"Apocrypha" comes from the Greek word apokrypha [ajpovkrufo"], which means "things that are hidden, secret." "The Apocrypha" refers to two collections of ancient Jewish and Christian writings that have certain affinities with the various books of the Old Testament and New Testament but were not canonized by Christians as a whole: the Old Testament Apocrypha, which are still viewed as canonical by some Christians, and the New Testament Apocrypha, which are not.
The Old Testament Apocrypha, often referred to simply as "the Apocrypha, " is a collection of Jewish books that are included in the Old Testament canons of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but not of Protestants. Most of the books were composed in Hebrew prior to the Christian era, but they apparently never were accepted by the Jews as part of the Hebrew canon. At an early date they were translated into Greek and in this form came to be used by Christians as early as the end of the first century a.d. They were eventually included in Christian copies of the Greek Old Testament and, later, the Latin Vulgate. The Protestant Reformers, while affirming the unique authority of the Hebrew canon, allowed that the books of the Apocrypha were useful for reading. Over time, however, the Apocrypha has fallen into disuse among Protestants.
The Roman Catholic Apocrypha consists of Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach), Baruch (also called 1 Baruch), the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. The Greek Orthodox Church adds 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees, with 4 Maccabees in an appendix. The Russian Orthodox Church adds 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The Roman Catholic canon places the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras, and 2 Esdras in an appendix without implying canonicity.
Several of these writings are tied closely to Old Testament books. First Esdras, for example, is primarily a retelling of the material found in 2 Chronicles 35:1-36:23, Ezra, and Nehemiah 7:6-8:12; Psalm 151 purports to be an additional psalm of David. More interesting are the Additions to Esther. Inserted at strategic points, these clearly secondary additions, which include among other things prayers by Mordecai and Esther, serve to give a distinctively religious slant to the Book of Esther, otherwise noted for its failure to mention God or even prayer. The Additions to Daniel have a less unified purpose. Susanna (chapter 13 of the Greek Daniel) is a delightful little story affirming God's vindication of those who hope in him, and Bel and the Dragon (chapter 14 of the Greek Daniel) exposes the folly of idolatry. The Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, placed after Daniel 3:23, is a prayer of trust in God offered up by Azariah (i.e., Abednego Dan 1:7 ) and his companions (Shadrach and Meshach) in the fiery furnace. It is noteworthy for its expression of confidence that God will accept the sacrifice of a contrite heart and a humble spirit. Another noteworthy (and secondary) prayer is the Prayer of Manasseh, apparently composed to give content to the prayer of repentance offered by Manasseh that is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 33:12-13. It includes a powerful expression of contrition for sin and trust in the grace of God. Two books are associated with Jeremiah: the Letter of Jeremiah is an attack on idolatry, and Baruch, attributed to Jeremiah's secretary (cf. Jer 36:4-8 ), extols the virtues of Wisdom, which is identified with the Law.
Two other Wisdom books are contained in the Apocrypha. The Wisdom of Solomon, ostensibly related to Solomon, deliberates on the future reward of the righteous and punishment of the ungodly, sings the praises of Wisdom, and, through a retelling of the exodus story, celebrates God's exaltation of Israel through the very things by which her enemies were punished. Affirmations, among other things, of the preexistence and immortality of the soul indicate a considerable degree of Greek influence upon the author. Ecclesiasticus contains the teachings, in a form resembling that of the Book of Proverbs, of a second century b.c. Jewish teacher named Jesus ben Sira. The author praises and personifies (cf. Prov 8:22-31 ) Wisdom, whom he identifies with the Law, and provides practical precepts for everyday living. The book contains numerous parallels to the ethical sections of the New Testament, especially the Book of James.
Two of the most popular books in the Apocrypha tell the stories, undoubtedly legendary, of two otherwise unknown Jews. Set in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, Judith is a vivid and dramatic narrative of a beautiful Jewish widow, who, through a combination of extraordinary courage and trust in God, delivers her people in a time of crisis. Tobit, purportedly from the time of the Assyrian exile, combines the themes of quest, romance, and overcoming the demonic in a story of God's healing of his faithful servant Tobit and deliverance of the unfortunate widow Sarah. It testifies to a developing demonology and angelology within Judaism, and emphasizes the importance of charitable deeds, containing some striking parallels to the ethical teaching in the New Testament, including a negative form of the Golden Rule (cf. Matt 7:12 ).
Four books are associated, in name at least, with the Maccabees, those Jewish heroes who, led by Judas Maccabeus, waged the Maccabean Revolt in the second century b.c. against the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV, who attempted to ban the practice of Judaism. First Maccabees, the longest and most detailed account, is an especially important historical source for the revolt. Apart from his obvious support of the revolt and opposition to the hellenization of Judaism that preceded it, the author's primary religious perspective seems to be that Godor, rather, heavenhelps those who take initiative and trust in him. Second Maccabees is more openly theological and affirms such ideas as the glories of martyrdom, the sufferings of the martyr as being expiatory for the sins of the nation, the resurrection of the body, prayer for the dead, and the intercession of the saints. Both books are of first importance for understanding the historical setting for Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication of the temple, which originates from the Maccabean Revolt.
