Summary: The Apocrypha is a collection of books written in the four centuries between the Old and New Testaments. Although the Apocrypha is not scripture, many Protestants (including Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers) have found the collection historically, theologically, and spiritually useful. Astute readers of the Apocrypha gain a fuller understanding of first-century Judaism, including the Messianic fervor that led, in part, to the Passion of Jesus.
For our ongoing series of featured scholarly articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Professor David Briones to provide an overview of the history of the Apocrypha and the potential benefits it can offer Protestants.
You are reading: What are the apocryphal books
Most Protestants have never read the Apocrypha. many don’t even know what the term apocryphal means. and most don’t mind reading books that aren’t in their bibles.
is this a bad thing? shouldn’t the apocrypha be kept out of sight and out of mind? Protestants who were raised Roman Catholic would probably say, “of course!” they have come to learn that the Apocrypha are uninspired and support erroneous Roman Catholic dogma. and that’s more than enough reason to ignore it.
As accurate as that negative assessment is, ignoring the Apocrypha is not necessarily the correct answer. we can read it discerningly but constructively, critically but lovingly. doing so will lead one to see the many ways it actually enhances our understanding of divinely inspired scripture.
So instead of driving the Apocrypha out of your sight and mind, I want to give you an idea of what you’d be missing out on if you did. After providing a brief overview and history of the Apocrypha, I will discuss some of the theological and spiritual benefits this questionable source offers to pastors and laity alike.
the Apocrypha for Protestants
The Apocrypha first appeared in a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint (lxx).1 The Septuagint was produced in Alexandria, Egypt, around 200 BC. c., but the individual books that constitute the apocrypha were written between approximately 400 a. and ad 1. this time period is often referred to as “the silent four hundred years” or “Second Temple Judaism” or “the time between the testaments.” it essentially constitutes that blank page in your bible between malachi and matthew.
The word apocryphal literally means “hidden”. in an appreciated sense, these writings were “‘hidden’ or withdrawn from common use because they were held to contain mysterious or esoteric knowledge, too profound to be communicated to anyone except initiates.” 2 But in a pejorative sense, these writings are hidden for good reason. many consider them theologically suspect and even heretical. Jewish and Protestant circles roundly reject these writings as authoritative for the faith and practice of the church. but Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians accept most of these texts as canonical.3 They prefer to call them deuterocanonical rather than apocryphal, reserving the term apocryphal for pseudepigraphical books (ie, writings bearing a false attribution of authorship). when the apocryphal books are mentioned in this article, we are referring to all the books listed below:
- additions to the book of esther
- bel and the dragon
- clergyman (or ben sira)
- 1 esdras
- 2 esdras
- letter of jeremiah
- 1 macabees
- 2 macabees
- 3 Maccabees
- 4 Maccabees
- Azariah’s prayer
- Manasseh’s prayer
- Psalm 151
- wisdom of solomon
as the titles suggest, many of these books take the old testament as their starting point.4 since esther never explicitly mentions israel’s god, the additions to esther include phrases or verses that describe god’s sovereign action and the history monitoring. Baruch was Jeremiah’s beloved secretary (Jeremiah 36:26). with only 150 psalms in the hebrew scriptures, psalm 151 is added. manasseh was an evil king of the southern kingdom (2 kings 21:1-9) who repented after being imprisoned in babylon (2 chronicles 33:10- 13). His prayer of penance, according to 2 Chronicles 33:18-19, is found in the Lost Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. Manasseh’s prayer claims to be that ancient prayer. And the prayer of Azariah (Daniel’s friend, also known as Abednego; Daniel 1:6), Susanna, and Bel and the dragon explain Daniel’s narrative significantly.
all these books belong to different genre categories: historiography (1 esdras, 1-3 macabees), wisdom (ben sira, wisdom of solomon, baruch), historical romance (tobias, judith, additions to esther and daniel), and liturgical pieces (Psalm 151, prayer of Manasseh, prayer of Azariah, song of the three young men in the addition of Daniel).
jesus and the new testament authors never directly quote the apocrypha. nor do they introduce it with labels that suggest inspiration, such as “as it is written” or “as the writing says”. many echoes and allusions have been detected in the new testament,5 but no obvious direct quotes or paraphrases appear in the new testament.
