Difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the issue of Apocrypha – By Norman Geisler

Both Catholics and Protestants affirm the inspiration and divine authority of the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon (thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament). A crucial difference emerges, however, over eleven pieces of literature (seven books and four parts of books) that the Roman Catholic Church infallibly pronounced part of the canon in a.d. 1546 at the Council of Trent. These books are known by Protestants as the Apocrypha and by Catholics as the deuterocanonical books (lit. “second canon”). It is important to note that, unlike some Protestant groups,1 Catholics’ use of this “second canon” does not imply that the Apocrypha is a secondary canon of inferior status. In spite of some current speculative usage by Catholic scholars to the contrary, the Council of Trent affords these books full canonical status and pronounces an anathema (excommunication) on any who reject them. After enumerating the books, including the eleven apocryphal books, the Council stated: “If anyone, however, should not accept the said books as sacred and canonical, entire with all their parts . . . and if both knowingly and deliberately he should condemn the aforesaid tradition let him be anathema.”2 The same language affirming the Apocrypha is repeated by Vatican II.3

The differences over the canonicity of the Apocrypha are not minor. They are both doctrinal and canonical. Doctrinally, the Apocrypha supports prayers for the dead (which also entails a belief in purgatory). For instance, 2 Maccabees 12:46 reads: “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” Canonically, the grounds on which the Apocrypha was accepted undermine the true test for canonicity—propheticity. In short, if the Apocrypha can be accepted in the canon, lacking, as it does, the characteristics that meet the true test of canonicity, then other noncanonical books could be accepted on the same grounds.

Catholic Arguments in Favor of the Apocrypha

The Apocrypha that Rome accepts includes eleven books—or twelve, depending on whether Baruch (1–6) is split into two books consisting of Baruch 1–5 and The Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch 6). These include all fourteen (or fifteen) books in the Protestant Apocrypha, except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras (called 3 and 4 Esdras by Roman Catholics, since the Protestant Ezra and Nehemiah are called 1 and 2 Esdras by Catholics).

The Number of Books in Dispute

Revised Standard Version New American Bible
1. The Wisdom of Solomon (c. 30 b.c.) Book of Wisdom
2. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (132 b.c.) Sirach
3. Tobit (c. 200 b.c.) Tobit
4. Judith (c. 150 b.c.) Judith
5. 1 Esdras (c. 150–100 b.c.) 3 Esdras*
6. 1 Maccabees (c. 110 b.c.) 1 Maccabees
7. 2 Maccabees (c. 110–70 b.c.) 2 Maccabees
8. Baruch (c. 150–50 b.c.) Baruch chaps. 1–5
9. Letter of Jeremiah (c. 300–100 b.c.) Baruch chap. 6
10. 2 Esdras (c. a.d. 100) 4 Esdras*
11. Additions to Esther (140–130 b.c.) 10:4–16:24
12. Prayer of Azariah (2nd or 1st cent. b.c.) Daniel 3:24–90
(Song of Three Young Men)
13. Susanna (2nd or 1st cent. b.c.) Daniel 13
14. Bel and the Dragon (c. 100 b.c.) Daniel 14
15. Prayer of Manasseh (2nd or 1st cent. b.c.) Prayer of Manasseh*

Although the Roman Catholic canon has eleven more books than the Protestant Bible, only seven extra books appear in the table of contents of Roman Catholic Bibles. This makes the total forty-six (the thirty-nine in the Protestant and Jewish Old Testament, plus seven more complete books). There are, however, four more books or pieces of literature that are added to other books that do not appear in the table of contents. There are the Additions to Esther, added at the end of the Book of Esther (Esth. 10:4f.); the Prayer of Azariah, inserted between the Jewish (and Protestant) Daniel 3:23 and 24 (making it Daniel 3:24–90 in Roman Catholic Bibles); Susanna, placed at the end of Daniel 12 in the Protestant and Jewish Old Testament (as chap. 13); and Bel and the Dragon, which became chapter 14 of Daniel. So with seven complete books and four other pieces of literature found in Daniel and Esther, the Roman Catholic canon has eleven more books than does the Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament.

