Traditionally the canon (a word that means list) of Sacred Scripture has been divided into the Old and New Testaments. Both Catholic and Protestant New Testaments contain 27 books—the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles (a sequel to the Gospel According to Luke), 21 letters attributed to Paul, Peter, and other leading figures in the early Church, and the book of Revelation, which describes an eschatological vision of heaven.
The Catholic Old Testament contains 46 books. The first five are known as the Pentateuch and include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jewish people refer to these books as the Torah, or the Law, and Moses traditionally is considered to be the author of the Torah. The following 16 books—Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and First and Second Maccabees—sometimes are referred to as the historical books, not necessarily because they describe events exactly as they happened but due to the narrative style of the writing they contain.
The next seven books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom, and Sirach—are known as the wisdom books. These are so named because they take the form of proverbs and provide practical spiritual guidance. The final 18 books in the Old Testament are the prophetic books, which describe the words and deeds of the prophets. These books are divided into two groups. The six major prophetic books are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The 12 minor prophetic books are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi. The designations “major” and “minor” refer strictly to the length of the books (the “major” books are the longer ones) and not to the relative importance of the prophetic writings.
WWJHR: what would Jesus have read?
At the time of Jesus, many Jews used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) known as the Septuagint, which takes its name from the Greek word for 70. It was commissioned by the library at Alexandria in Egypt in the 3rd century B.C. Jewish tradition holds that 70 rabbis all worked on the translation and that the manuscripts they produced individually were identical. The 46 books that make up the Catholic Old Testament are included in the Septuagint.
Catholic and Protestant debate over the canon of the Old Testament goes back to the Jewish Council of Jamnia, which met in Judea almost immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. The Pharisees who met blamed the destruction of their city and Temple on the Jewish people’s assimilation of foreign language and practices. In an attempt to purge these influences from Judaism, members of the council removed seven books from their canon of Hebrew Scripture. The Pharisees meeting at Jamnia considered the Septuagint “foreign” (Greek) even though it had been compiled by Jewish rabbis. The rabbis who put together the Septuagint included in it books that weren’t part of the Palestinian-based Old Testament. There no longer were any extant manuscripts in Hebrew for these books by the time of the Council of Jamnia, so these are the books discarded by the Jews. The early Christian Church went with the Septuagint, keeping the books that the Jews had rejected. The Church’s reasoning was that those books were in the version of Scripture that Jesus quoted, and the books are referenced throughout the New Testament. From the time of the Council of Jamnia on, the authority of these books has been debated more or less non-stop by Christians.
Protestants call these seven books—Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees, as well as some passages in Esther and Daniel—the apocryphal books. The word apocrypha means “outside the canon.” Catholics call the same books deuterocanonical, a word that has come to refer to any section of the Old Testament canon for which there are no extant, or existing, Hebrew manuscripts. The deuterocanonical books are the seven books in the Catholic canon that appear in the Septuagint but are not found in the oldest Hebrew manuscripts.
The New Testament canon in its present form was first defined at the synod of Hippo in North Africa in 393. At that same synod, the canon of the Old Testament was defined according to the Septuagint. The canon of both Testaments was confirmed by the Church councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. It was not until the time of the Reformation that Protestants decided to establish a separate canon for the Old Testament, removing the seven deuterocanonical books from their Bibles. They believed that they were returning to a more authoritative version of the Old Testament than the Septuagint. In response to the Reformation, the entire Catholic canon was confirmed by the Council of Trent in 1546.