This entry consists of two articles dealing with books or parts of books not considered canonical by every community of faith, Jewish Apocrypha and Christian Apocrypha. The first article, Jewish Apocrypha, surveys Jewish religious writings not recognized as part of the Bible in Jewish tradition nor by some Christian churches (See Canon). Among the latter these are commonly referred to as the Apocrypha of the Old Testament; those churches that do include some or all of these writings in their canon frequently refer to them as “deuterocanonical.” Each of these books has a separate entry devoted to it; see also Apocalyptic Literature and Pseudepigrapha. The second article, Christian Apocrypha, deals with early Christian writings not included in the canon of the New Testament but which contain similar types of literature often attributed to figures of the apostolic age.
The word apocrypha, a Greek neuter plural (singular, apocryphon), is used to designate a group of important religious writings from antiquity that are not universally regarded as belonging to the authentic canon of Scripture, though many of them have been so regarded by particular communities. The word is applied primarily to the fifteen (or fourteen) books that are included in many editions of the English Bible as a supplement, usually printed between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. The name, which means “things hidden away,” is inappropriate, since none of these books (with the possible exception of 2 Esdras) was ever regarded as hidden or secret. For the most part, they are simply those books found only in manuscripts of the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore possibly regarded as “canonical” by Greek‐speaking Alexandrian Jews, though ultimately rejected by the Jewish community of Palestine and rabbinic authorities of later times (2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh are not covered by this definition). Their preservation is largely due to the Christian community, which, for most of the first four centuries CE, accepted the Greek Old Testament as normative for its life and thought. In modern times the term “apocrypha” has been extended more loosely to other books from the later Hellenistic and early Roman periods but which, so far as we know, never attained even quasi‐canonical status (these books are more commonly designated as pseudepigrapha), and has also been extended by analogy to a large group of early Christian writings excluded from the New Testament canon in its final form. In this article we shall be concerned principally with the fifteen books described at the beginning of the paragraph; for the analogous early Christian writings, see the second article in this entry.
Until recently it was commonly assumed that Jews of the period immediately before and after the beginning of the common era had two canons, one that was current in Palestine and another in Alexandria, the greatest center of Jewish life in the Hellenistic world. But newer evidence, including that from Qumran, suggests a more complex reconstruction, and indeed the use of the word “canon” may be somewhat inappropriate, since the list of included books was not explicitly fixed until the second century CE. The contents of the first two parts (Law and Prophets) of what would ultimately be called the canon had been accepted as sacred and authoritative since at least 200 BCE, but the works that constitute the third part of the Hebrew Bible (the Writings) have a less authoritative status and have been individually evaluated in quite different ways. It is to this last class that the books of the Apocrypha belong. Their one common denominator is the fact that all are contained, in Greek, in some manuscript of the Septuagint (with the exception, once again, of 2 Esdras and Prayer of Manasseh, to which we shall return).
The definition and final closing of the Jewish canon was in large measure due to the inner restructuring of Jewish society and the tightening of standards that resulted both from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and from the need for self‐definition in the face of the threat presented by the rise of an aggressive Christian church. Christians, increasingly of gentile origin, naturally accepted the scriptures in the form most accessible to them, the Greek Septuagint. Jews, quite as naturally, reacted by emphatically rejecting the Septuagint and insisting that only those ancient books that were written in Hebrew could be regarded as authoritative. Even such books as Sirach and 1 Maccabees, which had clearly been written originally in Hebrew, were rejected, since internal evidence showed that they had been composed long after the time of Ezra, when, it was believed, prophecy had ceased.
Among Christians, the Old Testament continued for a long time to be tacitly accepted in its Greek form, even though objections were occasionally voiced by theologians and other scholars who were familiar with the Jewish position. The question of the canonicity of the “extra books” became acute only with Pope Damasus's choice of Jerome, in 382 CE, to make an authoritative translation of the Bible into Latin. As he worked on the Old Testament, Jerome became convinced that the Hebrew text alone was definitive and he therefore felt obliged to reject those books found only in Greek; these books he called “apocrypha.” Whatever precise meaning he attached to that word, it was certainly intended to be pejorative. Strangely, his views were not accepted, and to the present the books he designated as “apocryphal” are incorporated in the canon of the Roman Catholic church and distributed, according to their type, among the other books of the Old Testament. The formal designation for these books among Roman Catholics is “deuterocanonical,” meaning books that belong to a second layer of the canon, but with no implication that they are of less worth than the others. The view of the Orthodox churches, for most of which the Septuagint continues to be the authoritative form of scripture, is substantially the same, though the list of books they regard as at least liturgically useful tends to be somewhat longer and can include such works as 1 Esdras, 3 and 4 Maccabees, and Psalm 151. (See Eastern Orthodoxy and the Bible.)
