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Here is an overview of my understanding. Questions are bolded.

The Protestant canon is 66 books.

The Catholic canon is 73 books.

Both agree on the 27 books in the New Testament.

The disagreement is what belongs in the Old Testament.

(I think:) There is agreement that the first 39 books belong in the Old Testament (although two of the 39 are lengthened by Catholics with additional content). The disagreement is about the books beyond the first 39 that were perhaps written later.

Catholics call these 7 books deuterocanonical. Protestants call these 7 books (and more - Martin Luther had 14) apocrypha. I'll call them the disputed books.

The Septuagint is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (included some of the disputed books, although, for example, some codexes, according to Wikipedia, include Maccabees 1-4, 1 and 4 and no Maccabees whatsoever whereas the Catholics have precisely Maccabees 1 and 2). The Septuagint was written about 300 BC (although other websites I read made it sound like the disputed books were added to the Septuagint; also, as the answer below indicates at least some of them were written in Greek, vs the other 39 books were translated into Greek). The Septuagint is directly quoted in the Greek scriptures of the New Testament.

Something else, I think modern-day Judaism only holds the 39 in their canon.

One website claims the Protestant Old Testament canon is confirmed by the Councils of Jamnia in the first century: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-43/how-we-got-our-bible-christian-history-timeline.html

90 and 118 Councils of Jamnia give final affirmation to the Old Testament canon (39 books)

However Wikipedia says this is disputed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Jamnia

The theory of a council of Jamnia that finalized the canon, first proposed by Heinrich Graetz in 1871, was popular for much of the 20th century. However, it was increasingly questioned from the 1960s onward, and the theory has been largely discredited.

The council of Jamnia was after Christ. Allegedly it excluded Christians from synagogue. If the council of Jamnia is anti-Christian, clearly it wasn't led by Christians, so why accept anything the council says as authoritative?

Christianity Today (link earlier) says that the New Testament canon was established for the first time in 367.

367 Athanasius’s Festal Letter lists complete New Testament canon (27 books) for the first time

Before 367 was the canon of the New Testament disputed at all? Why did it take 300 years or so to decide the canon in the first place?

According to one website, the Catholic canon was decided in 382 AD:

The Catholic Church finally agreed on which writings should go into the Bible at the Council of Rome in 382 AD during the time of Pope Damasus.

(Edit: Wikipedia says Baruch was missing from the Council of Rome in 382)

Were there disputes about the canon before 382? If so, why did it take so long until the canon was officially decided at a council?

If the canon was decided in 382, does that mean there were no disputes about the canon from 382 until the Protestant Reformation?

Why did the Reformers dispute the canon in the first place if it was decided all the way back in 382? Were they saying the church had been wrong for 1,000 years straight?

Also, perhaps noteworthy, around this time the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible was completed by Jerome (I think) and it contains the disputed books. Although something I read said Jerome believed these disputed books weren't Scripture. (Edit: some sources I've read say Jerome later changed his mind and believed the apocrypha, as he called them, to be scripture. He was translating the Old Testament from Hebrew Scriptures, which was a first, apparently, for latin Bibles, and the Hebrew Scriptures didn't have these additional books - which if they were written in Greek originally, that's not surprising that they were not in Hebrew)

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What is the history of the canon of the Bible in terms of 66 or 73 books (Catholic vs. Protestant)?


Short Answer :

Their historic origins lie within the realm of Hellenistic Judaism, which, along with Judaism proper1 and Samaritanism, was one of the main subdivisions of ancient Judaism.

1 Itself divided into several other branches, such as Pharisees, Sadduccees, Zealots, Essenes, etc. as mentioned in both the New Testament, as well as Josephus' writings.


Historical Context :

  • The bulk of the Jewish Scriptures was penned in Hebrew, sometime between the two captivities (Egyptian and Babylonian), while the Jews were living free and unhindered in their own country.

  • Later, between the Babylonian captivity and the rise of Alexander Macedon, several other religious works (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, etc.) were added to the collection. One characteristic feature of these sacred texts is the presence of Imperial Aramaic, the official language of the (First) Persian Empire.

  • Later on, the protrusion of Hellenism among the Jewish Diaspora,2 following the expansion of the Macedonian Empire and its subsequent conquest of Persia, gave rise to yet another layer of pious literature, this time neither in Hebrew, nor Aramaic, but rather in Greek, the new empire's lingua franca.

  • Not just that, but, under Ptolemaic rule, the (rest of the) non-Greek scriptures were also translated into this new tongue, an impressive cultural, religious, and literary endeavor, which would later come to be known as the Septuagint, from the Latin (see next bullet point) word for seventy, since, following a traditional reading of Exodus 1:5, this represents the number of Gentile nations (which, at that time, employed classical Greek as an international language of commerce and diplomacy).

  • As even this ancient world superpower began to decline, and a new one started to emerge, a certain marginal and insignificant Jewish sect commenced its own small corpus of religious writ, which would later form the basis of the New Testament.3

2 Which is also why these writings were never meaningfully embraced by Judaism proper, as practiced within the Holy Land.

3 Composed in Greek, since, despite ongoing Roman supremacy, the latter was still the language of the philosophers and intelligentsia of classical antiquity.


Main Purpose :

The main purpose or driving motivation behind these writings seems to have been the strengthening of religious piety among the aforementioned diaspora, in light of the various pagan persecutions of Greek-Roman antiquity, as well as serving as a safeguard against either syncretism, or waning lukewarm devotion to ancestral practices as prescribed in the Torah.

Noteworthy Differences :

  • For starters, there is an obvious linguistic barrier due to Greek, unlike either Hebrew or Aramaic, being an Indo-European rather than Semitic language.

  • Secondly, as already noted in the previous paragraphs, they were mainly penned by and directed at the Jewish diaspora, rather than at Jews still living within the Promised Land, which is why Masoretic tradition never regarded them as being especially relevant, and still, to this very day, does not attach any particular importance to them.

Acceptance and Rejection :

Though Christianity's founders were homeland Jews, having spent, if not most, then, at the very least, their seminal or formative years inside the Holy Land, nevertheless, their newfound faith never registered any considerable amount of followers within Israel proper (Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:4, Luke 4:24, John 4:44); as such, in response to further persecutions, it eventually spread to the Hebrew Diaspora (Acts 8:1, 11:19), whose canon did comprise the books later known as apocryphal or deuterocanonical.

In the fourth century, Saint Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate from the Masoretic text, expressed certain disparaging views of the Greek Septuagint in general, which undoubtedly influenced later Reformers, themselves heirs to the Western intellectual tradition.

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  • Thank you for this answer! It's amazing! It's thorough but also extremely easy to read! Oct 4 at 17:04
  • 1
    @JesusisLord: Glad to know you feel this way; others thought significantly less of it. :-)
    – Lucian
    Oct 4 at 22:43

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