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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Canon and Catholicism

Published Friday, April 30, 2010 By Leon M. Brown

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to bring Roman Catholics and Protestants together under the mutual banner of Christianity. In 1970, a book was published titled Growing into Union: Proposals for Forming a United Church in England, which sought to unite Anglican evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. In 1994, another attempt was made to bring Roman Catholics and Protestants together by publishing a 25-page document titled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: the Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. Despite these attempts, however, we remain separated due to several fundamental differences. Our views on justification, church government, the priesthood, and even our Bibles are different. And it would seem that before we can move on to our great theological differences, we could at least start with our Bibles. The Roman Catholic Bible contains several additions, called the Apocrypha, which our Bibles do not contain. So as we consider this, the question must be asked: Why don’t we have the Apocrypha in our Bibles?

Since many of us have never set foot inside a Roman Catholic Church, let alone opened a Roman Catholic Bible, let’s take the time to examine the Apocrypha briefly. “The word apocrypha, used in a variety of ways over time, generally refers to the collection of religious writings that are found in the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate but not in the Hebrew Bible or most Protestant canons.” (1) Typically, the apocryphal books include a series of fourteen or fifteen additional Old Testament books. (2) Like our Protestant Bibles, these apocryphal books were written by a variety of authors over an extended period of time. The book of Tobit, for example, was written c. 180 B.C. In these short fourteen chapters, Tobit is depicted as a man who is faithful in his religion toward God (Tob. 1:12) and conducts many charitable deeds (Tob. 1:3). This, however, does not make him immune to disaster. Tobit later becomes blind and suffers some loss, but we are told that all eventually is well. Tobit prays to God, who sends an angel to deliver him from his sufferings and his sight is eventually restored.

The book of Tobit–as well as the other apocryphal books–contains similar stories, namely, that of suffering and deliverance. We should also note that the book titled “The Wisdom of Solomon” is much like our book of Proverbs. Despite all the similarities, there are several things in which we must take note. Many of the apocryphal books, for example, were written between the second and first century B.C. Does that alarm you? If not, or even if it does, consider the words of the prophet Malachi:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Mal. 4:5-6, ESV)

These were his closing words, as we know it, in the final book of the Old Testament in our English Bibles. Then what happened? The next thing we read concerns a man who was baptizing in the wilderness named John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-5). So the question we should consider is, What happened between the time of Malachi’s final utterances and the entrance of John the Baptist in the wilderness? Edward Unmack notes,

[T]he Jewish legend that the tongue of prophecy was silent after the days of Malachi, and that thenceforth revelation was no longer vouchsafed to the people of Israel, practically represents the results of comparison between the Books of the Hebrew Canon and the Books of the Apocrypha. (3)

If, in fact, the Israelites did not receive further prophecy from God between the time of Malachi’s ministry and John the Baptist’s entrance in the wilderness, how were these apocryphal books given by inspiration of God to prophetically proclaim his word to the Jewish people? In short, they were not.

This, however, is not the only problem. There are several inaccuracies in the apocryphal books. In 1 Maccabees 4:26-35, Lysias–the king’s regent and cousin, who was also in charge of the government–went to battle against the Jews. This battle took place before the death of Timothy, the captain of the Ammonite army. In 2 Maccabees 10:37-11:12, however, Lysias’s defeat came after the death of Timothy. Further inaccuracies are displayed in the chronology and geography of certain apocryphal books, not to mention theological mistakes. Sirach 3:3 says, “Whoever honors his father atones for sins” (RSV). Later in this book, we are told, “For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and against your sins it will be credited to you; in the day of your affliction it will be remembered in your favor; as frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away” (Sir. 3:14-15, RSV 1957 edition). Truly, the only way in which anyone can have his sins atoned is through the precious blood of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, even in the Old Testament era.

