Should Protestants Read the Apocrypha?

How Should We Think about the Apocrypha?

When I was young, I was privileged to watch both my grandmothers read their Bibles. But one had a “New Catholic Edition” with seven extra books (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus [also known as Sirach or Ben Sira], 1–2 Maccabees, and Baruch) and additional chapters to Daniel and Esther, while my other grandmother read her Protestant Bible which lacked those books and additions. I didn’t ponder the significance of this juxtaposition at the time, but since then I’ve encountered folks who have certainly wondered which Bible is right or which Bible contains the canon.

Here, we present a brief history of the Apocrypha, its status among early Protestants, and finally what we hope is a faithful and common-sense approach to these books today.

1. Whence did the Term “Apocrypha” come?

The term “apocrypha” (“hidden,” “secret”) came from Greek-speaking Jews who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. The first indication of this history comes from the church father, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–254 AD), when he referenced a literary work entitled The Prayer of Joseph as an apocryphal book circulating among the Hebrews (Commentary on John, 2.188). Origen picked up the term and perhaps the concept of “apocrypha” or “hidden writings” from Jews who had probably used the term from the early Roman period (27 BC–284 AD) or as early as the late Hellenistic period (323–27 BC).

Scribes and Scripture

John D. Meade, Peter J. Gurry

In Scribes and Scripture, scholars John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry answer common questions about the writing, copying, canonizing, and translating of the Bible and give readers tools to interpret the evidence about God’s word.

But what’s probably surprising to most readers is that early Jews used “apocrypha” to designate a work like The Prayer of Joseph—not books like Tobit listed above. Elsewhere, Origen clarifies that neither did the Jews hold Tobit and Judith among apocryphal books in Hebrew (Epistle to Africanus, 19) nor did they consider Tobit to be canonical (On Prayer, 14.4). Thus, Jews at this time did not consider Tobit to be either apocryphal (like The Prayer of Joseph) or canonical (like Genesis). Rather, Jews may have had a middle category consisting of important and useful books categorized as neither apocryphal nor canonical. They may have described some books as “outside of the canon” but recommended for private reading. But they don’t describe their literature in these categories explicitly, and admittedly, we’re reading what informed Christians tell us about Jewish categories of religious literature.

What we do know is that the Jewish term and concept of “apocrypha” entered early Christian thought via Origen and developed over time. Origen did not use the term negatively or pejoratively. But later Christians did. To what books would they apply the label?

2. What was the Apocrypha in early Christianity?

To answer this crucial question, we must analyze early Christian descriptions of their own books. Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 298–373 AD) describes early Christian literature under three categories: canonical books, books to be read, and apocryphal books (Festal Letter, 39.21). In the first category, he listed all of the books of the Hebrew canon except Esther, while also including 1 Esdras (a different version of Ezra-Nehemiah) and other additions to Jeremiah known as Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah. Essentially, Athanasius presents the Hebrew canon with its twenty-two books.

In the middle category of readable books he listed: Esther, Judith, Tobit, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and two other early Christian works known as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. He only mentioned the category of “apocrypha” but did not list any books. From the rest of his letter, Athanasius implies works with Enoch, Isaiah, Moses, and perhaps Elijah in their titles.

Rufinus (ca. 345–410 AD) also listed the church’s literature according to three categories: canonical, ecclesiastical, and apocryphal (Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 36). In his middle category he lists: Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, and 1–2 Maccabees and a couple early Christian works. Like Athanasius before him, Rufinus did not list books under the third category of “apocryphal.” About books in his middle category, Rufinus says, “The fathers desired that all these should be read in the churches, but that appeal should not be made to them on points of faith.” Clearly, these books, though not able to establish church doctrine, were highly esteemed and not labeled pejoratively as “apocrypha.”

Epiphanius (ca. 315–403 AD; On Weights and Measures, 4), Amphilochius (ca. 340–404 AD; Iambi ad Seleucum, 254–260), and Jerome (ca. 347–420 AD; Prologue to the Solomonic Books) expressed very similar opinions about early Christian categories of religious literature, each noting concepts and categories of canonical books, readable-edificatory books, and apocryphal books. As above, books like Wisdom of Solomon and Tobit are in the middle category and not in the canonical or apocryphal categories. In the fourth century, Christians pejoratively categorized books like Enoch and the Gospel of Thomas as “apocrypha.”