The same cannot be said for the early church fathers. They frequently paraphrased portions of the Apocrypha6 and even called the writer of 2 Esdras “another of the prophets” (Epistle of Barnabas 12:1). during the day of origin, the apocrypha became a normal part of the liturgy in the church. But when Augustine and Jerome entered the scene, two opposing views of these writings emerged. Augustine defended the canonicity of the Apocrypha, frequently drawing inspiration from them in his writings. Jerome, however, went back and distinguished between canonical and ecclesiastical texts. canonical texts informed faith and practice, but ecclesiastical texts were to be read in church solely for edification, not to build doctrine. Finally, the Council of Carthage (AD 397) sided with Augustine, but the two views remained in the church until the Reformation.7
One of Jerome’s followers, Nicholas of Lyra, influenced a well-known reformer: Martin Luther. Luther was forced to grapple with the status of the Apocrypha, especially in light of sola scriptura and Rome’s use of the Apocrypha to support saying masses, praying for the dead, and giving alms as a meritorious act of penance . in his preface to the apocrypha, luther echoed jerome’s distinction: “these are books which, though not esteemed as the holy scriptures, are equally useful and good to read” .8
Calvin did the same. he interacted with the Apocrypha in ways that would make some Protestants cringe. it was edified by it and cited in support of already accepted doctrines. however (and this is really important), neither Calvin nor Luther ever used it as an independent, infallible, and inspired source of doctrine.
But the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1546) did. Following Augustine, they ruled that most of the Apocrypha (excluding 1 and 2 Esdras, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 and 4 Maccabees) were canonical.9 Many Protestant faiths rejected Trent. Three are worth citing that describe the nature of the Apocrypha:
thirty-nine articles (1571), article 6: “and the other books (as Jerónimo says) are read by the church for example of life and instruction of customs; but, nevertheless, it does not apply them to establish any doctrine.”
belgian confession (1561) 6: “the church can certainly read these books and learn from them insofar as they agree with the canonical works. but they do not have such power and virtue that any point of faith or of the Christian religion can be confirmed from their testimony. much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.”
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westminster confession of faith (1647) 1.3: “the books commonly called apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are not part of the canon of scripture, and therefore have no authority in the church of god, nor should they be in any other form approved of, or used, than other human writing.”
All three confessional statements follow Jerome rather than Augustine, but they do so in different ways. The Thirty-Nine Articles, which is the confessional standard of the Church of England (Anglicans and Episcopalians), distinguish between canonical and ecclesiastical texts, as Jerome did. To this day, Anglicans and Episcopalians read sections of the Apocrypha from the Lectionary, which are also found in the Book of Common Prayer. scripture, but to my knowledge no Presbyterian church today includes the Apocrypha in its liturgy.
the westminster confession especially relegates the usefulness of the apocrypha to that of any “other human writing”. but that should not be taken as negatively as it sounds. How does the Church of God make use of “other human writings”? there are many writings that inform our understanding of history and theology and, at the risk of sounding heretical, spirituality or piety. Can the same be said of the Apocrypha? can it benefit Protestants historically, theologically, and even spiritually? I think so.
From a historical standpoint, the Apocrypha sheds light on two monumental events in Second Temple Judaism: the Hellenizing crisis and the Maccabean revolt. These events shaped the consciousness and ideology of every Jewish person who lived in the first century AD and are therefore vital to the study of the New Testament.
The Jewish people had been fighting Hellenization ever since Alexander the Great took possession of Palestine in 332 BC. Alexander’s foreign policy differed from that of other rulers. it did not destroy the ancestral traditions of other cultures. he simply wanted them to merge with the Greek way of life. To help facilitate that process, he made Greek the language of commerce, education, and literature. the cities were modeled after the Greek standard. gymnasiums, stadiums, racecourses and theaters were built. but the Jewish and Greek cultures collided, they did not unite. from the oldest and wisest Jewish perspective, this collision was devastating to his Jewish identity. but from the younger, immature Jewish perspective, this was an opportunity to acclimate to current cultural trends. many young Jews wore wide-brimmed hats, just like the Greeks, and hurried from their temple duties to work out naked in the gym. some of them even underwent an operation to hide their circumcision and avoid being ridiculed by their Hellenistic friends (1 Maccabees 1:13-15; 2 Maccabees 4:10-17).
