DEFENDING THE DEUTEROCANONICALS

by Jimmy Akin

 
When Catholics and Protestants talk about “the Bible,” the two groups actually have somewhat different books in mind.

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers removed a large section of the Old Testament that was not compatible with their theology. They charged that these writings were not inspired Scripture and branded them with the pejorative title “Apocrypha.”

Catholics refer to them as the “deuterocanonical” books (since they were disputed by a few early authors and their canonicity was established later than the rest), while the rest are known as the “protocanonical” books (since their canonicity was established first).

Following the Protestant attack on the integrity of the Bible, the Catholic Church infallibly reaffirmed the divine inspiration of the deuterocanonical books at the Council of Trent in 1546. In doing this, it reaffirmed what had been believed since the time of Christ.

 

Who Compiled the Old Testament?

The Church does not deny that there are ancient writings which are “apocryphal.” During the early Christian era, there were scores of manuscripts which purported to be Holy Scripture but were not. Many have survived to the present day, like the Apocalypse of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, which all Christian churches regard as spurious writings that don’t belong in Scripture.

During the first century, the Jews disagreed as to what constituted the canon of Scripture. In fact, there were a large number of different canons in use, including the growing canon used by Christians. In order to combat the spreading Christian cult, rabbis met at the city of Jamnia or Javneh in A.D. 90 to determine which books were truly the Word of God. They pronounced many books, including the Gospels, to be unfit as scriptures. This canon also excluded seven books (Baruch, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, and the Wisdom of Solomon, plus portions of Esther and Daniel) that Christians considered part of the Old Testament.

The group of Jews which met at Javneh became the dominant group for later Jewish history, and today most Jews accept the canon of Javneh. However, some Jews, such as those from Ethiopia, follow a different canon which is identical to the Catholic Old Testament and includes the seven deuterocanonical books (cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 6, p. 1147).

Needless to say, the Church disregarded the results of Javneh. First, a Jewish council after the time of Christ is not binding on the followers of Christ. Second, Javneh rejected precisely those documents which are foundational for the Christian Church — the Gospels and the other documents of the New Testament. Third, by rejecting the deuterocanonicals, Javneh rejected books which had been used by Jesus and the apostles and which were in the edition of the Bible that the apostles used in everyday life — the Septuagint.

 

The Apostles & the Deuteros

The Christian acceptance of the deuterocanonical books was logical because the deuterocanonicals were also included in the Septuagint, the Greek edition of the Old Testament which the apostles used to evangelize the world. Two thirds of the Old Testament quotations in the New are from the Septuagint. Yet the apostles nowhere told their converts to avoid seven books of it. Like the Jews all over the world who used the Septuagint, the early Christians accepted the books they found in it. They knew that the apostles would not mislead them and endanger their souls by putting false scriptures in their hands — especially without warning them against them.

But the apostles did not merely place the deuterocanonicals in the hands of their converts as part of the Septuagint. They regularly referred to the deuterocanonicals in their writings. For example, Hebrews 11 encourages us to emulate the heroes of the Old Testament and in the Old Testament “Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life” (Heb. 11:35).

There are a couple of examples of women receiving back their dead by resurrection in the Protestant Old Testament. You can find Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarepheth in 1 Kings 17, and you can find his successor Elisha raising the son of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4, but one thing you can never find — anywhere in the Protestant Old Testament, from front to back, from Genesis to Malachi — is someone being tortured and refusing to accept release for the sake of a better resurrection. If you want to find that, you have to look in the Catholic Old Testament — in the deuterocanonical books Martin Luther cut out of his Bible.

The story is found in 2 Maccabees 7, where we read that during the Maccabean persecution, “It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. . . . [B]ut the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, ‘The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us . . . ‘ After the first brother had died . . . they brought forward the second for their sport. . . . he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life'” (2 Macc. 7:1, 5-9).

One by one the sons die, proclaiming that they will be vindicated in the resurrection. “The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them . . . [saying], ‘I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws,'” telling the last one, “Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers” (2 Macc. 7:20-23, 29).

This is but one example of the New Testaments’ references to the deuterocanonicals. The early Christians were thus fully justified in recognizing these books as Scripture, for the apostles not only set them in their hands as part of the Bible they used to evangelize the world, but also referred to them in the New Testament itself, citing the things they record as examples to be emulated.

 

The Fathers Speak

The early acceptance of the deuterocanonicals was carried down through Church history. The Protestant patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly writes: “It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the [Protestant Old Testament] . . . It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was . . . the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. . . . most of the Scriptural quotations found in the New Testament are based upon it rather than the Hebrew.. . . In the first two centuries . . . the Church seems to have accept all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. Quotations from Wisdom, for example, occur in 1 Clement and Barnabas. . . Polycarp cites Tobit, and the Didache [cites] Ecclesiasticus. Irenaeus refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon [i.e., the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel], and Baruch. The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary” (Early Christian Doctrines, 53-54).

The recognition of the deuterocanonicals as part of the Bible that was given by individual Fathers was also given by the Fathers as a whole, when they met in Church councils. The results of councils are especially useful because they do not represent the views of only one person, but what was accepted by the Church leaders of whole regions.

The canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was finally settled at the Council of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same canon was affirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the Council of Carthage in 397. In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the canon in a letter to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year 419, reaffirmed the canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to “confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.” All of these canons were identical to the modern Catholic Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonicals.

