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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



The Growth of the Apocrypha

Alison Salvesen

Introduction

The term ‘apocrypha’ is derived from Greek, and means ‘hidden away’. It is applied to those books of the Bible that Judaism as a whole and also many Christians do not regard as part of the canon of Scripture. It can apply to books outside the New Testament canon, but it is most commonly used of those writings not included in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Some churches do accept them, but often consider them to be less authoritative than the canonical books, even though they may be edifying on a secondary level. For instance, in the Roman Catholic Church the term ‘deutero-canonical’ is used, instead of ‘apocryphal’. Most Protestants are barely aware of the existence of apocryphal books, and they are virtually unknown among Jews (see Orlinsky 1974). Yet other churches, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, embrace them as part of the canon.

There are other, similar books that are commonly known as the pseudepigrapha because they tend to be attributed to or associated with major figures in the Bible. These have never been seriously considered part of even a secondary canon, usually because of suspicions concerning their teaching or authorship, though they have sometimes enjoyed a limited circulation.

This account implies that drawing the boundary lines between canonical, apocryphal, and deutero-canonical works was a straightforward process, when in fact there was much debate and lack of clarity for many centuries, and the status of these books still varies widely. The present article will discuss those books included in the NRSV version of the Apocrypha and also 1 Enoch, which is accepted in the Ethiopic church.

There are various possible reasons for the lack of canonical status of apocryphal books, not always explicitly stated by their critics in antiquity. None of the works is early, though in some cases the presumed date of composition is more or less contemporaneous with other books that do appear in the canon, such as Daniel or Esther. Attribution to an important figure in the Bible is a common phenomenon, as in the case of 1 Enoch, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151 (David), 1 Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Wisdom of Solomon, and 2 Esdras (Ezra). However, such pseudonymity was not necessarily successful if it was suspected that the work was written long after they lived, or if the facts did not fit the biblical account. The historicity of other books such as Tobit and Judith is problematic because of the glaring errors of chronology they display. Where canonical books provided shorter versions, as with the additions to Esther and Daniel, some prefer the more concise and older Hebrew version. 1 Esdras is a composite form of the end of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah 8, but a new story has been rather awkwardly inserted in the middle for tendentious reasons. 1 Maccabees had a Hebrew original, and its contents were known and accepted by the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus (c.90 CE), but as history not Scripture. Josephus's criterion that a book had to be written by a prophet in order to be inspired, and that the exact succession of the prophets had ceased long ago (Ap. I §§37–41) excluded books such as 1 Maccabees from the canon of Scripture. For Jews in the rabbinic period, Scripture represented those writings that were traditionally recited in the liturgy or studied in the community. There are virtually no citations of apocryphal books in the New Testament, but allusions to them have been detected, and certainly the religious outlook of the first Christian writers often shows marked affinities with their ideas.

The evidence for early attitudes towards these books is found in the way they are cited in apologetic and exegetical works of Christian writers, used in the lectionary cycles of the various churches, and are occasionally referred to in rabbinic literature. As the church expanded and became predominantly Greek-speaking, it made much use of Jewish religious writings that had been written in or survived in Greek. But already in the second half of the second century Melito, Bishop of Sardis, was aware that Palestinian Jews had a more restricted canon of Scripture: the list he obtained even excludes Esther. In the mid-third century Origen's letter to Julius Africanus shows that a few Christian intellectuals were querying the authorship and details of some works. At the beginning of the fifth century Jerome advised some pious parents that although their young daughter should be conversant with the scriptures, she should beware of all apocryphal books, unless she reads them very selectively (Ep. 107: 12). His attitude was shaped not merely by the questionable content of some of the writings, which did not contribute to church doctrine, but by his increasing respect for the Jewish canon represented by extant Hebrew texts. By contrast, the apocryphal writings did not seem to have Hebrew originals for their Greek forms. Jerome translated Tobit and Judith into Latin from Aramaic under pressure from his patrons, but did not render any other books that he considered apocryphal. However, he accepted the edifying value of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus.

The use of apocryphal books varies enormously between churches. Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus appear frequently in a number of different lectionaries, and far more often than the canonical book of Leviticus. This shows that often it was the nature of the passage that determined its popularity, rather than its canonicity. Thus exhortations about wisdom, passages extolling the sacrifice of martyrs, descriptions of the restoration of the Temple, and penitential prayers are most likely to feature. But in general, churches in the Latin West have employed more readings from the Apocrypha than, say, the Syriac or Armenian churches. The comparative lack of interest in the Apocrypha among the Syriac writers and churches may be due to the influence of the Jewish canon on their concept of scriptural authority, whereas other churches had a more inclusive approach. The Church of England's lectionary includes readings from the Apocrypha, but usually only as options.

Both apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works are increasingly studied at an academic level for what they reveal of the religious preoccupations of their writers and the communities which first received them. The apocryphal writings in particular are a valuable witness to the many strands of Judaism during the period when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem, spanning roughly the time period between the composition of the Hebrew Bible and the writings of the New Testament. Altogether the apocryphal writings discussed here cover several different genres, sometimes even within the same book. These include wisdom literature, which gives advice for right conduct and a successful life, linked to a religious outlook; apocalyptic writing, offering hope of momentous supernatural intervention at the end of history in order to save the people of God (see Grabbe 1989), sometimes through the agency of an anointed one or ‘Messiah’ (Oegema 1998; Horbury 1998); historiography or writing that purports to be history; edifying stories which are essentially folk-tales with a religious message (Wills 1990, 1995); rewritten Bible, where a familiar story from Scripture is retold with different emphases; prayers and psalms which may have had a liturgical or devotional function. The books are treated separately below because of the considerable differences between them, but some commonly occurring features do emerge, such as the dependence on and allusion to older Scripture, polemic against idolatry, and the Deuteronomistic view that God punishes his people for their sin but will vindicate them if they are faithful to his commands.

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