I often get asked what the “official position” of the Orthodox Church is on the so-called deuterocanon (i.e. the Wisdom of Solomon, Judith, Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, the History of Susanna, 1st & 2nd Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Sirach), because it’s popularly assumed that we hold the exact same position on these books as the Roman Catholic Church does, however I don’t think that’s the full picture. Below I have excerpted what I think are the most authoritative and definitive statements of the Orthodox Church on this question, and I think one can deduce the following conclusions from them:
First, the deuterocanon is part of Holy Scripture, meaning it is inerrant. This is very clear from the Council of Jerusalem +1672, which says quite plainly about the books in the deuterocanon, “we also judge [these] to be Canonical Books, and confess them to be Sacred Scripture.” However, the same decree nuances this by stating that the deuterocanonical books have not always “been considered on the same level” as the other books of the Old Testament, which tells us that, while we do affirm these books as inspired and inerrant, they are in some sense “less inspired” than the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.
If that sounds strange, it shouldn’t, because this is essentially the same category that Sts. Athanasius and John of Damascus placed these books into, considering them to be “virtuous and noble,” and “good for reading,” however not quite on par with the Hebrew canon; and St. John makes it clear that the Hebrew Bible is canonical due to its books being placed in the Ark of the Covenant (which had disappeared by the time much of the deuterocanon was being written). And far from being an outdated idea, this same line of reasoning is invoked by St. Philaret of Moscow in his Longer Catechism, which is one of the most authoritative Catechisms in the Orthodox Church, wherein he is very clear that the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible have a superior canonical status to the deuterocanonical books.
Thus, I think that Fr. Michael Pomazansky’s explanation of this matter (which was endorsed by blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose) is the most fitting representation of the Orthoox position: the only books of the Old Testament that are properly canonical are the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, and the deuterocanon, while inspired and inerrant, is not on the same level as the other books, meaning it can be most adequately classified as “ecclesiastical,” rather than “canonical,” however both of these terms are acceptable when properly qualified and understood.
In the end, what does this practically mean for your average Orthodox layman? This is sort of my own speculation here, but I gather that you should read the deuterocanonical books as you would any other books of Scripture (i.e. you’re not free to disagree with any of their teachings), however if there are passages in those books that seem to be at odds with other parts of Scripture, we should always read them in light of what the rest of the Bible says. Moreover, one should also give a certain primacy to the Hebrew canon, meaning that if you had to choose between being very well read in the Hebrew Bible, with only a surface level knowledge of the deuterocanon, or vice versa, you should opt for the former. However, once again, that is just my interpretation of the data, feel free to read the sources below and comment if you think anything I’ve said here is false.
Let the following books be counted venerable and sacred by all of you, both clergy and laity. Of the Old Testament, five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; of Joshua the Son of Nun, one; of the Judges, one; of Ruth, one; of the Kings, four; of the Chronicles of the book of the days, two; of Ezra, two; of Esther, one; [some texts read of Judith, one;] of the Maccabees, three; of Job, one; of the Psalter, one; of Solomon, three, viz.: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs; of the Prophets, twelve; of Isaiah, one; of Jeremiah, one; of Ezekiel, one; of Daniel, one. But besides these you are recommended to teach your young persons the Wisdom of the very learned Sirach. Our own books, that is, those of the New Testament, are: the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; fourteen Epistles of Paul; two Epistles of Peter; three of John; one of James, and one of Jude. Two Epistles of Clemens, and the Constitutions of me Clemens, addressed to you Bishops, in eight books, which are not to be published to all on account of the mystical things in them. And the Acts of us the Apostles. (Canon 85)
St. Athanasius the Great:
But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple. (Letter 39)
St. John of Damascus:
Observe, further, that there are two and twenty books of the Old Testament, one for each letter of the Hebrew tongue. For there are twenty-two letters of which five are double, and so they come to be twenty-seven. For the letters Caph, Mem, Nun, Pe , Sade are double. And thus the number of the books in this way is twenty-two, but is found to be twenty-seven because of the double character of five. For Ruth is joined on to Judges, and the Hebrews count them one book: the first and second books of Kings are counted one: and so are the third and fourth books of Kings: and also the first and second of Paraleipomena: and the first and second of Esdra. In this way, then, the books are collected together in four Pentateuchs and two others remain over, to form thus the canonical books. Five of them are of the Law, viz. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This which is the code of the Law, constitutes the first Pentateuch. Then comes another Pentateuch, the so-called Grapheia , or as they are called by some, the Hagiographa, which are the following: Jesus the Son of Nave , Judges along with Ruth, first and second Kings, which are one book, third and fourth Kings, which are one book, and the two books of the Paraleipomena which are one book. This is the second Pentateuch. The third Pentateuch is the books in verse, viz. Job, Psalms, Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes of Solomon and the Song of Songs of Solomon. The fourth Pentateuch is the Prophetical books, viz the twelve prophets constituting one book, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. Then come the two books of Esdra made into one, and Esther. There are also the Panaretus, that is the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Jesus, which was published in Hebrew by the father of Sirach, and afterwards translated into Greek by his grandson, Jesus, the Son of Sirach. These are virtuous and noble, but are not counted nor were they placed in the ark. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, ch. 17)
