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John and Christology

I love this quotation from F. C. Conybeare:

If Athanasius had not had the Fourth Gospel to draw texts from, Arius would never have been confuted…if Arius had not had the Fourth Gospel to draw texts from, he would not have needed confuting.

So says James D. G. Dunn via Michael Bird.

When Did the New Testament Become “The New Testament”?

Mike Aquilina emailed me a couple days ago with a question I had never considered: when in church history did the term “New Testament” come to be used for the books that make up the latter portion of the Christian canon?

This question piqued my curiosity because the New Testament itself speaks of a “new covenant/testament” (καινή διαθήκη, kaine diatheke)—but never in reference to a collection of writings. When the biblical writers talk about a “new covenant,” they are echoing the language of Jeremiah 31:31:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

In the minds of the New Testament writers, this “new covenant” was the new agreement or pattern of relationship that God made through Jesus, and the term is so used in 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; 9:15. (Appearance of the phrase “new covenant” in the Synoptic institution narratives [Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20] is of dubious textual validity.)

The same usage holds true in the so-called sub-apostolic era of the late first/early second centuries. In the Apostolic Fathers only the Epistle of Barnabas and 1 Clement have the term διαθήκη (covenant), but never the phrase καινή διαθήκη (new covenant), and διαθήκη is never used to describe a body of writings. The emphasis is always on the arrangement by which God chooses to relate to God’s people.

The situation seems to have changed before the end of the second century, however. According to David Trobisch,

When Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and—in the early third century—Tertullian and Origen refer to the second part of the Canonical Edition, they use the term New Testament.” (The First Edition of the New Testament [Oxford University Press, 2000] 44)

I found this source on Google Books, and of course the end notes are unavailable. [Update: Commenter Michael provides two citations from Irenaeus: Against Heresies 4.15.2 and 5.34.1.] If anyone could send me Trobisch’s citations I’ll gladly update this post to include them. Trobisch does include some additional early references with enough quoted text for me to have tracked them down. They are as follows:

First, there is Melito of Sardis (c. 170), who in his Letter to Onesimus says:

I accordingly proceeded to the East, and went to the very spot where the things in question were preached and took place; and, having made myself accurately acquainted with the books of the Old Testament, I have set them down below, and herewith send you the list.

“Books of the Old Testament” would seem to imply a corresponding “books of the New Testament.” At the same time, it’s not 100 per cent clear to me Melito is calling the earlier portion of the canon “the Old  Testament.” He could rather mean something like “the Scriptures that bear witness to the prior arrangement God made with Israel.” This would be in perfect continuity with the usage of “old covenant” and “new covenant” in, for example, the book of Hebrews. Still, one can see how “books of the Old Testament” could become abbreviated to “the Old Testament” quite easily.

In On Christ and Antichrist 59, Hippolytus (d. c. 230) spins a complex allegory of the church as a ship:

For the wings of the vessels are the churches; and the sea is the world, in which the Church is set, like a ship tossed in the deep, but not destroyed; for she has with her the skilled Pilot, Christ. And she bears in her midst also the trophy (which is erected) over death; for she carries with her the cross of the Lord. For her prow is the east, and her stern is the west, and her hold is the south, and her tillers are the two Testaments; and the ropes that stretch around her are the love of Christ, which binds the Church; and the net which she bears with her is the layer of the regeneration which renews the believing, whence too are these glories.

Hippolytus’ “two testaments” are almost surely bodies of literature. I can’t imagine an early Christian writer describing the Mount Sinai covenant as one of the church’s two tillers, seemingly equal with the new covenant established through Christ. But I can easily imagine such a writer making such a claim about the two collections of inspired Scripture—especially in Rome less than a century after the rise of Marcionism!

Finally, Trobisch mentions Cyprian (c. 248), who in his Treatise XII (to Quirinius) writes:

More strength will be given you, and the intelligence of the heart will be effected more and more, as you examine more fully the Scriptures, old and new, and read through the complete volumes of the spiritual books.

With Cyprian we’re now clearly talking about collections of writings (“Scriptures”) designated as “old” and “new.” Although the actual terminology of “covenant/testament” does not appear here, we once again seem to have the concept we’re looking for.

Finally, I should mention the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius of Alexandria (367), in which the writings of the New Testament canon are first spelled out in a form identical to that which has since become standard. Athanasius refers to these documents as “the Scriptures of the New Testament.”

