Unsettling picture of early church and deuterocanon

So I was reading this article in the encyclopedia section of catholic answers and from the early church to the middle ages looks unsettling. It seems there were a bunch of church fathers that clearly didn’t think they were scripture like st Athanasius. Of course I definitely believe that the deuterocanon are inspired but this makes the case from history a bit weaker. How can we address this? I know many protestants now when asked to provide a 66 book canon before 1500 years are referring to St Athanasius and others.


Jerome also harbored doubts, but Jerome, greatest scripture scholar of all, was neither Pope nor council. As to the Deuterocanon, why do we have them? They were written on an extremely fragile medium. Many generations of “someones” faithfully copied and preserved them for posterity.

Remember that the canon was somewhat undefined and until the 16th century, there had not been a European rebellion to challenge the canon. For over 1,500 years, no one thought to go to the descendants of the Pharisees for their canon. They had rejected Christ, into whose eyes they had looked. Would you trust them for a canon of OT scriptures?

Instead of reading material which grows your doubts, read those seven books. The Church ruled (late as it was) and the matter was settled. Not even Luther dared remove them from the bible which bears his name.

There are a couple of ways.

First, we can look at the example of Jerome: earlier, he argued against them, but later, assented to the decision of the Church. Your Protestant friends who point to this dynamic might gently be reminded that Paul once killed Christians, but that doesn’t mean that we hold up his earlier opinion of Christ and his followers as one that we should consider our guide. :wink:

Second, we can ask about Athanasius, and recognize that your friends are holding to an incorrect understanding of how the early Church (and indeed, even the Church today!) operates. It’s not as if bishops gather, go into a trance, and come out of it with a single, unanimous position! Instead, the process is one that allows for discussion and debate and disagreement. At the end of the process, however, the Church makes a single decision, and the apostles (or their successors!) abide by that decision. (It’s the decision that we believe is protected from error, not each of the arguments heard during the time leading up to the decision!) Again, you might gently point your friends to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Many viewpoints were voiced in that discussion, and with no lack of fervor! Yet, in the end Peter’s view held, and it was affirmed by James and the apostles. You might ask your friends whether circumcision is necessary for salvation – after all, that viewpoint was defended during the debate of the Council of Acts… and yet, that argument isn’t our guide, either!

I know many protestants now when asked to provide a 66 book canon before 1500 years are referring to St Athanasius and others.

They are. And, you might ask them why they think that a viewpoint – which was argued fully and publicly in the context of the discussions over the canon of Scripture – that was rejected by the Church is one that they feel justified in holding up as true? (In other discussions in the Church, it was argued that Christ wasn’t truly human; or that Christ wasn’t truly God; or that there were two deities (one who was evil and created matter and another who we should worship). Each of these were rejected by the Church. Would they hold up any of these as true? If not these, then why another like them – that is, the rejection of the deuterocanon?)

Thank you po18guy and gorgias. These are very helpful!

The Deuterocanonical books are part of the Septuagint, the Greek bible of the Hellenized Jews. Paul quoted from it and IIRC, some/all of Jesus’ quotes in John appear to be from it. Those books were used by religious Jews for, in some cases, hundreds of years before Christ.

Want a clear prophecy of Christ? Read Wisdom 2. That was written as close as 50 years before Christ. Let this following article by Mark Shea also be of comfort:


Okay, here’s the thing.

The ‘Septuagint’ wasn’t a set, it wasn’t a kind of canon. That thing we call today the ‘Septuagint’ is a Christian product. In fact, the term ‘Septuagint’ (versio septuaginta) is itself a Christian invention.

In the 3rd century BC, the Torah (the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) were translated into Greek, probably in Alexandria in Egypt. A famous legend dating about a century after this translation was probably made claims that this translation was made by seventy-two Hebrew scholars from Jerusalem who were commissioned by the Greek king of Egypt to make a translation of the Jewish Law for his library.

This legend - which was probably devised to give an air of legitimacy to the Greek Torah - was passed down through generations until it reached the hands of early Christians. Now Christians altered the legend a bit: whereas the original form of the legend was only concerned with a translation of the Torah into Greek, Christians began to claim that what the seventy-two (often rounded to seventy) translators translated were actually many or even all of the literature that Jews consider to be sacred and authoritative.

Between the period 2nd-1st century BC and later, translations of Jewish sacred literature (Scripture) into Greek began to appear; a few Jewish writers even composed works in Greek (cf. 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon). These Greek texts/translations were originally unconnected to the Alexandrian Greek Torah, but Christians who used these writings began to indiscriminately apply the term ‘version of the seventy’ to any Jewish (popular and/or sacred) text in Greek they encountered, not just the Greek Torah.

