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The Biblical Canon

by Lino Serrano 11/3/98

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me. (St. Augustine)


When Catholic Christians pick up a Bible to read or study, they often do so with little consideration to the history that was involved in bringing that Bible to their hands. We are taught that the Bible is the Word of God in written form. We may even consider the Bible as a single book. Actually the Bible is a collection of many different books, with many different authors, and is divided into two distinct groups: The Old Testament and the New Testament. And composed in many different literary forms.

We may not even realize that not all Bibles are the same. If someone was to compare two bibles, lets say, a Protestant and a Catholic Bible. One difference that would be apparent to them by looking at the Table of Contents is that the Catholic Bible has seven more books than the Protestant Bible in the Old Testament. Why is there a difference? In this study we will explore the history that was involved in bringing the Bible to us modern Christians.

Historical development of the Biblical Canon - OT

The Bible as we know it today, that is containing both the Old and New Testaments, didn't exist during the lifetime of Jesus and His apostles. The Bible at that time consisted of the Old Testament books only. These books include: the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, also known as the Law of Moses, as well as the books of the Prophets, the Historical writings, the Wisdom literature, and the Psalms. These writings were originally written in Hebrew by their authors. At the time of Jesus, the Hebrew Canon of scriptures wasn't fixed, meaning that there wasn't a consensus amongst the religious leaders on exactly which books were considered scripture.

After the Babylonian invasion of Israel and the deportation of Jewish people from their homeland, many Israelites settled in places far away from their homeland. One such group of settled in Egypt, specifically in Alexandria in Northern Egypt. After many years away from their homeland, and being influenced by Greek speaking peoples who also lived in Alexandria, many of these Jews were unable to speak, read, or write in Hebrew. These Jews, called Hellenistic, were Greek speaking only. They remained very devout to their Jewish religious heritage however, and had a need for the scriptures written in the Greek language. Around 250 BC, a group a Jewish scholars set out to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Legend states that seventy translators were commissioned for this task, hence this Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures later became known as the Septuagint (Latin for "seventy"). The original version of the Septuagint probably consisted of only the Pentateuch, since that part of the scriptures was necessary for worship. Later the rest of the Hebrew scriptures were added to this Greek version. This version was originally used in Alexandria Egypt, but in time it was used by Hellenistic Jews all around the Middle East, wherever Greek was the common language of the Jewish community. Eventually the Greek version became common in Israel as well, as can be evidenced by fragments of the Septuagint found in the Qumran caves (Dead sea scrolls.)

After destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in 70 AD, a Jewish Rabbinical school in a town on the Mediterranean coastline named Jamnia attempted to determine the fixed list of books that they would consider the Hebrew scriptures. In order to accomplish this task they set out some criteria that would assist them in forming a consensus. These were:

1. The books had to conform to the Pentateuch (the first 5 books).

2. The books had to be written in Hebrew.

3. The books had to be written in Palestine.

4. The books had to be written before 400 BC.

Using this criteria, they came to form what we call today, the Hebrew or Palestinian canon of scriptures. By using this criteria, some of the books that were previously contained in the Septuagint were dropped from the Hebrew Scriptures since they were either not written in Hebrew or were written later than 400 BC These books were Baruch, Sirach, Wisdom, 1& 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, and parts of the books of Esther and Daniel.

The early Christians were not bound by the teaching of the Jews in Jamnia however, and by the time that the Jamnia list had been made, the Christians had on the most part already accepted the Septuagint as their version of choice. This is especially true among the Gentile Christians who weren't conversant in Hebrew and spoke Greek.. In fact the majority of the complete transcripts of the Septuagint that have survived to this day are Christian translations. And the Septuagint version contained the books that the Jews in Jamnia had rejected. One note that needs to be mentioned. Not all of the early Christian Fathers agreed with the Septuagint Old Testament canon of books. Some of them who lived in areas close to Israel were influenced by the Jamnia list and accepted only the scriptures that the Jews in Jamnia had agreed upon, although they sometimes omitted one or two of the books accepted in Jamnia in their own lists. Basically it is safe to say that at this point there wasn't a clear consensus amongst all of the Christian Fathers on the exact Canon of the Old Testament.

Historical development of the Biblical Canon - NT

After Christ's ascension into Heaven, the Apostles were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised them. They formed a small tight knit group, the Church, that was growing with new converts to the Gospel that they preached. Originally the first converts to Christianity were completely dependent on the oral teachings of the Apostles (the Kerygma) to understand the teachings of Jesus. As they began to grow throughout the region, and to the very "ends of the earth", persecution of the Church became more intense. Realizing that oral traditions of Christ and His Apostles were a requirement to the faith of the Christian community, the Apostles and later some of their assistants began to put these oral traditions down in written form. These writings, known as "memoirs" by the early church, later became known as the Gospels by the succeeding generations of Christians. There were also other writings of the Apostles that were written to specific communities of Christians that were also circulating amongst churches that were highly regarded and were read at Church, these were known as the epistles or letters.

As the age of the Apostles began to wane, their successors, the Bishops, who held the authority given to them by the Apostles through the imposition of hands, began to encounter teachings that were contrary to the Gospel message in which they were entrusted. They began to refute these errors of teaching, called heresies, by using the Apostolic writings as proof to the correct or "orthodox" teaching that they had received. These writings began to be collected and read by all of the Churches as evidence of their own orthodoxy and to refute any heretical teachings in their proximity. With time these writing became to be seen by the early Church to be on the same level as the Old Testament scriptures, as inspired scripture. A consensus began to develop around the Christian world about which of these writings were accepted by most churches as genuine. While others, those that were produced at later times were rejected.


