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The Apocrypha are Not Canonical

Question: How do you know that the Protestant Bible is the right one, and not the Catholic Bible, which includes more books in the Old Testament?

Answer: The Protestant and Catholic Bible are identical except for a set of books called the apocrypha or deuterocanonicals.

The apocrypha consists of 15 pieces of Jewish literature written around 200 years B.C. They are included with the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint. Seven of these books (First and Second Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Baruch and Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach) and additions to Esther and Daniel, are considered canonical by the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants do not accept them as part of the Holy Scriptures.

R. K. Harrison explains: "Use of the term apocrypha to mean noncanonical goes back to the fifth century AD, when Jerome urged that the books found in the Septuagint and in the Latin Bibles that did not occur in the canon of the Hebrew Old Testament writings should be treated as apocryphal. They were not to be disregarded entirely, since they were part of the great contemporary outpouring of Jewish national literature. At the same time they should not be used as sources for Christian doctrine, but at best for supplementary reading of an uplifting and inspirational nature" [1]

These books do not make any claim to inspiration. On the contrary, the prologue of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) asks pardon from the readers for all inexactitudes: "I entreat you... pardon us for those things wherein we may seem, while we follow the image of wisdom, to come short in the composition of words." The author of Maccabees concludes by saying, "I also will here make an end of my narration. Which if I have done well, and as it becometh the history, it is what I desired: but if not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me" (2 Maccabees 15:28, 39). That is not the language of divine inspiration!

First Maccabees notes that there were no prophets in Israel at that time (1 Maccabees 4:46; 9:27; 14:41). Since the New Testament frequently refers to the Scriptures as "the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21), how could a writing that specifically states that there were no prophets at the time when it was written be called Scripture?

What is more serious, the apocrypha teach doctrines that contradicts Scripture (see, for instance, Sirach 3:3,30, in contrast with Galatians 2:16,21; 3:10-14; Tobit 12:9 contradicts 1 John 1:7 and Hebrews 9:22; Wisdom 8:19,20 contradicts Romans 3:10). They encourage practices that do not conform to Scripture (Sirach 12:4-7 disagrees with Luke 6:27-38 and Matthew 5:43-48).

Recently, someone asked me, "I was on a Catholic website that claimed the book of Judith is a parable. So when it says Nebuchadnezzar is the leader of the Assyrians it's not to be taken literally. What do you think about this?" Well, I think the reason why we are advised that the Book of Judith should not be taken literally is quite simple. The introductory verse of the books states:

"It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. At that time Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana."

But King Nebuchadnezzar was NOT the king of Assyria; he was the king of Babylon! (See, for example, 2 Kings 24:11 - "And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city, and his servants did besiege it") So, if we take Judith as a historical book, the evident historical blunder immediately undermines its supposed canonicity and inspiration.

The Catholic solution? Judith is not history - it is a parable! Even so, why should someone include evident historical stupidities in a parable? Imagine beginning a story like this: "When Sir Winston Churchill was President of the United States…" That does not give much credibility to your story, does it?

In the New Testament there are about 260 direct quotations from, and about 370 allusions to the books of the Old Testament. When Jesus and His apostles quote or allude to the Old Testament books, it is clear that they considered them authoritative and canonical. For example in John 10:34,35 the Lord Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, and immediately comments that the scriptures cannot be broken. For the apostle Paul, "It is written" (in the Old Testament books) was the sure ground for his doctrinal teaching. Thus the New Testament testifies to divine authority of the Old Testament. Significantly there are no such quotations to the apocrypha that imply divine inspiration of these books. (See Are the Apocrypha Quoted in the New Testament?)

It must be stressed that these books were not considered canonical by the Jews. These books are written in Greek and are not part of the Massoretic Text, which are copies of the inspired Hebrew text of the Scriptures. The Jewish historian, Josephus, states as a matter of fact that the Jews considered only 22 books of divine origin (equivalent to 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament, since some of them - such as the minor prophets - were counted as one book). To this day, the Jews hold to the same canon held by Evangelicals. The rejection by the Jews of the apocrypha is very significant, because they were the people entrusted with the words of God.

"What advantage then hath the Jew?...Much every way: chiefly, because unto them were committed the oracles (words) of God" (Romans 3:1,2).

The church inherited the canonical books from God's Old Covenant people, the Jews. (God also gave the church additional books, the New Testament, which completes the Holy Bible). It does not make sense to make additions to the books of the Old Testament many centuries after the covenant with the Jewish people had given way to the new. The Church in the New Testament has no business adding to the canon of the Old Covenant Scriptures received by the Jews.

Indeed, many Christian leaders throughout church history taught that the Hebrew Bible consisted of 22 books. These correspond to the 39 books of the Old Testament of the Protestant Bible. (The numbers differ because some books, such as Samuel and Kings, are divided into two books, First and Second Samuel, etc, in the Protestant Bible). [2]

How then did the apocryphal writings find their way in the Catholic Bible? Early in the second century, the first Latin translations of the Bible were done from the Septuagint (which included the apocrypha). There was a conflict between the great Fathers, Augustine and Jerome, regarding the value of the apocrypha. Augustine accepted them because he used the Septuagint which contained these books and which was popular in North Africa. Jerome was one of the few Fathers who knew both Greek and Hebrew, and he rejected the apocrypha because he knew that those books were not accepted by the Jews and were not part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Greatly influenced by Augustine, the provincial councils of Hippo and Carthage in the fourth century included the apocrypha as part of the Old Testament canon. However, we must add that contrary to the impression given by Catholic apologists, the apocrypha were not officially recognized by the Catholic church as canonical at Hippo and Carthage. The apocrypha were finally added to the Old Testament by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Moreover the canon approved by Carthage is different from that approved by Trent. The Council of Trent omits the Septuagint First Esdras which had been included by Carthage; while Second Esdras (Ezra and Nehemiah combined in a single book in the Septuagint) were distinguished as two separate books (First Esdras and Second Esdras, also known as Nehemiah).

