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The Apocrypha: those mysterious extra books

February 2021 | by Stephen Rees

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How well do you know the Apocrypha? The what? The Apocrypha. The word means the ‘hidden’ works. And it’s a collection of writings that you’ll find in some Bibles, usually placed between the Old Testament and the New Testament. They were written (with one exception) in the 400 years after the Old Testament had been completed and before the Lord Jesus was born.

Most of them were written in Greek and they were included in many copies of the ‘Septuagint’, the Greek version of the Old Testament prepared by Jewish scholars around 200 BC for the use of Greek-speaking Jews.

Then in the year 382 AD, the Pope commissioned a monk named Jerome to translate the Old and New Testaments, plus the Apocrypha, into Latin. So we have copies of these books both in Greek and Latin.

How many different writings are there in the Apocrypha? Somewhere around 15. Some copies of the Septuagint include them all, others have a smaller number.

The Jewish rabbis never believed that these ‘hidden works’ were inspired by God or that they should be thought of as Holy Scripture. But the Roman Catholic Church decided that 12 of them – in the Latin version – were just as much God’s Word as the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. And the Eastern Orthodox Churches treat all 15 writings – in the Greek version – as Holy Scripture.

Fifteen writings

What are they about? Well, about all sort of things. Some are historical. Some are fictional. Some offer wisdom (like the Bible book of Proverbs). Some give us the words of prayers supposedly prayed by Old Testament characters.

Here’s a quick list. I’ll go first through the 12 books viewed by the Roman Catholic Church as Holy Scripture.

Tobit is a romantic novel about a God-fearing but poor Jew, suffering from blindness, who lives in Nineveh. His son Tobias, helped by an angel in disguise called Raphael, enables him to regain his sight and wealth. Tobias finishes up married to a beautiful widow called Sarah, whose seven previous husbands had each been killed on their wedding night by a demon called Asmodeus. To drive away the demon, Tobias has to burn the heart, liver, and gall-bladder of a fish that had previously tried to eat his foot.

Judith is another novel which tells the story of a beautiful and wealthy Jewish widow. The Assyrian general, Holofernes, is besieging her home town, Bethulia. Judith uses her beauty to trap him and then decapitates him.

The additions to Esther. These are passages which are added to the Bible book of Esther. The original Hebrew book never speaks directly of God (though it’s clear that he’s working through events at every point). So the apocryphal writer added a series of passages to make the book more obviously ‘religious’. One tells about a dream sent by God to Mordecai; in others we have the words of Mordecai and Esther’s prayers, and so on.

The first book of Maccabees is a book of history. It recounts the attempts of a Syrian king known as Antiochus Epiphanes (175–164 BC) to force Jewish people to abandon the worship of the Lord and to accept heathen customs. It then tells of the Jewish rebellion against Epiphanes, led by the heroic Judas Maccabeus and his brothers.

The second book of Maccabees covers part of the same period as 1 Maccabees. But the writer is less concerned about historical accuracy, and includes various fanciful tales about miraculous events.

The book of Wisdom (a.k.a. the Wisdom of Solomon) was not written by Solomon! It deals in a philosophical way with themes such as immortality and divine wisdom.

Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. the Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach). The name Jesus in the title has nothing to do with the Lord Jesus – Jesus was a common name in the period at which this book was written. It’s a mixture of proverbs, psalms, exhortations, and comments about the way Jewish people were behaving in the author’s time.

Baruch is a book supposedly put together by Jeremiah’s friend and secretary, Baruch. It contains four parts. The first part tells how Baruch composed a prayer which he then read to the exiles in Babylon and sent to Jerusalem. The second part is a poem explaining that God sent Israel into exile because she had abandoned his wisdom. The third part is another poem looking forward to a glorious future for Israel. The fourth part (chapter 6) claims to be ‘A letter of Jeremiah’ – sent by Jeremiah in Jerusalem to the exiles. This ‘letter’ is sometimes separated from Baruch and treated as an independent work.

The prayer of Azariah is a block of 19 verses added to the Bible book of Daniel. It claims to give us the prayer which Azariah (Abednego) prayed while in the burning fiery furnace.

The song of the three young men is another addition to Daniel. It tells the song which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego sang while in the furnace after the angel of the Lord had made it cool around them.

Susanna and the judgment of Daniel: another addition to Daniel. It tells how two corrupt Jewish elders first tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce a beautiful Jewish woman called Susanna, then accused her of adultery. She would have been executed if Daniel hadn’t intervened and proved her innocent.