The word Canon comes from the Greek word Kanon. This simply means a measuring stick or rod. The early church began to use this word in the context of the holy books that truly exemplified the rule of faith that they had received from the Apostles. The reason for this, as mentioned above, was because of false teachings that had begun to find their grounds within the early Church. These heresies and the Heretical teachers that were behind them, began to compose their own writings that contained the error that they espoused. To further complicate the issue for the early Church was that these writings were often named after an Apostle, thereby attempting to attribute that Apostle's own authority to the writing. A couple of examples of Gnostic heretical writings are the Gospel of Thomas and The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles.

Another heresy that became a problem for the early Church was the Marcionite heresy. The Marcionites, named after their leader Marcion, attempted to remove anything that was associated the Jewish people out of their heretical form of Christianity. They radically changed their Canon of scripture by completely rejecting all of the Old Testament writings. The New Testament didn't fare much better, they rejected all of the Gospels except the Gospel of St. Luke and accepted only ten of the epistles of St. Paul.

Faced with these problems by the heretics. The early church fathers began to compose lists of sacred books that they considered canon. For the Old Testament scriptures these lists tend to follow two lines of Tradition. One tradition held by Justin Martyr and most western Christians was to use the Septuagint listing of books as the Old Testament canon. They followed an ancient tradition that the Septuagint was the only reliable version of the Old Testament for Christians since they feared that the Jews had tampered with the Hebrew version in order to disprove the Christian claims that the Old Testament prophesies testify to Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Another Tradition, held mostly by some of the Eastern church fathers, held to the list promulgated by the Rabbinical teachers at Jamnia. These Eastern fathers were influenced by their proximity to the Jewish teachers. They held that there were only 22 books in the Old Testament, that corresponded to the Hebrew alphabet. One important note on this is they often times grouped several books together as one when counting them. For the New Testament books canonicty was based on: Apostolic origin, orthodoxy of faith, and common use (ie liturgical, apologetic, and didactic) by most of the Christian communities. Some New Testament books were universally accepted such as the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul. Some were only accepted after some discussion, such as the book of Hebrews, the second epistle of Peter, and the book of Revelation. This was due to some doubts that are related to some of the criteria listed above.

The Latin Vulgate

St. Jerome was considered the greatest Biblical scholar of his day. Somewhere between 382-383 AD he began a new translation of the Bible into Latin. This translation completed, in 405 AD, was part of a request from St. Pope Damasus to make a new rendering of the gospels into the vulgar (common) language of the people of Rome and Italy. This work ultimately evolved into the whole Bible. This was necessary since many Latin versions of the Bible had in time been changed by their translators, thereby becoming unreliable. With these many competing versions of the Latin Bible in circulation, it became difficult to determine which one was most faithful to the original texts.

St. Jerome had originally began this task of translating the Old Testament into Latin from the available Old Latin version and the Greek versions of the Septuagint. But he quickly realized that these versions had also become unreliable. He decided that he would start anew with the original Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, and the Greek for the New Testament. This wasn't without controversy however. St. Augustine sent him a letter to ask him to stick with the Septuagint version for his Latin translation of the Old Testament since this was the version that the Eastern Church was using, and no small controversy occurred when Jerome's version of the book of Jonah was read in North Africa and it deviated in content from what the Christians were used to hearing.

By the time that St. Jerome has begun his translation of the Old Testament, he had moved from Rome to Bethlehem. In order to translate his Old Testament into Latin from Hebrew, he had to learn the original languages. He became the student of some Hebrew Rabbis who weren't Christian. Under their influence he began to regard some of the deuterocanonical books as non-canonical. Nevertheless his Old Testament did include these books. His version of the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, in time became the standard and official version of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church, and is still to this day.

The Church Councils

At the beginning of the fourth century, many changes for the Church began to happen. Specifically the legalization of the Christian religion by the emperor Constantine. Also a new heresy arose within the Church, Arianism, a heresy that denied the deity of Jesus Christ. With this the era of the Church councils arrived. Nicaea I was convened in 325 AD to condemn the Arian heresy. Constantinople I was convened in 381 AD to better define the person of the Holy Spirit. The Council of Rome was convened in 382 AD to clarify some of the teachings in the council of Constantinople. One of the decrees that came out of the council of Rome was the Decree of St. Pope Damasus that provided a list of the canonical scriptures. This is the first list that is identical with the list as listed at the Council of Trent and contained in the modern Catholic Bible. This list contains the deuterocanonical books as part of the Old Testament, in the Tradition of the Septuagint, that Catholics today accept as canonical but the Protestants reject. Council of Hippo (393): Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent). Third Council of Carthage (397): Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent). Sixth Council of Carthage (419): Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent). Council of Florence, an ecumenical council (1441) Complete list of OT and NT canon was drawn up; this list was later adopted by the Fathers of the Council of Trent. Council of Trent, an ecumenical council called to respond to the heresy of the Reformers (1545-1563) The canon of OT and NT received final definitions: 45 books in the OT; 27 in the NT; "Henceforth the books of the OT and the NT, protocanonical and deuterocanonical alike, in their entirety and with all their parts, comprise the canon and are held to be of equal authority." The ancient Vulgate edition of the Bible was called the authoritative edition of the Bible.

See appendix A for a more comprehensive list of major events that led to the establishment of the Biblical Canon that Catholics use today.

