Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

The Sometimes Bewildering Basis of Biblical Books

BibleThe question of “How many books should the Bible contain?” is a common question asked by religious education and RCIA students. The Catholic and, for the most part, the Orthodox canon of Scripture contains 73 books while the Protestant canon contains 66 books. Some believe that the seven books were added to the Bible at the Council of Trent but that is an urban myth. The books and sections in question are:

Books: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 & 2 Maccabees

Sections: Letter of Jeremiah, additions to Esther, Prayer of Azariah, Susanna (Daniel 13), and Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14).

This debate over the canonical books dates back to the early decades of Christianity. We need to remember that there was no single list that was agreed upon initially because they were written by different authors at different times and in difference locations. And, I know this next tidbit is unbelievable but social media was not available to promulgate these texts.

Pope Damascus defined at the Council of Rome in 372 a list of 73 books for liturgical use.

The biggest debate was over seven books in the Old Testament since there were two lists in Jesus’ day. The two canons included a shorter list compiled by the ultra-conservative Jews and a longer list developed by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt. The ultra-conservatives rejected all works not written in Hebrew or not written in Israel. The longer version included seven works in Greek, some originally Hebrew. The Jewish leaders argued over the number presumably at the hypothetical first-century Council of Jamnia (held in Yavneh). Interestingly enough, archeology has successfully demonstrated that the Essene community used the longer Old Testament list. This is significant because the internal evidence in the Gospel of John seems to suggest that Jesus was not only familiar with the community but spent time with them (The cenacle for the Last Supper was held in the Essene community precincts.) Additional evidence in the letters written by St. Paul shows a heavy influence of Essene writings and thought (There is much evidence to suggest that many portions of the Book of Romans were direct “cut and paste” from Essene writings).

For more than 1000 years this issue was settled…

until Martin Luther and company re-opened the issue, for the purpose of rejecting one of these seven works which supports prayers for the dead. Martin Luther also wanted to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation but his followers rejected his original canon. Fun fact: the first edition of the King James Bible included these seven works, but by the second edition, even England succumbed to the Protestants and removed them:

Later Councils at Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD) ratified this list of 73 books. In 405 AD, Pope Innocent I wrote a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse reaffirming this canon of 73 books. In 419 AD, the Council of Carthage reaffirmed this list, which Pope Boniface agreed to. The Council of Trent, in 1546, in response to the Reformation removing 7 books from the canon (canon is a Greek word meaning “standard”), reaffirmed the original St. Athanasius list of 73 books. (The Bible – 73 or 66 Books?)

Bible Study Magazine has provided a comparison of various canons, albeit not Catholic, but informative all the same.

What's in Your Bible? Find out at

Leave a reply