Thus, early Christians called “apocryphal” those books we call “pseudepigraphal” (falsely attributed writings like “the book of Enoch”). What we call “the Apocrypha” today, many early Christians would have described as “readable,” “for edification,” “useful,” “beneficial,” and “intermediate.” Other Christians like Augustine and Pope Innocent I simply integrated them into the canon, anticipating the Council of Trent’s decree in 1546.

Jerome’s relationship, however, to these books is complicated because he refers to them as edificatory and apocrypha on different occasions. Jerome refers pejoratively to all six books and the Shepherd of Hermas as apocrypha and says they are outside of the Hebrew canon (Helmed Prologue). Early Protestants, as well as some Catholic scholars before Trent, picked up and used Jerome’s term for these books but surprisingly without the pejorative sense.

3. What was the Apocrypha among early Protestants?

Before looking at some Protestants, it is important to note that sixteenth-century Catholic scholars like Cardinal Ximénes, Erasmus, and Cardinal Cajetan affirmed Jerome’s position on the Apocrypha. They excluded them from the canon of authoritative scripture but affirmed their usefulness for edification. The Protestants did not have a unique view of these books in so far as they were also influenced by the likes of Jerome and Rufinus.

In 1519, at the debate over purgatory and indulgences in Leipzig, Martin Luther clearly referred to 2 Maccabees as “outside the canon” and “apocryphal,” yet still affirming that it could be acceptable and approved for him, but it might be open to rejection by the obstinate. Thus, 2 Maccabees 12:46 could not be used as evidence for praying for the dead or purgatory. When the complete German Bible was published in 1534, the Apocrypha were included between the Old and New Testaments with this preface: Apocrypha, that is, books not considered equal to Holy Scripture, but which are still useful and good to read. In Zurich, Zwingli had already included 3–6 Ezra and 3 Maccabees along with the others in the Zurich Bible.

In England, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 clearly followed Jerome’s opinion in retaining the Apocrypha, “And the other books (as Jerome says) the Church doth read for example of life and instructions of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” This view was expressed in the King James Version (1611) which contained English translations of the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testament and also the Book of Common Prayer (from 1662) with its numerous readings from the Apocrypha.

On the other hand, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) doesn’t list the Apocrypha and relegates these books to the level of other human writings. In 1826, the British and Foreign Bible Society ceased printing Bibles with the Apocrypha, reflecting the position of most Protestants today.

4. Conclusion: What should Protestants read?

Historically, Protestant stances on the Apocrypha have reflected early Christian tradition. Like many of the fathers before them, they held these books in high esteem, clearly relegating them to a position between canon and “apocrypha.” These books could not settle points of doctrine, but neither were they “heretical.” They could model virtue and morals.

For example, when Jerome translated Judith into Latin, he concluded his preface saying, “Receive the widow Judith, example of chastity, and with triumphant praise acclaim her with eternal public celebration. For not only for women, but even for men, she has been given as a model by the one who rewards her chastity, who has ascribed to her such virtue that she conquered the unconquered among humanity, and surmounted the insurmountable.” Thus, Judith does not establish doctrine but models virtue.

A similar approach is illustrated by John Bunyan, the famous English Puritan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. At a spiritual low point, Bunyan recalled a promise that said, “Consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?” This promise comforted him because, from Genesis to Revelation, it was found to be true. Be that as it may, Bunyan could not locate the actual verse in “the books we call holy and canonical”—that is, the Protestant canon. Upon finding it in the Apocrypha (see Ecclesiasticus 2:10), he was troubled. But eventually he realized that “forasmuch as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it.” Bunyan was taking the earlier Protestant view, which valued the apocryphal books only insofar as they agreed with the canonical books. Likewise, Protestants today should feel neither fear nor obligation about reading the Apocrypha. But there is certainly benefit from reading the apocryphal books, since they contain stories and wisdom that agree with doctrine in the canonical books.

John D. Meade and Peter J. Gurry are the authors of Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible.

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