This week we look at a question from Shirley who asks, “Why is the full Bible not available?”
The Protestant Bible is a collection of 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament (books written before Christ) and 27 in the New Testament (books written after Christ). The Roman Catholic Bible contains 14 more books called the Apocrypha. These books were contained in the Greek scrolls that were probably available during Jesus’ lifetime, but were not considered a canonical part of the scriptures (they were interesting books, but didn’t carry the authority of the rest of scripture).
Up until the 1500s, the Bible included the books of the Apocrypha in virtually all the copies that were available at the time. However, Martin Luther objected to the Apocrypha (along with other books such as James and Hebrews) and chose not to include the Apocrypha in his German version of the Bible. Today, few Protestants own copies of the “full” Bible, but of course, it is quite available from virtually any bookstore.
So, which books does Shirley mean? Well, she doesn’t really say, but there are plenty of books available that have collections of the “Lost Gospels” and of other “Epistles” that are not found in our Bibles today. Why aren’t these in the Bible?
Before we go much farther, it might be helpful to name some of the so-called “lost books” of the Bible. For starters, there’s the Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, and several others. In the way of Epistles there’s the letter to Seneca from Paul, 1st and 2nd Clement to the Corinthians, the Letter of Barnabas, and several others. So, why aren’t these in the Bible?
Before the Bible was the Bible, an official collection of books recognized by the Church, there were many scrolls (the form of “binding” used for virtually all writings including books like the Gospels and less formal writings like letters and Epistles). These scrolls were very expensive to duplicate, since they were each produced by hand, so the churches shared these resources with each other. Indeed, when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians he instructed them to share the letter with the Laodiceans, and in turn the letter to the Laodiceans was to be read at the church at Colossae (Colossians 4.16).
In any event, these scrolls were freely circulated among the churches, but by about 300 concerns were raised that letters and books containing less than Christian ideals were being circulated. This led to the Council of Carthage in 397 that adopted an official canon of books that were “in” and books that were “out.” The books that made the cut include the 66 books of the Bible we have today with the addition of the 14 books of the Apocrypha as additional resources. The New Testament books that were included met the fourfold test that they were (1) widely circulated and accepted by the Church; (2) they were written by an apostle or a close associate; (3) they were edifying to the Christian faith; and (4) they were written in continuity with the known apostolic teachings and traditions.
So, why aren’t the books that were ousted available today? The fact is, many of them are. The book the Shepherd of Hermas, which almost replaced the book of the Revelation, didn’t make it into the canon of the Bible, but it is still available in many compilations such as Barnstone’s The Other Bible and The Lost Books of the Bible (Platt, Rutherford Hayes and J. Alden Brett). The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was ousted as well, but it too is available, as are most of the “lost books” listed previously.
On the other hand, we do know of some books that apparently no longer exist. For instance, the book of Jude cites a prophesy from the “Prophesies of Enoch” (Jude 1.14)—we have no copies. Paul’s letter to Laodicea is missing as well (Colossians 4.16). We have also apparently “lost” the book of Jashar (Joshua 10.13; 2 Samuel 1.18) and the Book of the Wars of Yahweh (Numbers 21.14). What happened to these books?
The brief answer is we don’t know for sure. However, the speculative answer is that they may not have been widely accepted by the churches and so fewer copies of the scrolls were made. Since these works did not meet the Carthage Council’s criteria of wide acceptance and circulation, the books were rejected from the canon of the Bible and none of the copies managed to survive the passage of time.
So, for those who want to read the “lost books” of the Bible, most of them are available at your local bookstore or online. However, as for the rest, we may never find copies and the secrets written in them must rest in the past.