically correct.
The fact is that the two most popular canons of the Old Testament in use at the time of Jesus was the Septuagint or Alexandrian Canon and the Palestinian Canon. We know from the texts quoted by Jesus in the Gospels that the canon He used was the Septuagint or Alexandrian Canon. This canon was also used by the Apostles and the Jewish community in the first century.
Later, after the death of Jesus, when the first disciples continued to use this canon more formally in their liturgies, the Jewish community felt that their canon had been hijacked by the followers of Jesus so around the year 90 AD, at the Jewish Council of Jamnia, they chose to embrace the Palestinian Canon as their official canon. This is the canon that most Jewish communities currently use (except the Ethiopian Jews who use the Alexandrian Canon).
It was not until the 16th century that any serious opposition surfaced about Christians using the Alexandrian Canon. Conveniently, reformers like Martin Luther were familiar with the Palestinian Canon used by most Jews. Although somewhat simplified, this provides a summary of how each community embraced a different canon.
Catholic Bibles contain 7 more books than Protestant Bibles. The seven books, all in the Old Testament, are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Catholics call the disputed books “Deuterocanonical” and consider them to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Protestants call them “apocryphal” and consider them to be false or uninspired.
The Catechism tells us that “it was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books” (ccc 120). This complete list is called the canon of Sacred Scripture.
The 46 books in the Old Testament include: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi. (ccc 120).
The Catechism insists that “the Old Covenant has never been revoked” (ccc 121) and “even though [the Old Testament] contains matters imperfect and provisional” (ccc 122), “the mystery of our salvation is present there in a hidden way” (ccc 122). As such, “Christians venerate the Old Testament as the true Word of God” (ccc123).
In terms of the New Testament, “the central object is Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son: his acts, teachings, Passion and glorification, and his Church’s beginnings under the Spirit’s guidance” (ccc 124). The 27 books of the New Testament include: “the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of St. Paul to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, the Letter to the Hebrews, the Letters of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, and Revelation (the Apocalypse)” (ccc 120).
The Catechism concurs with an observation once made by Saint Augustine: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (ccc 129). It explains further that “the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself” (ccc 129).
Next time you hear the question asked on a television game show, “how many books are in the Old Testament?” what answer will you shout back at the television screen?