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Should Protestants read the Apocrypha? I imagine that this question will elicit one of two responses from Protestants. Some will yell out, “Absolutely not!” and cringe with anti-Roman Catholic sentiment, while the majority will have a perplexed look on their face and ask, “What in the world is the Apocrypha?” With these very different responses in view, this short essay will define the term Apocrypha, briefly survey how various church fathers responded to it as a collection of writings, and then conclude with two reasons why Protestants should consider reading the Apocrypha.

What Is the Aprocrypha?

The term Apocrypha literally means “hidden writings” (see below for a complete list). These writings (except 2 Esdras) first appeared in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced in Alexandria, Egypt, around 200 BC. It initially began as a translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), but, as more and more ancient Jews came to speak Greek rather than Hebrew, it became necessary later on to translate the rest of the Old Testament as well. Over time, the writings that constitute the Apocrypha made their way into the Septuagint, potentially broadening the parameters of what Protestants refer to as the Old Testament. Some scholars have argued that Jewish religious authorities in Alexandria accepted the Apocryphal books as part of the canon—as authoritative texts that define doctrine and practice—and that the Jews in Palestine rejected these books as canonical. Others have disagreed, stating that the ancient Jews were united in rejecting the Apocrypha as Scripture.

The Apocrypha and the Early Church

But how did Christians from the first century to the Reformation respond to the Apocrypha? Did they completely reject it, or did they see some advantage in reading it? The New Testament authors may have been familiar with these texts. Echoes of several works can be detected in the New Testament (compare, for example, Heb. 11:35 with 4 Macc. 9:13–18 or James 1:13–14 with Sir. 15:11–17, 20). However, it is important to note that the New Testament authors never directly quote from the Apocrypha or introduce portions of it with phrases that presuppose its divine inspiration, such as “as it is written,” “as the Spirit says,” or “as the Scripture says.” Jesus also never quotes or explicitly refers to the books of the Apocrypha.

In the writings of the patristic era (second–fifth centuries AD), various texts from the Apocrypha were paraphrased and used to guide Christians. For instance, the Didache (4:5) paraphrases Sirach 4:31 concerning almsgiving as a rule binding on Christians. More shockingly, the Epistle of Barnabas (12:1) refers to 4 Ezra (also known as 2 Esdras chaps. 3–14) as “another of the prophets.” The reason for this high esteem is that 4 Ezra contains a possible reference to the cross, when “blood shall drip from wood” (2 Esdras 5:5).

By the time of Origen, the Apocryphal books were read frequently in the church. Origen, in his Letter to Africanus, presents two arguments in favor of accepting the Apocrypha as canonical: (1) God’s providential care for the new Israel (i.e., the church); and (2) respect for the practice that had already been established in the church. When we arrive at Jerome and Augustine, a division begins to emerge. Jerome makes a distinction between texts that are “canonical” (used to inform doctrine and practice) and texts that are “ecclesiastical” (read in churches and used for edification but not to establish or confirm doctrine). Augustine, however, advocates for the canonicity of the Apocrypha. In fact, he draws from Wisdom and Sirach to support his explanation of the Trinity. The Council of Carthage (AD 397) eventually affirmed Augustine’s view, though many questioned the place of the Apocrypha and therefore followed Jerome’s distinction. These two opposing views on the canon of the Old Testament persisted within the Western church until the Protestant Reformation. Intriguingly, one follower of Jerome stands out, Nicholas of Lyra, for he eventually influenced a well-known monk with a mallet, Martin Luther.

The Apocrypha and the Reformation

The doctrine of sola Scriptura and various doctrinal objections to the teaching of the medieval Western church drove the Reformers to examine again the canonical status of the Apocrypha. With Rome using texts such as 2 Maccabees 12:39–46 to legitimate the saying of Masses and prayers on behalf of the dead as well as almsgiving as a meritorious act of penance, one can readily understand why Reformers such as Luther, John Calvin, and many others would follow Jerome rather than Augustine on this matter. It is not surprising, then, to hear Luther echo Jerome’s canonical distinction in his preface to the Apocrypha: “These are books that, though not esteemed like the Holy Scriptures, are still both useful and good to read.” It is even more unsurprising to find a well-informed interaction with the Apocrypha within the writings of Luther and Calvin. They were undoubtedly familiar with those texts and found them useful for edification or to confirm already accepted doctrines. But they were not to be used as an independent, infallible source of theology.

The Council of Trent (1546) responded to the Reformed position by ruling all the books of the Apocrypha, with the exception of 3 and 4 Maccabees, as canonical. The Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras appear in an appendix to the Latin Vulgate. (The Eastern Orthodox Church includes all of those rejected books in its canon, as well as the Apocryphal books accepted by Roman Catholicism and the Old Testament recognized by Protestantism.) The Roman Catholic Church considers the books of the Apocrypha that it accepts as “Deuterocanonical,” while they reserve the use of “Apocryphal” for the books they reject (i.e., 3 and 4 Maccabees).

In response to the Council of Trent, definitive views on the matter were inscribed in Protestant confessions of faith. Two Reformed confessional statements are noteworthy:

Belgic Confession (1561) 6: “The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books. But they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion. Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.” (emphasis added)

Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) 1.3: “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (emphasis added)

The Apocrypha Today

Lutheran and Anglican traditions have continued to use the Apocrypha for lectionaries and special services, but the majority of the Protestant world at this time either agrees with the confessions above or goes beyond them. Sadly, it is very common to find many churches today that flat-out reject the Apocrypha as a compilation of heretical books with no value for the Protestant church. But, with historical and confessional support, I would strongly encourage more Protestants to read, engage, and reflect on the Apocrypha for the following reasons.

