Britain during the 1960s and 1970s suffered from a Prime Minister named Harold Wilson. Once, when Wilson was to read the lesson at Westminster Abbey, the clergy involved asked him which version of the Bible he would like to use – King James, Revised, which one? Flustered, Wilson supposedly replied that he would read from the Word of God.

That question of “which Bible” is actually more confusing that many Christians think. Around the world, the canon of the Bible varies substantially, in the New Testament, and often spectacularly in the Old. Now, it might be easy to dismiss the opinions of some ancient but tiny Oriental churches, but other bodies pose quite different issues.

Of all the world’s churches, the one with the canon that differs most radically from the standard US Protestant version is Ethiopia’s truly ancient Tewahedo church, which commands the loyalty of some 45 million people. This is rather more than the number of all US Baptists of all denominations combined. Among many other distinctive features, the Tewahedo Old Testament includes Enoch and Jubilees – both truly bizarre works by the standards of mainline Western Christianity.

But we don’t have to travel to Africa or the Middle East to find quite different concepts of the Biblical canon. Today’s Protestant Bible would seem remarkably short to many Christians around the world, and indeed to past Protestant generations. In my next couple of posts, I’ll be discussing the implications of some of the books that have dropped out of memory in fairly recent times. Some of them really do deserve to be known and appreciated much more widely.

The main difference involves the so-called Second Canon, the Deuterocanonical books. As used in the Roman Catholic Church, these include such texts as Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), 1 and 2 Maccabees, Baruch, and some additional passages in Daniel. These works were not formally included in the Hebrew Bible as fully canonical, although they had appeared in the Septuagint.

Different churches had accepted them from the early Christian centuries. Occasionally, some scholars would protest against their inclusion in the Christian canon – Jerome was hostile. But these critics admitted that they were in a small minority, and the church’s overwhelming consensus won out over time.

Even medieval Proto-Protestants like the Waldensians not only accepted and read these books, but seemingly treated them as among their favorite sections of the Bible. They loved stories like Maccabees and Tobit, and venerated the main characters as Christian role-models.

Modern Western Protestants may well have heard of these books, and think of them under the general title of “apocrypha.” For most non-Protestant churches around the world, though, they are not apocryphal, but fully accredited components of the canon, which are read in the liturgy. This is true of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as Oriental Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian. If such matters were ever to be decided by raw numbers of Christians worldwide, then the Deuterocanon would win by something like a three to one margin. The Roman Catholic Church alone, by far the world’s single largest religious body, accounts for some 55 percent of Christians.

Just how Protestants came to lose these books is a curious story. Reformation-era debates over the Bible naturally focused on issues of canon. The Reformers naturally held to the most stringent standards of inclusion, which usually meant accepting the familiar Jewish definition of the Hebrew Bible. After some disagreement at the Council of Trent, Catholics fully accepted the Deuterocanon, a term coined in the 1560s by Sixtus of Siena. Although historical interpretations decided the two positions, Catholics also favored books favorable to their theology, and Protestants accordingly disliked these same works. One text in Maccabees, for instance, supports the idea of prayers for the dead.

But excluding books from the Protestant canon certainly did not mean abandoning them overnight. Most early Bibles did indeed include the “Deuteros,” but segregated in a special section of apocrypha, sandwiched between the Old and New Testaments. This was the solution of Luther (1534) and it was followed by the Geneva Bible, the standard English text for most mainstream Anglicans and Puritans alike for a century after its publication in 1560. (It was many years before the King James overtook it in popularity).

Church authorities were careful to stress that these books should not be taken as fully authoritative. In 1563, for instance, the 39 Articles of the Church of England listed these “other Books (as [Jerome] saith) [that] the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” The Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647 was tougher still, declaring that “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of 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.”

Even so, these texts were included in Bibles and were presented in exactly the same manner as the canonical books, in similar typeface and appearance. The books continued to have authority and religious significance, and the stories they told remained widely known. I could give countless examples, but let me take one English moment. In 1746, the Duke of Cumberland returned to London after bloodily defeating the Jacobite rebellion. Handel composed an oratorio for the occasion, and naturally turned to the Bible for an appropriate story of a heroic general fighting for his nation and faith against a pagan foe. Also, the story had to be a famous piece well known to a Protestant audience. Where else would he turn, then, but to the story of Judas Maccabaeus? Patriots of the American Revolution loved the story of Maccabees.

