How Many Books in the Old Testament?

This article was first published in the print edition of Catholic Family News, October 2017. Is is re-printed here with permission.

Gas Station Evangelization

In last month’s edition, our anecdote was left unfinished. You might recall that I was on my way to work and had stopped to fill my car with gas when I was approached by a would-be proselytizer asking me if I was “saved.” I responded by challenging him to explain the basis on which he accepted the Bible as the word of God. This very foundational question had caught him off guard. This is to be expected, since most men simply accept unconsciously the most basic and elementary principles of any subject matter. Yet it is very important for us to be able to examine, explain, and defend these basic principles because so many of our disagreements are rooted therein. My interlocutor was clearly unprepared to discuss this topic, but he did understand I was saying the Bible is Catholic, and that I had even gone so far as to say he had received his Bible from the Catholic Church. He reflexively repelled against this notion and launched his own attack, now feeling himself on more familiar ground:

“No, I don’t use your Bible. I got rid of those once I found Jesus and found out that Catholics had added books to God’s word. I received my Bible all the way back from the Jews who were God’s chosen people in the Old Testament.”

I was pleased to hear that he knew the Protestant and Catholic versions of Holy Writ are different (many Catholics today don’t even know this basic fact). However, instead of trying to fend off this attack, I thought it more prudent to roll with it:

“Well, what’s wrong with adding books to the Bible? After all, didn’t every book in the Bible have to be ‘added in’ at some point in time?”

I was still trying to subtly help him see how the Bible can’t exist without an external objective authority that defines exactly what is Sacred Scripture and what is not.

Instead, I was taken aback by the explosive vehemence in his words: “WHAT! You can’t add books to the Bible. Anyone who changes God’s word will go to hell!”

Now it was my turn to be at a momentary loss for words; not for lack of logic, but simply because I was stunned by the bristling passion etched in every crease of his face.

He probably sensed this as a weakness and thought it opportune to pursue his perceived advantage: “In the Book of Revelation, God says ‘For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book, and if any man shall take away from words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city!” (Apoc. 22:18-19).

A number of rebuttals popped into my head. First, I wanted to say, “God did not say that; St. John did under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.” But I knew he would consider that semantics, and I did not want to get into a discussion on the divine inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures (not just yet, anyway). Next, I wanted to say that perhaps the context of this curse only implied it was wrong to delete and add words to the Book of the Apocalypse and didn’t cover the rest of the Bible, but he would most likely see that as semantics as well. Of course, I could then use his defense to make my point by showing how every book in the Bible is indeed part of a unified whole defined by the Church as Sacred Scripture, but that could become a convoluted path he wouldn’t easily follow. Hadn’t we just been down that road without making significant headway? I even thought of aggravating him by facetiously nitpicking, “But that doesn’t say I’ll go to hell. You accused Catholics of adding books. The penalty for that is having the plagues added to you. It is those who delete words that are deleted out of the book of life and can’t enter Heaven and are thus condemned to hell.” And it was at that very moment that the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.

I feigned incredulity and responded: “Seriously, you really think that if someone adds or deletes words to the Bible then God is going to send him to hell?”

“Absolutely,” he replied, “that’s what it says in God’s holy word and His word is true.”

I knew I surprised him when I calmly replied, “In that case, my friend, it is you who really need to come back to the Catholic Church.”

There was pregnant pause as he wrinkled his eyebrows in denial. I continued, “It is Protestants who have accepted the deletion of books from the Sacred Scriptures. Catholics use the exact same Old Testament which Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles used. If you simply study the history of this issue and verify the facts, then that evidence will lead you to the truth.”

What follows here is a brief summary of what I then explained to him. When I was finished, he admitted that all I had said were things he had never heard before. He graciously acknowledged that I had an apparent knowledge of the matter, but he was still unsure if I had the facts right. I encouraged him to honestly study the matter and he enthusiastically nodded that he would. Since we found ourselves at a momentary impasse and I had to get to work, we agreed to part ways. I gave him my phone number and told him to feel free to call me after he had looked into the matter. I was particularly pleased to see that we parted in harmony.

