What's an Apocrypha? It's all Greek to Me.
"Apocrypha" is a strange word that seldom comes up in day-to-day conversation. It's original root is
the Greek word "krypto", meaning 'secret' or 'hidden'. Words like cryptography (the study of
of codes) are also based on this word. Although it can have several different meanings, Apocrypha typically refers to a group of 15
books that are included in the Roman Catholic Old Testament, but are missing from Protestant Bibles.
The Apocryphal books were written between about 350 B.C. and 80 A.D. — in those years between the Old and
New Testaments. The reason why Protestants have never accepted them is that they do not believe that these books were really inspired of God;
Catholics didn't either, at least not officially, until the 1500's.
The Old Testament as we know it is a collection of books originally written in Hebrew. Jewish scribes have
painstakingly preserved these writings for thousands of years. But none of the Apocryphal books has ever
been included in Jewish scripture. That's because most of them were not written in Hebrew —
but in Greek. This easily differentiates them from other Old Testament scriptures, and that's a
big reason why you won't find the Apocrypha in any Jewish Bible. There are plenty of other reasons, but before we
look at them, let's see exactly what each of these books is all about.
What are the Books about?
Here is a summary of each Apocryphal book to give an idea of what they're like.
Please note: If you are interested in reading any of these books for yourself, each contains a link to the full text.
Holy Scripture & the Apocrypha
- First Esdras (sometimes called Third Esdras): Esdras is Greek for the Hebrew name Ezra. This
book attempts to revise the Bible book of Ezra with supplemental material from II Chronicles and Nehemiah. It also
contains a story of three young men who debate the question "What is the strongest thing in the world?"
in front of the King of Persia, who promises to give the winner a prize. This is one of the few Apocryphal books
that is not part of the Roman Catholic Bible.
- Second Esdras (sometimes called the Ezra Apocalypse or Fourth Esdras): This
book mostly contains conversations between Ezra and some angels sent to answer his theological questions. It also
contains a fantastic story of how all the Hebrew Scriptures were lost during the Jew's Babylonian exile, but were
perfectly restored when Ezra, under God's inspiration, dictated them word-for-word to 5 scribes. But he didn't stop
there. While he was at it, he dictated an additional 70 "secret books" that were only to be read by those who were wise. (Second Esdras
is supposed to be one of those secret books.)
- Tobit: This book could possibly have
been written in Aramaic before being translated into Greek. It is a story about a blind man named Tobit who sends
his son to collect a debt for him. He is led on his journey by an angel who takes him to the house of
a virgin who has been married 7 times. (Each of her husbands were slain by a demon on their wedding night.)
Tobit's son marries the virgin and manages to drive away the demon by burning the heart of a fish in their bedroom
on their wedding night. He then goes and collects his father's debt, and returns to Tobit with the money, his new bride and the remains of the fish.
When he gets home he heals his father's blindness using some bile extracted from the fish.
- Judith: This is one of the few Apocryphal
books that really did start out in Hebrew. It is the story of a beautiful
widow who saves her city from a military siege. When the city is surrounded, and all appears lost, she sneaks out
to the enemy commander's camp, endears herself to the general, gets him drunk, chops off his head, and brings it
back to her city. (I shall refrain from making a remark about losing one's head over a woman.) When she shows her people the enemy commander's head, they go out and rout their foes.
- Additions to the Book of Esther: Here are
6 paragraphs designed to be inserted at various places in the Bible book of Esther. Their main purpose is to give
the book a more Jewish and religious tone.
- Wisdom of Solomon: Sometimes this book
is simply called "Wisdom". It contains devotional and theological essays written such that they
appear to have come from King Solomon. It compares Jewish religion with Greek philosophy, and attempts to prove
that the highest form of wisdom is faith. This is one of the few Apocryphal books that was used and respected
by early Christian writers.
- Ecclesiasticus (also called The Wisdom of
Jesus son of Sirach, or just Sirach): This book contains discourses, proverbs and wise sayings
by a teacher named Joshua Ben Sirach. Originally written in Hebrew, it was translated into Greek by Ben Sirach's
grandson. It is the most highly respected of all the Apocryphal books, and in early times was read in church services.
