Odds are, if you grew up Catholic, you have been told that Protestants removed books from the Bible. Odds are, if you grew up Protestant, you have been told that Catholics added books to the Bible. Odds are, whichever faith you grew up in, that’s about the extent of what you were told. As it turns out, there is a little truth to both statements. And as usual, there is a whole lot more to the story.
Let’s get the basics first.
The Protestant Old Testament consists of 39 books. These books are not placed in chronological order. Instead they are arranged according to literature type. Genesis through Esther are primarily historical, Job through Song of Songs are poetry, and Isaiah through Malachi are prophecy.
The Catholic Old Testament, on the other hand, is comprised of 46 books. So, the Catholic Old Testament canon contains 7 more books than the Protestant Old Testament Canon. The Protestant and Catholic New Testaments are identical.
Scanning the list above, you’ll notice the Catholic Old Testament contains the books of Tobit, Judith, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach (sometimes called Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch, which are notably absent in the Protestant Old Testament. The Catholic book of Esther contains additional material (Esther 10:4-16:24). The Catholic book of Daniel also contains additional material (the prayer of Azariah- Daniel 3:24-90; Susanna- Daniel chapter 13; and Bel and the Dragon- Daniel chapter 14).
As a Protestant, what you may not be aware of, is that the original 1611 King James Version also included these books. However, they were never considered to be included in the canon of Scripture. Instead, they were included for their historical value and placed in a separate section labeled “The Apocrypha” in between the Old and New Testament. Most Protestant Bibles no longer include this section, which is why most of us have no idea what it is.
This is what I meant when I said that both faiths are correct in their statements. Protestants did indeed remove The Apocrypha from our Bibles. However, up until the 1500’s these books (for the most part) were not considered to be authoritative Scripture, only historically educational. So, in the 1500’s the Catholic church did indeed “add” them to the Catholic canon of Scripture. Of course this is argued extensively, but this is the simplified, fact-based version.
What are these books that make up the difference between the Protestant and Catholic canon?
The difference is the group of books mentioned above that Protestant’s refer to as the Apocrypha. This term comes from the early church father, Jerome, back in the 5th century when he referred to the books not contained in the Hebrew canon as the “Apocrypha,” which means “hidden books.” Catholics do not refer to these books as the Apocrypha. Instead, they are called “Deuterocanonical” or “second canon” books, which means they were added to the canon of Scripture later in history. It is important to note that Catholics do not include all the Apocryphal books in their canon of Scripture.
What Books are included in the Apocrypha?
The Apocrypha is a collection of 12 books that were written between 300 BC and 100 BC. This is the time period between the last chronological book of the Old Testament and the first chronological book of the New Testament- also referred to as the intertestamental period. Combined, they are about the size of the New Testament. The complete Apocrypha is what is called “the Septuagint Plus”. The following are the books contained in the Septuagint Plus:
- additions to Esther
- The Wisdom of Solomon (or Wisdom)
- Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach)
- The Letter of Jeremiah (this book is sometimes included in the book of Baruch instead of a stand alone, which is why sometimes you’ll see that the Catholic “accepted” Apocrypha is 11 instead of 12 books)
- The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (included in the Catholic book of Daniel)
- Susanna (included in the Catholic book of Daniel)
- Bel and the Dragon (included in the Catholic book of Daniel)
- First Maccabees
- Second Maccabees
- First Esdras (Catholics call this book Third Esdras)
- Second Esdras (Catholics call this book Fourth Esdras)
- The Prayer of Manasseh
At this point you’re a little confused because the Catholic canon above does not match the list of Apocryphal books. I’m also sure you’ve noticed that there are 15 books listed here and I noted above that the Catholic canon only contains 7 more books than the Protestant canon. This is because the Catholic church does not recognize three of the Apocryphal books as Scripture (1st and 2nd Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh), and because the books are named differently in the Catholic canon. As I noted above, #8, #9, and #10 are included as extra material in the book of Daniel.
This whole Esdras deal is extremely confusing. Basically, in the Latin Vulgate (which is the official Catholic Bible), Ezra and Nehemiah were called 1st and 2nd Esdras. Therefore the Apocryphal books that are labeled 1st and 2nd Esdras were referred to in the Vulgate as 3rd and 4th Esdras. 1st and 2nd Esdras are in the Catholic canon (labeled Ezra and Nehemiah). 3rd and 4th Esdras are not in the Catholic canon. The English translation of the Vulgate (which most Catholics use because they don’t speak Latin) is called the Douay-Rheims and, again, it refers to 1st and 2nd Esdras as Ezra and Nehemiah. (These are not the same books as the Apocryphal books labeled 1st and 2nd Esdras above- they are the same as the Protestant Ezra and Nehemiah.)
Where do these Apocryphal books come from?
As I mentioned above, the Apocryphal books come from the period of time between the last book of the Old Testament and the first book of the New Testament. This time period is called the intertestamental period and spans about 400 years. This period has also been referred to as the “400 silent years” because there was no prophetic word from God during this time.