Bel and the Dragon: one more addition to Daniel. Once again he plays the detective and proves that the priests who serve the Babylonian god Bel are fraudsters and that Bel himself is a powerless idol. He then goes on to combat a dragon by feeding it an explosive mixture; he’s thrown into a lions’ den and is fed there by the prophet Habakkuk who is lifted up from Jerusalem by his hair and transported to Babylon.

You will find these 12 writings in any Bible approved by the Roman Catholic Church – for example, the Douai Version or the Jerusalem Bible.

And then we have three additional works, accepted by some or all of the Eastern Orthodox churches. These are not normally included in Roman Catholic Bibles, but along with the 12 were included in the Authorised Version of 1611 – and many other Protestant Bibles too (more on that later).

The first book of Esdras is basically the Bible book of Ezra, with extra information added, with a section from 2 Chronicles placed at the beginning and one from Nehemiah at the end. Some of the added information may be genuinely historical.

The second book of Esdras doesn’t really fit among the apocryphal books at all. It was never part of the Septuagint and most scholars think it was written around 100 AD. It includes seven visions given to Ezra by the angel Uriel.

The prayer of Manasseh. The Bible book of 2 Chronicles tells the story of King Manasseh’s repentance after a career of appalling wickedness. A later writer used his imagination to compose a prayer that Manasseh might have used to seek God’s mercy.

Catholic and Protestant

So we have 15 Jewish writings, varying a great deal in value and in interest. Christians after the time of the apostles seem to have known and used them a good deal. As I said, the Roman Catholic Church since around 400 AD has given 12 of them the same authority as the Old and New Testaments. The various Eastern Orthodox churches down through the centuries have viewed some or all of them as Holy Scripture.

From the time of Jerome until the Reformation, few Christians, if any, challenged the place given to these writings (though Jerome himself said that they should not be treated as inspired Scripture). When the first complete English Bible was produced, late in the 14th century by friends and associates of John Wycliffe, all the 12 extra works recognised by the Roman Catholic church were included. There was no difference made between them and the 66 books that we count as God’s Word.

What did the Protestant Reformers think about the Apocrypha? Well, they were united in their view. They followed Jerome in saying that only the writings recognised by the Jews as Holy Scripture should be counted as genuinely part of the Old Testament. So no, the writings of the Apocrypha were not inspired and they were not to be used to establish any doctrine.

And yet they all treated the books of the Apocrypha with great respect. Martin Luther translated not only the Old and New Testaments but also the Apocrypha. It was published in 1534 with the apocryphal writings grouped together and placed between the two Testaments. He declared them to be ‘books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read’.

What of Calvin? Calvin in his greatest work of Christian doctrine, the Institutes, spelled out clearly that the various books of the Apocrypha do not have the authority of Scripture. His Roman Catholic opponents used quotes from the Apocrypha to ‘prove’ such false doctrines as purgatory, and prayers for the dead. Calvin replied that the writings in the Apocrypha have no place ‘in the canon of the sacred books’.

And yet he also wrote, ‘I am not one of those, however, who would entirely disapprove the reading of those books…’ In fact, he was ready to quote from them with approval. Several times in his writings, he quotes from Baruch; in one place he wrote, ‘…some unknown author, whoever he may be, has written these very true and holy words attributed to the prophet Baruch…’ He also quotes from Ecclesiasticus and from the book of Wisdom. He refers to their authors as ‘two sacred writers…’ and again, ‘ancient pious writers’.

The mainstream Protestant position was summed up in the 39 Articles of the Church of England (1571): ‘…the other books (i.e. the 15 writings of the Apocrypha) the Church does read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet does it not apply them to establish any doctrine’. Such are the following…’ and a list of 15 follows.

And when Protestants translated and published the Bible, they always included the Apocrypha in with the Old and New Testaments. Even the Geneva Bible – produced in Geneva by a group of exiled Protestant scholars with Calvin’s backing – included the Apocrypha.

The preface declared that the apocryphal writings should not be used ‘to prove any point of Christian religion save in so much as they had the consent of the other scriptures called canonical to confirm the same’. And yet, in the verdict of the translators, ‘as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners…’

And then of course there was the Authorised Version of 1611. Again it included the Apocrypha. Indeed it became illegal to print copies of the Bible without the apocryphal books. Readings from the Apocrypha were included in the Church of England lectionary (the sequence of Bible passages to be read in services through the year).

