"Reformation Sunday is coming up in our church and one of the subjects I often hear about on that Sunday is the difference between the Protestant Bible and the Catholic Bible. The Catholics have more books in their Bible than we do. Why?"
The books in the Roman Catholic Bible not included in most Protestant Bibles are called the books of the Apocrypha. The word apocrypha comes from Greek and originally meant "hidden" or "esoteric." The term was applied to books taught only to those who were considered wise or learned. In the church this term eventually indicated a collection of books containing mainly apocalyptic (end-times) literature, but was later expanded to include any book of scripture withheld from the "common" people. These books were withheld because the contents were viewed as being beyond the understanding of most.
Nonetheless, the books of the Apocrypha were distributed throughout the early church and received wide acceptance. Indeed, some of the books were so commonly accepted they were cited in the New Testament and Jude actually quotes a passage from The Assumption of Moses, one of these books no longer existing.
In the church of the second and third centuries these books were used as scripture by the church leaders, though they are not today generally considered scriptural. Many of these books were included in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament used even in Jesus' day. These books were scattered throughout the Old Testament. Included in the Septuagint were the books of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Maccabees, Bel and the Dragon, 1st Esdras, Ecclesiasticus, Judith, Greek Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, and the Prayer of Manasses. Later, when the Vulgate was written (the translation of the Bible into Latin by Jerome) the book of 2nd Esdras was included, but 3rd and 4th Maccabees was rejected as scripture.
There was much controversy regarding these books from early on in the church. Some of the contents of these books conflicted with the early church teachings, such as praying for the dead and the intercession of the departed saints in worldly affairs. However, even though there was much refutation among various scholars of that day, the Council of Trent in 1546 declared the books of the Apocrypha "sacred and canonical [a legitimate scriptural book]."
Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, disagreed. Although Luther seemed to esteem these books, he rejected them as canonical. In his German version of the Bible he appended the books to the back of the Biblethough he nevertheless did include them. Later Protestant translations, including the English versions (e.g., the King James Version), continued to include the Apocrypha as an appendix until after 1629. Indeed, it is only since the early 1800s that English Bibles were generally printed without the addition of the Apocrypha.
In the history of the Church, it is in the past 200 years that the Protestant reader has been discouraged from reading and studying these books in the Bible. The stories and the wisdom of these books certainly stands in good stead with the rest of the Protestant Bible. And just as most thoughtful readers of scripture weigh carefully the historicity and meaning of the many scripture passages they encounter, so too must the reader of the Apocrypha evaluate the content of these books. But to relegate these historic and accepted-for-1,500-years-as-scriptural books to obscurity is to do violence to the history and traditions of the church.
When I am asked about which versions of scripture to purchase, I nearly always recommend that the reader insist on a Bible that includes the books of the Apocrypha. That way even we Protestants will have all the books of the Bible.