What is the Apocrypha?

Updated: Oct 31, 2019


I used to be a member of a large community church that had an Institute that taught classes on the Bible. I took several classes and then I began to teach in the Institute. The first class I taught was Bible Basics. As we were going over the organization of the Old Testament books I had a woman ask why her Bible had more books than I was going over. The woman was from a Catholic background and she had brought her Catholic Bible to class. These extra books are called the Apocrypha.

I found out over the years that some of the students in my classes were from a Catholic background. I made the decision that this information on the Apocrypha is something both Protestants and Catholics should know and I decided to include going over it in the curriculum.

At first when I taught on the Apocrypha I know I had a decidedly Protestant take on it. That was because I am Protestant and my library of reference books are Protestant skewed. I began looking into what Catholics have to say about the Apocrypha. In my classes when it comes to a difference between Protestants and Catholics (and there are some!) I try to be upfront and say this is what Protestants believe, this is what Catholics believe - and to be respectful of each other's beliefs. I try very hard to be Switzerland. Neutral. What I have found is that while there are a some differences in our beliefs and practices, on the essentials of the Christian faith we are united.

The Apocrypha are books that were authored by the Jews mainly between about 300 B.C. and about 200 B.C. The Roman Catholic canon includes some of these writings. The Greek Orthodox canon includes more of these writings. The Slavonic Church includes even more. The Protestant's Old Testament canon does not include any of these writings.

Protestants call these writings the apocrypha which is a Greek word which means "hidden" or "secret."

Catholics call these writings deuterocanonical which means "added later."

First let's name these books/ writings. It is hard to put an exact number of "books" on the Apocrypha because some of the writings are additions to existing books and some canons combine "books" and some don't. (Somewhere between 12 and 15 book total.)

[Source: Miller, Stephen M. (2007), The Complete Guide to the Bible, Phoenix, Arizona, The Steve Laube Agency LLC, p. 296 - affiliate link]

Here are the writings of what is called the Apocrypha:

  1. 1 Esdras*

  2. 2 Esdras*

  3. Tobit

  4. Judith

  5. Additions to the Book of Esther

  6. The Wisdom of Solomon

  7. Ecclesiasticus also called Sirach

  8. Baruch

  9. The Letter of Jeremiah**

  10. The Additions to the book of Daniel which include: The Song of the Three Holy Children, The History of Susanna, and The History of the Destruction of Bel and the Dragon.

  11. The Prayer of Manasseh*

  12. 1 Maccabees

  13. 2 Maccabees

  14. 3 Maccabees*

  15. 4 Maccabees*

* Not in the Catholic canon.

** In the Catholic canon but included under the book of Baruch.

(You might also see 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra, Psalm 151, and The Letter to the Laodiceans in some Bibles, but they are in a separate appendix.)

The Catholic Bible has 7 additional books and some additions to Esther and Daniel that are not found in Protestant Bibles. The Old Testament of the Protestant Bible has 39 books. The Roman Catholic Old Testament has 46 books. These additional books are Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch with the Letter of Jeremiah, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

When these writings are included in a canon they are placed in the Old Testament canon because they are Hebrew writings and originated before Jesus was born (except for maybe 2 Esdras and The Prayer of Manasseh which possibly were written in the first century).

Next let's define what a canon is. The word "canon" means rule of faith and truth. Canon – the group of inspired books acknowledged by the early church as the rule of faith and practice. Christians believe the Scripture is the authoritative word of God. It is our rule of faith. Therefore, the canon has significance to our faith practice.

It is important to note when discussing the Apocrypha that all Christians agree on the New Testament canon. And it is important to note we all agree on 39 books of the Old Testament.

All Christians have the exact same New Testament canon of 27 books.

All Christians agree on 39 books of the Old Testament canon.

How did the writings of the Apocrypha come to be included?

The Jewish people had extensive writings. They had their holy Scriptures. They had historical writings. They also had interpretive writings of their holy Scriptures. Over the centuries the Jews continued to copy their Scripture and their historical religious writings.

