Why do some Christian denominations have more books in their Bibles than others? Is it just a personal preference?
The books included in Bibles are called the biblical canon, from the Greek word kanon, which means “rod” or “measuring stick.” Different denominations considered their biblical canon to be divinely inspired, recognized as sacred scripture, and authoritative for Christian belief and practices.
The Apocrypha: Different Views
Protestant churches have 66 books in their biblical canon. Roman Catholics, the Coptic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church have the same 66 books with some additional books from the Apocrypha. The word “apocrypha” means “hidden” and applies to books believed to have been written approximately 200 BCE through 400 CE. Some of these writings include Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), 1-2 Maccabees, additions to Esther, and additions to Daniel. The churches that include some of the apocryphal books in their Bibles believe them to be divinely inspired. In contrast, Jews and Protestants believe these books are not divinely inspired and should not be part of their sacred scriptures.
Translating and Printing Bibles
Around 400 CE, before the Christian church began to split into different denominations, church leaders commissioned Jerome, a biblical scholar and translator, to create a Latin translation of the Bible. At that time, Latin was the international language of the Roman Empire. Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts into Latin, and his work became known as the Vulgate. The Vulgate became the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic Church and was the Bible used in Europe during the Middle Ages. In his Vulgate, Jerome included the apocryphal books even though he knew that Jews did not consider these books divinely inspired. After the fall of the Roman Empire, people eventually stopped speaking Latin, and this language disappeared from everyday life. As the years passed on, only church leaders who had studied Latin could read the Bible for themselves, and this motivated scholars to translate the Bible into other languages, including English.
Since Jerome included the apocryphal books in his Vulgate, these books were included in printed Bibles from that time forward when it was translated into other languages; however, these books were placed in a separate section from the Old and New Testaments, much like we may have an appendix of articles or maps in our study Bibles today. During the 16th century, Martin Luther, a leader in the Reformation and a Protestant, intentionally taught that the apocryphal books were not part of the canonical Bible, although he still considered them useful and good to read. The rest of the Protestant reformers imitated him.
Protestants continued to recommend the apocryphal books as edifying material and included them in the back section of their Bibles but stressed they should not be used to form Christian doctrine or faith practices. Responding to this assertion, the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546 declared the apocryphal books to be divinely inspired and therefore canonical. Eventually, publishers of Protestant Bibles stopped including the apocryphal books as an appendix in their printed Bibles because of the confusion.
To summarize, a few denominations consider some of the apocryphal books to be divinely inspired because Jerome included them in the Vulgate. Protestants and Jews do not believe these books were divinely inspired because they were not included in the canonical Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament).
Although Protestants believe the Apocrypha is not divinely inspired and should not be used to form Christian doctrine or ethics, they do believe these texts are edifying to read, like a book of sermons or a book on Jewish history would be today. The Apocrypha includes wisdom literature, liturgical texts, and narrative history about the time period between the Old and New Testaments. The study of these books gives one a deeper understanding of the background of the Jewish beliefs and traditions that shaped the culture of Jesus and the early church.