The question of how many books were removed from the Bible is an intriguing one for believers and non-believers alike. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: At least 18 books that are now considered Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical were at one time considered canonical scripture for both Jews and early Christians before later being removed by various church councils.
In this comprehensive article, we will explore the historical and theological reasons behind the removal of certain texts from Biblical canon over the centuries. Delving into the political and religious motivations behind these decisions, we will analyze key examples of both Old Testament and New Testament books that were once widely read but later labeled uninspired or even heretical.
Tracing the evolving definition of “canon” itself, we will examine major Christian councils like Carthage and Trent that ratified the final Catholic and Protestant canons. Along the way, we will shed light on important controversies regarding scriptural authority that still impact Christian denominations today.
Defining the Biblical Canon
The Complex History of Canonization
The formation of the biblical canon was a complex process that took place over many centuries. In the early years of Christianity, there was no defined set of approved scriptures. Early Christian communities used various texts and oral traditions to guide their faith.
It wasn’t until the 4th century that Church councils officially began to establish an authoritative canon of scripture.
Some key events in the development of the biblical canon:
- The Jewish canon known as the Tanakh was largely set by the 2nd century CE. This established the scriptures later known by Christians as the Old Testament.
- In the mid-2nd century, the Christian apologist Marcion of Sinope rejected the entire Old Testament and proposed his own limited canon including an edited version of Luke’s gospel and some of Paul’s letters.
- In 367 CE, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, listed the 27 books of the New Testament canon in a letter. This list was later ratified by Church councils.
- The Council of Rome (382 CE) and the Council of Hippo (393 CE) authorized the 27 book New Testament canon along with the Old Testament.
- The Council of Carthage (397 CE) ratified this same canon, which became widely accepted over the next century.
So while the core of the modern biblical canon was largely in place by the late 4th century, questions continued to circulate for centuries about some books like Revelation. Exact canons today still differ between various denominations.
Overall, the complex process shows how diverse early Christianity was, with communities using different texts before official standardization.
Key Differences Between Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Canons
While there is substantial overlap between major Christian canons, some key differences exist between the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox scriptural canons:
|Number of Books
|Only Old Testament books, arranged in three categories: Torah, Prophets, and Writings
|Includes 7 deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament
|Excludes deuterocanonical books, follows Jewish Tanakh for OT canon
|Includes additional deuterocanonical books and texts like 3 Maccabees and the Prayer of Manasseh
So while the canons align on most books, significant differences emerged early. Jews rejected the New Testament, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians included additional Old Testament books that Protestants later removed during the Reformation.
Understanding the history helps explain why biblical canons still vary between faith traditions today.
Lost Old Testament Books
The Book of Jasher
The Book of Jasher is an ancient text that is referenced twice in the Hebrew Bible (Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18). Though lost for centuries, the book was later reconstructed and published in the 17th century.
Scholars believe the Book of Jasher likely contained epic poetry, songs, and genealogical information that supplemented the stories contained in the Hebrew Bible. Some key details about the lost Book of Jasher:
- The name “Jasher” means “upright” or “just” in Hebrew.
- The Book of Jasher is thought to have been a collection of Hebrew poetry and songs praising the heroes of the Old Testament.
- Several texts have claimed to be the “lost” Book of Jasher, including one published in the 17th century by Jacob Ilive.
- There is debate among scholars about the authenticity of the reconstructed Book of Jasher published in modern times.
- The Book of Jasher likely contained expanded stories and embellishments that were passed down orally before being lost.
While intriguing, the Book of Jasher remains a mysterious text that may never fully be reconstructed. The few tantalizing verses attributed to it in the Bible have fueled speculation about the lost songs, stories, and poems it once contained.
The Book of Enoch
The Book of Enoch is an ancient Jewish text attributed to Noah’s great-grandfather that was likely written between 300 and 100 BC. Portions of the Book of Enoch were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating the text was considered sacred by at least some Jews during the Second Temple period.
