WALK into your local bookstore chain and ask an associate where you can find the section with the “sacred scriptures.” What do you think would happen? They won’t look at you funny but instead will walk you to a section full of books. On several shelves you will find the Tanach of Judaism (the Old Testament); the Qur’an of Islam, and maybe even the Hadith for Sunni Muslims; the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Vedas of Hinduism; the Tao-te-ching of Taoism; The Analects of Confucianism; and even the Bible, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox versions with the so-called Apocrypha, and Protestant versions with just the Old and New Testaments. With all those choices, how do you know which one to take down off the shelf?
Why is it so important to know which book is Scripture? For example, the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent decreed on April 8, 1546, that what are known as the apocryphal books—Esdras, Tobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1–2 Maccabees—are canonical. They went on to declare that those who do not receive the Old Testament, New Testament, and the apocryphal books in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, and Rome’s many traditions are anathema—condemned. It’s important to know which books are Scripture not only because this is a debate between Rome and us but also in a multicultural world we need to know where we can hear the voice of God.
In a well-known story of Jesus after His resurrection, we read in Luke 24 how he preached Himself from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:27, 44). From these three parts of the Old Testament Jesus proclaimed His death and resurrection. Note well how He equates the law, the prophets, and the writings with “the Scriptures” (vv. 27, 44; cf. 45, 46). In a word, the books within these divisions were “canonical.”
The ancient Greek word kanōn was used for a ruler or a measuring line. When opposition arose in the ancient church to which books were the Word of God for the church, the church adapted this word to describe which books were within the canon. An ancient document known as the Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae, the synopsis or summary of sacred Scripture, said, “All of our Christian Scriptures are inspired by God, and these books are not indefinite but set apart and designated as canonical.” We also use the word canon in another sense. As William Whitaker said, “The books of scripture are called canonical, because they contain the standard and rule of our faith and morals.” The Word functions in the church as the standard of truth and error.
So how do you and I know which books belong in the Bible? In particular, are the apocryphal books of the Roman church canonical?
Jesus and the Jews Did Not Recognize Them
The canon of Scripture is closed to the apocryphal books of the Roman church because Jesus and the Jews did not recognize them. We see Jesus in Luke 24 following the Jewish distinction of books within the Old Testament. What this means, then, is that He did not consider any other books to be canonical. Against our Roman Catholic friends, all we need to do is point them to this text and tell them that we are following Jesus. And Jesus, as a Jew, was following the tradition of the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus said, “For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us . . . but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine . . . for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them” (Against Apion 1.8).
But why did the Jews not receive any other books into the Old Testament than those we have in our Bibles? First, the apocryphal books were not written in the language of the Jews, Hebrew. The apocryphal books, instead, were written in Greek, which testified to their being foreign books much later than the period of the prophets. Second, all the apocryphal books came after the writing of the prophet Malachi. Malachi’s prophecy ends with the expectation of Elijah’s return to herald the coming of the Lord Himself. Third, the style and matter of the apocryphal books testify of their human origin and not their divine origin. Let me give you a brief list of the errors and absurdities contained in the Apocrypha.
The book of Judith calls Nebuchadnezzar king of Nineveh, although Scripture and history call him the king of Babylon.
The book of Wisdom attributes the Olympics to the days of Solomon (who reigned 970–930 B.C.), although they did not exist until the days of the Greek Empire.
In Bel and the Dragon, Daniel proves to the king that his god is really no god at all, only a fierce dragon. He proves this by showing that the king’s god does not eat the daily food offerings laid before his idol statue, but a dragon does, by laying out indigestible cake, which kills the dragon. As a result, Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den.
In the book of Tobit, Raphael the angel gives magical directions for driving away the devil by taking a fish’s liver, burning it, and causing a magical smoke (6:6).
The book of Tobit says Raphael the angel accepted prayers offered to him (12:12), which angels never accept in Scripture (Rev 22:8–9).
Jesus and the Apostles Never Quoted Them
The canon of Scripture is closed to the apocryphal books of the Roman church because Jesus and the apostles never quoted them. We have a saying, “The silence was deafening.” What that means is that when you listen to people speak on a subject, we can tell what they believe not only by what they say but also by what they do not say.
Again, in Luke 24 we read of Jesus’ explaining to His disciples that He was the Christ who was to die and rise again only from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. His silence about the apocryphal books is deafening. I challenge you to read through the New Testament and write a list of every time Jesus and the apostles quote other writings. When it comes to the Apocrypha, the silence is deafening.
The Ancient Church Never Received Them
The canon of Scripture is closed to the apocryphal books of the Roman church because the ancient church never received them. I have read and read and read various church fathers looking for their approval of the apocryphal books. I have read Roman Catholic authors giving their reasons for including them in the canon, and I’ve read Protestant responses. Here is what is clear: we are the true catholics. We follow the ancient church, which recognized no other books than those we have. Yes, every once in a while some writer quotes an apocryphal text or even lists a book we do not have in the canon in their list of canonical books. But this is the exception. And even when one church council received one non-canonical book and another council received another, the one thing that remained common among them both was the list of books we know as the Old and New Testaments. For example, around the year 170 Melito of Sardis listed our Old Testament canon. The Synod of Laodicea in the mid-fourth century said non-canonical books were not to be read in public worship but only those of the Old and New Testaments. The great Athanasius listed the Scriptures of our Bibles and then said, “These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.”
The reason these books are called apocryphal is that their origin and authorship are unknown, or hidden. In fact, the ancient fathers Epiphanius and Augustine said “apocryphal” meant that they were removed from a hidden crypt, while Jerome and Rufinus said this meant their authority was hidden. So much for the fathers being on Rome’s side!
Further, church fathers such as Jerome and Augustine belabor this point, that there is a distinction between what they called the canon of faith and the canon of ecclesiastical reading. What they meant was that the books in our Old and New Testaments alone were read to prove points of doctrine, while other books, while permitted to be read for moral inspiration, were not to be read for doctrinal instruction.
Let me conclude by saying that when Rome decreed that those who do not receive the Old Testament, New Testament, and the apocryphal books in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, and Rome’s many traditions are anathema—condemned—they condemned the prophets, the apostles, and most importantly, Jesus Himself! I’ll take my chances with Jesus. How about you?
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.