- Baruch: Baruch was the prophet Jeremiah's secretary —
"Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of The Lord" [Jeremiah 36:4]. This is a rather
disjointed book, and includes exhortations against idolatry, promises to faithful Jews, and affirmations that the Law of God
is real wisdom. It is written as if by Baruch during the Babylonian exile.
- Letter of Jeremiah: This is a letter from
Jeremiah to the Jews in exile in Babylon. Often, because it is only one chapter long, rather than being a
separate book, it is included as part of the book of Baruch.
- Song of the Three Holy Children (sometimes the Prayer of Azariah): This
book was written as an addition to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It contains prayers and hymns that
were offered to God while the three were in the fiery furnace. It is typically added to the book of Daniel after
Chapter 3 Verse 23.
- Susanna: Also expected to be added
to the book of Daniel, this book is the story of two men who try to seduce a pious, young wife. When she
refuses their advances, the men publicly accuse her of adultery. Susanna is condemned to death in a trial where
the men testify falsely against her. But Daniel comes to the rescue, exposing the lies of the two men during a
second trial. The men are put to death and Susanna regains her status as a virtuous woman.
- Bel and the Dragon (sometimes Bel and the
Snake): Here we have two different stories that were expected to be included in the book of Daniel.
In the first, Bel is a Babylonian idol that supposedly ate food left for him (although really it was eaten by priests who sneaked in through
a secret entrance). When Daniel refuses to give Bel an offering, he is challenged by the King. Daniel tells
the King that the idol does not really eat anything. As a test, food is left at night for the idol —
but unknownst to the priests, fine ashes are spread over the floor. In the morning the food was gone, but
the King could see lots of footprints in the ashes. Score one for Daniel. In the second story, the people
are worshipping a living dragon (actually a big snake.) Daniel kills it by feeding it a mixture of pitch, fat
and hair, which causes it to burst open. Too bad they didn't try that in the Garden of Eden.
- Prayer of Manasseh: This is a short psalm of repentance,
purportedly by King Manasseh of Judah, as he was being carried off captive to Babylon. This is one
of the few Apocryphal books that has also been rejected by the Catholic Church.
- First Maccabees: Here is contained an honest
and stirring account of Jewish history between 175 B.C. and 135 B.C. when the Jews gained their national independence
from their Syrian oppressors. Historians consider this book an accurate account of events at that time. As an
historical account, it is valued — but as Hebrew scripture, it never cut it.
- Second Maccabees: This book relates many
of the same events as I Maccabees, but in an attempt to add a religious flavor, it includes many legendary
and fanciful additions. Some of the statements in this book support the Roman Catholic teachings on
Purgatory, prayers for the dead and the intercessory work of deceased saints.
The Jews have never felt that any of the Apocryphal books should
be considered as the Word of God. Thus none of the books were ever included in Jewish scripture. They have
been out-and-out rejected by Jewish religious teachers ever since the time they were written. So how
can anyone now think that the Apocrypha should be part of the Bible?
The Old Testament has always been a Jewish book. It is written in Hebrew, explained in Hebrew and expounded
in Hebrew. However by the 3rd Century B.C., because of various exiles, there were Jewish people all over the Middle East, and many of them
no longer spoke Hebrew. So sometime before the time of Christ, a Greek translation was made of the Jewish Bible for these
non-Hebrew-speaking Jews. This translation was called the Septuagint. Even though the translators
knew that no Jew considered the Apocryphal Books as inspired, nonetheless, for the sake of completeness, they translated and included the
Apocrypha with the rest of the Old Testament. Big mistake. As time went on, the Septuagint became
the official Jewish Bible in Greek. And so by default the Apocryphal books became canonized.
