A reader puzzles about the deuterocanon

He writes:

I am currently considering RCIA.  I have a question regarding the deuterocanonical books.

Wiki says that “Some scripture of ancient origin are found in the Septuagint but are not present in the Hebrew. These additional books are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah (which later became chapter 6 of Baruch in the Vulgate), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azarias, the Song of the Three Children, Susanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Odes, including the Prayer of Manasseh, the Psalms of Solomon, and Psalm 151.”

You say on the website “But there's the rub: The Septuagint version of Scripture, from which Christ quoted, includes the Deuterocanonical books, books that were supposedly "added" by Rome in the 16th century.”

Catholic.com states “It should also be noted that the first-century Christians--including Jesus and the apostles--effectively considered these seven books canonical. They quoted from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that contained these seven books.”  Did Christ quote from these added historical books, or from the Hebrew Canon?

However, if the Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew, how can these books not be found in the Hebrew, but found in the Greek? Were they added in translation?

In the Hebrew Canon, the first book was Genesis and the last book was Chronicles. They contained all of the same books as the standard 39 books accepted by Protestants today, but they were just arranged differently. For example, all of the 12 minor prophets (Hosea through Malachi) were contained in one book. This is why there are only 24 books in the Hebrew Bible today. By Jesus referring to Abel and Zachariah, He was canvassing the entire Canon of the Hebrew Scriptures which included the same 39 books as Protestants accept today.

The Apocryphal books generally refer to the set of ancient Jewish writings written during the period between the last book in the Jewish scriptures, Malachi, and the arrival of Jesus Christ and were “added to” the Septuagint for historical purposes.


I think you are coming at the problem the wrong way.  It doesn’t particularly matter which language the books of the Septuagint were originally composed in.  Most were in Hebrew.  Some bits are in Aramaic.  Some of the Deuterocanon may have been composed in Greek for all I know (I’m not an OT scholar.  I would suggest you contact the redoubtable Michael Barber at the Sacred Page to get the details on which of the deuterocanonical books appear to have a Hebrew original standing behind them.

The Septuagint was undertaken for a perfectly practical reason: Jews of the Diaspora were losing their Hebrew and Aramaic just as the grandchildren of European Jewish immigrants to the US can no longer speak Yiddish.  So the Jewish communities of the Diaspora translated their sacred texts into Greek in order to make them available for liturgy, reading and study in synagogues all over the ancient world.  That included, by the way, the Holy Land itself.  However, in the Holy Land, you had the phenomenon of a population that, in addition to Greek and Latin (both important commercial languages) also spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, the local dialects.  That’s why Pilate posts a sign in those three languages over Jesus’ head on the cross.

Because of this polyglot culture, Jews in the time of Christ made free use of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Old Testament.  The New Testament frequently cites the Septuagint and sometimes prefers that translation over the Hebrew.  And the New Testament alludes to the deuterocanonical books as freely as it alludes to any others in the Septuagint.  So, for instance, Jesus celebrates Hanukkah and treats that feast as a prophetic foreshadow of himself, just as he treats Passover as a prophetic foreshadow.  The synoptic gospels make clear allusions to Wisdom 2 in their account of the jeering mob at the foot of the cross.  Paul also draws on Wisdom in Romans.

There are, in fact, very clear indications in the NT and in studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls that when it came to which books were “holy books” there was a general agreement about certain core books (Torah) and then lots of disagreement after that.  The Sadducees only regarded Torah as inspired.  That’s why they quarrel with Jesus about the resurrection: they don’t buy that Isaiah or Ezekiel or Maccabees are inspired, so they don’t buy their prophecies of the resurrection.  Jesus doesn’t try to make the case that these are Scripture.  He simply argues with the Sadducees from that they do accept—Genesis and Exodus—and makes the case for eternal life from that by appealing to the witness of these texts that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still live. Elsewhere, when arguing with Jews who do accept these other books, he cites them.  But his task is not to dictate a canon of Scripture.  It is to say that the scriptures all point to him.

