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11 September 1999
A couple of days ago, in response to some quotations of Sirach I had distributed, you replied, "Who/what is Sirach?". Thanks for asking. I'll try to give you a clear answer.
Sirach is the name of one of the books of the Old Testament, and was written in Hebrew between 200 and 175 B.C. It does not appear in most Protestant Bibles although it has always been recognized as inspired Scripture by the Catholic Church. Protestants Reformers denied its canonicity in the 16th century after the Catholic Church repeated its affirmation of the book's canonicity.
In the early years after the Resurrection there was not universal agreement on the true canon of Scripture. Different canons, or recognized collections of books, were recognized in different areas. Some local churches accepted as Scripture books that later were rejected, such as the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and Shepherd of Hermes. Similarly, in some areas authentic books of the Bible were absent due to lack of early availability, or overlooked due to questions over their authenticity: the Letter to the Hebrews and Revelation were among those at the center of controversy.
Of course, even those books over which there was little controversy make no claims as to the exact contents of the true canon. How is it that God could reveal Himself through sacred writings, yet leave man in a position unable to determine exactly which writings were inspired?
There is no record that Jesus Himself ever explicitly identified the Old Testament canon. Although Jesus is known to have quoted from many of the Old Testament books, He did not quote from them all. Nor did He quote only from biblical sources. And certainly He never directly provided a list of the New Testament canon, either, as the composition of its books was not completed until many decades after His ascension in heaven. So how do we know which books belong in the Bible? Jesus apparently did not answer this question, and none of the books of any Bible in existence pretend to answer it either.
Jesus did, however, give His Apostles final authority to answer this and other vital questions about Scripture.
[Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered him, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter (Kepha), and on this rock (kepha) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:15-20)
Jesus also gave the other Apostles a share in this authority. He told them,
"…Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)
He who hears you, hears me. He who rejects you, rejects me. And he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me. (Luke 10:16)
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them... that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations... (Luke 24:45-47)
The writings of the Apostles indicate clearly that they understood they had a specific, authoritative role in guiding the Church in the truth of God's Revelation. When necessary, they appealed to the authority they had received to uphold authentic teaching in the face of doctrinal error...
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers... Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? (1 Corinthians 12:27-29)
But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder... (Romans 15:15)
Therefore, brothers, stand firm. Hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)... (Romans 10:8)
From the beginning, it was the Apostles and their appointees who preached the message of Jesus primarily by oral teaching, and then supplemented with their written words. It is this written portion of their teaching that comprises the New Testament. In short, they interpreted and proclaimed Divine Revelation by the authority that Jesus had given to them.
It was by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, sealed by the authority of Christ, that the Apostles and their successors discerned the books of the true canon and guaranteed their divine origin. But, man being man, even divinely instituted teaching authority has never completely ended all controversy on such disputed questions. In some quarters of the Church some individuals persisted in doubt concerning the canon. This is evident because had it been otherwise, there would have been no need for the Church to make solemn declarations defining the canon. But in the year 382 Pope Damasus I made such a proclamation, listing all the books of the Bible by name. His list contained precisely the same books that are in every Catholic Bible today.
The same canon has been affirmed repeatedly by popes and Church councils in subsequent centuries. The Church has not wavered in its steadfast approval of this one, unalterable canon.
However, in the sixteenth century, some of the Protestant Reformers rejected this canon, arguing that some of the books actually were not of divine origin and taught things contrary to the "real" books of the Bible. They taught that the teaching authority that Jesus gave His Apostles did not, in fact, continue with the successors of the Apostles, and as a result the Church from the beginning had erred in its definition of the canon.
The teaching authority they denied in the Church, however, they themselves seemed to possess. They devised their own criteria as litmus tests for the canon of Scripture, dispensing with books which did not seem to fit their own beliefs. Among these books were Sirach, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Baruch, as well as longer versions of Daniel and Esther. (Together, these books are often referred to as the deuterocanon. It is interesting to note that it is precisely these same books whose canonicity was denied by non-Christian Jews at the end of the first century.) Amazingly, Martin Luther's translation of the Scriptures even removed James ("an epistle of straw"), Hebrews, Revelation, and certain other New Testament books to an appendix at the end of his volume, considering them apocryphal as well.
In response to the Protestant Reformers, the Church at the Council of Trent again affirmed the traditional canon. In reaction, some Reformers accused the Church of "adding" books to the Bible: a myth that still survives among some who do not understand the simple facts of the matter.
J, this issue is rather fundamental, because if one can see the crucial importance of knowing which books the Bible really contains, then one should recognize the importance of correctly choosing whose testimony to believe on the canon question. Just ask yourself:
Did Jesus really leave it up to each individual to decide for himself what God's Word contains? Is it prudent to assume that the Bible at our bedside is complete and incorrupt, simply because we trust 'God preserved His Word'? Hardly! The fact that different Bibles contain different canons refutes such thinking.
