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The value and canonical status of the deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha (literally meaning “things that are hidden”) has been a point of significant contention between Protestants and Roman Catholics since the time of the Reformation. According to Bruce Metzger, the word deuterocanonical was a term coined in 1566 by the Roman Catholic Sixtus of Sienna. It was used to distinguish between the two different kinds of books whose authority the Roman Catholic Church recognized, the “protocanonical” (those received from the church’s inception) and the “deuterocanonical” (those acknowledged later in church history). The latter group consists of twelve books:
- The Additions to the Book of Esther (added to the book of Esther in Roman Catholic Bibles)
- The Wisdom of Solomon
- Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach)
- The Letter of Jeremiah (added to the book of Baruch in Roman Catholic Bibles)
- The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (added to the book of Daniel in Roman Catholic Bibles)
- Susanna (added to the book of Daniel in Roman Catholic Bibles)
- Bel and the Dragon (added to the book of Daniel in Roman Catholic Bibles)
- 1 and 2 Maccabees
In addition to these deutercanonical books, the Eastern Orthodox Church generally recognizes three other books in its Old Testament: 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. Collectively, these fifteen extra books not found in the Hebrew or Protestant canon are also known as the Apocrypha.
These books (with the exception of 2 Esdras) were part of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint; however, none of the books of the Apocrypha were in the original Hebrew canon. Although Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox contend that these books are part of the canon of Scripture, Protestants have consistently argued that although the books of the Apocrypha have historical value, these books should not be recognized as canonical. This article will give an overview of the content of these books and the various Protestant positions on their value, while also explaining why Protestants have not received these writings as inspired by God.
The value of these books lies in the fact that because they are some of the earliest interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, they give us some insight into how the Old Testament may have been understood by first-century readers. These books provide many details pertaining to the roughly four hundred years from the date when the last book of the Old Testament (Malachi) was written to the time of Christ. They give us insight into the cultural, political, and ideological background in the years before Jesus’ birth, which can aid our understanding of the New Testament. For example, 1 and 2 Maccabees provide an account of the Jewish revolt in the second century BC against the Syrian persecutor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and they contain a mixture of historical and legendary material. And 1 Esdras endeavors to provide an alternate and independent account of 2 Chronicles 35–36, Ezra, and Nehemiah 7:38–8:12. The books of the Apocrypha are not merely of the historical genre, but also novelistic (Tobit, Judith, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), didactic (the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus), devotional (the Prayer of Manasseh), liturgical (the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men), epistolary (the Letter of Jeremiah), and apocalyptic (2 Esdras).
Many Protestants have attested to the value of the deuterocanonical books and the Apocrypha. For example, the title of these books in Luther’s 1534 German translation of the Bible reads, “Apocrypha, that is, books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures, and nevertheless are useful and good to read.” The title of these books in one of the very first English translations of the Bible by Matthew Coverdale likewise says, “Apocrypha: The books and treatises which among the fathers of old are not reckoned to be of like authority with the other books of the Bible, neither are they found in the Canon of the Hebrew.” Speaking of the Apocrypha, article 6 of the Belgic Confession says, “The Church may read and take instruction from [the Apocrypha], so far as they agree with the canonical books.” Similarly, article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England says, “And the other books (as Jerome saith) the Church both read for example of life, and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” These sixteenth-century Protestant testimonies, along with the fact that the Apocrypha was included in the King James Version and all the sixteenth-century English translations, attest to the reality that Protestants have historically recognized the usefulness of reading the Apocrypha.
Nevertheless, although Protestants have recognized the value of reading these books, they have not received these writings as inspired by God for at least two reasons. First, the New Testament writers did not recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture. For example, while the New Testament quotes the Old Testament as Scripture roughly three hundred times, the New Testament books never quote the Apocrypha as Scripture. Therefore, Protestants stand with the New Testament writers in affirming that only those books that were in the original Hebrew canon have canonical authority. (Some scholars highlight that there are occasional allusions to the Apocrypha and even other noncanonical books known as the Pseudepigrapha in some New Testament books. However, these are never spoken of as Scripture or as inspired as the Old Testament books are.)
Second, throughout the history of the Christian church, and especially since the Reformation, there has been a consistent testimony that the deuterocanonical books are not inspired by God and therefore should be distinguished from the rest of the canon of Scripture. For example, the Puritan divines who composed the Westminster Confession of Faith said, “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (WCF 1.3). Likewise, article 6 of the Belgic Confession says, “We distinguish those sacred books [the Protestant canon] from the apocryphal” since “they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books.” Calvin also argued that by “admitting all the Books promiscuously into the Canon,” Roman Catholics have done this “against the consent of the primitive Church,” since these writings were “called by the Fathers not canonical but ecclesiastical books, which might indeed be read to the people, but were not entitled to establish doctrine.”
Indeed, it was not until the Council of Trent decreed in April 1546 that the Roman Catholic Church’s canon of the Old Testament should contain the Apocrypha—with the exception of the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras. This decree also condemned anyone who did not “accept these entire books, with all their parts, as they have customarily been read in the Roman Catholic Church and are found in the ancient editions of the Latin Vulgate, as sacred and canonical.” As Calvin famously said, “The spirit of Trent wished, by this decree, that Scripture should only signify to us whatever dreaming monks might choose.”
However, some have highlighted that a number of church fathers, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandra, and Cyprian, quoted regularly from the books of the Apocrypha and regarded them as inspired Scripture. Although these fathers did regard these books as Scripture, one contributing factor is that they did not read Hebrew, and therefore followed the Septuagint, which bound the books of the Apocrypha alongside the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, when Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to produce the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, he deliberately separated the Hebrew canon from the Apocrypha, placing several of the latter in an appendix with a prefatory explanation for why they were not part of the canon. Despite the concern of Jerome and subsequent copyists to preserve these distinctions, some throughout church history, especially during the medieval period, still regarded these books as inspired Scripture. Yet many others before the Reformation, including Justin Martyr, Gregory the Great, and John Wycliffe, maintained the distinction between these books and canonical books. The fact that pre-Reformation divines had given canonical status to books excluded from the Hebrew canon is a further testimony to the need of the medieval church for a Reformation ad fontes (back to the sources).
Protestants have also pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church uses the deuterocanonical books to support doctrinal and theological points, including the doctrines of purgatory and praying for the dead, that are affirmed nowhere in the traditional Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. In short, during the Reformation, debates over doctrine were integrally tied to the debates about which books were authoritative. Not only did the Protestants affirm that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority in faith and practice, but they were zealous to preserve the integrity of the canon, only recognizing the authority of those books affirmed throughout the history of the Christian church. While this reality should not deter us from reading the Apocrypha for insight about the background of the New Testament, it should caution us to ensure that our doctrine and practice is based on sola Scriptura.
This article draws heavily on the content in Bruce Metzger, “Preface” and “Introduction to the Apocrypha,” in Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1965), vii–xxiii.