AN OPEN SECRET
The fifteen books known in Protestant usage as the Apocrypha are those found in the LXX (Septuagint) and Vulgate versions of the Old Testament but not in the Hebrew. This collection consists of a variety of books and additions to canonical books that, with the exception of 2 Esdras, were written during the intertestamental period.
The Apocrypha were originally obscure, secret writings which were not read aloud in public worship. Later, after the canon was fixed, the name acquired a deprecatory sense. They are largely set on a lower level than Scripture, but deemed suitable for “the edification of the people” by the New International Dictionary of Theology, and declared by the Church of England as profitable to be read, though to be regarded as less than Scripture.
However, some books of the Apocrypha were, for a time, on the fringe of the canon, and had commentaries written on them as well as being used as Scripture by some. Lists of apocryphal writings were eventually drawn up, but the faithful were warned that they were not to be received as authoritative Scripture. Their recognition as authoritative in Roman and Eastern Christianity is the result of a complex historical process.
In spite of disagreements among some of the church fathers as to which books were canonical and which were not, the Apocryphal books continued in common use by most Christians until the Reformation. During this period most Protestants decided to follow the original Hebrew canon while Rome, at the Council of Trent (1546) and more recently at the First Vatican Council (1869-70), affirmed the larger “Alexandrian” canon that includes the Apocrypha.
The Apocryphal books have retained their place primarily through the weight of ecclesiastical authority, without which they would not have commended themselves as canonical literature. Today, even translations such as the New Revised Standard Version often include the Apocrypha. What, then, is to be made of the Apocrypha? Do they have any use or value to the church today? What status are we to give to the Apocrypha?
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton had no doubts about the value of the Apocrypha: “In more recent times it has been the unfortunate custom of English-speaking people to neglect or despise the Apocrypha; yet it forms a portion of the Bible of Christendom; it supplies the blank leaf between Nehemiah and the New Testament; and it comprises some of the literature of that period, which well illustrates the development and transition of Jewish religious thought generally.”
Not all agree. William Tyndale in his Bible (1525 A.D.) placed the Apocrypha by themselves because they were “uninspired”. Coverdale did the same in his Bible ten years later, and also said that they were not to be reckoned to be of equal authority with the other books of the Bible.
Sargent was more forthright in his arguments against the Apocrypha: “They are not, and have never been, in the Jewish canon. Josephus explicitly excluded them from his list. Philo (20 B.C.-50 A.D.) neither mentions or quotes them. They were never quoted or alluded to by Jesus Christ or any of the apostles. Jewish scholars meeting at the Council of Jabneh did not recognize them. Most Church Fathers in fact rejected them. None of the Apocrypha claim inspiration or divine authority. Many of the Apocryphal books contain historical, geographical, and chronological errors. Many of the Apocryphal books teach heresy, contrary to the Word of God. Their literary style is legendary and fantasy. Some stories are grotesque and demonic. They lack the power and distinctive elements of the Word of God.” We get the idea.
The debates and arguments in the East over the canon and the Apocrypha were resolved to a large degree in 367 when the thirty-ninth Festal Epistle defined the Old and New Testaments as they are today. Though not everyone in the Church was ready to accept this, the fixing of the canon at this time settled the issue of some writings which could possibly have become part of the canon, but became apocryphal.
In the West, Augustine’s ‘De Doctrina Christiana’, which was completed in 426, gives our present list of New Testament books and therefore confines the apocryphal writings to recognition as less than Scripture. Nevertheless there was not uniform agreement for a very long time over the final form of the canon and apocryphal writings appeared in German Bibles printed prior to Luther’s translation.
It was not until 1546 at the council at Trent that a decree was issued which, for the first time in the Church’s history, fixed the canon as being the books of our present day Bible. The Apocrypha began to be omitted from the Authorized Version in 1629, and were excluded permanently by 1827.
It is worth noting that the production of gospels and other apocryphal writings was not halted or even noticeably hindered by the formation of the New Testament canon. “Popular piety delighted in the steady stream of romantic and fanciful writings, the historical value of which was of slender proportions at best” says Metzger. His point about the popularity of apocryphal (and other) writings is an important one. Where there is demand, someone will supply. The arguments may rage on an and on about the Apocrypha, but they do not seem to want to go away.
However, in considering the status and value of the Apocrypha, it is necessary to consider in a little more detail what kind of writings they are, and why they are excluded from the canon in many churches and Bibles.
CALIBRE OF THE CANON
The Old Testament contains many different writing genres, and the Apocrypha reflects this variety. Metzger has written: “It is obvious that the great majority of the apocryphal books are the result of attempts to produce literary forms that parallel those of the several genres of literature that came to be included in the New Testament, namely, gospels, acts, epistles and apocalypses.”
The question of why these apocryphal books were written is one that cannot be answered for certain. Was it just supply and demand? Metzger, in speaking specifically about the gospel genre, thought otherwise: “Two kinds of apocryphal gospels came to be written, those that were intended to supplement and those that were intended to supplant the four Gospels received by the Great Church.”
With regard to the wisdom literature, Oesterley comments: “The books of Hebrew wisdom constitute a body of literature in regard to which the distinction, so far as the books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha are concerned, between canonical and uncanonical books, may be ignored; for to make such a distinction is unscientific, and was originally, in part at any rate, due on the one hand, to misconception, and on the other, to arbitrariness; misconception as to what should constitute canonicity, arbitrariness as to the conception of inspiration.”