The Catholic New Testament canon is identical to that of the Protestants other than some minor translation differences. Our difference lies in the contents of the Old Testament where we have Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and additions to Esther and Daniel. These books were called apocryphal by the Protestants and deuterocanonical (Second canon) by the Catholics. This has its roots among the Jews back in the three centuries before the beginnings of the Christian Church.
There were two groups of Jews in those days. The Palestinians who worshipped in the temple, used the Hebrew Scripture (Masoretic text), and maintained a separatist religion in which contact with gentiles and Samaritans was prohibited. They had distilled 613 laws from the Torah which governed their conduct.
The other group, a majority, were the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora who lived away from Palestine. The largest centers were found in Rome, Babylon, and Alexandria, Egypt and other major cities of the Mediterranean basin. They were Greek speaking, worshipping in synagogues, and had reduced the law into three demands: circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and abstention from pork. However they also had developed a high moral code centered in the ten commandments.
Origin of the Septuagint (LXX)
During the second temple period more and more of the Diaspora had abandoned the use of Hebrew in their synagogues using Greek instead. Three centuries BCE the Jews at Alexandria asked and received permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This was done over the next centuries and finally included the deuterocanonical books as well which they revered and read in their synagogues. This Greek Bible used by the Jews of the Diaspora was called the Septuagint (LXX).
It is most interesting that the codices of the LXX do not isolate the deuterocanonical books as a group but mixes them in with the prophets and the writings indicating that there was no awareness that they were thought to be later or foreign to an already existing Hebrew canon. It is also significant that some of these books were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran.
In the early second century the LXX was, like the Church thrown out of the synagogue and Greek speaking Jewish Orthodoxy was supplied with a different text minus the deuterocanonicals, and was subservient to the authority of the Hebrew text and the Pharisaic scribes and Rabbis.
The Church adopts the Septuagint
When Christianity moved out of its Palestinian matrix into the Greek speaking pagan world the LXX became its Bible. Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings show quotes from the LXX. In the fifth century when Jerome made his Latin translation (Vulgate) he noted that the deuterocanonical books were not used by the Jews.
However the great doctor of the Church, Augustine, argued that on the basis of usage the majority of the Churches including the most emminent ones, accepted the Greek additions as canonical. His great stature tended to close the discussion. This reaffirmed the canonical lists of the Western Councils of Hippo (393), Carthage III (397), and Carthage IV (419) and the letter of Pope Innocent I (405) which included the Greek books.
Luther argued in his debates (1519) that the Bible was superior to the authority of the Church (sola Scriptura). It was while arguing against the doctrine of purgatory that this came back to haunt him. He was confronted with 2 Maccabees 12:46:
“He made atonement for the dead that they may be delivered from their sins.”
Thus pressed he argued that the Church had no right to decide matters of canonicity. He held that the internal worth of a book was the factor. He pointed out that Jerome had questioned the status of these books because the Jews didn’t use them. This was no valid argument because the Jews obviously do not use the 27 Christian books either. He refused to accept that the Church through usage and the guidance of the Holy Spirit had selected them.
In his German translation of the New Testament he relegated Hebrews, Revelation, Jude and James which he called a “strawy” epistle to the appendix. His followers later restored them to their proper place in the canon.
What is the value of these books?
First of all they are part of our Christian heritage. Our forebearers used them for sixteen centuries. These books give us an in-depth view into the religious and secular culture of those times.
Tobit and Judith are fascinating stories that enjoyed popularity in both Jewish and Christian circles.
Maccabees give us the history of the war for freedom and the pious practice of prayers for the departed.
Sirach or Ecclesiasticus meaning “Church Book” was widely used to give moral teaching to the catechumens.
Readings from Wisdom are used at funeral because of its clear teaching on immortality. This was in dispute among the Jews of the first century (Pharisees vs. Sadducees).
In response to the reformers the Council of Trent (1546) declared as inspired by the Holy Spirit those 73 books with all their parts.