And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; 

–From Article VI of the 39 Articles of Religion (BCP, pp 603-604)

At this past Wednesday’s Evensong, the first lesson was from 1 Maccabees in the Apocrypha, and I gave a brief background on the Apocrypha as part of my homily.  Several folks mentioned that it helped them get some context into our tradition and practices and asked that I flesh it out a bit here on the blog.  This is admittedly a somewhat controversial topic among traditional Anglicans, especially among Anglo-Catholics. Our formularies, however, are pretty clear on the issue, and in fact, present a good example of the via media.

I’ve always been pretty comfortable with the Apocrypha (or “Duetero-canonical Books,” as our Roman Catholic friends prefer to call them).  Due to my parents’ backgrounds, I grew up splitting my time more-or-less evenly between Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, both of which use these books in their readings and lessons.  My first real bible (which I still have) was a Roman Catholic New American Bible that was marketed to children mostly by putting a picture of Jesus and a handful of ethnically diverse kiddos on the cover.  The notes included were typical of mildly-liberal scholarship from the 70’s and 80’s, and were definitely not aimed at an audience who was just learning to read! As a Roman Catholic version of the bible, it included the Apocrypha interspersed with the Old Testament.  As I got older and went to Evangelical youth groups, I found this could be confusing and a bit uncomfortable when my classmates or teachers saw that my bible included things that theirs did not. One of the main reasons I wanted to talk about this issue is to clear up the potential for this kind of confusion and ease any unnecessary discomfort over it.

Historical Background: Greek or Hebrew?

By the third century before the Incarnation of Our Lord, the Jewish people had returned to the land of Israel from the Babylonian Exile but had not become an independent kingdom.  They became vassals of one empire after another, including the Greek Ptolemies who ruled Egypt after Alexander’s empire broke up.  King Ptolemy II wanted to gather all the wisdom of the peoples under his rule into the Library of Alexandria and commissioned a group of local rabbis and Jewish elders to write a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to that end.  The Torah (i.e. Five Books of Moses) was completed pretty quickly, but it took about 300 years to finish the entire work, which came to be known as the Septuagint.  Included in this Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures were the books of the Apocrypha.  Scholars are in disagreement as to whether or not the Greek-speaking Jews considered these books to be canonical or not. The fact that they were included in the Septuagint suggests that they were considered canonical, and represent an “Alexandrian School” of Judaism.  However, other scholars point out that Philo, the greatest of the Alexandrian Jewish scholars, never quotes from it, nor is it present in any other ancient translations of the Jewish Scriptures.  On the other hand, these other translations mostly come from the Pharisees’ school of thought, and it is clear that Second Temple Judaism was far from monolithic, as we can see when the New Testament shows debates between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

By the First Century, the Ptolemies were gone, the Roman Empire ruled all of the Middle East, and Greek had become the lingua franca of the Empire.  Most Jewish people living in Palestine (as the Romans called the land of Israel) would have been multi-lingual, using Greek for business and commerce, Latin for legal dealings with Rome, Hebrew for their liturgy and prayer, and Aramaic for their every-day speech. This, of course, would have included the Apostles. However, when the Apostles took the Gospel beyond Palestine, they typically used the Greek version of the Scriptures (and indeed wrote the New Testament in Greek), since everyone in the Empire knew Greek, regardless of their religious and cultural backgrounds. With the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the Jewish Christians who would have used Hebrew became more-and-more of a minority, and Greek dominated the Church. Over the next few centuries, the Septuagint was almost universally used in the Old Testament in the Church, though the exact content of what was canonical in the Old Testament had not been settled.  Frankly, discerning the canon of the New Testament was much more of a concern for those first few generations of Christians.

Jerome, Augustine, and the Fathers

By the late 4th and early 5th Century, the Western half of the Church was using Latin much more than Greek. St. Jerome (called “Hierome” in the Articles) became the greatest Scripture Scholar of that period, and became the first Hebrew Scholar in the Church in centuries.  His Latin translation of the Scriptures, known as the Vulgate, became the de facto standard bible for the West.  While St. Jerome included the Apocryphal books mixed in with the Old Testament, in the prologues to these books he included statements to the effect that they were not in the Hebrew Bible, and were edifying but not canonical.  St. Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Western Church, vehemently disagreed with him and even thought his use of the Hebrew text as the basis for his translation was a big mistake.  While Jerome eventually convinced Augustine that the Hebrew text was valid, they disagreed over the canon for the rest of their lives.