It was only with the Reformation and its emphasis upon the sole authority of scripture that Jerome's view came into its own. Protestants were unanimous in accepting the Jewish definition of the Old Testament canon. They were agreed that the extra books of the Greek canon, which was also that of the Latin Vulgate, should be gathered together and removed from among the books of the Hebrew canon; if included in the Bible at all, they should be placed in a separate section between the Testaments clearly labeled “Apocrypha.” But they were not of one opinion with regard to the value of these books. Calvinists took the most extreme view, asserting in the Westminster Confession that they were of no more value than any other human writings, and their use was discouraged. Lutherans were inclined to value them more highly and to encourage their study, though not with any sense that they were of equal value with the authoritative books of the Hebrew canon. The Church of England requires the books of the Apocrypha to be included in any edition of the Bible authorized for use in public worship, and provides for considerable use of them in its lectionary while also insisting (in Art. 3 of the Thirty‐Nine Articles) that they cannot be used to prove any point of doctrine. In the early seventeenth century some Protestant editions of the Bible were published without the Apocrypha and, since 1827, when the British and Foreign Bible Society, followed shortly by the American Bible Society, under pressure from the Calvinist (Presbyterian) churches, decided to omit the apocryphal books from all its editions, omitting them has become the common practice. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, there began a considerable revival of interest in these books among both Protestants and Jews, based partly upon a more relaxed view of the nature of the canon, but even more upon a realization of the importance of the apocryphal literature for biblical research and interpretation. As a result, numerous editions of the Apocrypha have become available and a number of significant new commentaries on the apocryphal books have been published. Newer translations (e.g., GNB, NRSV) often include them in at least some editions.
Briefly described, the books of the standard Apocrypha are as follows: 1 Esdras is an alternative version of the Hebrew book of Ezra that includes a short extract from 2 Chronicles at the beginning and from Nehemiah at the end. It is found in manuscripts of the Septuagint, but is not considered one of the deuterocanonical books by the Latin church; in the Vulgate it is called 3 Esdras and is printed, for purely historical reasons, in an appendix after the New Testament. The apocalyptic work traditionally called 2 Esdras is of Jewish origin, with some Christian additions, and was never part of the Septuagint. Except for a tiny fragment, the Greek text is lost, so it is best known in the Latin version that (like 1 Esdras) is printed in an appendix to the Vulgate, where it is called 4 Esdras; it is not considered deuterocanonical. Tobit is a romantic oriental tale, best known for its very human characters, its high ethical teaching, and its use of magic and demonology. Judith is the fictitious story of a heroic Jewish woman who delivers her people by using feminine wiles to accomplish the assassination of the general of a pagan army that was besieging them. The Additions to the Book of Esther consists of a series of discontinuous passages that appear only in the Greek version of that book, apparently added, for the most part, to give a religious tone to that embarrassingly secular work. Two of the apocryphal books fall into the category of wisdom literature: there is, first of all, the Wisdom of Solomon, a patently pseudonymous work that deals with such basic themes as immortality and the nature of divine wisdom in language that is a mixture of Jewish theology and Greek philosophy; and, second, Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), a much more traditional work, originally composed in Hebrew, that has its closest analogue in the book of Proverbs. The second part of the confused composition called Baruch (3.9–4.4) also belongs to wisdom literature, being a poem in praise of wisdom as God's special gift to Israel, while the preceding prose section consists of a brief narrative introducing a lengthy confession of Israel's sins as the cause of the Babylonian exile; the concluding poem (4:5–5.9) deals with the theme of Israel's restoration. If the Letter of Jeremiah is counted as chap. 6 of Baruch, as is often done, there are fourteen rather than fifteen apocryphal books, but it is clearly a separate work having for its theme the foolishness of idolatry. The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon are additions that appear in the Greek version of Daniel, the first containing two widely used liturgical hymns, while the other two are popular tales in which Daniel is the hero. A Greek form of the Prayer of Manasseh exists, but was not part of the original Septuagint, and it is deuterocanonical for only some eastern churches. The books called 1 and 2 Maccabees are two entirely independent and disparate historical narratives that record the heroic struggles that led to a brief period of independence for Jews in the second and first centuries BCE.
