Praying, They Were Singing

I’ve always been impressed with the verbiage of Acts 16:25. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (NRSV). What’s fascinating is the Greek verbiage, not the English. In English, singing and praying are two things, but in Greek, it’s seen as one and the same.

A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures reads: “Praying they were singing (simultaneously, blending together petition and praise).” Wayne Jackson’s New Testament commentary reads: “The Greek construction suggests they were ‘singing prayers.’” Alford’s Greek Testament notes: “…in their prayers, [they] were singing praises. The distinction of modern times between prayer and praise, arising from our attention being directed to the shape rather than to the essence of devotion, was unknown in these days.” Vincent’s Word Studies notes: “Lit., praying, they sang hymns. The praying and the praise are not described as distinct acts. Their singing of hymns was their prayer, probably Psalms.”

I find this so interesting because we distinguish prayer and praise, but in the early church, they were not as distinct as we made them out to be. There are many passages where prayer is isolated from praise (Matt. 26:39; Luke 22:44; Heb. 5:7; et. al.). Even in worship, prayer is sometimes distinguished from praise, but it’s often mentioned near to praise (1 Cor. 14:15; James 5:13; Rev. 5:8-9). These commentaries made me wonder if even those of the Reformation understood this concept better than we because Charles Spurgeon commented on Psalm 42 in his Treasury of David, “I would just as soon pray with machinery as to sing with machinery.” Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Orthodox philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart’s New Testament translation accurately reflect this nuance. “And at about midnight, as they were praying, Paul and Silas sang hymns to God, and the prisoners listened to them.” I also consulted N. T. Wright’s New Testament translation, but he doesn’t reflect this. Most English translations don’t, but why are so many commentaries keen to point this out? Why not translate it as it should be?

Let’s Talk Revelation (Part 2)

In Revelation 7, we read about the 144,000. As you look at this passage, we can first note some information about the four winds. According to Jewish thought, four winds stood at each compass corner. These winds could destroy a nation (Jer. 49.36) or bring new life (Ezek. 37.9). Zechariah portrays these winds as chariots pulled by different teams of horses which leave the Lord’s presence and go out into all the earth (Zech. 6.5-7). Jesus taught that at His coming during the destruction of Jerusalem that the angels would gather the elect from the four winds (Matt. 24.31). 

We, next, observe the faithful being sealed. Ezekiel 9 sets the backdrop for the sealing of God’s faithful. This imagery of the seven executioners is present in Babylonian literature as well. There they punish those having committed religious offenses, as is the case here (Ezek. 9.4). The imagery of Ezekiel’s seven would have reminded the audience steeped in idolatry about the impending punishment that comes from Yahweh. The mark on their forehead in Hebrew was the taw. This was the last character of the paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and it looked like a modern “X,” or cross. Moreover, the Greek letter “chi” was equivalent to taw and was the first letter in Christ’s name in Greek. The church father Origen (A.D. 185-254) wrote, “A third [person] one of those who believe in Christ, said the form of the Taw in the old [Hebrew] script resembles the cross, and it predicts the mark which is to be placed on the foreheads of Christians.”

In Revelation, the seal separates God’s faithful from the faithless. A pseudepigraphical writing called the Psalms of Solomon was composed in the first century B.C. (it details Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.). It also gives a little insight into the marking of God’s people: “For the mark of God is upon the righteous for salvation. Famine, sword, and death shall be far from the righteous; for they shall pursue sinners and overtake them, and those who do lawlessness shall not escape the judgment of the Lord” (15.6-8). Sometimes branding in antiquity was also a sign of a slave (3 Macc. 2.29). In Christianity, sealing became symbolic. The Holy Spirit sealed the Asian churches (Eph. 1.13; 4.30). This wasn’t a physical mark, as some might think. It was a mark distinguishable only by God and His agents of wrath (cf. 2 Cor. 1.22), and it distinguished the faithful from the wicked (cf. 2 Tim. 2.19). This seal in Revelation is to protect God’s faithful, as in Ezekiel (Rev. 7.3).

