Religion 101

In the previous entry (“Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries, Part Two“), I concluded by asking the seemingly straightforward question: How many books are there in the Bible?

The simple answer: it depends.

It depends not only upon whether we’re taking about the Hebrew Bible vs. the Christian Bible, but also upon which particular version of the Christian Bible we’re talking about.

And I don’t mean which translation; I mean which version, because there’s more than one.

The term “version” is often commonly employed to refer to what are actually just so many different translations of the Bible into English (or into other modern languages) from the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of its original texts.

Walk into a Christian bookstore, or to the religion section of any large and well-stocked bookstore, and you’ll find shelves and shelves packed with numerous different versions of the Bible — “versions” which are, in the main, actually just so many different alternative English translations of the Bible.

For example, you’re apt to find such popular translations (or “versions”) of the Bible as the King James Version (KJV),  the New King James Version (NKJV), the New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV),  the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), Today’s English Version (TEV), and the New Century Version (NCV), among others.

Of course, not all translations include the word “version” as part of their titles. For example, you are also apt to find, upon those same bookstore shelves, the Amplified Bible, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Living Translation (NLT), the Revised English Bible (REB), and many more. Still, all of these “versions” remain just so many different ways of translating the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the same original biblical texts into English.

There are even “versions” of the Bible, to use the term loosely, which are not straightforward or direct literal translations of the Bible at all, but instead much looser and freer paraphrases (or quasi-paraphrases) of the Bible, written in contemporary language and frequently employing contemporary idioms and expressions. Some of these, such as The Living Bible and The Message, have become quite popular.

However, the term “version” can also be used in a completely different way. Instead of referring to differing translations of the same biblical texts (or “books”), it may also refer to differing collections of biblical texts. In other words, some Bibles contain more (or fewer) such “books” than other Bibles do.

For example, in the previous blog entry (“Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries, Part Two“), I mentioned that the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible (or, if it helps, the “Jewish” Bible) utterly lacks the entire New Testament, and that it also lacks the Old Testament’s practice of subdividing some of what in the Tanakh are single books into multiple separate books. This obviously has a significant impact upon how many total “books” comprise the Jewish Tanakh vs. the Christian Old Testament, if you turn to the tables of contents of each and count them all up.

The New Testament consists of some 27 books  (four Gospels, one “Acts,” 21 Epistles, one “Revelation”). But the New Testament is, of course, a specifically Christian scripture rather than a Jewish one, and so it is simply not a part of the Jewish version of the Bible. This being the case, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is, right from the outset of our comparison, bound to be at least 27 books shorter than the Christian version of the Bible.

With me so far? I hope so, because things get even more complex than that.

How so? Well, some biblical books which appear as single books in the Tanakh instead appear as two or more books in the Old Testament, further throwing off our count.

For instance, in the Tanakh, the book of Samuel is one single book; the book of Kings is one single book; and the book of Chronicles is one single book. In the Old Testament, however, each of these three single books is split into two separate books (e.g, 1 Samuel, and 2 Samuel; 1 Kings, and 2 Kings; 1 Chronicles, and 2 Chronicles). Similarly, in the Tanakh, Ezra-Nehemiah is a single book, whereas in the Old Testament it is also split into two separate books (the book of Ezra, and the book of Nehemiah, respectively).

So, what count as only four books in the Hebrew Bible actually count as eight books in the Christian Bible.

There is even one book in the Tanakh, known as The Twelve, which the Old Testament divides into twelve separate short books (the twelve so-called “minor prophets,” from Hosea to Malachi).

Factor that in as well, and what count as only five books in the Hebrew Bible (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, The Twelve) altogether count as twenty books in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible — a difference of some fifteen books.

Count up all the books listed in the table of contents of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, and you get a total of 24 books. Count up all of the books listed in the table of contents of the Old Testament, and you get a total of 39 books. (Same material — just “chopped up” into a greater number of individual books.)

Now you know what happened to the “missing” fifteen books. They’re still in there; they’re just fused with other books, as it were.

So, how many books are there in the Jewish version of the Bible? Twenty-four.

And how many books are there in the Christian version of the Bible? Well, just add the 39 books of its Old Testament (all of which appear intact within the Jewish/Hebrew Bible, albeit in a different form) together with the 27 books of its New Testament, and you get a grand total — from Genesis to Revelation — of 66 books.

But wait — there’s more!

