It may surprise you to know that I don’t have much of a problem with the Apocrypha. I enjoy reading them. As well, as a Protestant, accepting or rejecting them does not really affect my standing in my tradition (nor should it). Granted, I don’t know of any magisterial Protestant churches which have ever accepted them as canonical; if there is one, accepting the Apocrypha would not make them non-Protestant, and it certainly would not make them Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. My point is that I have never felt pressure to fall in line with the Protestant tradition of rejecting them outright. I have often been intrigued by their acceptance among other Christ-fearing traditions. However, while I don’t have much of a problem with the Apocrypha, I do agree with my Protestant tradition and reject them as being a part of the Scripture.
It is hard to define the Apocrypha. Sometimes they are termed “Deuterocanonical” books. This is a more politically correct or theologically neutral way to refer to them coined by Sixtus of Siena, the Jewish convert to Catholicism, in 1566. This semantic distinction has a history and rationale behind it that I will not have time to get into. I will just use the terms Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical books interchangeably.
It is interesting to note, too, that different Christian traditions have different Apocrypha. We can be safe for the moment and say that we are discussing the books accepted into the Bible by Roman Catholics but rejected by Protestants. In the Catholic Bible, the Apocrypha comprise seven unique books (or six, if Baruch is combined with Jeremiah), plus additions to two other books:
Additions to Esther
Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon)
Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (or Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira)
Additions to Daniel
These works are generally believed to have been originally written in Greek (sometimes called the “Greek Canon”) and to have been composed between the writing of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Protestants wrongly assume that these works are only accepted due to the institutionalized church’s reaction to the Protestant Reformers, just as Roman Catholics wrongly assume that they were only rejected due to the Reformation. The issues are more complex than any of the usual sound-bite explanations would lead us to assume. There are very good reasons to accept the Deuterocanonical books and there are very good reasons to reject them. Let me start with a brief defense of their acceptance.
Arguments for their inclusion:
1. Inclusion in the Septuagint (LXX)
These works seem to have been included in the LXX (B.C. 300–150), the Greek translation of the Old Testament from which the New Testament writers drew significant amounts of material. Evidence for this is found in the great Alexandrian manuscripts Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, and the great Codex Sinaiticus. Truth be told, Evangelical Protestants are more than willing to venerate these manuscripts for their value in establishing the text of the New Testament, but would probably not like their voice being heard when it comes to the canon of Scripture.
This, to me, is the most compelling reason to accept the works in question as canonical.
2. Inclusion in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Several Deuterocanonical works were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This evidences an early respect for and, possibly, acceptance of the Deuterocanonical books.
3. Early Christian usage
Some early Christians used these works authoritatively, sometimes even quoting them as Scripture (e.g., Clement of Alexandria used Tobit, Sirach, and Wisdom, and Irenaeus used Wisdom).
4. Acceptance by early Church councils
Many early Church councils included these works as part of the accepted canon of Scripture (Rome 382; Carthage 393; Hippo 397). These are the same church councils that Protestants often refer to in support of the New Testament canon, but we rarely realize that the Old Testament canon of these councils included much of the Apocrypha.
Both #3 and #4 evidence, at the very least, a deep tradition within the church that accepted these books as canonical.
1. It is disputed whether or not these books were included in the LXX
The earliest copies of the LXX that we have are Christian in origin and were not copied until the fourth century. It is hard to tell if the original Alexandrian Jews had this wider canon. Philo, a first century Jewish scholar in Alexandria who used the LXX extensively, did not mention the Apocrypha, even though he commented on virtually all the Protocanonical books (the 66 books universally accepted as canonical). The same can be said for Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who used the LXX extensively, who explicitly states that the apocryphal books were never accepted as canonical by the Jews.
More importantly, the three major extant copies of the LXX listed above do not agree concerning the canon of the Apocrypha. They all have different lists with different Apocrypha. As well, each contains Psalm 151, which the Roman Catholic Church rejects. Therefore, these lists are not even necessarily authoritative to Roman Catholics.