Is this enough, however, to reject these books in the Protestant canon? Surely it is, but these are not the only reasons. In or around A.D. 400, Jerome strongly maintained that the apocryphal books should not be included in the canon. Other scholars in the first century, such as Josephus and Philo, also rejected these books; and we must not forget Origen, who believed these books had no place being accepted as inspired Scripture. (4) Fast-forward over one thousand years and we are introduced to the Reformation. What did they believe? After all, it was during the Reformation that other versions of the Bible were introduced, including the Apocrypha. Paul Wegner notes, “The Reformers aligned themselves with the canon identified by Jerome and others following him, but the Roman Catholic Church argued for the broader view of the canon, especially as they included teaching on prayers for the dead and purgatory (2 Macc. 12:40-45).” (5) Thus, although the Reformers rejected the Apocrypha as inspired Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church continued to utilize it; and to make it official, during the Council of Trent in 1546, Roman Catholics subscribed to the Apocrypha, as well as the Jewish Scriptures, as authoritative. This debate between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church lasted some time and still exists today.

But we must also take note that it is not enough only to ask the Catholics why they have the Apocrypha in their Bibles; we must also ask ourselves why it was in the earlier translations of our Bibles. For instance, the Coverdale Bible of 1535, Matthew’s Bible of 1537, the Geneva Bible of 1560, and the Authorized Version of 1611 all contained the Apocrypha. We cannot help but ask: Didn’t they know about all the inaccuracies? Didn’t they know about Origen, Jerome, Philo, and Josephus? The quick and simple answer is yes, which is why, for instance, the Geneva Bible of 1560 had a section pertaining to the Apocrypha that stated that these books “were not to be read and expounded publicly in the church.” Nevertheless, the long and drawn-out answer concerning the addition of the apocryphal books in our Bibles is much more complicated. This is why, as we observe church history, we should notice the extreme and lasting struggle Protestants endured in order to remove the uninspired apocryphal books from the Bible. In 1615, for example, “the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, a firm Calvinist in theology, forbade the binding or selling of Bibles without the Apocrypha on penalty of a year’s imprisonment.” (6) Despite this penalty, Bibles began to be produced without the apocryphal books, and in 1644, the Long Parliament suggested that the Apocrypha should not be read in worship services. (7) A short time later, the Westminster Divines assembled to produce the Westminster Confession of Faith, in which the first chapter stated all the books that were to be included in the Protestant canon. There was not one mention of the apocryphal books. In fact, WCF 1.3 states, “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”

These documents were written some time ago, however, and it may seem far removed from us; consequently, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may be a time to which many of us cannot relate. Thus these struggles may only appear as something that happened in time past. But we do not have to look back hundreds of years to observe the confusion that has taken place in regard to whether the Apocrypha should be included in the Bible–this particular struggle is closer than we think. The Apocrypha appeared in the 1957 Revised Standard Version. It also appeared in the 1970 New English Bible, which is merely forty years ago. Yet we must conclude, despite these entries, that the apocryphal books are not the inspired Word of God. These entries can be regarded only as a mere flaw and nothing more. This is why in Luther’s German Bible, these words appear: “The Apocrypha: Books which are not to be held equal to Holy Scripture, but as useful and good to read.” (8) We can read the apocryphal books, sometimes even for historical data, but on the whole these additional books are not to be read nor considered on the same level as the inspired pages of Scripture.

In closing, Paul instructed Timothy as follows: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, ESV). The Scriptures Paul referred to throughout his Epistles to Timothy never included the apocryphal books. Paul never quoted from them, nor did the other apostles or even our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus you can rest assured that as you read your Bibles today–which do not include the Apocrypha–by his sovereign hand, God has given you his very word that will instruct you on all matters pertaining to life and godliness.

  • Leon M. Brown

1 [ Back ] Paul Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 120-21.
2 [ Back ] These books include: 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, additions to the book of Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Prayer of Azariah, the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.
3 [ Back ] Edward Unmack, "Why We Reject the Apocrypha," Evangelical Quarterly 1.4 (1929): 364.
4 [ Back ] Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), 92.
5 [ Back ] Wegner, 107.
6 [ Back ] F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic, 1988), 108.
7 [ Back ] Bruce, 109.
8 [ Back ] Bruce, 102.

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