The Correct Canon of Scripture

Some Protestants argue that Catholics “added” books to the Old Testament because it was not until the great Council of Trent that the Church formally and infallibly defined which books constitute the Old Testament.[1] However, Protestants generally fail to mention that in making this definition the Council Fathers were simply following the ancient and venerable Christian Tradition:

“Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, [the Council] receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession. It has thought it proper, moreover, to insert in this decree a list of the sacred books, lest a doubt might arise in the mind of someone as to which are the books received by this council.”[2]

Instead, the erroneous story line which most Protestants learn is that the arch-heretic Martin Luther “purified” the Bible by eliminating seven “apocryphal”[3] books in the Old Testament, which Catholics had “added.” Although we may not know for certain why Luther did this, two very plausible reasons are (1) he was rebelling against the authority of Holy Mother Church and therefore diligently searching for “errors” she had committed, and (2) he honestly believed that an Old Testament with only thirty-nine books was more authentic. Note that these two reasons are not mutually exclusive but could easily work to reinforce each other in Luther’s mind. To understand how Luther could easily have made this mistake, we need to learn our history.

What are the origins of the Old Testament? That is certainly an elusive question, one much debated by biblical scholars, and has no definitive or easy answer. This is compounded by the fact that the Old Testament has numerous authors and its many books were written at different points in time; for example, Tradition holds that Moses authored the Pentateuch,[4] David wrote many of the Psalms, and various prophets (or their disciples) contributed many of the prophetic books. For our purposes here, however, we can greatly narrow our question by limiting ourselves to discussing the origins of the Septuagint and Jamnian[5] versions of the Old Testament.

The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament

In 331 B.C., Alexander the Great was marching his armies across the known world and founded the Egyptian port city of Alexandria at the confluence of the Mediterranean Sea and western edge of the Nile delta. Upon his death, his Hellenistic Empire was divided amongst his leading generals and Ptolemy I received Egypt. He founded a dynasty which ruled Egypt for three centuries (until it was conquered by Rome) and converted Egypt into a Hellenistic kingdom with his capital of Alexandria being arguably the greatest center of Greek culture. One of his most significant achievements was building and establishing in Alexandria the ancient world’s greatest library. His son, Ptolemy II, succeed him as king (283-246 B.C.) and continued expanding Alexandria’s library.

Now Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city that included many Greek-speaking Jews, so Ptolemy II was very aware of their culture and religious beliefs. He called together seventy of the greatest Jewish rabbinic scholars of the time and asked them to provide the Library with a manuscript of their Sacred Scriptures. After all, his library would seem incomplete without such an important and revered text. The Jewish scholars provided him with the Septuagint, which was a version of the Old Testament in koine Greek.[6] Since the Greek language dominated the Eastern Mediterranean lands for centuries, the Septuagint became widely known and used. In fact, when the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, they most often reference the Septuagint. It is an incontrovertible historical and linguistic fact that the Apostles and St. Paul accepted the authority and authenticity of the Septuagint.[7]

The Jamnian Version of the Old Testament

In 70 A.D., Titus led the Roman legions in besieging and demolishing a rebellious Jerusalem. Our Lord’s dire predictions against the nation who had rejected Him as the Messiah were fulfilled. The destruction was so complete that not one stone of the Temple was left upon another (to this date, the Temple has never been rebuilt), and the Jews were dispersed from their homeland. Twenty years later (90 A.D.), in the seacoast town of Jamnia, about thirty miles west of the ruined Jerusalem, a group of Jewish rabbinic scholars gathered together in an effort to salvage their culture and identity. Though all the details of this “council” are unclear, it is known that it defined a canon of the Hebrew Scriptures and approved the continued use of the “Eighteen Benedictions,” including the insertion of the cursing of the “Nazarenes” into their “Twelfth Benediction.”[8]

Many have speculated as to why these scholars only accepted a canon of thirty-nine books in the Sacred Scriptures. There certainly was controversy among different Jewish groups as to what books should be considered Holy Writ. For example, the Sadducees only accepted the Torah (first five books) as divinely inspired. Thus, when Jesus taught them there is a resurrection, He cited passages from those books, reminding them that God is “God of the living,” and since God is also called “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” those patriarchs must still be living in some manner. The Dead Sea scroll findings indicate that the Essenes possibly accepted some books as inspired that were not accepted by the Pharisees (e.g. Book of Jubilees). Others have suggested that the Jamnian scholars probably disagreed with certain theological matters contained in the books they rejected from their canon. Following 0ccam’s Razor, I personally subscribe to the more prosaic position that these Jewish leaders were simply in a process of “ghettoizing” themselves. Given the destruction of their homeland and their way of life, they were in a very real danger of losing their identity as a distinct people. Thus, it is understandable that they were making every effort to preserve a strong Jewish identity. We know they encouraged living in their own neighborhoods, wrote the midrash (an interpretation of the Scriptures from their tradition and perspective), fostered a rabbinic education of boys from a very young age, and discouraged marriage to a goyim (gentile). As part of this effort, it would be reasonable to “prune” their Scriptures of all that which did not seem sufficiently Jewish. One point of commonality shared by the seven Old Testaments books which they rejected is that none of them were originally written in Hebrew.