They were apparently partly motivated by a desire to confer to these other texts the air of respectability and legitimacy the Greek Torah, by virtue of this legend, was seen to have, especially in the light of Jews who attacked them for using these Greek Scriptures as proof-texts for Christian beliefs. Because they were using these books in their debates against Jews (and because the Greek texts were the default version of choice for many early Christians), they were probably trying to extend the special/inspired status associated with the Greek Torah with these ‘other’ books as well.

And that’s really where our idea of ‘the Septuagint’ (as in, ‘Greek translations of the OT books’, rather than just the Greek Torah specifically) was born.

Thank you, Patrick. I will pore over your typically excellent response when I am more lucid. I readily accept any and all correction, as accuracy is paramount.

Quoting myself on my personal opinion:

Just to explain where I’m coming from (this is my general opinion):

I tend to think nowadays that the 46-book OT we Catholics use (and the additional books found in the Eastern Churches) is an early Christian innovation. I wouldn’t dispute that for the Jews of Jesus’ time, there was only the 24/39 sacred books (the ‘Hebrew Bible’).

I’m not very good at explaining things, but this is the general gist of my idea (you can ask me questions, I’ll elaborate.)

[INDENT]- The Jews in Jesus’ time - and afterwards - de facto held 24 books as being special / ‘sacred’ in some way: these are the undisputed OT books. (At least, we really don’t have any evidence for that once-common idea that Greek-speaking Jews had a different, larger canon than the Palestinian Jews: the whole issue of the ‘Palestinian canon’ vs. ‘Alexandrian canon’.)

  • At the same time, there were also Jewish ‘popular literature’: stuff like Jubilees or Enoch or Tobit or Sirach. These were not exactly on the same level as the ‘sacred literature’, but many of these books were widely read and used and alluded to.
  • When the early Christians came into the scene, they never really distinguished between ‘sacred literature’ and ‘popular literature’. So they ascribed a status (nearly) equal to the de facto Jewish ‘sacred literature’ to some of the more-commonly used ‘popular literature’. Eventually, their choices were canonized, thereby forming the Christian Old Testament canon(s) we know today. During the Reformation, the Protestants dropped the books the early Christians had included.

I can see a parallel here with Ethiopian Jews. Ethiopian Jews seem to have a three-tier category of their literature. At the top is the Torah, or the Orit, the most important book. On the second tier are all the other OT books, which are viewed as having secondary importance. On the third tier, you have Ethiopian Jewish literature, which, while not really considered scriptural (one of the latest works in this category was AFAIK written in the 18th century!), are nevertheless considered to be of some importance.

My idea is that something similar was probably going on for 1st century Jews: on the one hand, you have the sacred literature (the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings), the cornerstone of Jewish belief and way of life. On the other hand, you have the popular literature, which may not be of equal status with the sacred writings, but are nevertheless influential and widely-used. When Christians came into the scene, they blurred the line between the two categories: the more famous popular works were given a status equal to the accepted sacred writings. And that’s how our OT canon was born.

(Now you often see the argument that the Ethiopian Jews use the Greek OT canon. But you have to remember that the Christian and Jewish communities in Ethiopia were historically close and had influenced each other in many ways. In fact, some argue that much of the distinctive customs practiced by Ethiopian Jews today were not really ancient, but actually reached them in the Middle Ages via the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Similarly, Ethiopian Jews could have simply been influenced by their Christian neighbors who were using the ‘Greek’ / ‘Septuagintal’ canon. In fact, there was a story that a renegade Christian monk named Qozmos wrote out the Torah for the Ethiopian Jews who rallied under him in the 15th century; up until then Ethiopian Jews never seem to have possessed a written Scripture but were a mainly non-literate culture. In fact, it was really in the 15th century onwards that Ethiopian Jewish literature began to flourish.)[/INDENT]

To add to this:

As far as my research has taken me, it seems to me that the specific situation differed slightly depending on the geographical area.

In Palestine, many local Christians tended to just take the 22/24/39-book Jewish canon (just the protocanon) for granted, while in other places (especially in the Latin West), Christians can be a bit more lenient about giving the ‘sacred’ status to other famous Jewish works.

It’s telling that many of the early Christians we know of who assumed the ‘Jewish’ canon were either from Palestine and/or the eastern Mediterranean region in general, traveled east and/or stayed there for long periods of time, or studied under Jewish teachers. For example, the author of the Bryennios List (probably a Palestinian Jewish Christian), Melito of Sardis (traveled to the Holy Land to obtain his list of books), Origen (spent time in Palestine), Jerome (big-time Hebrew lover), Cyril of Jerusalem (name says it all), Hilary of Poitiers (exiled for a long time to Phrygia).

(Note that a few of these authors, even though they mostly list only the protocanonical books, might name one or two deuterocanonical work as Scripture, or at least say that they’re a close second: for example, both Cyril and Athanasius list Baruch among the Scriptures.)

