Trying to get a read on the Good Book Whose Bible is it anyway? It depends on whom you ask

November 30, 1997|By JOSEPH GALLAGHER

The initials LXX, a reference to the Septuagint version of the Bible, were incorrectly printed in the article "Trying to get a read on the Good Book," which appeared in the Perspective section Sunday.

The Sun regrets the error.

TODAY MARKS the beginning of a New Year for more than a billion Christians worldwide. It's the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the liturgical year and of a new cycle of Bible readings.

"Bible," the word, comes from the ancient port city of By-blos, in Lebanon, famous for exporting papyrus to the Mediterranean world. Did this Bible, "the" book, fall from heaven bound in leather and stamped in gold, with a covering letter that guaranteed accuracy of contents?


The next time you need an excuse to get away for a moment, say you're going to the library and then pick up the Bible. You'll be holding a slowly formed collection of dozens of documents written over more than a millennium. No one would dispute that last statement, but almost any further comment would be controversial.

For starters: "The Bible says . . . " But whose Bible? Modern Jews have a collection of 39 documents that they call the Tanakh. That's an acronym formed from the initial letters of its three sections:

The Torah (the five books/Pentateuch of the Law of Moses).

The Nevi'im (the eight Prophetic books; one of which contains the 12 "minor" and briefer prophets).

The Kethuuim (the 11 writings, starting with the Psalms). Jews came to call these the "books that soil the hands" and require hand-washing after use, perhaps to keep them from being casually touched.

The Tanakh (aka the Old Testament or OT) does not, of course, include the 27 Jesus documents of the New Testament (NT). All Bibles include the 39 documents in the Tanakh. All Christian Bibles include the same 27 NT books, though some contain more. The Bible of Ethiopian Christianity has 35 books.

But Christian Bibles have differences with respect to the Old Testament, too. The Catholic Old Testament includes seven books whose "canonicity" is rejected by Protestant and Jewish Bibles: Baruch, Judith, Maccabees (First and Second), Sirach/Ecclesiaticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes and its "Vanity of Vanities"), Tobit/Tobias, Wisdom (of Solomon), plus parts of Daniel and Esther. Altogether, these books comprise 135,000 words in English.

A book is canonical if it is considered "divinely inspired" and worthy of inclusion in an official list. However, not all books considered inspired made it into the canon. Some inspired Old Testament and New Testament books seem to have been lost.

Protestants and Jews call the seven rejected Catholic choices "Apocryphal." Catholics call them "Deuterocanonical," i.e., belonging to a secondary list. Actually, the disputed books don't PTC make much doctrinal difference, except that one of them, "2 Maccabees," approves of prayers for the dead and implies a kind of purgatory.

These differences arose because of the Septuagint, a famous Jewish translation of Jewish holy books. As Jews in the third century before Christ lost their knowledge of Hebrew in a Greek-speaking world, the need for a Greek translation became urgent. Such a translation was first undertaken around 250 B.C. in the heavily Jewish city of Alexandria, Egypt. According to tradition, 70 or so Jewish scholars did the work. Thus the name "Septuagint."

At that time, there was seemingly no final and official canon of Hebrew holy books, and the Septuagint included writings that were later excluded by Jewish authorities working on a definitive list.

This "closed" list probably dates from the 200s of the Christian era. It seems to have been drawn up to give Jews authenticated Holy Scriptures for use in their own internal arguments and in their arguments with Christians.

Jesus and his first disciples were, of course, Jews, but they spoke Aramaic, which differs from Hebrew as Spanish from Italian. Because few early Christians understood Hebrew, Christians favored the Greek LHH (which has some significant differences from the Hebrew Bible, even in books that both traditions accept). Indeed, the New Testament quotes most often (about 80 percent of the time) from LHH, alluding at times to the disputed books. Jesus and his early disciples seem to have done so, too.

Like Socrates, but unlike Moses and other Old Testament figures, Jesus seems never to have composed any writings. He gave no recorded commands about writing anything down. Jesus and the first Christians expected the end of the world soon. Therefore, writing, copying, collecting and "canonizing" their own sacred books did not seem urgent.

For Jesus and the early Christians, the Bible was the OT preserved on scrolls, but not yet "closed." It was probably Christians who invented the bound book that became their bulkier Bible, 850,000 words in some versions.

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