Thursday, May 25, 2017

Equality, Tobit, and the Creation of the Canon

From Gutenberg's 1611 King James Bible

The page after the book of Nehemiah is where things get exciting for me now that I am a Catholic. Whereas, I have read all the Old Testament Protestant books dozens of time, now I open a new page on a relatively new book for me. Where the book of Esther used to be, now I get to read Tobit. The Catholic and Protestant Bibles re-converge again at Esther, we just take a little side trip into Tobit and Judith. And it is an amazing story—with angels, miracles, romance and a happy ending,  not to mention quite an insight into the Jewish mind while in captivity in Ninevah.

Tobit is weird, yes, but not any weirder than books and passages in the Torah/Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible.) And these deuterocanonical books are now favorites among my family. My
husband, Arthur, is nuts about the heroes and war scenes in the Maccabees, my daughter loves the story of the heroine, Judith.

But me, I love the story of the making of the canon. How did they choose what books will be in scripture? Why did the Protestants take out seven books of the Bible? I went all over Europe and the East Coast hunting down early manuscripts of the Bible just to verify for myself—see with my own eyes that the earliest Bibles included some or all of these books. So, here are some insights I discovered—that almost everyone else in history both Jew and Christian have known—but I got to rediscover with my own eyes. 

(Now all you have to do is go online to these ancient manuscripts and see them for yourself. Here's one of the earliest known Bibles, the Codex Sinaiticus from the fourth century. The link is to the direct page of The Book of Tobit.)

Book of Tobit from AD 1240 Manuscript


With our American "equality" perspective on everything, we don't realize that the Jews had, and still have, a hierarchy for Biblical books. Not all books were considered equally holy, equally important or equally inspired by God. The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) were considered virtually the holiest scriptures. They were the Holy of Holies in the Bible in that after a priest touched their scrolls, he had to wash his hands because they had been "defiled" by the physical holiness of the pages. (Defiled was a term that had no derogatory understanding to the priests. The holiness of these texts was not symbolic, but they felt the pages radiated sacredness in a way that came off onto your hands like actual radiation.)

Next in importance were the books written by the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. This is what was meant by the phrase, "the law and the prophets." (Jesus would often call scriptures, "the law, the prophets and the psalms.")

Finally the Psalms and other genres of books such as the wisdom (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs) or apocalyptic such as Daniel. 

However, again, the holiest books were in the Torah (law) and next—the prophets. The other books such as the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Lamentations, were not the main scriptures for Israel and had a lesser status.

For Israel, there was no such thing as a Bible bound all together. They had individual scrolls that either contained one or more (if short) books they considered holy. Only after the time of Christ did the Jews decide exactly what books should be in their canon (the list of "official" holy books to the Jews.) Until then their were some differences, not just in the translation, but of the books themselves. The Samaritan of Northern Israel had a different set of scrolls they considered sacred than those who lived in Jerusalem. The Israelites living in Ethiopia and in Babylon had a different set of scriptures. 

Also, when Jesus was on earth, there were differing translations of the scriptures (just as there are now.)

Note: It is interesting that we can know which translation Jesus used when he quoted scriptures because there were several. Just like today we can know someone is using the King James Version (with the thees and thous) rather than the Message Bible because of the wording. 

Rembrandt's Tobit's eyes being healed


Which brings me to the Greek set of Old Testament scriptures.

In the third century, before Christ was born as a babe to save us from our sins, there was a very large group of Jews living in Egypt and Greek king Ptolemy II wanted the Hebrew Bible included in his library in Alexandria, so he sponsored seventy-two Hebrew scholars to translate the Torah into
From Book of Tobit Manuscript
Greek. Over the next couple centuries, the other Hebrew holy books were translated including Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, I and II Maccabees. So, this became the Greek canon of scripture. 

In first century there were at least five different Hebrew canons (differing books) in different areas in the world. Because in Jerusalem Israel spoke Aramaic, the Greek Septuagint was the main translation used by the common people. 

During Christ's ministry, it was easy to distinguish which one of these scriptures Jesus was quoting from in the same way we would be able to identify if someone was reading from the King James Version (with its thees and thous) and The Message Bible. Protestant, Orthodox, Coptic and Catholic scholars are in agreement and certain that out of Jesus 350 quotes from the Old Testament, 300 were from the Greek Septuagint version. So Christ used the Greek canon that included these seven books which 1600 years later the Protestants would remove.

But I digress, my point is that the reason there were so many differing canons of Hebrew scripture at the time of Christ is that there was a hierarchy of inspiration. The Torah was the essential. The Torah were the scrolls most
protected and copied for use in the synagogues. The prophets, both major and minor were of secondary importance. Each Israelite settlement and late Jewish area might only be able to procure a few scrolls and therefore their particular "canon" didn't include what others did. Yet, not matter what they would spare no expense to have a copy of the Torah. For the synagogue was build around the study of the Torah--although they would study other sacred scrolls if they could procure them.

Historically, Christians made the same distinction with the New Testament scriptures as the Hebrews did for the Old Testament. The four gospels were equivalent in Christian minds to the Hebrew Torah. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were considered the primary and most inspired texts in the Christian canon. It was not until the fourth century after Christ that the four gospels joined the writings of the Apostles and their scribes to form the New Testament. (And that was the same time the Old and New Testaments came together in a book called The Bible. Three hundred years after Christ died!)

Tobit in Renaissance painting
Many Protestants, who are not aware of the distinction in inspiration of scriptures, tend to misunderstand these Deuterocanonical books (Protestants call them Apocrypha.) Catholics readily admit that these seven books do not have the same holiness and inspiration as does the gospels, just as Israel readily admits that different books of the Old Testament do not equal in inspiration. We read all the books of the Bible differently. Some are praise (Psalms), some are poetic (Song of Solomon) and some are prophetic (Revelation).

I think if Protestants understood how Israel and Christians have historically understood the canon of scripture, there would be less anxiety about these differences in our canon.

These books have been holy scripture to the vast majority of God's people throughout history. They are just as much a part of the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God as any other book. But... they are not as high on the hierarchy. Tobit is not equal to any of the gospels. 

Tobit having his blindness healed


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