Now, we arrive at 144,000. This list in Revelation of the 12 tribes differs from other lists (see Gen. 35.23-26; 49.3-27; Deut. 33.6-25): Reuben usually heads the list, but Judah does here likely because this is the tribe from whence Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, came (Rev. 1.5; 5.5); and John included Manasseh while omitting Ephraim and Dan (see 1 Kings 12.29-30). Since this group is spared divine wrath but not earthly persecution, it may be that they will be those who complete the number of the slain souls under the altar (Rev. 6.9-11). These twelve tribes are used figuratively for Jewish Christians (James 1.1). Jewish Christians were predominant over the first decade of the early church. Staying with the Jewish identity, their being “first fruits” (Rev. 14.4) was also well founded as spoken of by the Jews (Jer. 2.3; Rom. 11.16; James 1.18). If this concerns Jewish believers, the great multitude in Revelation 7.9ff were Gentile believers. This could also reference the church — God’s new Israel (Gal. 6.16; cf. Gal. 3.7-9, 29).

Whomever they were, they sang a new song described as the roar of rushing waters, a loud peal of thunder, and harpists playing their harps. No heavenly creature could learn this song because participation is limited to those redeemed from the earth (cf. 1 Peter 1.12; Eph. 3.10) centered on redemption by the Lamb from the beast. They were “virgins” (cf. 2 Cor. 11.2) who were blameless (Rev. 14.4). This may mean that they maintained ritual purity before battle (Deut. 23.9-10; 1 Sam. 21.5; 2 Sam. 11.11). Later on, Babylon (Rome) is referred to as the mother of harlots (Rev. 17.3-5), and those who consort with her would have defiled themselves (cf. Rev. 2.22).

Let’s Talk Revelation (Part 1)


Most Evangelical commentators tend to assert that Revelation was written with three periods of time in mind: 1) things John saw in chapter one, 2) those that were in chapters two and three, and 3) those that would take place afterward, beginning with chapters four or six. Charles Ryrie—in his study, Bible notes—advocates the former while John MacArthur—in his Bible handbook—advocates the latter. A key passage to their supposition is 1:19, where it is written:

Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.

What Evangelicals argue for is that chapters six through twenty-two are end-time (eschatological) material that hinges upon a thousand-year reign. However, internal terminology would refute this claim.

  • “The time is near” (1:3; 22:10; cf. Matt. 3:2; 4:17)
  • These things “must soon take place” (22:6)
  • Jesus said he was “coming soon” (22:12, 20; cf. 1:1)

The terms in English and Greek speak to a swift course of action and certainly not one that would be delayed over two millennia. Granted: the judgment scene in chapters twenty and onward appears to be the true end-time material that may be exempt from the interpretation. However, at what point does the contextual divide speak to the original audience and all thereafter come somewhere in chapter twenty and onward unless one holds to a more symbolic interpretation of the final three chapters? A case for understanding the time frame in which John’s original audience may have understood this prophecy is found when comparing his work to other prophetic literature.

Daniel was told to seal up his vision because it referred to many days from his time (Dan. 8:26). He was also told that the book was to remain sealed “until the time of the end” (12:4). As time went on knowledge would increase as to the culmination of these prophecies. He was urged to go his way because the words of his prophecy were “sealed till the time of the end” (12:9). Studying history along with Daniel’s prophecy reveals that it was not for another four hundred years that those kingdoms came which he had been told of (cf. Dan. 2). Therefore, Daniel would not live to see the fulfillment of the prophecies; hence his being instructed to seal the book. So the sealing of a prophecy book looked ahead to a distant period.

When John wrote Revelation, the angel told him not to seal the words of his book (Rev. 22:10). Why? Because “the time [was] at hand.” If Daniel’s prophecy saw fulfillment some four hundred years later, and he was told to seal the book, would not John’s prophecy have been fulfilled long before the same span of time since he was told not to seal his book?

I Dug Deeper and No Longer Believe Joshua is a Book About Genocide

For the longest time, I struggled with the Book of Joshua. I thought it was a book about genocide mainly because that’s how most people, even many Christians, described it. One of the most complex parts of the book is how violent it is and how this reflects on God’s character. After all, it was in Leviticus (19:18) that God commanded Israel to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus reiterates this too, so how do we face the rampant violence in the book?

