Christianity is composed of three major branches: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. Each branch of Christianity has the same 66 books in their Bibles—the same 39 books of the Old Testament and the same 27 books of the New Testament. However, the Bibles used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have about 10 additional texts. These additional texts come from the Septuagint (LXX).
The LXX, completed around 100 B.C., is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. In addition to the books of the Hebrew Bible, the LXX contained other books. These other books were not placed in a separate section of the LXX; they were interspersed throughout the LXX Old Testament because their themes are similar to the themes of the Old Testament books—the fate of Israel, the struggle against idolatry, and the search for wisdom. The events recorded in these additional books occurred during the Intertestamental Period (the 400-year period before Christ.)
The Jewish View of the LXX
How did the Jews view the additional books of the LXX? More than a century after the LXX was completed, a Jewish historian named Josephus (A.D. 37-100) boasted that the Hebrew Bible contained an established list of 22 books. “For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain all the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death… the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.”
The current Jewish arrangement of the Hebrew Bible contains 24 books not 22, so scholars debate whether Josephus’s list was combining a couple books which are now separated. But at any rate, Josephus’s statement clearly shows a high degree of correspondence between what he believed were the books of the Hebrew Bible with the books of the Hebrew Bible as we know them today. (If you’re wondering why the Protestant Old Testament contains 39 books, not 24 or 22, it’s merely a difference in counting. Some books are grouped together and counted as one book in the Hebrew Bible. The content, however, is the same between the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament. Here’s a comparison chart.)
Since Josephus lived after the LXX was completed, his statement shows that neither he nor his contemporaries viewed the additional books of the LXX as part of the Hebrew canon. (The authoritative list of books accepted as Scripture is called the canon.) And to this day, the Hebrew Bible does not include the additional works found in the LXX. Present-day Jewish Bibles are not based on the LXX, but rather on the Hebrew text called the Masoretic Text (MT).
So what is a translator to do? If you were translating the Jewish Bible into another language, would you translate from the LXX and include the additional works or would you translate from the MT and exclude them? Complicating this is the fact that the LXX was the most popular Bible version among the early Christians. Many Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are quotes from the LXX. The precise question, then, that a translator must answer is, “What is the status of these extra books that are not accepted by Jews as Scripture but are found in the authoritative Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures?”
The Latin Vulgate
About 500 years after the LXX was completed, a Bible translator named Jerome (AD 346-420) translated the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—into Latin. Jerome’s translation, called the Vulgate, became the official Bible of the Catholic Church for a millennium. In a sense, Jerome charted a middle path in answering the question above. He translated directly from the Hebrew Old Testament, but he included the additional books of the LXX. The additional books were integrated throughout Jerome’s Old Testament, just as they are in the LXX. Jerome, however, knew that the Hebrew Old Testament lacked the additional works found in the LXX, so he labeled the additional works “Apocrypha” which means “hidden books.” We are not exactly sure why Jerome labeled these books “hidden,” but we do know that he considered them to be non-canonical and expressed reluctance at having to translate them. (See http://www.bombaxo.com/prologues.html.)
In 1534, Martin Luther completed his German translation of the Bible. Like Jerome, Luther based his translation of the Old Testament on the Hebrew text and included the apocryphal books in his version. Luther’s Bible, however, was the first to place the apocryphal books in their own section. In Luther’s Bible, the Apocrypha was placed between the Old Testament and New Testament and given the following introduction: “Apocrypha: These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read.” Until the 19th century, most Protestant Bibles, followed Luther’s lead and included the apocryphal books in a designated section. In the 1800s, Bible publishers discontinued printing the Apocrypha largely for economic reasons.
The Council of Trent
In 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church officially accepted the apocryphal books into their canon. The Roman Catholic Church refers to these books as deuterocanonical which in their usage means books that were fully accepted into the canon after the other books. So the Catholic deuterocanonical books are the books Protestants call apocryphal and to Roman Catholics they have the same status as any other biblical book.
The Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church also includes the additional works of the LXX in their canon and they also label these works deuterocanonical. However, the term deuterocanonical means something slightly different to the Eastern Orthodox. In the Eastern Orthodox view, the deuterocanonical books are important but they have a lesser status than other biblical books. The Eastern Orthodox use the Greek term, anagignoskomena for these books, which means “worthy of reading” or “things to read.” The anagignoskomena include the Roman Catholic deuterocanonical books and about five additional texts.
List of Books
The names of the deuterocanonical books/sections in the Catholic Bible are:
Additions to Esther
Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus)
Baruch (including Letter of Jeremiah)
Additions to Daniel
Song of the Three Children
Story of Susanna
Bel and the Dragon
To the list above, Eastern Orthodox Bibles add:
3 & 4 Maccabees (4 Macc. in appendix)
Letter of Jeremiah (separate from Baruch)
Prayer of Manasseh
In summarizing the different views, we can say that Roman Catholics have the highest view of the apocryphal books, Protestants have the lowest view, and Eastern Orthodox have a mediating view. Having a low view, however, does not mean disdaining and discarding the apocryphal books, because historically none of the three branches viewed these books with disdain or even apathy. Each branch saw something in these books, that was at the very least, worthy or useful.
Understanding the history of apocryphal books, helps us to understand the controversial status of these books within Christianity as a whole. Protestants can easily say, “These books were never accepted into the Hebrew canon and for that reason we don’t accept them into our canon.” But, we should be quick to add, although the founder of Protestantism placed apocryphal books in a separate section, he still included them in his translation of the Bible. Roman Catholics can say, “Those books have historically been included in the copies of Christian Scripture and 500 years ago, the Church affirmed their canonical status.” And Eastern Orthodox can say, “Our Old Testament version is the LXX and those books were included in the LXX so we include them in our Scriptures as well. But we understand the controversy surrounding these books so we do not view them as having the same authority as the other biblical books.”
Finally, while the topic of the Apocrypha can spark a firestorm of controversy, keep in mind the basic biblical unity between each of the three major branches of Christianity—the same 39 books in the Old Testament and an identical list of the 27 books of the New Testament.