Today is All Soul’s Day, in which Catholics pray for the faithful departed. And this practice of praying for the dead has clear Scriptural roots: it’s encouraged in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45. The only catch is that this citation comes from the Deuterocanon, the set of seven Books accepted as Scripture by Catholics but rejected by most Protestants (who tend to refer to these books, erroneously, as “Apocrypha”). It’s also in the Deuterocanon (specifically, 2 Maccabees 15:12-16) that we find the clearest example of praying to the Saints. We can go so far as to say that if Catholics are right about the Deuterocanon, then we are certainly right about praying to the Saints and praying for the departed.
But how do we know whether we should include the Deuterocanon or not? There are several good reasons, a key one being that the early Christians tended to accept these books (and after a few centuries of deliberation, accepted them nearly universally), whereas no one in the early Church used the Protestant canon. Another key reason is that it’s in the Deuterocanon that we find the clearest Old Testament prophecy of the Crucifixion (Wisdom 2:12-20, look it up). But one of the biggest objections to the Deuterocanon remains: if the Deuterocanon is Scripture, why isn’t it quoted in the New Testament?
It turns out, “New Testament quotation” is a pretty bad standard to use. The New Testament doesn’t contain direct quotations from Joshua, Judges, Esther, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs, and yet Protestants consider each of these books canonical (arguably, Lamentations and Chronicles aren’t quoted either, but there’s no need to multiply examples). Conversely, Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch (Jude 1:14-15), while St. Paul quotes both Aratus (Acts 17:28) and Epimenides (Titus 1:12), calling the later a “prophet,” yet no one includes any of these three in their Biblical canon. What’s the problem here? Quite simply, there’s no direct connection between quoting an author and believing him canonical.
So we can’t prove a book is inspired simply because it gets quoted in the New Testament, nor we can we reject it as uninspired just because it doesn’t. But even though this standard is broken, it’s on to something: if an inspired Book treats another Book as inspired, that settles the question. For example, if you accept the inspiration of St. Peter’s letters, then you logically need to accept the inspiration of St. Paul’s, since Peter tells us Paul’s letters are Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Seem fair so far? Good.
With that in mind, consider a couple of examples of how the New Testament uses the Deuterocanon. The first way is one that I’ve mentioned before: Hebrews 11 contains a list of Scriptural examples of living by faith. Towards the end (Hebrews 11:35-37), the events referred to are from 2 Maccabees 7. You could object that the passage doesn’t specify that these examples must come from Scripture, but every other example does, and it’s about the faith-history of Israel, so that argument seems a bit specious.
But nevertheless, there’s another example, one which I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned before. And it comes right in the heart of the most popular passages amongst Protestants: namely, Romans 9:19-21. Let’s look at it in the broader context of vv. 14-21,
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?
This passage gets quoted a lot, but I don’t think the people quoting it tend to realize that Paul is responding to these hypothetical objections with Old Testament quotations. So, for example, he answers the first set of questions by quoting Exodus 33:19 and Ex. 9:16. Then he gets to the second objection, and he says two things in response. First, that the pot has no basis upon which to complain to the potter at how it was made. This, he’s clearly getting from Isaiah 29:16 and Isaiah 45:9, and Protestant Bibles tend to footnote this accordingly. But then he asks, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?” But there’s nothing in Isaiah about making vessels for noble or ignoble use. That’s not the sense of the passage in either Isaiah 29 or Isaiah 45, or anywhere else in Isaiah… or, for that matter, the rest of the Protestant Old Testament. Instead, Paul is getting this straight from Wisdom 15:7,
For when a potter kneads the soft earth and laboriously molds each vessel for our service, he fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve clean uses and those for contrary uses, making all in like manner; but which shall be the use of each of these the worker in clay decides.
This is the exact sense that Paul preserves in Romans: the potter has total sovereignty to determine whether to use the clay for a dignified or an undignified purpose. Nor is this reference in isolation. Wisdom 12:12-24 seems to echo throughout the ninth chapter of Romans:
For who will say, “What hast thou done?” Or will resist thy judgment? Who will accuse thee for the destruction of nations which thou didst make? Or who will come before thee to plead as an advocate for unrighteous men? For neither is there any god besides thee, whose care is for all men, to whom thou shouldst prove that thou hast not judged unjustly; 14 nor can any king or monarch confront thee about those whom thou hast punished.
There are several other points of comparison, as with the descriptions of idolatry found in Romans 1:24-32 and Wisdom 11:15, etc. So we can’t write this off to mere coincidence.
In the past, when I’ve pointed to New Testament citations of the Deuterocanon, a common response has been: “how do we know that the author is quoting it as Scripture, and not simply as history?” And when we’re talking about historical details, that’s a far objection. After all, Jude 9 references historical information found only in the non-canonical Assumption of Moses. But in Romans, St. Paul isn’t citing to Wisdom for mere history. No, he’s using it to prove a theological point, and he’s using it as Scripture, just as he did with Isaiah and Exodus.
So what can we take from this? Namely, that we have good reason to conclude that St. Paul believed the Deuterocanon was Scripture, and that we should believe the same. In fact, the evidence for Paul considering Wisdom canonical is stronger than the evidence for him considering (for example) the Book of Judges canonical, and that’s not a question in any serious doubt. This means, in turn, that those disputed points of theology that are closely tied to the Deuterocanon, like praying to the Saints or praying for the departed, can be neatly resolved in favor of the Catholic position. So with that said, happy Feast of All Souls!