If you grew up in an American Protestant context, you likely don’t know much about the apocryphal books. They have been discussed in many ways over the centuries, and unlike some other books, there’s continued disagreement about whether they are divinely inspired. Here is are the basics about the Apocrypha.
What Is the Apocrypha?
The Apocrypha is a collection of pre-New Testament works by Jewish writers, many collected in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew texts including the 39 canonical books of the Old Testament. These books are considered Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but not by Protestant denominations.
What Books Are in the Apocrypha?
Different scholars included different apocryphal books in their Bible translations before the official list we have today, which was ratified by several Roman Catholic councils and appeared in the King James Bible. The list is as follows:
· The First Book of Esdras
· The Second Book of Esdras
· The Book of Tobit
· The Book of Judith
· Additions to the Book of Esther
· The Book of Wisdom
· The Book of Sirach
· The Book of Baruch
· The Epistle of Jeremiah
· Additions to the Book of Daniel
· The Prayer of Manasses
· The Additional Psalm
· The First Book of Maccabees
· The Second Book of Maccabees
· The Third Book of Maccabees
· The Fourth Book of Maccabees
Most of these books have separate storylines and characters from the other books of the Bible. For example, the books of the Maccabees come after the Old Testament canon and describe the Maccabees revolting against empires that controlled Israel.
Three of these books are sections of text included in the Septuagint as part of biblical texts but not in earlier versions: Additions to Esther, Additions to Daniel, and the Additional Psalm.
Additions to the Book of Esther are extra scenes in the story of Esther, including Esther giving a long dramatic prayer to God before she goes to see the king, and her fainting when she goes to see King Xerxes.
The Additions to the Book of Daniel are three extra stories about Daniel:
· The Prayer of Azariah describes Azariah (also known as Abednego), one of the three men sent into the fiery, entering the furnace and saying a prayer to God. Eventually, all three of the men join in a single prayer, where they exhort all creation to praise the Lord.
· Susanna and the Elders is about a married woman named Susanna being approached by two elders who try to seduce her, then when Susanna cries out they claim she was with another man. Daniel appears at her trial and tricks the elders into contradicting their testimony.
· Daniel and the Dragon (sometimes called the Book of Bel) describes King Nebuchadnezzar worshipping an idol named Bel and a dragon kept in a temple. Daniel cleverly shows that temple priests are actually eating all the offerings being left to Bel and shows the dragon is not a god by feeding it food that makes it explode.
Depending on which Bible translation you read which included the Apocrypha, these additions may be printed separately from Esther, Daniel, and the Psalms, or they may be published within those books. Some versions, such as the Catholic Living Bible, print them within the books but use italics or a different font to set them apart.
How and When Was Scripture Canonized?
There are a number of councils throughout early church history where church leaders discussed what books were divinely inspired and part of the Old Testament or the New Testament. While the alleged “later Gospels” (or Gnostic Gospels) were consistently rejected and not included in the New Testament, a variety of councils, perhaps most notably the Council of Hippo in 393, included apocryphal books in the Old Testament.
During the fourth century, the most notable objection to the Apocrypha came from St. Jerome when he was translating the Septuagint into Latin. While comparing the Septuagint with earlier Hebrew manuscripts, Jerome concluded there was a problem with the Apocrypha and advised against considering them as Scripture. Others disagreed, and the Council of Rome in 382 included the Apocrypha in its list of canonical Scripture. The Council of Trent (which took place over multiple meetings from 1545 and 1563) reiterated that the Roman Catholic Church considered the Apocrypha to be canonical Scripture.
When the Protestant Reformation took place, Martin Luther released his German Bible translation with the Apocrypha as a separate section. Luther apparently believed the Apocrypha “are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures but are useful and good to read.” Most Protestant denominations (including high church denominations like the Church of England) have agreed with this stance. There are a variety of minor denominations (such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) which have their own opinions about the matter, some holding individual apocryphal (or pseudepigraphical) works as Scripture.
Why Do We Reject the Apocrypha as Canon?
There are a number of reasons why different scholars have described the Apocrypha as not being part of the Scripture canon. Here are five of the clearest and simplest reasons:
1. Not enough manuscript evidence. One important question scholars ask when analyzing the Scripture canon is if books have a line of tradition backing them. So, if we find these additions to Esther, Daniel, and the Psalms aren’t just in the Septuagint but in many or all of the earlier Hebrew copies of those books, then we could call the additions canonical. What we see instead is that those additions appear in the Septuagint, but not in earlier Hebrew copies of Esther, Daniel, or the Psalms. Thus, we don’t have the manuscript evidence to make good historical cases for these additions as Scripture.
2. The canon was closed already. While scholars debate when exactly the Jews considered the Old Testament to be closed, there’s consensus that they believed at some juncture prophecy stopped, and the apocryphal books were written after that period. For example, when Jewish historian Josephus talks about the Hebrew Bible in Against Apion, he says “Although such long ages have now passed, no one has ventured neither to add, or to remove, or to alter a syllable.” Neither he nor his contemporaries include apocryphal books in their lists or descriptions of the Old Testament canon. For them, the Apocrypha were interesting books, but not divinely inspired.
3. Tonal shifts. Some of these books are written in ways that don’t fit with the canonical texts. For example, Carey A. Moore notes in an article for the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women that the additional scenes about Esther feel like “high drama” added by a later writer. The characterization of Esther in these scenes doesn’t fit the rest of the narrative, nor does the style. That strongly suggests that these additions to Esther are later bits tacked on by someone else.
4. Thematic problems. Many of these works have themes or messages that don’t fit with the rest of Scripture. For example, the Book of Wisdom describes the soul as good but the body as bad, “a weight upon the soul” (Wisdom 9:15), and the Book of Tobit says that people can be saved by giving alms (Tobit 12:9). Two of the additions to Daniel seem to focus on human cleverness without God—he tricks liars into showing their perjury, he kills a dragon by feeding it food it can’t handle, he and shows that priests are stealing food by putting down ashes so they leave footprints. The emphasis is on Daniel being clever, without him giving glory to God for his giftedness. He comes across as just being a naturally smart guy who gets places on his own steam. The canonical book of Daniel describes Daniel and his friends as wise, but it focuses on God providing surprising help for them in tough situations and giving Daniel visions.
5. Lack of apostolic evidence. One important consideration about canonical Scripture is whether Jesus or the Apostles quoted from certain books and described them as Scripture. Jesus quoted or referred to Old Testament books many times (such as his discussions about the law in the Sermon the Mount), he doesn’t quote the Apocrypha. Paul and other Apostles referred to and quoted the Old Testament many times too, but none of them quote the Apocrypha or describe them as Scripture. The closest we get to that is Jude referencing ideas from another set of books labeled the Pseudepigrapha.
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
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