Remember, the Jews had been dispersed from the Promised Land. During the time of Jeremiah, many Jews had gone to Egypt. In 586 BC, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the remaining Jews were taken into captivity. Many years later, when the Jews were given permission to return to the Promised Land, most decided to remain in Babylon. Some, however, did return to Israel. In 330 BC, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, Greek became the international language. The majority of Jews actually forgot how to speak Hebrew, their native language, and could no longer read the Hebrew Scriptures. So, in about 250 BC the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt started to translate the Old Testament into Greek so that the Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew could understand it. Along with the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, they also translated additional writings from the intertestamental period into Greek. The Aprocrypha is included in these writings.
These Apocryphal books were written during very trying times for the Jews. In Don Stewart’s article What is the History of the Old Testament Apocrypha, he writes, “Much of their literature that was written during this period reflected their struggle. With evil all around them there were hopes for better days when the Messiah would come and bring them into a new golden age of peace. The writings of the Apocrypha reflect this hope.”
Why is there debate as to whether the Apocryphal books should be considered authoritative Scripture?
Some people may be surprised to hear this, but Jesus didn’t leave an explicit list of books to be included in the Old Testament. The books that should be included in the canon of Old Testament Scripture has been debated to one degree or another since the time of the early church fathers. We do know that Jesus and His disciples primarily used the Septuagint as their Old Testament. For starters, most of the time when Jesus and His disciples quote the Old Testament, their quotes align perfectly with the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew. This also makes sense logically based on what we’ve just discussed, which is that most Jews at the time spoke Greek instead of Hebrew. Catholics cite this as one of many reasons to accept the Apocrypha as Scripture. However, while the Septuagint that exists today does include the Apocrypha, there is no evidence that the Septuagint that existed in the time of Christ did as well. As Don Stewart points out, “The fourth or fifth century Greek manuscripts, in which the Apocrypha appears, have no consistency with the number of books or their order.”
Even though Jesus doesn’t leave an explicit list of the canon of the Old Testament, He does seem to set parameters as to the extent of the time period the Old Testament canon encompasses in Matthew 23:34-36.
Don Stewart explains the significance of these passages, “He mentions Abel and Zechariah as the first and last murder messengers of God that were murdered. Abel’s murder is mentioned in Genesis while Zechariah’s was in 2 Chronicles- the last Old Testament book in the Hebrew canonical order. The fact that these two are specifically mentioned is particularly significant. This strongly suggests He did not consider the books of the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament Scripture as with the books from Genesis to 2 Chronicles.”
Catholics maintain that the early church fathers were in unanimous agreement that the Apocrypha belonged in the canon of Scripture, but this was not the case. There was always disagreement.
Many early church fathers and theologians rejected the Apocrypha as authoritative Scripture. Opponents include: Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Rufinus, Appolonarius, and most notably the early church father Jerome. Jerome is of particular note, because he is the translator of the Latin Vulgate, which is the official Bible translation of the Catholic church. Yet, he explicitly denied that the Apocrypha belonged in the canon of Scripture.
Some church fathers cited the Apocryphal books that even the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize as canonical. Clement of Alexandria included 2nd Esdras (which Catholic’s refer to as 4th Esdras). Well respected authors such as Justin Maryr and Tertullian accepted 1st Esdras (which Catholics refer to as 3rd Esdras) and even the book of Enoch, which isn’t even a part of the Apocrypha. The book of Enoch is part of a collection called Pseudepigrapha, or forgeries.
Catholics correctly maintain that the Apocryphal books were included in Bibles prior to the Council of Trent, but when this assertion is used as an argument to claim that the Apocryphal books were considered equal in authority to the rest of Scripture, the claim is misleading. Instead of being interspersed throughout the Old Testament as they are in the Catholic Bibles today, these Apocryphal books were placed together in a separate section (much like the placement in the Protestant 1611 King James Version). Catholics claim that the Apocryphal books were declared authoritative prior the Council of Trent, in both the Councils of Hippo and Carthage. However, this is also misleading. Both of these councils were under the influence of Augustine of Hippo, who believed the Apocrypha was inspired. Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome, vehemently disagreed. Also of importance, there was no qualified Hebrew scholar in attendance at either council. Furthermore, the acceptance of the Apocrypha by these councils merely reflects the Church’s position at that time, not over all history. The earliest existing list of the Old Testament canon comes from the bishop of Sardis around AD 170, named Melito. Melito’s list does not include any of the Apocryphal books. The book of Esther is also not included in Melito’s list.
The truth is there wasn’t even unanimous acceptance of the Apocryphal books in the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. Cardinal Cajetan, who opposed Martin Luther, did not include the Apocrypha in his “A Commentary on all the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Testament” published in 1518. Likewise, Cardinal Ximenes noted the difference in authority between the Apocrypha and the Old Testament in his “Complutensian Plolygot”.
