Why Are Bibles Different?

Image of a painting of the Transfiguration of Christ by Paolo Veronese

Obviously, bibles differ due to translations, but there is a more fundamental difference, too, and that involves the composition of the bible, particularly the accepted books in the Old Testament.

Generally, Catholics and other Christians tend to agree on the books to include in the New Testament, but they debate the authenticity of seven books in the Old Testament that Catholics include.

These books, called the deuterocanonical (or “second canon”) books because their status was contested for a time. However, beginning with the Council of Rome in 382 A.D., which convened under the authority of Pope Saint Damasus I, the Catholic Church has accepted the validity and worthiness of these books, while other Christian communities have and do not.

The books are:

The deuterocanonical books are included in the famous Alexandrian Canon, a Greek version of the Old Testament produced between 250 and 100 B.C. This canon was formed by seventy Jewish scribes at the request of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who desired to have a standardized collection of Judaism’s Sacred Books translated into Greek for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. The canon produced by these seventy scribes has in their honor come to be known as the Septuagint after septuagintus, the Latin word for “seventy.”

The Septuagint was used in ancient Palestine and was even preferred by Our Lord and His followers. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Old Testament quotations that appear in the New Testament are from the Septuagint.

Critics have pointed out, however, that the deuterocanonical books are not quoted in the New Testament, but then again neither are several of the books which non-Catholics accept, such as Judges, First Book of Chronicles, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Obadiah, and others. Furthermore, even if the New Testament does not directly quote the deuterocanonical books, it alludes to them in various passages (compare especially Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 11:35 with The Second Book of Maccabees 7:29; also Matthew 27:43 with Wisdom 2:17-18; Matthew 6:14-15 with Sirach 28:2; Matthew 7:12 with Tobit 4:15; and the Acts of the Apostles 10:26 with Wisdom 7:1).

Image of a painting of the Apotheosis of Christ by Gerald DavidThe early Protestant leaders rejected the Septuagint, the Catholic Old Testament, in favor of a canon produced in Palestine, which omits the deuterocanonical books. This canon was established by a group of rabbis in the village of Jamnia towards the end of the first century A.D., two to three hundred years later than the Septuagint.

It seems that the founders of Protestantism found it advantageous to reject the Septuagint because of passages in the deuterocanonicals which support Catholic doctrine. Specifically, they took objection to the Second Book of Maccabees 12:45-46, which shows that the ancient Jews prayed for the dead.

Remarkably, Martin Luther took the further step of condemning a handful of New-Testament books on doctrinal grounds as well. He despised the Letter of James, for example, for its teaching “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). In addition to James, which he called “an epistle of straw,” Luther also rejected the Second Letter of Peter, the Second and Third Letters of John, Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation.

The Catholic Church acknowledges the Holy Bible’s authority, though she does not regard it as the sole authority, as Luther did.

The Church’s reverence for the Bible historically is undeniable.

Following the establishment of the Canon, Pope Damasus commissioned Saint Jerome (d. 420), the greatest biblical scholar of his day and perhaps of all time, to translate the Bible into Latin so that it could be read universally.1

The Bible was preserved through the Middle Ages by Catholic monks, who reproduced it by hand one letter at a time. Sections of the Bible were first translated into English by Saint Bede the Venerable, a Catholic priest, in the eighth century.

The books of the Bible were divided into chapters in 1207 by Stephen Langton, the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. The first printed Bible was produced around 1452 by Johann Gutenberg, the Catholic inventor of movable type. Gutenberg’s Bible included the deuterocanonical books as did  the original Authorized or King James Version in 1611.

The Bible was translated by the Catholic Church into German and many other languages well before Luther’s time. In fact, Kevin Orlin Johnson noted in his book, Why Do Catholics Do That?

“The oldest German document of any kind is a translation of the Bible done in 381 by a monk named Ulfilas; he translated it into Gothic, which is what German was back then. You often hear that Martin Luther was the first to liberate the Bible from the Church’s grasp and give it to a Scripture-starved people, but that’s obviously nonsense. Since Ulfilas, there had been more than a thousand years of manuscript German-language Bibles, and at least twenty-one printed German editions (by Cardinal Gibbon’s count) before Luther.” (Why Do Catholics Do That?, Ballantine Books, 1995, p. 24, n.)

Image of a painting of the Transfiguration of Christ by Paolo VeroneseLike all Christians, Catholics rely upon the Holy Spirit for guidance in interpreting Scripture; with the unique understanding, though, that the Spirit operates through the vehicle of the Church (see John 14:26 and 16:13). The Spirit guides the Church’s Magisterium in infallible interpreting Scripture, just as He guided the sacred writers in infallibly composing it.

Many non-Catholics tend to see the idea of the Church’s authority as being at odds with God’s authority, but Christ assured the Church, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). So, the authority of God cannot be separated from the authority of His Church. Christ is the source of the Church’s authority and as this authority comes from Him it is to be recognized by all His followers and obeyed.

Although many claim to follow the authority of the Bible, the truth of the matter is, for many what the Bible says depends upon the private interpretation of the individual.

Saint Peter warned, however, “that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (see his Second Letter 1:20-21; emphasis added). Peter also said, in reference to Paul’s letters, that “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability” (also in Peter’s Second Letter 3:16-17).

For that reason, Catholics are grateful for the nearly-2,000-year, consistent tradition of interpretation and understanding.

  1. “While the Roman Empire subsisted in Europe, the reading of the Scriptures in the Latin tongue, which was the universal language of the empire, prevailed everywhere,” the Reverend Charles Buck, a non-Catholic, acknowledged (“Bible” in Theological Dictionary; Patrick F. O’Hare, The Facts About Luther, rev. ed., Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1987, p. 182). Pope Damasus had the Scriptures translated into Latin, the universal language of his day, for the same reason contemporary Christians–like us–have made the Scriptures available on the internet: so that as many people as possible might have access to them.