Why are Protestant and Catholic Bibles Different?
By George Desnoyers
While there are many more than two canons of Scripture, only two canons are well known to hundreds of millions of Christians. Today they are popularly referred to as the “Protestant canon of Scripture” and “Catholic canon of Scripture,” or “Protestant Bible” and “Catholic Bible.” The main difference between the two canons, or Bibles, is in the inclusion by Catholics of what the Catholic Church calls “deuterocanonical books.” The Protestant canon of Scripture, or Bible, nearly always omits the Catholic deuterocanonicals. When they are included in Protestant Bibles, they are nearly always placed together, either between the Old and New Testaments or at the end of the Bible. Protestant Bibles refer to the deuterocanonical books collectively as “The Apocrypha,” and, when the books are included, a note is added to the effect that the Apocryphal books lack the divine inspiration responsible for the other books, and accordingly they should not be used to defend doctrines unsupported in the rest of Scripture.
Do Christians even need a canon of Scripture?
A good question is, do Christians even need a canon of Scripture? In fact, there has never been one that all Christians have accepted. This seems evidence enough that a canon (a rule, or norm) of Scripture is not necessary. Perhaps the whole idea of a Christian canon of Scripture ought to be forgotten, or remain a subject only for historians. However, if there is going to be a canon of Scripture, the Reformers appear not to have been justified in completely removing the apocryphal books. They could have followed the custom adopted later by several publishers of Protestant Bibles, of including the books along with explanatory notes. Even the Roman Church had itself only given the apocrypha a kind of second place, calling the books deuterocanonical (“[in the] second canon”), as opposed to the rest of the Bible, which is referred to as protocanonical (“[in the] first canon”). Also, an important and perhaps decisive belief of most Reformers and Protestants was that the Apocryphal books had not originally been written in Hebrew. As we shall see below, we now know that was incorrect information for at least much of the Apocrypha.
Examining the issue of the deuterocanonicals (the Apocrypha)
order to understand some of the issues surrounding the deuterocanonicals, it is
necessary to consider a first century Jewish council, the Jamnia (or Jayney)
Council. From there, it is well to consider the decision to include the
deuterocanonical books in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Finally, issues raised by
Reformers and Protestants to defend their exclusion of the apocrypha from the
canon should be examined. One very important issue will be whether the
deuterocanonical (the Catholic term) or apocryphal (the Protestant term) books
were originally written in Hebrew. As we will see, some decisions regarding
inclusion of books into the canon of Scripture were based on incorrect
The Jamnia “Council”
There is some interesting and important information on Jamnia on page 1040 of Prentice Hall's "The New Jerome Biblical Commentary" [NJBC], 1990, edited by Raymond E. Brown et al. It is information usually omitted in books on the canon of Scripture. It may be puzzling to people that very different dates are given for the "Council of Jamnia." Usually the dates range from 90 A.D. to 100 A.D. The reason for the confusion is that there was no actual council as we ordinarily think of a council, and no formal action was taken. The usual thesis is that there was a standing group (council) of authoritative rabbis at Jamnia who, sometime about 90 to 100 A.D., arrived at a consensus and settled once and for all what came to be known as the "Palestinian Canon," consisting of the OT books now called protocanonical (Catholic) or canonical (Protestant). But this thesis has been subjected to attacks on several counts. First, no one has ever provided evidence that an actual list of books was drawn up at Jamnia. Second, it is accepted that certain books were recognized as sacred by the "council of Jamnia," but it is not clear whether they numbered 22 or 24. Third, specific discussions at Jamnia of possible acceptance are only attested for with respect to Ecclesiastes and Canticles (Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon), two canonical books. And debates over those two books, and also about Esther, were known to have gone on for decades after the "council of Jamnia" had [supposedly] settled the question. Fourth, until the end of the second century various Jewish groups continued to read, as sacred, books not included in the 22 (or 24) of Jamnia. [The NJBC gives references to original articles on the subject of Jamnia.]