Fourth Maccabees, an imaginative elaboration on the martyrdoms in 2 Maccabees, is a distinctive melding of Greek and Jewish ideas. Affirming the immortality of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the wicked, the author seeks to demonstrate that inspired reason, guided by the Law, is supreme ruler over the passions. Third Maccabees tells not of the Maccabees, but of the plight of Egyptian Jews near the end of the third century b.c.; its focus is on God's faithfulness to his people.
Second Esdras, purportedly composed by Ezra, was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in a.d. 70. Second Esdras centers around the theme of God's justice in the light of the devastating defeat of his people Israel by a godless nation. It includes significant discussions on the nature of sin and its connection with Adam (cf. Rom. 5), the limitations of human understanding, the signs of the end, the final judgment, the intermediate state between death and the final judgment, the destruction of the Roman Empire, and the coming Messiah. Both in its overall orientation and in many of its details, 2 Esdras contains a number of striking parallels to the Book of Revelation, with which it is contemporary.
The Jews wrote numerous other works that are not included in any Christian canon. Many of them were attributed to major Old Testament figures; they are called the Pseudepigrapha. Although the literature is too vast and varied to summarize here, many Pseudepigrapha contain visionary journeys through heaven (or a series of heavens) and hell, an increased interest in angels and demons, speculations on the origins of sin and the nature of the final judgment, various expectations of a Messiah, predictions of the end of time, and ethical exhortations. The Pseudepigrapha attest to the rich theological diversity within Judaism during the intertestamental period.
The New Testament Apocrypha is an amorphous collection of writings that are for the most part either about, or pseudonymously attributed to, New Testament figures. These books are generally modeled after the literary forms found in the New Testament: there are apocryphal gospels, acts, letters, and revelations. Unlike the Old Testament Apocrypha, the New Testament Apocrypha have never been viewed as canonical by any of the major branches of Christianity, nor is there any reason to believe that the traditions they record have any historical validity. Nonetheless, some of these books were widely used by Christians throughout the Middle Ages and have left their mark on the church.
Numerous apocryphal gospels were produced by early Christians. Many of them, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Dialogue of the Savior, were composed by heretical groups like the Gnostics and purport to give "secret, " unorthodox teachings of Jesus. Others fill in gaps in the New Testament Gospels, usually with a heightened sense of the miraculous. The Protevangelium of James, for example, tells the story of Mary's birth, childhood, and eventual marriage to Joseph (a widower with children), culminating in a detailed account of the birth of Jesus (in a cave) and a strong affirmation of Mary's virginity. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas narrates Jesus' childhood from age five to age twelve, with the child Jesus performing numerous miracles, sometimes to the point of absurdity (e.g., bringing clay sparrows to life). The Gospel of Nicodemus (also called the Acts of Pilate), provides a detailed account of Jesus' trial and descent into hell. The Gospel of Peter presents, after an otherwise straightforward account of the crucifixion, a vivid narration of the resurrection of Jesus: two angels come down from heaven, enter the tomb, and exit with Jesus, followed by a talking Cross.
The apocryphal Acts (Acts of Andrew, Acts of John, Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, and Acts of Thomas) purport to trace the journeys of the apostles, with Thomas going all the way to India. Three features in these books stand out. First, they are filled with supernatural deeds: miracles abound, especially the raising of the dead, and even a talking lion gets baptized. Second, they promote a celibate lifestyle, even among husbands and wives. Third, they glorify martyrdom, especially among the apostles: Andrew is crucified, Paul is beheaded, Peter is crucified upside down, and Thomas is executed with spears; only John is spared a martyr's death.
There are also apocryphal letters (e.g.,3 Corinthians, Letter to the Laodiceans [cf. Col 4:16 , and Pseudo-Titus ), which tend to reflect heretical notions, and apocryphal apocalypses (e.g., Apocalypse of Peter and Apocalypse of Paul). The latter present, in contrast to the relatively reserved statements in the New Testament, vivid descriptions of hell, where sinners are punished in accordance with their sins: blasphemers, for example, hang by their tongues over a blazing fire. In addition, the Apocalypse of Paul purports to give a detailed narration of Paul's rapture to the third heaven (cf. 2 Col 12:2 ).
Apart from the issue of canonicity, the Old Testament Apocrypha has had a pronounced and pervasive influence on Western culture. The stories, themes, and language of these books (especially Judith, Tobit, Susanna, the Maccabees, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon) have been utilized by literary figures such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Longfellow, composers such as Charles Wesley, Handel, and Rubinstein, and artists such as Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, and van Dyck. The New Testament Apocrypha, though less influential, has contributed to the traditions about Jesus and the travels and fate of the apostles, not to mention the development of the Christian concept of hell, most notably through the Inferno of Dante.
Joseph L. Trafton
See also Bible, Canon of the
Bibliography. J. H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha; J. K. Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament; E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha; B. M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha; G. W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah; E. Schrer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ; H. F. D. Sparks, ed., The Apocryphal Old Testament; M. E. Stone, ed., Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Apocrypha'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".