The Old Testament Canon

The Old Testament Canon

Today we continue to answer the question:

Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?

The canon of the Old Testament is a much more complicated collection than the New Testament. Unlike the New Testament that was written, collected, and pretty much standardized in the course of 300 years, the writing, editing, and collecting of the Old Testament spans at least eight centuries before Christ, and the decision about which texts should be considered canonical varies across Jewish and Christian traditions.

As a much older collection and one that is shared by Jews and Christians alike, explaining the full history of the Old Testament requires much more than a blog post! But probably the most common question you’ll face about the Old Testament is something like,

Why do you have ‘extra’ books in your Bible?

If you’ve never noticed, the Old Testament in your Orthodox Study Bible doesn’t quite match up with other English translations like the NKJV or NIV–it’s longer and the books are in a different order. Here’s why.

In the three centuries preceding Christ, Judea came under the rule of the Greeks and then the Romans. Because of this, many Jews were living outside of Judea and in other parts of the empire and many of them spoke Greek as their primary language. Thus, it became necessary for the Scripture (which, of course, at this time only included the Old Testament and did not yet have a set canon) to be translated from its original Hebrew into Greek.

A page from a 13th Century copy of the LXX. Image from Wikimedia

A page from a 13th Century copy of the LXX. Image from Wikimedia

According to early Jewish and Christian tradition, King Ptolomy II Philadelphus summoned 72 Hebrew scholars and asked them to translate the teachings of Moses into Greek to include in the famous library of Alexandria. The number of translators is what later gave this Greek translation its name–Septuagint being derived from the Latin for “the translation of the seventy”–and is why this version is often abbreviated as LXX.

Of course, modern scholars have all sorts of theories about if this ever happened or which books were translated when, but it is certain that by the time of Christ, the entire Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek and additional texts had been penned in Greek and were circulating alongside the translations.

Most often, when Christ quotes Scripture in the gospels, He uses the Septuagint translations, as do the authors of the epistles. It seems, then, that the LXX was certainly an accepted if not the primary text of the Jews at the time of Jesus.

Thus, the early Christians naturally adopted the Greek LXX, including the later books such as Maccabees and Sirach.

Later, in the 7th to 10th centuries CE, the Jews compiled an authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of their scriptures based on Hebrew-only manuscripts and adjusting for the need to include vowels in the written text. This version of the Old Testament became known as the Masoretic text and did not use the LXX as a basis for its creation. Therefore, it does not include the books originally written in Greek or the portions of certain Old Testament books that were included in the LXX. It also uses a different numbering system for chapters and verses and sometimes orders things differently in certain books.

It is the Masoretic text that Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers preferred for a variety of reasons, and thus, it has become the standard among Protestants for translations into vernacular languages such as English.

So there you have it–while the Protestants only accept as authoritative the Masoretic text of the Middle Ages, the Orthodox (and to some extent, the Catholics) continue to view the older LXX as authoritative while certainly understanding that some books hold more significance than others (for example, we read Isaiah and use it in our hymnology way more than we use Judith). If you never knew this or have only ever read from a Protestant translation into English of the Old Testament, now is a great time to get an Orthodox Study Bible and start reading from the LXX of the ancient Church!

The New Testament Canon

The New Testament Canon

Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?

This is a great question! Today I’m going to address the New Testament canon. Let’s start off with a little bit of context.

By the end of the first century or early in the second century, all of the texts that now make up the New Testament had been written. As early as AD 95 or 96, Clement of Rome alludes to multiple passages in the New Testament, though he does not name them as scripture yet (that is a title still reserved for the Old Testament at this point). In the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles” in his First Apology, and in the famous text Against Heresies of St. Irenaeus (c. 180), the saint firmly proclaims the authority of the four gospels.

At the same time, a number of other texts were circulated amongst the nascent Christian community. There are really two categories of texts outside of the canon of Scripture. First, texts whose teachings were accepted in whole or in part as edifying for the Christian community but ultimately deemed outside of the core texts which became the New Testament, and second, texts that were considered heretical.

Concerning the first category of texts, in the first and second centuries, many these early Christian writings were considered interchangeable with the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the catholic epistles. For example, St. Clement of Alexandria considered books such as the Didache and I Clement as part of the canonical list of texts while later in the early fourth century, Eusebius the historian points out that James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Revelation were sometimes disputed as parts of the New Testament.

