AN OPEN SECRET
The fifteen books that are commonly known in Protestant usage as the Apocrypha, are those books that are found in the LXX (Septuagint) and Vulgate versions of the Old Testament, but they are not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. 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 and secret writings that were not read aloud in public worship. Later, after the canon of Scripture was fixed, the name acquired a deprecatory sense. They are largely set on a lower level than Scripture, but nevertheless deemed suitable for ‘the edification of the people’ by the New International Dictionary of Theology, and they were declared by the Church of England as ‘profitable to be read’, though they were to be regarded as less than Scripture.
Some books of the Apocrypha were, for a time, on the fringe of the canon of Scripture, and they had commentaries written for 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 amongst 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 of 1546 and more recently at the First Vatican Council of 1869-70, affirmed the larger ‘Alexandrian’ canon that included 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 of 1525 placed the Apocrypha by themselves because they were ‘uninspired’. Coverdale did the same in his Bible ten years later, and he 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.
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 was excluded permanently by 1827.
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, or remained, apocryphal.
It is worth noting that the production of additional 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,” said 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 certainly 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 commented: “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.”
A general agreement among scholars about the status of the Apocrypha is a long way off, as some consider the Apocrypha equal to canonised Scripture, while others are horrified at the very idea. The Muratorian canon concludes with two apocalypses, that of John and Peter – though some were not willing that the latter should be read in church. There is also a list of excluded books, as well as several books in today’s New Testament that are not mentioned in the Muratorian canon.
The historian Eusebius gave attention to the history of the Bible, yet he was inconsistent in his listing of approved books, and he seemed reluctant to declare with finality the status of some writings. While some scholars hold that the Apocrypha contained nothing new or significant doctrinally, Oersterley had a somewhat higher view of them: “In the Apocrypha belief in God is identical with that of the Old Testament in its most highly developed form.”
There is no clear evidence that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever quoted any Apocryphal writings as Scripture. The Jewish community that produced them repudiated them, and the historical surveys in the apostolic sermons recorded in Acts completely ignored the period they covered. Even the sober, historical account of 1 Maccabees is tarnished by numerous errors and anachronisms.
There is nothing of theological value in the Apocryphal books that is not already found in canonical Scripture, and they contain much that runs counter to Scriptural teachings. Though some of the books may be deemed to have some historical value, the authors’ eagerness to dramatise some events, and their use of the material for didactic purposes, mean that caution must be exercised in accepting the texts.
Nevertheless the Apocrypha may have value, even if it is only the same value as any other literature, in that they do provide a source of information for the study of the intertestamental period.
CATCH THE WIND
Trying to evaluate the Apocrypha is somewhat akin to trying to catch the wind. Is it fair to say that these writings are important documents in tracing the development of popular Christianity and in reflecting the beliefs of the authors? Some think so: “The Apocrypha are of immense importance for historical research into Judaism during the period of the Second Temple (515 B.C. –A.D. 70)” declared Harper’s Bible Dictionary.
Others focused more on the writings themselves, and the effect that they have on their readers: “Although not considered canonical in Protestant and Hebrew Bibles, these books have profoundly inspired Jews and Christians alike,” said Bowker. It is certainly true and fair to say that many writings outside the Bible may inspire us, but do the Apocrypha have any relevance and use for Christianity today? Harper’s Bible Dictionary believes that, “As a result of their place in the Christian Old Testament, the Apocrypha have a potential role in the ecumenical movement as groups of Christians seek for the means of communication with one another.”
It is highly unlikely that general agreement about the status of the Apocrypha will ever be reached since scholars and churches abound at each end of the argument. But there is an alternative. It may not be possible to catch the wind, but it is very possible to ride the wind.
THE JURY IS OUT
In the spring of 1947, an Arab shepherd chanced upon a cave in the hills overlooking the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea that contained what has been called ‘the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times’. The documents and fragments of documents found in those caves, dubbed the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, also included a few books of the Apocrypha. Long regarded as dead by some, they did not want to lie down!
Experts abound on both sides of the argument about the Apocrypha, and a middle course seems a safe route to take since the issue is as contentious as it is today. It seems appropriate to accept the Apocrypha as interesting, and possibly inspiring, literature. It seems equally appropriate that they ought not to be regarded as equal to the Scriptures according to the commonly agreed canon, and it would therefore be advisable not to publicly read them or teach from them as if they were equal to Scripture.
The Apocrypha are among the resources available to Christians today, and they should be seen as being exactly that. If unnecessary controversy is to be avoided, these writings should be handled sparingly, and with great care. Riding the wind may be enjoyable, but it is not without its risks. In the meantime, the jury is still out over the status of the Apocrypha, and it doesn’t look as though it will be returning a verdict for quite some considerable time.
M’Caw and Motyer, The New Bible Commentary, The Psalms, London, IVP, Revised Edition, 1970
Bruce M Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament, Oxford, Clarendon Press, Corrected edition, 1988
New International Dictionary of Theology, General Editor: Colin Brown, Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1986
John Bowker, Complete Handbook of the Bible, London, Dorling Kindersley, 1998
Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Edited by Paul J Achtemeier, Harper & Row, 1986
W O E Oesterley, An Introduction To The Books of the Apocrypha, London, Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935
Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, London, Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd., 1851.
Robert J Sargent, Canonization: The Apocrypha, Quotations from extracts on the Internet at: http://watch.pair.com/apocrypha.html