By the end of the second century, therefore, the two main divisions of the Christian Bible were collectively called “the two Testaments,” the “old and new Scriptures,” and the “Old and New Testaments.”

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: A Drive-by Book Review

Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is obviously born of deep passion to recover the roots of early African Christianity and especially to encourage African scholars and theologians themselves to dig deeper into the literary sources and make their own case for the central role Africans played in the shaping of the consensual orthodoxy of the patristic era. Oden explains how his work as editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series led him to realize how many early Christian thinkers—not only Augustine and Athanasius but Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Lactantius, Optatus, and many others—were products of an African cultural milieu.

He argues passionately that these figures were no less “African” because they mainly lived in the northernmost districts of the continent, and that most if not all of them were both culturally and ethnically at home with the various indigenous African peoples—Berber, Punic, Coptic, Nilotic, Ethiopian, etc.—who lived and died far from the Hellenized cities in which they often ministered, and among whom they often lived. (Athanasius’ frequent exiles among the various Nilotic peoples of Upper Egypt comes to mind.) From these major population centers, Christianity spread into Africa’s interior, as far as the headwaters of the Nile in Uganda and certainly to the Sudan and Ethiopia during pre-Constantinian times.

In the end, to deny that these giants of faith were truly “Africans” or that their practice of the Christian faith was an “indigenous African religion” is to strip these terms of any rational meaning. Oden’s fondest wish would be for young African Christians from throughout the continent to reclaim these figures as their own. He is, in fact, rather distressed that so many African theologians have been influenced more by European and North American modernism (and postmodernism) than by the indigenous, nearly 2,000-year-old Christian traditions of their own continent.

Oden’s case is convincing as far as it goes, but it is really more of a Prolegomenon to the study of early African Christianity. (And he has launched a research project to continue the work, Early African Christianity.) When it comes to specifics, Oden is disappointingly sparse. In part, this is surely because many of the primary sources, written originally not only in Greek and Latin but also Coptic, Ge’ez, and—yes—Arabic have yet to be translated.

Still, I would have wished for at least a little bit of help in understanding what precisely Oden sees as the “genius” of early African Christianity: what it was that the early church learned in Africa before teaching it to the broader Christian world. If you read something like Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization or even George G. Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, you come away with at least a tentative sense of what makes “Celtic Christianity” tick. In How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, there is occasional reference to the “African metaphors” that shaped the thinking of Athanasius and the rest, but there is very little meat on those bones. The nearest we get to specific examples of how African culture left its mark on its first Christian adherents is (1) a moving chapter on the African martyrs as a challenge to the idea that orthodoxy is nothing more than the truth as told by the “winners,” in which one finds (2) a single reference (tied to the continuity of the communion of saints) to the value of honoring the ancestors, and also (3) this tantalizing sentence: “These metaphors—Eucharist, faithfulness to death, martyrdom and ascetic discipline—were constantly interwoven in early African exegesis of Scripture” (123).

In the end, a more accurate title for the book would have been achieved by dropping its first word. Oden is clear that “Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.” As to how, a reader will have to do a bit of additional homework to find out. For my part, I think I’m going to start by re-reading The Spirituality of African Peoples by Peter J. Paris to sensitize myself to the key themes he lays out, then attempt to bring them into my subsequent readings and re-readings of early African theologians.


Repost: The New Testament Canon: The Least You Need to Know

I previously blogged about the Old Testament canon. Now I’d like to jot down some thoughts about the New Testament.

1. The Church Has Always Had a Bible.

Jesus and all of his original followers were Jews. As such, they were heirs of a centuries-long tradition of studying, preaching, debating, and praying the Scriptures of Israel. The Christian church accepted from the beginning the authority of the Old Testament as holy Scripture. They did this following the example of Jesus, who is seen in the Gospels reading the Jewish Scriptures in the synagogue and debating their interpretation with biblical scholars.

