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Lost Books of the Bible For Dummies

Learn some helpful terms regarding religious writings to explain the subject, and study a timeline of important events so you understand how the Hebrew Bible, Christian Old Testament, and New Testament were formed.

Handy Terms for Discussing Christian and Jewish Writings

Christian and Jewish religious writings encompass an amazing amount of work. To keep things straight when you're talking about or studying these writings, make sure you understand these helpful terms and what they mean:

  • Apocrypha: A Greek term that means "hidden," this is the name Protestants give to the group of books that Catholics include in their Old Testament but Protestants do not. Jews (that is, the early Rabbinic Leaders of modern Judaism) also don't include these books in their Hebrew Bible.

  • Canon: A Greek term that means "measuring stick" or "ruler," it came to be used in Christianity and Judaism to refer to a specific list of religious writings officially approved for study and worship.

  • Gnosticism: A religious and philosophical movement that emerged in the late-first and second century CE, it focuses on the origins of spiritual beings, Gods, and other near-divine beings that control human affairs. Some Gnostics became Christians, and some Jews were influenced by Gnosticism as well.

  • Hebrew Bible: Although it's the same thing as the Christian Old Testament, Hebrew Bible is a more respectful term that reminds Christians that, for Jews, the Hebrew Bible isn't merely an "Old" Testament that's replaced by a "New" one. In Jewish tradition, many Jews prefer to use the acronym "TaNaK" or "TaNaQ", which is built from the first word of the Hebrew names for the three sections of their Bible: Torah (Law), Neviim (Prophets), and Qtuvim (Writings).

  • Non-canonical writings: Most of the writings discussed in Lost Books of the Bible For Dummies are non-canonical because they aren't part of the list of canonical books in either the Jewish or Christian traditions. However, different Christian religions disagree about the canon of their Old Testament.

  • Scriptures: Any religious writing valued by a religious tradition. But scripture is a wider category than canon in that scriptures can be outside a canon.

Dates that Affected Development of the Hebrew Bible — a.k.a. the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible and Old Testament are the same group of writings, although Jews prefer the term Hebrew Bible. These biblical writings are much older than the Christian New Testament writings. These dates represent important events that influenced how scripture (religiously important reference writings) led to the collection of works known as the Hebrew Bible.

  • 450 BCE: Approximate year when Ezra the Scribe/Priest visits Jerusalem from Eastern portions of the Persian Empire and brings with him the "Scrolls of the Law" and teaches the people from them. This is the oldest reference to important religious writings in Jewish tradition (see Nehemiah 8).

  • 333 BCE: Alexander the Great conquers the ancient Near East.

  • 300–200 BCE: A large Jewish community develops in Alexandria, Egypt. Jewish religious writings begin to be translated into Greek, eventually producing the biblical Greek translations known as the Septuagint, which continue to expand until the first century BCE. Christians later use the Greek version for their Old Testament.

  • 200–100 BCE: The oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls is written (according to historians' best guess).

  • 200–180 BCE: The book of Sirach (49:8–10) refers to "Twelve Prophets," suggesting an early collection of the 12 "minor" (that is, shorter) Prophets that are now part of the Hebrew Bible.

  • 20 BCE–50 CE: Philo of Alexandria makes one of the earliest references to the three-part division of Hebrew Scriptures into Law, Prophets, and Writings/Poetry. Although specific books aren't listed, an agreed-upon list is clearly emerging.

  • 4 BCE–around 32 CE: In Luke 11:48–51, Jesus may be implying that there's an emerging Hebrew "collection" of scriptures when he refers to martyrs from Abel to Zechariah, suggesting Genesis through 2 Chronicles.

  • 70–90 CE: Rabbi Yochanon Ben Zakkai, an important first-century CE Jewish leader, gathers a group of teachers in Jamnia (on the coast of Palestine). They may have discussed approved Hebrew scriptures, but there's no indication that a list is settled at this time because debates continue among scholars in later Jewish writings.

