Why does the Orthodox Bible have more books than the Catholic Bible?

We received an email:

"... [why does] the Eastern Orthodox Church has several books in their bible that fail to appear in our own [Catholic]? I was simply curious to why our Church rejects these books. ... Thank you so much for your wonderful site and your time for reading this! -A fellow Catholic Christian"

Eastern Orthodox Church has no universally-approved Biblical canon

It is true that there are some additional books (such as 3 & 4 Maccabees) which are commonly (but not necessarily formally) found in modern, published Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments. We make this distinction between "commonly" and "formally" because the simple reality is that the modern Eastern Orthodox Church does not possess a formal, universally-approved Biblical canon. Rather, there is some confusion among Eastern Orthodox as to which books properly constitute the canon of the Bible. And, to understand this, you have to understand what "canon" originally referred to and how the canon of the Christian Bible (that is, the Biblical canon of the Catholic Church) actually came into being in the first place.

What does "canon" mean?

The term "canon" means is that a book is approved for reading at the Divine Liturgy -- that is, the Mass. This is what "canon" (a Greek word meaning "rule") originally referred to. The "canonical" books were those books which were approved for reading at the Liturgy.

Books which were not approved for reading at the Liturgy were called "apocryphal" (or "hidden"), and so excluded from the Liturgy. Among the "apocryphal" books, some were considered to be very orthodox and even inspired (but still not approved for public reading at the Liturgy), and others were considered to be uninspired or to contain errors (or even to be outright heretical). Only the "canonical" books were approved for reading at the Liturgy (the Mass).

Liturgy in the Fourth Century

Before the late 4th Century, each city-church had its own, local "canon" of the Bible, and these local canons differed from city-church to city-church ---some local canons including books which are currently excluded from our present Bible (such as 1 Clement to the Corinthians, or the Epistle of Barnabas, or the Book of Enoch, etc.), and some local canons excluding books which are currently included in our present Bible (such as the Epistle of James, and Hebrews, and 2 Peter, and 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation). The reason that city-churches had different local canons is because city-churches had different local Liturgies -- that is, the Liturgy (form of worship) in the city-church of Rome was different from the Liturgy (form of worship) in the city-Church of Corinth, or the city-church of Ephesus, or Antioch, or Jerusalem, etc. This included the yearly Liturgical calendar, with different city-churches celebrating different local feast days on any given date.

Since the feast days differed, so did the corresponding readings for those feast days; and since there were only so many Liturgical readings (from so many canonical books) that a city-church could have in a given year, this limited the number of books in the local canon of that city-church.

As the Church entered the 4th Century, there was no such thing as one, universal "Bible"
(one universal Scriptural canon, which the entire, universal Church shared in common).

Arian Heresy

When the Arian heresy ripped the Church apart (pitting bishop against bishop, and city-church against city-church), this created an enormous problem, since you had different bishops (Arian vs. Catholic) quoting from different books (or sets of books) in defense of either Arianism or Catholic Trinitarianism. Needless to say, this complicated and prolonged the controversy, and made Arianism much harder to defeat. Well, by the year 382, when the Arian heresy was finally defeated, Pope St. Damasus of Rome (who had been the librarian for the church of Rome prior to becoming Pope) took it upon himself to correct this problem, and to guarantee that it would not happen again, by initiating steps for the formation of a universal canon of Scripture which all city-churches would hold in common, which would eliminate any book which even implied Arianism (or other condemned heresies).

Forth Century North Africa Councils

To "start the ball rolling" on this, Pope Damasus promoted a Biblical canon which was a synthesis of the canon of the city-church of Rome and that of the city-church of Alexandria --the two leading city-churches of the universal Church. Damasus then turned this proposed canon over to the bishops of North Africa for analysis and debate. And he did this for four reasons:

  1. North Africa was not part of the theology schools of either Alexandria or Antioch, which were the two intellectual factions that had caused the Arian controversy.
  2. North Africa had the most bishops per capita of anywhere in the universal Church at the time, so they would reflect a good sample of universal opinion among the bishops.
  3. The North African Church had a traditional custom of meeting in council (either at Carthage or at Hippo) every two years, which would give them the ability to hash things out effectively; and
  4. Many of the North African bishops were renowned scholars, such as St. Augustine of Hippo, who participated in the debate and helped to formulate the canon.

So, at both the councils of Hippo (393) and at Carthage (397), the North African bishops worked out the final canon of the both the Old and New Testaments for the universal Church. This is the present canon of the Catholic Church, which the North Africans then submitted to Rome for final ratification. Now, we're not sure when this final ratification was given, but we do know that, by A.D. 405, Pope St. Innocent I was promoting the so-called "canon of Carthage" (397) throughout the Western Church. Rome would also have sent rescripts of its decison (final ratification of the Carthaginian canon) to Alexandria, the 2nd See of the universal Church and the primate in the East, with the expectation that Alexandria (as Eastern primate) would disseminate it throughout the East.

However, while Alexandria apparently (as it always did) followed the lead of Rome and accepted the Carthaginian canon, there was a major problem in the other Eastern patriarchate of Antioch (which represented the other half of the Eastern Church at the time), given that Antioch, at the time, was torn by internal schism, with two (and sometimes three) Catholic bishops all claiming to be the rightful Patriarch of Antioch! So, because of this, the canon of Carthage was never initially implemented or effectively accepted throughout the Patriarchate of Antioch; and since Constantinople (the Eastern imperial capital) was the Liturgical dependant of Antioch (the Byzantine Rite being a modified form of the Antiochian Rite), Constantinople never initally implemented the canon of Carthage either. And, because of this, well into the 8th Century, you have Byzantine and Antiochian fathers, such as St. John Damascene, recognizing books like 1 Clement to the Corinthians or the Book of Enoch as canonical works!