Even though the final decisions about the content of this Bible had not yet been ironed out, the church was able to hit the ground running on the Day of Pentecost with a collection of sacred texts from which they derived the basics of their theology, moral instruction, and liturgy. The various speeches in the book of Acts indicate in summary form how the early church interpreted the biblical story in light of the revelation of Christ, and every book of the New Testament interacts with the Old Testament in one way or another. The book of Revelation is dripping with Old Testament imagery from first to last; the book of Hebrews is best understood as a form of Hellenistic Jewish sermon drawing on a number of Old Testament texts; the letters of Paul reveal at numerous points an informed interaction not only with the sacred texts of Judaism but with common Jewish methods of biblical interpretation. All of this points to an early church steeped in Scripture from the very beginning.

2. The Church Has Not Always Had a New Testament.

It should be self evident, however, that the first Christian communities existed before a single word of the New Testament was committed to writing. It was within these communities that Christians hammered out their core beliefs, values, and practices, and it was for these communities that the New Testament writers wrote. This fact carries a number of implications, but let me suggest two that seem especially important in terms of the development of the New Testament canon:

(1) The texts existed within a wider framework of tradition. The texts served this tradition and were an organic part of it. The tradition included basic matters of theology, ethics, and liturgy, and on all points was informed by a close reading of the Old Testament through the light of God’s revelation in Christ.

As but one example, think about what we’re looking at when we read one of the Gospels. Even the most conservative of scholars agree that the Gospels preserve information about Jesus that was first handed down by word of mouth. In Paul’s letters (largely written before any of the Gospels — at least in their final, canonical form) we even find the technical rabbinic vocabulary of “receiving” and “handing on” an oral tradition (1 Cor 11:23-25; 15:3-7). Paul also urges his churches to hold fast to the traditions he handed on to them, whether oral or textual (2 Thess 2:15). Paul apparently understood that this tradition was authoritative for the early church. One might even argue it was “canonical.” But it was not committed to writing in a universally agreed-upon form.

(2) The texts only gradually became recognized as Scripture in their own right. Like the Old Testament canon, the new Christian writings were accepted as authoritative in the church in stages. The four Gospels were originally written and circulated separately as independent literary units, but by the late second century there was assumed to be a “fourfold” Gospel.

Similarly, Paul’s letters would have originally circulated only to the stated addressees (although some, like Ephesians, may have had a wider readership). In time, these came to be collected and regarded as authoritative. Second Peter 3:16 counts Paul’s letters among the “other” Scriptures. Depending on how one dates this text, it belongs either toward the end of the apostolic era or somewhat later, perhaps into the early part of the second century. At any rate, it is clear from the New Testament itself that Paul’s version of the Christian message was not universally embraced even among Christians during the Apostle’s lifetime.

Other portions of the New Testament were eventually also accepted, but sometimes only after a good bit of debate over many years or even centuries. Even as late as Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 300), the books of James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude were acknowledged to be “disputed.” Some Christians also held the book of Revelation in deep suspicion. Others had doubts about Hebrews because of questions about its authorship.

At the same time, some books were read in some churches or commended for private devotion that did not ultimately get included. Foremost among these were the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. The Didache was also apparently popular in some locales, and is acknowledged by Athanasius as having some value for Christians. Weekend Fisher has made an admirable attempt at objectively “scoring” the weight of historical attestation of all these books, and you may want to check out her results (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

Church fathers acknowledge that heretical groups had their own Scriptures. The Ebionites had the Gospel to the Hebrews and a variant form of the Gospel of Matthew as well as the Clementine literature; the Gnostics had an abundance of unique texts–the Gospel of Thomas, the Exposition of the Soul, etc. None of these can be credibly dated earlier than the middle to late second century, however, and do not seem to have ever been serious contenders for inclusion in the canon of orthodox Christianity. [NB: I’m eager to read April DeConick’s work on Thomas; she argues for an early orthodox kernel of material within GThom. If Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas requires me to adjust what I have written in this paragraph, I’ll alert you to that fact in a later post.] Frankly, a cursory reading of most of this material tends to make one grateful that these texts not only didn’t make the cut but were never even in the running!

[Update: Ben Witherington has posted on his blog a paper from one of his doctoral students critiquing Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. The paper deals in much greater depth with the question of why the existence of books like Gospel of Thomas does not constitute a threat to the traditional understanding of canon formation that I am espousing.]

3. The Canonization of the New Testament Took Place in the Church.

So, the early Christians not only had a growing number of texts at their disposal for use in their worship and teaching, they also had an informal understanding about what their spiritual tradition was. They called this understanding the “rule of faith,” which can be understood as a somewhat fluid summary of the community’s beliefs and values: of what it understood the Bible, both Old and (later) New Testaments, to teach. There is no one “canonical” wording of this rule, but here is that of Irenaeus in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (late 2nd century):

This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.