What emerged was a strong division: some Jews were for Hellenization, while others were against Hellenization. the anti-Hellenizers were called Hasidim (“the pious”). Some scholars think this is the origin of the Pharisees, as they emphasized loyalty to God’s law and covenant. the pro-Hellenizers were neither faithful nor pious. a clear indication of the impiety of the pro-hellenizers was the installation, without ancestral basis, of a person named menelaus as high priest, which was contrary to the scriptures. the Hasidim were horrified, to say the least.
What resulted was a divided nation, with foreign influence threatening their national identity, their unity, and even their lives.
revolt of the Maccabeans
eleven years after the hellenization of palestine, alejandro died. His kingdom was divided, but was ultimately reduced to two successors: the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. hellenization continued to occur under these dynasties (although you can read ecclesiasticus to see how many remained true to traditional Jewish ideals during the reign of King Ptolemy). Eventually, though, the Seleucids reigned supreme, and a vicious Seleucid king took the throne: Antiochus Epiphanes IV (a name every Jew would never forget).
antiochus iv sacked the jewish temple to finance his campaign against the egyptians. while in egypt, he received news that the antihellenizers rebelled against the prohellenizers and the seleucids. Antiochus IV was not amused. when he returned, he tore down the walls of jerusalem, erected a new citadel to dominate the temple area, and posted a garrison. the city became a military settlement. Pro-Hellenists worked with Seleucid military settlers to incorporate the worship of Baal (who was identified with Zeus) into the temple service. Even more tragic, Antiochus IV banned the Jewish religion. he destroyed the scriptures. he did not allow the observance of the Sabbath and the festivals. food laws were abolished. circumcision could not be practiced; in fact, mothers were killed for allowing it, and his children were hung around their mothers’ necks (1 Maccabees 1:41-46, 60-61). The lowest blow came when Antiochus IV erected an altar and sacrificed pigs on it.
When this happened, the Hasidim fled to rural Jerusalem. One day, a Seleucid official came to a rural town and tried to persuade a prominent citizen named Mattathias to sacrifice to pagan gods on an altar he had erected. after he refused to do so, a fellow Jew complied with the request. At that time, out of zeal for God and his covenant, Mattathias sacrificed his fellow Jew on the altar and killed the officer. he then he called all the zealous of the law of his fathers to follow him. a revolution was born.
1 and 2 Maccabees give a lengthy account of this revolt, but the most important figure is Mattathias’s son Judas. he was given the nickname “macabeo” (the “hammerer”). Skilled in guerrilla warfare, he and his men raided villages, toppled pagan altars, killed Hellenistic sympathizers, and forcibly circumcised boys. The Hasidim supported the event that came to be called the Judas Maccabean Revolt.
Three years after Antiochus IV desecrated the temple, Judas and his troops conquered the Seleucids. they cleansed and rededicated the temple on December 14, 165 BC. they also celebrated in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles with “beautiful branches and also palm leaves” in thanksgiving “to [god] who had successfully cleansed his own holy place” (2 Maccabees 10:6- 7). To commemorate this event, a new holiday was added to the Jewish calendar: Hanukkah (or “dedication,” John 10:22), also called the Festival of Lights.
Now, how did these two monumental events influence the consciousness and ideology of every Jewish person who lived in the first century AD? it gave them a messianic fervor. They yearned for a Davidic messiah as a warrior who would crush his enemies (the Gentiles!), cleanse the temple and renew God’s covenant. you get hints of this expectation throughout the gospels. The people try to make Jesus king, but he retreats to a mountain (John 6:15). When Jesus tells Peter about his inevitable suffering as the Messiah, Peter rebukes him (Mark 8:32). a crucified messiah simply did not fit the Jewish perception of him, which came to prominence during the Maccabean period. But Jesus has four loving words to share with him: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33).12 At Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his followers spread palm branches on the ground (a national symbol of power and victory over oppressors during the Maccabean rebellion) as they cried out for “king of Israel” to save them (John 12:13). they wanted victory through glory. But the victory of Jesus would come through suffering, a truth that they should have seen in Isaiah 53 and that some would certainly see in the cross and the empty tomb.13
The Apocrypha provide us with rich historical information that illuminates our understanding of the New Testament, gives us a greater appreciation of our place in redemptive history, and helps us appreciate the witness of the church during the four hundred silent years.
