How do we make sense of the differences between Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible?  I touched briefly on this earlier; it’s time for a more detailed analysis.

Because Jews were scattered all over what ultimately became the Roman Empire, thanks to conquests by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, and thanks to the influence of conquerors like Alexander the Great, Greek became the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world.  Many Jews living outside Palestine were ignorant of Hebrew/Aramaic, and so a translation of their Scriptures into Greek was needed and was made (we call it the “Septuagint,” abbreviated with Roman numerals as LXX).  It included a number of books (like Tobit, Wisdom, additions to Esther and Daniel, I-II Maccabees) that were interesting and important (Esther was the basis for the festival of Purim; Maccabees gave us the reason for Chanukah).

After the fall of Jerusalem, rabbis decided to codify their Scriptures, and the writings they chose had to be in Hebrew or Aramaic.  Those written (or believed to have been written) only in Greek were rejected.  The result is the so-called “Masoretic Text” of the Hebrew Bible.  When St Jerome translated the Bible into the “common” (vulgar; Vulgate) language of Latin, he included these “disputed” books, even with a preface stating they were disputed.  But his Bible became THE Bible until the Renaissance.

An academic movement of those times wanted to go back to the “sources” and be more correct—this was the basis for the disagreement about those books written (or believed to have been written) only in Greek.  The progressive scholars of that time chose to set aside as less important the disputed books.  In this context the Reformation occurred, and Reformers embraced the “new learning” rejecting those books; in reaction, the Catholic Church asserted that they were all Scriptural and inspired.  This division was solidified for English-speaking Christians by the publication of the “King James Bible.”

At various times these books/additions were known as “apocrypha” or “deutero-canonical” (= secondarily canonical).  These days, most Bibles printed as “Protestant” include these books either as an appendix at the end of the Bible, or more typically in between the Old and New Testaments.

With regard to their status, Article VI of the “[39] Articles of Religion” of the Church of England is informative:  “…the Church doth read [them] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…”  This means that they should be read in church, but by themselves they cannot teach dogmas (though they can re-inforce dogmas taught in other Scriptures as well).  So hearing Wisdom 3 (“The souls of the just are in the hands of God…”) at a funeral liturgy in the Catholic Church should not shock Protestants (at least of the Anglican tradition, which includes the Methodists).

There are smaller differences thanks to the contrast between the LXX and the Hebrew versions of the Old Testament:  spellings of some names, for example, and the number of the Psalms.  But since the 1950s and 1960s the Catholic translations (ultimately what we now hear in church as the “Revised New American Bible”) coordinate more closely with the Hebrew than the Greek.  So finally our “Psalm 23” and their Psalm 23 are both “The Lord is my shepherd…”  And we refer to the great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah rather than Jeremias and Isaias.  Ironically, we all refer to the Savior as Jesus, even though the Hebrew form should be “Joshua”!

So there you have it:  differences between “Protestant” and “Catholic” Bibles are minimal, and frankly not very important.  More important is the quality of the translations themselves…