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What Is the Apocrypha (of the Old Testament)?

Here is a recent question I have received about the “Old Testament Apocrypha.”



Bart, I hope you won’t mind me asking a totally unrelated question: At the beginning of the Christian Era – how many books of the Hebrew Old Testament did the Greek Septuagint translation contain?



This is indeed an important topic, one usually overlooked completely by Protestant readers of the Bible.  Here is what I say about the apocrypha in my textbook on the Bible:


          In addition to the canonical books we have examined so far, 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 a collection of writings that can be found in some Christian versions of the Old Testament. These are the deuterocanonical writings, as they are called in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions; Protestants typically designate them as the Apocrypha. The term “apocrypha” may not be altogether appropriate, as it is a word that means …

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Some of the Apocrypha: Tobit, Judith, and Additions to Esther
Mapping the Diversity of Earliest Christianity



  1. Avatar
    chrispope  October 15, 2018

    ” I may describe these in future posts if anyone is interested.”

    Yes please.

  2. Avatar
    chrispope  October 15, 2018

    “All of these books were written by Jews and for Jews. Most of them were written after the final books of the Hebrew Bible and before the writings of the New Testament, so that roughly speaking they can be thought of as some of the “intertestamental” Jewish literature (i.e., written “between the testaments”).”

    And so they are, presumably, very relevant to understanding the context of the time and background of Jesus and the writings about him?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018


      • Lef
        Lef  December 29, 2018

        “Most Jews, of course, could not read at all, since like most of the people living in the Roman Empire the vast majority of Jews—probably some 90 percent—were not literate.”

        What makes you think that most Jews were illiterate like the “probably 90%” ?

        How could this be true when all young boys have to read from Torah scroll at age 13 during their Bar Mitzvah ?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2018

          That wasn’t happening in the first century. Modern scholarship has worked to establish literacy rates, both in the Roman world at large and in Palestine in particular. If you’re interested in seeing what the evidence is, a good place to start is William Harris, Ancient Literacy. (One of his arguments is that massive literacy does not enter civilization until the Industrial Revolution, when capitalist economies realized the enormous economic benefit, given changes in technoology, of spending the huge resources of time and money on having a literate public); for Jewish literacy the first place to turn is the book by Catherine Hezser.

  3. Avatar
    smackemyackem  October 15, 2018

    Wasnt the septugint originally just the five books of Moses?

    I’ve heard rabbis say that the Septuagint has been lost to history. What we know as the Septuagint in modern times is a production of the Christian church.

    Therefore not trustworthy.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      There wasn’t a *single* translation of the Bible into Greek, but a number of them. Probably the Torah was the first to be translated, though, yes.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  October 15, 2018

    Am I correct in thinking that often (always?) when the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament the authors are using the Septuagint, as opposed to directly translating from the Hebrew? I know some passages line up better with the Septuagint than the original Hebrew version.

  5. Avatar
    BryanS  October 15, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, according to DSS Digital Library the books of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, and the Epistle of Jeremiah are represented among the works at Qumran. Any thoughts regarding the significance of the community possessing these three books, but not the others that were included in the Septuagint? In particular, why no additions to Daniel, since the community was apparently apocalyptic?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      Yes, the community had other books besides the Hebrew Bible; another one found there is 1 Enoch (not in the “Apocrypha”) e.g.

  6. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 15, 2018

    Was there a sense of a single “septuagint” in the first century? Was it just that every book had only a singe greek translation at the time, or was there a sense that there was one “authoritative” translation?
    Wasnt the story of the 72 translators for Ptolemy only supposed to apply to the pentateuch?

    Also is much known about when/where the translations of the books were done?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      There were probably several Greek translations floating around, not a single septuagint…. We don’t have any historical information about who really did them or where.

  7. Avatar
    stokerslodge  October 15, 2018

    Thank you Bart, very enlightening.

  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 15, 2018

    From my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, these books are where some of the Traditions (capital T meaning passed on by the apostles) come from? Protestants often accuse Catholics of adding or inventing doctrines that aren’t in the Bible whereas, for Catholics, they are! I believe purgatory is one case where Catholics derive the belief from these books as are several others. It’s fun to read Protestants and Catholics arguing back and forth about who added to the Bible and who cut a chunk of it out!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      Yes, that was one reason Martin Luther did not like these books.

  9. Avatar
    gbsinkers  October 15, 2018

    Your text states “As I have mentioned, most Jews by the time, say, of the Maccabean Revolt—or, later, of the days of Jesus—did not live in Palestine…”. I thought the Jews were mainly in Palestine (except during exiles) until 66-70 AD when Rome brought them to ruin. Can you describe the details behind your text, specifically Jewish populations around the world, during the time of Jesus? I’m assuming Jerusalem was still thought of as their spiritual center but where would their population center have been? Is it just that they were dispersed (thus the Diaspora) and that the total of the dispersed Jews outnumbered the Palestinian Jews, but that Palestine still had the largest concentration?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      No, there were far more Jews living outside of Palestine than within it, in places such as Rome, Alexandria, and Babylon. When they scattered at various times (e.g. in the 6th century BCE) they started new communities and these naturally grew and grew and grew.