2. Many works found among the Dead Sea Scrolls are not canonical
The overwhelming majority of the works found among the Dead Sea community and contained in the “Dead Sea Scrolls” are not Scripture, either Protocanonical or Deuterocanonical. While it is interesting that some are present, it only evidences their respect in this community, which Protestants recognize.
3. The earliest Christians seem to have rejected them
While early Christians did quote from the Deuterocanonical books from time to time, the earliest Christians showed no evidence of their accepting them as Scripture. It may have been when the early Christian community began to break ties with the Jews that their inclusion became an issue. The earliest Christian list of books in the Old Testament is that of Melito, bishop of Sardis (A.D. 170), and it contains only the Protocanonical works (although it does seem that this canon is incomplete and the Deuterocanonical works may have been placed at the end—but this could also serve the Protestant cause).
4. The early councils were not universal councils
Hippo, Rome, and Carthage were all North African or Roman church councils that did not have the authority to declare the canon. Augustine, the North African bishop of Hippo, accepted the Apocrypha (although slightly different than the Roman Catholic version) and had heavy influence upon these councils. This may explain these particular councils’ acceptance.
Arguments for their Exclusion
1. Church tradition is too divided about their acceptance to evidence the voice of God
While most of the church prior to the Reformation did accept the Apocrypha as canonical, there is still significant contention about its status. It would seem that most of the laity accepted it due to its inclusion in the Vulgate (the accepted Latin translation of the Bible), but a significant number of scholars and theologians rejected it. The controversial nature of the Apocrypha’s acceptance, compared to the universal acceptance of the Protocanonical works, leads one to believe that the “voice of God” heard by his sheep is not so evident in these works. As well, the disagreement means that these works fall outside the Vincention standard of orthodoxy: “Everywhere, always, and by all.” While acceptance of the Apocrypha was rather widespread, it was not “everywhere, always, and by all.” Can they represent the inspired voice of God with such a history in the church?
Here is a list of some Church leaders throughout history who rejected part or all of the deuterocanonical/Apocrypha books:
- Origen, a second-century theologian, rejected the Apocrypha, listing the canon to be 22 books (equivalent to the Jewish and Protestant canon).
- Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, rejected most of the Apocrypha, holding to a 22-book Old Testament canon.
- Jerome, who was commissioned by the Church in the fifth century to translate the Scriptures into Latin, produced the Latin Vulgate, which was the Church-approved translation for over a thousand years. He did not accept the Apocrypha but adhered to a Jewish canon of 22 books.
- Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, rejected the book of 1 Maccabees.
- The Venerable Bede, historian and doctor of the Church, in his commentary on Revelation, listed the Old Testament books to be 24 in number (the same as the Jewish and Protestant canon).
- Ambrose of Autpert, a ninth-century theologian, rejected all or part of the Apocrypha.
- Hugh of St. Victor, a leading theologian of the twelfth century had problems with it.
- John of Salisbury, one of the leading scholars of the twelfth century who became the Bishop of Chartres also rejected all or part of it.
- Rupert of Deutz, an early twelfth century theologian rejected it.
- Hugh of St. Cher (Hugo Cardinalis), a Dominican cardinal of the thirteenth century rejected it.
- Nicholas of Lyra, one of the most highly regarded and influential theologians of the Middle Ages, surpassing even Thomas Aquinas in authority as a biblical commentator, rejected it.
- William of Ockham, in his Dialogues, wrote that the Church did not receive the books of the Apocrypha as canonical.
- Cardinal Cajetan, the opponent of Martin Luther, wrote a commentary on all the books of the Bible and even dedicated it to the Pope, saying that the Apocrypha was not canonical in the “strict sense.” Therefore, the deuterocanonical books were not included in his commentary and he fought against their canonization at Trent.