Inclusion of Deuterocanonical Books in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate
It is well known that Jerome’s recommendation to Pope Damasus was that the apocryphal books not be included in the Vulgate. Jerome’s primary reason was that a Hebrew origination could not be known for certain. But Jerome did express his opinion that some of the apocrypha might have been originally written in Hebrew. In particular, he thought that it was very possible that 1 Maccabees was authored in Hebrew.
Pope Damasus, however, didn’t settle for Jerome’s opinion. Instead, he canvassed the leading theologians of the period and determined that most thought the deuterocanonical books should be included in the Vulgate. Jerome, obediently to Damasus’ resulting instructions, included the books. Since that decision, Catholic Bibles have always included the deuterocanonical books. The Vulgate itself was the primary Bible for the Church for more than a thousand years. [Despite some popular ideas to the contrary, no canon of Scripture was officially defined by the Catholic Church, however, until the Council of Trent defined the canon on April 8, 1546.]
The Reformers’ [and Protestants’] Old Testament Canon
Although Catholic Bibles have continually included the deuterocanonical books since the time of Jerome, nearly every age has seen at least a small number of critics who have questioned the wisdom of including them. But the Reformers raised the debate to new decibels. Most students know that Trent's decisions to officially define the canon was a reaction to the Reformers. What is less well known is that the Reformers attacks on the Roman canon were themselves [in part] a reaction to Catholicism, namely a reaction to a few areas of the Roman Church's theology. The most well known issues in this regard were (1) the efficacy of prayers for the dead, and (2) the idea of purgatory. Both of these ideas had the support of the Rome, and both ideas supposedly found their support in the apocrypha. We wouldn't gain much from going into those theological disputes.
Arguments of the Reformers Unrelated to Theological Doctrines
the other arguments of the Reformers for excluding the apocrypha? Besides the
alleged bad theology, there were some other arguments made. They included (1)
the opinions of Origen (d. 254) and Jerome (d. 420), (2) the rejection of the
books by the Jews, (3) the idea that the apocryphal books had not been authored
in Hebrew, and (4) the lack of internal claims of divine inspiration, and the
presence of verses in 2 Maccabees that refer to human efforts expended in
composing the book.
Let’s look at the four arguments unrelated to theological opinions on such things as prayers for the dead and purgatory.
The opinion of Origen and Jerome
First, why should the opinions of [only] Origen and Jerome be decisive? Why, for example, shouldn’t the opinions of all the theologians canvassed by Pope Damasus count? What should really count are the reasons offered by Jerome and others for excluding the books. The celebrity status of certain opponents of the books should not matter. After all, no-one ever suggested that Origen and Jerome were infallible. They weren’t even popes.
Jewish rejection of the Apocryphal books
Second, the [Catholic] Church correctly did not and does not rely on the opinion of Jewish rabbis at the Jamnia Council. Those rabbis were on a purism kick. Their motivation was to preserve the Jewish identity following the dispersion of Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. And the Jews’ identity had to be kept separate, most of all, from Christians. People had begun referring to the Christians as a sect of the Jews, a most unpopular idea among the rabbis at Jamnia! Since the Babylonian captivity, it had been the policy of the Jews to rely especially on four things to maintain a distinct Jewish identity: the Sabbath, circumcision of males, dietary laws, and the Hebrew language. It was the desire to enforce the use of Hebrew, and the desire to preserve the Jewish identity - especially as distinct from Christians - that motivated the Jamnia “council” to reject the Greek Septuagint, which [nearly always] included the apocryphal books.
But should the Jew’s acceptance of a [Hebrew] canon of Scripture, especially when the motivation behind it was to maintain the Jewish identity as separate from Christians, be decisive in determining a Christian canon of Scripture? For many, the answer is decided when they consider this: when Old Testament texts in which the Hebrew and Greek versions differ are quoted in the New Testament, more than three-quarters of the time it is the Greek version that is quoted. This seems to indicate that the New Testament authors, and very likely Jesus and the apostles, respected and used the Septuagint. [The word “Septuagint” refers to the Greek versions of the period. They were not all identical in every respect. But the vast majority are thought to have included at least most of the apocrypha.]
