Old Testament Apocrypha

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John Bunyan received assurance from a phrase and then later realized it was from Ecclesiasticus 2:10:  “Consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon him and been neglected?”

Meaning of the word apocrypha:  Lit. a Greek adjective, neuter, plural, meaning “hidden things.”  Probably to be understood (with biblia) as the “hidden books.” 

(1)     When first used, it meant esoteric—hidden from the common man (designating religious writings reserved for a specified elite) (ISBE, I:179). 

(2)     A later meaning of the word was that the books deserved to be hidden (because of inherent flaws).[1]  Following the events of AD 70 and the demise of the popularity of the apocalyptic books, the term apocrypha connotated things secret because they were heretical (ZPEB, 1:205).  Thus, Origen and others rejected “apocryphal” books.  “More and more from the end of the 2d cent., the word ‘apocrypha’ came to stand for what is spurious and untrustworthy, and esp. for writings ascribed to authors who did not write them:  i.e. the so-called ‘Pseudepigraphical books’” (ISBE, I:180). 

(3)   Jerome used the term apocryphal books to refer to books outside of the canon (Metzger, 161; ISBE, I:181).  “Jerome and Cyril of Jerusalem (d. c. A.D. 386) were the first to use the term Apoc. for the excess of the LXX over the Heb. Canon” (ZPEB, 1:205). The meaning of Jerome was the usage of the Reformers, and through them it came to refer to the OT Apocrypha (ISBE, I:183).

(4)     A fourth use of the word is found in Augustine, who used it to refer to books obscure in “origin or authorship” (ISBE, I:181). 

(5)     In modern usage, Apocrypha usually designates the OT Apocrypha.  It often includes what are commonly referred to as the pseudepigraphical books.

Date of writing:  Between 200 BC and AD 100 (Sirach is probably the oldest, written in 190-70 BC).

Languages of composition:  The Apocrypha was primarily written in Greek.  Some books were written initially in Hebrew (Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch [partially in Greek], and 1 Maccabees).

Contents (14 or 15 books, depending upon the categorization)

(1)     First Book of Esdras (called 3 Esdras in the Vulgate)

(2)     Second Book of Esdras (called 4 Esdras in the Vulgate)

(3)     Tobit

(4)     Judith

(5)     The Additions to the Book of Esther

(6)     The Wisdom of Solomon

(7)     Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach

(8)     Baruch

(9)     The Letter of Jeremiah (sometimes combined with Baruch)

(10) The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (or Song of the Three Holy Children)

(11) Susanna

(12) Bel and the Dragon

(13) The Prayer of Manasseh

(14) First Book of Maccabees

(15) Second Book of Maccabees

Apocrypha of the Catholic Church: 

The Catholic Church holds the following apocryphal books to be canonical (deuterocanonical):  Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, and certain supplementary parts of Esther and Daniel (Metzger, 1:162).


Pseudepigrapha (OT):

(1)     Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs

(2)     Book of Jubilees

(3)     Psalms of Solomon (18)

(4)     Book of Enoch

(5)     Letter of Aristeas

(6)     Third & Fourth Book of the Maccabees

(7)     Slavonic Enoch

(8)     Prayer of Asenath

New Testament Apocrypha (a representative list)

(1)     Apocryphal Gospels (Gospel of the Egyptians; Gospel of Peter; three Nag Hammadi Gospels—Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip; Infancy Gospel of Thomas; Protevangelium of James; Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew)

(2)     Apocryphal Acts (Acts of Andrew; Acts of Peter; Acts of Thomas; Acts of John; Acts of Paul)

(3)     Apocryphal Epistles (Epistle to the Laodiceans; Letters of Paul and Seneca; Epistle of Pseudo-Titus; correspondence between Christ and Abgar, king of Edessa)

(4)     Apocryphal apocalypses (The Ascension of Isaiah; Apocalypse of Peter)

Evaluating the [OT] Apocrypha:

Arguments alleged in favor of the Apocrypha[2]:


(1)     NT books quote or allude to the apocryphal books.

(2)     The fathers and writers of the early church quote from and use the Apocrypha as Scripture.

(3)     The Apocrypha are found in ancient LXX manuscripts.

