Three Different Bibles

The headline at the top of this blog claims that I’m “The Bible Guy.” So maybe it’s time for me to explain what I mean by “the Bible.”

If I buy a copy of Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote or David Copperfield, I know what’s going to be inside the cover. More to the point, I also know what I’m getting when I pick up a Qur’an or a Book of Mormon. But “the Bible” means different things to different people. Leaving aside the many variations that reflect different translation styles, there are three different books all called by different groups “the Bible”: a Jewish Bible, a Protestant Bible, and a Catholic Bible. Chronologically, the Catholic Bible should obviously come before the Protestant Bible. But I’m going to introduce the Bibles in order of size, from the smallest to the largest.

• The Jewish Bible
The books in the Jewish Bible are the oldest. The writings here date from the 12th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. (More on the use of BCE/CE rather than BC/AD in a later post.) All of them were originally written in Hebrew, with the exception of two chapters in Ezra and six chapters in Daniel, which are written in Aramaic, a cousin language to Hebrew. (Some scholars have suggested that a few of the other books were originally written in Aramaic as well, but we’ll leave these technical discussions aside for now.) All of the books in the Jewish Bible are found in the two Christian Bibles as well, though they are arranged in a different order there. With just three exceptions, all of these books focus on the (somewhat rocky) love affair between God and the Jewish people.

• The Protestant Bible
The Protestant Bible has all of the books of the Jewish Bible plus a separate section of books dating from the mid-1st to mid-2nd centuries CE and written originally in Greek. (Again, some scholars believe that one or two of these may have originally been written in Hebrew or Aramaic.) These books are “The New Testament,” focused on the life of Jesus and on the early history of the religion that developed into the Christianity that we know today. In either kind of Christian Bible, the books of the Jewish Bible are grouped into a collection called “The Old Testament,” contrasting with the New Testament.

• The Catholic Bible
The Catholic Bible is the biggest of the three. But instead of adding yet newer books to the Old and New Testaments of the Protestant Bible, instead it fills the gap in between them with the Apocrypha. This is Jewish literature of the “intertestamental” period—the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Most of it was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but two of the books were written in Greek. These books were outside the canon of the Hebrew Bible, but were preserved in the Greek translations of the Bible that were used by the early Christians. However, when Jerome prepared a new Latin version of the Bible, he made a translation directly from the Hebrew text—which did not contain these extra books. They were nonetheless accepted as part of the Christian Bible, but fell into a different category than the “Old Testament.” According to James Charlesworth (writing in the Anchor Bible Dictionary) in the 16th century Martin Luther moved them to the end of his Old Testament translation and labeled them Apocrypha; meanwhile, the Catholics declared them part of the Christian Bible on April 8, 1546, at the Council of Trent.

That means that a Catholic Bible—the most inclusive–contains three different parts. Here’s a chart of who accepts what:

Jews: “Old Testament”*
Catholics: Old Testament, Apocrypha, New Testament
Protestants: Old Testament, New Testament

*As noted, the Old Testament contains the same books as the Jewish Bible, but in a different order.

The interesting thing about this chart (for me) is that both the Jews and the Catholics—the groups whose religions rely largely on a later group of sacred writings (rabbinic literature for Jews, patristic literature for Catholics) have a Bible that maintains historical continuity from beginning to end. The Catholic Bible does not have the same linguistic continuity that the Jewish Bible has, but here too the Apocrypha bridge the gap with books from the period when Jewish literature was expanding from Hebrew into Greek. The Protestants, whose sola scriptura perspective was a major cause of the break with Catholicism, have a Bible with a big chronological and linguistic gap in between its two sections.

The bottom line is that the Bible is a unique book. You may open someone else’s copy of it and discover that books you expected to find are missing, or that books you don’t consider to be part of the Bible are there.

So, caveat emptor. When someone calls himself “The Bible Guy,” you always have to ask which Bible he talking about. In my case—though I expect to write about Apocrypha and New Testament topics from time to time—“the Bible” is the Jewish Bible.

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3 Responses to “Three Different Bibles”

  1. The “Old Testament” « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] The Bible Guy a learner's guide by Michael Carasik « Three Different Bibles […]

  2. Aramaic Scholar Says:

    Thanks for the details in your post. Hebrew and Aramaic have always been Judaism’s two Holy Languages. They have grown together like two vines whose branches intermingle.

  3. Michael Says:

    I appreciate the straightforward explanation of these important distinctionsl when considering the (not so obvious to the layman) different Bibles.

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