  10. Avatar
    Stylites  October 15, 2018

    They would be worthy of some examination in future posts, along with the others you very briefly mention in your textbook.

  11. Avatar
    mkahn1977  October 15, 2018

    If I’m not mistaken, and I haven’t read the books of the Maccabees word for word, but isn’t the story of the miracle of the menorah oil lasting 8 nights absent from these books?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      Off hand I don’t remember!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 16, 2018

      That’s correct. The story comes from the Talmud.

    • Avatar
      JohnKesler  October 16, 2018

      mkahn1977, the story about the cruse of oil lasting eight days comes from the Talmud:

      Tractate Shabbath, Folio 21b
      What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislew [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.

    • Avatar
      NancyGKnapp  October 16, 2018

      The story is in one of the books–the first one. I think.

  12. Avatar
    VistanTN  October 15, 2018

    I think you should add that the Anglican Communion (including the Episcopal Church) accepts them as deuterocanonical (though they label them as apocrypha).

  13. Avatar
    RRomanchek  October 15, 2018

    If the Septuagint was the standard Bible for Jews in the Diaspora, did it fall out of favor or is it still considered the Bible by some Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      It fell out of favor, in large part because it was adopted by Christians.

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  October 15, 2018

    I recall hearing many years ago that the rabbis excluded Judith because she used a sword to cut off Holofernes’s head, a sword is a weapon reserved for men. However, I can’t find any Talmudic references. I did see a graduate paper suggesting that Judith may simply have been written too late for inclusion.

    Do you have any thoughts on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      Never heard that one! But then again, it’s amazing the number of things I’ve never heard….

  15. Avatar
    mjoniak  October 15, 2018

    When I was a Christian believer, I was frequently told that what matters is which books did Palestinian Jews use in the times of Jesus. But from what I’ve read, it looks like there were several groups that used different books, for example the Sadducees focused solely on the Torah. Could you say a few words on the topic?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      It’s widely thought that the Sadducees stuck to the Torah; Pharisees and Essenes and others had a range of books, including the historical narratives, the prophets, the Psalms, and so on that they considered authoritative. Judaism at the time was not a single thing but lots of things.

  16. talmoore
    talmoore  October 15, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, this reminds me of a certain question I have always had in the back of my mind. Back when you were an Evangelical, what effect did the existence of these extra-canonical books have on your sola scriptura beliefs? I mean, if the Bible was supposed to be the one and only authority on everything, how much (if any) authority did these outside works have? For instance, how is it significant that the Book of Esther is the canonical word God, but the Book of Judith isn’t?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      I simply thought those crazy Catholics and Orthodox didn’t know what they were talking about. 🙂

  17. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 15, 2018

    Wow, that is an incredible coincidence. Literally, just yesterday, as I was doing some reading on the history of Palestine (specifically, the Gaza Strip), something therein made me wonder about the 400 or so years of “intertestamental” history. Just 24 hours ago, I thought, that would be an interesting topic for Dr. Ehrman!

    I have to admit, as someone who doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, it is easy to see how human brains interpret such seemingly impossible coincidences as somehow divine.

    So, yes, I would love to hear more about these books, and two questions:
    1) why didn’t the Jews choose to include these in their canon (that seems like a pretty good argument on behalf of the Protestants’ perspective)?
    2) when you were an evangelical, how did you reconcile this odd gap in the history (the Jews were meticulous at trying to record something – even if it was entirely fabricated- from the time of Moses on to the end of the OT)? Why did they stop when they did?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2018

      1) Probably because they were later than the books of the canon and not written in Hebrew; 2) It was all directed by God.

  18. Avatar
    DavidNeale  October 16, 2018

    I remember reading that the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches accept the Book of Enoch as scripture and identify the Ge’ez language as Enochian, the earliest language. Is that true or am I misremembering?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t have a definitive answer. My understanding was that the Enochic literature played a very large role in the developing theology of the Ethiopian church; and yes, 1 Enoch is written in Ge’ez. But I don’t think it was accepted as canonical scripture. Maybe someone can correct me!

    • Robert
      Robert  October 17, 2018

      Beta (House of) Israel, Jews from Ethiopia, consider Enoch to be part of their secondary canon but not among their holiest books, their Hexateuch (Torah plus Joshua, Judges & Ruth). The Orthodox Tewahedo canon of Christians in Ethiopia and Eitrea also includes Enoch. Yes, Ge’ez, a southern semitic language, is believed by some to have been the original language spoken prior to the Tower of Babel.

      • Avatar
        DavidNeale  October 23, 2018

        Do we know what language 1 Enoch was originally written in?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2018

          It survives in Ethiopic; it was originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic (it’s debated)

  19. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  October 17, 2018

    why of the deuterocanonical reason?
    There is some connection with Deuteronomy

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2018

      “Deutero” means “second” or something like “having a secondary standing” Deuteronomy means “Second Law” becuase in it Moses gives the law a second time, this time to the children of the people who received it the first time; Deutero-canonical refers to books with a secondary status in the canon.

  20. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  October 18, 2018

    Fascinating. And yes, please.

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