Why Do My Catholic Friends Have Different Books in their Bible – The Apocrypha and the Canon

Recently had one of our church members ask me about the books that are included in the Bible.  The question was this,

I just realized that I have a “Good News Translation with Deuterocanonicals” Bible. So it includes 1 and 2 Maccabees, Esther, Wisdom and more. I just listened to a catholic author reference 1 Maccabees as part of the Old Testament. Why would a Bible  includes those books? Aren’t those books completely separate? Do I have a “Catholic Bible”?

Thought I would share my answer as it might be helpful for others.

If you have a Bible that includes the Deuterocanonical or Apocryphal books you probably have a Catholic Bible (or an Easter Orthodox one).

The books you are referencing are also called the Apocrypha (meaning “hidden”), it is a collection of books that were written during the 400 years between the closing books of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus and New Testament works.  They contain much of the story of the Hebrew people during that period of their history, and they help us understand how the Jews saw themselves and their story during this period of history.  Catholics have included these books in their canon of Scripture while Protestants reject them as Scripture while understanding their value.  So why did it happen this way.

Let me begin by explaining why it is contained in the Catholic Bible.  The 400 year period that separates the Old and New Testament is dominated by the Greek period of history.  Alexander the Great conquered everything from England to India as well as North Africa.  During this period of history the Greek language became the language of the Empire, so every culture learned Greek. Because of this the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek in the city of Alexandria, Egypt about 150 years before the birth of Jesus.  This translation is called the Septuagint and became the Bible of choice for Jews who did not live in Israel (they still used the Hebrew).  It also gave people from other cultures access to the Hebrew Scriptures and their belief in the One True and Living God.  The translators of the Septuagint included the Apocryphal books as a sort of appendix in the Septuagint.  By the time of the New Testament the Greeks had been replaced by the Romans.  The New Testament story is early in the Roman Empire, so Greek was still the language of culture, but as Roman culture replaced Greek over the next couple centuries, Latin (the language of Rome) replaced Greek as the language of the Empire.  So, in order for people to have the Bible in their own language a scholar named Jerome was commissioned to produce a Latin version of the Bible.  The New Testament books were all written in Greek and at the time stood separate from the Old Testament and the Septuagint.  So the translations of the New Testament books came from copies of these works that had been circulated.  But the Old Testament was translated from Greek to Latin from the Septuagint, so this translation included the Apocrypha, but they didn’t treat them quite as much as an appendix.  This translation is known as the Vulgate, and this version of the Bible was the official version used by the Catholic Church for 1500 years.  I believe it regrettable that the Vulgate was originally commissioned as a way to get the Word of God into the hands of the masses, yet, the church continued to use it well past the time Latin was still spoken and read.  A core reason the church did this was to keep common people from being able to read the Bible for themselves.  Since that time the Catholic church has affirmed the Vulgate as the official Bible and the books of the Apocrypha as canonical (or as Scripture).

But along came the Reformation and the Reformers rejected the Apocrypha as Scripture for a few key reasons.

  1. The Old Testament is the Hebrew Scriptures, the Word of God given to the Hebrews.  The Jews do not believe the Apocrypha is Scripture.  Again, they value these books (the books of Maccabees give them Hannukah), but they do not believe they are to be included in their Bible.  The Old Testament we as Protestants read contains the exact same books and the Hebrew Old Testament.  The Protestant view is that the Old Testament canon was set by the Hebrews and we should affirm those books as authoritative.
  2. The Apocryphal books do not live up to the tests of canonicity – Both the Hebrews and early church developed a process for determining canonicity.  The goal was to receive the books that had been divinely inspired as the actual Scripture.  For both, there were clear criteria that were used to wrestle with the key question.  Remember, the core belief that has always been held is that the books in the Canon are Scripture because God is the author behind the human author.  So the key is to determine if the books bear the marks of divine revelation.  This is a complex argument, but a few key things that would have been used include an examination of the quality of the literature, the consistency with the rest of the books God has given, and the accuracy of the books in both their historical account and their prophetic predictions.  Short version, these books really fail on all these accounts.  Like I said, they are helpful, but they are far from inerrant.
  3. It seems apparent that the New Testament writers did not receive these books as Scripture.  Virtually every book in the Old Testament is quoted as Scripture by Jesus during his ministry and/or by the New Testament writers.  Yet, none of the Apocryphal books are quoted in this way with the exception of a single quote in the book of Jude which seems to be using the quote as more of a reference to a current piece of literature in their tradition than as a quote from Scripture.
  4. Jewish tradition held (and holds) a belief that the last Jewish prophet was Malachi.  This books ends with a prediction that the next big prophetic act of God will be the sending of the prophet Elijah (a symbolic metaphor here) who will usher in the Messianic age.  Christians long have believed this led to a 400 year period of silence where there was no prophet in Israel, and therefore no more prophetic books.  It does not mean that God was not at work accomplishing His purpose.  It just means that there are no more prophets until this one shows us.  We know that prophet to be John the Baptist.  By the way, Jewish people are still looking for him.  But this would rule out those books as prophetic and therefore divinely inspired.

For these reasons, the Bibles we put out each week and preach from do not include the Apocryphal books.  Thanks for reading, and God bless.

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