This exact same canon was implicitly affirmed at the seventh ecumenical council, II Nicaea (787), which approved the results of the 419 Council of Carthage, and explicitly reaffirmed at the ecumenical councils of Florence (1442), Trent (1546), Vatican I (1870), and Vatican II (1965).

 

The Reformation Attack on the Bible

The deuterocanonicals teach Catholic doctrine, and for this reason they were taken out of the Old Testament by Martin Luther and placed in an appendix without page numbers. Luther also took out four New Testament books — Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation — and put them in an appendix without page numbers as well. These were later put back into the New Testament by other Protestants, but the seven books of the Old Testament were left out. Following Luther they had been left in an appendix to the Old Testament, and eventually the appendix itself was dropped (in 1827 by the British and Foreign Bible Society), which is why these books are not found at all in most contemporary Protestant Bibles, though they were appendicized in classic Protestant translations such as the King James Version.

The reason they were dropped is that they teach Catholic doctrines that the Protestant Reformers chose to reject. Earlier we cited an example where the book of Hebrews holds up to us an Old Testament example from 2 Maccabees 7, an incident not to be found anywhere in the Protestant Bible, but easily discoverable in the Catholic Bible. Why would Martin Luther cut out this book when it is so clearly held up as an example to us by the New Testament? Simple: A few chapters later it endorses the practice of praying for the dead so that they may be freed from the consequences of their sins (2 Macc. 12:41-45); in other words, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Since Luther chose to reject the historic Christian teaching of purgatory (which dates from before the time of Christ, as 2 Maccabees shows), he had to remove that book from the Bible and appendicize it. (Notice that he also removed Hebrews, the book which cites 2 Maccabees, to an appendix as well.)

To justify this rejection of books that had been in the Bible since before the days of the apostles (for the Septuagint was written before the apostles), the early Protestants cited as their chief reason the fact that the Jews of their day did not honor these books, going back to the council of Javneh in A.D. 90. But the Reformers were aware of only European Jews; they were unaware of African Jews, such as the Ethiopian Jews who accept the deuterocanonicals as part of their Bible. They glossed over the references to the deuterocanonicals in the New Testament, as well as its use of the Septuagint. They ignored the fact that there were multiple canons of the Jewish Scriptures circulating in first century, appealing to a post-Christian Jewish council which has no authority over Christians as evidence that “The Jews don’t except these books.” In short, they went to enormous lengths to rationalize their rejection of these books of the Bible.

 

Rewriting Church History

In later years they even began to propagate the myth that the Catholic Church “added” these seven books to the Bible at the Council of Trent!

Protestants also try to distort the patristic evidence in favor of the deuterocanonicals. Some flatly state that the early Church Fathers did not accept them, while others make the more moderate claim that certain important Fathers, such as Jerome, did not accept them.

It is true that Jerome, and a few other isolated writers, did not accept most of the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. However, Jerome was persuaded, against his original inclination, to include the deuterocanonicals in his Vulgate edition of the Scriptures-testimony to the fact that the books were commonly accepted and were expected to be included in any edition of the Scriptures.

Furthermore, it can be documented that in his later years Jerome did accept certain deuterocanonical parts of the Bible. In his reply to Rufinus, he stoutly defended the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel even though the Jews of his day did not.

He wrote, “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, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I was not 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]). Thus Jerome acknowledged the principle by which the canon was settled — the judgment of the Church, not of later Jews.

Other writers Protestants cite as objecting to the deuterocanonicals, such as Athanasius and Origen, also accepted some or all of them as canonical. For example, Athanasius, accepted the book of Baruch as part of his Old Testament (Festal Letter 39), and Origen accepted all of the deuterocanonicals, he simply recommended not using them in disputations with Jews.

However, despite the misgivings and hesitancies of a few individual writers such as Jerome, the Church remained firm in its historic affirmation of the deuterocanonicals as Scripture handed down from the apostles. Protestant patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly remarks that in spite of Jerome’s doubt, “For the great majority, however, the deutero-canonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense. Augustine, for example, whose influence in the West was decisive, made no distinction between them and the rest of the Old Testament . . . The same inclusive attitude to the Apocrypha was authoritatively displayed at the synods of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 respectively, and also in the famous letter which Pope Innocent I dispatched to Exuperius, bishop of Toulouse, in 405” (Early Christian Doctrines, 55-56).

It is thus a complete myth that, as Protestants often charge, the Catholic Church “added” the deuterocanonicals to the Bible at the Council of Trent. These books had been in the Bible from before the time canon was initially settled in the 380s. All the Council of Trent did was reaffirm, in the face of the new Protestant attack on Scripture, what had been the historic Bible of the Church — the standard edition of which was Jerome’s own Vulgate, including the seven deuterocanonicals!

 

The New Testament Deuteros

It is ironic that Protestants reject the inclusion of the deuterocanonicals at councils such as Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), because these are the very same early Church councils that Protestants appeal to for the canon of the New Testament. Prior to the councils of the late 300s, there was a wide range of disagreement over exactly what books belonged in the New Testament. Certain books, such as the gospels, acts, and most of the epistles of Paul had long been agreed upon. However a number of the books of the New Testament, most notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Revelation remained hotly disputed until the canon was settled. They are, in effect, “New Testament deuterocanonicals.”

While Protestants are willing to accept the testimony of Hippo and Carthage (the councils they most commonly cite) for the canonicity of the New Testament deuterocanonicals, they are unwilling to accept the testimony of Hippo and Carthage for the canonicity of the Old Testament deuterocanonicals. Ironic indeed!

Copyright (c) 1996 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved.

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