Catholic and Protestant Views on the Apocrypha

The larger canon is sometimes referred to as the “Alexandrian Canon,” as opposed to the “Palestinian Canon” (which does not contain the Apocrypha) because they are alleged to have been part of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or “Seventy” [LXX], which originated in Alexandria, Egypt). The reasons generally advanced in favor of this broader Alexandrian list accepted by Roman Catholics, which includes the apocryphal books, are as follows:

1.     The New Testament reflects the thought of the Apocrypha, and even refers to events contained in it (cf. Heb. 11:35 with 2 Macc. 7, 12).

Answer from Protestant Perspective: There may be New Testament allusions to the Apocrypha, but there are no clear New Testament quotations from it. Not once is there a direct quotation from any apocryphal books accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.5 Further, although the New Testament cites the Hebrew Old Testament, it never once quotes any of the fourteen (or fifteen) apocryphal books as divinely authoritative or canonical. For example, they are never cited with introductory phrases like “thus says the Lord” or “as it is written” or “the Scriptures say,” such as are typically found when canonical books are quoted.

2.     The New Testament quotes mostly from the Septuagint, which contained the Apocrypha. This gives tacit approval of the whole text, including the Apocrypha, from which they quoted.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: The fact that the New Testament often quotes from the Greek Old Testament in no way proves that the apocryphal books contained in the Greek manuscript of the Old Testament are inspired. First, it is not certain that the Septuagint (LXX) of the first century contained the Apocrypha. The earliest Greek manuscripts that include them date from the fourth century a.d. Further, even if they were in the Septuagint of apostolic times, Jesus and the apostles never once quoted them, although they are supposed to have been included in the very version of the Old Testament (the LXX) that they usually cited. Finally, even the notes in the current Roman Catholic Bible (nab) make the revealing admission that the apocryphal books are “religious books used by both Jews and Christians which were not included in the collection of inspired writings.” Instead, they “were introduced rather late into the collection of the Bible. Catholics call them ‘deuterocanonical’ (second canon) books.”6

3. Some of the early church fathers quoted and used the Apocrypha as Scripture in public worship.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: Citations of the church fathers in support of the canonicity of the Apocrypha are selective and misleading. While some Fathers accepted their inspiration, others used them only for devotional or homiletical (preaching) purposes but did not accept them as canonical. As a recent authority on the Apocrypha, Roger Beckwith, observes,

When one examines the passages in the early Fathers which are supposed to establish the canonicity of the Apocrypha, one finds that some of them are taken from the alternative Greek text of Ezra (1 Esdras) or from additions or appendices to Daniel, Jeremiah or some other canonical book, which . . . are not really relevant; that others of them are not quotations from the Apocrypha at all;7 and that, of those which are, many do not give any indication that the book is regarded as Scripture.8

So unqualified Catholic appeal to the use of the Apocrypha is misleading. For, as Beckwith notes, in many cases the Fathers were not claiming divine authority for one or more of the eleven books infallibly canonized by the Council of Trent. Rather, they were either citing a book that was part of the Hebrew canon or not quoting the apocryphal books as Scripture.

4.     Some of the early church fathers—Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria—accepted all the books of the Apocrypha as canonical.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: Although some individuals in the early church had a high regard for the Apocrypha, there were many who vehemently opposed it.9 For example, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, and the great Roman Catholic biblical scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate, Jerome, all opposed the Apocrypha (see below). Even the early Syrian church did not accept the Apocrypha. In the second century a.d. the Syrian Bible (Peshitta) did not contain the Apocrypha.10

5.     Early Christian catacomb scenes depict episodes from the Apocrypha, showing it was part of the early Christians’ religious life. If not their inspiration, this at least reveals a great regard for the Apocrypha.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: As even many Catholic scholars will admit, scenes from the catacombs do not prove the canonicity of the books whose events they depict. Such scenes need not indicate any more than the religious significance that the portrayed events had for early Christians. They may show a respect for the books containing these events without recognizing that they are inspired.