Key facts on the Book of Enoch:
- The Book of Enoch contains apocalyptic visions and parables attributed to the antediluvian patriarch Enoch.
- The text covers topics like the origin of evil and the final judgement and provides detailed accounts of the Nephilim – the “fallen” angels who married human women.
- Early Christians valued the Book of Enoch and some Church Fathers considered it sacred scripture.
- The Book of Enoch was banned by later Church authorities and disappeared for centuries until rediscovered in 1773 in Ethiopia.
- Modern scholars believe the Book of Enoch is an ancient Jewish text composed between 300-100 BC.
While not included in most modern Bibles, the intriguing Book of Enoch offers a window into apocalyptic beliefs around the time of Jesus and is regarded by academics as an important text of Second Temple Judaism.
The Book of Jubilees
The Book of Jubilees, sometimes called Lesser Genesis, is an ancient Jewish text that retells the events of Genesis and Exodus from the time of creation through the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Some key facts:
- Jubilees covers the Biblical stories from creation to Moses, dividing history into periods of 49 years called “Jubilees”.
- The text claims to be dictated by an angel to Moses on Mount Sinai.
- Jubilees provides additional details on the Biblical stories such as the origin of the Nephilim and the angelic “Watchers”.
- The earliest complete version was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggesting Jubilees was studied by the Essene community.
- Early Church leaders like Justin Martyr and others considered Jubilees scripture, though it was later banned.
While inspired by the Old Testament, the Book of Jubilees shows how these ancient stories evolved and expanded in Jewish thought in the centuries before Christ. The text provides valuable insight into how some Jews of the period supplemented the canonical books.
New Testament Apocrypha
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas is a Greek text that was likely written between AD 70 and 132. Though attributed to Barnabas, one of the earliest Christian believers mentioned in the Book of Acts, most scholars believe the letter was pseudonymously ascribed to him.
The Epistle provides instruction for Christians, focusing heavily on correct interpretation of biblical laws. For example, the author allegorizes aspects of Mosaic law, arguing that the laws are meant to be understood figuratively rather than literally.
The Epistle of Barnabas was well-regarded in the early church and was even considered part of the New Testament canon by some. However, its figurative interpretations and pseudonymous authorship eventually led to its exclusion from the Bible.
Nonetheless, as one of the earliest extrabiblical Christian texts, the Epistle provides important insight into early biblical interpretation and Christian practice outside of the New Testament scriptures.
The Shepherd of Hermas
Like the Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas was a popular early Christian text that narrowly missed inclusion in the New Testament canon. Composed in Rome around the mid-2nd century AD, the Shepherd is presented as a series of visions and instructions given to a man named Hermas by an angel.
It focuses heavily on ethical instruction for Christians, especially regarding repentance and forgiveness of post-baptismal sins.
In the 4th century AD, the Shepherd of Hermas was still being treated almost as scripture by many Christians. However, concerns over its oozing genre (visions) and late date of authorship meant it would eventually be rejected from the Bible.
Still, it gives modern readers an intimate look into the lives and theological debates of early Christians in the post-apostolic era.
The First Apocalypse of James
The First Apocalypse of James is one of several early Christian texts discovered in the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Likely composed in the 2nd century AD, the text takes the form of a secret revelation given by the risen Christ to James the Just, the brother of Jesus.
It covers a variety of themes relating to the nature of salvation, the cosmic struggle between good and evil, and the future return of Christ.
Though attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, scholars almost universally affirm The First Apocalypse of James was pseudonymously ascribed to him. While clearly the product of early Jewish-Christian circles, the Apocalypse espouses unorthodox Gnostic themes that led to its eventual condemnation.
Nonetheless, for scholars of comparative religion, the text provides a fascinating window into the theological diversity of early Christianity.
Key Church Councils on Canon
The Council of Carthage (397 CE)
The Council of Carthage in 397 CE was a key turning point in deciding the biblical canon for Christianity. Over 200 African bishops gathered to determine which books belonged in the Bible, approving a canon similar to the modern one we have today.