- Glossa ordinaria, the standard commentary of the late Middle Ages studied and respected by all in the Church, says that the Church did not believe the deuterocanonical books were inspired. Here is the preface: “The canonical books have been brought about through the dictation of the Holy Spirit. It is not known, however, at which time or by which authors the non-canonical or apocryphal books were produced. Since, nevertheless, they are very good and useful, and nothing is found in them which contradicts the canonical books, the church reads them and permits them to be read by the faithful for devotion and edification. Their authority, however, is not considered adequate for proving those things which come into doubt or contention, or for confirming the authority of ecclesiastical dogma, as blessed Jerome states in his prologue to Judith and to the books of Solomon. But the canonical books are of such authority that whatever is contained therein is held to be true firmly and indisputably, and likewise that which is clearly demonstrated from them.”
2. The New Testament does not directly recognize them as Scripture
The NT never directly quotes any apocryphal book as Scripture with the common designation “it is written.” Often, when people claim that it does, quite a stretch is required to get the references to match the Deuterocanonical books. At best, they are mere allusions that demonstrate knowledge of the Deuterocanonical books. And if there are genuine allusions to certain Deuterocanonical books, this does not mean that the writer believed them to be inspired any more than Paul’s quotation of Aratus (ca. 310–245 B.C.) in Acts 17:28 means that he believed Phaenomena was part of the canon. (See also where Jude quotes from the apocryphal book Enoch in Jude 1:9, which Roman Catholics do not include).
3. The Palestinian Jews rejected the Apocrypha
The most significant data we have available supports the rejection of the works in question by Palestinian Jews (those who lived in Israel at the time of Christ). This was the key argument for the Reformers. The basic idea is that if Christ did not recognize them, they are not canonical. Again, Josephus (born c. 37 A.D.), a primary Jewish historian, plainly writes about the accepted canon of his day which is the same as the current Protestant canon. He makes no mention of the Apocrypha and does not hint at a canon controversy in his day (Against Apion 1.41). The Talmud makes a similar point: “After the later prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.” Philo, who lived in Alexandria in the first century, did not accept the Apocrypha either.
This, along with the historic controversy about these books, are the most significant reasons for my rejection of the Apocrypha.
4. Bad Theology and History
From the perspective of many Protestants, there are significant theological inaccuracies in the Deuterocanonical books (e.g., works-based salvation, Tobit 12:9; cruelty, Sirach 22:3; 42:14, 2; doctrine of purgatory, 2 Maccabees 12:41–45). What is more, these books seem to have some significant historical errors. It is claimed that Tobit was alive when the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 B.C. and also when Jeroboam revolted against Judah in 931 B.C., which would make him at least 209 years old; yet according to the account, he died when he was only 158 years old. The Book of Judith speaks of Nebuchadnezzar reigning in Nineveh instead of Babylon.
Now, personally, I don’t want to overstate the “Bad Theology” issue. While many passages in the Apocrypha make me raise an eyebrow or two, I need to be careful here. After all, if I can accept Ecclesiastes and the book of James and fit them into my theology, I probably could with most of the troublesome passages in the Apocrypha as well.
And I guess tat this is a good place to note that the Roman Catholic contention that Protestants rejected the Apocrypa in order to support the theology of the Reformation is, in my opinion, manipulative and does not have much logic behind it. After all, there is really nothing in the Apocrypha that is too bad, or militates conclusively against Protestant theology. If Protestants had felt that they could play so loose with the canon to fit it to their agenda, it is highly probable that James also would have been rejected.
5. Self-attestation of cessation of canonical books
The Apocrypha itself attests to the absence of prophets in its own time.
1 Macc. 9:27
“Thus there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.”
Although I don’t think this is the greatest argument, it does hold some value.
I read the Apocrypha. I enjoy it very much. While I don’t think it should be part of your “through the Bible in a year” program,” I do think all Christians should study and read it. Some of it brings personal enrichment and great historical value. However, due to its rejection by the Jews at the time of Christ, and the continued dispute throughout all of church history, I don’t see its acceptance as part of the regula fide of tradition. I understand why Roman Catholics (and sometimes Eastern Orthodox) accept it and I respectfully disagree. With such a history, it is simply too hard for me to say that it is the voice of God.
“My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]