theological and spiritual benefits
“even a broken watch is right twice a day”. this well-known saying captures the fallibility of human writing. Unlike the Old and New Testaments, all human writing contains, to varying degrees, truth and error. This is not to disparage these writings, but simply to say that writings that contain parts that we consider to be unorthodox or incorrect, such as the Apocrypha, can still communicate truth that agrees with the word of god (just like a broken clock lines itself up). with the real time twice a day). however, they can also report error. the apocrypha will benefit Protestants theologically only when we know how it accords with divine truth and how it does not.
purgatory and heavenly treasure
let’s first consider how the apocrypha do not agree with god’s truth. this is theologically vital for Protestants. second macabees 12 is a classic text. Records the aftermath of a battle during the Maccabean Revolt, where Judas Maccabean and his men were collecting the bodies of their fallen comrades. Beneath their robes, however, they found idols. and so “it became clear to all that therefore these men had fallen” (2 Maccabees 12:40).14 They then prayed for these dead brothers, asking that “the sin that had been committed might be completely blotted out” (2 Maccabees 12:42 ). Judas also took up a collection and sent it to Jerusalem as a “sin offering” (2 Maccabees 12:43). the narrator comments:
in doing this, he acted very well and with honor, considering the resurrection. for if he did not expect that those who had fallen would rise again, he would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. but if he was looking at the splendid reward that is reserved for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:43-45)
the roman catholic church (rcc) appeals to this text in support of its belief in purgatory, a place where sinners who have died can be cleansed of their sins before entering heaven.15 prayer on behalf of these dead sinners is vital to their success, as the example of Judas demonstrates. but there are significant problems with this doctrine and practice. not only does it introduce the misconception that human effort can merit forgiveness of sins before and even after death, but it also clearly contradicts scripture. “It is appointed for a man to die once, and afterward the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Of course, many Roman Catholics argue that purgatory is consistent with texts like 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where Paul speaks of a person being saved “as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). but the “fire” cannot be purgatory. Paul is referring to the second coming and judgment of Christ, not to an intermediate state in which a person suffers the punishment for his sins.
the example of judas also leads the icr to see almsgiving as a good deed that deserves the forgiveness of sins. the book of tobias is more explicit on this subject. consider some quotes:
Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not turn away from you. if you have many possessions, make your donation of them in proportion; if they are few, do not be afraid to give according to how little you have. thus you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself for the day of need. because almsgiving frees you from death and keeps you from going into darkness. In truth, almsgiving, for all those who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (Tobias 4:7-11)
prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with justice. Better is little with righteousness than wealth with wickedness. it is better to give alms than to accumulate gold. because almsgiving saves from death and cleanses all sin. those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their worst enemies. (Tobias 12:8-10)
From texts like these in the Apocrypha,16 the RCC develops the idea of a heavenly treasure. when a person performs good deeds, such as giving alms, he accumulates merit that is stored until judgment day. on that day, you can cash in your chips, so to speak, and be delivered from sin and death. Alms can also be done for others, as Judas did for his fallen brothers.
the new testament, of course, never states that “alms saves from death and cleanses all sin”. Some Catholics have tried to argue that 1 Timothy 6:18-19 does. Paul writes, “[the rich] should do good, be rich in good deeds, be generous, and be willing to share, thus heaping up treasures for themselves as a good foundation for the future, that they may lay hold of that which is truly life.” but without assuming an explicitly Roman Catholic theological framework, it would be really difficult to arrive at the doctrine of meritorious alms from this passage. This text can (and should) be taken as Paul arguing that good works demonstrate the reality of true and living faith, which (faith and good works) are necessary to experience eternal life or ultimate salvation.
To analyze this, a person is saved by faith alone. good works naturally follow those who are saved by faith alone. therefore, a Christian who passes from this life to the next has faith and good works. In this sense, only those who bear the sanctified fruit of justifying faith in Christ will experience eternal life. this is contrary to Roman Catholic theology, which makes the basis of a wealthy person’s salvation the heavenly treasury of good works. The only basis of salvation is the person and work of Christ.
but the apocrypha does not contain only errors. There are golden nuggets of truth scattered everywhere that line up with God’s word. To take just one example, consider the Azariah Prayer and the Song of the Three Jews, which appears in ancient manuscripts between Daniel 3:23 and 3:24. is both theologically illuminating and spiritually uplifting, as the reader considers the repentance, faith, and hope of three men in a fiery furnace.