Reading the Apocrypha can enhance one’s trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who manifests Himself in the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

First, the Apocrypha provides us with a reliable historical and theological picture of Judaism between 200 BC and AD 100. During the so-called four hundred silent years between the last Old Testament writing prophet, Malachi, in the late fifth century BC and John the Baptist in the early fifth century AD, the Jewish people experienced oppression under foreign domination—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids and Ptolemies, and the Romans. The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are indispensable historical resources for this period. These books, as well as many others, give us better perspective on the religious, social, and political issues that the Jewish people faced during this time. They also give us insight into how they patiently and faithfully resisted the pressure to surrender their ancient traditions. In the face of the constant suffering and hardship that these books describe, the messianic ideal of a conquering king becomes more comprehensible (see, e.g., John 6:15). Moreover, the theology contained in the Apocrypha shows signs of development on various topics that take center stage in the New Testament and even among the early church fathers: substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the Christological personification of Wisdom. In a word, then, the Apocrypha provides us with essential information for studying the New Testament in its historical, social, cultural, and theological context.

Second, Jewish faith and piety, exemplified so excellently in the Apocrypha, can encourage our souls to remain steadfast in the gospel of Jesus Christ despite whatever physical, emotional, or spiritual suffering may come as a result. Two examples will suffice here.

In the Prayer of Manasseh, we encounter an earnest prayer of repentance that begins with a confession of sin that reminds one of the tax collector in Luke 18:10–14: “I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven because of the multitude of my iniquities” (1:9). And yet, this prayer ends in a note of deep trust in God’s mercy: “For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will manifest your goodness; for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy, and I will praise you continually all the days of my life. For all the host of heaven sings your praise, and yours is the glory forever. Amen” (1:13–15). Christians can most certainly relate to the sense of one’s unworthiness and sinfulness in this prayer, but we look for our salvation only to Jesus Christ, the One whose worth and righteousness are reckoned to us by faith apart from works.

In 4 Maccabees, we are introduced to the perseverance of a mother and seven sons who suffer intense torture instead of denying their faith in the God of Israel. They become the living support of the author’s main thesis: “Devout reason is sovereign over the emotions” (1:1). By “devout reason,” the author does not mean human reason alone. He defines it as “education in the law [i.e., Torah]” (1:17), and he does so to demonstrate that the Jewish way of life is more credible and reasonable than the popular philosophies in the Greek world, especially Stoicism. Fidelity to Torah, then, is the means to being sovereign over the emotions. But how do the mother and seven sons become the living proof of this thesis?

It all begins with Antiochus, the wicked Seleucid king, calling these “handsome, modest, noble, and accomplished” brothers to enjoy their youth “by adopting the Greek way of life and by changing [their] manner of living” (8:3, 8). Put simply, he wants them to become like all the other Hellenized Jewish people who rejected Judaism and embraced Greek culture and religion. If they do, he promises them an abundance of benefits. To motivate them, he brings out all the “instruments of torture” just in case they consider declining the offer (8:12). In response, the brothers boldly oppose “the tyrant with their own philosophy [i.e., Torah]” (8:15) and instead declare:

Why do you delay, O tyrant? For we are ready to die rather than transgress our ancestral commandments. . . . Therefore, tyrant, put us to the test; and if you take our lives because of our religion, do not suppose that you can injure us by torturing us. For we, through this severe suffering and endurance, shall have the prize of virtue and shall be with God, on whose account we suffer; but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire. (9:1, 7–9)

One by one, they suffer gruesome deaths: beatings with scourges; broken fingers, arms, legs, and elbows; dislocated limbs; being burned alive; having their flesh flayed with iron hooks; being dismembered by having their limbs pried from their sockets—and that only describes the first three sons. All seven endure unimaginable pain for their “ancestral commandments.” As the author concludes: “Since, then, the seven brothers despised sufferings even unto death, everyone must concede that devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. For if they had been slaves to their emotions and had eaten defiling food, we would say that they had been conquered by these emotions. But in fact it was not so” (13:1–3). His thesis is confirmed.

The examples of Jewish faith and piety found in the Prayer of Manasseh and 4 Maccabees provide the Christian with all the more reason to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1)—to trust in the mercy of the triune God who makes an everlasting atonement for sins through the glorious sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ; to entrust oneself to the God of all comfort in the very midst of intense suffering and pain, knowing that He is faithful to deliver us, either in this life or the next; to continue believing in Jesus Christ, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Much as a scene from Lord of the Rings or The Pilgrim’s Progress can bring to mind, solidify, and apply inspired texts to our daily lives, so, too, can the Apocrypha enhance one’s trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who manifests Himself in the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When I taught a course on the Intertestamental Period at Reformation Bible College, I had one short-answer question on my midterm that read: “How did you perceive the Apocrypha before reading it in its entirety? Is there value in studying the Apocrypha?” Students responded with something like, “At first, I thought they were heretical.” And, to be sure, writings in the Apocrypha have been used to support heretical doctrines. But after stripping the heretical husk from the corn by reading the Apocryphal books, engaging with them, and reflecting on the good, true, and beautiful in them—as we do with any other piece of extrabiblical literature—each student concluded that there is great value in studying these books. My hope is that you do, too.1

Books of the Apocrypha
  • Additions to the Book of Esther
  • Baruch
  • Bel and the Dragon
  • Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach; also known as Ben Sira)
  • 1 Esdras
  • 2 Esdras
  • Judith
  • Letter of Jeremiah
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees
  • 3 Maccabees
  • 4 Maccabees
  • The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews
  • Prayer of Manasseh
  • Psalm 151
  • Susanna
  • Tobit
  • Wisdom of Solomon

 

  1. For those interested, I have benefited much from reading David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002). ↩︎

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