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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Apocrypha

Philip Davies

Definition and History

Apocrypha means ‘[books] hidden away’ and is the name given to those books found in the Old Testament of ancient Greek (Christian) Bibles but not in the Hebrew scriptures of Judaism. (There is one exception: 2 Esdras/4 Ezra.) Only two such books (the Wisdom of Solomon and 2 Maccabees) were for certain composed in Greek; the rest were either certainly or probably written originally in Aramaic or Hebrew. Also included in the Apocrypha is material included in the Greek version of Old Testament books but absent from the Hebrew editions: the Greek versions of the book of Daniel contain a ‘Prayer of Azariah’ and ‘Song of the Young Men’ in chapter 3 , and the stories of Susanna and Bel and the Serpent (or Dragon) as chapters 13 and 14 . The Greek edition of the book of Esther also incorporates some additional material. The existence of an Apocrypha arises from the recognition within Christian churches of different Hebrew and Greek canons, and, where the Hebrew canon has been preferred, how the additional material should be presented and evaluated.

Why the ‘additional’ books and parts of books came to be called ‘apocryphal’ is not clear. There is a Jewish tradition, narrated in 4 Ezra 14:44–8 (written at the end of the first century CE), that Ezra the scribe was ordered by God to dictate 94 holy books that had been lost in the Babylonian exile. Ezra was then instructed to ‘make public the 24 books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and unworthy read them, but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people’. Thus, it is possible that the ‘apocryphal’ books were understood by some Jews, and Christians, to have belonged to these 70 books that were ‘hidden’ from public access (and thus not in the official list of scriptural writings).

The starting-point, then, for the emergence of a class of ‘apocryphal’ writings is the establishment of a scriptural list of books in Hebrew, probably during the first century BCE under the Hasmonaeans. While 4 Ezra (see above) numbered these books as 24, Josephus, writing at about the same time (Against Apion 1: 37–43) counted 22. (It is, however, possible to reconcile these figures in a number of ways.) But although this list of sacred writings was accepted in Palestine, and endorsed by the rabbis, there is no reason to think that an official, fixed list of Jewish scriptures was immediately and universally accepted. The Qumran scrolls, for example, dating mostly from the first century BCE to early first century CE, do not give clear evidence of a completely fixed list, though certain books, including those of the Law and Prophets, were undoubtedly regarded as scriptural. But the inclusion among the scrolls of manuscripts of 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, and ben Sira (the last two later included in the Apocrypha), shows that among some circles in Palestine the list of holy books may have been greater and perhaps less rigid.

Outside Palestine, it also seems unlikely that Jewish communities everywhere followed the list of holy books accepted in Palestine and endorsed by the rabbis. There was in any case a much richer Jewish literature in Greek than in Hebrew or Aramaic, at least to judge by what has survived. The Law and Prophets (but with the Prophets including Daniel, unlike the Hebrew scriptures) corresponded to the Hebrew canon (with the minor difference on Daniel), but we have no direct evidence regarding other books. The increased authority of the rabbis as definers of Judaism led to new Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures, and thus the rejection of any additional material. The contents of what Christians were calling the ‘Old Testament’ were not, however, affected by rabbinic policy.

There are in the New Testament few allusions to, and no quotations from, any of the apocryphal books. Most early church writers quoted from these as from scripture. It is impossible to say that the apostolic church accorded any distinct status to holy books of the Jews that circulated only in Greek. This is not to say that they were unaware of discrepancies between Hebrew and Greek scriptural canons. The Dialogue with Trypho of Justin Martyr (100–165) already reflects an awareness on the part of learned Christians that the scriptures of the Jews that they possessed in Greek did not exactly correspond to those in Hebrew. Some patristic writers (who knew Hebrew and the Jewish scriptures (Origen, Melito, Jerome) indeed regarded only their contents as belonging to the ‘Old Testament’.

This does not mean that the Christian church itself inherited a completely fixed Old Testament canon. For this reason there is no single definitive list of apocryphal books. Christians were, however, the first to collect scriptures into a single book (a ‘codex’), and thus create ‘Bibles’. This habit itself prompted the question of what should or should not be included in a Bible. But no ‘original’ list of apocryphal books can be drawn up because none of the earliest Christian biblical codices (Alexandrinus, Sinaiticus, and Vaticanus, from the fourth and fifth centuries CE) has exactly the same contents or sequence. For example, the Epistle of Jeremiah and Baruch are not preserved in Codex Sinaiticus (it is not known whether they were originally present), and none of the books of Maccabees was contained in Codex Vaticanus. The Prayer of Manasses is included only in Alexandrinus, though only as part of an appendix to the Psalter not found in the other two codices.

