The rise of Protestantism forced reconsideration of what had up to that point been a relatively unproblematic question: what specific texts does the phrase "the Bible" denote? At a fairly early stage in its history, the Christian church had to make some important decisions as to what the term "scripture" actually designated. The first major phase in the history of the church, often referred to as the "patristic period" (c. 100-c. 450), witnessed the setting of the limits to the New Testament—a process usually known as "the fixing of the canon." The word "canon" derives from the Greek word kanon, meaning a "rule" or "reference point." The phrase "the canon of scripture" thus refers to a limited and defined group of writings that are accepted as authoritative within the church.
What criteria were used in drawing up this canon? The basic principle underlying this process appears to have been that of the recognition rather than the imposition of authority. In other words, the works in question were recognized by Christians as already possessing authority; they did not have an arbitrary authority imposed upon them. For the early church father Irenaeus, the church does not create the canon of scripture; it acknowledges, conserves, and receives canonical scripture on the basis of the authority already inherent to it. Some early Christians appear to have regarded apostolic authorship as of decisive importance; others were prepared to accept books that did not appear to have apostolic credentials. Although the precise details of how this selection was made remain unclear, it is certain that the canon was closed within the Western church by the beginning of the fifth century. The issue of the canon would not be raised again until the dawn of Protestantism.
At the time of the Reformation, a major debate broke out over whether some works accepted by the medieval church as canonical really deserved this status. It must be emphasized that the debate centered on the Old Testament; the canon of the New Testament was never seriously questioned, despite Martin Luther's misgivings about the canonicity of the letter of James and three other shorter letters.
While all the New Testament works were accepted as canonical— Luther's misgivings would gain little support—doubts were raised concerning the canonicity of a group of Old Testament works. A comparison of the contents of the Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible, on the one hand, and in the Greek and Latin versions (such as the Sep-tuagint and the Vulgate), on the other, shows that the latter contain a number of works not found in the former. Following the lead of Jerome, the reformers argued that the only Old Testament writings that could be regarded as belonging to the canon of scripture were those originally included in the Hebrew Bible.
Protestants thus drew a distinction between the Old Testament and what they termed the "Apocrypha." The former consisted of texts found in the Hebrew Bible, while the latter consisted of text found in Greek and Latin versions of the Bible but not in the Hebrew Bible. While some reformers allowed that the apocryphal works made for edifying reading, there was general agreement that these works could not be used as the basis of doctrine. However, Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages, followed by the Council of Trent in 1546, defined the Old Testament as "those Old Testament works contained in the Greek and Latin bibles," thus eliminating from the outset any distinction between "Old Testament" and "Apocrypha."
From the beginning, therefore, Catholics and Protestants have had quite different understandings of what the term "the Bible" means, and this difference persists to the present day. A comparison of current Protestant versions of the Bible—the two most important being the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV )—with their Catholic counterparts, such as the Jerusalem Bible, reveals these differences.
One practical outcome of this sixteenth-century debate was the production and circulation of authorized lists of books that were to be regarded as "scriptural." The fourth session of the Council of Trent (1546) produced a detailed list that included the works of the Apocrypha as authentically scriptural, while Protestant congregations in Switzerland, France, and elsewhere produced lists that either totally omitted any reference to these works or indicated that they were of no importance in matters of doctrine.
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