In fact it was not until 1827 that it became common to print copies of the AV without the Apocrypha. In that year the British and Foreign Bible Society were persuaded to do so and it has been normal ever since. And as Protestant denominations and groups have published lots of new versions – the Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version, the NIV, the ESV, and so on – most of them have printed copies without the Apocrypha.

John Bunyan

For hundreds of years Protestant – and evangelical – Christians knew and treasured the books of the Apocrypha. Let me give you one example. John Bunyan (1628–1688) author of Pilgrim’s Progress tells in his autobiography Grace Abounding the story of his search for salvation. One verse from the Apocrypha played a crucial role in that search. This is what he wrote:

‘… for several days, I was greatly assaulted and perplexed, and was often, when I have been walking, ready to sink where I went, with faintness in my mind; but one day, after I had been so many weeks oppressed and cast down therewith, as I was now quite giving up the ghost of all my hopes of ever attaining life, that sentence fell with weight upon my spirit, “Look at the generations of old and see; did ever any trust in the Lord, and was confounded?”’

Bunyan began to search his Bible, looking for the sentence, ‘not doubting but to find it presently; for it was so fresh, and with such strength and comfort on my spirit, that I was as if it talked with me’. But to his surprise he found it nowhere. He consulted other ‘good men’ but was surprised that none of them could point him to the passage ‘for I doubted not but it was in holy Scripture’.

He continues: ‘Thus I continued above a year, and could not find the place; but at last, casting my eye into the Apocrypha books, I found it in Ecclesiasticus 2:10. This, at the first, did somewhat daunt me; but because, by this time, I had got more experience of the love and kindness of God, it troubled me the less; especially when I considered, that though it was not in those texts that we call holy and canonical, yet forasmuch as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it; and I bless God for that word, for it was of God to me: that word doth still, at times, shine before my face.’

Bunyan’s Bible included the Apocrypha and he had read it often enough for that verse from Ecclesiasticus to stick in his mind! And even when he discovered that it was ‘not in those texts that we call holy and canonical’ he could still believe it was ‘of God to me’ and it remained precious to him.

Read with caution

Well, what about us? Do I think we should be reading the Apocrypha? Well, not in our services at any rate – not in the same way as we read the Bible. Of course I would feel free to quote it, just as I would quote any other uninspired but useful writing – the 1689 Confession, Spurgeon’s sermons, or the Daily Telegraph. But I would never read it as if it were God’s Word. As the Westminster Confession has it, ‘The books, commonly called Apocrypha… are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.’

What about in private? Again, not as part of our daily quiet times, in place of the Bible, but as extra helpful reading? Yes, I would say that reading the Apocrypha can be of great benefit. But read it with caution. Why? For at least three reasons.

1. There are places where the apocryphal books do teach false doctrines or encourage wrong practices. For example, we read in 2 Maccabees the account of how Judas Maccabeus sent money to Jerusalem to be spent on providing sin offerings for Jewish people who had died as a result of their sin. The writer comments that ‘the thought was holy and devout. This was why he had this atonement sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin’ (2 Maccabees 12:45, Jerusalem Bible). The Bible never suggests that it is right to pray for the dead, let alone offer sacrifices on their behalf. Rather, it teaches that each person’s eternal destiny is settled and unchangeable from the moment they die (Luke 16:19-31).

2. There are places where the apocryphal books present bizarre and fanciful stories as if they were fact. If you’ve read carefully through my summary of the apocryphal writings, you’ll already have picked up some examples. But there are plenty more. Take this – again from 2 Maccabees. Judas Maccabeus is leading the Jewish forces against the heathen invaders. ‘When the battle was at its height the enemy saw five magnificent men appear from heaven on horses with golden bridles and put themselves at the head of the Jews; surrounding Maccabeus and screening him with their own armour, they kept him unscathed while they rained arrows and thunderbolts on the enemy…’ (2 Maccabees 10:29-30, JB ).

3. There are places where the apocryphal writers describe in horrible ways the cruelties that people inflict on one another. Again, it’s 2 Maccabees where that bothers me most. There’s an account, for example, in chapter 7 of the tortures that were inflicted by King Antiochus Epiphanes on seven brothers in front of their mother. I wouldn’t want my children to read it. Yes, there are horrifying things in the Bible too – but none are described in the same unnecessary detail.

Five benefits

So there are dangers in reading the Apocrypha, but set alongside those some real benefits. I’ll list five.

