by Tyler Goens
Have you ever noticed that your Catholic friends have more books in their Bible than you do? Or if you’re Catholic, have you noticed that us Protestants have smaller Bibles? (Protestant = any Christian who is not Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.) Why is this? Is it just so we as Protestants can make our “Read the Bible in a year” plans more manageable?
Not really. The problem comes down to the Old Testament. Both Protestants and Catholics have the same number of New Testament books (27), but the Catholic Old Testament has seven more books than the Protestant one (as well as significant additions to the books of Esther and Daniel). One term for these extra books is the
Apocrypha, meaning “hidden” or “obscure.” We’re not entirely sure where this title came from, but it’s likely an antagonistic reference (fighting words). Catholics prefer to use the term deuterocanonical, meaning “second canon” (canon referring to authoritative books, not the weapon).
So why the discrepancy? It starts with this: the Hebrew Old Testament does not contain the Apocrypha, but the Greek OT (Septuagint) does. This is why Catholics call it “the second (OT) canon”, acknowledging that these books were not a part of Hebrew Old Testament.
As the early church was more comfortable reading Greek, these “deuterocanonical” books picked up some steam. Some Christians believed they were scripture, like Augustine and Clement. Others thought they were useful, but not on the same authority as divine scripture, like Jerome, Athanasius, and possibly Origen.
Although early Christians had their disagreements here, it never became too heated of a discussion. But then the Reformation happened, which made questions of authority and canon far more significant. This was especially true since it was thought that apocryphal books defended Catholic doctrines that Protestants weren’t real excited about (purgatory, for example). Whether or not they actually do is a topic for another time. So, Protestants typically follow the lead of Martin Luther (following Jerome) in rejecting the Apocrypha as scripture.
Three closing thoughts:
1) Because the Hebrew OT canon did not contain the Apocrypha, the evidence seems to suggest that Jesus’ “Bible” would not have included these books (although he would have probably been familiar with them). If Jesus did not consider these books scripture, then why should we?
2) The issue is, and always have been AUTHORITY when it comes to Protestant and Catholic disagreements. If we don’t understand this, we will never have productive dialogue and debate with each other. At the end of the day, Catholics believe the their canon exists because the (Catholic) Church determined it be so. Protestants would argue that the church doesn’t MAKE scripture, it just RECOGNIZES it.
3) We don’t need to hide from the Apocrypha. (Anyone get the joke?) I’m reading through these books right now, and I find them illuminating in understanding the perspective of those before the time of Christ. I don’t believe they are destructive or dangerous to the Christian faith, if you read them in their proper context. I would, however, be skeptical of any kind of doctrine that arises solely from these books (and can’t be backed up elsewhere in scripture).
Blessings to all my Catholic friends; please don’t throw things at me.