In such a bibliocentric culture, I wonder why we lack curiosity about the Bible. Not only do we not study it much in religion classes, we often accept it as a fixed cultural object. Saying that it’s the word of God, as if that explains anything, many Protestant groups take it as the 39 books of the “Old Testament” and the 27 of the New, ignoring the 66 total that stands like a warning sign of impending idolatry. Roman Catholics and some Anglicans add the books of the Apocrypha, or Deuterocanon, bringing the number closer to 73 books. I say “closer to” because some of these books seem to be expansions on other books already in the canon. Over the years the National Council of Churches has added a few more books, considering various other groups (mostly Orthodox) that recognize some further works as canonical.
In this era of recognizing the importance of black lives and black culture, I’m amazed there’s so little curiosity about the Ethiopian Orthodox canon. I’ve spoken to many biblical scholars who could care less that the fantastic books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch are in the canon of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. It’s almost as if these groups simply don’t matter in the world of Christendom. I note that biblical scholars I ask about this are usually Protestant or Catholic themselves. It seems to me almost a racist slight not to include books that are recognized among some Christian groups, but not others.
What is the scientific criterion for determining a book is the word of God or not? It surely can’t be fear of contradiction, for the Protestant Bible—the briefest in mainstream Christendom—has plenty of contradictions of its own. The Bible itself famously does not name the books included. Various authorities made decisions at various points about which books should be included and which should be left out. It is such a very human process. But when it comes to including the books of churches that total nearly 40 million members, suddenly people just aren’t that curious. Those of us interested in demons have to take Jubilees and 1 Enoch seriously. They are fascinating books. And Biblical for millions of people. The past several years have made me think quite seriously about the borders built around the Bible. Whose choice is it not to include books already in the canon for their neighbors? Or, as might be more accurate, who has the authority to cut out books that already belong for many African Christians?
It’s complicated. The Bible, that is. Tracing its origins as a book can easily occupy a lifetime, but the issue that keeps coming up with Scripture is how, definitively, to close the canon. If we should. My research on demons lately has led me once again to the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch. The latter has long been popular with the paranormal crowd because it has some weird stuff in it. Thing is, as I mentioned back in November, these two books are part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. And the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. That makes these two books by definition “biblical.” You won’t find them in nearly any printed Bible in the western world, although you can locate them in collections of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
This privileging of the western canon has implications. How do we know what really belongs in the Bible? Judaism never officially closed its canon, but by consensus the same books contained in the Protestant Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are those recognized. Early Christian writers had different Bibles. It took almost four centuries for them to agree generally on what should be included. In Europe, that is. Not all branches of the church were represented in the Council of Rome. Instead of waiting for the consensus of all—there was an urgency to stomping out heresy—the decision was made. For some. Meanwhile other Christian groups continued to use certain books that “the official” closing of the canon left out in the rain. Or the desert. Whichever.
The question of just what’s in the Bible goes a bit deeper than that. The Tewahedo Churches of eastern Africa also recognize the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. “So?” did I hear you say, “Catholics recognize them too—what’s the big deal?” These books, however, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean canons are not the same as western 1 and 2 Maccabees. The books of the Mäqabeyan contain different content while maintaining the same basic name. This means that we’re gonna need a bigger canon. What’s more, these books have been pretty much ignored by biblical scholars. One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they are written in Geez, a language not on the menu of too many seminaries. Simply to dismiss them, however, is to ignore the belief system of over 50 million Christians. It seems that the version of the Good Book tucked under the arm of many an evangelist is the condensed version. Putting together a canon, it appears, is more complicated than it looks.
Not that kind of cannon! (Photo credit: Walther Hermann Ryff, via Wikimedia Commons)
Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days. The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind. Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book. When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up. Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis. Had we left out some sacred books? That would seem to be a grave mistake. As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.
The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.” Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out. My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?” That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth. If something really happened it was, by definition, true. The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later. Scripture is more subtle than that. So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon. Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.
The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together. Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible. The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge. Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible. Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away. Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing. And, ironically, some even left out his book. Such matter remain hidden indeed.