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A Brief Overview of the Apocrypha in History


by
Jim Kerwin
Copyright © 1997

The following is meant to be a brief (about two pages) introductory note, rather than a lengthy treatise, on the Apocrypha and its books. To know a little bit about the Apocrypha is to learn a little bit about both Church history and how our Bible came into being.

Background

Around 200 B.C., Jewish scholars gathered to translate the Bible (what we now think of as the “Old Testament”) into Greek, which was at the time the common language of the known world (for anything east of Rome). This version became known as the Septuagint or LXX (the Roman numeral for “70”), a name derived from the number of scholars who worked on the translation. This translation became the main one used by the early Christians, partially because of its availability, and partially because most literate Gentiles of the time could read Greek, but not Hebrew.

Once this new Greek version of the Old Testament began to circulate, here and there it picked up additions, some fourteen in all (depending on how one counts them). For instance, additional stories were tacked on to the books of Esther and Daniel (like Susanna and Bel and the Dragon [both of which may be the earliest examples of the detective genre, with the righteous Daniel as the gumshoe]). Other complete books were attached outright—“wisdom” books (i.e., books patterned after Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, like The Wisdom of Solomon and The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach [a.k.a., Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, not be confused with the canonical Ecclesiastes]), historical fiction (Judith), actual history (1 & 2 Maccabees), pious religious fiction (Tobit), along with a few others.

Not in the Canon

Saint Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, the early Latin translation of the Bible

The canon (official content) of the Old Testament was agreed upon around 70 a.d. by Jewish scholars, producing the list of books we now know by the name of “Old Testament.”  The celebrated Christian Bible scholar Jerome (c. 330-420 a.d.), based on his careful study of Hebrew (quite original for Christians at that time) and rabbinic writings, was in full agreement with the accepted Jewish Hebrew canon. And in light of Romans 3:1-2, where Paul says that God committed the custody of “the oracles of God” (i.e., the Old Testament writings) to the Jews, we can rest assured that God also used these First Century Jewish scholars to include all that was necessary for the Old Testament.

Since the Apocryphal books weren’t to be found in any Hebrew version of the Old Testament, Jerome determined that he would omit most of these extra books from his famous Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, and what material he did include was clearly marked to show that it was not to be found in the original Hebrew manuscripts. His take on these books, which he labeled the Apocrypha (Greek for “hidden” or “concealed” or, as treated by Christians “withdrawn”) was that he considered them “edifying” (in the sense that you or I might think of Pilgrim’s Progress or In His Steps as edifying), but not to be used for establishing doctrine, since they were not inspired Scripture.

Truth at Stake

Martin Luther, German Reformer and Bible Translator

For all that, the Apocryphal books were included in most of the great translations of the Bible through the 1700s, but they were isolated from both the Old and New Testaments and gathered in one location, often as an appendix. During his translation of the Bible in the early 1500s, Martin Luther had reason to clearly delineate the status of these books, and he re-popularized the term Apocrypha. At stake was the validity of the doctrine of salvation by Grace through faith versus the two anti-Grace doctrines of Purgatory and earning merit through good works. Roman Catholics claimed to be able to validate purgatory and masses for the dead—but only from 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, while in Tobit 12:9, 2 Esdras 8:33, and Sirach 3:30, they believed they found the basis for the claim that merit was earned by good deeds. Luther, while rejecting their canonical (and, therefore, doctrinal) status, included the books of the Apocrypha as interstitial material between the Old and New Testaments of his 1534 edition of the Bible, noting that they were not inspired, but could be read with profit.

The Roman Catholic response at the Council of Trent, twelve years after Luther’s abovementioned edition, was to declare (almost 1200 years after Jerome’s contrary opinion) that the books (except three) were canonical, could be used as the basis of doctrine, and anathematized (that is, damned for all eternity) anyone who didn’t accept them and the doctrines they were being used to support.

This hard-line Roman Catholic stance hardly improved the Protestant disposition towards the Apocrypha. The books faded from the scene in many branches of Protestantism within a century or two, though they continued for several hundred years in other branches, particularly those under Anglican (i.e., English) influence or derivation. Thus we find Protestant divines such as John Bunyan and George Whitefield making occasional references to Apocryphal passages, all the more so because they probably found them bound between the covers of their Bibles. And it could be links from passages from those very writers, mentioned in Percy Gutteridge’s writings here on Finest of the Wheat, that brought you to this brief introduction to the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha and Finest of the Wheat

You could say we’re “pretty Protestant” here at Finest of the Wheat when it comes to the Apocrypha. We acknowledge that it plays a part in Church history and literature. It is a fascinating “window” on religious thought (especially among Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Jewish Christians) during the period spanning 300 b.c. to 100 a.d., and, as such, can be a helpful background for understanding the times in which the New Testament was written. It is interesting for mature Christians to read (though not at the cost of neglecting regular reading of the inspired Scriptures), and I have read it through once a year for the last ten years, finding in it, as both Jerome and Luther indicated, things that have edified and profited and intrigued me.

However, that’s about as far as it goes—the Apocrypha is part of Christian tradition and history, but it is neither inspired nor necessary. Though the New Testament writers quote from or allude to the books of the Old Testament hundreds of times, they never once quote from the books of the Apocrypha.

For anyone with an interest in reading through the Apocrypha, an edition entitled The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, with very helpful book introductions and footnotes is offered by the scholarly Oxford University Press in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation. Oxford also offers The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, the Old and New Testaments, traditionally bound together with the Apocrypha, in the same translation.


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