Regardless of their motives, the fact of the matter is that from 90 A.D. onward the Jamnian (Hebrew) Canon of Scripture only included 39 books. This version of the Old Testament was most notably preserved by the Jewish community living in Babylon and other areas in the East. At that time, this land was controlled by Persia and in the Seventh century A.D. it fell under the shadow of the Mohammedans. In the West, the Roman Empire crumbled under the onslaught of barbarians and much of men’s civilization and accumulated knowledge was lost for centuries. It was not until after the Crusades, the voyages of Marco Polo, and the Italian Renaissance that knowledge of ancient civilizations was rediscovered in the West. Among the many things that entered Europe via trade routes to the East was the long-forgotten Jamnian Canon.

Martin Luther’s Mistake

As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther had access to much of the “cutting-edge” scholarship of his day, including the Jamnian Canon. Since this version came from Jewish communities, that is, the people of the Old Covenant who predated Christianity, and it was in Hebrew, a language more ancient than Latin (the language of the Vulgate) and Greek (the language of the Septuagint), it was logical for Marin Luther to suppose that the Jamnian Canon was more ancient and hence more authentic and original than the Septuagint. Given his antagonism towards the Church and all things “Roman,” it is easy to see why he accused Catholics of “adding books” and opted for the Jamnian version.

Unfortunately, Martin Luther was probably ignorant of the histories of these two canons. Most likely, he did not know that the Septuagint actually predated the Jamnian by three centuries! I doubt he realized that the Jamnian Canon was not even established when Our Lord was walking along the banks of the Jordan, while the Septuagint had been around for a few hundred years. He did not have the linguistic and archaeological studies to realize that the Apostles relied upon the Septuagint version, not the Jamnian, which had not even been codified when most of them were being martyred for Christ. Yet Martin Luther did know that St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was the Canon of Scripture accepted by Holy Mother Church and that the Vulgate had the same 46 Old Testament books as the Septuagint. Luther did know that with her magisterial authority the Church had infallibly defined that the Vulgate, and only the Vulgate, wholly contained the divinely inspired and inerrant word of God. Thus, when he rejected the Old Testament canon of 46 books in favor of 39, he was consciously rejecting the authority of the Church. I wonder if he ever stopped to think that the curse threatened in the Book of the Apocalypse might fall upon him: “If any man shall take away from words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life” (22:19).

Knowledge of History is Essential  

This brief historical survey shows how important it is for Catholics to know their history. It proves once more the truth which Cardinal Newman aptly expressed: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”[9] While I can understand how Martin Luther made his monumental blunder, I can’t fathom why Protestants today continue to use the Jamnian version over the Old Testament which was used by Christ and His Apostles. Perhaps they simply don’t want to step out of their own tradition, or perhaps they remain too ignorant of historical truth.

Yet this matter is not just about historical accuracy. It has profound theological implications, for God is always ordering all things rightly. A Christian study of history shows how God used Alexander the Great to move the world closer to that “fullness of time” when “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). “Through his conquests and the colonizations which followed, Alexander united East and West, so that the Greek language and culture spread throughout the Middle East and opened up lines of communication and transportation.”[10] This homogeneity made it possible for the Gospel to spread quickly throughout the world. Likewise, the Septuagint was a clear step in preparing for the Incarnation. God was sending His Only-begotten Son to redeem all men, not just Hebrew-speaking Jews. Therefore, it was necessary for the universality (i.e. catholicity) of Christ’s Church to be preceded by the Old Testament being translated into the universal language of the time and spread throughout the world by means of the uniformity and peace ushered in by Alexander the Great and the Pax Romana. Simply put, the Septuagint was an important step in God’s divine revelation that Christ came to establish His Church as the one ark of salvation for all mankind.