Thus far, I’ve been saying “the Christian version of the Bible” as if there was only one such version. (Again, here I am not using “version” as a mere synonym for “translation,” but in the sense of “specific selection of texts included or excluded.”) However, the fact is that some major branches of Christianity recognize some books as canonical which other branches of Christianity reject as non-canonical; consequently, the respective versions of the Bible favored by each major branch reflect this disagreement.

Most Christian groups are in agreement regarding the 27 books of the New Testament. Disagreements over what is and what is not properly regarded as canonical (or as legitimately “biblical”) tend to revolve mainly around books either retained or rejected by various Christian versions of the Old Testament.

Just over half of the U.S. population is Protestant (a major branch of Christianity that includes mainline denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, together with various other non-denominational, evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist groups). Protestants recognize the 39 books of the Old Testament (as discussed above), and no others, as genuinely and authentically canonical.

So, Protestant versions of the Bible present those same 39 books (and those 39 books alone) as constituting the totality of the Old Testament.

All of the various translations of the Bible that I listed near the beginning of this post (KJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, NASB, etc.) are Protestant versions of the Bible, each containing the same 39 books in their versions of the Old Testament, and — by adding to that the 27 books of New Testament — a grand total of 66 biblical books altogether.

However, about a quarter of the U.S. population is Catholic. And on a global scale, Catholics significantly outnumber Protestants (fully half of the total world Christian population is Catholic, whereas Protestants account for only about 37% of Christians worldwide). Catholics recognize some seven additional books as canonical that Protestants (and Jews) do not. Consequently, Catholic versions of the Bible also include these seven extra books within their own versions of the Old Testament, whereas Protestant (and Jewish) versions do not. These seven “non-Protestant” books (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach [or Ecclesiasticus], and Baruch), when added to the mutually non-controversial 39 books accepted by the Protestant version of the Old Testament, brings the Catholic version of the Old Testament up to 46 books.

(Note: not only does the Catholic version of the Old Testament include seven whole books more than the Protestant version contains, but it’s also made even longer still by the fact that the Catholic versions of the books of Esther and Daniel are both lengthier than the versions of those books that appear in the Protestant version; each of these two books contains a significant amount of additional material.)

Anyway, if we take the Catholic Old Testament’s 46 books (that’s seven more books than are in the Protestant Old Testament), and we add to that the 27 books of the New Testament, then we get a grand total of some 73 books in the Catholic version of the Bible — seven more than the 66 total books comprising the Protestant version of the Bible.

Specifically Catholic translations of the Bible (containing all 73 of its books) include the Douay-Rheims version, the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the New American Bible (NAB). There are also Catholic “editions” of some of the standard Protestant translations mentioned above, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NSRV) – Catholic Edition, which add both the additional seven books as well as the additional chapters of Esther and Daniel.

(Note: many editions of the Protestant version of the Bible often include, as a kind of explicitly non-canonical “extra” or “bonus feature” and simply as a matter of interest or reference, the disputed additional books. These books are typically collected together as a single unit or grouping, and positioned in between the Old and New Testaments. They are thus set off in a kind of separate “appendix” section, and referred to as the Apocrypha, in order to emphasize their non-canonical [and, in the eyes of some Protestants, their questionable or even spurious] nature. By contrast, Catholics fully recognize these works as canonical, do not gather them into a single separate section of their own but instead simply leave them dispersed throughout the Old Testament, and refer to them collectively not as “the Apocrypha” but rather by the term Deuterocanonical, which simply means “second canon.”)

So: the Jewish version of the Bible (a.k.a. the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) has 24books total.The Protestant version of the Bible, with its 39 Old Testament books (plus the 27 New Testament books) has 66 books total.The Catholic version of the Bible, with its 46 Old Testament books (plus the 27 New Testament books) has 73books total.Whew… is that it?Nope!About 12% of the world’s total Christian population is Eastern Orthodox (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.). And Orthodox versions of the Old Testament constitute yet additional variants, containing additional books not found in either Catholic or Protestant versions….

Okay, okay! Perhaps things are getting a little too fuzzy by now for non-specialists to easily keep up with, at least on first encounter.

Of course, as with so many other things, the deeper you dig, the muddier things quickly become. But hopefully, my main point has become clearer.

How many books are there in the Bible? There is no single correct answer (24? 66? 73?). It just depends upon which version (and not just which “translation”) of the Bible that one is asking about.