The Protestant Revolt

The Protestant revolt started with Martin Luther on October 31,1517, when he nailed his 95 thesis on the door of the Church in Whittenburg Germany. By 1522, Martin Luther had translated the New Testament into German, and the Old Testament in 1534. His version was not considered valid by the Catholic Church however, since as part of Martin Luther's rejection of the Catholic teaching on Purgatory he rejected the books of the deuterocanonicals, especially the book of second Maccabees that describes prayer for the dead. His reasoning for this is simple. He based his revolt completely on the theory that the Bible alone was sufficient for faith and morals and only it's authority is to be regarded as the final authority. When confronted with the evidence for the prayer for the dead in 2 Maccabees, he denied it's canonicity. He later based this on St. Jerome's personal (non authoritative and therefore non binding) opinion that these books weren't canonical. Remember that St. Jerome was influenced by the non-Christian Jews, that considered these books noncanonical. Martin Luther therefore placed the deuterocanonical books in an appendix at the end of the Old Testament in his translation and labeled them as non-inspired and outside of the canon of scripture.

His New Testament didn't fare much better. He considered the books of Hebrews, James, and Jude as being non-canonical, as well as the Book of Revelation. He also placed these books in an appendix at the end of his New Testament without page numbers. He states his opinion about the book of Hebrews, "It need not surprise one to find here bits of wood, hay, and straw." About the book of James he labeled, "'an epistle of straw. 'I do not hold it to be his writing, and I cannot place it among the capital books.'" He considered this so because of St. James' teaching on faith and good works, which directly contradicted his belief of Justification by "Faith Alone" or "Sola Fide". And the book of Revelation he states, "I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is a sufficient reason for rejecting it . . ." Quotes taken from, The Facts About Luther, Cincinnati, 1916, pp. 202-204.

In making these statements and altering his translation of the Bible, Martin Luther had rejected the Christian tradition that had preceded him. In doing so he also makes himself the final authority for canonicity of the Bible. Directly in contrast to the ancient decrees of the true authorities, namely the Popes (Damasus and Innocent I) and the ancient Church councils (Hippo and Carthage) that had made their decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In rejecting the Papacy and the Magesterium of the Catholic Church, Martin Luther made himself his own Pope.

One last note on the Protestant Bible. Most of the Bibles published after the Protestant revolt contained the "Apocrypha" (as Protestants call the deuterocanonical books). It wasn't until 1827 that the British Bible Society began printing and distributing Bibles that did not contain the deuterocanonical books. Thereafter most Protestant versions were printed without the "apocrypha". There are however versions of the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version, that contain the apocrypha/deuterocanonical books and they are marketed as ecumenical versions. There are also versions of the King James version "apocrypha" that were published as a single volume. Aside from Martin Luther's own prejudices against the deuterocanonical books, please read some other Protestant myths and criticisms of the deuterocanonical books and the Catholic answers from Envoy Magazine in Appendix B of this essay.

The Council of Trent

The council of Trent, convened between (1545-1563), was an integral part of the Catholic Counter Reformation. It was convened to address many of the Protestant claims against Catholicism. One of the articles of faith that was addressed in response to Protestant dismantling of the Bible, was the reiteration of the ancient canon of the Bible. After much review, the council re-stated the Tradition of the early Church of the 4th and 5th centuries. Namely it placed at the level of Dogma the Biblical Canon of St. Pope Damasus I and the councils of Hippo and Carthage. This was done in the view of the canonical traditions of the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate that were in existent for over a millennia. Therefore the Catholic Church didn't add the deuterocanonical books to the Bible at this Council. It definitively raised an already existent Old Testament canon (Septuagint and Vulgate), to the status of Dogma of faith. Meaning that it was now obligatory for all of the faithful to adhere to the ancient canon of scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

"It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of sacred books. This complete list is called the canon of Scripture. It includes 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New." (CCC paragraph 120.)

It then goes on to list the books of the Old and New Testaments as it was promulgated at the Council of Trent:

The Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi.

The New Testament: the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of St. Paul to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, the Letters to the Hebrews, the Letters of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude, and Revelation (the Apocalypse). (CCC paragraph 120)

See Myth 1 in Appendix B concerning Protestant claims that the Catholic Church added the deuterocanonical or "apocrypha" books at the Council of Trent.

Appendix A -


Major Church Pronouncements on the Bible

Pentecost (30/33AD)

The beginning of the Church; the Church exists before a determination of a canon or a definitive list of books of what was later called the Bible. The NT was not even written yet. The Bible is the book of the Church, we are not a church of the Bible.

Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c. 170)

Produced the first known Christian attempt at an Old Testament canon. His list maintains the Septuagint order of books but contains only the Old Testament protocanonicals minus the Book of Esther.

Council of Laodicea (c. 360)

A local council of the church in union with Rome produced a list of books of the Bible similar to the Council of Trent's canon. This was one of the Church's earliest decisions on a canon.

Council of Rome (382)

Local church council under the authority of Pope Damasus, (366-384) gave a complete list of canonical books of the OT and NT which is identical with the list later approved by the Council of Trent.

Council of Hippo (393)

Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)

Council of Carthage (397)

Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)

Pope Innocent I, Bishop of Rome, 401-417 (405)

Responded to a request by Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, with a list of canonical books of Scripture; this list was the same as later approved by the Council of Trent.

Council of Carthage (419)

Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)

Council of Florence, an ecumenical council (1441)

Complete list of OT and NT canon was drawn up; this list later adopted by the Fathers of the Council of Trent

Council of Trent, an ecumenical council called to respond to the heresy of the Reformers (1545-1563)

The canon of OT and NT received final definitions: 45 books in the OT; 27 in the NT; "Henceforth the books of the OT and the NT, protocanonical and deuterocanonical alike, in their entirety and with all their parts, comprise the canon and are held to be of equal authority." The ancient Vulgate edition of the Bible was called the authoritative edition of the Bible.

Vatican I Council (1869-1870)

Reaffirmed the decree of Trent. The Church holds the books of Holy Scripture as sacred and canonical, not because she subsequently approved them, nor because they contain revelation without error, but precisely because "having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and, as such, they have been handed down to the Church itself."

