The Greek word apocrypha, meaning “hidden,” was originally applied to books in Judaism that were unsuitable for public reading because of the esoteric nature of their content. Today, we use the word Apocrypha for the Old Testament books found in Catholic but not in Protestant Bibles. There exist many other ancient Jewish writings called Pseudepigrapha (“false name”) because the real author attributed the book to a figure of the past) as well as a number of New Testament Apocrypha, written by Christians during the first few centuries.
Old Testament Apocrypha
During the period between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100, many books were written by Jewish authors. Some of them found their way into the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and were at times quoted in the same way as the books of the Old Testament. There is no evidence, however, that these books were ever regarded as canonical by the Jews. When after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Jewish canon was more clearly defined, these works fell into disfavor in Judaism, and the termapocrypha came to mean “heretical” or “spurious.”
Catholic Bibles contain the following seven books not found in Protestant Bibles: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch. There are also a number of additions to the books of Esther and Daniel, as well as a letter of Jeremiah at the end of the Book of Baruch. In the canonical Book of Esther, God is not mentioned. The additions to Esther, however, refer to God at various points in the narrative. In the Book of Daniel, the additions are the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Hebrews in chapter three. Two additional chapters are Susanna and the Judgment of Daniel (chap. 13) and Bel and the Dragon (chap. 14). Orthodox Bibles have three additional books (1 Esdras, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees).
The Apocrypha were first given canonical status by Greek-speaking Christians, who assumed that because they were included in the Septuagint, they were part of an “Alexandrian canon.”1 During the early Christian centuries, most Greek and Latin Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian, cited the Apocrypha as Scripture, and local synods in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) justified and authorized their use as Scripture. Only a few voices were raised in protest during that time. One of them was Jerome in the fourth century, who regarded them as non-canonical. In his Bible translation (the Vulgate), however, he included the Apocrypha in accordance with church practice, despite his reservations.
The Reformers distinguished between books that were authoritative for the establishment of doctrine and those that were not. Protestants rejected the Apocrypha because they supported some of the false teachings of the Catholic Church: (1) the dead can still pray: “Almighty Lord, God of Israel, hear the prayer of the dead of Israel, of the sons of those who have sinned against you” (Baruch 3:4); (2) prayer for the dead: “For had he not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Macc. 12:44); (3) almsgiving delivers from eternal death and purges sin: “Almsgiving saves from death and purges every kind of sin” (Tobit 12:9); (4) the doctrine of purgatory: “And having been a little chastised, they [the souls of the righteous] shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself. As gold in the furnace hath he tried them, and received them as a burnt offering” (The Wisdom of Solomon 3:5, 6).
The term Pseudepigrapha refers to the collection of more than 50 Jewish religious works written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. Many of them are apocalyptic works (for example, the Apocalypses of Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Zephaniah, and Daniel). A second type of this literature is called “Testaments” (for example, the Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Solomon). A third type is expansions of Old Testament history (for example, the Life of Adam and Eve, History of Joseph, Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, The Lives of the Prophets, Jubilee). Other books contain wisdom sayings and prayers. A number of them are just fragments of lost works.
The Pseudepigrapha provide a better understanding of the history and thought of Jews during the centuries preceding and following the beginning of the Christian era. Theological concerns deal with the meaning of sin, the problem of evil, God’s transcendence, the resurrection, and the coming of the Messiah.
One of the most interesting pseudepigraphical books is the first book of Enoch (there is also a second book of Enoch) written about 100 B.C. Enoch was the great-grandfather of Noah; he “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24).2 The book relates “many of the heavenly secrets that Enoch allegedly saw on his journeys through the heavens. He learned not only secrets about the end of the age and the coming of the kingdom of God, but also secrets about many of the mysteries of life and the world.”3
In his first vision, he sees the coming of the “Holy Great One” and says, “Behold, he will arrive with ten million of the holy ones in order to execute judgment upon all” (1 Enoch 1:9). This text is reflected in the New Testament in the book of Jude 14, 15, where Jude writes, “Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all.’” Jude obviously was familiar with the book of Enoch.
New Testament Apocrypha
The New Testament Apocrypha are books written by early Christians in the second and third centuries. They claim to be accounts of Jesus and His teachings. There are Gospels (for example, the Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Peter); several works are called “The Acts of . . .” (for example, the Acts of John, Andrew, Paul); there are epistles and apocalypses, and fragments of lost heretical books that are quoted by some of the Church Fathers.
In contrast to some of the Old Testament Apocrypha, not one of these works has ever been accepted as canonical by any branch of Christianity, because of their inferiority to the canonical books. For example, in one of the infancy gospels, when Jesus was 5 years old, He made 12 sparrows out of clay. Because it was on a Sabbath, his father, Joseph, was told that Jesus had broken the Sabbath. When Joseph reproved him for it, “Jesus answered him not, but looked upon the sparrows and said: ‘Go ye, take your flight, and remember me in your life. And at the word they took flight and went up into the air.’”4 When another child hit the child Jesus with a stone, “Jesus said unto him: ‘Thou shalt not finish thy course.’ And straightaway he fell down and died.”5
The book The Assumption of the Virgin tells the story of how Jesus after His ascension returned to the disciples on the chariot of the cherubim “with thousands of angels, and David the sweet singer.” He told them that he had come to take his mother with him to heaven. Then “Jesus ascended with Mary’s soul in the chariot of the cherubim”6 and left the disciples to bury her body.
No wonder these books were not accepted into the canon—they excluded themselves. Nevertheless, “these writings provide a useful standard of comparison with the canonical books and show the difference between documents still controlled by authentic recollection of events and those in which imagination has been given free reign.”7