All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]
Two days ago, when writing about the prodigal son, I used a scripture verse from Sirach found in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE). Also known as Ecclesiasticus, this book of wisdom was written by Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, between 200–175 BC and is part of the Apocrypha. Primarily written in the 400 years between Malachi and the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, the books of the Apocrypha include Sirach, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel. While the nation of Israel was familiar with these writings and treated them with respect (which is why I used the verse), they never considered any of them as true books of the Hebrew Bible.
Evidence that the Jews never considered these books to be “divine doctrine” is found in the writings of the Jewish priest and scholar Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD). Explaining that the contents of the Hebrew Bible were written between the time of Moses and the days of Persian’s King Artaxerxes I (465 to 424 BC), he listed the books considered to be divinely inspired by God and none of the apocryphal books were named. Since a typical Hebrew Bible combines books like the Minor Prophets, Ezra with Nehemiah, Jeremiah with Lamentations, and the two books each of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles into single books, Josephus listed only 22 books. Nevertheless, his twenty-two are the same as the 39 Old Testament books found in the Protestant Bible.
Because neither Jesus nor the Apostles made any reference to any of the apocryphal books, most Christians believe them to be far less significant than the 39 books of the Old Testament. Some, however, do contain valuable historical information. For example, the books of Maccabees give a detailed account of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers to free Judah from foreign rule (167 to 134 BC). It is in Maccabees, with the cleaning and dedication of the Temple and relighting of the menorah, that we learn why Jews celebrate Hanukkah every year. Unfortunately, there also is much in these books that is inaccurate (such as Judith naming Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar as the king of the Assyrians) and some false teachings (such as the forgiveness of sins through almsgiving and a command to use magic in Tobit).
The list of Biblical books accepted as authoritative for faith because they were divinely inspired by God is known as the canon. Since a wide assortment of writings circulated in the early church, many of which were counterfeit, inauthentic, and even heretical, it became necessary to determine which works were genuine and which mixed truth with fiction or were completely false. While there is no definitive date when church canon was determined, the effort to determine it began as early as 170 AD with the Muratorian Canon. By 250, there was nearly universal agreement on the canon of the Old Testament. In 363, the Council of Laodicea affirmed all but the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It was in 367 that Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, provided a list (including Revelation) of the universally accepted 66 books that we still think of as the Protestant Bible. Although the Bishop listed several Apocryphal books as worthwhile reading, he noted that none should be combined with the rest of Scripture.
While none of the Apocrypha is part of the Protestant canon, twelve of its books are considered canonical Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. It was at the Council of Trent (1546-1563) that the Roman Catholic Church ratified them as part of their canon. While some Bibles, such as the RSV, may include the Apocrypha in a separate section, the Catholic edition of the RSV has those same books mixed in with the Old Testament.
Since it is not the inspired Word of God, the book of Sirach, like the rest of the Apocrypha, is not part of the recognized canon of Scripture. Although the apocryphal books have some historical/cultural significance, they do not possess the qualities of divinely inspired Scripture. While it’s easy to think that the canon was determined by man, we must remember that no man determined what books belong in the Christian canon any more than any man determined what was written in those books. It was God who inspired their writing and it was God who gave men the ability to discern what words were God-breathed. It is those 66 God-breathed books of the Bible that equip us for a life of service and faith.
These are the wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away. [Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, regarding the 66 books of the canon]