6.     The early Greek manuscripts (Aleph, A, and B) interpose the Apocrypha among the Old Testament books. This reveals that they were part of the Jewish-Greek translation of the Old Testament.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: None of the great Greek manuscripts (Aleph, A, and B) contain all of the apocryphal books. In fact, only four (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Sirach [Ecclesiasticus]) are found in all of them, and the oldest manuscripts (B or Vaticanus) totally exclude the books of Maccabees. Yet Catholics appeal to this manuscript for proof of their deuterocanonical books that include the Apocrypha! What is more, no Greek manuscript has the same list of apocryphal books accepted by the Council of Trent (a.d. 1545–63).11

7.     Several early church councils accepted the Apocrypha: the Council of Rome (a.d. 382), the Council of Hippo (a.d. 393), and the Council of Carthage (a.d. 397).

Answer from Protestant Perspective: There are some important reasons why citing these church councils does not prove the Apocrypha belonged in the canon of the Christian church. First, these were only local councils and were not binding on the whole church.12 Local councils have often erred in their decisions and have been overruled later by the universal church.

Second, these books were not part of the Christian (New Testament period) writings and hence were not under the province of the Christian church to decide. They were the province of the Jewish community that wrote them and had centuries before rejected them as part of the canon, for books were accepted by the contemporary generations who were in the best position to verify the prophetic claims of their authors (cf. Heb. 2:3–4).

Third, the books accepted by these Christian councils may not have been the same ones in each case. Hence, they cannot be used as evidence of the exact canon later infallibly proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church in a.d. 1546.

Fourth, the local councils of Hippo and Carthage in North Africa were influenced by Augustine, who is the most significant voice of antiquity that accepted the same apocryphal books later canonized by the Council of Trent in a.d. 1546.13 However, Augustine’s position is ill-founded for several reasons. (a) His contemporary, Jerome, a greater biblical authority than Augustine, rejected the Apocrypha (see below). (b) Augustine himself recognized that the Jews did not accept these books as part of their canon.14 (c) Augustine erroneously reasoned that these books should be in the Bible because of their mention “of extreme and wonderful suffering of certain martyrs.”15 On that ground one could argue that Foxe’s Book of Martyrs16 should also be in the canon! (d) Augustine was inconsistent, since he rejected books not written by prophets yet accepted a book that appears to deny being prophetic (1 Macc. 9:27).17 (e) Augustine’s acceptance of the Apocrypha seems to be connected with his mistaken belief in the inspiration of the Septuagint, whose later Greek manuscripts contained them.18

8.     The Eastern Orthodox church accepts the Apocrypha, revealing that it is not simply a Roman Catholic dogma.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: The Greek church has not always accepted the Apocrypha, nor is its present position unequivocal. At the synods of Constantinople (a.d. 1638), Jaffa (1642), and Jerusalem (1672) these books were declared canonical. But even as late as 1839 their Larger Catechism expressly omitted the Apocrypha on the grounds that its books did not exist in the Hebrew Bible. This is still their position.

9.     The Roman Catholic Church proclaimed the Apocrypha canonical at the Council of Trent (a.d. 1546). This was in accord with pronouncements at early councils (see point 7 above) and the Council of Florence not long before the Reformation (a.d. 1442).

Answer from Protestant Perspective: At the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (a.d. 1546) the infallible proclamation was made accepting the Apocrypha as part of the inspired Word of God.19 Unfortunately, the proclamation came a millennium and a half after the books were written and in an obvious polemic against Protestantism.20 Furthermore, the official infallible addition of books that support prayers for the dead is highly suspect, coming as it did only a few years after Luther protested against this very doctrine. It has all the appearance of an attempt to provide ecclesiastical support for Roman Catholic doctrines that lack biblical support (see chap. 16).

