Catholics have 73 books of the Bible; Protestants have 66.
Christians are sometimes wholly unaware that this difference exists, completely misled as to why there is a difference, or confident that their particular canon of books is undoubtedly the original.
No, these books are NOT gnostic gospels you may have heard about. Catholics don’t have a special, secret Gospel of Mary. The so-called deuterocanonical books actually aren’t even New Testament books. It’s the Old Testament where the differences are, and it’s the Holy Spirit-inspired Early Church fathers, Church councils, and Sacred Tradition that led us to preserve what is now the Catholic canon of Scripture.
Deuterocanonical, a term assigned by Catholics, means “the second canon,” which is not to say that Catholics added to the Protestant canon, but that these books aren’t included in the Hebrew Bible, which came first. Protestants, on the other hand, call them apocrypha and don’t consider them Scripture in the sense that they can defend teaching, though they are often considered holy and good to read. They are sometimes included in Protestant Bible appendices.
What canon do we trust? How do we answer people who are confident that Catholics have added books unnecessarily?
Common points of confusion (and resources to answer them):
1. Where did your canon come from?
Anyone who believes in a sacred text should have good reason to trust it. Bible means “book,” and it is a collection of books from different lands, authors, languages and historical periods, a text by which to pass on our faith. We believe it is the divinely-inspired Word of God, but there is no list in Scripture itself telling us directly which books are or are not official canon. The Church needed the Early Church Fathers, Sacred Tradition, and councils to help fight heresy and declare the canon based on the teaching of Jesus and His Apostles as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this way, every Christian has the Bible first from God, Who inspired its authors, but also thanks to Sacred Tradition (and the Catholic Church) which preserved the canon.
2. Did someone add books? (Or did someone else subtract them?)
Let’s just get that straight right away. Chronologically, Protestants took books out, not Catholics putting books in. Too often, people just assume the Catholic Church added books to conveniently fit its theology during the Reformation, but Catholics defended the already-instituted Christian canon of books from where its theology formed. (We didn’t start making things up all of a sudden!)
2. Why did Martin Luther remove these books?
Simple. He didn’t like what they supported, and they supported Catholic teaching (i.e. Purgatory). These books inconveniently (for him) defend the Catholic Church’s long-standing beliefs on issues Luther did not agree with.
3. What about St. Jerome?
St. Jerome was asked to translate the Christian Bible into Latin, and – knowing Hebrew – he chose to translate from the Hebrew Bible, which by that time excluded the deuterocanonical books, so Jerome left them out of his translation. But the Church later reaffirmed the Christian canon of Scripture as the current Catholic one that includes the deuterocanonicals, and St. Jerome submitted willingly to this authoritative decision. Today, St. Jerome’s Vulgate does include them. Martin Luther would justify his rejection of the deuterocanonical books based on St. Jerome’s decision to follow the Hebrew Bible, but Luther failed to acknowledge Jerome’s subsequent reversal and submission to authority.
In defense of the Catholic canon, St. Augustine wrote On Christian Doctrine, which compares all the (pre-Reformation) churches, especially those known to be established by the apostles, and found the books used there. All in all, well before the Council of Trent, the Church was reviewing and defending the canon it used based on apostolic tradition and the scholarly inquiries of leaders. Jerome and Augustine are saints, but like every saint, they are only human, so their different conclusions should not scandalize us. They themselves are not infallible, and that is why we have a whole Church community to guide us to God.
4. What about the Hebrew Bible and Jewish belief?
Judaism decided on its canon in the first century AD although, much like Christians, they had been using a Bible long before then. There’s a lot more in history, such as the decision at the Jewish Council of Jamnia to officially canonize the Hebrew Bible, but overall it can be said that the deuterocanonical books are considered sacred even in Jewish tradition, even though not a part of the Hebrew Bible.
Christians used the deuterocanonical books from their beginnings because they were part of the Septuagint, which was used by the apostles, Early Church Fathers, and even Jews before the time of Christ. The Septuagint was a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, which was translated for Jews when the Greeks had Hellenized much of the area. Early Christians, who were mostly Greek-speaking, opted for the Septuagint for its use of the Greek language, not for any theological preferences or animus against the deuterocanonical books.
The Catholic canon was approved at councils of the Early Church and by saints. With all that comes much credibility. The Catholic canon is not a willy-nilly, pick-and-choose for your own personal church; it’s a sacred collection of divinely-inspired writings that guide the life of Catholics universally as it did the apostles.
Also, read St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and other Early Church Fathers who reference and/or defend the deuterocanonical works. See the reference list below for other, more contemporary sources for further edification.
Historically, you can see the Catholic Church was neither trying to “pull a fast one” on Christians just to back-up an arbitrary theology, nor is there any historical sentiment that the deuterocanonical books are in some way not salutary to read.
So, this whole issue doesn’t seem as bad as someone might make it out to be. How about other objections to the Catholic canon, like those commonly used by some preachers to lead people to distrust the Catholic canon?
5. Are there New Testament references to the deuterocanonical books?
Yes, the apostles DO reference the deuterocanonical books, and if you were to take out books of the Bible based on that reasoning, you’d also need to remove books included in the Protestant Old Testament canon. So that’s not a valid reason for rejecting the deuterocanonical books.
6. What difference does language make?
If you are a Christian, rejecting books based on their language doesn’t make as much sense. Jesus spoke Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek, and we’ve already discussed the apostles’ use of the Septuagint. Books of the Bible were originally recorded in Aramaic, and mostly Greek and Hebrew, depending on their authorship. It’s part of what makes the Bible so unique and inspired. God speaks all languages. It’s the content, which was the basis of discussion when Christians accepted books as Sacred Scripture, that’s important.
And not just language, but translation!
People twist Scripture for their own agenda too often, but this is not just in canon-picking but also in the various translations and interpretations of Sacred Scripture. Finding a trustworthy canon and translation is so important.
Some translations diverge wildly from the original intent of their authors, and certain books aren’t included in the Bible because they are gnostic heresy. As Catholics, we are lucky to have the Church guide us with the knowledge of tradition and scholarship that we ourselves might otherwise not have!
So, yes, Sacred Tradition is a reasonable defense.
It would be impossible for a human to record—or even to know as a finite being—everything about an infinite God. People taught the faith to each other through tradition, and most books were passed on orally long before being written down. Additionally, sola scriptura itself isn’t in the Bible; it could be called a Protestant tradition, stemming from the Protestant Reformation efforts to break away from the Catholic Church. The Church uses both faith and reason, in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which have preserved and guided us to stable, absolute truths throughout the centuries.
On behalf of our ancestors before us, you’re welcome for the Church’s part in preserving and passing down Sacred Scripture through Sacred Tradition, having councils seeking the Holy Spirit’s will in the canon, and providing us a solid canon with faith and logic to back it up.
The Deuterocanonical Books
Finally, some advice if you’re feeling put on the defensive as a Catholic:
My best advice on how to respond when asked why did Catholics add books to the Bible is to ask a more accurate question: Why don’t all Christians have them? Don’t you feel like you’re missing something, especially considering the history and theology? And, ask these in a charitable manner—don’t go attacking others, even if they attack your canon. Just defend.
The Holy Bible:
The USCCB recommends the New American or the Revised Standard Version for English translations. Dr. Scott Hahn’s RSV Ignatius Catholic Study Bible Old Testament and New Testament have extensive footnotes.
Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger by Gary G. Michuta (Revised Second Edition)
Catholic Answers Tracts and Articles: