Protestant versus Catholic Bibles

Hi Fi Vol. 127 (2009) Number 1

It's funny how, in this day of emails that can fly around the globe in an instant, we often remain surprisingly disconnected from the neighbours in our own backyard. Right here in Quebec, Catholics and Protestants who have lived side by side for generations can sometimes be out of touch with basic facts about each other's faith. Despite being raised in a Protestant family that valued education about one's surroundings, I still managed to be unaware of the fact that our Baptist Bible differed quite dramatically from that of my Catholic schoolmates until my early 20's.When I did first learn that our Bibles contained different books, it was in an unhelpfully polemical and confusing context. Protestants were told that Catholics had "added extra books that shouldn't be in there", while Catholics were told that Protestants had deleted books.

Of course, as is often the case with one faith community's perception of another, the facts were rather oversimplified. Actually, the intricate history of the various Christian Bibles is one of complexity and a fair bit of uncertainty, and the boundaries between the books deemed "in" or "out" were at times very blurry.

The most obvious difference between the Bibles in Protestant pews and the Bibles in Catholic cathedrals is a section known to Catholics as the "deuterocanon" and to Protestants (if at all) as the "apocrypha." This part of the Bible contains books such as Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Wisdom of Solomon. Even speaking of it as a "section" is a bit deceiving since, during ancient times when the canons (the lists of accepted books) were being formed, all the books simply existed on separate scrolls and were often not in any particular order. This section of differing books contains texts that were highly regarded by various Christian and Jewish communities for many centuries, and thus circulated in Christian and Jewish collections of sacred texts at least into the mediaeval period. For Christians, these texts first began falling out of use (by some groups) after the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant reformers idealized the concept of "getting back to the root" of Christianity. One way in which they attempted this was to model their Old Testament after what they believed was the "original" Hebrew Bible. They used the rabbinical Hebrew collection (the "Masoretic Text") as a model for which books should be included. Since most of the apocryphal texts were written in Greek, the reformers (perhaps mistakenly) concluded that "real" ancient Jews did not use these "late" texts, and they began to warn believers that these texts should be read with extra caution.

Within a couple of centuries after Protestants and Catholics went their separate ways, Bibles even began being printed for Protestant use that did not contain the extra texts at all. Sadly, though, a great window onto ancient Judaism's diversity and rich literary heritage during the highly active and formative Greco-Roman period (during which Christianity itself was born) was closed when these various books fell out of use. For differing Jewish and Christian communities, at different times, the texts contained in the "deuterocanon" have been considered to offer messages ranging in scope from divinely inspired authority to, at the very least, cultural treasures from our early Jewish brothers and sisters in the time before any canons were formed.

Aaron Ricker Parks1

1 The author has a Master’s degree in New Testament Studies from McGill University. 

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