10.     The apocryphal books were included in the Protestant Bible as late as the nineteenth century. This indicates that even Protestants accepted the Apocrypha until very recently.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: Apocryphal books did appear in Protestant Bibles prior to the Council of Trent, but were generally placed in a separate section because they were not considered of equal authority.21 While Anglicans and some other non-Roman Catholic groups had a high regard for the devotional and historical value of the Apocrypha, they did not consider it inspired and of equal authority with Scripture. Even Roman Catholic scholars throughout the Reformation period made the distinction between the Apocrypha and the canon. Cardinal Ximenes made this distinction in his Complutensian Polyglot (a.d. 1514–17) on the very eve of the Reformation. Cardinal Cajetan, who later opposed Luther at Augsburg in 1518, published a Commentary on All the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Testament (a.d. 1532) many years after the Reformation began which did not contain the Apocrypha. Luther spoke against the Apocrypha in 1543, placing its books at the back of his Bible.22

11.     Some apocryphal books written in Hebrew have been found among other Old Testament canonical books in the Dead Sea community at Qumran. This shows that they were part of the Hebrew canon.

Answer from Protestant Perspective: The discovery at Qumran included not only the community’s Bible (the Old Testament) but their library, with fragments of hundreds of books. Among these were some Old Testament apocryphal books. But the fact that no commentaries were found on an apocryphal book and that only canonical books, not the Apocrypha, were found in the special parchment and script indicates that the Qumran community did not view the apocryphal books as canonical.23 The noted scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Millar Burroughs, concluded: “There is no reason to think that any of these works were venerated as Sacred Scripture.”24

Actually, all that the arguments used in favor of the canonicity of the apocryphal books prove is that various apocryphal books were given varied degrees of esteem by different persons within the Christian church, usually falling short of canonicity. Only after Augustine and the local councils he dominated mistakenly pronounced them inspired did they gain wider usage and eventual acceptance by the Roman Catholic Church at Trent. This falls far short of the kind of initial, continual, and complete recognition of the canonical books of the Protestant Old Testament and Jewish Torah (which exclude the Apocrypha) by the Christian church. It exemplifies how the teaching magisterium of the Catholic church proclaims infallible one tradition to the neglect of strong evidence in favor of an opposing tradition because it supports a doctrine that lacks any real support in the canonical books.25

1 At the Reformation, Lutherans and Anglicans considered the apocryphal books to be of inferior status, believing they had ethical/devotional value but denying they had authority in matters of faith.

2 Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, 784, p. 245.

3 See Documents of Vatican II, “Document on Revelation,” chap. 3: “The Divine Inspiration and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture.”

* These books were rejected by the Council of Trent.

* These books were rejected by the Council of Trent.

* These books were rejected by the Council of Trent.

5 There are, of course, allusions to pseudipigraphal (false writings) that are rejected by Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, such as the Book of Enoch (Jude 14–15) and the Bodily Assumption of Moses (Jude 9). There are also citations from pagan poets and philosophers (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12). But none of these are cited as Scripture nor as a divine authority. The New Testament simply refers to a truth contained in these books which otherwise may (and do) have many errors. Roman Catholics agree.

6 New American Bible, p. 413.

7 “Thus, Epistle of Barnabas 6.7 and Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.22.5, are not quoting Wisd. 2.12 but Isa. 3:10 LXX, and Tertullian, On the Soul 15, is not quoting Wisd. 1.6 but Ps. 139.23, as a comparison of the passages shows. Similarly, Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 129, is quite clearly not quoting Wisdom but Prov. 8.21–5 LXX. The fact that he calls Proverbs ‘Wisdom’ is in accordance with the common nomenclature of the earlier Fathers.” See Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 427 n. 208.

8 Ibid., p. 387.

9 J. D. N. Kelly’s comment that “For the great majority [of early fathers] . . . the deutero-canonical writings ranked as scripture in the fullest sense” is out of synch with the facts just cited by Beckwith.

10 See Norman L. Geisler and W. E. Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), chaps. 27–28.

11 See Beckwith, Old Testament Canon, pp. 194, 382–83.

12 Some Catholic apologists argue that even though the council was not ecumenical its results are binding since they were confirmed by a pope. However, they acknowledge that there is no infallible way to know which statements by popes are infallible and which are not. Indeed, they admit that other statements by popes were even heretical, such as the teaching of the monothelite heresy by Pope Honorius I (see chap. 11).

