Apocrypha 101

I’ve had a few conversations over the last month with different people from Protestant backgrounds who have almost no knowledge of the Apocrypha. This doesn’t surprise me since for years I was the same, but it is unfortunate that there is not better understanding of what it is, how it came to be, and how it came to not be in the Protestant canon.

The Old Testament, the law, the prophets, and the writings, as they are divided in the Hebrew, are the first canon of scripture. They were written over hundreds of years by diverse authors and slowly collected together. These are the books that we are familiar with as the Old Testament. They were originally composed and copied in Hebrew.

In the last few centuries before Christ, a team of seventy scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint—Greek for 70—and is often abbreviated by the Roman numeral LXX. This was a very early translation of the scriptures into a language more people could understand as Greek was the common tongue of much of the Roman empire. While few could read, they could at least understand hearing Greek read. Hebrew had largely become a language restricted to devout Jews and their religious scholars.

There are some books included in the Septuagint that do not appear in the Hebrew canon. These are the works commonly referred to as the Apocrypha. Their inclusion in the LXX was one of the causes of controversy surrounding the translation, but not the only. Another significant issue was that the Scriptures were in Greek while they were supposed to be in Hebrew, or so the thought went.

The Septuagint was the primary Scripture for the early church. There is ample evidence that the Apostle Paul quoted it in his writings. The early church fathers used it almost exclusively as their Old Testament text. Whether this was because it was deemed a superior text, or merely because it was in Greek, making it easier to read, could be debated. Therefore, the early church accepted the Apocrypha de facto because it was part of the Old Testament translation they used.

In the 4th century, Jerome translated the Bible, including the New Testament as we know it, into Latin. This version is referred to as the Vulgate and has been the standard text for the Catholic Church for centuries. (Vulgate is the same root from which we get vulgar. It refers to the Scriptures being translated into the common language.) The Vulgate generally contained the apocryphal books contained in the LXX.

As we move into the Reformation, Luther’s Bible, translated into German, contained the Apocrypha, as did the early King James translation into English. From 1611 to 1666 the Apocrypha was included, and only after 1666, due to an act of Parliament, was it excluded.

The Apocrypha is still held as canonical in the Roman and Eastern Churches. Western Protestant churches hold it to various degrees, with a great many ignoring it. Article VI of the Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church deals with the Apocrypha in this manner:

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras
The Fourth Book of Esdras
The Book of Tobias
The Book of Judith
The rest of the Book of Esther
The Book of Wisdom
Jesus the Son of Sirach
Baruch the Prophet
The Song of the Three Children
The Story of Susanna
Of Bel and the Dragon
The Prayer of Manasses
The First Book of Maccabees
The Second Book of Maccabees

This is but a brief overview of the history of the Apocrypha. There are many more intertwined issues involved in the transmission and translation of scripture throughout history. Many of these can become quite technical and are contentious. I have tried to give just a simple introduction to what the Apocrypha is and where it comes from. In an upcoming post I will examine actually reading it.

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