Most people are aware that the Christian Bible contains famous books like Genesis; Psalms; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the letters of Paul; and of course, the book of Revelation. But if your background is Roman Catholic or Orthodox, you may have heard references to the books of Tobit, Judith, or 2 Maccabees. These writings, along with several other books, are often called the Apocrypha.
In Roman Catholic Bibles, such texts are included within the Old Testament. Other Bibles group the Apocrypha in a separate section between the Old and New Testaments. And many new translations of the Bible used by Protestants do not include the Apocrypha at all.1 Christians, as a whole, are divided on the inclusion of apocryphal texts in the Bible. Orthodox Christians include books that Catholics do not. Catholics include books that Protestants do not.
So what exactly is the Apocrypha? Why is it so disputed?
The word “Apocrypha” did not come into widespread use until the Protestant Reformation during the sixteenth century.2 It comes from a Greek word that means “the things that are hidden” and refers to the belief that these writings were esoteric or mysterious.3
In total, the Apocrypha is a collection of roughly fifteen books.4 These writings contain wisdom literature, stories from Old Testament times, prophecy, and historical narratives of the Jewish people during a time often referred to as the intertestamental period (from the fourth century BCE—the end of the Old Testament—to the time of Jesus in the first century CE—the beginning of the New Testament).
The Apocrypha and the Catholic Church
Let’s take a look at a bit of history regarding how Catholics came to embrace the Apocrypha. Around 400 CE, Jerome, one of the early church fathers, compiled the most important works of sacred literature for the Christian church. In doing so, he translated many writings—including the Bible itself—from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into Latin. His translation of the Bible is known today as the Latin Vulgate.
The Vulgate became the primary Bible used by the Latin-dominated church for roughly 1,500 years. In it, Jerome included the apocryphal works, but he made a distinction between these and the canon of the Bible. (The word “canon” means “rule” or “standard” and refers to the final list of books accepted as part of the Christian Bible—the rule or standard of faith.)
Jerome wrote: “Therefore as the church indeed reads Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical books, so let it also read [other works in question] for the edification of the people but not for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas.” Nevertheless, over time, church leaders accorded equal status to the apocryphal books.
At the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Roman Catholic Church, in response to the uprising of the Protestant Reformation, declared the Apocrypha as officially part of the biblical canon for the first time, using the label “deuterocanonical,” which means added to the canon later, or second. As such, Roman Catholics continue to include the Apocrypha in their Bibles but recognize its status as different than the content of the Old and New Testaments.
The Apocrypha and Protestants
In the sixteenth century, during the Protestant Reformation, some Christians began to question the church’s authority and traditions. In doing so, they came to believe—among other things—that the apocryphal books should not be included among the Old Testament books. As a result, they set them aside as a distinct collection of books (the Apocrypha). Eventually, most Protestants ceased including them in the Bible altogether. There are several reasons for this.
First, ancient Jews did not incorporate these works in the original Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament). By the time of Jesus, there was general consensus among Jews that such texts were beneficial for historical purposes, but not authoritative or sacred in the same sense as the Old Testament.5 Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century CE, wrote: “From Artaxerxes [a Persian king who ruled from 465–424 BCE] to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets.”6
As such, these works were likely never circulated as part of the original Hebrew Bible. But they were an important part of Jewish history, and when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and other languages, the apocryphal books were often included among them.
Second, there is no evidence that Jesus or the New Testament writers ever regarded these books as sacred scripture. Almost every book of the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament, yet not once is a passage from an apocryphal book quoted as an authoritative teaching from God.7
Third, many Christians believe that the books of the Apocrypha contain teachings that are inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. For example, 2 Maccabees 12:42–45 teaches that prayers and atonement can be offered for the dead to be forgiven of their sins. This seems to contradict the biblical teaching that each person is accountable for his or her own sin and the New Testament emphasis that only Jesus can make atonement for one’s sins.
Fourth, like Jews, most early Christians did not consider the Apocrypha to be sacred scripture. While many early followers of Jesus read the apocryphal books and benefited from their historical content, they did not credit the Apocrypha the same status as other canonical books.
In 367 CE, the respected church leader Athanasius described the biblical canon and suggested that apocryphal works were “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.”8 In other words, the Apocrypha can be beneficial for your faith, but it is not foundational in the same way as the other books of the Bible.
Many Christians are unaware of the controversy over the Apocrypha. And truth be told, it does not impact any of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Most simply put, Roman Catholics place greater emphasis on the Apocrypha’s value while Protestants generally question it.
Yet all Christians agree on the fundamental tenets of their faith. All Christians believe in the one true God who created and loves us, though humans are sinful and in need of grace. And all Christians believe that only Jesus—through his life, death, and resurrection—makes it possible for us to experience God’s forgiveness and grace.
- See, for example, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and the New Living Translation.
- The term “Apocrypha” is mainly used by Protestant Christians. Catholics refer to these books as deuterocanonical.
- See T. W. Davies, “Apocrypha,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 161–165.
- Some editions of the Apocrypha divide, assemble, or order the fifteen books differently, while other editions, such as those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, include a slightly different set of books. Moreover, there are only seven books included in the Catholic Bible that are not part of Protestant Bibles. The Roman Catholic Apocrypha includes Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch.
- There is no hard evidence that Jews in general viewed the apocryphal texts as on par with Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, Deuteronomy, etc. There are no quotations from these books in the New Testament nor commentaries on them among the Dead Sea Scrolls as there are of other books included within the Bible. This is not to say the New Testament writers did not know them. Some writers probably did, but it seems unlikely based on our evidence that they were regarded in the same light as the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
- Josephus, Against Apion 1.41.
- The New Testament quotes from or alludes to the following Old Testament books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The most quoted Old Testament books are Genesis, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah.
- Athanasius, Paschal Letter 39. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 90–91, quoting Jerome’s Prologue to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.
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