The question of language of authorship
Third, lets look at the Hebrew question. As I said above, even Jerome had expressed the opinion that some of the apocrypha might have been authored in Hebrew. Now, with greater knowledge than Jerome had, the answer has become clear. Much of the apocrypha was originally written in Hebrew.
Let me quote from a few articles in Abingdon's excellent "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," 1971, edited by Charles M. Laymon, Chairman, Department of Religion, Florida Southern College.
From an article on 1 Maccabees by George A. F. Knight, President of Pacific Theological College: "The book has come down to us in Greek. But that is certainly a translation from the original Hebrew text. The story of a war for the recovery of the sacred things of Yahweh would most likely be written in the sacred language. Moreover, examples of idiomatic Hebrew phrases occur translated literally into Greek." (page588) And later, "The historical reasons for rejecting 1 Maccabees are no longer valid. The Jewish authorities were not willing to canonize a work which, by the end of the 1st Christian century, they thought was not originally written in the sacred language, Hebrew; at first the church accepted this Jewish criterion." (page 590)
From an article on Judith by H. Neil Richardson, Professor of Old Testament at Boston University School of Theology: "Though the earliest extant text is in Greek there is wide agreement that the book was composed originally in Hebrew. The Greek text regularly reproduces Hebrew syntax and idiomatic expressions, and some difficult expressions are best explained by assuming an erroneous translation of the Hebrew." (page 536)
From an article on Baruch by Stanley Brice Frost, Professor of Old Testament Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research at McGill University, Montreal: "This book - sometimes designated as 1 Baruch in distinction from the Apocalypse of Baruch, which is then 2 Baruch - consists of 3 parts (1:1-3:8; 3:9-4:4; 4:5-5:9) which can be recognized as originally independent. The book is extant in Greek and in several translations from the Greek, but almost certainly at least the first 2 parts [1:1-4:4] were composed in Hebrew." (page 577)
From an article on 2 Esdras by Robert C. Dentan, Trinity Church Professor of Old Testament Literature and Interpretation, General Theological Seminary, N.Y., N.Y.: "Chapters 3-14 [of 16] were originally written in Hebrew - less likely Aramaic - and subsequently translated into Greek." (page 521)
So, it appears that any basis for rejecting all of the deuterocanonical books because the language of origin was not Hebrew has evaporated. Much of the apocrypha was originally written in Hebrew, as a study of Hebrew idioms [often incorrectly interpreted literally in the Septuagint] has made clear. But, even if one doesn’t accept that, here’s another question: Why should it ever be supposed that God could (or would) write in only one language (or two, if you count the small amount of Aramaic in the OT) before the coming of Jesus?
The lack of claims of divine inspiration
Fourth, and finally, let’s look at the other reason offered by Reformers and Protestants for rejecting the apocrypha. It is the absence of internal claims of inspiration, and the appearance of two sections in 2 Maccabees that suggest that the book is not divinely inspired, but only of human origin.
It is very easy to answer the argument of Protestants that the apocryphal books have no sufficient internal claims of divine inspiration. The fact is, most books of the Protestant Bible contain no claims of divine inspiration. Why should there be a double standard? If the apocrypha is to be rejected on such grounds, then most books of the Protestant Bible would also have to be rejected.