Providentissimus Deus (1893), Pope Leo XIII, Bishop of Rome, 1878-1903

Inaugurated a new era in Roman Catholic biblical studies. Presented a plan for biblical study; Defined inspiration: "By supernatural power God so moved and impelled the human authors to write - he so assisted them in writing - that the things he ordered and those only they first rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth."

Pascendi Dominica Gregis (1907), Pope Pius X, Bishop of Rome, 1903-1914

Refuted the errors of the Modernists; Scored erroneous teaching on the origin and nature of the Sacred Books, on inspiration; on the distinction between the purely human Christ of history and the divine Christ of faith; on the origin and growth of the Scriptures.

Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), Pope Benedict XV, Bishop of Rome, 1914-1922

Commends modern critical methods in biblical studies. All biblical interpretation rests upon the literal sense. Goal of biblical studies is to learn spiritual perfection, to arm oneself to defend the faith, to preach the word of God fruitfully.

Divino Afflante Spiritus (1943), Pope Pius XII, Bishop of Rome, 1939-1958

Permitted scholars to use original text of Scriptures. No claim was made that the Vulgate is always an accurate translation, but that it is free from any errors in faith or morals. The scholar must be principally concerned with the literal sense of the Scriptures; search out and expound the spiritual sense; avoid other figurative senses. Literary criticism should be employed. Stated that there are but few texts whose sense was determined by the authority of the Church (only seven biblical passages have been definitively interpreted in defending traditional doctrine and morals--Jn 3:5, Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24, Jn 20:22, Jn 20:23, Rom 5:12, Ja 5: 14); this counteracts the frequent misunderstanding that Catholics have no

freedom interpreting the Scriptures.

Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius XII, Bishop of Rome, 1939 - 1958

Instructs scholars on evolution, polygenism and OT historical narratives

Vatican II Council (1962-1965)

The decree, On Divine Revelation, declares that there is one source of Divine Revelation, Jesus Christ; that there are two modes of handing on revelation: Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition : "in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end," and "it is not from Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed." Concerning Inerrancy of Scripture: "The Books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation. "Emphasized that "in order to see what God wanted to communicate in Scripture, we must investigate the intention of the

sacred author, and one way to do this is by paying attention to the literary form employed by the sacred writer."

Appendix B -

Protestant criticisms and myths about the "Apocrypha.


"5 Myths about 7 Books"

Here are the answers to five common arguments

Protestants give for rejecting the Deuterocanonical

books of the Old Testament

By Mark Shea


People don't talk much about the deuterocanon these

days. The folks who do are mostly Christians, and they

usually fall into two general groupings: Catholics -

who usually don't know their Bibles very well and,

therefore, don't know much about the deuterocanonical

books, and Protestants - who may know their Bibles a

bit better, though their Bibles don't have the

deuterocanonical books in them anyway, so they don't

know anything about them either. With the stage thus

set for informed ecumenical dialogue, it's no wonder

most people think the deuterocanon is some sort of

particle weapon recently perfected by the Pentagon.

The deuterocanon (ie. "second canon") is a set of

seven books - Sirach, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, 1 and 2

Maccabees, and Baruch, as well as longer versions of

Daniel and Esther - that are found in the Old

Testament canon used by Catholics, but are not in the

Old Testament canon used by Protestants, who typically

refer to them by the mildly pejorative term

"apocrypha." This group of books is called

"deuterocanonical" not (as some imagine) because they

are a "second rate" or inferior canon, but because

their status as being part of the canon of Scripture

was settled later in time than certain books that

always and everywhere were regarded as Scripture, such

as Genesis, Isaiah, and Psalms.

Why are Protestant Bibles missing these books?

Protestants offer various explanations to explain why

they reject the deuterocanonical books as Scripture. I

call these explanations "myths" because they are

either incorrect or simply inadequate reasons for

rejecting these books of Scripture. Let's explore the

five most common of these myths and see how to respond

to them.

Myth 1

The deuterocanonical books are not found in the Hebrew

Bible. They were added by the Catholic Church at the

Council of Trent after Luther rejected it.

The background to this theory goes like this: Jesus

and the Apostles, being Jews, used the same Bible Jews

use today. However, after they passed from the scene,

muddled hierarchs started adding books to the Bible

either out of ignorance or because such books helped

back up various wacky Catholic traditions that were

added to the gospel. In the 16th century, when the

Reformation came along, the first Protestants, finally

able to read their Bibles without ecclesial propaganda

from Rome, noticed that the Jewish and Catholic Old

Testaments differed, recognized this medieval addition

for what it was and scraped it off the Word of God

like so many barnacles off a diamond. Rome, ever

ornery, reacted by officially adding the

deuterocanonical books at the Council of Trent

(1545-1564) and started telling Catholics "they had

always been there."

This is a fine theory. The problem is that its basis

in history is gossamer thin. As we'll see in a moment,

accepting this myth leads to some remarkable dilemmas

a little further on.

The problems with this theory are first, it relies on

the incorrect notion that the modern Jewish Bible is

identical to the Bible used by Jesus and the Apostles.

This is false. In fact, the Old Testament was still

very much in flux in the time of Christ and there was

no fixed canon of Scripture in the apostolic period.

Some people will tell you that there must have been

since, they say, Jesus held people accountable to obey

the Scriptures. But this is also untrue. For in fact,

Jesus held people accountable to obey their conscience

and therefore, to obey Scripture insofar as they were

able to grasp what constituted "Scripture."