The Church Fathers never did come to an agreement on the canon of the Old Testament.  In addition to Jerome, Sts. Origin (the greatest Eastern bible scholar), Athanasius (the great defender of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea), and Gregory of Nazianzus (who invented the system of chapter and verse numbering) all limited the Old Testament canon to the books in the Hebrew bible.  Other Fathers agreed with Augustine’s position.  And some, like Tertullian, were willing to consider even more books into the Old Testament canon.  Ultimately, a definitive decision never happened, though some local councils made locally-enforced canon lists.  In practice, the East used the Greek Septuagint, and the West used the Latin Vulgate (including the books that Jerome considered edifying but not for dogmatic or doctrinal use) in prayers, songs, and liturgical readings, despite a lack of a universally-accepted Old Testament Canon.

Renaissance and Reformation

But these many years passed, this godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers hath been so altered, broken, and neglected, by planting in uncertain Stories, and Legends, with multitude of Responds, Verses, vain Repetitions, Commemorations, and Synodals; that commonly when any Book of the Bible was begun, after three or four Chapters were read out, all the rest were unread.

–Abp. Thomas Cranmer, ‘Concerning the Service of the Church.’

By the 16th Century, many disciplines of the Western Church had been commonly neglected and abused for several hundred years, largely due to poor formation of the clergy and the illiteracy of the laity.  Among these abuses was the inclusion of local legends and stories in the readings and lessons instead of the Scriptures. Scholarship, however, had begun to be revived in the growing middle-class, including a revival of the mastery of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. As part of the Reformation, the question of the canon of Scripture came back to the forefront. Martin Luther and the Magisterial Reformers largely accepted St. Jerome’s scholarship, and began to publish their new vernacular bibles with the Apocrypha as an appendix, resulting in a total of 66 canonical books with an additional 14 books (some of which are additional chapters to canonical Old Testament books) in the appendix. At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic official position became that of St. Augustine, though there were some books that were excluded, resulting in a total of 73 canonical books.  In the East, the Septuagint was eventually decreed to be divinely inspired, resulting in a total of 78 canonical books.

The Church of England followed Luther’s lead in placing the Apocrypha into an appendix, typified in the Authorized Version (i.e. the King James Bible), which had them in between the two Canonical Testaments.  With the rise of English Bible Societies and the influence of Puritan dissenters on these societies, the appendix has often been excluded from printings of the King James Version since the 19th Century.

The Apocrypha at All Saints Anglican Church

As the Apocryphal books are “read for example of life and instruction of manners,” the Book of Common Prayer has always included readings from the Apocrypha in the Daily Office as occasional lessons and regular canticles.  We are very careful, however, to follow the wisdom from Article VI and St. Jerome; we do not use the Apocrypha for doctrine and dogma unless that doctrine or dogma can be affirmed in the canonical Scriptures.  At All Saints, we are committed to being faithful to the Scriptures first and foremost.  Every tradition, including the traditions found in the Apocrypha, must be subordinate to the Holy Bible.

The practice of using the Apocrypha for edification is, in fact, a practice we see in the New Testament itself, as the Apostles often quote from non-Canonical sources when teaching the Church. So, don’t be concerned or confused when readings from the Apocrypha show up in our lessons; we are not abandoning the Scriptures, but are rather following in the Apostles’ practice.

One other thing: it’s not uncommon to hear Protestants accusing Roman Catholics of “adding books to the Bible” or to hear Roman Catholics accusing Protestants of “taking books out of the Bible.” Neither of these accusations are true. The bottom line is that the Church did not come to an agreement on the exact canon of the Old Testament until after the Reformation. By then we had gone our separate ways and had come to different conclusions. While we believe that our position is better (based on evidence from the Scriptures, linguistics, and history), we ought to treat our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren with charity on this issue.  The truth is when it comes to the books of the Bible, we have a lot more agreement than disagreement, and the basic practical end of our disagreement is whether or not we can use those books in doctrine and dogma.  While that is certainly not an insignificant disagreement, it is one that we need not get vitriolic and angry over, even as we stand by our convictions.


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