I am wholly unsatisfied with Reformed theology’s explanation of the matter–the sovereignty of God and how we shouldn’t question what he does. Well, even that’s not biblical. People throughout the Old Testament question God, not to challenge his authority, but to understand.

I’ve read that “God so loved the world,” and “God is love.” That doesn’t seem very loving at all. That’s the kind of thing Zeus or Mars would have done. That sounds like a schizophrenic person. The first thing I admitted was that God IS love and that I must be misunderstanding the matter. Rather than laying my emotions on God, I put them on myself and decided I was wrong. That led me to a deeper study.

First, if we consider that Abraham lived around 2100 BC, we can place the mercy and longsuffering of God within a 700-year period. God promised the land to Abraham, but when he did, the sins of the Amorites weren’t complete (Gen. 15:16). God’s judgment/conquest of the land wasn’t something that he just planned at the last minute. He, in his omniscience, knew it would come to this. Yet, 700 years should be enough time for people to get their act together (cf. Deut. 9:5). Sadly, they did not, so God ordered their utter destruction (Deut. 7:1–2; 20:16–18). 

Second, we observe that God would preempt removing people from the land. He didn’t intend those folks’ complete extermination or annihilation, and Scripture states as much. God promised to send pestilence to the land before the conquest to drive them out little by little (Exod. 23:28–30; Deut. 7:22–24). He wanted to drive them out (Deut. 9:4), but if any remained, they would be destroyed. 

Third, archaeology has demonstrated something: cities like Jericho and Ai weren’t civilian centers but military outposts. Archaeology also discloses that the towns and cities in Canaan were nearly uninhabited in the period we believe the conquest occurred—the thirteenth century. Plus, after the “conquest,” we observe Canaanites living among the Israelites. The book of Judges points out how this cohabitation was problematic for Israel.     

Fourth, Israel was commanded to offer peace terms before battle (Deut. 20:10–13). Only the Hivites of Gibeon accepted the peace terms, but everyone else did not (Josh. 11:19). 

Fifth, not everything we read should be taken literally. This is often an error when reading the Bible, but ancient battle narratives were not written like modern books of history. Ancient war narratives contained battle idioms. When someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” we know not to take that literally. The understanding is that the rain is heavy. Another part of ancient battle narratives is an exaggeration. While we expect a level of accuracy that conforms to journalistic standards, ancient writers wrote for literary effect. We might think of it, sometimes, as talking trash. Another example is how Joshua uses language to state that they took all the land, defeated all the kings, and utterly destroyed the Canaanites. The point was that God had exerted complete control over the land. As you read through Joshua, he often says that Canaanites still lived in the land.

Why Do Some Translations Have Extra Verses That Others Don’t?

Depending on your Bible translation, you will either have or lack Matthew 17:21; 18:11; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; 11:26; 15:28; Luke 17:36; 23:17; John 5:3b-4; Acts 8:37; 15:34; 24:6b-8a; Rom. 16:24; 1 John 5:7b-8a. Older translations contain them, such as the King James and New King James. Newer versions, however, do not. Since the KJV and NKJV are among the oldest English translations, they are often pointed to as the standard of English translations. Yet, just because they are “older” English translations doesn’t mean they are the best.

The very first Greek New Testament to be comprised was by Erasmus in 1516. He used 12th-century manuscripts of the New Testament. Remember that we’re focusing on the New Testament, translated from Greek. There was a Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, in Jesus’ day. Nevertheless, at Erasmus’ time, the oldest manuscript was from the 10th century, but he opted for those from the twelfth century. As time passed, scholars made revisions that echoed Erasmus’ text. Most English translations through 1880 used the same Greek New Testament, called Textus Receptus (“received text”). 

By the 1700s, many more manuscripts had been discovered. Some were six to nine centuries older than what Erasmus had available. These older manuscripts lacked the passages mentioned earlier. A common belief was that a scribe may have mistaken an explanatory marginal comment for a correction and copied it into the text, which accounts for why older English translations have a few more verses. A new Greek New Testament was made and appeared in 1831. Since the manuscripts were older than Erasmus used, they omitted the sixteen passages to construct a more ancient version, reflected in many English translations today.  

