Defending the Deuterocanonicals


When teaching Introduction the the New Testament at my Evangelical seminary, I always got a kick out of starting the first class by asking the students to turn to 1 Maccabees. Reactions ranged form confusion to uncertain laughter – “Silly professor, that’s a Catholic book!”

To keep from being reported to the Dean, I always explained my request quickly by having them turn to the end of Malachi, read the last paragraph, and then turn the page to Matthew’s Gospel. I would then ask how much history had passed in that single page turn. Often the students were shocked to find that over 400 years had come and gone between the writings of Malachi and Matthew. Moreover, a radical upheaval had taken place in Hebrew life – the details of which were necessary to make sense out of much of the New Testament. This, I told them, was the so-called “Intertestamental Period” – a time where God was silent, and prophecy ceased until the coming of John the Baptist. The good news was that the Catholics added these uninspired, non-canonical, unbiblical history books in their Bibles, and we could read them to fill in this 400 year gap.

Well, then I became Catholic (and inexplicably have not been invited back to teach at my Evangelical seminary ever since!). Over the summer, I spent several hours obsessing over which Catholic study Bible to get. I finally chose one: the cleverly-titled Catholic Study Bible. It took a while to full absorb the fact that this Bible had a longer table of contents than any of my previous copies.

The apologist in me can’t resist making a defense for the inclusion of these books in the biblical canon. Now, there are several arguments Protestants use to justify their removal of the Deuterocanonicals from the Bible. I will respond to the most important ones below, but first we need to deal with how to refer to these books because (as one of our prophets hath said), “words mean things.”

The “Apocrypha” (Hidden In Plain Sight?)

82835276CH001_NYC_S_JEWISH_ DTinLXX
Tobit: 4Q200 (4QTobe) Codex Sinaiticus

There are seven books and a few chapters of the Old Testament that were removed from the Protestant canon of the Bible during the Reformation. These include The Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, Baruch, 1-2  Maccabees, and chapters in Esther and Daniel). These are collectively known as the “Deuterocanonicals” after the fact that they appear in the Septuagint (aka the Greek Old Testament or LXX), but not in the older Hebrew writings (aka the Masoretic Text or MT). “Deuterocanon” simply means “second canon” as these books come after the Hebrew writings. Protestants, however, refer to this collection as “the Apocrypha” which means “hidden.”

This “hidden” designation is unjustifiable given that these writings are found in the Septuagint (which the New Testament writers cited more often than the Hebrew), Codex Sianiaticus (the earliest Bible we have), as well as early Greek manuscripts Aleph, A, and B. Further, despite many claims that the Deuterocanonicals are not among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there have been two or three found at Qumran (and Masada as well). These include nearly 70 fragments from Tobit, several chapters from Sirach, and a small piece of the Epistle of Jeremiah (included in Baruch in the Catholic canon). More on this here.

The oldest complete Bible we have is Codex Sinaiticus, which includes much of the Greek Old Testament such as 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees, Wisdom, and Sirach. It also includes the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas – books that, along with 2 Esdras and 4 Maccabees, were later regarded as non-canonical by the Church.

Adding to the above confusion, the term “apocryphal” is often used to designate pseudepigraphal books (non-biblical writings illicitly attributed to biblical authors) as well – but these should not be lumped together. For all of these reasons, it is best to refer to this material as “deuterocanonlical” instead of “apocryphal.”

Not Included in the Jewish Canon?

Even though the Septuagint (which included the Deuterocanonicals) is quoted the most by the New Testament writers as well as early Christians, Protestants claim to follow the “Jewish canon” which excludes them. There are a few problems with this claim. First, the idea of “the” Jewish canon is something of an anachronism. We see from the New Testament itself that at the time of Christ, there were competing canons. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) while the Pharisees followed the modern Jewish canon, and Jews outside Israel often followed the Septuagint. Josephus (c. 38-95) numbered the Old Testament at 22 books but probably combined several.

Christian, Secular and Jewish sources agree. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that, “The Hebrew Bible probably reached its current form about the 2nd century C.E.” Lawrence H. Schiffman, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University, says that, “While virtually all the Writings were regarded as canonical by the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., arguments continued regarding the status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, and these disputes are attested in rabbinic literature. Second Temple literature indicates that a collection of Writings existed as early as the second century B.C.E. but was not regarded as formally closed.”