Consider the Sadducees. They only regarded the first

five books of the Old Testament as inspired and

canonical. The rest of the Old Testament was regarded

by them in much the same way the deuterocanon is

regarded by Protestant Christians today: nice, but not

the inspired Word of God. This was precisely why the

Sadducees argued with Jesus against the reality of the

resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33: they couldn't see it

in the five books of Moses and they did not regard the

later books of Scripture which spoke of it explicitly

(such as Isaiah and 2 Maccabees) to be inspired and

canonical. Does Jesus say to them "You do greatly err,

not knowing Isaiah and 2 Maccabees"? Does He bind them

to acknowledge these books as canonical? No. He

doesn't try to drag the Sadducees kicking and

screaming into an expanded Old Testament. He simply

holds the Sadducees accountable to take seriously the

portion of Scripture they do acknowledge: that is, He

argues for the resurrection based on the five books of

the Law. But of course, this doesn't mean Jesus

commits Himself to the Sadducees' whittled-down canon.

When addressing the Pharisees, another Jewish faction

of the time, Jesus does the same thing. These Jews

seem to have held to a canon resembling the modern

Jewish canon, one far larger than that of the

Sadducees but not as large as other Jewish collections

of Scripture. That's why Christ and the Apostles

didn't hesitate to argue with them from the books they

acknowledged as Scripture. But as with the Sadducees,

this doesn't imply that Christ or the Apostles limited

the canon of Scripture only to what the Pharisees


When the Lord and His Apostles addressed

Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, they made use of an even

bigger collection of Scripture - the Septuagint, a

translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek -

which many Jews (the vast majority, in fact) regarded

as inspired Scripture. In fact, we find that the New

Testament is filled with references to the Septuagint

(and its particular translation of various Old

Testament passages) as Scripture. It's a strange irony

that one of the favorite passages used in

anti-Catholic polemics over the years is Mark 7:6-8.

In this passage Christ condemns "teaching as doctrines

human traditions." This verse has formed the basis for

countless complaints against the Catholic Church for

supposedly "adding" to Scripture man-made traditions,

such as the "merely human works" of the

deuterocanonical books. But few realize that in Mark

7:6-8 the Lord was quoting the version of Isaiah that

is found only in the Septuagint version of the Old


But there's the rub: The Septuagint version of

Scripture, from which Christ quoted, includes the

Deuterocanonical books, books that were supposedly

"added" by Rome in the 16th century. And this is by no

means the only citation of the Septuagint in the New

Testament. In fact, fully two thirds of the Old

Testament passages that are quoted in the New

Testament are from the Septuagint. So why aren't the

deuterocanonical books in today's Jewish Bible,

anyway? Because the Jews who formulated the modern

Jewish canon were a) not interested in apostolic

teaching and, b) driven by a very different set of

concerns from those motivating the apostolic


In fact, it wasn't until the very end of the apostolic

age that the Jews, seeking a new focal point for their

religious practice in the wake of the destruction of

the Temple, zeroed in with white hot intensity on

Scripture and fixed their canon at the rabbinical

gathering, known as the "Council of Javneh" (sometimes

called "Jamnia"), about A.D. 90. Prior to this point

in time there had never been any formal effort among

the Jews to "define the canon" of Scripture. In fact,

Scripture nowhere indicates that the Jews even had a

conscious idea that the canon should be closed at some


The canon arrived at by the rabbis at Javneh was

essentially the mid-sized canon of the Palestinian

Pharisees, not the shorter one used by the Sadducees,

who had been practically annihilated during the Jewish

war with Rome. Nor was this new canon consistent with

the Greek Septuagint version, which the rabbis

regarded rather xenophobically as "too

Gentile-tainted." Remember, these Palestinian rabbis

were not in much of a mood for multiculturalism after

the catastrophe they had suffered at the hands of

Rome. Their people had been slaughtered by foreign

invaders, the Temple defiled and destroyed, and the

Jewish religion in Palestine was in shambles. So for

these rabbis, the Greek Septuagint went by the board

and the mid-sized Pharisaic canon was adopted.

Eventually this version was adopted by the vast

majority of Jews - though not all. Even today

Ethiopian Jews still use the Septuagint version, not

the shorter Palestinian canon settled upon by the

rabbis at Javneh. In other words, the Old Testament

canon recognized by Ethiopian Jews is identical to the

Catholic Old Testament, including the seven

deuterocanonical books (cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol.

6, p. 1147).

But remember that by the time the Jewish council of

Javneh rolled around, the Catholic Church had been in

existence and using the Septuagint Scriptures in its

teaching, preaching, and worship for nearly 60 years,

just as the Apostles themselves had done. So the

Church hardly felt the obligation to conform to the

wishes of the rabbis in excluding the deuterocanonical

books any more than they felt obliged to follow the

rabbis in rejecting the New Testament writings. The

fact is that after the birth of the Church on the day

of Pentecost, the rabbis no longer had authority from

God to settle such issues. That authority, including

the authority to define the canon of Scripture, had

been given to Christ's Church.

Thus, Church and synagogue went their separate ways,

not in the Middle Ages or the 16th century, but in the

1st century. The Septuagint, complete with the

deuterocanonical books, was first embraced, not by

the Council of Trent, but by Jesus of Nazareth and his


Myth 2

Christ and the Apostles frequently quoted Old

Testament Scripture as their authority, but they never

quoted from the deuterocanonical books, nor did they

even mention them. Clearly, if these books were part

of Scripture, the Lord would have cited them.

This myth rests on two fallacies. The first is the

"Quotation Equals Canonicity" myth. It assumes that if

a book is quoted or alluded to by the Apostles or

Christ, it is ipso facto shown to be part of the Old

Testament. Conversely, if a given book is not quoted,

it must not be canonical.

This argument fails for two reasons. First, numerous

non-canonical books are quoted in the New Testament.