Byzantine Council of Trullo 7th-8th centuries

Now, this was modified somewhat when, at both the Byzantine Council of Trullo (692) and the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II (787), both the church of Constantinople and the church of Antioch (along with Rome and Alexandria) recognized the binding canons of the Council of Carthage (397). This of course included the Carthaginian Biblical canon, which is thus TECHNICALLY binding on the modern Eastern Orthodox Church. :-) Yet, in terms of practice, the Antiochian (and thus Byzantine) parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church continued to use pre-Carthaginian books in their local canons ...and for the simple reason that these books (e.g. 3 & 4 Maccabees or the apocryphal Esdras, etc.) were always read in the church of Antioch. The fact that the council of Carthage excluded these books (because they contain some problematic material) was ignored. And it's because of this neglect of the Carthaginian canon (as authorized by both Trullo and Nicaea II) that modern Eastern Orthodoxy (coming out of the Antiochian Liturgical tradition) often include such books in their published canons today. Yet, technically, they SHOULD consider themselves bound by Trullo's and Nicaea II's authorization of Carthage. :-)

Greek Orthodox Churches

In addition to this, there is the fact that Greek Orthodox Churches (especially) have a more fluid (less formal or legalistic) notion of how the idea of a "canonical book" should be applied. For example, in the Greek Orthodox Liturgy, they have NEVER read from the Book of Revelation. And, because of this, many modern Greeks will claim that Revelation is "not canonical." ...because they do not read from it in their Greek Liturgy. Now, the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church does read from Revelation in their, Russian Liturgy is beside the point. So, for the Eastern Orthodox, "canonical" does not really refer to a univesally-agreed upon canon, but to the common regional practice of specific Churches. Unfortunately, this has led some modern Greek and Antiochian Orthodox to claim that the Book of Revelation is "not inspired" and/or "not binding" on them, which is a modernist revision (a heretical novelty), which no ancient Greek or Antiochian would ever claim. For, what their forefathers would say is that Revelation (or another book like it) is still Divinely inspired, but just not canonical (i.e., not approved for reading at their Liturgy). And, for those Easterners who did recognze the binding authority of the Cathaginian canon, they would of course say that Revelation is universally binding (i.e., canonical in a universal sense), but simply not part of their local Liturgical canon.

Timeline of the Bible

The New Testament books are written.
Marcion, a businessman in Rome, taught that there were two Gods: Yahweh, the cruel God of the Old Testament, and Abba, the kind father of the New Testament. Marcion eliminated the Old Testament as scriptures and, since he was anti-Semitic, kept from the New Testament only 10 letters of Paul and 2/3 of Luke's gospel (he deleted references to Jesus's Jewishness). Marcion's "New Testament", the first to be compiled, forced the mainstream Church to decide on a core canon: the four Gospels and Letters of Paul.
The periphery of the canon is not yet determined. According to one list, compiled at Rome c. AD 200 (the Muratorian Canon), the NT consists of the 4 gospels; Acts; 13 letters of Paul (Hebrews is not included); 3 of the 7 General Epistles (1-2 John and Jude); and also the Apocalypse of Peter. Each "city-church" (region) has it's own Canon, which is a list of books approved for reading at Mass (Liturgy)
The earliest extant list of the books of the NT, in exactly the number and order in which we presently have them, is written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Festal letter # 39 of 367 A.D. (Arianism starts introducing spurious books)
Council of Rome (whereby Pope Damasus started the ball rolling for the defining of a universal canon for all city-churches). Listed the New Testament books in their present number and order. 
the Council of Hippo,  which began "arguing it out." Canon proposed by Bishop Athanasius.
The Council of Carthage, which refined the canon for the Western Church, sending it back to Pope Innocent for ratification. In the East, the canonical process was hampered by a number of schisms (esp. within the Church of Antioch). However, this changed by ...
The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II, which adopted the canon of Carthage. At this point, both the Latin West and the Greek / Byzantine East had the same canon. However, ... The non-Greek, Monophysite and Nestorian Churches of the East (the Copts, the Ethiopians, the Syrians, the Armenians, the Syro-Malankars, the Chaldeans, and the Malabars) were still left out. But these Churches came together in agreement, in 1442A.D., in Florence.
AD : At the Council of Florence, the entire Church recognized the 27 books. This council confirmed the Roman Catholic Canon of the Bible which Pope Damasus I had published a thousand years earlier. So, by 1439, all orthodox branches of the Church were legally bound to the same canon.  This is 100 years before the Reformation.
In his translation of the Bible from Greek into German, Luther removed 4 N.T. books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation) and placed them in an appendix saying they were less than canonical.
At the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church reaffirmed once and for all the full list of 27 books. The council also confirmed the inclusion of the Deuterocanonical books which had been a part of the Bible canon since the early Church and was confirmed at the councils of 393 AD, 373, 787 and 1442 AD. At Trent Rome actually dogmatized the canon, making it more than a matter of canon law, which had been the case up to that point, closing it for good.