Now, let’s look at the specific case usually cited, that of 2 Maccabees. Reformers and Protestants have rejected this book largely on account of two portions, the narrator’s preface (2:19-32), and the compiler-editor’s personal remarks (15:38-39). The argument is that these two portions indicate that the book could not have been divinely inspired. The two portions are very interesting! Even though the first portion is long, 14 verses, it is definitely worth reading both portions in order to be able to judge the validity of the claim that these portions show that 2 Maccabees could not have been inspired by God. Here they are:
First, the narrator’s preface (2:19-32): “The story of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, and the purification of the great temple, and the dedication of the altar, and further the wars against Antiochus Epiphanes and his son Eupator, and the appearances that came from heaven to those who fought bravely for Judaism, so that though few in number they seized the whole land and pursued the barbarian hordes, and regained possession of the temple famous throughout the world, and liberated the city, and re-established the laws that were about to be abolished, while the Lord with great kindness became gracious to them – all this, which has been set forth by Jason of Cyrene in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book. For considering the flood of statistics involved and the difficulty there is for those who wish to enter upon the narratives of history because of the mass of material, we have aimed to please those who wish to read, to make it easy for those who are inclined to memorize, and to profit all readers. For us, who have undertaken the toil of abbreviating, it is no light matter but calls for sweat and loss of sleep, just as it is not easy for one who prepares a banquet and seeks the benefit of others. Nevertheless, to secure the gratitude of many we will gladly endure the uncomfortable toil, leaving the responsibility for exact details to the compiler, while devoting our effort to arriving at the outlines of the condensation. For as the master builder of a new house must be concerned with the whole construction, and decoration has to consider only what is suitable for its adornment, such in my judgment is the case with us. It is the duty of the original historian to occupy the ground, to discuss matters from every side, and to take trouble with details, but the one who recasts the narrative should be allowed to strive for brevity of expression and to forego exhaustive treatment. At this point therefore let us begin our narrative, without adding any more to what has already been said; for it would be foolish to lengthen the preface while cutting short the history itself.” (NRSV)
Second, the compiler-editor’s personal remarks (15:38-39): “If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do. For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end.” (NRSV)
The narrator and compiler-editor of 2 Maccabees are much to be admired for their frank remarks regarding their labors and processes that, according to a huge majority of modern Bible scholars, were very similar to the labors and processes used in the composing of many books in both the Old and New Testaments.
It’s interesting that Protestants claim that 2 Maccabees could not have been divinely inspired, based on the above evidence, and yet they accept all of 1 Corinthians 7 as divinely inspired even though Paul says in that chapter that he is writing some of his own ideas, and that they may not be God’s.
Settling the question among Reformers and Protestants
Whether the Reformers' vehemence and complete elimination of the apocrypha were justified is a still-debated question. It should be noted that the Reformers were never a monolithic group. Their official recognition of a canon of Scripture came in a series of Protestant “Confessions,” some of the most important being: the French Confession of Faith (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563, only OT books listed), and The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). Many important Lutheran confessions of faith have not recognized a canon of Scripture, primarily due to the example of Luther, and doubts about “tradition.” Luther did not really accept a canon of Scripture. He merely acquiesced to the feelings of others and included the apocrypha, and what he felt were four doubtful books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation), in his published editions of the Bible. [I was taught that he placed the four disputed books in the back, but lately I’ve learned that he may not have always done that, except for Jude and Revelation which would of course be in the back even in the traditional order of books.]
Fate of Apocrypha for English speaking Protestants
settled for more than two centuries in 1629
In any case, it now seems that the fate of the apocrypha was settled for English speaking Protestants when the rebellion among certain religious groups forced the removal of the apocrypha from the KJV, which from 1611 to 1629 had been published with the apocrypha included. For more than two hundred years following the removal of the apocrypha from the KJV, extremely few English Bibles were printed [for Protestants] with the apocrypha included.
An interesting paradox for Protestants
Let me end by pointing out something that seems peculiar. Many Protestants heavily rely on the Synod of Hippo (393 CE), and the third and sixth Councils of Carthage (397 and 419) to support their New Testament canon (the same as the Catholic NT canon). However, since all three of those councils were only regional councils, they had no authority to decide on a canon for the entire Church. In any case, those three councils should be offered only as one piece of evidence shedding light on a possible tradition, only one because all three councils were thoroughly dominated by a single individual, Augustine. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Protestant reliance on these three councils for a NT canon is that those councils also endorsed including the deuterocanonical books in the canon of Scripture. Why do Protestants cite those councils as authorities for their New Testament canon, and yet reject the opinion of the same three councils regarding the Old Testament? How could the members at those councils have been so smart in one area of the canon, and such fools in another?