The Lost Books of the Bible (1609 Catholic edition)

February 19, 2012 | 12 comments
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In 1609, Johannes Uber published the first part of his Very Useful and Necessary Disputation Concerning the Holy Bible (Von der heiligen Bibel sehr nützliche und nötige Disputation, VD17 1:050537Y) in which he argued for two points. First, that the Bible was no longer whole “because of the many lost holy books that the holy prophets and apostles wrote and referred to in their writings”; and second, that therefore those who leave the Catholic Church and rely only on the Bible cannot find salvation. Uber divided the work into five sections:

  •  A list of 57 lost books, from the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num. 21:14) to Paul’s epistle to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16).
  • References to lost biblical books in the apocrypha, patristic literature, and Catholic authorities, from the lost 204 books of Esdras (4 Esdras 14:44) to an attestation from the Jesuit Benedict Pereira (1535-1610) that the Bible was missing books it earlier had.
  • A tu quoque list of citations from Protestant authorities that admit to defects in the Bible, including from Calvin and Luther.
  • The fourth section argues that the Bible is not complete because the correct interpretation and understanding of the Bible depends on the Holy Spirit, which is not contained in the text but is instead external to it. Without the Spirit, the words of the Bible are nothing. (This argument over the location of meaning, extended to the interpretation of all texts, continues to the present day.)
  • The fifth section finally argues that the incompleteness of the Bible necessarily leads to the rejection of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, as those who believe only what is in the Bible must therefore reject its interpretation by the Spirit.

Uber’s Disputation anticipates by two centuries the appearance of lost biblical books in Mormon discourse, providing an example of a Latter-day conversation that continues medieval and early modern dialogues. My impression is that we typically borrowed the Protestant side of confessional polemics, but in this case we seem to have adopted something closer to the Catholic argument. For Mormons, the lost books are usually cited as evidence that continued revelation is necessary, although they are also cited as a sign of apostasy in Late Antiquity or the Middle Ages, to which Johannes Uber would no doubt have taken great exception.

12 Responses to The Lost Books of the Bible (1609 Catholic edition)

  1. jader3rd on February 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    I wonder if this was the major contributor to why so main “main stream” Christians feel the need to declare the Bible to be the “end all be all”. I always thought it came about during the beginning of the restoration when the clergy needed one more talking point against Joe Smith. But if it was pointed out in 1609 that denomonations relying only on the Bible couldn’t possibly have all of the revelations from God, I could see that being a much ealier source of the Bible-is-perfect conviction.

  2. J. Stapley on February 19, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I’m not really familiar with contemporary Catholic approaches to the bible. Would this (with the understanding that scholarship has advanced not a small amount since then) be still a viable Catholic approach?

  3. Jonathan Green on February 19, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    J3D, this is just one book, and I have no idea what the broader discussion looked like. I find this particular book fascinating because it shows the “Lost Books” entry in our Bible Dictionary is just a recent appearance of a much older discussion that I wasn’t even aware of a week ago.

    J., I don’t know much more about contemporary approaches, but I’d guess that it wouldn’t be too extraordinary. Uber’s preface has an interesting discussion of how the Church and Scripture are like the Sun and Moon, both of which are required to illuminate each other.

  4. James Olsen on February 20, 2012 at 1:38 am

    Jonathan, this was fascinating. Any idea how influential or widely read this book was? I started a post on sola scriptura a few months back, but never got around to finishing it. My impression is that in its Reformation iteration, sola scriptura is so radical that it doesn’t get much purchase today, though obviously more contemporary iterations exist.

    I really like the metaphor of Sun & Moon – it seems to me to have the right sort of asymmetry.

  5. LDS Anarchist on February 20, 2012 at 3:56 am

    Fascinating stuff. I wonder, do the current LDS missionaries mention the lost books or incomplete nature of the Bible when they teach the discussions? It seems to me that the Book of Mormon, besides teaching us the very points of the doctrine and gospel of Jesus Christ, also teaches us how we are supposed to present the need for it (the BoM) to the Bible-only believing public.

    Namely, 1) that the Bible is “the Book of the Lamb of God”; 2) that many plain and precious parts have been taken away from it, or out it, even all the most plain and precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb have been removed from it; and 3) that the BoM makes known the plain and precious things which have been taken out of the Bible.

    A marked up Bible, showing all the instances in which lost books and epistles are mentioned, could be shown to the investigator. Also, it could shown that even parts of the canon we currently have are deficient, such as Psalm 9 and the complete set of 3000 parables and 5000 songs that Solomon wrote under inspiration of God.

    And then to demonstrate what a deficient canon does to the doctrine, one or more key books of the books that make up the Bible could be imagined to have been lost, so that no one knows of its contents, and then the investigator could be asked, “How would the current theology you subscribe to change if it could not draw from this book?”

