Conversations About God (5:4)
The sixty-six books of our current Bible are not the only books that have ever claimed to be biblical. There may be more such books outside the Bible than inside it. Many of them were written during the time between the Testaments, and some bear a striking resemblance to the books that are in the biblical canons. About a dozen of them were taken so seriously by the Jews outside of Palestine, that they found their place in the Greek Old Testament. The Septuagint (as the Greek OT was called), became the Bible most widely used by early Christians. And that’s how those extra books (called The Apocrypha) found a fixed place in the Latin Bible and in Roman Catholic Bibles today. The Old Testament Apocryphal books are: I and II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther (usually woven into biblical Esther), Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (different from Ecclesiastes), Baruch, Susanna, Song of the Three Children, Bel and the Dragon (these last three are often included in Catholic versions of Daniel), Prayer of Manasseh and I and II Maccabees.
Although these books are in Catholic Bibles, the ancient Jews did not recognize them as inspired Scripture. They called them “hidden,” suggesting they were not genuine. And many Christians have agreed with the Jews, including many Catholic theologians and biblical scholars. Even the church father Jerome did not want to include them in his revision of the Latin Bible (the Vulgate). But the people were so accustomed to them, they insisted they be left there. When Luther gathered them in the middle and took the position on them that he did, the Catholic Church felt that it had to respond. So at the Council of Trent in 1546, the books of the Apocrypha were pronounced sacred and canonical. That’s why they are in such Bibles as the Jerusalem and the New American.
How should we decide which books belong and which books do not? I think it helps a great deal to know that there were many other “hidden” books whose sources were unknown and whose teaching was even more questionable. The collection of these is called the Old Testament “Pseudepigrapha,” which is based on the Greek words for “falsely inscribed.” These books were not only rejected as Scripture by the early Christians but also by our Roman Catholic friends to this day. Some of the best known of these are The Testament of Adam, The Book of Jubilees, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Testament of Job, the Book of Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Assumption of Moses, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Psalms of Solomon, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and the story of Ahikar.
One can go even further. There is a whole collection of books called the New Testament Apocrypha. These include books like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Epistle to the Laodiceans, 3 Corinthians, and so forth. These books were written in the early centuries of the church and expand on the life and teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
How should one decide which books belong and which books do not? I think it helps a great deal to know the origin of these books. The opinion of centuries of believers, who were much closer to the writing of these books than we are, is of consequence. But nothing compares with reading them all. I have done it several times. It takes a long weekend without any interruption. I read all the way through the Old Testament and then the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament, and the New Testament Apocrypha. And when you arrive at the Revelation of Peter, you haven’t forgotten Maccabees and Enoch and Romans and Genesis. They are still in your mind. Based on that experience, I think the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are in a class all by themselves.
There are some Apocryphal books that seem more acceptable than others. But as you go into even the book of Maccabees, it teaches that “it’s a good thing to pray for the dead, that they may be relieved of their sins.” If it’s true that our prayers to God can change the status of somebody who died a rebel, it would cancel out much of what we want to say about God in this book. “The giving of alms atones for sin.” Do you see what model of sin that implies? There are many hard to believe stories in the New Testament Apocrypha: stories of magic and mystery. How Peter made a camel go through the eye of a needle. The story of John and the bedbugs. The story of how Peter prayed that Simon Magus would fall down over the city of Rome. And when it happened, Simon broke his leg in three places. You should see these stories. But when you read them all together, I agree with Catholic Jerome, Protestant Luther and the great Bible Societies, that the sixty-six are the only ones that really measure up.