The importance of these books arises first of all from the fact that they were composed later than the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible and, apart from 2 Esdras, before the books of the New Testament. They therefore shed a welcome light on political, religious, and cultural developments in the later Hellenistic and early Roman periods and thus on the background of the New Testament. Furthermore, when regarded for their own sake, the Wisdom of Solomon is an important theological treatise, representing the first attempt to fuse two different intellectual strains, the Israelite and the Greek; and, for most readers, Sirach is at least as interesting as Proverbs and perhaps more accessible; Tobit, Judith, and Susanna are splendid examples of narrative art; and 1 Maccabees is a fine specimen of sober historical writing.
Among other ancient works sometimes classified as “apocrypha” are 3 and 4 Maccabees, the Psalms of Solomon, the several books of Enoch, the Baruch apocalypse (2 Baruch), the Book of Jubilees, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
Robert C. Dentan
Beyond the twenty‐seven books collected in the New Testament canon, many other examples were produced of each of the four types of New Testament literature: gospels, acts, letters, and apocalypses. The intentions of the authors of these books, which are now known as New Testament Apocrypha, were diverse; some sought to supplement works already in circulation, while others sought to supplant them. In some cases, these books simply served as light entertainment for Christian believers; in others, the authors wanted to promulgate practices and ideas condemned by the church.
Of the roughly two dozen gospels produced during the early centuries of Christianity, those concerning on the one hand Jesus' infancy and childhood, and on the other his descent into hell between his death and his resurrection, clearly augment the canonical Gospels, which pass over these matters in almost total silence (Luke 2.42–51 relates one incident when Jesus was a boy of twelve). Naturally, however, early Christians were curious about both of these periods; not surprisingly, traditions grew up around each and were recorded (see Names for the Nameless). The Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, two second‐century infancy gospels, were developed over the following centuries into the History of Joseph the Carpenter and the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, as well as other similar writings describing Jesus' early years and the miracles surrounding contact with the infant, his clothing, and even his bathwater.
In these works, the young Jesus is portrayed as possessing miraculous powers. The uses to which such powers are put, however, is often incompatible with the character found in the canonical Gospels. For example, while playing with other children on the Sabbath, Jesus molded twelve clay birds. When an elder reported Jesus' desecration of the Sabbath to Joseph, Jesus clapped his hands and the birds came to life. Another time, when Jesus was walking through a crowd, someone bumped him, whereupon Jesus turned and said, “You will never get to where you are going,” and the person fell down dead.
Apocryphal accounts of Christ's descent into the underworld and his victory over its powers are more rare. One of the earliest can be found in the fourth‐century Gospel of Nicodemus (also called the Acts of Pilate); another, from the next century, is the Gospel of Bartholomew.
With the discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi library, several previously unknown (or known only by name) gnostic gospels have come to light. These and related works (e.g., the Epistle of the Apostles), commonly present the risen Christ's revelations to the disciples during the period between his resurrection and ascension (a period that the gnostics expanded from 40 days [Acts 1.3] to 550 days). Often these accounts are related as a dialogue in which the disciples question Jesus about subjects that remained obscure in his earlier teaching. Most often, however, the discussion goes beyond the Gospel traditions to speculations about cosmology, gnostic interpretations of the creation accounts of Genesis, and the fate of the different classes of humanity. Notable examples preserved at Nag Hammadi are the Apocryphon of James, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Book of Thomas, and the Dialogue of the Savior. Among the most significant of the Nag Hammadi documents, and very different in character, is a Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings (logia) of Jesus, many similar to logia in the synoptic Gospels and in a late second‐century CE papyrus; see further Agrapha.
Still other gospels are known only by name or from brief patristic quotations. Some of these originated among early Jewish‐Christian sects, as is clear from their titles (Gospel of the Hebrews; Gospel of the Ebionites; Gospel of the Nazarenes).
Since the canonical Acts of the Apostles record in detail the activities of only a few of the apostles, second‐ and third‐century Christian authors drew up narratives of the other apostles' activities. Even apostles portrayed in Acts had further exploits recounted, sometimes in minute detail. The most notable are five works from the second and third centuries, attributed to Leucius Charinus, alleged to have been a disciple of John; scholars agree, however, that the actual authors of these and all other apocryphal acts remain unknown.
The Acts of Peter (ca. 180–190 CE) describes the rivalry between Simon Peter and Simon Magus. Among Peter's miracles are a speaking dog, a dried fish restored to life, and resurrections from the dead. The comical climax of the contest takes place in the Roman forum, when the magician attempts to fly to heaven. The document closes with an account of Peter's martyrdom by crucifixion.
The Acts of John (ca. 150–180) purports to be an eyewitness account of John's missionary travels in Asia Minor. The sermons attributed to him evince docetic tendencies: Jesus had no proper shape or body, only an appearance, so to one person he appeared in one shape, and to another in a totally different shape; when he walked, he left no footprints. Besides a droll tale about bedbugs, the work has a Hymn of Christ as well as the apostles dancing in a circle.