13 The Council of Rome did not list the same books accepted by Hippo and Carthage. It does not include Baruch, thus listing only six, not seven, of the apocryphal books later pronounced canonical by the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic scholars assume it was part of Jeremiah. However, Trent lists it as a separate book. See Denzinger, Sources, 84, p. 34.

14 Augustine, City of God 19.36–38.

15 Of the books of Maccabees Augustine said, “These are held to be canonical, not by the Jews, but by the Church, on account of the extreme and wonderful sufferings of certain martyrs” (City of God 18, 36).

16 John Foxe (1516–87), Acts and Monuments of Matters Happening in the Church (1563).

17 This verse denies there was a prophet during the period it was written, which would mean the author was not a prophet. In response, Catholics appeal to verses that say there were no prophetic visions in Israel before God raised up Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1). But this misses the point: the books of Samuel were not written before God began to speak to Samuel but after. Likewise, Psalm 74:9 refers to no prophet being left “in the land,” since the Babylonians had destroyed the temple (v. 3) and the prophets were in exile (e.g., Daniel and Jeremiah). And Lamentations 2:9 does not say there were no prophets anywhere (Jeremiah, who wrote it, was a prophet) but that there were none in the land who were getting a “vision from the Lord.” By contrast, the writer of 1 Maccabees was bemoaning the fact that there were no longer any prophets in Israel, even after they had returned to the land. Nor does 1 Maccabees state that the prophetic lull in Israel was to be only temporary. Indeed, Judaism has acknowledged that even before the time of Maccabees the prophetic spirit had departed from Israel (see Josephus, Antiquities, Against Apion 1.8: “From Artaxerxes until our time everything has been recorded, but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what preceded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased.”

18 However, Augustine’s later acknowledgment of the superiority of Jerome’s Hebrew text over the Septuagint’s Greek text should have led him to accept the superiority of Jerome’s Hebrew canon as well, which did not include the Apocrypha.

19 Some Catholic scholars claim that the earlier Council of Florence (a.d. 1442) made the same pronouncement. However, this is a disputed council, and its action here does not have any real basis in Jewish history, the New Testament, or early Christian history.

20 Even before Luther, the Council of Florence (a.d. 1442) had proclaimed the Apocrypha inspired, which helped bolster the doctrine of purgatory that had already blossomed in Roman Catholicism. However, the manifestations of this belief in the sale of indulgences came to full bloom in Luther’s day, and Trent’s infallible proclamation of the Apocrypha was a clear polemic against Luther’s teaching.

21 Even knowledgeable Catholics acknowledge that the appearance of apocryphal books in Protestant bibles does not prove they were accepted as inspired but only that they were valued.

22 See Bruce Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 181f. Luther also had some initial doubts about James, but he eventually placed it alongside the other New Testament books.

23 Menahem Mansoor, The Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 203, lists the following fragments of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: Tobit, in Hebrew and Aramaic; Enoch, in Aramaic; Jubilees, in Hebrew; Testament of Levi and Naphtali, in Aramaic; Apocryphal Daniel literature, in Hebrew and Aramaic; and Psalms of Joshua. See New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2:390.

24 Millar Burroughs, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 178.

25 The (proto) canonical books were received immediately by the people of God into the growing canon of Scripture (see Geisler and Nix, General Introduction, chap. 13). The subsequent debate was by those who were not in a position, as was the immediate audience, to know whether they were from an accredited apostle or prophet. Hence, this subsequent debate over the antilegomena was directly over their authenticity, not canonicity—they were already in the canon. What some individuals in subsequent generations questioned was whether they rightfully belonged there. Eventually, all of the antilegomena were retained in the canon. This is not true of the Apocrypha, for Protestants reject all of the books and even Roman Catholics reject some of them (e.g., 3–4 Esdras and The Prayer of Manasseh).


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