If the Council of Trent didn’t add the deuterocanon to the Bible, as its deliberations show, why do Protestant bibles exclude these books?
Before 1599, nearly all Protestant bibles included the deuterocanonical books; between the years 1526 to 1631, Protestant bibles with the deuterocanon were the rule and not the exception. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that the tide began to turn toward smaller bibles for Protestants.
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By 1831, the books of the deuterocanon, along with their cross-references, were almost entirely expunged from Protestant translations. This eradication has been so complete that few Protestants today are aware that such editions of Scripture ever existed. This process of eradicating the deuterocanon began with Martin Luther.
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MARTIN LUTHER (1483–1546)
Luther is the father of the Protestant Reformation. He grew up in a Catholic family and became a priest and monk of the Augustinian order. It is during this time that he became embroiled in a controversy over the issue of indulgences, which led to the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. The publication of the theses is generally seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Luther was very much a child of his age. He too was caught up in the enthusiasm for studying the ancient languages, exposing him to the exaggerated importance of Jerome. This background led to his German translation of Sacred Scripture, which we will speak about later.
Catholic apologists sometimes claim that Martin Luther removed the deuterocanonical books from Scripture. This is not entirely true. Luther’s German Translation of the scriptures included the deuterocanon. In fact, the completion of Luther’s German Bible was delayed because an illness prevented him from finishing the section containing those books! And since Luther’s Bible (with its “Apocrypha” section that contained the deuterocanon) became a paradigm for subsequent Protestant translations, most of these bibles also included them as well. It is, therefore, incorrect to say that Luther removed the deuterocanon. He did, however, introduce certain innovations into his translation that led eventually to smaller Protestant bibles; innovations that were the culmination of a process of development within Luther’s theology.
LUTHER’S GERMAN TRANSLATION
Luther’s German translation of the Bible introduced more than one radical innovation. With rare exceptions, Christian bibles before Luther had not only included the deuterocanon, but intermixed these books with the rest of the books of the Old Testament.
Even John Wycliffe, considered by Protestants to be a role model of Bible translators, followed this practice. Luther’s Bible broke with this traditional practice. Instead, he reordered the books of the Old Testament chronologically, removing the deuterocanonical books from their former place in the story of salvation and giving them the appearance of being extraneous to the word of God.
Luther’s second novelty was the gathering of the deuterocanonical books into an appendix at the end of the Old Testament and marking them Apocrypha.
The title page of this new appendix is prefaced by this explanatory remark: Apocrypha—that is, books which are not held equal to the holy scriptures and yet are profitable and good to read.
We must not read too much into this title Apocrypha; as we have seen, the meaning of the term had become quite fluid and confused by Luther’s time. Some writers used it to mean “spurious writings of merely human origin”; others had no difficulty using it for books they themselves considered canonical Scripture!
What did Luther mean by it?
Luther certainly did not believe, nor could he believe, that the deuterocanon was equal to the protocanon; but the fact that he saw these books still, in some sense, as part of the Old Testament is evidenced by the colophon he places after his “Apocrypha” in the appendix: “The end of the books of the Old Testament.”
Although segregated and devalued, the deuterocanon still remained part of Luther’s Old Testament corpus.
Luther’s prefaces to the various books of his Bible reflects his “canon in a canon” vision assessing each book differently. Indeed, Luther’s criticisms were not restricted to the Old Testament deuterocanon, but included the New Testament deuterocanon as well.
Luther’s actions speak to the fact that his innovation really was an innovation. Consider these points: if the deuterocanon never was really considered Scripture, why bother to qualify it as not being equal to Scripture? Why not just remove these books altogether? The answer is that such a move would have proved too radical, since Christian bibles had always included the deuterocanon. Instead, Luther reformatted the Bible. The resulting edition was still unlike any Bible ever seen before, and it paved the way for more radical steps to be taken in the future.