When Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German language in 1534, the great Reformer chose to include the Apocrypha but didn’t like it. Before Luther, John Wycliffe didn’t believe it, but in 1382 didn’t delete it. The Apocrypha was a subject of controversy that challenged not only Luther and Wycliffe but John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, Ulrich Zwingli and other Reformers. Apocrypha in Greek means “the hidden things,” as per The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
There are plenty of variations, not only within Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic communities, but also within Bible editions, from William Tyndale (1536-1569) and Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) to the Geneva Bible of 1560, and many before and after. Indeed, the history of “what’s in” and “what’s out” with the Apocrypha is no small history. The tale of what constitutes the deuterocanonical books of the Holy Bible – and why – is a long, complicated, and often controversial subtext in Biblical history. But, to simplify, we will seek to describe and consider, mainly, those fourteen intertestamental books in the 1611 King James Bible (which followed the Geneva Bible of 1560): the "Books called Apocrypha." As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church pronounced in characteristic British understatement, “Their position [i.e., the Apocrypha] in Christian usage has been somewhat ambiguous.”
Like Wycliffe in England, Luther also translated the Apocrypha, those deuterocanonical —" a second canon"— books, composed between 400-200 BC, (written in Greek, not Hebrew), associated with the Hebrew Bible. However, Martin Luther called these books apocryphal, that is, texts of dubious origin, and disqualified by their very nature from being part of the Holy Scriptures. In the letter from one of his old professors, we learn that Martin Luther had actually taught his own professor something of value about the Apocrypha. In “Erasmus and Luther: Their Attitude to Toleration,” that letter is quoted: "You have been the first to teach me that we must read the canonical books with faith, all others with discernment."
This very fact serves as a proper introduction to those books called the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is not the Word of God, and, thus, not to be read as such, and not to be trusted for faith and life. However it does provide some value to believers. The influence of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1643-46) had an undeniably profound impact on English-speaking Christianity and, thus, even among non-Reformed churches, and, therefore, its position (Chapter 1, article 3) on the Apocrypha has become a standard response by Evangelicals the world over. In “Apocrypha, Old, and New Testament” it explains that “The Books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are not part of the canon of the Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”
Even so, the Apocrypha is often found attached in its own section in many Bible editions, and they are also used in a non-canonical way in particular evangelical churches (for example, in some communities in the Anglican Community and in Lutheranism).
The Roman Catholic Church, by the unrepealed decision of the Council of Trent, holds to a “wide canon”. Many deliberations took place at the Council of Trent. In many ways, “… it became clear that the Reformers were not the only ones to question the status of the Apocrypha and, indeed, that the controversy over them went back to the patristic era, with Jerome rejecting them as part of the canon and Augustine defending them,” says J.W. O’Malley in “Trent: What Happened at the Council.” Charles Hodge rightly noted, “Some modern theologians of the Romish Church refer all the apocryphal books to what they call ‘The Second Canon,’ and admit that they are not of equal authority with those belonging to the First Canon. The Council of Trent, however, makes no such distinction.”
The Apocrypha are the non-canonical “mystery books” of the Old Testament
While there were other apocryphal books of the Old Testament and pseudepigrapha—“pseudonymous works ascribed to the sages of the past, such as Enoch, Moses, and Solomon,” according to W.D. McHardy in “General Introduction to the Apocrypha”—the “mystery” books that are usually included in the Apocrypha are as follows:
The Historical Books
1 and 2 Maccabees. These historical texts are concerned with the characters and events surrounding the Maccabean revolt and to gain sympathy for the unknown author’s Jewish heroes, Mattathias and his third son, Judah Maccabee. Hanukkah, the Festival of Light celebrated in honor of Judah Maccabee’s victory, was inaugurated in 164 BC.
The Apocalyptic Books
1 and 2 Esdras. The first book is historical, retelling the true history of Israel found in the Hebrew Bible. The second book is "apocalyptic," like Daniel and Revelation in terms of unveiling that which was previously hidden and dealing with ultimate realities (e.g., the end of the world). These books were likely written after the birth of Christ.
The Didactic Books
The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach (Jerome, who translated the Vulgate, the Latin text of the Holy Bible, called this book, Ecclesiasticus, or “Church Book”). This text was, unlike others, initially written in Hebrew, and by the author’s record, translated into Greek by the grandson “between 190 and 180 [BC],” according to James Crenshaw in the “Anchor Bible Dictionary”.
