The Apocrypha – ‘hidden books’ found in some Bibles

  • Question from JM, United Kingdom

    What is the Apocrypha?

    The early theologian Jerome used the word ‘apocrypha’ (meaning ‘the secret books’) as a label for a collection of writing dating from the last few centuries before Christ. In fact, the books were not secret at all. Most of them had been part of the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Jews, and then Christians, throughout the Roman Empire. However they are not found in the Hebrew Bible because in AD70, after the Jewish War against the Romans and the destruction of the Temple, a council of top Jewish scholars met in Jamnia, Palestine and agreed on a set ‘canon’ of books/writings.

    Any books that did not equate to their particular brand of Judaism (they belonged for the main to the group known as Pharisees) were dropped. Towards the end of the fourth century Jerome produced the Vulgate, the official Church version of the Bible in Latin, and excised the Apocrypha because he believed that the Hebrew text had more authority than the Greek Septuagint. Pope Damasus ruled against him and the Apocrypha stayed in the traditional place in the new Latin translation.

    This highlights the big problem with the Apocrypha. The books are in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew Bible, which begs the question of which collection is authoritative. When the Church delineated a formal, authoritative canon (mainly in response to heresies), the Apocrypha were usually included and the Apocryphal books were widely quoted by the earliest theologians.

    Since Jerome’s time the Apocrypha has been regarded as slightly less than authoritative. For example the Anglican Church describes the Apocrypha as suitable edifying reading, but not a permitted source of doctrinal authority (paraphrased from the sixth Article of Religion). The Protestant Reformers tended to reject the Apocrypha, removing the various disputed section from the body of the Old Testament – first to its own section and then dropping it from Bibles altogether. In contrast, the Roman Church decided to affirm the full canonicity of the Apocrypha at the Council of Trent, although now they are generally referred to as ‘deutero-canonical’ books (literally from the ‘second canon’).

    For those who have not got a copy of the Bible containing the Apocrypha:

    Freelance Theology’s Rough Guide to the Apocrypha

    There are 14 ‘writings’ popularly listed as the Apocrypha, including additional material from Esther and three stories interpolated into Daniel.
    The other 10 are:
    1 Esdras (also known as 3 Esdras)
    2 Esdras (also known as 4 Esdras)
    Tobit/ Tobias
    The Wisdom of Solomon
    (The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of) Sirach (often called Ecclesiasticus)
    Baruch & the Epistle of Jeremiah
    The Prayer of Manasseh
    1 Maccabees
    2 Maccabees

    FF Bruce splits the Apocryphal books into four types: Historical, Religious Fiction, Wisdom/Ethical Literature and Apocalyptic (See The Books and the Parchments, revised edition, 1991, pp 153-165)

    The Historical Books
    1 Esdras is an alternative version of the book of Ezra which includes material covered in 2 Chronicles and Nehemiah. 1 and 2 Maccabees are two independent works covering the inter-testamental period. 1 Maccabees relates the war between Judas Maccabaeus and the Greek despot Antiochus Epiphanes who sought to destroy the Jewish faith after conquering Palestine. It was probably written in about 100BC and seems to have been translated from a now-lost Hebrew original. 2 Maccabees is written from a different point of view, covers the same struggles and has a noted emphasis on martyrdom, which possibly influenced early Christian attitudes towards dying for the faith. Two further ‘books of the Maccabees’ (numbered 3 and 4) have been discovered, but have nothing to do with the Maccabaean rebellion.

    The Religious Fiction
    Tobit and Judith are both stories featuring eponymous heroes. Tobit is a pious Israelite carried off to Assyria and has a lot of Persian influences, especially regarding the influence of good and evil angels. It’s main point seems to be the importance of observing the Law in a foreign land, which might be why it survived among Greek-speaking Jewish communities outside Palestine. Judith is a plucky Hebrew heroine who saves her city by charming and then beheading a Persian general. Bruce believes the story became popular during the Maccabaean uprising as a stirring patriotic tale (op cit, p157)

    The additions to Esther add some religious content to a book notably lacking in this regard. The three additions to Daniel – ‘The Song of the Children’, ‘The Story of Suzannah’ and ‘Bel and the Dragon’ – vary in purpose. Bel and the Dragon is an attack on idolatry, which leads to Daniel (Belteshazzar is his Babylonian name) being thrown into the lion’s den again. Suzannah is a virtuous Jewish woman saved by Daniel’s legal expertise from those who would harm her and the Song of the Children is a poetic expression of praise to Yahweh inserted into the story of the three men cast into the furnace in Daniel chapter 3.

    Wisdom literature
    Both the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach/Ecclesiasticus are classic examples of Jewish Wisdom literature. Early Christian theologians quoted both frequently and even Jerome, who coined the word Apocrypha when he rejected ‘the secret books’, referred to Sirach as ‘Scripture’. In fact the probable reason why Sirach received the alternative name of ‘Ecclesiasticus’ is because sections of it were read so widely in the liturgy of the early Church. Sirach was also used in synagogue services, even after the Council of Jamnia rejected it because the view it held of the afterlife did not tally with the Pharasaic outlook.

    The Wisdom of Solomon contains an attack on idolatry very similar to Romans chapter 1, which has led some scholars to date it as late as AD40, when the Emperor Gaius insisted on placing an Imperial image in the Temple of Jerusalem – an edict which contributed to the failed uprising thirty years later that saw the Temple destroyed. Wisdom, as it is often called for short, was probably written in Greek and has a Hellenistic cultural style, which may account for it never being incorporated into the Hebrew Bible.

    Baruch was the name of a friend of Jeremiah, but this book probably has nothing to do with him. It talks about sin, wisdom and redemption, a theme also picked up in the Prayer of Mannasseh – supposedly the petition of King Manasseh of Israel when he was captured and taken to Babylon. Mannasseh’s prayer is alluded to in 2 Chronicles chapter 33 vv11-13, but was not recorded by the Chronicler.

    2 Esdras is one of a number of apocalyptic books that circulated from 200BC to AD200. It consists of seven visions of the future received by Ezra in Babylon with some Christian polemic attached as a frontispiece. FF Bruce dates it to AD100.

    Some final comments
    1 & 2 Esdras are sometimes called 3 & 4 Esdras because, in the Vulgate, Ezra (Esdras in Latin) and Nehemiah are called 1 & 2 Esdras, hence the Apocryphal books are numbered 3 & 4.

    The Ethiopian Church also gave canonical status to the Book of Enoch (sometimes called 1 Enoch to distinguish it from some other books bearing Enoch’s name) and the Book of Jubilees. Words from Enoch chapter 1 v 9 are quoted in the New Testament epistle of Jude (vv 14–15) and this caused a notable early Christian theologian called Tertullian to argue for 1 Enoch’s authority. The Book of Jubilees is a different version of the Book of Genesis that divides history up into ‘jubilee periods’ i.e. sections of 49 years each.

    Thanks for your question, JM – hopefully this guide will be of use as well.

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