Since 1611, the King James Bible has reigned as the preeminent English translation. However, because of the newer Greek New Testament, a Revised Version was commissioned in England in 1881. The Revised Version would later birth the New Revised Standard Version, which would later birth the English Standard Version. When the Revised Version appeared, there was a considerable uproar since the long-dominant KJV had set the standard. The omission of the verses was seen as blasphemous, and people cited Revelation 22:19 to those who upheld the Revised Version. Revelation 22:18 is more relevant if you want to argue the point. 

Translations that omit these added verses usually contain a footnote or marginal note explaining that they appear in later manuscripts. Modern translations do not leave these verses out per se any more than the older ones added them. They are simply the product of the information available at the time. Now that we have older information, the translations that omit them should be more commonly used.

More recent translations utilize a vast amount of sources. The standard for most English translations is the Masoretic text of the Hebrew called Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia; the Greek New Testament used is Novum Testamentum Graece. Translators often consult, alongside these sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Law of Moses), the Syriac Peshitta (Syriac Bible), the Latin Vulgate, and other sources that may help shed light on texts that may be difficult to translate. 

The Sordid History of Daniel 4-5

*In my haste to publish this, I neglected to mention that one of my sources is my friend, Michael Whitworth’s book, The Derision of Heaven: A Guide to Daniel (Bend, Oregon: Start2Finish, 2013).

My Wednesday Bible class has been studying the book of Daniel. We’ve concluded the first six chapters and will begin chapter seven this evening. Our focus has, thus far, been on how Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah lived faithfully to God while living in a society unfriendly to their religion. Furthermore, we have noted and discussed how we as Christians can live faithfully to God while living in our own Babylon–be that our nation, workplace, home, or where ever. Yet, when we arrived at chapters four and five, the history of Daniel did not align with other document histories.

Something that always catches my attention is when Scripture and secondary sources disagree. This usually leads me down a rabbit hole of historical investigation. I’ve always believed that when Scripture and any other authority are at odds, I’ve misinterpreted one or both. Chapters four and five have information that historians point out as non-historical, at best, or manipulated to fit into the various prophetic schema of Israel, at worst. 

Nabonidus was the king when Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great, so why are Belshazzar and Darius the critical figures in chapter five? For so long, historians had dismissed the book of Daniel as folklore that spun together various prophetic passages to Israelite favor. Yet, in 1854, British explorers uncovered the temple of Ur, finding cylinders from Nabonidus’ reign. Moreover, listed among a prayer for the king was the inclusion of his son, Belshazzar. Since then, extensive documentation has corroborated this information to the extent that it’s common knowledge and doesn’t require citation. 

Folks have also remarked that the madness of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter four was misplaced because Nabonidus was known to have had a mental breakdown for about a decade. However, Eusebius of Cesarea (4th century CE) quotes Greek historian Abydenus (c. 250–200 BCE), whose history of the Assyrians is preserved in quotations from various later historians—the writings, aside from these quotations, are lost in history. Abydenus quotes from a historian whose work was closer to the period than his, Megasthenes (c. 350–290 BCE). Eusebius quotes, 

[Megasthenes] subsequently relates from the Chaldeans’ [accounts] that when [Nebuchadnezzar] had returned to the royal court, some deity took control of his mind and spoke in this manner: ‘Oh brave Babylonians, I, Nebuchadnezzar, I predict that grief will befall you.’ He continues on in this vein for a while and then the historian [tells us] that after this eloquent speech he suddenly disappeared from sight. Then [his] son, Amilmardochus [Evil-morodach in the Hebrew Scriptures; Amul-Marduk in history], ruled. (Chronicle 1.11)

Nabonidus was the last Babylonian king, but he lived in exile because of his favoritism towards the moon god, Sin, while Marduk was the city’s chief god. During this exile, Belshazzar was co-regent. When the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon, Belshazzar was killed, and his father exiled once more. Another detail is that Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as Belshazzar’s father (Dan. 5:2, 11). Nabonidus was Belshazzar’s father, who led a coup to take the throne, being no son of Nebuchadnezzar. 