Now to the Jews this was never a problem. Their Bible contained the Law, the Prophets and the Writings —
the complete Protestant Old Testament. It never contained the Apocrypha. However when the Christian Church
came on the scene and started compiling its own set of Holy Scriptures, the Apocryphal books were there
in the Septuagint, just to confuse the issue. And the fight as to whether to include them or not went on for centuries.
Why do Protestants reject the Apocrypha?
When the early Church began to gather together the various
writings that were to become part of its Bible, the Apocryphal books were conspicuously missing.
So when the Christian Bible was compiled into a single volume, dealing with the Apocryphal books was a
"no brainer". The early church rejected these books outright, and this remains the position
of almost all Protestant denominations today.
- As mentioned above, they were never part of any Jewish Bible, and since Christianity had spring up
from Judaism, it just seemed logical to accept their scriptures without making changes.
- Even though the Apocryphal books existed in the 1st Century A.D., they were never quoted. The New
Testament includes quotes from 34 different Old Testament books; Jesus himself quoted from 24 of them. Yet
none of these quotations come from the Apocrypha. These books were simply not part of Jewish Scripture or
- Just a quick reading of most Apocryphal books reveals that they do not have the basic qualities of
inspiration that the rest of the Bible does. Large portions contain historical and chronological errors.
In the book of Judith, Holofernes is described as a general for Nebuchadnezzar, and Nebuchadnezzar is
named as ruler of the Assyrians in Nineveh. In actuality, Holofernes was a Persian general and King
Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonians from Babylon. In I and II Maccabees, Antiochus Epiphanes ends up
dying 3 times in 3 different locations. Problems like these are hard to rectify.
- The Apocryphal books are often in direct conflict with canonical scripture. Just as a
single example, the book of Baruch talks of God hearing the prayers of those who are already dead — a concept
quite foreign to accepted scripture.
- Finally, some of these books, quite obviously, contain just fanciful legends.
In Bel and the Dragon, after Daniel kills the snake, he is thrown into the lion's den — again —
this time for 7 days. There Daniel is fed by the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk who brings him food,
having been transported by an angel to the lion's den. Or, see the description above for the book of Tobit.
This bears no resemblance to anything in canonical scripture. It is obviously just a contrived story.
Now it is true than many early Protestant English Bibles included the Apocrypha. But these books were segregated into
a separate section of the Bible, all by themselves (usually between the Old and New Testaments), and almost always included a notation that
they were not on par with Holy Scripture. They just about disappeared from all Protestant Bibles by the mid 1600's.
Why do Catholics accept the Apocrypha?
In a nutshell — because they are told to. The Catholic Church
has full authority to specify what is scripture and what is not. Up until the 16th Century,
the Apocryphal books were sort of a 'gray area' — they were included in the Latin Vulgate Bible (the official Catholic Bible),
but the church had never officially canonized them.
The Protestant Reformation changed all that. As common folks gained access to Bibles that were not written
in Latin, but in their native tongue, the Catholic Church was being called to task for many of its beliefs
and practices that did not appear to be founded in scripture — including the doctrine of Purgatory,
prayers for those who are dead, and the selling of indulgences. Several of the Apocryphal books seem to support
these beliefs, so it behooved the Catholic Church to declare these books as scripture.
So on April 8, 1546 the Council of Trent removed all doubt as to the status of the Apocrypha. These books
officially became part of the Roman Catholic Old Testament. And they meant business. Said the Church: "If anyone receive
not as sacred and canonical the said books entire, with all their parts, as they have by custom been read in the
Catholic Church, let him be accursed."
One last thought: If you read the 'Early Versions' section of this Website, you'll quickly realize that there was no
love lost between Catholics and Protestants during this period of time. In fact Catholics simply
referred to Protestants as "heretics". This strife manifested itself in both book burnings
and people burnings. To the Catholic Church, whatever the Protestants did, it was wrong. So if
Protestants were going to exclude the Apocrypha from scripture, then the Catholics were going to include it.
Today this seems really childish, but life was alot different in the 16th Century.
So all the Apocryphal books, with the exception of I & II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh,
remain as part of the Roman Catholic Old Testament. And its likely they will stay there forever.