These include the Book of Enoch and the Assumption of

Moses (quoted by St. Jude), the Ascension of Isaiah

(alluded to in Hebrews 11:37), and the writings of the

pagan poets Epimenides, Aratus, and Menander (quoted

by St. Paul in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus). If

quotation equals canonicity, then why aren't these

writings in the canon of the Old Testament?

Second, if quotation equals canonicity, then there are

numerous books of the protocanonical Old Testament

which would have to be excluded. This would include

the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Obadiah,

Zephaniah, Judges, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah,

Lamentations and Nahum. Not one of these Old Testament

books is ever quoted or alluded to by Christ or the

Apostles in the New Testament.

The other fallacy behind Myth #2 is that, far from

being ignored in the New Testament (like Ecclesiastes,

Esther, and 1 Chronicles) the deuterocanonical books

are indeed quoted and alluded to in the New Testament.

For instance, Wisdom 2:12-20, reads in part, "For if

the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and

deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement

and torture let us put him to the test that we may

have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let

us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to

his own words, God will take care of him."

This passage was clearly in the minds of the Synoptic

Gospel writers in their accounts of the Crucifixion:

"He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the

king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now,

and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let Him

deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ÔI am

the Son of God'" (cf. Matthew 27:42-43).

Similarly, St. Paul alludes clearly to Wisdom chapters

12 and 13 in Romans 1:19-25. Hebrews 11:35 refers

unmistakably to 2 Maccabees 7. And more than once,

Christ Himself drew on the text of Sirach 27:6, which

reads: "The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;

so too does a man's speech disclose the bent of his

mind." Notice too that the Lord and His Apostles

observed the Jewish feast of Hanukkah (cf. John

10:22-36). But the divine establishment of this key

feast day is recorded only in the deuterocanonical

books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. It is nowhere discussed in

any other book of the Old Testament. In light of this,

consider the importance of Christ's words on the

occasion of this feast: "Is it not written in your

Law, ÔI have said you are gods'? If he called them

Ôgods,' to whom the word of God came - and the

Scripture cannot be broken - what about the One Whom

the Father set apart as His very own and sent into the

world?" Jesus, standing near the Temple during the

feast of Hanukkah, speaks of His being "set apart,"

just as Judas Maccabeus "set apart" (ie. consecrated)

the Temple in 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 and 2 Maccabees

10:1-8. In other words, our Lord made a connection

that was unmistakable to His Jewish hearers by

treating the Feast of Hanukkah and the account of it

in the books of the Maccabees as an image or type of

His own consecration by the Father. That is, He treats

the Feast of Hanukkah from the so-called "apocryphal"

books of 1 and 2 Maccabees exactly as He treats

accounts of the manna (John 6:32-33; Exodus 16:4), the

Bronze Serpent (John 3:14; Numbers 21:4-9), and

Jacob's Ladder (John 1:51; Genesis 28:12) - as

inspired, prophetic, scriptural images of Himself. We

see this pattern throughout the New Testament. There

is no distinction made by Christ or the Apostles

between the deuterocanonical books and the rest of the

Old Testament.

Myth 3

The deuterocanonical books contain historical,

geographical, and moral errors, so they can't be

inspired Scripture.

This myth might be raised when it becomes clear that

the allegation that the deuterocanonical books were

"added" by the Catholic Church is fallacious. This

myth is built on another attempt to distinguish

between the deuterocanonical books and "true

Scripture." Let's examine it.

First, from a certain perspective, there are "errors"

in the deuterocanonical books. The book of Judith, for

example, gets several points of history and geography

wrong. Similarly Judith, that glorious daughter of

Israel, lies her head off (well, actually, it's wicked

King Holofernes' head that comes off). And the Angel

Raphael appears under a false name to Tobit. How can

Catholics explain that such "divinely inspired" books

would endorse lying and get their facts wrong? The

same way we deal with other incidents in Scripture

where similar incidents of lying or "errors" happen.

Let's take the problem of alleged "factual errors"

first. The Church teaches that to have an authentic

understanding of Scripture we must have in mind what

the author was actually trying to assert, the way he

was trying to assert it, and what is incidental to

that assertion.

For example, when Jesus begins the parable of the

Prodigal Son saying, "There was once a man with two

sons," He is not shown to be a bad historian when it

is proven that the man with two sons He describes

didn't actually exist. So too, when the prophet Nathan

tells King David the story of the "rich man" who stole

a "poor man's" ewe lamb and slaughtered it, Nathan is

not a liar if he cannot produce the carcass or

identify the two men in his story. In strict fact,

there was no ewe lamb, no theft, and no rich and poor

men. These details were used in a metaphor to rebuke

King David for his adultery with Bathsheba. We know

what Nathan was trying to say and the way he was

trying to say it. Likewise, when the Gospels say the

women came to the tomb at sunrise, there is no

scientific error here. This is not the assertion of

the Ptolemiac theory that the sun revolves around the

earth. These and other examples which could be given

are not "errors" because they're not truth claims

about astronomy or historical events.

Similarly, both Judith and Tobit have a number of

historical and geographical errors, not because

they're presenting bad history and erroneous

geography, but because they're first-rate pious

stories that don't pretend to be remotely interested

with teaching history or geography, any more than the

Resurrection narratives in the Gospels are interested

in astronomy. Indeed, the author of Tobit goes out of

his way to make clear that his hero is fictional. He

makes Tobit the uncle of Ahiqar, a figure in ancient

Semitic folklore like "Jack the Giant Killer" or

"Aladdin." Just as one wouldn't wave a medieval

history textbook around and complain about a tale that

begins "once upon a time when King Arthur ruled the

land," so Catholics are not reading Tobit and Judith

to get a history lesson.