The council essentially ratified the preceding local African synods from Hippo and Carthage in 393 CE, which had determined the same 27 New Testament books.
These early African councils set an authoritative precedent for biblical canon that prevailed over competing lists in Greek and Syriac churches. According to records, the Council of Carthage canonized the exact 27 books of the current New Testament, rejecting several apocryphal texts.
This included approving the four gospels, Acts, all 13 Pauline epistles, nine other apostolic letters, and Revelation.
Some scholars argue the council actually approved a 46 book Old Testament, which matched the Greek Septuagint versus the shorter 39 book Hebrew Bible. Others say the canon rolls differ too much on specifics to determine clearly.
In any case, the decisions profoundly shaped scriptural canon for over 1,000 years of Western Christianity. Britannica notes this council’s canon “prevailed everywhere in the West except in the Syriac church” withstanding reformations and splits.
The Council of Trent (1546 CE)
In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent over 18 years to counter teachings it considered heresies. Among its many doctrinal decrees were pronouncements on which books constituted the Old and New Testament canon.
In 1546, the council affirmed the same canon approved at the regional councils of Florence (1442 CE) and Carthage over a millennium earlier. This formally adopted the 27 book New Testament used by Western Christians today, as well as the full 46 book Old Testament from the Vulgate translation used widely during the Middle Ages.
The decree provided an “infallible” reckoning on scriptural canon by the Roman Catholic church leadership. It also confirmed the apocrypha, declaring anathema or excommunication for those who reject books like Tobit, Judith, the Maccabees et al. as uninspired.
The council preceded publishing of the Clementine Vulgate edition in 1592 which fixed this Catholic Bible for centuries after.
While the Protestant reformers generally rejected the apocrypha, both branches of Christianity have shared the same 27 New Testament canon since this pivotal 16th century council. So from the early African synods through the Middle Ages spanning over a millennium, the key canon took shape much as we now know it.
Lasting Impact on Biblical Authority
Protestant vs Catholic Views
When it comes to views on biblical authority, Protestants and Catholics have some clear differences. Protestants believe that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for faith and practice. They see scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and reject church tradition as having equal authority.
In contrast, Catholics believe that both scripture and church tradition hold authority in matters of doctrine. They believe scripture requires interpretation by the church and do not think the Bible can be correctly understood apart from the lens of tradition.
This divergence stems in part from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Reformers like Martin Luther championed sola scriptura – the view that scripture alone is authoritative. They rejected doctrines and practices not clearly taught in the Bible.
Meanwhile, the Catholic church reaffirmed its commitment to both scripture and tradition at the Council of Trent. These differing views on authority continue to separate Protestants and Catholics today.
Role of Extra-Biblical Traditions
The debate over books removed from the Bible has amplified the divide between Protestants and Catholics on scriptural authority. Protestants generally believe the 66 books of the modern Protestant Bible represent God’s complete written revelation – nothing else is needed.
Catholics, however, also hold certain apocryphal books in high regard. These texts, like Maccabees and Wisdom, are part of the Catholic Bible but were rejected by Protestants.
Beyond apocryphal books, Catholics also look to other extra-biblical traditions and teachings as authoritative in faith and morals. For instance, Catholic doctrine on Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption into heaven – while consistent with scripture – is not directly taught in the Bible.
Such beliefs rest heavily on church tradition. Conversely, Protestants are leery of teachings not grounded in scripture, regardless of how old or widespread the tradition may be.
The debate over biblical canon continues to this day across various Christian denominations. While all agree on the authority of books like Genesis and the Gospels, apocryphal works removed by 4th century church councils remain a source of contention between Protestants and Catholics.
Beyond doctrinal disagreements, the evolving definition of canon itself reveals much about how human politics, culture and philosophy have shaped our understanding of scripture. By analyzing the key councils and controversies around removed texts, we gain a deeper appreciation for the complex forces that coalesced to produce the Bibles most Christians read today.