One early date often suggested for the modern Jewish canon is A.D. 90 – the so-called Council of Jamnia. This council is a myth which came about in the 19th century and was discredited by the 20th; but, even if it actually existed, there are numerous problems with citing it as authoritative. At best, a binding Jewish council that came about decades after Christianity began has no Christian authority (in fact, it probably would have been called precisely to attack Christianity).Thus, reference to a definitive pre-Christian Jewish canon reflects question-begging speculation at best, and is demonstrably false at worst.

Finally, the Jewish canon does not include a full 27 books found in the Protestant canon – namely the New Testament itself! In the end, it is not Jewish tradition that constitutes the Church’s tradition.

Not Included in Jesus’ Canon?

Another argument based on the Hebrew canon is made by appealing to Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 (see comments below). The idea is that Jesus referred to what he thought of as the canon of Scripture when he said, “From the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God” (cf. Lk. 11:51). Jesus seems to be making a sweeping list of the martyrs who he blames Jewish leadership for killing, but while Abel was the first martyr as recorded in the first book of the OT (Gen. 4), Zechariah was not the last martyr in OT history (that would be Urijah, killed by king Jehoiakim – see Jer. 26:20). Zechariah is, however, the last martyr listed in the last book of the Hebrew OT (2 Chronicles 24 – if one follows the Hebrew arrangement of the OT books).  Therefore it is thought that Jesus is referring to the “bookends” of the Hebrew OT canon (thus implicitly rejecting the Greek OT canon).

First, the Bible does not say why Jesus chose these examples. Perhaps Jesus was referring only the martyrdom the Jewish leadership could be blamed for (and not those killed by the Gentiles in the period which much of the deuterocanonlical material covers). Because we are not told Jesus’ reasoning in this passage, the principle driving this argument is in serious danger of begging the question.

Second, Jesus refers to  Zechariah son of Barachias who was killed between the temple and the altar – but Zechariah son of Barachias was the 4th Century B.C. prophet who wrote the book of Zechariah (1:1) – not the Zechariah who was slain on the temple grounds in 2 Chronicles 24:20. Rather, that Zechariah was the son of <em>Jehoida</em>, and he died around 825 B.C. So even if this argument was based on a strong principle, the particulars seem to be wrong.

Third, the order of books in the “Jewish canon” were written in scrolls – not bound together in an ordered collection, so the claim that there was not only a settled canon but an ordered one is quesitonable. There is, in fact, evidence that the Chronicles was not the last book of the Jewish canon. Previous to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the two oldest known complete Hebrew OT’s placed Chronicles at the beginning of the the Ketuvim (“Writings”). Encyclopedia Judaica gives eight different ancient arrangements of the Ketuvim with the Chronicles appearing as either the first or the last books. The lists with Chronicles last are from the end of 2nd century A.D. Josephus (c. 90 AD) apparently did not consider the Chronicles to be the last books either since his list has the third division containing hymns and precepts for the conduct of human life – not historical writings (see Josephus, Against Apion 1:8).

Fourth, even if these are the “bookend martyrs” of the Hebrew OT canon, deuterocanonical material is found in the Greek OT books that are in the Hebrew OT. Thus, once would have to argue that Jesus was not only rejecting Greek OT books but also material found in Greek versions of the canonical Hebrew books. That would be odd considering that the Greek OT was far more popular in Jesus’ day, and it was quoted far more often than the Hebrew OT by Jesus and the apostles (which is probably a significant factor in the Jews’ much later rejection of it).

I think these factors plus all of the evidence above seriously weakens this already suspicious argument.

Not Cited in the New Testament?

Norman Geisler leads off with this evidence when he says, “Not once is there a direct quotation from any apocryphal books accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.” Other typical statements of this issue include, “Neither Jesus nor the apostles make any reference to the apocryphal books,”  or, “None of the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha is ever quoted by name.” There are three enormous problems with this criterion: (1) Deuterocanonical material is referenced in the NT, (2) there are Old Testament books that are not quoted in the NT, and (3) Pseudepigraphal material is also referenced in the NT. The criterion, then, is either misleading or useless.

