Those Extra Books: Thoughts on the Catholic Canon

13 Dec

One of my students, a devout Protestant, sent me a message a few days ago. We’d had conversations in the past about Catholic matters, and I was delighted that she followed up with her questions. “Do you have any books or articles about the Protestant canon vs. Catholic, and how the books were chosen?” she wrote. “I’m assuming that if I were to believe some books were ‘kicked out’ that should’ve been included, I would have to think more seriously about some things.”

I replied that I’d be happy to provide her with reading materials, but, better yet, I’d set her up with an actual Catholic Bible – complete with all those kicked-out books. I always keep give-away copies on hand in my office for just such inquiries.

When she arrived, I handed over the volume (an NAB) and asked what prompted her interest. “I’m going to do a Bible study with some Catholics I’ve gotten to know, so I decided I needed to get a better understanding of this issue.” We chatted a bit about the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint, and then I sketched out a rough history of how our respective traditions adopted varying lists of authoritative scriptural books – the role of liturgy and lectionary, for instance, and Martin Luther’s rejection of the deuterocanonical books in the 16th century. I also clarified that our Bibles only disagreed with respect to the Old Testament – that our New Testament canons were exactly the same.

Then she asked this remarkably insightful question: “So, if I decided that those extra parts of the Old Testament really do belong in my Bible, how would that affect my faith? What difference would it make?”

It seemed like her question required a two-part answer, and I addressed the easier part first. “As far as doctrine and belief, not much.” Maybe she’d have to re-think purgatory and praying for the dead because of certain passages in II Maccabees, but that’s about it. Sure, there would be unfamiliar narratives and characters – like Raphael and Tobit and the bird dropping story, and Daniel’s Solomonic intervention on behalf of the falsely accused Susanna. Aside from those bits, however, my student would hardly notice if the Deuterocanon (or what many Protestants call the Apocrypha) were introduced into her worship services. Take last Sunday’s reading from Baruch for instance: It seems to be a messianic gloss on Isaiah, and I doubt its prophetic cadences would raise a single eyebrow in most Protestant churches if it were read aloud.

The real challenge of the Deuterocanon, I told my student, was less its content than what it represents in terms of authority. Those seven OT books and scattered portions of Esther and Daniel – preserved only in the Greek of the Septuagint – stoked all kinds of controversy in the early church. St. Jerome, the Bible’s patron saint, was the most prominent opponent, and he wanted to exclude them from the Christian Scriptures. Nonetheless, Jerome bowed to Tradition and did end up including them all in his 4th-century Latin Vulgate translation – a decision that was ratified by various early councils and definitively ratified by the 16th-century Council of Trent.

“But councils are made up of fallible men,” my student protested. “How do we know they weren’t mistaken?” That launched us into further conversation about a Catholic understanding of the two streams of Divine Revelation – Scripture and Tradition – which are authoritatively interpreted for us in the present by the Magisterium.

We talked about the early church relying exclusively on the OT as their scriptural reference point while the NT books were being written and then circulated among the brethren; of how some of those NT books were subsequently rejected as being out of step with Tradition while others were adopted as faithful witnesses of apostolic teaching; of the ongoing dialogue between Tradition and Scripture through the centuries, a process of discernment that relies on inspired magisterial elucidation. “We both of us revere the Bible as God’s Word,” I told my student, “but it’s a static text – regardless of how you go about deciding what belongs in it – until it’s brought to life in the Body of Christ” (cf. DV 10).

So, who speaks for the Body of Christ? Given the varying ways in which the Scriptures can be (and certainly have been) interpreted, it’s no wonder we have tens of thousands of different denominations and churches – all claiming to have a bead on biblical truth. “In the end, there’s only one Pope and Magisterium,” I finally said, “or we’re all popes. And that seems to conflict with Jesus’ insistence on unity,” especially in his prayer right before his Passion. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

There was a pause in our conversation – and a knock at my office door. A different student had arrived for a scheduled appointment. As edifying as the conversation had been, it would have to be continued another time. Besides, the Bible’s depths can never fully be plumbed, and our conversations with it and regarding it can always be extended.

And that’s definitely a phenomenon common to all Christians.
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5 Responses to “Those Extra Books: Thoughts on the Catholic Canon”

  1. aiello01 December 13, 2018 at 8:53 pm #

    The Old Testament people that died went to Sheol. Apparently, all went there. Even Christ was there during the time between His death and resurrection. The redemption of Christ had not yet occurred. When 2Machabees speaks of praying for the dead to be released of their sins, why wouldn’t it be for those dead who are in Sheol?

    • Rick Becker December 19, 2018 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks for your comment, friend, and sorry for the delayed response.

      I’m no Scripture scholar, so I’m reluctant to speculate on the connection between Sheol and the Maccabbees passage — although I suspect you’re on the right track. Even so, that passage is cited with reference to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory as a biblical witness, not a “proof text.”

      Here’s the Catechism on the subject: “This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture” (CCC 1032). Thus, the biblical “mention” of prayer for the dead in 2Macc. supports the doctrine of Purgatory, but itself isn’t sufficient to “prove” it. There are other supports listed in the Catechism as well, including various Church councils, but the main support is that the Church has always, from the beginning, “honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them.”

      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a12.htm

  2. Marie Hayes December 14, 2018 at 12:09 am #

    Rick, I thought that part of John’s Chapter 6, on the true presence of Jesus in The Eucharist, was missing. Hmm. Am I right?

    • Rick Becker December 14, 2018 at 8:29 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Marie. Actually, John 6, in its entirety, is included in all versions of the Bible as far as I know. Moreover, many of the Reformers believed in the Real Presence in one way or another — including Luther himself.

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