Arguments against the canonical status of the Apocrypha:

(1)     The Jews, even Greek-speaking Jews, never received the Apocrypha as canonical.  Very strong Jewish tradition limits the time of composition of the canonical books to the time between Moses and Artaxerxes.[3]

“It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time” (Josephus, Against Apion, I:8).

“There is no evidence that these books were ever regarded as canonical by the Jews, whether inside or outside Palestine, whether they read the Bible in Hebrew or in Greek.  The books of the Apocrypha were first given canonical status by Greek-speaking Christians, quite possibly through a mistaken belief that they already formed part of an Alexandrian Canon.  The Alexandrian Jews may have added these books to their versions of the Scriptures, but that was a different matter from canonizing them” (F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, 164).

The evidence at Qumran also suggests that the Apocrypha were not viewed as Scripture.  Many fragments of the Apocryphal books were found at Qumran, but they “were never listed among the inspired writings.”[4]

(2)     The Old Testament canon is consistently viewed in terms of a threefold grouping:  the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 

This threefold division is seen in extrabiblical Jewish literature.  Josephus, for example, specifically mentions a threefold division.[5]  Philo, the Alexandrian Jew, also seems to allude to a threefold division in De Vita Contemplativa.[6]  The prologue to Ecclesiasticus also alludes to “the law, the prophets, and the writers who followed in their footsteps”; to “the law, the prophets, and the other writings of our ancestors”; and, finally, to “the law, the prophets, and the rest of the writings.”[7]  This threefold division of the Hebrew (OT) canon also appears in the New Testament.  Christ Himself, in Luke 24:44, refers to the (1) Law of Moses, (2) the Prophets, and (3) the Psalms (the first book of the Writings). 

(3)     While almost every OT book is quoted or alluded to in the New Testament,[8] there is no indisputable evidence that Christ and the New Testament writers ever mention the Apocrypha. [9] 

The book of Enoch, often said to be quoted by Jude, is not considered deuterocanonical even by the Catholic Church.  It is not, in fact, an apocryphal book at all, but is one of the pseudepigraphical letters.  If Jude did quote from I Enoch 1:9, this does not mean he viewed the book as Scripture.  “It simply means that under the leadership and illumination of the Holy Spirit he accepted the statement as true.”[10]  Paul cited Greek poets at times, but never to affirm them as Scripture (I Cor. 15:33; Tit. 1:2).  Furthermore, when Christ and the New Testament writers cite the Old Testament, they often do so with formulas attesting to their divine authority (e.g., “it is written”; “the Scripture saith”).

F. F. Bruce states that the main reason why the Apocryphal books are not considered canonical is “that they were not regarded as canonical by the Jews, either of Palestine or of Alexandria; and that our Lord and His apostles accepted the Jewish canon and confirmed its authority by the use they made of it, whereas there is no evidence to show that they regarded the apocryphal literature…as similarly authoritative” (Bruce, 171).

(4)     The apocryphal books lack inherent authority, contain numerous errors, and never claim to be Scripture. 

“What they teach is internally inconsistent, contradicting inspired Scripture as well as one another, and sometimes even teaching heresies, such as praying for the dead (II Maccabees 12:44) and giving alms for salvation (Tobit 12:9).  Their literary quality and moral tone are quite inferior, with teachings that imply that lying and immorality, suicide (II Maccabees 14:41-46), or occultism (6:4-8) might be acceptable in certain circumstances” (Downey, 41). 

E. J. Young notes that nothing in the Apocrypha indicates “a divine origin….both Judith and Tobit contain historical, chronological and geographical errors.  The books justify falsehood and deception and make salvation to depend upon works of merit.  Almsgiving, for example, is said to deliver from death (Tobit 12:9; 4:10; 14:10, 11)….Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon inculcate a morality based upon expediency.  Wisdom teaches the creation of the world out of pre-existent matter (11:17).  Ecclesiasticus teaches that the giving of alms makes atonement for sin (3:30).  In Baruch it is said that God hears the prayers of the dead (3:4), and in I Maccabees there are historical and geographical errors.”[11] 

Furthermore, statements in I Maccabees suggest that those in that era viewed themselves as outside of an era of prophetic activity (4:46; 9:27; 14:41).[12]  The prologue to Ecclesiasticus also suggests that the book was written, not as Scripture, but as an aid to those who wanted to keep the Law.  Ultimately, as M. R. James has stated, “there is no question of anyone’s having excluded them from the New Testament:  they have done that for themselves.”[13]