Does the NT reference the Deuterocanonicals? Well, in the 1611 KJV Bible, it listed over 100 references to them in the Old Testament, and 11 in the New Testament (Matthew 6:7 cf. Sirach 7:14; Matthew 27:43 cf. Wisdom 2:15-16; Luke 6:31 cf. Tobit 4:15; Luke 14:13 cf. Tobit 4:7John 10:22 cf. 1 Maccabees 4:59Rom 9:21 cf. Wisdom 15:7; Rom 11:34 cf. Wisdom 9:13; 2 Cor 9:7  cf. Sirach 35:9; Heb 1:3 cf. Wisdom 7:26; Heb 11:35 cf. 2 Maccabees 7:7). You can see them all for yourself at King James Bible Here is a list of many more. Even more impressive is the massive list supported by the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament.

Further, even if there are no direct quotations of the Deuterocanonicals in the New Testament, there are also no quotes from several Old Testament books in the Protestant canon! There are far more OT allusions in the NT than there are specific quotes. The Book of Revelation, for example, is absolutely saturated with OT imagery and references, but not a single OT quote. What gives Protestants the right to say the latter counts but not the former?

This double standard is exemplified in one source that leads off its criticism of the Deuterocanonicals with the statement that, “those books, while they have great historical value, and fill the gap between the Old Testament and the New, all originated after the cessation of prophecy, and they cannot therefore be regarded as inspired, nor are they ever cited by Christ or the apostles,” but then says in defense of the Protestant OT canon that, The New Testament quotes from all Old Testament Books except Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. This does not mean they are not inspired.” (NOTE: The same author’s citation chart also does not include NT quotes from Judges, Ruth, Obadiah, Nahum, or Zephaniah either!) These examples alone alone get the Deuterocanonicals off the hook.

Moreover, if Old Testament allusions are acceptable then it should be the same for the Deuterocanonicals. Even where a full quote is missing, their influence is sometimes too obvious to miss. Consider this passage from Wisdom 5:17-20, does it sound familiar:

“The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies;
he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet;
he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword”

Or how about these gems from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (oops, I mean the Book of Wisdom, ch.s 12-15):

“For who can say to you, ‘What have you done?’ or who can oppose your decree?” (Wis. 12:12)

“For they went far astray in the paths of error, taking for gods the worthless and disgusting among beasts, deceived like senseless infants.” (Wis. 12:24)

“For truly the potter, laboriously working the soft earth, molds for our service each several article: Both the vessels that serve for clean purposes and their opposites, all alike; As to what shall be the use of each vessel of either class the worker in clay is the judge.” (Wis. 15:7)

Finally, besides the well-known use of the Book of Enoch in Jude, or the many pagan poets that Paul quotes, there are hundreds of other non-biblical references in the Bible. Now, no one argues that a simple reference gives a writing canonical status – and this needs to be remembered when it is brought up as a Protestant “counter-argument.” When Catholics cite NT references to the Deuterocanonicals, they are not doing so to argue that these books must therefore be canonical. Rather, the Catholic is countering the Protestant argument that the Deuterocanonicals do not belong in the canon because of a lack of NT references.

Not Written by Prophets?

Evangelical scholar Norman Geisler argues for why the Deuterocanonicals were removed from the Protestant canon as follows:

Contrary to the Roman Catholic argument from Christian usage, the true test of canonicity is propheticity. That is, propheticity determines canonicity. God determined which books would be in the Bible by giving their message to a prophet. So only books written by a prophet, that is, an accredited spokesperson for God, are inspired and belong in the canon of Scripture. . . . The “apostles and [New Testament] prophets” (Eph. 3:5) composed the entire New Testament. ” (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, p. 167)

Besides implying a startling oversimplification of the actual canonization process, there are also the problems that (1) almost none of the NT authors are ever said to be prophets, and some were not even apostles (e.g., Mark, Luke), and (2) not all of the NT authors are even named (e.g., none of the gospels actually name their authors in the text, John is often inferred in his writings) or even identifiable (e.g., Hebrews). Even Protestants would, therefore, have to trust Church tradition to even get this “prophetic” criterion off the ground.