Very well then, but what of the moral and theological

"errors"? Judith lies. Raphael gives a false name. So

they do. In the case of Judith lying to King

Holofernes in order to save her people, we must recall

that she was acting in light of Jewish understanding

as it had developed until that time. This meant that

she saw her deception as acceptable, even laudable,

because she was eliminating a deadly foe of her

people. By deceiving Holofernes as to her intentions

and by asking the Lord to bless this tactic, she was

not doing something alien to Jewish Scripture or Old

Testament morality. Another biblical example of this

type of lying is when the Hebrew midwives lied to

Pharaoh about the birth of Moses. They lied and were

justified in lying because Pharaoh did not have a

right to the truth - if they told the truth, he would

have killed Moses. If the book of Judith is to be

excluded from the canon on this basis, so must Exodus.

With respect to Raphael, it's much more dubious that

the author intended, or that his audience understood

him to mean, "Angels lie. So should you." On the

contrary, Tobit is a classic example of an

"entertaining angels unaware" story (cf. Heb. 13:2).

We know who Raphael is all along. When Tobit cried out

to God for help, God immediately answered him by

sending Raphael. But, as is often the case, God's

deliverance was not noticed at first. Raphael

introduced himself as "Azariah," which means "Yahweh

helps," and then rattles off a string of supposed

mutual relations, all with names meaning things like

"Yahweh is merciful," "Yahweh gives," and "Yahweh

hears." By this device, the author is saying (with a

nudge and a wink), "Psst, audience. Get it?" And we,

of course, do get it, particularly if we're reading

the story in the original Hebrew. Indeed, by using the

name "Yahweh helps," Raphael isn't so much "lying"

about his real name as he is revealing the deepest

truth about who God is and why God sent him to Tobit.

It's that truth and not any fluff about history or

geography or the fun using an alias that the author of

Tobit aims to tell.

Myth 4

The deuterocanonical books themselves deny that they

are inspired Scripture.

Correction: Two of the deuterocanonical books seem to

disclaim inspiration, and even that is a dicey

proposition. The two in question are Sirach and 2

Maccabees. Sirach opens with a brief preface by the

author's grandson saying, in part, that he is

translating grandpa's book, that he thinks the book

important and that, "You therefore are now invited to

read it in a spirit of attentive good will, with

indulgence for any apparent failure on our part,

despite earnest efforts, in the interpretation of

particular passages." Likewise, the editor of 2

Maccabees opens with comments about how tough it was

to compose the book and closes with a sort of shrug

saying, "I will bring my own story to an end here too.

If it is well written and to the point, that is what I

wanted; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the

best I could do."

That, and that alone, is the basis for the myth that

the deuterocanon (all seven books and not just these

two) "denies that it is inspired Scripture." Several

things can be said in response to this argument.

First, is it reasonable to think that these typically

oriental expressions of humility really constitute

anything besides a sort of gesture of politeness and

the customary downplaying of one's own talents,

something common among ancient writers in Middle

Eastern cultures? No. For example, one may as well say

that St. Paul's declaration of himself as "one born

abnormally" or as being the "chief of sinners" (he

mentions this in the present, not past tense)

necessarily makes his writings worthless.

Second, speaking of St. Paul, we are confronted by

even stronger and explicit examples of disclaimers

regarding inspired status of his writings, yet no

Protestant would feel compelled to exclude these

Pauline writings from the New Testament canon.

Consider his statement in 1 Corinthians 1:16 that he

can't remember whom he baptized. Using the "It oughtta

sound more like the Holy Spirit talking" criterion of

biblical inspiration Protestants apply to the

deuterocanonical books, St. Paul would fail the test

here. Given this amazing criterion, are we to believe

the Holy Spirit "forgot" whom St. Paul baptized, or

did He inspire St. Paul to forget (1 Cor. 1:15)?

1 Corinthians 7:40 provides an ambiguous statement

that could, according to the principles of this myth,

be understood to mean that St. Paul wasn't sure that

his teaching was inspired or not. Elsewhere St. Paul

makes it clear that certain teachings he's passing

along are "not I, but the Lord" speaking (1 Cor.

7:10), whereas in other cases, "I, not the Lord" am

speaking (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12). This is a vastly more

direct "disclaimer of inspiration" than the oblique

deuterocanonical passages cited above, yet nobody

argues that St. Paul's writings should be excluded

from Scripture, as some say the whole of the

deuterocanon should be excluded from the Old

Testament, simply on the strength of these modest

passages from Sirach and 2 Maccabees.

Why not? Because in St. Paul's case people recognize

that a writer can be writing under inspiration even

when he doesn't realize it and doesn't claim it, and

that inspiration is not such a flat-footed affair as

"direct dictation" by the Holy Spirit to the author.

Indeed, we even recognize that the Spirit can inspire

the writers to make true statements about themselves,

such as when St. Paul tells the Corinthians he

couldn't remember whom he had baptized.

To tweak the old proverb, "What's sauce for the

apostolic goose is sauce for the deuterocanonical

gander." The writers of the deuterocanonical books can

tell the truth about themselves - that they think

writing is tough, translating is hard, and that they

are not sure they've done a terrific job - without

such admissions calling into question the inspired

status of what they wrote. This myth proves nothing

other than the Catholic doctrine that the books of

Sacred Scripture really were composed by human beings

who remained fully human and free, even as they wrote

under the direct inspiration of God.

Myth 5

The early Church Fathers, such as St. Athanasius and

St. Jerome (who translated the official Bible of the

Catholic Church), rejected the deuterocanonical books

as Scripture, and the Catholic Church added these

books to the canon at the Council of Trent.

