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What About the Apocrypha?

What about the Apocrypha?  I have been talking about how we got the books of the Bible – both Old Testament and New Testament – and how other books came to be left out.  But what are the books of the Apocrypha, where did they come from, and why do some communities of faith (but not others) accept them as authoritative?

When someone refers to “The” Apocrypha they are speaking of the “Old Testament Apocrypha,” a set collection of books written by Jewish authors (not Christian).  There are also Christian apocryphal books (e.g., other Gospels – such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary – and other epistles, Acts, and apocalypsese that did not make it into the NT).  But these are not called “The” Apocrypha.  That term instead refers to the books written, as a rule, between the end of the OT and the beginning of the NT that are included in some Christian Bibles as canonical or semi-canonical.

Here is some basic information about the Apocrypha, lifted from my Introduction to the Bible.  (At the end I repeat the chart I gave before that maps out which Christian denominations accept which of the books in question)


In addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was other literature written by Jewish authors that cannot be found in the Hebrew Bible, but that is of great importance for anyone interested in it.  Of these other Jewish books, none is of greater historical significance than…

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  1. godspell  January 9, 2017

    We would certainly be living in a different world had Protestants not kept Revelation in their canon. Martin Luther reluctantly supported its inclusion, even though he personally disliked the text, “Because it is not revealing.”

    I fail to see how a book full of obscure ‘prophecies’, none of which have ever come true (assuming they were not , in fact, poetic allegories of then-current events), by an author whose identity remains a mystery, can be less apocryphal than the deuterocanonical works.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      I suppose that assumes that for a book to be in the canon it has to be historically accurate. But where would we be then?

      • godspell  January 10, 2017

        Yeah, that occurred to me after I posted. They’d have needed to reject even the gospels by that criteria. But the gospels were based on actual recollections of actual people, however distorted at points. Paul’s letters were (for the most part) Paul’s actual letters, and an irreplaceable legacy of the early church (and damned well written, I would hope anyone could admit). Almost everything in the New Testament has some historical value to it. Revelation is the only poetical work in that collection–as Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon are in the Old, but those works add a valuable alternate perspective to the Old Testament. Revelation detracts from the New Testament, because it’s written in a spirit of hate and loathing and revenge (“you’ll be sorry”).

        Revelation may rise to the level of great poetry, vivid imagery, and in that sense can be appreciated simply as literature–in the same way you can appreciate the vision in a Bosch painting. But I think its influence has been overwhelmingly evil. We could have saved it as part of the apocrypha. Putting it in the canon gave it too much authority. It was a mistake.

        • godspell  January 10, 2017

          And now I’ll belatedly finish my thought–raised as a Catholic, I got very little exposure to Revelation. It was NEVER read at mass. We didn’t study it in CCD at all. Basically, I don’t remember ever discussing it growing up. There are many versions of Catholicism within Catholicism, we should all be aware, and obviously all those exorcist movies with tortured priests draw on it, and I was growing up in the Vatican II era, but as a general rule, I’d say Catholics don’t think nearly as much about Revelation as some strains of evangelical Protestantism do. The Catholic Church sees itself as an enduring unified institution, that will outlast basically everything (The Gates of Hell will not stand against it, you may have heard).

          It was the Reformation that shattered Christianity into many different pieces (instead of just two). It was the Reformation, along with Mr. Gutenberg’s invention, that put a bible in the hands of every believer, which the Democrat in me wants to see as a good thing, but I do sometimes have my doubts.

          And it was in that moment that what had previously been a harmless flight of fancy by some possibly rather deranged early Christian turned into something very dangerous–and with no central authority to hold it in check anymore. And I know we can’t go back and fix it, but it’s very hard for me not to think that if Luther had just objected a little louder, and gotten that fever dream of a document relegated to the Apocrypha, we’d be much better off now. But I suppose there’d still be Nostradamus and that Mayan Calendar. Some personalities just look for a endtime, I guess. At least the Y2K thing is over now.

      • TBeard  January 25, 2017

        Absolutely. When I learned from Dr. Ehrman through his lectures about comparing the Gospels horizontally, I found a number of contradictions with the stories of the gospels. No way they’re historically accurate. It’s funny, when I bring this issue up with some of the friends I knew from church, they want to ignore it and change the subject.