Even if this criterion were not faulty, however, the issue is would be whether or not the Deuterocanonicals met it. Geisler lists the following reasons to suspect that they do not:

  1. No apocryphal books claim to be written by a prophet and one apocryphal book even disclaims being prophetic (1 Macc. 9:27).
  2. There is no divine confirmation of any of the writers of the apocryphal books.
  3. There is no predictive prophecy in the Apocrypha.
  4. There is no new messianic truth in the Apocrypha.

First, these criteria could exclude Protestant books as well. Other historical books in the OT (e.g., 1-2 Chronicles and 1-2 Kings) are not said to be written by prophets, many books contain no predictive prophecy or mew messianic truth (unless these are taken in such a liberal manner that they would not exclude the Deuterocanonicals either), and the Protestant version of Esther does not even mention God!

Second, almost none of the NT books claim to be written by a prophet, so their inclusion in the biblical canon would be a mistake as well (unless by “prophetic” Geisler simply means “inspired,” in which case he begs the question by excluding the Deuterocanonicals).

Third, the claim that the writer of 1 Maccabees “disclaims being prophetic” is a stretch at best. Nowhere does the author make a self-referential statement to this effect. What he says is simply that “there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.” The author is reporting a past event that began when prophetic activity ceased for a while. Such time periods are not unusual. Even in the Bible inspired prophecy / prophetic writings are not continuous states – rather they stand out precisely because they are unusual  (e.g., Moses, Elijah, Jesus, the Apostles). That the author of 1 Maccabees is reporting on one such time period is no is no indication that prophets would never come on the scene again (cf. 1 Maccabees 14:41). Finally, there is no statement anywhere in the Bible that prophecy ceased during the so-called “Intertestamental Period” – it may even indicate the opposite (e.g.,the prophets listed in Luke 1-2 cf. Mt. 11:13). Some Protestants cite Jewish tradition here, but as Joe Heschmeyer puts it succinctly:

the doctrine of intertestamental silence . . .  is a perversion of a (post-Christian) Jewish teaching that God permanently ceased prophetic revelation in 450 B.C. The Bablyonian Talmud teaches that “When Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.” But that’s an argument against Christianity, not just against the Deuterocanon. In any case, it’s contradicted elsewhere in the Talmud, since the Talmud quotes the Book of Sirach as Scripture. . . . [and] Talmudic teaching serves as an extremely weak foundation, particularly for Christians.

Not Theologically or Historically Accurate?

Reformed apologist Matt Slick notes that, “If the Apocrypha is a [sic] Scripture, then it should not have any errors. But . . . it does have errors.” This seems like a legitimate test, so let’s see the evidence marshaled to show errors in the Deuterocanonicals. Slick groups these in two categories: theological and historical.

Theological Errors

Identifying theological error is a very subjective process, but it is especially dangerous here, as it is being used to determine what belongs in the Bible (see Luther’s attempts at this below). For a “sola scriptura” theologian to dismiss biblical books because they allegedly have unbiblical theology is a viciously circular argument. Unless a true contradiction can be demonstrated, this cannot be escaped – and one has not been shown here.

Tobit 6:5-7 – Magic

It is said that Tobit “condones the use of magic.” In this passage, an angel says to take out the entrails of a fish and cook them because “If thou put a little piece of its heart upon coals, the smoke thereof driveth away all kind of devils, either from man or from woman, so that they come no more to them.” Slick then asks, “Is it true that the smoke from a fish’s heart, when burned, drives away evil spirits? Of course not. Such a superstitious teaching has no place in the word of God.”

First, I would be curious to know how Slick knows this. “Of course not” only reveals Slick’s viewpoint – one that is certainly not sufficient to overturn a Bible passage. Second, God often works miracles through physical means in the Bible that would sound just as absurd if one did not already believe it was God’s word (e.g., Sampson’s hair, Jesus’ spit, Paul’s handkerchief, or Peter’s shadow). Most of these means were never repeated either.

Tobit 4:11 and 12:9 – Alms

As if magic fish guts were not bad enough, Slick claims that Tobit also teaches that forgiveness of sins is by human effort. Tobit 4:11 says, “For alms deliver from all sin, and from death, and will not suffer the soul to go into darkness,” and Tobit 12:9 says much the same: “For alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting.” Slick says we know from Scripture that alms does not purge our sins.