Several theological truths jump out from the page of Azariah’s prayer. He confirms God’s goodness despite his current punishing state in Babylonian exile. “because you are just in everything you have done; all your works are true and your ways are straight, and all your judgments are true” (Azariah prayer 4). like Habakkuk, who describes God as having eyes too pure to see evil and evil (Habakkuk 1:13), or James, who declares that “God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt no one” (James 1:13), Azariah promotes an orthodox doctrine of God. then he adds, “by a true judgment you have brought all this upon us because of our sins” (Azariah prayer 5). They disobeyed God’s law, a law that was given “for [his] own good” (Azariah Prayer 7). and so it follows that they were “cast down today throughout the world because of [their] sins” (Azariah prayer 14).
azariah was actually too young to commit the sin that led god to deport them to babylon. and yet he takes the sins of the nation as his own, confessing and repenting of them:
May we be accepted with a contrite heart and a humble spirit, as if it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or with tens of thousands of fattened lambs; such be our sacrifice today before your eyes, and that we follow you without reservation, because it will not shame those who trust in you. (azariah prayer 16-17)
azariah offers the same sacrifices mentioned by david in psalm 51: “the sacrifices of god are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). in fact, the hand of god was heavy on israel in the babylonian exile. But Azariah, like David in Psalm 51:8, realized that the hand that breaks his bones will be the same hand that makes them glad. And so, cries Azariah, “do not shame us, but treat us with your patience and with your abundant mercy. deliver us according to your wonderful works, and glorify your name, O Lord” (prayer of Azariah 19-20).
after finishing their prayer, the king’s servants stoked up the fire so much that the flames “spread over the furnace forty-nine cubits [ie, seventy-one feet]” (azariah prayer 24). Suddenly, “the angel of the Lord descended into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and he expelled the flame of the fire from the furnace, and made inside the furnace as if a moist wind whistled through it. The fire did not touch them at all and caused them no pain or distress” (Azariah prayer 26-27, adding more detail to Daniel 3:25). note that god, in answer to azariah’s prayer, does not deliver him and his friends from the fiery furnace, but comforts them in the midst of the flames.17
Interestingly, most commentators think that the Azariah prayer was written during the Maccabean rebellion, when Antiochus Epiphanes IV forbade the practice of Judaism.18 If so, this appearance of the “angel of the Lord” reveals the The author’s wish that God put an end to the suffering caused by Antiochus, the madman.
Any Christian who reads this text Christologically can see the connection. The Jews who read the Azariah prayer during the Maccabean era lived in the shadows. they longed for god’s messianic king to reign over their enemies and bring them peace, but they could only hope in mortal men. Christ was simply prefigured in the Old Testament as “the angel of the Lord.” but when christ appeared, and all the shadows became reality (colossians 2:17), the lord jesus dwelt among us, not in the form of an angel communicating the presence of god, but as god himself (john 1:14). Looking back, we can see how all the hopes and desires found in the Azariah prayer can be fully realized in the Lord Jesus Christ, who protects and sustains the Church in the midst of fiery trials, as seen in the great hymn “ how firm is the foundation, you saints of the Lord,”
When through fiery trials your way is laid, my grace, all-sufficient, will be your supply; the flame will not harm you; I have only designed your dross to consume, and your gold to refine. . . .
the soul that has relied on Jesus to rest, I will not do it, I will not abandon it to its enemies; that soul, though all hell might strive to shake it, I will never, no, never, no, never forsake it.19
uninspired but useful
To end on a personal note, I really enjoy reading the Apocrypha. I don’t think it’s inspired. I don’t think it should be part of the liturgy of the church. I don’t think Christians should read it for their devotions. But I do believe that it can be historically, theologically, and spiritually beneficial to students of God’s Word, whether they are scholars, pastors, or parlor theologians. should everyone read the apocrypha? No. but every Christian would do well to know what it contains: what is harmful and what is useful. that way, we can prevent the proliferation of protestant caricatures in this collection of writings.
the apocryphal books are unorthodox in many ways, but in many others they are orthodox, historically informative, and spiritually uplifting. once this is understood, then perhaps the Apocrypha can be of great value in our quest to understand the divine scriptures.
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