Astute readers will note both the trinitarian structure of this rule as well as the verbal parallels to later creeds of the church.

Decisions about how to interpret the Bible — and what books belonged in the canon — were largely answered by recourse to the rule of faith. Texts in conformity with the rule were accepted; texts that violated the rule were rejected. And all texts were interpreted with the rule of faith as a template or interpretive grid. Irenaeus compared the biblical interpretations of the Gnostics, for example, as if someone took the tiles of a beautiful mosaic picture of a king and rearranged them so as to make a shoddy picture of an animal instead (Against Heresies 1.8.1). They used the same data, but came to the wrong conclusions because their interpretations fell outside the rule of faith.

4. The Canonization of the New Testament Did Not Take Place in a Vacuum.

The canonization process took place as the early Christians ironed out their beliefs and its Scriptures in polemical confrontation both with the Jews and with heretical or schismatic elements within the church. We can remember of the most significant challenges by recalling the Three M’s:

(1) Marcion. Marcion was a semi-Gnostic teacher active in the middle of the second century. He published the first “Christian” canon based on his conviction that Paul was the Jesus’ greatest interpreter and that there was an uncrossable divide between the Law of Moses and the gospel of Christ. Marcion’s canon thus had no Old Testament at all, ten of Paul’s letters (the Pastorals are excluded), and a severely version of Luke’s Gospel. This resulted in an overly restricted canon.

(2) Montanism. At the other extreme was Montanism, which also seems to have been been born in the middle of the second century. Montanus and his followers emphasized immediate spiritual experiences and claimed special revelations and visions, which they wrote down in additional sacred texts. This resulted in an overly expanded canon.

(3) The Mishnah. The Mishnah is the codification of Jewish oral traditions, many of which undoubtedly reach back to the first century AD. It provides a authoritative interpretation of the Law and thus a guide to the proper understanding of the biblical texts of Judaism. Since the church also claimed to interpret rightly the texts of the Jewish Bible, production of the Mishnah (c. AD 200) called for a corresponding development among Christians.

The New Testament canon in its present form was basically settled by the early third century, although some books (e.g., Hebrews, Revelation) were not yet universally accepted and others (e.g., Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas) were not yet definitely excluded. In his Paschal Letter of AD 367, Athanasius gives us the first extant New Testament canon list matching the twenty-seven books Christians acknowledge today. This effectively settled the matter in the East; in the West, the Council of Carthage (397) arrived at the same canon as Athanasius.

Repost: The Old Testament Canon: The Least You Need to Know

“Canon” comes from a Greek word meaning “reed” or “measuring stick.” It is the technical term within Christianity for the list of books agreed as being divinely inspired and authoritative in the church. Although Judaism does not use this terminology, preferring simply to speak of “the Scriptures,” Jews also wrestled in the early centuries with the question of which books counted as Scripture and which did not. In this post and the next, I’ll try to unpack some of what this wrestling means for our understanding of the Bible.

1. Whatever you call it, you’re going to offend someone.

I expect most of my readers grew up calling the books that come before the New Testament the “Old Testament,” and that’s the end of the story. It should go without saying that this terminology is unacceptable to Jews, for whom these books are not held in distinction to the writings of early Christians. For Jews, these books are simply “the Bible.” Sometimes the word Tanak(h) is used, a Hebrew acronym that stands for Torah (Law), Nebi’im (Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings), the three traditional divisions of the Jewish Bible. (See #2 and #3 below).

Scholars have taken note of the fact that terminology can get one in trouble, especially in contexts where Jews and Christians are discussing these texts together. Therefore, some new possible terms have arisen in recent years. One can speak, for example, of “the Hebrew Bible” or “the Jewish Bible,” although not without a certain lack of precision: Is an English translation of Genesis part of the Hebrew Bible? If Psalms is part of the Jewish Bible, why is that text so central to the spirituality of many Christians? Furthermore, what about books like 1 Maccabees that may rightly be regarded as part of the Christian “Old Testament” (at least for some) but haven’t been part of any Jewish Bible for 2,000 years?

