The Seekers' Guide to the Bible
A good number of the interesting questions that people often ask about the Bible all find their answers related to the Old Testament being translated into Greek several centuries before Christ. Let us have a look at each of the questions before we explore the answers.
Firstly, many people wonder what happened between the Old and New Testaments and why there is nothing in their Bibles that covers the period. After all, the story of Israel is taken up to about 400BC by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and then there is a long gap before the New Testament starts during the reign of Herod the Great who died in 4BC.
Second, Catholic and Orthodox Bibles are rather longer than Protestant ones. The extra bulk comes from several additional bits of the Old Testament. These are rather grandly called the Deuterocanonical books by Catholics. If they appear in Protestant Bibles at all they are all gathered together, sandwiched between the Old and New Testaments, in a section called the Apocrypha. Although I'm Catholic, I will refer to all these extra parts as the Apocrypha (with a capital 'A') as this is the most familiar title to English speakers.
Third, anyone who has looked up some of the Old Testament quotations in, say, Paul's letters or the Letter to the Hebrews will have noticed that the words in their Old Testament do not appear to be quite the same as the ones quoted in their New Testament. It's as if the authors of the New Testament have been rather careless, or worse, rather creative, with their use of the Old Testament.
Fourthly there is a very minor but confusing point. In many editions of the Bible most of the psalms have been given two numbers but at the beginning and end of the book they only have one.
The answers to all these questions is provided by a story from Ancient Egypt.
By about 300BC, a large Jewish community had sprung up in Alexandria and many other Greek cities around the Mediterranean Sea. Now, as everyone knows, there was a great library in Alexandria and the Pharaoh, one Ptolemy II, ordered that it should contain a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek. Messengers were despatched to Palestine and they ordered the finest Jewish scholars to assemble in Alexandria to undertake the great work of translation. Seventy two scribes, six from each of the twelve tribes, turned up and, working day and night in complete isolation, they each produced a Greek copy of the Pentateuch absolutely identical to all the others. This was seen as a sign that the new translation was divinely inspired and it became widely accepted by Greek speaking Jews as an acceptable (and understandable) substitute for the Hebrew original. The new translation went by the name of the Septuagint (or LXX for short, which is seventy in Roman numerals) after the seventy odd scholars who were supposed to have worked on it and the name quickly came to mean the entire Greek Old Testament.
That, at least, is the famous version of the story told by Philo and Josephus (we will see where they got it from below). The truth is that well before the birth of Christ, the Septuagint was being used by the Jews of the Diaspora and was familiar even to those still in Palestine. This meant that the main focus of Jewish intellectual life switched from Hebrew into Greek - the lingua franca of the Mediterranean - and additions to the scriptures made after about 300BC were usually in that language. It is these additions that now make up the Apocrypha. Most of them were never written in Hebrew.
By the time that the New Testament was written, also in Greek, it was the Septuagint and not the Hebrew Bible that its authors turned to when they needed to quote something. Today, however, our Bibles are direct translations of the original Hebrew version and so the same passage can read slightly differently. Most famously, Matthew quotes Isaiah as saying that Immanuel would be born of a virgin, which is exactly what the Greek Septuagint says. However, the older Hebrew version reads 'young woman' instead which does not mean quite the same thing, even in those days.
Also, the Septuagint tended to rearrange books and passages. Jeremiah is in a substantially different shape while psalm 8 and 9 are joined together. Conversely psalm 147 is split in two so the number of all the psalms between 9 and 147 differ by one between the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments. For this reason, most modern editions put the Septuagint number in brackets after the Hebrew one.
Those extra books that were added to the Old Testament after it had been translated into Greek contain some of the most interesting books of the Bible. They were dropped from the Protestant Bible after the Reformation on the grounds that they did not form part of the Hebrew canon but most of them were kept by the Catholic and Orthodox churches and called the Deuterocanonical books. Their exact status with regards to inspiration is debated between conservative Catholics and protestants. To liberals like me they are valuable and useful additions to anyone's Bible although not perhaps as important as some other parts. I do recommend owning either a Catholic Bible or one that contains the Apocrypha as there is much wisdom to be found here.
To the authors of the New Testament, the Septuagint was undoubtedly the official Bible but the later church fathers were divided. St Jerome, in particular, felt it was not as valuable as the Hebrew Old Testament. The Jews themselves, noting that it was the standard Bible used by Christians, disowned the Septuagint and started to find all sorts of mistakes in it. This was a turn about as they had previously claimed it was inspired. Some Rabbis squared the circle by explaining that the mistakes were put in by God to befuddle the gentiles!
There are fourteen books or fragments of books in the Apocrypha which I'll deal with in turn:
1 and 2 Maccabees: These two books are both valuable histories of the period from about 170 BC when the Jews of Palestine rebelled against their Seleucid overlords. Like the rest of the Persian Empire, Palestine was taken over by Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century BC. After his death, his enormous conquests were split up and Palestine ended up belonging to the Seleucids of Syria - descended from one of Alexander's generals. These Greeks let the Jews pretty much run their own affairs but when these privileges were withdrawn the Jews successfully rebelled and were independent until Pompey annexed the area to the Roman Empire in 61 BC. It was during this rebellion that the festival of Hanukah was instituted to celebrate the rededication of the Temple after it had been desecrated by the Seleucids.