Or are we to think that the matter is not really important because, after all, 'it's only seven books that are disputed'? No! When we speak of God's Word, would it not be blasphemous to claim that any book of the Bible is unimportant and dispensable?
J, either the Catholic canon has books that don't belong, or the Protestant canon is incomplete. In your opinion, which way does the evidence seem to point?
Did God from the beginning permit the Bible to contain erroneous books, permitting souls to be lead astray for well over a thousand years? Was it not until the sixteenth century that He provided for the Bible's correction?
…If so, then Jesus permitted mankind to be lead into error by His Church, which Paul described as,
...God's household, the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth.
(1 Timothy 3:15)
But that's your position if you accept the Protestant canon as complete. And if this truly is what happened, then how do you know whether the Reformers finally got the canon right?
I know which books belong in the Bible not on my own authority, but on the testimony of the Church, on the word of the Apostles' successors, who have announced to the world which books the Bible contains. If you don't believe them, whom can you believe?
The scriptural evidence is strong that Jesus gave His Apostles the mission to preserve and preach His message intact, and the authority to write it down and interpret it. This mission did not die when the Apostles died, any more than the message of Christ can pass away. The mission and the necessary power and authority to carry it out has remained with those the Apostles appointed -Matthias (cf. Acts 1:26) and all the others- and has been exercised by them in continuous succession until this day. This mission will last until Christ returns in glory.
Historical evidence of the Catholic canon of Scripture
Following is historical evidence to support the fact that the deuterocanonical books have enjoyed authoritative canonical status in the Catholic Church since the early centuries. I have found documentation from as early as the fourth century. In order to address any concerns about the credibility of my sources, I've personally traced citations only to respected, scholarly, published works:
The Council of Rome, A.D. 382 —Pope Saint Damasus I (366-384):
Latin excerpt, followed by an English translation:
Nunc vero de Scripturis divinis agendum est, quid universalis catholica recipiat Ecclesia et [vel] quid vitare [vitari] debeat.
Incipit ordo Veteris Testamenti. Genesis liber unus; Exodus lib. 1; Leviticus lib. 1; Numeri lib. 1; Deuteronomium lib. 1; Iesu Nave lib. 1; Iudicum lib. 1; Ruth lib. 1; Regum libri 4; Paralypomenon libri 2; Psalmi CL [Psalterium] lib. 1; Salamonis lib. 3: Proverbia lib. 1, Ecclesiastes lib. 1, Cantica Canticorum 1.1; Item Sapientia lib. 1; Ecclesiasticus lib. 1.
Item ordo Prophetarum. Esaiae liber unus; Hieremiae lib. 1, cum Cinoth id est Lamentationibus suis; Exechiel[is] lib. 1; Danihel[is] lib. 1; Oseae lib. 1; Amos lib. 1; Micheae lib. 1; Iohel lib. 1; Abdiae lib. 1; Ionae lib. 1; Naum lib. 1; Ambacum [Abacuc] lib. 1; Sophoniae lib. 1; Aggei lib. 1; Zachariae lib. 1; Malacihel [Malachiae] lib. 1.
Item ordo storiarum. Iob liber unus; Tobiae lib. 1; Esdrae [Hesdrae] libir 2; Hester lib. 1; Iudit lib. 1; Machabeorum libri 2.
Item ordo Scripturarum Novi et aeterni Testamenti, quem sancta et catholica [Romana] suscipit [et veneratur] Ecclesia...
Likewise it has been said: Now indeed we must treat of the divine Scriptures, what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she ought to shun.
The order of the Old Testament begins here: Genesis one book, Exodus one book, Leviticus one book, Numbers one book, Deuteronomy one book, Josue Nave one book, Judges one book, Ruth one book, Kings four books [I, II Kings; I, II Samuel], Paralipomenon two books [I, II Chronicles], Psalms one book, Solomon three books, Proverbs one book, Ecclesiastes one book, Canticle of Canticles one book, likewise Wisdom one book, Ecclesiasticus one book.
Likewise the order of the Prophets. Isaias one book, Jeremias one book, with Ginoth, that is, with his lamentations [including Baruch?], Ezechiel one book, Daniel one book, Osee one book, Micheas one book, Joel one book, Abdias one book, Jonas one book, Nahum one book, Habacuc one book, Sophonias one book, Aggeus one book, Zacharias one book, Malachias one book.
Likewise the order of the histories. Job one book, Tobias one book, Esdras two books [Ezra, Nehemiah], Esther one book, Judith one book, Machabees two books.
Likewise the order of the writings of the New and eternal Testament, which the holy and Catholic Church supports...