Usually, whatever one calls the books from Genesis to Malachi (or from Genesis to Chronicles—see #3 below), we are still mostly stuck with “the New Testament” for the books from Matthew to Revelation. I’m not sure this doesn’t defeat whatever gains are made in interfaith dialogue by finding another term to use instead of “Old Testament,” since it seems to imply a sense of completion, improvement, or whatever, over the Bible as understood by Jews. (And “First Testament” and “Second Testament” are even worse, as far as I can see.)

Bottom line: Whatever you call these books carries some sort of theological and/or academic baggage. Refer to them as seems appropriate to you and be willing to cut people some slack if they prefer a different terminology.

2. The Jewish Bible developed in stages.

In Judaism, the Bible is divided into three main parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Inclusion in one of these parts gives an approximate indication of the age of the text: the Law was put to writing first, then the Prophets, and finally the Writings. These three divisions were accepted as Scripture at different times.

The Law or Torah, as the oldest portion of the Bible, was the first to be granted canonical status. In 2 Kings 22, a story is recounted of how priests involved in renovation work at the temple rediscovered the long lost “book of the law.” The year was 623 BC. This book was immediately read and interpreted to king Josiah, who instituted wide-ranging religious reforms on its basis. Many scholars believe this “book of the law” was the book of Deuteronomy (or an early form thereof) and not the complete Five Books of Moses, believed to have only assumed its final form during the Babylonian exile. At any rate, here is perhaps the first time in Israel’s history that a written text was embraced as an authoritative message from God. Some 200 years later, Ezra the priest launched a similar reform with the public reading of “the book of the law of Moses” (Neh 8). Here, at the latest, we’ve got the first portion of the Jewish Bible more or less as it stands today.

The Prophets are understood as Scripture by the second century BC. The prologue to the book of Sirach (about 117 BC) begins, “Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom.” Although the books of the Prophets were largely accepted a Scripture by this time (Ezekiel was a latecomer, see below), they were considered of a lesser degree of authority than the Law. Among the Sadducees of Jesus’ day, only the Torah was deemed “Scripture.” The same attitude prevailed among the Samaritans.

Sirach’s “and the others” might mean “and the other books,” which would place the recognition of the Writings in this time period as well, but in fact the contents of the final portion of the Jewish Bible were not firmly established until the first century AD. In the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem, the leading rabbis relocated to the town of Yavneh (or Jamnia) where, among other things, they finally ironed out the contents of the Jewish Bible. Certain books were excluded immediately, such as Sirach, Tobit, and the books of the Maccabees. These were not so much rejected, however, as deemed not sufficiently authoritative to be included as Scripture. The Festival of Hanukkah is based on the historical events described in 1-2 Maccabees, for example, and there are traces of Sirach in traditional Jewish liturgy.

Other books—Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Esther—were hotly contested before finally being admitted to the canon. So even though these books were all in existence during the time of Jesus, not all Jews would have accepted them as authoritative Scripture at that time.

3. Jews and Christians organize these materials differently.

We’ve already seen the broad brush strokes of how this material is arranged in the Jewish Bible: Law, Prophets, Writings. This puts the books in a somewhat different order than one sees in Bibles published by and for Christians. Furthermore, sometimes what counts as two (or more) books in the Christian Old Testament only counts as one in the Jewish Bible. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the traditional Jewish Bible, likewise Ezra and Nehemiah, although in the Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society, they are divided up as in Christian Bibles. Traditionally, the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) count as one “Book of the Twelve” in Jewish thinking. The upshot of all this is that, although there are 39 books in the (Protestant) Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, with exactly the same contents, is understood to comprise only 24 books, and these are in a different order.

The Christian Old Testament begins with the five books of the Law, but then rather quickly begins fiddling with the traditional Jewish order. Where the Jewish Bible has “the Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), the Christian Bible inserts Ruth and 1-2 Chronicles from the Writings and calls this section “the Historical Books.” Next come “the Poetical Books,” lifting Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon from the Writings and setting them apart on their own, and then “the Major Prophets,” including Daniel and Lamentations, also lifted from the Writings. The Christian Old Testament ends with “the Minor Prophets,” what Jews know as “the Book of the Twelve.”