When Alexander the Great conquered the region (333-323 B.C.), he united it with Greek language. Possibly because of this the Jews decided to translate the Hebrew Scripture and other religious writings into the Greek language. This was called the Septuagint (also known as LXX) and this translation occurred between 300 and 200 B.C. A lot of people today say the Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. But it was more than that. It not only included the Hebrew Scriptures, but it also included other Hebrew religious writings.

SEPTUAGINT = Translation of (Hebrew Scripture + Additional Hebrew Writings) to Greek

It was this Greek text, not the original Hebrew, which was the source of Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic, Greek and part of the Arabic translations of the Old Testament. Churches included all of the 39 books of the Hebrew Scripture and some of the additional Hebrew writings.

The Council of Rome in A.D. 382 affirmed these 7 books and additions to Esther and Daniel were part of the Roman Catholic canon. Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome, a Catholic priest, theologian and historian (scholar of the day) to make a new Latin translation. Jerome began by correcting previous Latin versions of the New Testament. Then he began on the Old Testament. While previous Latin translations had been translated from the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and other Hebrew writings), Jerome translated directly from the Hebrew text to Latin. Jerome stated that he chose not to use the Septuagint because Judaism had rejected it as having mistranslations and heretical elements.

This Latin translation of the Scripture was completed by Jerome in A.D. 405 and is called the Vulgate.

Jerome did not think these additional writings should be included, but the Council of Rome had affirmed them as canonical. Jerome did differentiate these additional writings in the prologues in the Vulgate and he called them "apocrypha." Jerome used that term! Earlier Origen had said that the Jews called these most esteemed of their noncanonical books the "apocrypha" and this may be where Jerome got the term. Again, the word "apocrypha" mean "hidden" or "secret." Jews would never destroy their religious writings, but if not fit for use, they would hide them away and let them naturally decay. But it wasn't until Jerome used this term that the Roman Catholic Church began using it to refer to these writings.

The Apocrypha (well at least 7 books of it) was in the Roman Catholic canon and it has stayed there.

Fast forward in time and some Catholics began to believe the Bible should be translated into the language of the people. The Bible used in the Roman Catholic Church was in Latin. Masses were conducted in Latin. Most people couldn't speak or read Latin. At that time it was believed in the Catholic Church that Catholic priests had to interpret the Scriptures for the people. Between 1380 and 1388 A.D. John Wycliffe and his followers worked on translating the Latin Vulgate (which contained the Apocrypha) into English.

Fast forward a little more until the Protestant Reformation in A.D. 1517. The Protestant Reformation was begun by Roman Catholics who wanted to reform the Catholic Church from within. These group of Catholics found fault in some of the Church's practices and traditions. One of the goals for the Reformers was to put the holy Scriptures into the language of the people. Their cry was 'Why can't the people read the Scriptures for themselves?' They were deemed heretics and ex-communicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

When the Reformers began to translate the Scriptures into the languages of the people - German, French, English - they used the Latin Vulgate to translate. Hence the Apocrypha writings were in the earliest Protestant Bibles. When Martin Luther translated the Latin Vulgate to German, he separated them into a separate section and titled them Apocrypha. The early major Protestant English translations - the 1537 Matthews Bible, the 1539 Great Bible, the 1560 Geneva Bible, the 1568 Bishop's Bible, the 1611 King James Bible - all included the Apocrypha in a separate section. However, the Protestant Reformers made it very clear these books, while good to read, were not to be used for public reading, preaching, or for proving doctrine and placed that in the prologue of the Apocrypha section.

Martin Luther said, "Apocrypha - that is, books which are not regarded as equal to the holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read."

Later, at varying times, the separate section of the Apocrypha was removed from Protestant Bibles.

At the Council of Trent in A.D. 1546 the Catholic Church declared these writings to be "deuterocanonical" (meaning added later). Basically they changed the name from apocrypha to deuterocanonical. I'm guessing this was done as a result of the Protestant Reformers' objections. They reaffirmed that these deuterocanonical books/ additions had the same authority as the 39 protocanonical books (the ones we all agree upon.) The Roman Catholic Church was saying these are Scripture.

Whether to include the Apocrypha has been a point of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches.

But do you understand why this is important? Our canon is our rule of faith practice. It matters.

Why did the Protestant Reformers reject the Apocrypha as being canonical?

We will explore their reasoning in my next post.

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