The Council of Carthage (III), 28 August, 397:
Latin excerpt, followed by an English translation:
[Placuit,] ... ut praeter scripturas canonicas nihil in ecclesia legatur sub nomine divinarum Scripturarum. Sunt autem canonicae scripturae: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numeri, Deuternomium, Iesu[s], Nave, Iudicum, Ruth, Regnorum libri quatuor, Paralipomenon libri duo, Iob, Psalterium Davidicum, Salomonis libri quinque, duodecim libri Prophetarum, Esaias, Ieremias, Daniel, Ezechiel, Tobias, Iudith, Hester, Hesdrae libri duo, Machabaeorum libri duo. Novi autem Testamenti...
Canon 36 (or otherwise 47). [It has been decided] that nothing except the Canonical Scriptures should be read in the church under the name of the Divine Scriptures. But the Canonical Scriptures are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Josue, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, Paralipomenon two books, Job, the Psalter of David, five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus], twelve books of the Prophets [Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi], Isaias, Jeremias [including Baruch?], Daniel, Ezechiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Machabees. Moreover, of the New Testament...
Pope Saint Innocent I, A.D. 401-417:
From the epistle "Consulenti tibi" to Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, February 20, 405:
A brief addition shows what books really are received in the canon. These are the desiderata of which you wished to be informed verbally: of Moses five books, that is, of Genesis, of Exodus, of Leviticus, of Numbers, of Deuteronomy, and Josue, of Judges one book, of Kings four books, and also Ruth, of the Prophets sixteen books, of Solomon five books, the Psalms. Likewise of the histories, Job one book, of Tobias one book, Esther one, Judith one, of the Machabees two, of Esdras two, Paralipomenon two books. Likewise of the New Testament...
The Creed of the Council of Toledo, A.D. 400, 447:
The rule of the Catholic faith against all heresies...
12. If anyone either believes that any scriptures, except those which the Catholic Church has received, ought to be held in authority or venerates them, let him be anathema.
The Council of Florence, 1438-1445:
...It [the Roman Church] professes one and the same God as the author of the Old and New Testament, that is, of the Law and the Prophets and the Gospel, since the saints of both Testaments have spoken with the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, whose books, which are contained under the following titles it accepts and venerates. [The books of the canon follow, cf. Council of Trent, Session IV, DS 784].
The Council of Trent, Session IV, April 8, 1546:
The sacred and holy ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit, with the same three Legates of the Apostolic See presiding over it, keeping this constantly in view, that with the abolishing of errors, the purity itself of the Gospel is preserved in the Church, which promised before through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures of our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded "to be preached" by His apostles "to every creature" as the source of every saving truth and of instruction in morals [Matt. 28:19 ff., Mark 16:15], and [the Synod] clearly perceiving that this truth and instruction are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which have been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the apostles themselves, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit, have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand, [the Synod] following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and holds in veneration with an equal affection of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament, since one God is the author of both, and also the traditions themselves, those that appertain both to faith and to morals, as having been dictated either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession. And so that no doubt may arise in anyone's mind as to which are the books that accepted by this Synod, it has decreed that a list of the Sacred books be added to this decree. They are written below:
Books of the Old Testament: The five books of Moses, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Josue, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, the first book of Esdras, and the second which is called Nehemias, Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, the Psalter of David consisting of 150 psalms, the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus [Sirach], Isaias, Jeremias with Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel, the twelve minor Prophets, that is Osee, Joel, Amos, Abdias, Jonas, Michaeas, Nahum, Habacuc, Sophonias, Aggaeus, Zacharias, Malachias; two books of the Machabees, the first and the second.
Books of the New Testament...
If anyone, however, should not accept the said books as sacred and canonical, entire with all their parts, as they were wont to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition, and if both knowingly and deliberately he should condemn the aforesaid traditions let him be anathema. Let all, therefore, understand in what order and in what manner the said Synod, after having laid the foundation of the confession of Faith, will proceed, and what testimonies and authorities it will mainly use in confirming dogmas, and in restoring morals in the Church...
Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod taking into consideration that no small benefit can accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which one of all the Latin editions of the sacred books which are in circulation is to be considered authentic, has decided and declares that the said old Vulgate edition, which has been approved by the Church itself through long usage for so many centuries in public lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions, be considered authentic, and that no one under any pretext whatsoever dare or presume to reject it.
Furthermore, in order to curb impudent clever persons, the synod decrees that no one who relies on his own judgment in matters of faith and morals, which pertain to the building up of Christian doctrine, and that no one who distorts the Sacred Scripture according to his own opinions, shall dare to interpret the said Sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which is held by holy mother Church, whose duty it is to judge regarding the true sense and interpretation of holy Scriptures...