4. Especially among Christians, the Old Testament canon has a hard core and a sometimes elusive outer boundary.

As we have seen, before about the end of the first century, the actual contents of the Old Testament were up for grabs, even among Jews in Eretz Israel. The situation is even more complicated than that, however. Alongside the books that would eventually become the Scriptures of Judaism were other texts, some of which had been included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. “Septuagint” comes from the Latin word for “seventy,” based on a legend that seventy Jewish scholars were responsible for producing this translation. Therefore, the Septuagint is often abbreviated LXX, Roman numeral 70.

Some of the extra books found in the LXX (like 1 Maccabees) were originally written in Hebrew; others (like 2 Maccabees) are original Greek compositions. Furthermore, the LXX version of some of the familiar books is radically different from the form in which Jews and Protestants know them. The Greek book of Jeremiah has the chapters in a different order, and the books of Daniel and Esther have lengthy “additions.” Scholars argue that at least some of these differences go back to an original (Hebrew) text from which the LXX was translated that was noticeably different from the text favored by the later rabbis.

While Jews eventually settled on the canon defined by the rabbis of Yavneh, early Christians gravitated toward the Septuagint. Many of the New Testament quotations of the Old bear witness to the Septuagintal reading. And, of course, having a ready-made Greek translation of the Bible was perfect for Christians’ missionary activities. At any rate, the LXX became the de facto Old Testament of the early church—extra books and all. But this was not without at least some concern that the Jewish Bible was different in places. Two fourth-century church fathers conceded that the extra books were in some sense secondary. Jerome, who produced a new Latin translation of the Bible, wrote the following in his prologue to Samuel and Kings after listing the books of the Jewish Old Testament:

Whatever falls outside these must be set apart among the Apocrypha. Therefore Wisdom, which is commonly entitled Solomon’s, with the book of Jesus the son of Sirach, Judith, Tobias and the ‘Shepherd’ are not in the canon. I have found the first book of Maccabees in Hebrew, the second is in Greek, as may be proved from the language itself.

And in his prologue to the books attributed to Solomon:

Therefore as the church indeed reads Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical books, so let it also read these two volumes [Wisdom and Sirach] for the edification of the people but not for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas.

Furthermore, Athanasius discussed the biblical canon in his Paschal letter of AD 367. After discussing the contents of both testaments, the bishop of Alexandria states,

For the sake of greater accuracy I must needs, as I write, add this: there are other books outside these, which are not indeed included in the canon, but have been appointed from the time of the fathers to be read to those who are recent converts to our company and wish to be instructed in the word of the true religion. These are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith and Tobit, the so-called “Teaching of the Apostles” [The Didache] and the “Shepherd” [The Shepherd of Hermas]. But while the former are included in the canon and the latter are read, no mention is to be made of the apocryphal works.

In other words, certain LXX books (Tobit, Judith, etc.) are appropriate for reading—even in church!—and helpful for spiritual formation, although they do not rise to the same level of authority as the books shared by Christians and Jews alike. These books are usually called “Apocryphal” by Protestants and “Deuterocanonical” by Roman Catholics. Obviously, there is a good deal of debate about how much authority these materials should be granted, and I commend to you Kevin Edgecomb’s little note “On the Confusion of ‘Canon’” as a great place to start in sorting these issues out.

The situation is, in fact, even more convoluted than this, because different early translations of the Old Testament have different contents. In addition, some of these translations have certain books in an appendix. For example, the appendix to the Latin Vulgate includes 3-4 Ezra, Psalm 151, and the Prayer of Manasseh. The result is that certain Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books are accepted in some communions but not in others. Kevin Edgecomb has done a great service in tabulating these differences on his website, and I urge you to go there if you want the details.

The upshot is this: It is possible to think of the canon of the Old Testament as a circle with a large solid core (the books of the Tanakh or Jewish Bible, however the materials may be arranged), a somewhat fuzzy middle layer (Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, and the Additions to Daniel and Esther), and an even fuzzier outer boundary where certain books may only be accepted as canonical by one or a few Orthodox bodies (e.g., 3-4 Maccabees).

As an aside, it should be noted that the 1611 King James Version included the Apocryphal books, albeit set apart in a special section between the testaments. (Martin Luther did the same thing in his German Bible.) By order of the king, it was originally illegal to produce a King James Bible that did not include these books. Furthermore, the King James Apocrypha included not only the materials found in the Catholic Deuterocanon but also 1-2 Esdras. In other words, the original King James Bible had more books in it than the Bible your Catholic friends are using today!