Council of Jerusalem +1672:
Following the rule of the Catholic Church, we call Sacred Scripture all those which Cyril [Lucaris] collected from the Synod of Laodicea, and enumerated, adding to Scripture those which he foolishly and ignorantly, or rather maliciously, called Apocrypha; specifically, “The Wisdom of Solomon,” “Judith,” “Tobit,” “The History of the Dragon” [Bel and the Dragon], “The History of Susanna,” “The Maccabees,” and “The Wisdom of Sirach.” For we judge these also to be with the other genuine Books of Divine Scripture genuine parts of Scripture. For ancient custom, or rather the Catholic Church, which has delivered to us as genuine the Sacred Gospels and the other Books of Scripture, has undoubtedly delivered these also as parts of Scripture, and the denial of these is the rejection of those. And if, perhaps, it seems that not always have all of these been considered on the same level as the others, yet nevertheless these also have been counted and reckoned with the rest of Scripture, both by Synods and by many of the most ancient and eminent Theologians of the Catholic Church. All of these we also judge to be Canonical Books, and confess them to be Sacred Scripture. (Confession of Dositheus, Question 3)
St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite:
Note that some authorities include Daniel with Ezekiel as a single book, and thus complete the number 22 of the Hebrew alphabet; but the synod of Laodicea manages to do this by counting Ruth and Judges as a single book, and thus completing the number 22, which appears to be the better way, as it was confirmed by a synod. So it may be said that the sequence and order of books now read by all and printed and published as the text of the Bible is by no means correct and certain, as respects the books of the Old Covenant, for many reasons. (The Rudder, p. 397)
St. Philaret of Moscow:
31. How many are the books of the Old Testament?
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Athanasius the Great, and St. John Damascene reckon them at twenty-two, agreeing therein with the Jews, who so reckon them in the original Hebrew tongue. (Athanas. Ep. xxxix. De Test.; J. Damasc. Theol. lib. iv. c. 17.)
32. Why should we attend to the reckoning of the Hebrews?
Because, as the Apostle Paul says, unto them were committed the oracles of God; and the sacred books of the Old Testament have been received from the Hebrew Church of that Testament by the Christian Church of the New. Rom. iii. 2.
33. How do St. Cyril and St. Athanasius enumerate the books of the Old Testament?
As follows: 1, The book of Genesis; 2, Exodus; 3, Leviticus; 4, the book of Numbers; 5, Deuteronomy; 6, the book of Jesus the son of Nun; 7, the book of Judges, and with it, as an appendix, the book of Ruth; 8, the first and second books of Kings, as two parts of one book; 9, the third and fourth books of Kings; 10, the first and second books of Paralipomena; 11, the first book of Esdras, and the second, or, as it is entitled in Greek, the book of Nehemiah; 12, the book of Esther; 13, the book of Job; 14, the Psalms; 15, the Proverbs of Solomon; 16, Ecclesiastes, also by Solomon; 17, the Song of Songs, also by Solomon; 18, the book of the Prophet Isaiah; 19, of Jeremiah; 20, of Ezekiel; 21, of Daniel; 22, of the Twelve Prophets.
34. Why is there no notice taken in this enumeration of the books of the Old Testament of the book of the Wisdom of the son of Sirach, and of certain others?
Because they do not exist in the Hebrew.
35. How are we to regard these last-named books?
Athanasius the Great says that they have been appointed by the Fathers to be read by proselytes who are preparing for admission into the Church. (The Longer Catechism)
Fr. Michael Pomazansky:
The Church recognizes 38 books of the Old Testament. After the example of the Old Testament Church, several of these books are joined to form a single book, bringing the number to twenty-two books, according to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. These books, which were entered at some time into the Hebrew canon, are called “canonical.” To them are joined a group of “non-canonical” books-that is, those which were not included in the Hebrew canon because they were written after the closing of the canon of the sacred Old Testament books. The Church accepts these latter books also as useful and instructive and in antiquity assigned them for instructive reading not only in homes but also in churches, which is why they have been called “ecclesiastical.” The Church includes these books in a single volume of the Bible together with the canonical books. As a source of the teaching of the faith, the Church puts them in a secondary place and looks on them as an appendix to the canonical books. Certain of them are so close in merit to the Divinely-inspired books that, for example, in the 85th Apostolic Canon the three books of Maccabees and the book of Joshua the son of Sirach are numbered together with the canonical books, and, concerning all of them together it is said that they are “venerable and holy.” However, this means only that they were respected in the ancient Church; but a distinction between the canonical and non-canonical books of the Old Testament has always been maintained in the Church. (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, translated by Fr. Seraphim Rose)