Belshazzar is regarded as king in this chapter because of his father’s absence, and he acts as a regent in his father’s absence. Nebuchadnezzar may be described as Belshazzar’s father because the latter succeeded the former. This designation is seen in other literature when no direct relation existed. One possible explanation for Darius the Mede may be that he was Gobryas (Greek), the general who captured Babylon on Cyrus’ behalf. He was governor of Gutium in Media. Another possible explanation is that in Daniel 6:28, the text could read, “The reign of Darius, that is, the reign of Cyrus.” Kings often had multiple regnal names (cf. 1 Chron. 5:26). Cyrus took over the Median Empire, having a Median mother. Therefore, it wouldn’t be implausible that he would be called the king of the Medes. Yet, this is my best attempt at setting the record straight.  

Settling the New Testament?

The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament appear in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (c. 367)—a prominent bishop—and this is the typical starting point for many regarding their history of the canon. Because of such a detailed letter regarding the New Testament, some have concluded that the canon was a late invention considering the letter’s dating. Still, the canon emerged in the first century and is evident in the writings of the early church fathers as functional before the fourth century. Athanasius wrote this letter to end the disputes about other orthodox letters believed to be equal to apostolic writings—Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas. It also detailed Peter’s epistles and Revelation’s authenticity, which was questionable to some.

Earlier than his festal letter, a catalog from North Africa listed twenty-four books named the Mommsen Catalog (c. 359). Cyril of Jerusalem had earlier listed all the books except Revelation (c. 350), but the Council of Nicea is often the canon’s accepted settling point (c. 325). However, the council’s entirety wasn’t about the canon, but the divinity of Jesus, hence the Nicene creed. Because they affirmed the canon doesn’t mean they “created” it. Similarly, regional church councils acknowledged the canon but didn’t determine it. As Michael Kruger puts it, “These councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.” 

Around 250 CE, the early church theologian, Origen produced a list of the New Testament in his commentary on Joshua.

Matthew … Mark also; Luke and John each …  Even Peter … in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John … through his epistles, and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles … in fourteen of [Paul’s] epistles. (Hom. Josh. 7:1; cf. Hom. Gen. 13.2)

This list would have included Revelation and John’s epistles; Hebrews would have counted as a letter of Paul because some in the early church believed that Paul wrote Hebrews. 

What, however, precipitated the list and the official declaration of the canon? It all began around 144 CE because of an early church heretic, Marcion. He only listed the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, omitting the pastorals and Hebrews. A harmony of the four gospels appeared in 170 CE by Tatian and was entitled Diatessaron. At about the same time, Melito of Sardis identified the Old Testament canon used by the Jews. The earliest response to Marcion’s list with list is the Muratorian Canon (c. 180), named after its discoverer. It contains twenty-two of our twenty-seven books, omitting James, 1 & 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews. Interestingly, around the same time as the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus was the first to refer to a New Testament (Adv. Haer. 4.15.2).  

This leads to the truth that some books we now acknowledge as inspired weren’t always regarded as such by everyone in the early church. Athanasius explained the reasoning for excluding two well-regarded writings, but a few were disputed earlier, such as 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude, and James. Other writings were outright rejected: Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 3.25). 

Early Hints of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear because Paul wrote some widely accepted letters while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his letter similarly, given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut, while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture based on internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worth considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly, which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may, in fact, suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3)

What’s clear from history is that Scripture was not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church but were not placed among the acknowledged books were The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE), wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox.

See Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 12; James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority and Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 12. 

 Lee Martin McDonald, “New Testament Canon”, n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2021]. Online: 

Michael D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974), 182–83; Phillip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Calendar: A Study in the Making of the Marcan Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952). 

Why Some Old Testaments Have More Books Than Ours

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome. It adds 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death .… but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time. (Against Apion 1.8) 

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms, two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14) 

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). 