It’s also telling that the earliest canons and authors which consider the deuterocanonical books (some or all of them) as Scripture were from the West: the councils of Hippo and Carthage, the so-called Cheltenham canon, Pope Innocent I, St. Augustine, the Decretum Gelasianum, to name a few.

Jerome’s main issue was the lack of Hebrew texts in his day. The dead Sea scrolls made that a moot point.

I hear this claim every once in a while, but I don’t think it’s even true. Jerome’s main issue with the deuterocanon AFAIK was not the lack of Hebrew texts, but whether these books were accepted by Jews or not. Jerome, in his scholar mode, was hesitant about accepting the deutero’s because Jews do not consider them to be sacred or authoritative.

(I mean, in his Prologue to Kings (the very first of the Vulgate prologues he had written), he guesses (correctly) that 1 Maccabees was originally a Semitic work (“I have found the First Book of the Maccabees is Hebrew, the Second is Greek, which may also be proven by their styles.”) In fact, he also translated (or rather, sort of paraphrased) Tobit and Judith from late Aramaic versions/paraphrases of those two works.)

That, and because he liked the symbolism of the numbers 22 and 24: the twenty-two or twenty-four protocanonical books = the twenty-two Hebrew letters = the twenty-four elders who sit before the throne of God.

Besides, out of the seven deutero’s, in regards to having a Semitic original we are certain of only four (Sirach, Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees). Scholars are still somewhat divided about the original language of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, while 2 Maccabees and Wisdom of Solomon are Greek compositions, and the ‘extra’ bits of Esther and Daniel are likely also Greek in origin.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, out of the seven we only have evidence for three (Tobit, Sirach, and the Letter of Jeremiah), and only Tobit and Sirach exist in Hebrew and Aramaic; the Letter of Jeremiah is attested in a few papyrus scraps (= a single manuscript) in Greek.

It is a moot point, because the language was not even Jerome’s real beef with these texts. You don’t need the DSS to prove that.

My friend,

It would seem o follow the same reasoning as the false gospels {Thomas for example}; they exist but were understood to NOT be Guided by the Holy Spirit {2nt Timothy 3:16-17|

So the 73 book Canon was set, and agreed to multiple times, guided by the HS

God Bless you


With the early Church being completely oral in nature, and the preaching being apocalyptic, thoughts of a canon were clearly of significantly less importance than in 16th century Europe’s sharply divided, political, legalistic and novel scripture-based denominations. The early Church clearly had virtually no thought toward hastily producing and assembling writings, as the Apostles were a living authority, the oral preaching held sway, and was the exact manner in which Christ both revealed and grew the New Testament (Covenant).

Scripture was always an integral part of synagogue, but Christ prophesied that His followers (the Way) would be ejected from synagogues - and they were. The NT was developed when, after decades, it became clear that the parousia was not to be immediate. The “delayed” parousia was such a point of contention that Peter specifically addressed it in his second letter.

The pattern, at least once past the nascent origins of the Church, was to collect the available writings as well as to exclude the spurious writings, not to simply agglomerate them into what would have been an incoherent assemblage. The NT controversy was post-Christian, whereas the OT/Deuterocanon was both pre and post-Christian. The fact that the Deuterocanon exists as do both apocryphal and (pseudo)epigraphical writings tends to show, I think, that the OT-based writings, regardless of language, were indeed employed as well as tested as the Church was gaining its foothold.

This is clear from the ultimately accepted canons of both Judaism and Christianity. Yet, the first council in Acts 15 was a necessary development as ideas that were not Christian in nature appeared and had to be culled from the herd, so to speak. At the same time, the Church council held unprecedented authority and while this authority could have been exercised more broadly and much earlier, it finally arrived. The fact that 1.5 millennia later geo and scripture-based communities do not hold to the set-in-stone Christian canon demonstrates no more than does the existence of non-believers.

Did any of the external “reformers” have the Christ-appointed authority to decide anything for the universal Church? No, and they do not today. What they have expressed is their opinion on divine matters. He who hears the reformers hears opinion. He who hears the apostles and the Church hears Christ himself. Why this did not settle the argument remains evidence of human concupiscence and little more.

Actually, not only did the Apostles and Jesus quote Deuterocanonical books as Scripture, so did a lot of the rabbis in the Talmud. Different Jewish communities accepted different books as part of the sacred writings.

Although the rabbis never had formal councils like the Catholic Church, they did manage to come to a consensus about what “counted” as their Bible. But essentially, after Jerusalem was destroyed and turned into the all-pagan city of Aelia Capitolina, a small group of prestigious Hebrew-speaking rabbis who had escaped Jerusalem ended up destroying the traditions and Scripture definitions of all the other Jewish communities, in their search to create a new form of Judaism that didn’t need the Temple. Since a lot of other groups of Jews never really got to use the Temple anyway, and had already developed ways to live without its daily presence that didn’t require radical changes in practices and laws, this ticked them off.

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