Outside the Canon and Judged Apocryphal

Reformers at Marburg

This is Part 7 of my series on the canon of Scripture. In order to follow this mystery story, you need to begin here.

Protestants have propagated many myths concerning the canon – our protagonist has just shattered Major Myth #1: “The Catholic Church ADDED 7 books to the Bible at the Council of Trent.” As our hero has discovered, John Wycliffe included the Apocrypha (with even more books than in the Catholic Bible) in his English translation of Holy Scripture 150 years BEFORE the Council of Trent supposedly added the books to the Catholic Bible. Was this a one-off? Hardly – Martin Luther insisted on including the Apocrypha in his Bible translation, although he placed those books in a special section at the end of the Old Testament, just as he placed Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation in a special section at the end of the New Testament!
ALL the early Protestant Bibles included the Apocrypha – pretty strange
if those books were added to the Bible by the Catholic Church in 1546 as many Protestants claim.

Thus far, our hero has attempted to determine why the books of the Apocrypha were included in a section behind the Old Testament in all the 16th-century Protestant English Bibles, and why some of those same Bibles shunted Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to a section behind the New Testament. His quest has led him to Martin Luther, who initiated these practices, and started a trend that others continued and expanded upon….

Delving deeper, you determine that Wycliffe apparently translated the Scriptures into English from the Vulgate version of the Bible. Luther, on the other hand, translated the Old Testament into German from the Soncino Hebrew Bible used by the Jews of his day – the Apocryphal books were not in that version, and they had to be translated from the Septuagint (a Greek manuscript) and the Vulgate (a Latin translation). But why did Luther see fit to drag the Apocryphal books into his Bible at all??

The common explanation of the presence of the Apocrypha in Protestant Bibles (when you can find mention made of this at all!) seems to be that those books were there for “historical reasons,” to “provide historical background….” In the Geneva Bible you find the statement that the Apocrypha is included “as books proceeding from godly men” which “were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of the history and for the instruction of godly manners, etc.” But you can’t find that “historical background” reasoning in other versions, for example, in Luther’s German Bible which predates the Geneva. Why exactly would Martin Luther go out of his way to include the Apocrypha in his German Old Testament when those books weren’t present in the Hebrew text from which he translated the canonical books? He said that he included the Apocrypha because it was “useful and good to be read.” Okay, that could be said about a lot of books… but why include them between the covers of the Holy Bible???

You find that various 16th– and 17th-century Bibles give differing reasons for the presence of the Apocrypha between their covers:

The Apocrypha was included in the Zurich Bible “so that no one may complain of lacking anything, and each may find what is to his taste” (which sounds to you like the smorgasbord approach to Bible publishing!)

The 1551 French de Tournes edition of the Scriptures puts the Apocrypha in a separate section, à la Luther. It goes on to inform the reader that these books are rejected by the Jews. No matter, the editor assures us: “Wherefore, reader, seeing that from all flowers the fly may draw liquor to make honey, without regarding where it is planted, whether in the field or in the garden, so from all books thou shalt be able to draw matter suitable to thy salvation without being guided by the Jews. …. Since, therefore, all have the same source and wholesome root, in spite of any
pruning the
Jews may have made on them, do not fail to read them and to take from them doctrine and edification.”

Becke’s Bible seems to indicate that the Apocryphal books are inferior to canonical books simply because they were written in the wrong language: “And although these books be not found in the Hebrew nor in the Chaldean and for that do not take of so great authority as be the other books of the Holy Bible, yet have the holy fathers always so esteemed them and worthily they call them … books of the church, or books mete to be read among the whole congregation namely for that they do agree with the other books of the Holy Bible and contain most godly examples and precepts of the fear and love of God and our neighbor. Wherefore they are diligently to be read, and the learning in them earnestly to be followed that by our good example of living our Heavenly Father throughout all nations may be praised and glorified….”

Coverdale, in his preface to the Apocrypha, states that in his opinion the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men do not belong in the Bible; “Nevertheless, both because of those that be weak and scrupulous, and for their sakes also that love such sweet songs of thanksgiving, I have not left them out, to the intent that the one should have no cause to complain, and that the other also might have the more occasion to give thanks unto God in adversity, as the three children did in the fire.”