The isolation of ‘apocryphal’ books as a group (and thus the collective name ‘Apocrypha’) came about from a new translation of the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate) in the fourth century CE by Jerome, in which he used the original Hebrew for the Old Testament (the earlier Old Latin translation had been from Greek and, of course, included ‘apocryphal’ books). Jerome was then confronted with the problem that certain Old Testament books were not found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Jews (which Jerome regarded as the authentic Old Testament). Once the Roman church chose to translate its Old Testament from Hebrew, of course, the status of these books would be problematic. Jerome deemed the additional books ‘apocryphal’, and was unwilling to supply a translation from the Greek. (He also separated the additional material in Esther and Daniel.) The remaining books were in fact added to the Vulgate, but their status continued to be uncertain, partly because many Vulgate manuscripts contained Jerome's preface and notes, in which he distinguished between ‘canonical’ and ‘edifying’ books. In the sixteenth century Luther also regarded the latter as being non-scriptural, and combined them in a separate section at the end of his German translation of the Bible (1545), under the title ‘Apocrypha’ (his reason seems to have been that the Roman Catholic doctrines of purgatory, prayers for the dead, and salvation by good works, which Luther rejected, were found only in the apocryphal books). The Reformation brought to a head the issue of canon, and in reaction to Luther, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545–63) at last definitively affirmed that certain apocryphal books were canonical. These were: Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Baruch, 1–2 Maccabees, and additions to Esther and Daniel. These writings were thus placed among the other Old Testament books, though they were acknowledged as ‘deuterocanonical’ (‘subsequently canonized’). However, this declaration left certain other books, previously included in the Vulgate, not canonized and these were included at the end of the Old Testament. They are regarded as ‘apocryphal’ but they do not form a definitive Apocrypha. Strictly speaking, ‘Apocrypha’, as now used in biblical scholarship, is a Protestant category.

The rather confusing position can be summed up as follows: there are books in the ancient Greek Bibles but not the Hebrew Bible; there are books included as ‘Apocrypha’ in Protestant Bibles, and there are books accepted by the Council of Trent as ‘secondarily canonized’. All three collections could be, and sometimes are, treated as ‘the Apocrypha’. Thus, for example, 3–4 Maccabees was not canonized by the Catholic Church but is included in all the early Greek Bibles. Psalm 151 is included in the Psalter of ancient Greek Bibles, but not in the Vulgate. The Prayer of Manasses, on the other hand, has somehow crept into the Apocrypha, even though it is not in two of the three earliest Greek Bibles and was not canonized at the Council of Trent. The book 4 Ezra/2 Esdras is in no ancient Greek Bible, but finds a place in the Apocrypha, though also not canonized by the Council of Trent!

Quite apart from the problem of exact contents, the canonical status of the Apocrypha has also continued to vary between Christian denominations. These books (defined according to Luther) were accepted by the Church of England as suitable for instruction but not for doctrine. The Westminster Confession, however, ruled these books out of scripture altogether. Protestant Bibles, although at first containing this material as a separate section (as in the Thomas Matthew Bible, the Geneva Bible, and, originally, the King James Version), subsequently tended to drop the Apocrypha altogether, while in the Roman Catholic Church, despite the decision of Trent, there has remained a view in some quarters that these books have a secondary status.

The slightly different Old Testament canons of the Orthodox churches, based on the Greek, not the Latin Bible, are not considered here, but it is worth noting that differences exist over the status of ‘deuterocanonical’ books as well. The Greek-speaking church had also been aware of discrepancies between Hebrew and Greek canons, but not until the seventeenth century did the question of which books were truly canonical formally arise. In 1672 at the Synod of Jerusalem, the books of Wisdom, Judith, Tobit, Bel and the Dragon (not Susanna!), 1–4 Maccabees, and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) were declared canonical. The Russian Orthodox Church, by contrast, agrees with Protestant Christianity in regarding as non-canonical all Old Testament books not existing in Hebrew.

Recent English Bibles, aiming to be inclusive and perhaps less doctrinaire, are tending to include the Apocrypha again, either among the other Old Testament books (as in the earliest Christian Bibles) or as a separate collection. However, as in the New Revised Standard Version, the result is a Bible that no Christian church has ever recognized or recognizes! But this may be a salutary reminder that there is indeed no single Christian ‘Bible’ or ‘canon’, a fact that may lead to a less doctrinaire use of scripture, especially among Protestants.

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