English-speaking Protestants lost the Deuterocanon not through any calculated theological decision, but through publishing accident, and at quite a recent date. Prior to the early nineteenth century, Anglo-American Bibles included the apocryphal section, but this dropped out as printers sought to produce more and cheaper editions. Increasingly too, during the nineteenth century, anti-Catholic sentiment encouraged Protestants to draw a sharp line between the two variant Bibles. If Catholics esteemed books like Maccabees and Wisdom, there must be something terribly wrong with them.

As I have noted elsewhere, the sudden loss of those books had unexpected consequences: “That timing meant that when Protestant missionaries set out for Africa and Asia, the Apocrypha did not feature in the Bibles they carried with them, and those texts never had much impact on emerging churches. Over time, though, new converts compared notes, and some were startled to find the disparity between Protestant and Catholic Bibles. On occasion, those converts became suspicious about the explanations that missionaries offered for the differences. Some asked whether their pastors were keeping whole parts of the Bible secret, presumably for their own selfish ends.”

For whatever reason, then, Protestants over the past century have tended not to know these works. Not only is the OT apocrypha missing from modern Protestant versions  – above all, the NIV – it is not even a ghostly presence, in the form of an explanatory note. I have one NIV Study Bible that offers a couple of dismissive lines on why these books are missing. Seemingly, they contribute nothing to what we learn from the rest of scripture, and are historically wildly inaccurate – in contrast, say, to the still-canonical (and highly dubious) Esther.

These stories, then, have vanished from consciousness. Although modern Protestants very likely know the Maccabean story, it is almost always  in the Jewish context, in terms of the origins of Hanukah. This is a critical distinction. Although Christians fully acknowledge the Jewish dimensions of (for instance) the Exodus or the Exile in Babylon, these stories have been fully integrated into the Christian narrative. Maccabees, in contrast, is now viewed as a Jewish scripture, and no longer part of “our own” Bible.

Similarly, when I consult my library catalogue for Margarita Stocker’s 1998 book on Judith (Judith: Sexual Warrior – Women And Power In Western Culture), the subject heading is “Judith (Jewish Heroine).” Generally, we don’t consign Moses or Isaiah to the category of “Jewish Religious Figures.”

The situation is almost Orwellian. Not only have these books dropped out of Bibles in which they once were included, but it’s as if they had never existed in the first place.

As I’ll suggest, that Protestant amnesia is a real misfortune. These books offer some real treasures.


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  • Antiphon411

    “The Reformers naturally held to the most stringent standards of inclusion, which usually meant accepting the familiar Jewish definition of the Hebrew Bible.”

    Why would this be “natural”? Were the “Reformers” Jews?

    “…Catholics also favored books favorable to their theology…”

    It might be more accurate to say that Catholic theology is derived from the entire canon of Sacred Scripture, so naturally they kept the entire canon as they kept their entire theology. When the so-called “Reformers” started to pick and choose doctrines they necessarily had to remove inconvenient books of the Bible, just as they did with the sacraments.

  • philipjenkins

    I should properly have said that both sides tended to favor books favorable to their theology, although they could only take that taste so far. The Reformers were looking for what they believed to be the most stringent standard, and found it in the Hebrew canon. Not of course because they were Jews or vaguely favorable to Jews – Luther was a monster in these matters. But they were looking for what they thought was the oldest and strictest critical standard.

  • Robert Kraft

    In their attempt to get back to “original Christianity,” the reformers assumed that the Bible of Jesus and his earliest followers, being Jewish, was the Jewish scriptures. We now know that this is inaccurate — canon establishment came later for both Jews and Christians — but it caused the reformers no to accept as scriptural those books not found in the traditional Jewish scriptures.

  • jgirolamo

    Interesting article. I agree that some of the teachings in these books are good. I guess the questions for me are; Do we question the men praying for Gods wisdom at the council of nicaea if they heard from God ? should books that have contradictory statements to other books be regarded as doctrine? and do numbers really matter when it comes to the people who used these books? There are probably millions of gnostic believers also, should we then assume the gnostic gospels have credance ?

    Why do we have to question the wisdom of the catholics and jews when they themselves determined these books were never regarded as sacred scripture until the catholics in the council of trent decided they were important because they supported certain RCC doctrine?

    Here are some reasons I have found:

    The Roman Catholic Church did not officially canonize the Apocrypha until the Council of Trent (1546 AD). This was in part because the Apocrypha contained material which supported certain Catholic doctrines, such as purgatory, praying for the dead, and the treasury of merit.

    Not one of them is in the Hebrew language, which was alone used by the inspired historians and poets of the Old Testament.

    Not one of the writers lays any claim to inspiration.

    These books were never acknowledged as sacred Scriptures by the Jewish Church, and therefore were never sanctioned by our Lord.