The Acts of Andrew (early third century?) is known chiefly through a long epitome prepared by Gregory of Tours (sixth century). To judge by the extant portions, the Acts are in essence a narrative of Andrew's journey from Pontus to Achaia, during which he performed many miracles and delivered many lengthy, severely ascetic exhortations. The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, a variant text of part of the work, describes the apostle's death by crucifixion.
The Acts of Thomas (first half of the third century), is the only apocryphal Acts preserved in its entirety, surviving in Greek, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Latin versions. It tells of Thomas's missionary work in India, his healing miracles, and martyrdom. It also contains several fine liturgical hymns; the best‐known is the “Hymn of the Soul” (also called the “Hymn of the Pearl”), which has suggestive allegorical overtones.
The Acts of Paul, according to Tertullian, was written by a presbyter of Asia Minor with the purpose of honoring the apostle. Despite ecclesiastical disapproval, his book become quite popular with the laity. Among the surviving episodes is one that tells of Paul and Thecla, a noblewoman and follower of Paul who preached and administered baptism; in this section we find the famous description of Paul: “little in stature, with a bald head and crooked legs … with eyebrows meeting, and a nose somewhat hooked.” Another episode, discovered in 1936, gives a detailed account of Paul's encounter in the amphitheater at Ephesus with a lion to which he had earlier preached the gospel and had baptized.
These works are generally sectarian in character, whether orthodox or theologically deviant (Docetic, Gnostic, Manichean). Sectarian influence can especially be seen in emphasis on sexual asceticism and martyrdom. Other legendary Acts dating from the fourth to the sixth century are the Acts of Andrew and Matthias among the Cannibals, Acts of Andrew and Paul, Acts of Barnabas, Acts of James the Great, Acts of John by Prochorus, Acts of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, Slavonic Acts of Peter, Acts of Philip, Acts of Pilate, and Acts of Thaddaeus. This type of literature may be seen as paralleling the novels of antiquity.
The apocryphal epistles are relatively few in number. The spurious Third Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, with an introductory note to Paul from presbyters at Corinth, is part of the Acts of Paul, and came to be highly regarded in the Armenian and Syrian churches. It addresses doctrinal issues such as prophecy, creation, the human nature of Christ, and the resurrection of the body.
In the west, Paul's Letter to the Laodiceans was disseminated widely and is actually included in the all eighteen printed German Bibles prior to Luther's translation. The Correspondence between Paul and Seneca, consisting of fourteen letters between the Stoic philosopher Seneca and Paul, has come down to us in more than three hundred manuscripts; the banal content and colorless style of the letters show that they cannot come from the hands of either the moralist or the apostle. Other apocryphal letters are the Epistle of Titus and the Epistles of Christ and Abgar.
In addition to the Revelation of John, there are several apocalypses attributed to other apostles. The earliest is the Apocalypse of Peter (ca. 125–150 CE), preserved in part in Greek and fully in Ethiopic. Making use of beliefs about the afterlife from the Odyssey and the Aeneid, it tells of the delights of the redeemed in heaven and (at much greater length) the torments of the damned in hell. These ideas were elaborated extensively in the following century by the author of the Apocalypse of Paul, who describes how Paul is caught up to paradise (see 2 Cor. 12.1–4) and witnesses the judgment of two souls, one righteous and the other wicked. He is then led through hell, where he sees the tortures of the wicked and intercedes on their behalf, obtaining for them relief every Lord's day. A visit to paradise ensues, during which Paul meets the patriarchs, the major prophets, Enoch, and finally Adam. Some of these themes became part of medieval beliefs given wider dissemination through Dante's Divine Comedy. With the discovery in 1946 of the Nag Hammadi library, the number of apocryphal apocalypses increased: another Apocalypse of Peter, another of Paul, the First and Second Apocalypses of James, and others.
The urge to supplement the Bible has continued down through the ages. In modern times, fraudulent productions continue to excite the hopes of naive readers that priceless treasures have been uncovered. Despite repeated claims of authenticity, such productions invariably lack historical or literary value. Among the most often published are The Aquarian Gospel, The Archko Volume, The Letter of Benan, The Description of Christ, The Confessions of Pontius Pilate, The Gospel of Josephus, The Book of Jasher, The Lost Books of the Bible, The Nazarene Gospel, The Letter from Heaven, Cahspe, and The Twenty‐ninth Chapter of Acts.
Bruce M. Metzger