What Catholic teachings come from the Apocrypha?
One of the many reasons that Protestants reject the Apocrypha is that it contains doctrines and teachings that are not consistent with the rest of Scripture.
- The Catholic doctrine of justification by works instead of faith alone is heavily supported by the Apocryphal books.
- The Catholic doctrine of forgiveness of sins by almsgiving (sins forgiven based on giving to the poor) is found exclusively in the Aprocrypha (book of Tobit).
- The Catholic practice of offering money for the sins of the dead is exclusive to 2nd Maccabees.
- The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is found exclusively in 2nd Maccabees. In the Catholic faith, purgatory is a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating (or atoning for) their sins before going to heaven.
- The Catholic belief that God hears the prayers of the dead is exclusive to the Apocrypha (the book of Baruch).
- The Apocrypha teaches the pre-existence of souls in the book of Wisdom(the belief that souls exist prior to being united with a body).
What does the Protestant Reformation have to do with the Catholic Church’s official declaration that the Apocryphal books are authoritative Scripture?
The best definition I found of the Protestant Reformation is from gotquestions.org and reads, “The Protestant Reformation was a widespread theological revolt in Europe against the abuses and totalitarian control of the Roman Catholic Church. Reformers such as Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in France protested various unbiblical practices of the Catholic Church and promoted a return to sound biblical doctrine. The precipitating event of the Protestant Reformation is generally considered to be Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Chruch on October 31, 1517.”
Many of these unbiblical practices, were rooted in Apocryphal teachings such as the ones I listed above. This led Martin Luther to argue that we should go back to the original source of Scripture- the Hebrew Old Testament. So, Luther rejected the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the Apocrypha. He still included thes Apocryphal books in his 1534 German translation, but he placed them at the end noting that they did not belong in the canon of Scripture.
Luther meant well, but his rejection of the Septuagint based on the fact that it was a Greek translation was, in my opinion, erroneous. While it is logical to assume that a Hebrew translation should be closer to the original autograph of the Hebrew Bible than a Greek translation, it overlooks the fact that the Septuagint is actually translated from an older copy of the Hebrew than the Hebrew Masoretic text is translated from- hence the variation in quotes when Jesus and His disciples quote the Old Testament per the Greek Septuagint compared to the corresponding Old Testament verses per the Hebrew Masoretic. Both translations have value, and the best understanding can be gleaned from comparing the two. If you pay attention to the footnotes in your Bibles, many versions note the differences between the language used in the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and some recent versions even contain comparisons to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Roman Catholic Church responded by convening the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563. This council affirmed all but three of the Apocryphal books and proclaimed that they were authoritative Scripture for the Roman Catholic Church.
Protestants went their way, Catholics went theirs, and the rest is history.
Why didn’t the Council of Trent affirm all of the Apocryphal Books contained in the Septuagint Plus?
If you recall, the Catholic Church does not recognize 1st and 2nd Esdras (which they call 3rd and 4th Esdras) or The Prayer of Manasseh. Don Stewart notes that not only does 2nd Esdras contain “ a strong objection against prayers for the dead- one of the important doctrines practiced by the Roman Catholic Church at that time,” it also, “limits the Old Testament canon to twenty-four books. This of course, would exclude the Apocrypha.”
A couple common arguments for the acceptance of the Apocrypha refuted:
- The New Testament Alludes to the Apocrypha.
- An allusion to an extra-biblical book in the Bible is not an indication that said book is divinely inspired. The Bible alludes to and actually cites a number of sources that are not divinely inspired. Examples of these are the Book of Enoch (possibly referred to in Jude). The Catholics do not consider the book of Enoch to be divinely inspired. Paul mentions the names of the magicians that Moses and Aaron dealt with in Egypt (Jannes and Jambres). These names are not found in the Old Testament, but they are found in the Jewish Talmud (a collection of Jewish laws and legends). Again, the Talmud is not divinely inspired. The Book of Jasher is explicitly cited in the Old Testament: Joshua 10:13, and 2 Samuel 1:18. However, scholars agree that the Book of Jasher that exists today, is not the same Book of Jasher cited in the Bible. It is not divinely inspired, and should not be accepted in the canon of Scripture.
2. Some of the Apocryphal books were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Three of the Apocryphal books were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and two (Tobit and Wisdom) were even written in Hebrew instead of Greek. However, this means nothing regarding whether or not they belong in the canon of Scripture. Many non-canonical books have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The collection found is part of a library containing many works, not exclusively Scripture.
Should you read the Apocrypha?
That’s completely up to you! The historical content certainly has value, even though it isn’t completely accurate. It isn’t divinely inspired, so it can’t provide guidance on doctrinal issues. As long as it is read with the thorough understanding that it does not have the authority of Scripture, and that historical claims should be compared to other sources before accepted as accurate, the Apocrypha can provide interesting historical insight into the “400 years of silence” between testaments.