    They were not allowed a place among the sacred books, during the first four centuries of the Christian Church.

    They contain fabulous statements, and statements which contradict not only the canonical Scriptures, but themselves; as when, in the two Books of Maccabees, Antiochus Epiphanes is made to die three different deaths in as many different places.

    The Apocrypha inculcates doctrines at variance with the Bible, such as prayers for the dead and sinless perfection.

    Here are some examples of questionable understanding of the character of God:

    The apocrypha contains offensive materials unbecoming of God’s authorship.

    Ecclesiasticus 25:19 Any iniquity is insignificant compared to a wife’s iniquity.

    Ecclesiasticus 25:24 From a woman sin had its beginning. Because of her we all die.

    Ecclesiasticus 22:3 It is a disgrace to be the father of an undisciplined, and the birth of a daughter is a loss.

    Just thoughts as to why we at least need to keep a check on any epiphany we might have regarding legitimate sources of doctrinal truth.

  • philipjenkins

    With respect, I really don’t understand the objection about not being
    written in Hebrew. It doesn’t stop us from accepting the Greek New Testament! We know that the Septuagint is an ancient (third century BC) text of the Bible as accepted by Alexandria’s Jews, and that includes the Deuterocanon as well as several some others that I have not even mentioned, eg the Letter of Jeremiah. Although scholars used to think that differences between the Septuagint and the received Hebrew tradition resulted from simple bad translation, most now think that the translators were using a common alternative version of the Hebrew that circulated in that era. So the Septuagint is not to be dismissed lightly.

  • jgirolamo

    The books of the apocrypha are old testament. Therefore would need to be accepted first by the jews and therefore written in hebrew. But that is the least of the controversy surrounding this issue.

  • jgirolamo

    I thought I replied but something went wrong. Anyway, I don’t thinkThe Jews would have had accepted sacred scripture that was written in greek, that is what was meant in the previous post. But this is actually the least of the objections.

  • John UK

    jgirolamo wrote:

    Why do we have to question the wisdom of the catholics and jews when
    they themselves determined these books were never regarded as sacred
    scripture until the catholics in the council of trent decided they were
    important because they supported certain RCC doctrine?

    Christians in the Council of Carthage, 397, affirmed the canonicity of the books of the Old Testament as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua son of
    Nun, Judges, Ruth, 4 books of Kingdoms, 2 books of Chronicles, Job, the
    Davidic Psalter, 5 books of Solomon, 12 books of Prophets, Isaiah,
    Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, 2 books of Ezra,
    2 books of Maccabees,

    Jerome had earlier cast doubts on those books only appearing in the Septuagint, but it would appear that he was relying on the Jewish Hebrew Canon, which had not been fixed until after the time of Christ.
    The Septuagint, on the other hand, had been circulated in Christ’s own earhtly lifetime, and would have been a versaion he knew, Greek being the common language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire at the time.

    It would appear that some of the Reformers completely rejected the deutero-canonical books, some accepted them, and others like the Anglican Church and Luther “sat on the fence” andadmitted them as useful for instruction.

    Kind regards,

  • bdlaacmm

    Keep in mind that in every single instance, without exception, whenever the “Old Testament” is quoted in the New, the authors quote from the Septuagint – and the Septuagint included the Deuterocanonical books. It is therefore practically certain that the Apostles and first Christians regarded the seven books excluded by today’s Protestants as canonical.

    Even Jesus Himself quotes from them! His parable of the foolish rich man (Luke 12:16-21) is lifted almost word for word from Sirach 11:18-19. The Letter to the Hebrews quotes extensively from Maccabees and Tobit. there are many, many other examples, but these should suffice.

  • jgirolamo

    Ask yourself if anything in these writings contradicts other sacred writings that have been used by jews and christians even before the council of trent. Just look into it. IT has MAN infused all over it, not God. The inspired word from God would reflect his character and be consistent with all other sacred writings.

  • Observer

    The Church didn’t officially canonize it til then, because it wasn’t in dispute til then.

  • Peter H

    The whole world needs more Harold Wilsons today!

  • Jim

    Concordia Publishing, the official publishing house of the LCMS recently published an ESV version of the Apocrypha. It’s not included with the ESV Bible, but is published with the same Bible-looking cover and print as their ESV Lutheran Study Bible.

  • philipjenkins

    I fear your opinion shows clear signs of demonic inspiration.