So how does a book become “canonical”?  Well, that’s the interesting point, because there is no “canon” of Scripture in the apostolic period, or for quite a long time after.  With the Old Testament, you basically have the Church using the Septuagint in Greek-speaking lands for the simple reason that everybody could understand it since, outside Judea, Greek was the lingua franca.  The books that wound up in the Septuagint are the books that wound up being read in liturgy.  And (mark this) it is the books that wound up being read in liturgy that the Church regarded as inspired. 

Think of canonization then, not as some mysterious process by which people prayed over ancient texts and tried to somehow divine which were inspired by some intuition from the Holy Spirit.  Rather, canonization happened in much the same way that your family chose which pictures to put in the family photo album.  With the Old Testament the Church already had the tradition of the synagogues of the Diaspora, which used the Septuagint (in fact, Ethiopian Jews continue that ancient tradition to this day).  So that’s what the early Church used.  Among Christians, there appear to be local differences between a few of the books used in the Septuagint in east vs. west (for instance, 1 Esdras) but for the most part what you get is the same basic canon of the OT: a canon that includes the deuterocanon.

The split between Church and synagogue and the destruction of the Temple necessitated something in Judaism that was not necessitated in the Church: a harder definition of which books could be read since post-Temple Judaism was locked in a strugle to define its identity and not simply melt in to the Gentile nations.  And so Pharisaic post-Temple Judaism ceases to use the deuterocanon and Hebrew becomes more rigorously enforced as the liturgical language.  But the Church is not affected by this and continues using the Septuagint (and in particular that collection of Septuagint books used by the Church of Rome in the West).  This gets translated into Latin by Jerome and becomes the standard Bible of the West for the next 1200 years.  It is telling that the first canon of Scripture promulgated to the entire western Church (by Pope Damasus I) is done as part of a much larger act of liturgical house ordering.  In other words, the canon of Scripture is seen as “that collection of books we read at Mass”.  If it’s read at Mass, it’s inspired Scripture.  And, of course, Damasus is simply codifying what has already been the ancient practice of the western Church, with a few local variations reflected in earlier local canons promulgated by local bishops and synod for local churches.

It should be noted that the canon of Damasus, reflected in Jerome’s Vulgate, is the normative practice of the Church for the next 12 centuries, but is not dogma.  It’s just “the way we do things”.  That’s because the Catholic approach is not sola scriptura, but lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we worship is the way we believe.  So the common liturgical practice of the Church was sufficient for establishing that this was apostolic tradition. (Later biblical scholarship would confirm that, yes, Jesus and the apostles do have deuterocanonical books in mind at times when they are teaching, but that’s not how the books are chosen since there is plenty of Old Testament Scripture—the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Obadiah, Nahum, for instance—that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever cite or allude to, while there are pagan poets—Epimenides and Aratus, for instance—whom they quote but who are not canonized.  The key is not “quotation equals canonicity”.  The key is, “Do we use this book in liturgy?”  If so, then it’s inspired because the Holy Spirit guides the Church in her liturgical actions.

At the Reformation, of course, the deuterocanon, both OT and NT, gets challenged.  Luther wanted to chuck, not just the OT deuterocanon, but the NT deutercanon (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation) as well.  (He remarks of James that it is an “epistle of straw” and says of Revelation something that many modern readers can empathize with: “A Revelation ought to reveal.”)  The original King James Version of the Bible was actually translated with the deuterocanon intact, including even texts that are not in the Vulgate but are in eastern versions.  However, when the Puritans came to power under Cromwell, the King James Bible was, by an act of Parliament, purged of these “Romish” books (though not of the NT apocrypha) and we got what became the standard Protestantized Bible in English.  What English speakers think of as the "normal" Bible, but which is, in fact, the heavily edited Bible of English Puritanism.

Meanwhile, a century previous to Cromwell, at the Council of Trent, the Church had simply reiterated the collection of books it had been using in liturgy since the start.  Interestingly, the definition of the canon was worded in such a way as to preserve the collection you see in any Catholic Bible, but not to forbid eastern churches from using such texts as 1 and 2 Esdras.  The respect for local custom remained, but the goal was to keep Scripture from being gutted of texts that the Church knew to be part of apostolic tradition.

Hope this helps!