THE QUESTION asked of me regarding the acceptance of one book of the Bible and rejection of others, could equally be asked of the various denominations of the Christian Church. For in fact it is the case that there is great difference between denominations even now with regard to which books are accepted as canonical and which are not. It is also the case that there has been great debate historically on the matter of the canonical books of the Bible.
The famous case is that of Marcion who sought to reject the whole of the Old Testament, claiming that the loving Father of the New Testament was a different God from that of the Old Testament. Today it could be said that many take a similar stance to Marcion, even if they would never actually articulate it. Walter Moberly writes:
‘For many Christians the Old Testament tends to be more of an embarrassment than a resource, more of a stone to trip over than a well to drink from. The ghost of Marcion, who in the second century was the first Christian seriously to propose that Christians did not need, and would be better off without those Scriptures of Israel which came to be known as the Old Testament, still haunts many a Christian mind. Although the official position of the churches down the centuries has been that Marcion was wrong, the actual practice of many churches suggest a position more along the lines of “he was probably more right than wrong.”’ Can Balaam’s Ass Speak Today? A Case Study in Reading the Old Testament as Scripture, 1998, Grove Books Ltd., Cambridge, p.3
Where the canon of the New Testament is concerned, the debate about which books are accepted and which are not has been going on for centuries. Bruce Metzger (The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, 1997, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 305-315) lists the following canons, amongst others: the Canon of Origen, the Canon of Eusebius Of Caesarea, the Canon of Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cheltenham Canon, the Canon approved by the Synod of Laodicea, the Canon of Athanasius, the Canon approved by the ‘Apostolic Canons’, the Canon of Gregory of Nazianzus, the Canon of Amphilochius of Iconium, the Canon approved by the third Synod of Carthage. A number of books which were once considered part of the Roman Catholic New Testament canon, but which are absent today include several of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Didache was considered scripture by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The fifth-century Greek Codex Alexandrius contained the first Epistle of Clement, which was read in services of worship at Corinth around 170CE (ibid. pp. 187-188).
More recently, Zwingli insisted that the book of Revelation was not part of the New Testament at the Berne Disputation of 1528. Martin Luther called the Letter of James an epistle of straw, and denigrated Jude, Hebrews and Revelation. Although he printed them in his German Bible, he explained in their prefaces his doubts about their authority. Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt divided the New Testament into sections of different levels, the lowest of which included James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews and Revelations. Erasmus doubted that Paul was the author of Hebrews and James of the Letter of James, and questioned the authorship of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. The Swedish Gustavus Adolphus Bible of 1618 labelled these books as ‘Apocryphal New Testament’. (ibid. pp. 241-245)
It would be wrong to assume that the Bibles of today are all united upon one canon. The fact is that the major denominations actually differ as to which books are accepted and which are rejected. The Protestant church has the Hebrew canon as its Old Testament, with some books divided, numbering thirty-nine books in total. This denomination rejected a number of books and parts of books which were previously included in the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate. The Protestant New Testament is made up of twenty-seven books (i.e. the four Gospels, Acts, twenty-one letters and the book of Revelation with which we are familiar). The Roman Catholic church’s Old Testament includes Tobit, Judith, the Greek additions to Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. In total, therefore, the Roman Catholic Bible is made up of seventy-three books. The Greek Orthodox Church has a Bible which includes all the books accepted by the Roman Catholic church, with the addition of 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151 and 3 Maccabees. The Slavonic canon adds 2 Esdras. Other Eastern churches also include 4 Maccabees.