“The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deuter-Canonical Books.”…most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Deutero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.” (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. [New York: Penguin Books, 1993], 200)

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth. 

The Intertestamental Hebrew Scriptures

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35). The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon. 

When the exiles returnedMaccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset. 

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities. The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community. Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs.  

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community. Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last. Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing. Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten. 

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear. However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community. Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education; to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting — one from the Law and the other from the prophets. The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading. The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years. Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses. Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue. 

Writing the Old Testament

The first instance of recording Scripture occurs at Moses’s hand at the covenant’s inauguration between YHWH and Israel (Exod. 24:4–8). Scholars mostly agree that the Book of the Covenant mentioned there entailed chapters 21–23 of Exodus, but opinions vary. Moses’ upbringing in Egypt explains how he became a scribe in the first place, because they placed a high amount of esteem and respect on the scribe. They believed that a scribe was his own boss and the highest of trades to which one could aspire. Moses obviously had scribal training in Egypt in the first forty years of his life in the higher echelons of society, and that skill would serve him well as the leader of Israel. 

Even in Israel’s later history, we see the scribe as one moving in royal circles ( 2 Chron. 24:11; Esth. 3:12). The scribal chamber was within the palace (Jer. 36:12), and their work often detailed the exploits of the monarchs they served (1 Kings 11:41) as well as the reign of the monarchy itself (1 Kings 14:19, 29). They also served by writing the decrees ordered (Dan. 6:8) and taking dictation (Jer. 36:32). Some might be sent to record the military skirmishes the realm was engaged in (Jer. 52.25), and a useful skill for the scribe to possess in later times was to be bilingual (2 Kings 18:26). Following the station of Moses as a prophet were other prophets who recorded books or records here or there (Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 10:25). Later, we even read about some later holy people referring to what had been written (Dan. 9:2; Neh. 8:1). 

This process led what we know as the Old Testament to be formed around 400 BCE, with some arguing that the Law, or Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible), itself was authoritative by that time if not earlier. By 200 BCE or earlier, the prophets were canonized (cf. Is. 34:16; Jer. 36:6ff). Unlike our Christian Bibles where the Old and New Testaments are major divisions, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) grouped its books differently. There are three groupings of books: 

  1. The Law (Torah)
    1. Gen–Deut. 
  2. Prophets (Nevi’im)
    1. Josh, Judg., Samuel and Kings (Former Prophets)
    2. Isaiah, Jer., Ezek., and the Twelve (Latter Prophets)
  3. Writings (Ketuvim).
    1. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Five Megillot)
    2. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. 

This tripartite division is reflected from Ben Sira, who was the first to refer to it in this way (180–175 BCE), but may be earlier than him. 

Centuries before this time, King Josiah (622 BCE) found a copy of the Law in the temple, and his subsequent reverence of it as such demonstrates its authority in the life of Israelite society (2 Kings 22:3–20). After captivity, Ezra had a copy of the Law in which to lead the nation (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1ff). Centuries before them, Joshua (13th century BCE) read the same (Josh 8:34–35), and King David was to have had a personal copy (Deut. 17:18–20; cf. Deut. 31:9, 25–26). We know David consulted it after Uzzah died (2 Sam. 6:1–10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:1–13), but it’s obvious that it wasn’t central at all times.  

The interlude from the reading of Joshua until the next reading is a noted period of silence of public readings. During that time, the united kingdom of Israel was divided, and the northern kingdom following an idolatrous path while the southern kingdom sinned as well, but with periods of reformation. The next public reading came after the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Hilkiah took the book to the king’s secretary who then took it to the King. Upon hearing the words of the Book of the Law, King Josiah grieved and sent to inquire of the Lord because all the curses of the book were to be rendered to the unfaithful people of Judah (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). When Josiah assembled the people to have the Book of the Law read in their hearing, Josiah led a covenant renewal to which the people consented. However, because of so many years of apostasy that began with King Solomon, changing the trajectory of Judah was unrealized because of so many years of neglecting to read the Law. Therefore, the land was purged of its inhabitants so that it could undergo a period of cleansing (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22).