  • bdlaacmm


    I guess you and I have quite differing views of exactly what Scripture is. It ALL has “man” written all over it. The letters of Paul? The court histories of Samuel and Kings? The very human cries of anguish in the Psalms? The ecstasy of the Song of Songs or the despair of Ecclesiastes? All are absolutely SOAKED in their humanity – and thank God for that!

    The Bible is not the Koran or the Book of Mormon. It was not handed down on golden plates or dictated word for word into the ears of the prophets. I wouldn’t give it a second glance if it claimed to be such!

  • echarles1

    As a Catholic I did not know growing up that the Protestants used a different set of books for their Bible. Catholic still, I am glad we do. But the writer usefully demonstrates that non-Canonical is not the same as to be without value which even with the larger Catholic Bible still encompasses a number of works.

  • $16977560

    Interesting. I have an NRSV Study Bible which includes some books not found in RC Bibles even.
    And, while I find certain of his opinions dubious at best, Bart Ehrman has done profitable work in the works that never made it into modern Bibles.

  • Jamie Jones

    The Apocrapha was the basis for medieval Catholic doctrine which the Reformers rejected, especially the doctrine of “purgatory” which is based on obscure passage in II Maccabees. Moreove, since the synagogue rejected the Apocrapha, why should the church accept it? Thus the Protestant Bibles have omitted the Apocrapha, publishing them as a separate compendium.

  • jgirolamo

    What i meant was that much of what is in there does not represent the character of God. The others that were cannonized do. I dont believe the Bible is God, but I do believe it is inerrant and inspired. It is our standard that keeps us from believing false doctrine.

  • Benjamin Guyer

    Last night, I read through some of the canon lists in the first volume of The New Testament Apocrypha. I knew that the Apocalypse of Peter was used in the Ethiopian Orthodox church still today, but had no idea that it showed up in Western canon lists through at least the eighth century. Yet Nicephorus, the ninth century Patriarch of Constantinople, wanted almost all of the deuterocanonical books excised from the canon. Perhaps Walter Benjamin is correct, and the interlinear Bible is the supreme manifestation of the inspired Word?

  • frjohnmorris

    The New Testament quoted from the Septuagint because that was the version of the Old Testament used by the ancient Church. It is actually a much older version of the Old Testament than the Masoretic Hebrew text used by Protestants. The LXX is still the official Old Testament of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church does not place what Protestants call the Apocrypha on the same level as the other books, but calls them The Readable Books.

  • Peter Long

    see articles at

  • John UK

    Jamie wrote:

    Moreove, since the synagogue rejected the Apocrapha, why should the church accept it?

    Beacus the books of the Septuagint were those known to and used by Christ. The “synagogue” (by which I assume you mean the Jewish faith?) did not come to a common mind as to which books were to be included in the Canon until well after the time of Christ, possibly as late as A.D.400.

    Kind regards,

  • bdlaacmm

    I’ve always believed that the phrase “inerrancy of scripture” really means “my interpretation of scripture is inerrant.” I dislike the term intensely, because the term itself is subject to interpretation which can be very much in error, and is far too easily abused.

    Too many false doctrines have been promulgated by individuals who believed they were inerrantly interpreting scripture (most often by taking passages out of context). For example, one can easily justify outlawing interracial marriage on the basis of reading only Ezra and Nehemiah. So I don’t think you should be overly worried about taking something in the 7 Deuterocanonical books in isolation from the whole of Scripture. You can already do that with the other 66 books!

  • jgirolamo

    I figured by your stance that you don’t believe in the inerrancey of scripture. But even within erroneous interpretations there is far more of a danger to not have a standard to line all false teachings up with. And if one does and honest exegesis of ALL of scripture, the context will not contradict given interpretations. But I personally am not overly worried about the 7 other books but I would caution people to look at things like, “the birth of a daughter is a loss.” , praying for the dead, ect.. Just some of these things attempt to explain the mind of God yet this goes against what other scripture conveys. Even the new testament , jude, makes reference to the testament of moses and enoch. these are respected writings but by their own authors admission , not inspired.

  • Nate

    It’s worth noting that there is no common “Protestant” position on this issue. The Evangelical Catholic (Lutheran) churches of the Reformation continued to use the Deuterocanon in her liturgy, and continued to print them in their copies of Holy Scripture until the 1800s (yes, at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures). Also, Lutherans have never dogmatically defined what belongs in “the Canon.”

  • philipjenkins

    The way in which Jude cites Enoch makes it clear that he DOES regard it as inspired prophecy, on a par with any other scripture.

  • jgirolamo

    Not true at all. Paul quotes greek poets in acts 17:28 “in him we live and move and have our being.” He does this to get their attention by the same expression to Jupiter. This does not mean this hymn or quote is inspired.