  • 70–90 CE: The ancient Jewish historian Josephus refers to the three-part division of the Hebrew Bible and refers to 22 books without listing them.

  • Around 100 CE: The book of 4 Ezra makes reference to 24 books of the Hebrew Bible without listing them.

  • Around 200 CE: The Jewish Talmud (Baba Bathra 14–15) finally provides a list of books, making it the earliest list of what emerges as the Old Testament for Protestants and the Hebrew Bible for Jews (same books, different order).

Dates that Impacted Formation of the Christian Old Testament

In the last two centuries before Jesus, Jewish writings translated into Greek (including Greek translations of the older Hebrew works not included in the Hebrew Bible) started to come together to form the Christian Bible, more specifically the Old Testament. These dates are important to the development of the Old Testament:

  • 30–33 CE: Jesus quotes from many passages of Hebrew scripture but leaves his followers with no list for a "Bible."

  • 40–60 CE: Saint Paul quotes from the Hebrew scriptures but doesn't discuss lists or a canon.

  • 150–160 CE: Justin the Martyr refers to the Hebrew Bible as "scriptures" for Christians.

  • 363 CE: The Council of Laodicea (59th Statement) restricts readings in the Church to the accepted books, but the 60th Statement that immediately follows, which consists of a list of books, is widely disputed as inauthentic (or added years later) and doesn't include Revelation.

  • 367 CE: The Festal Letter of Athansius provides the first full list of Old and New Testament books for Christians and even lists books that were appreciated but not included as well as a few titles generally rejected. Most scholars agree that this is truly the first list in possession for the Christian canon of the Bible.

  • 1546 CE: The Council of Trent of the Roman Catholic Church makes its list of the Old Testament official, and henceforth, Catholics reaffirm their use of the "Deutero-Canonical" books in their Old Testament.

  • 1950 CE: The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church makes its decision about the Old Testament, including 2 Ezra and 3 Maccabees. It places 4 Maccabees in an appendix.

Important Dates for the Formation of the New Testament

When and how did Christians decide to add to their biblical canon with a new set of writings? This list shows the time and events that impacted Christians to develop the New Testament:

  • 30–100 CE: The earliest New Testament works, Paul's Epistles, appear, probably pre-dating the writing of any of the Gospels. Paul never quotes a written work about Jesus.

  • 95 CE: Clement of Rome refers to the "Words of Jesus" but doesn't quote writings.

  • 90–130 CE: The Epistle of Barnabas refers to a teaching of Jesus by saying, "As it is written. . . ."

  • 140–155 CE: Polycarp cites a letter of Paul by calling it "scripture."

  • 150–160 CE: Justin the Martyr refers to a written Gospel and quotes from Luke.

  • 170–around 180 CE: Irenaeus first refers to a "New Testament" and also refers to four Gospels, comparing them to the four directions (north, south, east, and west) and thus suggesting their completeness.

  • 260–340 CE: The Christian historian Eusebius begins to enumerate books and create lists, but they're neither complete nor considered final.

  • 334–336 CE: Constantine, the Roman ruler who converted to Christianity, commissions Bibles to be produced by hand, but these Bibles include writings (such as the Shepherd of Hermas and Didache) not accepted in later canons of the New Testament.

  • As early as 200 CE or perhaps as late as 350–375 CE: The Muratorian Fragment, considered by many to be proof of a Christian canon by 200 CE, is a document whose actual date is widely and hotly disputed. Many scholars date this document much later (some say after 350), but the document's list differs from the list that the Christian Church finally agreed upon.

  • 367 CE: Athanasius writes a Festal Letter (a religious writing on the occasion of a festival) that contains the 27 books of the New Testament canon as it's known today. (He was also the first to use the word "canon" in reference to this list.) All historians agree that this is the oldest clear expression of a finalized New Testament canon, but they disagree about whether there are earlier indications of a canon.

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