1. Most Christians know very little about the historical events that happened between the end of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ. If they want to know anything about that period, they need to read the Apocrypha. The prophet Daniel prophesied many of those events, including the wars fought by the Maccabees against Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 8-11). But if you want to know how those prophecies were fulfilled, you need to read 1 Maccabees. You’ll be moved by the extraordinary courage and heroic exploits of the Jewish warriors who were determined to do battle for their God and their country. And you’ll be humbled by the willingness of many ordinary folk to suffer and die rather than break the law of the Lord. It may well be those folk that the writer to the Hebrews had in mind when he wrote of some who ‘were tortured, refusing to accept release so that they might rise again to a better life’ (Hebrews 11:35). It’s certainly an apt description.

2. The apocryphal writings were read very widely among Jewish people across the Roman Empire at the time when the New Testament was written. They helped to shape the way Jewish people thought and behaved. So if you want to understand the people to whom the apostles preached the Christian message, it can be a great help to be familiar with those writings. What did Jewish people think that repentance meant? What was their attitude to Gentile people and their idols? Who were the heroes from the past that they admired? What did they think it meant to be wise? Reading the Apocrypha helps us to understand the first-century Jewish world.

3. We can be sure that the Lord Jesus himself was familiar with the writings of the Apocrypha. No, he never quoted it explicitly but there were times when he referred to it. Take this passage from the closing chapter of Ecclesiasticus:

‘I opened my mouth, and said, Buy her for yourselves without money.

‘Put your neck under the yoke, and let your soul receive instruction: she is hard at hand to find [or ‘she is not hard to find’].

‘Behold with your eyes, how that I have but little labour, and have gotten unto me much rest’ (Ecclesiasticus 51:23-27, AV).

The ‘she’ in the passage is Wisdom. The readers are urged to buy Wisdom – without money. They must put their neck under the yoke of Wisdom and learn from her. And the writer tells of his own experience – he has come to Wisdom and with little labour he has gained much rest. Now read the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30:

‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (AV).

Do you see how Jesus has taken the words from Ecclesiasticus – which all his readers will have recognised – and turned them round? He tells them that he himself is the one to whom they must come. He tells them that they must take his yoke on themselves – he himself is true and perfect Wisdom. They must learn from him. And when they come to him, what they will find is not much rest for little labour; rather they will find complete rest for no labour.

Any weary, heavy-laden sinner, seeking rest, can grasp Jesus’s meaning without having read one line of the Apocrypha. But there are points where knowing the apocryphal background can enrich our understanding and our delight in his words.

4. Many of the Apocryphal writings were written by genuinely good and godly believers. They were not inspired as the Bible writers were inspired, but they still wrote many ‘true and holy words’, as Calvin put it.

Let me just give you just a couple of examples (in the AV). First, some verses from the Prayer of Manasseh:

‘… I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquities. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

That may fall far short of the repentance of a man drawn to Christ under the new covenant. But I still find these verses a moving glimpse of a man who knows his own sinfulness. It’s one of many passages in the Apocrypha that stir me to seek the Lord more earnestly.

And then some lines from Ecclesiasticus: ‘The spirit of those that fear the Lord shall live; for their hope is in him that saveth them. Whoso feareth the Lord shall not fear nor be afraid; for he is his hope. Blessed is the soul of him that feareth the Lord: to whom doth he look? and who is his strength? For the eyes of the Lord are upon them that love him, he is their mighty protection and strong stay, a defence from heat, and a cover from the sun at noon, a preservation from stumbling, and an help from falling. He raiseth up the soul, and lighteneth the eyes: he giveth health, life, and blessing.’

What a grand reminder that he who fears the Lord has nothing else to fear!

5. And the final benefit I gain from reading the Apocrypha? It brings home to me what a miracle the Holy Scriptures are. The apocryphal writings are the finest products of the period between the Old and New Testaments; they were written by the most gifted spiritual writers of those centuries. And yet not one of them is fit to compare with any of the books of the Bible. I’ve said that we can gain spiritual benefit from reading the Apocrypha, but it’s still riddled with things that are absurd, false, or plain wrong. And there’s nowhere where I feel, ‘Yes, these are the words of God, spoken directly to me.’ I would rather have the most head-scratching chapter in Leviticus or the most grim chapter of Judges than the very greatest chapter of the Apocrypha.

Reading the Apocrypha makes me see just how wonderful the Bible is. And it forces me to recognise how wonderfully God guided his people to recognise that the 66 books of the Old Testament, no more, no less, are his holy Word. Reading the Apocrypha may give me an occasional snack along the way, but it cannot feed my soul. I need the Bible!

‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Unless otherwise stated, Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport

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