  2. clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 9, 2017

    Where does “Enoch” fit in with all of this? Without checking I’ve been assuming it was in the Apocrypha. After checking, I don’t see it in the OT either. But I have the impression that it’s important in trying to understand (the apocalypticism of?) late Judaism/early Christianity.

    Is it part of (or least frequently grouped with) yet another set of books that is outside the OT and NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      The various Enoch books are part of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, but they are not in the Apocrypha.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 9, 2017

    Didn’t Jerome claim that his Vulgate translation of the OT was from the Hebrew not the Greek? And did it include deuterocanonical Hebrew books such as Maccabees and Ben Sira?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      1. Yes 2. It’s complicated: most (all?) Vulgate mss do include the apocrypha, but Jerome considered them non-canonical and he only translated a couple of them himself (much of the Vulgate was done by other translators)

  4. tompicard
    tompicard  January 9, 2017

    a couple of questions.

    Did Jesus likely read these books? or have them read to him? Did he use any of them as a basis of any of his ministry? I think you mention 3 Esdras in ‘Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet’.

    Did the King James version of the bible include these? (i think so, but ironically, its very difficult to find a KJ version that includes them).


    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      1. We don’t know 2. Yes, but they made them a kind of appendix to the OT rather than as part of it.

  5. bamurray  January 9, 2017

    So how did the NRSV that you were involved with handle the Apocrypha? Is it a “Protestant” version? I think you said there were some Catholic (and other) scholars involved?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      They include it as a separate section between the OT and NT, standing in the King James tradition. Some editions of the NRSV include it and some simply leave it out.

  6. stokerslodge  January 9, 2017

    Thank you, Bart. Very enlightening.

  7. Jason  January 9, 2017

    When you say that for most ancient people to read something meant to hear it read aloud, does that imply to any extent that Jesus’ knowledge of the scriptures was from what he heard only? What is your current sense of his literacy level?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      It’s a debated question. I’ve always thought he could read, but lately I’ve been wondering if that’s true.

      • llamensdor  January 11, 2017

        You were right the first time.

  8. Hume  January 10, 2017

    1. In Catholic doctrine, if you ask for assisted suicide or kill yourself does one commit a mortal sin and go straight to Hell?

    2. Do you think assisted suicide is moral?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      1. I’m afraid I don’t know (but I *think* the answer is yes). 2. Me myself? Absolutely. I think people have the right to end their lives, and in some cases are completely justified in doing so.

      • Wilusa  January 10, 2017

        Re Question 1: I think that in practice, nowadays, Catholic clergy would at least pretend to believe a person who comitted suicide had been mentally ill. So they’d say the person wasn’t responsible, and hadn’t committed a sin. They’d probably be much more critical of someone who’d *assisted* a suicide.

  9. clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 10, 2017

    Is there also something called pseudographia or epipseudographia (or pseudoepigraphia)? Apocrypha, deuterocanonical, Septuagint, and pseudographia are all kind of mixed up together in my mind – and it doesn’t help that the various schools of Eastern Orthodox include additional differences in the apocrypha.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      Yes, the Jewish Pseudepigrapha are a whole range of other books, normally claiming to be written by famous religious people of antiquity (Enoch, Baruch, Abraham, Adam, etc.) who did not write them. There is a two-volume collection edited by James Charlesworth. Very important and interesting reading!

      • clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 11, 2017

        Is the “Sibylline Oracles” in the pseudoepigraphia or perhaps in some other collection of writings?

  10. Stephen  January 10, 2017

    I guess it’s best to assume I don’t know more than I actually do. So a basic question – under what conditions would Jesus have received whatever knowledge he had about the Jewish writings? Would he have been taken to the local synagogue by his family and heard a Rabbi read from them? In Hebrew? Do we know how that would have worked?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      It’s all a matter of educated guess work. We don’t know if he was trained by a local expert, or if he picked everything up on his own, if they had any scrolls of the Torah in Nazareth (I guess they must have, since he had to learn the text *somewhere*), if he learned to read and how, or if he just picked things up orally. We just don’t know.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 12, 2017

        a. Jesus was born in 4 BCE and if
        b. Hillel died in 10 CE and if
        c. there is anything at all to the story of Jesus’ precociousness at age twelve “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47), then
        it seems possible that Jesus could have listened to, even engaged with Hillel whose reduction of Judaism to a form of the Golden Rule (if the story is true) is similar to the second greatest commandment according to Jesus.
        Do you think it could have happened? Lot of “if”‘s, I know.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 13, 2017

          The problem is c. That’s just a legendary episode in Luke 2; it almost certainly didn’t actually happen.