The 1611 KJV included the Apocrypha with no comment at all concerning why it was there.

The fifth edition of the Great Bible calls the books, not Apocrypha, but merely “the fourth part of the Bible.”

Apparently the memo that the Apocrypha was being included to provide “historical background” hadn’t reached everyone yet!

So Luther was in essence a “trendsetter” – he had two “special” sections in his German translation, one in the Old Testament (for the 7 books you know are Apocrypha) and one in the New (for the 4 books you know and love as Holy Scripture!). Now you understand the references concerning “Luther’s arrangement of the New Testament canon” that you read in connection with the old English Bibles – some of the English were following Martin Luther’s lead in shunting Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the back of the Bible. Luther’s example started the ball rolling. In fact, the reference books tell you that low German Bibles around the year 1600 actually went so far as to label Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation “apocryphal” or even “noncanonical,” “that is, books which are not held equal to other holy Scripture.” The Swedish Gustavus Adolphus Bible of 1618 does the same, calling those books “Apocr(yphal) N.T.” The Canon of the New Testament tells you that this “threefold division of the New Testament: ‘Gospels and Acts’, ‘Epistles and Holy Apostles’, and ‘Apocryphal New Testament,” was “an arrangement that persisted for nearly a century in half a dozen or more printings.”

That’s horrible! How could such a thing be allowed to happen? Four books of inspired Scripture were presented to a generation of Bible-readers as “apocryphal,” all because Luther felt that they were somehow substandard. Who was he to sit in judgment of Holy Scripture, anyway?

Dismayed, you read on concerning the other Reformers to see if their beliefs on the NT canon were any more orthodox than Luther’s! You find that:

John Calvin called 1 John “THE Epistle of John,” and did not write commentary on the other two epistles of John the Apostle.

Ulrich Zwingli declared concerning Revelation: “With the Apocalypse we have no concern, for it is not a Biblical book” after it was used in a debate against him to support the invocation of angels. (This sounds a great deal like Luther and his rejection of 2 Maccabees!)

Luther’s colleague from Wittenburg, Andreas Karlstadt, thought that SEVEN New Testament books (Hebrews, James, II Peter, II John, III John, Jude and Revelation) were questionable, adding that there was really very little reason to include Revelation in the canon. He declared both the Epistle to the Laodiceans and the ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mk 16:9-20) to be apocryphal. He also divided the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament into two categories, declaring Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Judith, Tobit, and I and II Maccabees to be “holy writings,” while 1 and 2 Esdras, Baruch, Prayer of Manasseh, and the additions to Daniel were “obviously apocryphal.”

“The second Martin,” Martin Chemnitz, also declared the books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation to be disputed, insisting that they be used “for edification,” but that “no dogma ought to be drawn out of these books which does not have reliable and clear foundations in other canonical books.”

Johannes Brenz calls the seven books “apocryphal,” asking by what right they should be put on the same level as the canonical Scriptures. He considered them, however, “valuable for reading.”

Mathias Haffenreffer, in speaking of the seven disputed New Testament books, said, “These apocryphal books, although they do not have canonical authority in judging of doctrine, yet because they make for instruction and edification, contain many things and can be read privately and publicly recited in the church with usefulness and profit.”

Andreas Osiander insisted that the seven books “do not have in themselves value for establishing doctrine.”

Johannes Oecolampadius had no problem with Hebrews, but stated that “we do not compare the Apocalypse, the Epistles of James and Jude, and 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John with the rest.”

Aegidius Hunnius remarked that the seven disputed NT books “are outside the Canon and are judged apocryphal.”

Heinrich Bullinger was the first major Reformer to write a commentary on the book of Revelation as other Reformers considered the book to be either substandard or outright unbiblical. (Calvin’s position on Revelation is unclear – he may simply have died before he could write any commentary on it, or he may have concurred with other Reformers and considered it apocryphal.)

In the years following the Reformation, various individuals questioned the presence of the Song of Solomon, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Luke, and Acts in their Bibles….