Early manuscript of 1 & 2 Peter. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Early manuscript of 1 & 2 Peter. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Eventually which books were accepted and which were considered outside of the canon but still useful to Christians sorted itself out. The first full list of the current 27 books of the New Testament that we have is in a Paschal letter of St. Athanasios in 367. However, the Church continued to quote and learn from the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas as well as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. These works later became known as the works of the Apostolic Fathers, those who were typically one or two generations away from the apostles themselves and shared much of their worldview and theological emphasis.

The second group of texts that were being written and circulating at the same time as the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were typically texts associated with gnosticism. Gnosticism was not a single heresy but a group of heresies identified generally by the rejection of the material world as evil and created by a lesser, created god (called a demiurge) and salvation as “enlightenment” or freedom from this completely corrupted or even simulated realm. Practices and beliefs amongst gnostics varied widely.

A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons

A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Where things get tricky in the modern mind is that many of the texts associated with gnosticism were attributed to the apostles and used Christian terminology such as “gospel” to describe themselves, and even sometimes quoted Christian texts as justification for their clearly non-Christian beliefs. Unlike the canonical texts, however, most of the gnostic texts were written in the 2nd-4th century after the established circulation of the New Testament gospels. These include such titles as the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Peter, and many others. Unlike some of the Apostolic Fathers, the gnostic texts were rarely included in early lists of the New Testament and were most usually blatantly marked as heretical (for example, by Irenaeus and Eusebius).

Removed from the living Tradition of the Church, the modern era has resurfaced many of these gnostic texts and has presented them as if they are newly-discovered and were kept hidden by early Christian leaders for some nefarious reasons. From inside the ancient Church, we can easily see that line of reasoning for what it is: nonsense. The Church never accepted gnostic teaching or the texts associated with it, and the reason that these texts disappear or become rare and obsolete is because they were not important to the actual practicing Christian community. All one has to do is read a few passages from one of these books to see that the Church very easily discerned their heretical teaching and vastly different worldview.

Thus, those books which were apostolic in origin and central to to the message of salvation were selected to be the main texts of the Christian faith while others were identified as useful to Christians, but not central to life of the Church or as simply heretical. All this is to say that the texts of the New Testament were written, collected, and canonized over the course of the first four hundred years of Christianity, and that ultimately, it was the consensus of the whole Church, voiced through the Fathers and guided by the Holy Spirit, that ultimately determined the canon of the New Testament.

Orthodox Music: Byzantine Chant

Orthodox Music: Byzantine Chant

Learn to chant, so that you may experience the sweetness of the work,  for those who chant are filled with the Holy Spirit. – St. John Chrysostom

The history of the Greek Orthodox Church can be described as a history of prayer through song. Following the ancient Greek philosophers, the Fathers of the Church recognized the profound impact music has on souls and adopted it as a tool of instruction and edification. The music of the Church came to be known as the Psaltic Art and later as Byzantine music. The latter term is indicative of the paramount significance of Byzantium-Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the genesis, growth, and development of this tradition.

Technical Aspects of Byzantine Music

Byzantine music is a strictly vocal, monophonic, a cappella tradition. In its fullest expression, it is performed antiphonally by two choirs standing at opposite sides of the solea. Each choir is comprised of a director (called Protopsaltis and Lampadarios for the right and left choirs respectively), a number of melodists who chant in unison, a number of isokratae who hold the ison, i.e. the fundamental note in a given melodic context, one or more soloists, a canonarch who intones the verses of the hymns, and a reader who recites or intones biblical pericopes and certain liturgical texts.

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Holy Cross St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir chanting at St. Spyridon Cathedral, Worcester, MA

The musical settings are composed in the four authentic and four plagal Byzantine modes, each of which has its own scale, tonic, structural notes, melodic contour, range, melodic formulae, etc. These characteristics lend each mode a particular feeling or expression. For example, the first mode is associated with joy in Christ’s Resurrection, the second mode with mild sorrow as well as fervent prayer, etc.

History of the Psaltic Art

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St. Ioannis Koukouzelis (c. 1270 – c. 1340)

The history of the Psaltic Art can be traced through the elaborate and majestic ceremonies in Hagia Sophia and other cathedrals and monasteries of the Eastern Roman Empire to the simple, unadorned hymns of the early Church. Initially, hymns were composed along with their own music, but after the emergence of Byzantine musical notation in the 10th century, composers started setting pre-existent texts to new music. Out of the approximately 1,000 known composers, two figures stand out for their remarkable proliferation and overall contribution to the development of psaltic compositional technique: St. Ioannis Papadopoulos Koukouzelis (13th-14th c.) and Petros the Peloponnesian (18th c.).