First, Tobit 4:11 is translated in the NAB as, “Alms are a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High for all who give them” and the RSV has, “Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.” Neither support Slick’s contention. Second, even if both translations are accurate, one cannot simply poin tto any verse in the Bible mentioning some criterion for salvation and conclude that this is what the Bible is teaching (an issue Protestants have a far more difficult time explaining). Third, both Tobit 4:11 and 12:9 can be seen as expressing that almsgiving is a sign of salvation (much in the same way Protestants will argue that Baptism is only a “sign” of salvation – even though Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” in 1 Pt. 3:21, or that works only “reveal” salvation – even though James says faith without works cannot save in James 2:14-24). Since this is how the Catholic Church understands these verses, Slick is arguing against a straw-man.

2 Maccabbees 12:43 – Money

Money is listed as an offering for the sins of the dead in 2 Maccabbees 12:43, “And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection.” Slick is once again incredulous: “Can anyone truly accept that money isn’t offering [sic] for the sins of dead people?”

I think anyone familiar with the Old Testament would not have any problem accepting that material goods can be sacrificed to obtain forgiveness of sins. If Slick’s issue is that it is being made for people who had already died, well that simply begs the question against both Catholic and Jewish belief (see “Not Protestant?” below).

Historical Errors

Slick lists two errors of historical reporting in the Deuterocanonicals:

Judith 1:5 – Assyria

Contrary to Judith 1:5, Nebuchadnezzar was not the king of the Assyrians – he was the king of the Babylonians.

Baruch 6:2 – Generations

Baruch 6:2 says, “And when you are come into Babylon, you shall be there many years, and for a long time, even to seven generations: and after that I will bring you away from thence with peace,” Jeremiah Jer. 25:11 says it was for 70 years.

Critical scholars use the same kinds of arguments against OT books like Exodus and Daniel. Biblical scholars often respond that many  passages in the Bible to be parabolic or apocalyptic in nature, and thus they are not to be taken in the literal sense that generates the problem (this is the case, for example, with Judith). And historians make mistakes. However, even if these are literal historical inaccuracies, they could be simple copyist errors such as we find in other OT books. For example, 2 Kings 8:26 says that Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he became king, while 2 Chronicles 22:2 indicates that he was forty-two years old. In the New Testament Gospel of Mark (2:26) it says David “went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest,” but 1 Samuel 21:1 says Ahimelech (Abiathar’s father) was the high priest. Yet these books are not rejected for that reason. If either of these strategies are legitimate for books in the Protestant canon, why can’t they be used for the Deuterocanonicals?

The greater [problem with all of these attempts to discredit the Deuterocanon is that if Protestants held every book of the Bible to the standards that they hold the books that they reject, they would end up missing a huge number of their books (SOURCE). In the end, the real problem seems to be that these books are Catholic.

Not Protestant?

Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead are said to be supported by passages in 2 Maccabees (namely 12:39-46 and 15:12-16). Because Protestants find these teachings unbiblical, this is given as a reason to exclude the book. Now, obviously this is a serious case of circular argument, which should alone removes it from serious consideration – but it is not one surprising move for Protestants to make given their fountainhead, Martin Luther.

The founder of the Reformation, Martin Luther, considered the Deuterocanonicals to be “good for reading” but not part of inspired Scripture (he did not actually remove them from his German Bible though, he simply moved them to the end of the Old Testament). While Protestants may applaud this conclusion, it should be remembered that Luther also argued for the removal of Esther because the book never mentions God, and he dislked the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation for theological reasons as well.

For a group that claims to get all their theology from the Bible alone, settling the canon based on one’s theology seems like putting the cart before the horse! How can the Bible be the sole theological authority for Protestants if Protestant theology determines what counts as the Bible?


The arguments against the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books almost always either beg the question or can be used just as effectively against the Protestant canon. Obviously, if the same methods employed by Protestants to dismiss the Deuterocanonicals can also be used to reject books in the Protestant canon, they should not be used against either!

Now, I do not think that any of the above arguments are determinitive concerning the deuterocanonical material’s canonicity, but the same goes for most books in the Bible. Arguments from history, theology, or any other field, can help support and explain revelation – but none may judge it. Thus, while there are more detailed arguments for the inclusion of each deuterocanonical book in the Bible, it remains a fact that the Church made the call (and most other suggested criteria fail without it). For both Catholics and Protestants, then, a book’s canonical status is ultimately grounded in Church tradition.