And you note that several German Bible editions of the 16th century included the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” in their New Testament, as did editions of Wycliffe’s translation, as well as Czech Bibles….

You cradle your aching head in your hands. You don’t even know who some of those guys were, but you get the main idea: the Reformers had no more of a clue concerning what was Scripture (and what wasn’t) than Wycliffe and Luther did. So many of them treated Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation as if they were Apocrypha – placing them in a “special” section, with no “canonical authority in judging of doctrine” but “valuable for reading,” just like Luther’s “useful and good to be read.” How did they justify this unholy nonsense?

Luther used his “true touchstone,” his system of which books “preached Christ” to determine which New Testament books to segregate, a rather subjective system that seems pretty dangerous to you. It seems obvious that Luther decided his doctrine FIRST based on his understanding of “the just shall live by faith,” then looked for it in the books of the New Testament. Whenever he couldn’t find this doctrine explained as clearly as he would have liked in certain books, he declared them deficient, perhaps not even really Scripture. In fact, the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, in discussing Luther’s system, says as much:

Thus the doctrine of justification by faith is not accepted because it is found in the Bible; but the Bible is accepted because it contains this doctrine.

You shake your head. This is backwards – we don’t form our theology first and then pick and choose among the books of Scripture! That makes US the final arbiter of truth, doesn’t it? Let’s say you started pondering New Testament truths such as Jesus’ statement “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you,” and then began noticing Old Testament passages which seemed to preach a different message. If you went into your church on Sunday and announced to the pastor that you had decided, based on your reading of the Gospels, that God is love and therefore the Old Testament is obviously not really Scripture – after all, it presents God as telling Israel to wipe the Canaanites off the face of the earth! Your pastor would sit you down and have “a little talk” with you! We do not sit in judgment of the Scriptures, he would insist – we allow Scripture to teach us! If sections of Scripture seem to be in conflict with each other, there are whole reference books devoted to harmonizing them! Once we know that a book is Holy Scripture, we must acknowledge that any discrepancies or “errors” in that book can be reconciled with what we find in the rest of Scripture. That is apparently what Protestants who lived after the Reformation eventually did; ignoring Luther’s qualms, they reconciled James’ insistence that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” with Paul’s “we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” because both of these books are Holy Scripture!!!

Why did the Reformers feel the need to fiddle with Scripture???

The question remains, did the other Reformers follow Luther’s “true touchstone,” his odd justification for cutting and pasting books of the Bible into his own little arrangement using the criterion of how well a given book “preached Christ,” or did they have their own justifications for cobbling together their custom-made canons?

Do you really want to know?

For Part Eight, please click here


On the memorial of St. Anthony of Egypt

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Justin said:

    Great article…and well-researched…

    God bless

  2. Mrk said:

    Again, Luther didn’t pick this up out of thin air, a couple things influence him. First, his teachers, namely Catholic scholars Bartholomew Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutvetter of Eisenach. Secondly his use of “contemporary” catholic commentaries on the canon, specifically the Glossa ordinaria. Again, Luther was no saint, and he made his mistakes. If only we held others to the same critical light…..

    • I realize that no Protestant claims that Luther was a saint, or that he was infallible. I am writing in answer to some of the ideas I believed when I was a Protestant – namely, that the Reformers “knew” that the Catholic canon had books in there which didn’t belong, because they had access to “real” 66-book Bibles dating from antiquity. Finding out that there was no such thing was, for me, like a sucker-punch to the gut. Each Reformer had his own fallible opinion as to which books belonged and which didn’t. That idea made me positively queasy.

      • Mrk said:

        I appreciate your analysis here, but I’m sure you can find an equally “haphazard” course on the Catholic side, that didn’t resolve itself until Trent, and even then there was much dissension in the catholic church. I do see this not so much as man declaring something Scripture, but more as Discovering Scripture. Will continue to read…

        • Thank you! I think you’ll see, if you bear with me, why the haphazard course on the Catholic side really doesn’t mean what you might think….

          Catholics also believe that the Church DISCERNS Scripture, as opposed to making a given book Scripture on her say-so, so that is a point of agreement between Protestants and Catholics. The canon was discerned by the Church.

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