  • philipjenkins

    I see. And does Paul say that Zeus “prophesied”? No. But that is the word that Jude uses of Enoch. Read the text. You only use that word if you are dealing with inspired scripture.

    Therefore, Jude believes Enoch is inspired.

    It’s clear enough. Why is it an issue anyway?

  • jgirolamo

    Jude, in confirming the truth of Enochs prophesy does not mean he endorsed the entire book of Enoch. Also,These books were not included in the first LLX. F.F. Bruce said that “there is no evidence that these books were ever regarded as canonical by any Jews, whether inside or outside Palestine, whether they read the Bible in hebrew or in Greek.”

    None these books claim inspiration. They offer many contradictions and in Ecclesiasticus, the writer actually confesses non-inspiration.
    But like I said earlier I dont have a major problem with them if regarded as additional traditional teachings, there are so many more dangerous issues. My hesitency is allowing something to be authoritative when it contradicts other parts of scripture and promotes immoral behavior. When we use the Bible to test false doctrine against to stay on the path of truth, we have to be careful about what people are measuring truth by. Paul and Peter as well as John spoke about how easily it is for our ears to be tickled with false doctrine that feels good.

  • philipjenkins

    I don’t think there’s any point arguing this further. Look at any credible commentary on the Catholic Epistles (or the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha) and you will see that yes, Jude cites Enoch as scripture.

    Actually, one final thing. Can I strongly recommend the standard book on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the massive two volume collection edited by James Charlesworth? You’ll find it well worth your while.

  • jgirolamo

    We can call it an end. I dont consider it an argument, just a discussion or debate. But I think the last post I made explains why it is not nor ever was considered “inspired scripture”. I have read other writings that completly disagree with factual backing. Personally all i have to do is read the books and realize they contradict and go against things that God calls wrong. Therefore it makes no sense to use it as an authoritative , inspired wrting.

  • bdlaacmm

    “I figured by your stance that you don’t believe in the inerrancy of scripture.”

    No, you have read way more into my statement than was there. What I don’t believe is that the phrase “inerrancy of scripture” is itself at all meaningful or helpful to any discussion. It advances nothing, explains nothing, settles nothing.

    If I said that I believed in the “inerrancy of scripture” (which I very much do), we still have the problem of what you and I actually mean by that statement – i.e., how we interpret it. And it could be that one of our interpretations may be just plain wrong. So yes, I don’t like the phrase, and don’t use it in an argument/discussion.

  • jgirolamo

    Okay, you dont have to use it but I choose to. If God came incarnated to atone for our sins, which he did, if he entrusted a group of abandoned, praying men to put together the Bible and call it “Gods Word, which he did, then I choose to believe it is his word and that Gods word would be inerrant . I am not hesitant at all to claim that. The error in interpretation of course lies with man. An honest exegesis will enable a person to interpret scripture without major contradiction. The problem mostly lies in traditional teachings. But the fact that two people can interpret scripture differently does not make it errant. Therefore since God inspired it I have to believe that it can be interpreted literally where it should be and figuratively where it should be while still allowing for some of the text to be understood as ambiguous.

  • The resurrection of the body — a perfectly good Protestant doctrine — does not appear until fairly late in the period that the OT and Apocrypha were being written. It is unsurprising that in chapter 12, the author of 2 Maccabees goes on a polemic against those who deny the resurrection of the body. It isn’t about the Romish doctrine of purgatory at all.

    That some mediaeval bishop of Rome twisted 2 Maccabees so that he could sell indulgences to fund his building programme reflects on the mediaeval papacy, not on 2 Maccabees. Protestants shouldn’t concede these books to Roman Catholics.

  • infowolf1

    one of these books, I think it is Baruch, has a prophecy of The Incarnation of God so should probably be included as outright first canon.

  • infowolf1

    the passage in Maccabees does not support purgatory as distinct from hell or even address the issue. They ask God to have mercy on these men at the Last judgement, like Paul asks God have mercy on Onesiphorus “on that day.” RC uses NT cites for purgatory but in context they are about the last judgement of believers and unbelievers.

  • infowolf1

    the issue is how you interpret the inerrant Scripture. assurance of salvation of the once saved always saved sort, or no punishment for the viler believers is refuted by Matthew chapter 25

  • infowolf1

    a synagogue ruin was found with evidence of at least one deuterocanonical use. none promote immoral behavior. Jude may have cited Enoch because they were using it to argue faith and behavior are not important only lack of nephilim blood.