This points us to the authority the Law and Prophets had. What we find was that those who were well regarded, adhered to the Law. We also note that the absence of it from the life of Israel resulted in an ignorance that permitted apostasy.  

The Genesis of the Bible (for the average Christian)

We have in our possession a sacred book that is nonetheless a book. Scripture was written over 1,400 years by various authors. The Bible wasn’t put together until centuries after all the writings were collected, but some writings remained together as a corpus (e.g., Torah). How did this process occur? That’s what many wonder. How and who created the Bible is remarkable and something that isn’t required to know but is very enlightening. 

Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of pertinent events as it relates to writing altogether and the Bible.  

3200 BCE — Writing began in Sumer through pictographic means. 

3000 BCE — Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed. 

2100 BCE — Abraham lived around this time. 

1800 BCE — An alphabet is created in Egypt. 

1500 BCE — Moses lived around this time. 

1200 BCE — Ugaritic, a language from Ugarit—a northwestern area in Syria—is used, and Exodus 15 and Judges 5 have stylistic patterns that resemble them. These similarities lead linguists to conclude that these two chapters are the oldest in the Bible and date to 1100–1200 BCE. 

1000 BCE — The monarchical period of Israel’s history begins. 

1000–900 BCE — The earliest Hebrew inscription on a potsherd is discovered (Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon). 

516→ BCE — We have manuscripts dating to this time period, known as the Second Temple Period, with the oldest dating to the late 4th century BCE. 

250→ BCE — Dead Sea Scrolls 

This timeline provides us a rough idea and overview of what we know about written communication. This information results from linguists, philologists, archaeologists, and other related areas of study.  

Materials used in writing were stone (Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 27:2–3), clay (Ezek. 4:1), wood (Is. 30:8; Hab. 2:2), and leather (Jer. 36:23). Additionally, papyrus leaves were mostly that upon which the New Testament was written. These plants grew along the Nile River and had been used as far back as 3000 BCE, but became common among the Greeks and Romans for making a book (codex) or books (codices). The average roll was 30 feet long and 9–10 inches high. Scribes would write on one side mostly and occasionally on both sides (cf. Rev. 5:1). Animal skins, referred to as either vellum or parchment, were another common material used in making a letter. 

Whenever you hear about the discovery of a manuscript or something that scholars date to thus-and-such a period, they base this off the material upon which it was written, the language, dialect and syntax, and even carbon dating. Because we know that certain materials were used by particular people during a specific time period, this allows archaeologists to pinpoint a general time frame that contributes to our overall knowledge of the history of a text. 

The Birth of the Bible

It’s difficult to fix a date when the Bible was written or began to be written. Believing that Moses lived around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to his authorship would have been written sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, with redactions throughout the centuries (cf. Num. 12:3; Deut. 34:5–6). However, the book of Job is believed to have been written in the second millennium BCE, or it at least is about that period if it was written later. To put it in perspective, Job is believed to have been a patriarch akin to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their time. 

Regarding what’s extant, the tenth-century BCE potsherd known as Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is the eldest. This dates to the reign of King David and was found on the north side of the valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:1–3). Differing interpretations of what it says exists, so suggesting it is Scripture may not be altogether true. However, this discovery also can’t be ruled out as unreflective of Scripture. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, however, are among the oldest finds that contain language akin to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and date to the seventh century BCE. Since many scholars believe that the Old Testament is primarily a product of Israel’s post-exilic period, these two finds cast that conclusion into doubt, given the language they each demonstrate.

Behind these fragmentary pieces, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest full-manuscript evidence of our Old Testament. They are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered around Qumran from 1947–56. Copies of every Old Testament book except Nehemiah and Esther were found in 11 caves around the Dead Sea, and the oldest dates to the third century BCE. Before this discovery, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest Old Testament manuscript, dating to 1008 CE. Scholars compared the two texts, being greater than a millennium apart, and found that little had changed. This attests to the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible transmission. The notion supported by Bart Ehrman and company that we can’t fully trust Scripture because of the lack of original copies is a bit of a farce when one considers the accuracy between these two texts.  Stay tuned!

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