The Jews who did not become Christians rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of God. These same Jews sought to kill St. Paul for preaching that the Gospel now opened salvation to Jew and Gentile alike. It is consistent for Jews who thought this way to ghettoize themselves and reject the Septuagint, a necessary preparation in the opening up of salvation to men of all tongues and races. However, it is illogical and unseemly for Protestants, who claim to follow Christ and honor St. Paul, to follow a canon of Scripture established by Jews who explicitly rejected Christianity.

In this article, we briefly considered why the erroneous notion of Sola Scriptura (“Bible alone”) is historically untenable. The reduced Old Testament canon used by Protestants also stands in opposition to God’s divine providence and how He has progressively worked in mankind’s history to bring His revelation and salvation to all men. Yet Sola Scriptura’s inherent problem of translation goes far beyond even the dispute between the Septuagint and Jamnian canons. We shall discuss that inescapable Protestant conundrum in next month’s edition of “Apologetics 101.”


[1] See Session IV “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures” of the Council of Trent from 8 April 1547 under Pope Paul III (Dz. 783; D.S. 1501).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Catholics should never use the term apocryphal to refer to the seven books disputed by Protestants (that is, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, as well as small portions of the Books of Esther and Daniel), because that word means “a story or statement of doubtful authenticity.” There are apocryphal books but these include works like the Protoevangelion of James and the Book of Enoch which the Magisterium has never considered to be part of the inspired Canon of Scripture.

[4] I find it lamentable that under the pressures of the heresy of Modernism and modern “critical” biblical scholarship; few Catholics teach this view today, despite the fact that nearly all the early Church Fathers are unanimous on this point.

[5] The term “Jamnian version” is used infrequently and I believe this contributes greatly to the Protestant’s error. A term more commonly used is the “Hebrew version” of the Old Testament. Yet using the term “Hebrew version” feeds the historical misrepresentation that deceived Luther. Thus, Catholics should make it a point to distinguish this version of the Old Testament as “Jamnian,” in contradistinction to the authoritative and divinely inspired “Septuagint.”

[6] There is an ancient story which attributes divine intervention to the creation of the Septuagint. It is said that the seventy learned scholars each independently translated the Old Testament. When they gathered together they were amazed to see that their translations were identical word for word. Such a miracle was accepted as incontrovertible proof that the Septuagint was divinely inspired. The text of the Septuagint and the narrative of its miraculous origin were then handed on together generation after generation. Unfortunately, we have never discovered sufficient evidence to support this miraculous claim and hence many doubt it. Yet this tradition certainly harmonizes with pious belief and there is no evidence to disprove it. Almighty God certainly has the power to bring about such a linguistic miracle. Hence, this tradition may be accepted by faithful Catholics, though I do think it is unnecessary to insist upon its veracity with those who do not wish to accept it.

[7] The Septuagint was certainly not the only version of the Old Testament at the time of Christ and the Apostles. There were other versions in Greek, Hebrew and other languages. It is quite likely that archaeologists have never discovered copies of all the Scriptural variants that existed at that time. Moreover, when the New Testament authors cite the Old Testament, they usually do so by memory and thus may not have a precise word for word reproduction. Nevertheless, studies have shown that at least seventy percent of the New Testament’s quotations of the Old Testament are a reference to the Septuagint. Hence, it is morally certain that the Apostles and St. Paul accepted the authenticity and authority of the Septuagint.

[8] Since the earliest disciples of Jesus of Nazareth (called Nazarenes) were all Jews who continued attending the synagogue, the Jews added a curse against them in their prayers. The “Eighteen Benedictions” were prayed by Jews in their synagogue and no Christian would willingly participate in cursing Christ or His disciples. In this way, the Jews could cast out the Nazarenes (Christians) from their midst and try to minimize the number of their countrymen converting to Christianity. It is unclear exactly when this insertion was added and some believe it was before 70 A.D. There are certainly numerous references to the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues in St. John’s Gospel. The “Twelfth Blessing,” known as the Birkat ha-Minim, reads: “For the apostates let there be no hope, may the kingdom of the arrogant be quickly uprooted in our days, and may the Nazarenes and the heretics instantly perish; may they be blotted from the book of the living, and not be written in the book of the righteous. Blessed are You, Lord, humbler of the arrogant.” (Translation taken from Instone-Brewer-David. The Eighteen Benedictions and the Minim. Cambridge: Tyndale House, 2003)

[9] Newman, Cardinal John Henry. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. 1845. Introduction, part 5.

[10] Carroll, Anne. Christ the King Lord of History. Rockford, IL: TAN, 1994, p. 50.

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