First, no Church Father is infallible. That charism is

reserved uniquely to the pope, in an extraordinary

sense and, in an ordinary sense, corporately to all

the lawful bishops of the Catholic Church who are in

full communion with the pope and are teaching

definitively in an ecumenical council. Second, our

understanding of doctrine develops. This means that

doctrines which may not have been clearly defined

sometimes get defined. A classic example of this is

the doctrine of the Trinity, which wasn't defined

until A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicaea, nearly 300

years after Christ's earthly ministry. In the

intervening time, we can find a few Fathers writing

before Nicaea who, in good faith, expressed theories

about the nature of the Godhead that were rendered

inadequate after Nicaea's definition. This doesn't

make them heretics. It just means that Michael Jordan

misses layups once in awhile. Likewise, the canon of

Scripture, though it more or less assumed its present

shape - which included the deuterocanonical books - by

about A.D. 380, nonetheless wasn't dogmatically

defined by the Church for another thousand years. In

that thousand years, it was quite on the cards for

believers to have some flexibility in how they

regarded the canon. And this applies to the handful of

Church Fathers and theologians who expressed

reservations about the deuterocanon. Their private

opinions about the deuterocanon were just that:

private opinions.

And finally, this myth begins to disintegrate when you

point out that the overwhelming majority of Church

Fathers and other early Christian writers regarded the

deuterocanonical books as having exactly the same

inspired, scriptural status as the other Old Testament

books. Just a few examples of this acceptance can be

found in the Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, the

Council of Rome, the Council of Hippo, the Third

Council of Carthage, the African Code, the Apostolic

Constitutions, and the writings of Pope St. Clement I

(Epistle to the Corinthians), St. Polycarp of Smyrna,

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Hippolytus, St. Cyprian of

Carthage, , Pope St. Damasus I, the , St. Augustine,

and Pope St. Innocent I.

But last and most interesting of all in this stellar

lineup is a certain Father already mentioned: St.

Jerome. In his later years St. Jerome did indeed

accept the Deuter-canonical books of the Bible. In

fact, he wound up strenuously defending their status

as inspired Scripture, writing, "What sin have I

committed if I followed the judgment of the churches?

But he who brings charges against me for relating the

objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against

the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children,

and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not

found in the Hebrew volume (ie. canon), proves that he

is just a foolish sycophant. For I wasn't relating my

own personal views, but rather the remarks that they

[the Jews] are wont to make against us" (Against

Rufinus 11:33 [A.D. 402]). In earlier correspondence

with Pope Damasus, Jerome did not call the

deuterocanonical books unscriptural, he simply said

that Jews he knew did not regard them as canonical.

But for himself, he acknowledged the authority of the

Church in defining the canon. When Pope Damasus and

the Councils of Carthage and Hippo included the

deuterocanon in Scripture, that was good enough for

St. Jerome. He "followed the judgment of the


Martin Luther, however, did not. And this brings us to

the "remarkable dilemmas" I referred to at the start

of this article of trusting the Protestant Reformers'

private opinions about the deuterocanon. The fact is,

if we follow Luther in throwing out the

deuterocanonical books despite the overwhelming

evidence from history showing that we shouldn't (ie.

the unbroken tradition of the Church and the teachings

of councils and popes), we get much more than we

bargained for.

For Luther also threw out a goodly chunk of the New

Testament. Of James, for example, he said, "I do not

regard it as the writing of an Apostle," because he

believed it "is flatly against St. Paul and all the

rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works"

(Preface to James' Epistle). Likewise, in other

writings he underscores this rejection of James from

the New Testament, calling it "an epistle full of

straw . . . for it has nothing of the nature of the

gospel about it" (Preface to the New Testament).

But the Epistle of James wasn't the only casualty on

Luther's hit list. He also axed from the canon

Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, consigning them to a

quasi-canonical status. It was only by an accident of

history that these books were not expelled by

Protestantism from the New Testament as Sirach, Tobit,

1 and 2 Maccabees and the rest were expelled from the

Old. In the same way, it is largely the ignorance of

this sad history that drives many to reject the

deuterocanonical books.

Unless, of course, we reject the myths and come to an

awareness of what the canon of Scripture, including

the deuterocanonical books, is really based on. The

only basis we have for determining the canon of the

Scripture is the authority of the Church Christ

established, through whom the Scriptures came. As St.

Jerome said, it is upon the basis of "the judgment of

the churches" and no other that the canon of Scripture

is known, since the Scriptures are simply the written

portion of the Church's apostolic tradition. And the

judgment of the churches is rendered throughout

history as it was rendered in Acts 15 by means of a

council of bishops in union with St. Peter. The books

we have in our Bibles were accepted according to

whether they did or did not measure up to standards

based entirely on Sacred Tradition and the divinely

delegated authority of the Body of Christ in council

and in union with Peter.

The fact of the matter is that neither the Council of

Trent nor the Council of Florence added a thing to the

Old Testament canon. Rather, they simply accepted and

formally ratified the ancient practice of the Apostles

and early Christians by dogmatically defining a

collection of Old Testament Scripture (including the

deuterocanon) that had been there since before the

time of Christ, used by our Lord and his apostles,

inherited and assumed by the Fathers, formulated and

reiterated by various councils and popes for centuries

and read in the liturgy and prayer for 1500 years.

When certain people decided to snip some of this canon

out in order to suit their theological opinions, the

Church moved to prevent it by defining (both at

Florence and Trent) that this very same canon was, in

fact, the canon of the Church's Old Testament and

always had been.

Far from adding the books to the authentic canon of

Scripture, the Catholic Church simply did its best to

keep people from subtracting books that belong there.

That's no myth. That's history.

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Internet resources:


The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall Inc., 1990

The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, Lee Martin McDonald, Abingdon Press, 1988