Although they cover the same period the books are in no way related. 2 Macabees is a summary of a much longer and now lost work while 1 Macabees is complete in itself. Both books are treated as canonical by the Catholic Church and found in its Bibles.
1 and 2 Esdras: Esdras is the Greek for Ezra and 1 Esdras is a truncated reworking of the canonical book of Ezra with one extra story about three wise bodyguards (1 Esdras 3 - 4). 2 Esdras is an apocalyptic work. Neither of these books are usually found in the Catholic Bible and owe their place in the apocrypha because they are found in an appendix to the Latin Vulgate where they are called 3 and 4 Esdras. Confusingly the canonical books of Ezra and Nehemiah are called 1 and 2 Esdras in the Vulgate!
Baruch: This short book is traditionally attributed to the secretary of Jeremiah. It is in the Catholic Old Testament but in the Apocrypha chapter six is sometimes separated off as the Letter of Jeremiah rather than being treated as part of Baruch.
Sirach: Often called Ecclesiaticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), this book is much like Proverbs and contains the wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach. It is included in the Catholic Bible.
Wisdom: The Wisdom of Solomon is one of the latest books in the Old Testament dating from the first century BC. It was certainly not written by Solomon but is well worth reading nonetheless. One of my favourite biblical passages is found here and I was pleased to see that Cardinal Hume chose it to be read at his funeral. This book forms part of the Catholic Old Testament and the third-century Muraturian Canon actually includes it as a New Testament book!
Tobit: This book is the story of Tobias the Elder and Sara. It is treated as canonical by Catholics.
Judith: The Book of Judith is splendid yarn about how the Assyrians of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Nineveh, were laying siege to a Jewish city called Bethulia. A widow called Judith sneaks out of the city and beguiles the Assyrian general so she can cut off his head. As a result the Jews sally forth from the city and win the day, The book is considered canonical by Catholics.
Susanna, Azariah, Bel and the Dragon: These are three fragments of the Book of Daniel that are only known from the Septuagint. They are consequently excluded from the Hebrew Bible and relegated to the Apocrypha by Protestants. Catholics include them in their place in Daniel.
Esther: Several letters included in the Greek Septuagint are not extant in Hebrew and so suffer the same fate as the extra bits of Daniel. Catholics include at their places in canonical Esther and they are among the best bits of this highly entertaining story.
The Prayer of Manasseh: This is not included in Catholic or Hebrew Bibles and purports to be the prayer mentioned at 2 Chronicles 23(13).
As well as the Apocrypha, there are also many Jewish religious works extant that did not make it into any version of the Old Testament. These are commonly called the Pseudopigraphical works because they are attributed to various famous figures and where the actual author is very often unknown.
The origins of these works are a bit of a mystery but they are, in general, very much later than the rest of canonical Old Testament and are usually Greek rather than Hebrew works. The corpus of Jewish wisdom literature has continued to grow and esoteric works on the Kabbalah were being written and attributed to Moses and the other patriarchs in the Middle Ages. A good deal of the Old Testament Pseudopigrapha consist of apocalyptic works predicting the end of the world or at least the end of the current order. Several of these works are attributed to Enoch who gets a bit part in the book of Genesis (5:24) where he is taken up to heaven. This made him a popular candidate for alleged author of pseudopigraphical literature in the centuries around the birth of Christ. What this literature shows us is that Judaism was by no means a homogeneous group at the time of Jesus and also helps us understand the context from which Christianity sprung.
You can find out a lot more about these books on the fringes of the Bible at this site at St Andrew's University. I will mention just a few of them that are particularly important or contain famous stories.
The Book of Jubilees, which is also known as Little (as in less important) Genesis or the Apocalypse of Moses, is a kind of expanded Genesis with lots of interesting legends added to it. The name Jubilees comes from the fact that the whole book is organised into segments of seven times seven years. It is thought to have been written in about 100BC by a Pharisee who wanted to show that the Mosaic Law, to which he felt so much reverence, had truly a ancient and divine origin.
The contents of the Letter of Aristeas have already been discussed as this is the source of the story about the writing of the Septuagint (although it refers only to the Pentateuch). This was very popular among Christians who used the Septuagint after it had been abandoned by Jews and wanted a story that proved its legitimacy. There is also one of the earliest references to the Great Library of Alexandria. Aristeas is a pseudonym who is not a gentile Greek as he claims, but a Jew from Alexandria writing about 100BC.
The Martyrdom of Isaiah seeks to fill in gaps in our knowledge about the great prophet left by the canonical book that bears his name. It gives him a suitably heroic and gory end as is fitting for such a man of God.
© James Hannam 2001.