    I would be curious to see some work done on just that scenario (if it hasn’t already been done.) If Romans or Hebrews or some other epistles we currently have were “lost,” so that Christians had (and have) no idea of what was in those epistles, would the missing part of the gospel significantly alter their doctrine? Etc. If it could be shown that even one single book/epistle going missing totally changes the doctrine, then I think most people would see that with 57 (or more) missing books/epistles, the odds of getting things doctrinally right go significantly down.

  6. True Order of Hair on February 20, 2012 at 7:55 am

    I do not understand the assumption that any writing which is mentioned in the Bible should be included as part of the Bible. While it’s true that many — possibly even most — books of the ancient world have been lost, there is no reason to automatically attribute special significance to any of them.

    Determining which books to include in the Bible was not an easy task in Judaism and early Christianity, and it has never been resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. For example, the Catholic Bible includes seven books that are not included as canonical in Jewish, Protestant, or Mormon Bibles, as well as extended versions of the books of Daniel and Esther. Some Orthodox churches have even more books in their Bibles. Joseph Smith believed that the Song of Solomon was non-canonical.

    This leads to some interesting disparities. For example, the Catholic Bible mentions Nephi (as a place name), but the Mormon Bible doesn’t.

  7. Michael H. on February 20, 2012 at 8:41 am

    The Protestant response? “If God had wanted those books in the Bible, he would have made sure they got into it. Obviously he didn’t want us to have them, or they’re not important anyway.” Unfortunately, sola scriptura relies on making the Bible as authoritative as possible and not brooking any questions as to that.

  8. Steve Fleming on February 20, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Interesting, Jonathan. In the Middle Ages, there was a debate between those who felt that all Catholic practice needed to be based on the Bible and those who felt it didn’t because of John 21:25 “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” I thought that was interesting because we used the scripture to argue against sola scriptura on my mission.

  9. danithew on February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I would love to see a list of the 57 lost/missing Biblical books.

  10. Jonathan Green on February 21, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Daniel, click on the link, and all 57 shall be displayed to your view (depending on your reading ability in Early New High German in Fraktur typefaces). At least the scriptural references should be more or less comprehensible.

    Steve, thanks for the information. I suspected that there might be a medieval precursor. I suppose checking the glossa ordinaria on John 21 and on the verses Uber cites would be a good way to see what the medieval debate looked like. What I find so interesting about this is how an internal Catholic dialogue turns into Reformatio-era polemic, and then into modern confessional debate.

    TOH, I believe the argument is that if a biblical writer mentions another source and treats it as scripture, but that other source is not currently found in the Bible, then we have evidence for divinely approved texts that did not make it into the canon. Or you can cherry-pick passages from Luther’s Tischreden and say that even Luther admitted the Bible was defective. Uber does both.

  11. True Order of Hair on February 25, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for your reply. Please forgive my long-winded response.

    As for Luther’s Tischreden, all I have to say is that Luther has lots of company in acknowledging that the Bible is problematic. I agree with him myself. The Bible presents us with many problems, provided we define the term “Bible” as meaning texts that have been accepted as canonical, together with their translations and the interpretations that are necessitated by the translation process. That’s why we have Bible scholars, manuscript specialists, and theologians to help identify and resolve the problems.

    But that’s not my point.

    My point is addressed by your first sentence, which appears to define a divinely approved text that did not make it into the canon as a text that is mentioned by a biblical writer who treats it as scripture.

    I am not familiar with any such text in the Bible. I also find it hard to conceive of what it would mean for the writer to treat such a text as scripture.

    Would the writer have to explicitly say “this book is scripture”? Or would it be sufficient if his reference to it were approving, rather than disapproving or neutral?

    I’m not trying to be snarky here. I just want to point out that any discussion of lost scripture has to be more than idle speculation. It’s easy to point to lost books — the ancient world was full of books that are now lost. But it is quite a big step to declare that a lost book was inspired by God for our edification in spite of the fact that God apparently didn’t see fit to preserve it. It is yet another big step to base any theology or moral reasoning on speculation about what such a book may have contained.

  12. Jonathan Green on February 25, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    ToH, who are you arguing with? I suspect you have a disagreement with someone who isn’t here. For this post, I have no opinion on what is lost scripture and what isn’t. I’m merely pointing to lost scripture as an element of 17th-century Catholic discourse, which is an interesting precursor to contemporary Mormon discourse. Perhaps you would like to argue with the Bible Dictionary? With Johannes Uber? Someone? I tried to give you a thumbnail sketch of how their arguments might work, but you’ll really have to read them yourself if you want to understand them well enough to argue against them.