      • HistoricalChristianity  February 7, 2017

        We have no evidence or hint that Jesus could read or write. Jesus would not have learned directly from Hillel, but Hillel was extremely influential. Jesus certainly would have heard the ideas of Hillel from his students or from anyone who liked his ideas. But we have no record from anyone that they interacted with Jesus. So yes, all of this is hypothesis.

  11. clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 11, 2017

    I’ve read, rather superficially, the first two volumes of John P Meiers’ “A Marginal Jew (but not all the footnotes). I may have him mixed up with someone else but it seems like he says something to the effect that he (or the Church) might have included the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache and maybe a couple of other writings in the NT canon if they were setting up the canon today.

    Is there any consensus among scholars about which non-canonical writings, if any, sufficiently meet the same four criteria (that you gave in an earlier post) as the canonical books that the Church might, with some justification, use them in somewhat the same way? (With regard to being written by an eyewitness of Jesus [since none of the canonical books actually were-except maybe Paul], the criterion would have to be be that the Church Fathers had just as much reason to think these particular non-canonical books were written by eyewitnesses as the canonical works.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      The only real consensus is that seven of Paul’s letters were definitely written by Paul. If “apostle” means “one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and Paul and one or two of his missionary contemporaries,” then none of the other books, arguably, was written by an apostle, inside the NT or (definitely) outside it.

      • clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 13, 2017

        But I’m also wondering if there is a scholarly consensus that other early Christian non-canonical writings arguably meet the criteria of Antiquity, Apostolicity, Catholicity, and Orthodoxy to roughly the same degree as canonical NT books. Granted, none of the non-canonical meet the criterion of Apostolicity but we now know that, except for Paul, none of the canonical books meet that criterion either. It seems like the Gospel of Thomas might be a candidate and perhaps there are others.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 14, 2017

          I suppose most scholars would say that Thomas is *not* written by an apostle, relatively ancient, widely accepted throughout the world, or orthodox! So, no, I don’t think it would pass. Probably nothing else outside the canon would either.

          • fabiogaucho  January 19, 2017

            Except for apostilicity, would First Clement come the closest?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 20, 2017

            Well, it was ancient and orthodoxy, but probably not widely read.

  12. SidDhartha1953  January 11, 2017

    I realize scholars would not be in complete agreement, but I would be interested to know, in general, the order in which the books, or portions of books, in the Old Testament and Deuterocanonicals were written. Any time I have searched for a chronological ordering of the OT, I come up with an assortment of evangelical websites that arrange the narrative portions as though they are historical accounts (Creation, Adam & Eve, etc.). Is there a comprehensive list, to your knowledge, that would be worth looking at? It would be especially interesting to me to have some idea when the various psalms were likely composed, to better understand what may have motivated their authors.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2017

      You might look at my textbook on the Bible where I provide plausible dates for most of the books, though not in chart form.

  13. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  January 12, 2017

    Bart, there’s a slight overlap, isn’t there, between the completion of LXX and the latest composition of the Tanakh? I thought LXX was done by 200 BCE and that Daniel is thought to have been composed about 164.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      What we need to train ourselves to do (it’s not easy) is to stop thinking about “the” Septuagint as a translation that was produced and published on a certain date (like, say, the King James version). Different Greek versions circulated at different times and places. (And yes, there certainly were Greek translations of Daniel, and yes, Daniel could not have been written before the maccabean revolt.)

  14. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  January 12, 2017

    Bart, any chance we know why Jewish Tanakhs do not include any of these books? Perhaps Talmoore or some knows if there is any reference to them in the Talmud, especially any hint as to why they were not included. And I don’t mean only IN the Tanakh. I’m wondering why there weren’t Jewish collections of these writings even separate from scripture.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      They simply weren’t used widely in most Jewish communities. But were used in others.

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