Becoming a Cantor

To become a cantor, one needs to study Byzantine notation, which is made up of neumes and other signs that are primarily derived from the Greek letters and diacritics. Being a cantor also presupposes intimate familiarity with the contents and usage of liturgical books and service rubrics. Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology offers a comprehensive training program that culminates in the awarding of a Certificate in Byzantine Music to students who have developed a mastery of the art. Additionally, formal instruction is offered at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, in schools of Byzantine music at several Metropolises of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and in numerous parishes throughout the United States.

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Setting of Pasapnoarion in the plagal first mode by Nicholas Roumas

The Liturgical Function of Chanting

While it is certainly meant to provide aesthetic pleasure to the listeners, the primary function of chanting is to make manifest the grace that resides in the sacred hymnology. Rather than being an art for the sake of art, Byzantine music is the ‘liturgical garment’ with which the poetic text of a hymn is vested. This liturgical aspect of music has a threefold purpose: first, to penetrate the soul of the faithful in a way that mere speech can’t and, by extension, to make the doctrines of the Church easier to instill in the hearts of the people; second, to expand and transform the words from means of exchange of information between humans to vehicles of communication between God and man; and third, to facilitate the sanctification of the praying community. According to Elder Timotheos Tzanis of Crete (1928-1991),

The cantor who chants with the grace of God is captured by the Holy Spirit, he does not live in this world, he ascends to the heavens! And he imparts this grace to the entire congregation! If only we had eyes to see the rays of light that come out of the cantor’s mouth and fall on the heads of the faithful!


Untitled4Dr. Grammenos Karanos is Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA and Director of the St. John of Damascus School of Byzantine Music of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston.

New Podcast! Orthodox Apologetics: What is Orthodoxy?

New Podcast! Orthodox Apologetics: What is Orthodoxy?

OCFPodcastIn the latest episode of the OCF podcast, Media Student Leader Matthew Monos continues his conversation with Fr. Brendan Pelphrey about sharing Orthodoxy with others. Fr. Brendan addresses some of the ways we can answer the question, “What is Orthodoxy?” and gives tips on answering this question for people from different backgrounds.

Click here to listen!

Witnesses of the Word: New Martyr Zlata of Meglen

Witnesses of the Word: New Martyr Zlata of Meglen

There are all sorts of circumstances under which Christians have faced persecution and martyrdom. And while we often think first of the martyrs who were slaughtered by the Roman pagans, there are many more martyrs, especially since the time of the fall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, who have suffered because they refused to denounce Christ. Those martyred in the post-Byzantine era are often referred to as the “New Martyrs” since, in Orthodox terms, anything less than a thousand years ago is recent history for us.

Image from  oca.org

Image from oca.org

One such saint is the New Martyr Zlata (October 13). Here is her story and what she has to share with us.

In the area that is now Bulgaria in the late 18th century, there was a young girl named Zlata (Chryse in Greek). Zlata had been raised in a Christian home and was known for her strong character, chastity, and beauty. So when a young Turk became infatuated with her and wanted to marry her, Zlata firmly refused to capitulate either to his marriage proposal or to his insistence that she convert to Islam. The Turk and his friends then spent months harassing and threatening Zlata, trying in vain to make her give in. They even tried to force her parents and siblings to get her to convert. And here’s where the really beautiful lesson from St. Zlata comes in.

Her family told her to give in “just for the sake of appearances.” Surely, they told her, God would forgive her if she didn’t really mean it but converted only to save her life. The saint remained steadfast, however, and insisted that even if it was just for the sake of appearances, to deny Christ would be unthinkable. After many more tortures, ultimately, the young woman was killed.

Now, maybe we don’t have someone threatening our life if we don’t change who we are, but I know there are lots of times that we, as Orthodox Christians, are asked to, “for the sake of appearances,” not wear our faith too externally. We get the message, “It’s ok if your a Christian–just as long as it doesn’t upset the materialistic, hedonistic order of things. It’s ok if you’re a Christian–just as long as the world doesn’t have to be bothered by it. And couldn’t you, just for the sake of appearances, maybe act a little less Christian so you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable?”

What we can take from the life of St. Zlata is that denying Christ to save face, just to get by unharassed–for the sake of a job, a class, a social connection, whatever it may be–is not just a surface-level matter of convenience. We can’t just pretend not to be Christians when our Christianity is inconvenient or unpopular. To cover up our Christianity in the small things is to set ourselves up for bigger denials. Likewise, to say yes to Christ in the small things is to prepare ourselves for bigger (often more difficult) leaps of faith. Even when those around us discourage us from living a life of faith, may we, like the young Zlata, remain firm in our resolve to follow Christ in all things.

Holy St. Zlata, intercede for us.