The Wisdom of Solomon. Interestingly enough, the unknown Jewish author takes exception with the pessimism that he sees in those who follow Ecclesiastes, the one genuinely written by Solomon.One should note that the Wisdom of Solomon is “. . . the most quoted book of the Apocrypha and one which was greatly valued by the early Church,” says W.D. McHardy in “General Introduction to the Apocrypha.”
In addition to these books, the Didactic texts include Chapters of Daniel, Chapters of Esther, Baruch—all intended as supplemental material to, apparently, structure a particular theological position. Some of the work, as in the prayer of Mordechai in Esther Chapter 13, is of devotional value to the believer. For example, Esther 13:9-18, contains such prayers as this, "Hear my prayer, and be merciful unto thine inheritance; turn our sorrow into joy, that we may live, O Lord, and praise thy name: and destroy not the mouths of them that praise thee, O Lord.”
Yet, written in the first or second century BC, we are left with the continuing question of why add to the Scriptures. Bruce Metzger was undoubtedly correct when he surmised, "Pseudonymity is a complex phenomenon. Its motivation is equally complex: Metzgermentions fear, shame, financial greed, malice, respect, modesty, dramatic concern, and desire for credence.”
The Folk Literature
Tobit and Judith. While there is undeniable piety in Tobit and Judith, there is the recognizable air of mythology; that is, fiction. Thus, the books are without value for teaching the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
What can we conclude then, about the Apocrypha?
The books that comprise Apocrypha are historically valuable (though not without historical errors) for understanding the development of the canon of Scripture, culturally insightful to the intertestamental times in Israel, and even devotionally helpful, in places. The testimony of the sixty-six books of the Bible tells us that the Apocrypha is unreliable for faith and life, and, in some cases, contrary to the Holy Scriptures. For example, the author of the religious fiction, Tobit, denies justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
We read in Tobit 12:9, “For alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting.” Thus, we conclude with even those who included the contents in their translations and publications—from Saint Jerome to Luther, the Dutch, English, and American Puritans, and not a few Roman Catholic believers—that the literature called the Apocrypha is not the Word of God.
Once when I was studying for the ministry in seminary, I asked my professor of Old Testament, Dr. Laird Harris, "What about the Apocrypha? How can one discern whether it is to be included with other books of the Bible?" I shall never forget the response of my late and godly teacher. “Choose any book of the Apocrypha and read it this weekend. Then, when you are finished, pick up the Gospel of John. Talk to me on Monday.”
Well, I followed the guidance of my professor. When he asked me what I had learned in my reading, I was able to say, “Dr. Harris, the Holy Spirit is on His Word in John. But the Book of Tobit reads like a fairy tale.” And that practical, yet profoundly Gospel-centered lesson is the final and ultimate reason we must say, “The testimony of the Scriptures deny the canonicity of those books called the Apocrypha.”
Brunton, V. Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach. John Lane, 1927.
Cheek, John L. "The Apocrypha in Christian Scripture." Journal of the American Academy of Religion XXVI, no. 3 (1958/07/01/ 1958): 207-12. Accessed 2019/07/09/11:50:59. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jaarel/XXVI.3.207.
Crenshaw, James L. "Proverbs." In Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol Five (O-Sh), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 514. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Cross, Frank Leslie, and Elizabeth A Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, USA, 2005.
DeSilva, David A. Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance. Baker Books, 2018.
Forshall, Josiah, Frederic Madden, and Johannes Wickliffe. The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal Books in the Earliest English Versions Made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and His Followers Edited by Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden. Vol. 1: University Press, 1850.
Kaiser, O. Old Testament Apocrypha, The: An Introduction. Baker Publishing Group, 2004.
Lumpkin, J. The Latin Vulgate Translated by Saint Jerome: The Clementine Edition: Vulgata Clementina: Sanctus Hieronymus. Fifth Estate, Incorporated, 2019.
Salomon, Bernard. The Holy Bible: The Authorized or King James Version of 1611 Now Reprinted with the Apocrypha. With Reproductions of 105 of the Sixteenth-Century Woodcuts of Bernard Salomon. 3 vols. London: Nonesuch Press, 1963.
Stolt, Birgit. "Luther’s Translation of the Bible." Lutheran Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2014): 373-74.
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Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.