The Deuterocanonical Books of the Bible

The history of the Deuteros is relatively complex and not as straight forward as either “hard shell” Protestants or Catholics would like. There is no question that the Deuteros were used as Scripture throughout the Patristic and Medieval periods but there were different levels of reception for different books. Some scholars described the Deuteros as prophetic (i.e., inspired) but not canonical (i.e., part of the Jewish Canon). You can see from the traditional Bibles of the various Eastern Churches that the exact limit of the OT canon was never simply restricted to the protocanon. (The Ethiopian Bible has everything but the kitchen sink!)

The Canon (which come the Greek word “kanon” which means “closed”) is a relatively late development. I think that the first real official statement about this was from the North African Councils in the late 4th Century, but there was no clear consensus on this until the Council of Florence. In the 16th Century, the matter came up again because of the new Humanist movement’s approach to textual authenticity and the theological objections of Luther et al. Trent merely rubber stamped what had been the status quo in both East and West up to that time laying aside the “modernist” objections.

There were some dissenting opinions (e.g., Cajetan) pre-Trent, but those who accepted Trent’s authority inevitably accepted the place of the Deuteros in the Bible, including Cajetan.

As you well know, while we Christians accept the Pentateuch as part of the Bible, we do not receive it the same way that the Jews do. I think this distinction is the key to the controversy. We all accept the Biblical books in a hierarchial fashion giving more weight to some books than to others. For example, the Jews place the Torah in the place of primacy. Catholics and Orthodox place the Gospels in that position. Protestants generally place the epistles of St. Paul there (Lutherans in particular use Romans and Galatians — in that order — as their primary Biblical sources).

Since the Reformation, all sides have been reluctant to admit a “canon within a canon” (except certain Lutherans who are quite open about it). As such, in modern controversies, a book is considered either inspired or not. If it is inspired than it has something to teach us. If it isn’t, then it can be ignored. This type of all-or-nothing approach is really not the way the Early Church approached religious texts whether canonical or not. (Look at the place of such works as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Protoevangelium of James, or the Clementine Epistles.)

Also, the Deuteros contained some things that did not square with the new Protestant theologies of the 16th Century (e.g., an indifferent free will, post-mortem purgation, or prayers for the dead). Even though these had been immemorial customs/beliefs even among pre-Christian Jews (not to mention every Christian generation thereafter) the 16th Century Reformers thought these things were inappropriate, and decided to suppress them. On that basis, they could not possibly admit that the Deuteros were inspired and had to deny ANY authority to them. So the Protestant objections to the Deuteros were strongly motivated by systematic theological preferences and not by an actual understanding of the history of the use of these books within the Church.

By the same token, Catholics tended to act as if the reception of the Deuteros was necessarily a touchstone for orthodoxy when in fact, many good Catholic scholars in the past had not considered them to be very important at all.

{I think that modern scholarship has vindicated the Deuteros as important links between pre-Christian Judaism and historic Christianity. In particular in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain, Jesus makes extensive use of material in Wisdom, Sirach and Tobit. (See the books “Jesus the Sage” by Ben Wittherington III, “James and the Q sayings of Jesus” by Patrick J. Hartin, and the classic “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha” by R. H. Charles from the late 19th Century.)}

1) Following Mr. Webster’s essays, how could Popes (Leo X, Adrian VI, Clement VII) writing as Popes produce prefaces and commendatory letters to Bibles which sharply “segregated” and devalued the deuterocanonicals?

I think the answer is this issue of reception. Cajetan did not totally reject the Deuteros or the theology that they supported. He did not receive the Deuteros with the same authority as the OT Protos. That does not mean that he totally dismissed them. He just thought that they should not be used as the final authority in developing doctrine.

Since this was a widespread opinion in the late Medieval period, the Popes did not overtly reject it. This does not imply that the Popes agreed with it. I have often offered apologetic arguments assuming presuppositions that I do not hold because my opponents do hold them and it is easier to fight them where they stand than to start arguing about more foundational matters.

In that time of controversy in the 16th Century, Cajetan was a pro-papal Catholic who strongly opposed Luther and his theological errors. Also, at the time that Cajetan’s book was published, the prot/cath divide on the canon had not yet developed. It was still an intermural debate among Catholics which reached back as far as St. Jerome. Even after Trent, it wasn’t clear that the differential reception of the deuteros (a la St. Jerome) was forbidden. What Trent settled once and for all was that the Deuteros were part of Scripture, and were both inspired and inerrant. It did not make these books CENTRAL to the Christian revelation, so differential reception was still possible.

I would submit that we continue to have differential reception of the Biblical books even though we don’t call it that. Our modern Catholic version of such differential reception does not exclude establishing doctrine from the Deuteros. This did not become clear though until a while after Trent when the programs of the Counter-reformation were established. It was really only 20 years after Trent when it dawned on everyone that the cath/prot divide was definitive and irrevocable.

 2) How could Catholic Bibles be published in Germany & France in 1527 and 1530 containing only the proto- canonical books? {cf. The “Jerome Biblical Quarterly”. Brown, Raymond E. et. al., editors. Englewood Cliffs, NJ/Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968 ed. Page 523}. How could a “Protestant canon” have received a “Nihil Obstat”?

Note the dates. There were no “protestants” then. Members of the reform movement at that time were known as “Lutherans.” John Calvin was just starting his university studies and was still a pious Catholic. England was still Catholic and Henry VIII was loyal to the Pope. The situation in the European Church was very confused at that time.

Who published these Bibles? They could have been Lutheran sympathizers (which at that time did not necessarily mean that they were not Catholics). If we assume that these were loyal Catholics, then they were following the more critical opinions voiced by St. Jerome which had come into vogue recently with the Humanist ideas following Lorenzo Valla and others.

I would submit that the exclusion of the Deuteros was diametrically opposed to the traditional practices of the Church and to the teachings and usages of the Ecumenical Councils. (If you have read both of my treatises refuting Webster, you know what my reasons are for saying this.) But this would have been based upon a legitimate difference of scholarly opinion within the Catholic Church at that time. It does not surprise me at all that this happened even under Church auspices.

Despite propaganda to the contrary, the control of the printed word — especially in religious matters — was not as firmly established before Trent as it would be very much later. There was also an incredible (if not at times inconsistent and selectively enforced) tolerance of diverse opinion in the pre-Tridentine Church. For example, Wycliffe was able to published some utterly amazing things in the 14th Century with relative ease. He did come under censure eventually, but not until his ideas had spread across Europe.

I admit that the two questions you asked appear confusing judged by modern standards, but the 16th Century was a confusing time. Cajetan was a die-hard anti-Lutheran. Yet he had serious misgivings about the Deuteros. Luther himself liked 1Maccabees, yet he rejected 2Maccabees and the Epistle of James.

This is why it is dangerous for someone not familiar with the complex vicissitudes of history to offer simplistic arguments in defense of anachronistic positions. Poor old William Webster (among other Protestant apologists) is quite guilty of that. He just doesn’t get it. Naive fundamentalism works neither in biblical studies nor in historical ones. You have to do your homework or you will end up looking foolish.

Recently, Roman Catholic Books in Fort Collins, Colorado has re-published the book “A general Introduction to Sacred Scripture” by A. F. Breen. It gives a long treatment on the use of the Deuteros from the 4th Century to the 16th. It shows how poorly Mr. Webster did his research.

By Art Sippo

🙏 Your PayPal Donation Appreciated

Select a Donation Option (USD)

Enter Donation Amount (USD)


As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you.

Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Scroll to Top