(5)     It is by no means clear that the early Church Fathers regarded the Apocryphal books as Scripture.  In fact, as ambiguous as some of the evidence is, there are clear indications that they did not view the Apocryphal books as having the same authority as Scripture

The oldest extant list of Old Testament books (by Melito, bishop of Sardis, in AD 170) contains every OT book except Esther, but nowhere mentions the Apocrypha.   Origen (AD 185-254) lists the OT books as 22 in number (although he accidentally omits the Minor Prophets).  He refers to the books of Maccabees as “outside these.”[14]  In his letter to Africanus, Origen clearly distinguishes the Apocrypha from Scripture, referring to the former as “noncanonical.”[15]  Jerome clearly rejected the Apocryphal books, reluctantly including them in his Latin translation of the Bible (Downey, 42-43).  To him, they were libri ecclesiastici, not libri canonici (G. Douglas Young, 177).  The highly revered Athanasius also clearly rejected the Apocrypha; they were “suitable to be read” but “not canonical” (Bruce, 101).   Augustine’s position is less unequivocal.  He evidently referred to the apocryphal books as canonical.  Yet he admitted that Judith and Ecclesiasticus were not in the Jewish Canon,[16] and he downplayed the value of II Maccabees when an opponent cited that book in a debate with him (G. Douglas Young, 176), suggesting that it was not in the same category as the books received by the Jews.

(6)     Their preservation (with the LXX) does not imply or substantiate their canonicity. 

Two things should be noted:  (1) Our oldest manuscripts of the LXX are fourth century AD codexes.[17]  However, there is no proof that when the books of the LXX existed on scrolls, the Apocryphal books were included (Downey, 41).  (2) “The presence of the Apocryphal books in the great manuscripts preserved by the Christian Church is alleged to argue for their scriptural status.  Until actual citations from the writers themselves definitely establish this claim, we can only say that they considered both Scripture and the extra books worthy of preservation.  Because they chose to preserve both does not per se mean that they considered all the books on an equal plane” (Young, 177). 


“In conclusion, then, the case rests wholly upon objective, historical research into the question of what the recipients considered to be the Word of God and what they considered to be other books of value but not Scripture.  While the evidence is scant, it is nevertheless clear.  History supplies no evidence to the contrary.  Many interesting philosophical considerations might lead to other conclusions, but the historical evidence is unambiguous; the conclusion from history is that Apocrypha do not merit a place in the Scripture if we are to limit the Scripture to those books which Jesus, the Jews, and the early Church used and approved as Scripture.”[18]


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” in vol. 1 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, 161.

[2] G. Douglas Young, “The Apocrypha,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry, 174.

[3] Josephus, Contra Apionem, I, 38-42.

[4] Paul W. Downey, “Canonization and Apocrypha,” in From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man, 41.

[5] He lists 22 books and says that “five belong to Moses,” another thirteen are the works of the prophets, and “the remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.”

[6] He refers to (1) “the laws”; (2) “the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets”; and (3) “hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection” (paragraph 25).  In The Works of Philo:  New Updated Edition, trans. C. D. Yonge (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 700.

[7] Quoted from the Preface to Ecclesiasticus as found in The New English Bible

[8] By one count, only Ruth, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are not mentioned in some way.  Downey, 38.

[9] “Not in a single instance is one of them quoted in any way for any purpose” (G. Douglas Young, 175).  Some have argued for apocryphal allusions in the New Testament, but their examples remain suspect.  See Downey, 41-42; G. Douglas Young, 175.

[10] D. Edmond Hiebert, Second Peter and Jude, 266.

[11] E. J. Young, “The Canon of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry, 167-68.

[12] See also quotation of Josephus above, who states, “there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time [since the time of Artaxerxes].”  Against Apion, I:8.

[13] Cited by Bruce M. Metzger.  Found in Young, “Apocrypha,” 172.

[14] Bruce, 101.

[15] A Letter from Origen to Africanus, paragraph 9.

[16] Downey, 43.

[17] Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, and Sinaiticus.

[18] G. Douglas Young, 184-85.

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