Up to the time of the Reformation, they were not generally regarded as canonical books on the same level as the Old Testament Scripture. "St Jerome distinguished between canonical books and ecclesiastical books. The latter he judged were circulated by the Church as good spiritual reading but were not recognized as authoritative Scripture" (The New Catholic Encyclopaedia, The Canon).

Pope Gregory the Great says this about the apocrypha: "…we are not acting irregularly, if from the books, though not canonical, yet brought out for the edification of the Church, we bring forth testimony" (Moral Teachings Drawn from Job; 19, 34).

After listing the canonical books of the Scriptures, St Athanasius wrote: "There are other books besides the aforementioned, which, however, are not canonical. Yet, they have been designated by the Fathers to be read by those who join us and who wish to be instructed in the word of piety: the Wisdom of Solomon; and the Wisdom of Sirach; and Esther; and Judith; and Tobias..." (Thirty-ninth festal letter, 367).

Cardinal Cajetan, a leading Roman Catholic scholar at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, clearly states that the apocryphal books are not canonical and cannot be used to confirm matters of faith. (See St Jerome and the Apocrypha). "Even on the eve of the council [of Trent] the Catholic view was not absolutely unified...Catholic editions of the Bible published in Germany and in France in 1527 and 1530 contained only the protocanonical books" [3] i.e. the list of Old Testament books of these Catholic Bibles was identical to the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles.

Following the Lord Jesus, His apostles and the writers of the New Testament, we often refer and quote from the books of the Old Testament to establish our faith, and like them we never use the apocrypha for that purpose.

[1] Harrison R. K. Old Testament and New Testament Apocrypha, The Origin of the Bible, ed. Wesley Comfort Philip (Tyndale House Publishers 1992, 2003), p 84. [back]

[2] The information is taken from http://biblejournal.net/psalm119.htm

  • Melito (170 A.D.), in agreement with the original Jewish reckoning, gave the number of Old Testament books as 22. (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 4.26.14).

  • Origen (210 A.D.), "It should be stated that the canonical books, as the Hebrews have handed them down, are twenty-two; corresponding with the number of their letters." (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist.)

  • Hilary of Poitiers (360 A.D.), "The Law of the Old Testament is considered as divided into twenty-two books, so as to correspond to the number of letters." (Tractate on Psalms, prologue 15)

  • Athanasius (365 A.D.), "There are then of the Old Testament twenty-two books in number ... this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews." (Letter 39.4)

  • The Council of Laodicea (343-391 A.D.), Twenty-two books. (Canon 60)

  • Cyril of Jerusalem (386 A.D.), "Read the divine scriptures, the twenty-two books of the Old Testament." (Catechetical Lectures 2, 4.33)

  • Gregory of Nazianzus (390 A.D.), "I have exhibited twenty-two books, corresponding with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrews." (Carmina, 1.12)

  • Epiphanius (400 A.D.), Twenty-two books. (De Nensurius et Ponderibus, 4)

  • Rufinus (410 A.D.): Twenty-two books. (Commentary in Symbols of the Apostles, 37)

  • Jerome (410 A.D.), "That the Hebrews have twenty-two letters is testified ... as there are twenty-two elementary characters by means of which we write in Hebrew all we say ... so we reckon twenty-two books by which ... a righteous man is instructed." (Preface to the Books of Samuel and Kings)

  • Synopsis of Sacred Scripture (c. 500 A.D.), "The canonical books of the Old Testament are twenty-two, equal in number to the Hebrew letters; for they have so many original letters."

  • Isidore of Seville (600 A.D.) said the Old Testament was settled by Ezra the priest into twenty-two books "that the books in the Law might correspond in number with the letters." (Liber de Officiis)

  • Leontius (610 A.D.), "Of the Old Testament there are twenty-two books." (De Sectis)

  • John of Damascus (730 A.D.): "Observe further that there are two and twenty books of the Old Testament, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet." (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4.17)

  • Nicephorus (9th century A.D.), "There are two and twenty books of the Old Testament." (Stoichiometry)

  • Jesudad, Bishop of Hadad, Syria (852 A.D.) recognized a canon of twenty-two books. (John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, vol.1, p.80)

  • Hrabanus (9th century A.D.) said the Old Testament was formed by Ezra into twenty-two books "that there might be as many books in the Law as there are letters." (Whitaker, Disputation)

  • Peter of Cluny (1150 A.D.): Twenty-two books. (Edward Reuss, Canon of the Holy Scriptures, p.257)

  • John of Salisbury (1180 A.D.): Twenty-two books. (Edward Reuss, Canon of the Holy Scriptures, p.257)

  • Hugh of St. Victor (12th Century): "As there are twenty-two alphabetic letters, by means of which we write in Hebrew, and speak what we have to say, so twenty-two books are reckoned, by means of which ... the yet tender infancy of our man is instructed, while it yet hath need of milk." (Didascalicae Eruditionis, 4.80)

  • Richard of St. Victor (13th Century), Twenty-two books. (Tractatus Exceptionum, 2.9)


[3] Brown R. E. and Collins R. F. Canonicity, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2000), p 1042. [back]

© Dr Joseph Mizzi