I often get asked the question, “why did the Catholic Church add books to the Bible?” We hope to do more posts on the canonization process of Scripture, but for the moment, I thought I would respond to this question with a brief post.
This question often comes to me from Protestants who assume that Christians always had a Bible that matched a modern Protestant Bible: 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. Since Catholic Bibles include 46 books in the Old Testament (but likewise share the same 27 book New Testament with Protestants), those asking me this question often assume that the Catholic Church added 7 books to the Old Testament at some point in the medieval period. These 7 books Catholics refer to as deuterocanonical (second canon), whereas Protestants often refer to them as apocryphal (hidden books, i.e., books that do not belong). These books are: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch.
With such assumptions often present, this question misunderstands the actual history. Of course on the face of it, it is true that the Catholic Church “added” books to the Bible—-in the sense that the list of which books belong in the Bible (i.e., the canon) developed over time, and the Catholic Church (guided by the Holy Spirit, we believe) determined the
final form of this canon.
But to set the record straight, the first list of books that matches a Protestant Bible cannot be found anywhere in history—as far as I am aware—prior to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. And even then, Protestant Reformers often did not include all of the books our contemporary Protestants use. For example, Martin Luther initially doubted the canonical status of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. And while Luther had much praise for the Old Testament deuterocanonical book Judith (which he did not believe to be inspired by God, but which he thought Christians should read), he often criticized other biblical books found in Protestant Old Testaments including Esther and Jonah. The famous Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli doubted that Revelation belonged in the New Testament. John Calvin, who never wrote a commentary on Revelation, also had concerns over its canonical status.
Prior to the Reformation, all Christian biblical canons either excluded books from the Old Testament that Protestants (and Catholics, and Orthodox) consider inspired, like Esther—-or, they excluded some of the 27 New Testament books that Protestants (and Catholics, and Orthodox) consider inspired, like 2 Peter, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation—-or, they included some or all of the 7 deuterocanonical books that Catholics (and Orthodox) include in their Bibles. There are no Bibles (nor lists of biblical books) that have the complete 27 New Testament books and all 39 Old Testament books in Protestant Bibles, but which exclude the 7 deuterocanonicals.
The first list of 27 New Testament books comes from St. Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter of 367 A.D. But, while he excludes the book of Esther from his canon, he includes Wisdom of Solomon, and it appears that he probably included Baruch as well. The first time all of the books Protestants have in their Bibles were actually included in the Bible, was at the Council of Rome in 382 A.D., presided over by the Pope. And this council’s list was identical to the Catholic Bible of today. In the West, that list remained virtually unchanged until the Protestant Reformation. Thus, since Christians in the West universally used the contemporary Catholic Bible, from 382 until the Reformation—-and since, prior to that there were no Bibles identical to any Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Bible of today—-a more historical question would be, “why did Protestants remove books from the Bible?”
For Further Reading:
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1988. Available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Canon-Scripture-F-Bruce/dp/083081258X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298079076&sr=1-1.
McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. Available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Canon-Origin-Transmission-Authority/dp/1565639251/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298078831&sr=1-1. This is a revision of McDonald, Lee Martin. The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995. Available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Formation-Christian-Biblical-Canon/dp/1565630521/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298078831&sr=1-4.
McDonald, Lee M. and James A. Sanders, ed. The Canon Debate. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Canon-New-Testament-Development-Significance/dp/0198269544/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298078781&sr=1-1.
Metzger, Bruce M. An Introduction to the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. Available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Apocrypha-Bruce-M-Metzger/dp/0195023404/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298078811&sr=1-1.
Morrow, Jeffrey L. “In the Crosshairs of the Canon.” This Rock 11, no. 11 (November 2000), available online at: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2000/0011fea4.asp. N.B. This article, which I wrote as an undergraduate student, contains a serious typo with the date of Trent. Also, although it is composed as a fictional dialogue at a Bible study, all of the conversations were real conversations I had with real people prior to writing this article.