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An Introduction to the Apocrypha-Part Eleven



. . . ``APOCRYPHA''?


(Part Two)


by Jared L. Olar


Last time, we saw that when various groups of Jews and Christians use the words "canon" and "apocrypha," they often have different lists of books in mind.  We also examined the development of the Jewish scriptural canon.  Let us now survey the development of the Christian Old Testament canon.


Formation of the Christian Old Testament Canon:


Just as Judaism does not appear to have finally settled its disputes over the biblical canon until the 200s A.D., so it was that many Christians of that era continued to have doubts about the precise extent of the Old Testament canon --- doubts that would only be allayed for most Christians in the last decades of the 300s A.D.


From the very start, we can see signs that Christians and Jews held to different views about which books were inspired of God.  In this series we have seen that, although the New Testament writers never directly quoted from the books of the Apocrypha, they were familiar with them, and often alluded to them in ways that show they held the books in high regard.  As early as the latter first century A.D., Christians begin to quote from various books of the Apocrypha as inspired scripture.  As we saw in this series, around 95 A.D., St. Clement of Rome referred to a few of these books, including Judith and the Greek version of Esther. Again, around 110 A.D., St. Polycarp of Smyrna quoted from Tobit in a way that shows he regarded it as inspired scripture.  Hermas and the unknown author of the Letter of Pseudo-Barnabas also quote from or allude to various books of the Apocrypha.  In fact, it's very difficult to find a Christian writer in the earliest centuries of Church history who does not quote from or allude to these books in ways that show they accepted them as divinely inspired.


In the second century A.D., Christian writers began to show awareness that several books the Church accepted were rejected by most Jews --- indeed, that several scripture passages the Church often used to support their doctrines were absent from the biblical texts used by most Jews at that time.  St. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, accused the Jewish leaders of deliberately cutting passages out of the Bible as an underhanded means of fighting Christian evangelism.  However, while it is true that, starting in the second century A.D., Jews have re-translated various classic Messianic prophecies to prevent non-Hebrew-speaking Christians from claiming that they refer to Jesus, there is no evidence that the Jews have ever deliberately mutilated their own scriptures.  The textual differences that St. Justin noticed apparently came from innocent scribal errors on the part of both Jewish and Christian copyists, and from the fact that the Jews relied on a biblical text that came from a different family or tradition of manuscripts than that which underlies the Septuagint.


Regarding the disagreements about the canon that were developing between the Church and the Jews, most early Christian writers asserted that the Church did not depend on non-Christian Jews to settle the question, but instead had the authority to follow its own tradition that she had received from Christ and the Apostles.  This assertion is only implicit with St. Justin, but becomes explicit in later Christian writers.


The earliest known list of Old Testament books that was drawn up by a Christian is that of St. Melito of Sardis around 170 A.D.  St. Melito said he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and while he was there he apparently learned from Jewish rabbis the list of the books then accepted by most Jews.  St. Melito's list is identical to the Jewish biblical canon except for the absence of the book of Esther, which was then still regarded as apocryphal by most Jews.  However, it would be rash to conclude that St. Melito thought the Church should adopt the Jewish canon, since we know in his other writings and homilies he followed the Church's common practice of citing from or alluding to the Apocrypha.  It is possible that his intent was to demonstrate that Christians could prove Jesus was the Messiah without quoting from the Apocrypha.


Not many years after St. Melito's death, we find St. Irenaeus of Lyons (died circa 202 A.D.), a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, following his teacher's example of making use of the Apocrypha in his writings.  For example, St. Irenaeus regarded the book of Baruch to be a part of the book of Jeremiah, and regarded the tales of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon to be accepted parts of the book of Daniel.  Then in the generation after St. Irenaeus, we find Tertullian and St. Cyprian of Carthage making use of all of the Apocrypha as inspired scripture except for Tobit, Judith, and the Additions to Esther.  Around the same time, Clement of Alexandria cited Wisdom and Sirach, while St. Hippolytus of Rome (died 236 A.D.) commented on the tale of Susanna, frequently quoted from Wisdom, and explicitly referred to Baruch and I & II Maccabees as inspired scripture.


From Origen to St. Jerome:


The second known list of Old Testament books that was drawn up by a Christian comes to us from Origen (died circa 254 A.D.), who lists the 22 books that he says were accepted by the Hebrews as canonical.  Origen's list is identical to the accepted Jewish canon in almost every respect.  According to Origen, the Jews of his day accepted Esther as canonical (in contrast to the earlier witness of St. Melito), but also included the Lamentations of Jeremiah along with the Letter of Jeremiah (from the Apocrypha) in the same scroll as the book of Jeremiah.


Origen's list reflected his awareness of what Jews of his day regarded as scripture, as well as his awareness that the Jews and the Christians had come to have very different attitudes toward the Apocrypha.  But Origen clearly did not intend his list as a delineation of which books Christians ought to accept as canonical, because in his numerous writings Origen cited all of the books of the Apocrypha as inspired scripture, and in his Letter to Julius Africanus he defends the canonicity of Tobit, Judith, and the Additions to Daniel.  In the same letter, Origen implies that the Church is not bound to follow Jewish tradition on the question of which books belong in the Old Testament.  Origen also included the Apocrypha in his Hexapla edition of the Old Testament.


Another witness to the accepted tradition of the Church in Origen's day comes from the Codex Claromontanus, which provides a list of Old Testament scripture that is identical in almost all particulars to the Catholic Church's Old Testament canon, the sole exception being the inclusion of IV Maccabees.  However, by the 300s A.D., we see indications that many Christians had doubts about the proper status of the Apocrypha.  Eusebius Pamphilii classified them among the "antilegomena" or disputed books, a rank superior to apocryphal books but a step lower than the books accepted by all Christians without dispute.


Taking essentially the same approach as Eusebius was St. Athanasius the Great, whose famous Festal Epistle of 367 A.D. lists and discusses the books accepted as canonical by Christians.  St. Athanasius' list of New Testament scripture is identical to that which all Christians have accepted ever since, but his list of Old Testament scripture differs somewhat from both Jewish tradition and subsequent Catholic/Orthodox tradition.  St. Athanasius' Old Testament list, which ostensibly reflects the Jewish tradition of his day, excludes Esther but includes Baruch as a part of Jeremiah and includes the Daniel additions.  The rest of the Apocrypha, along with Esther, are grouped together as books that the earlier Church Fathers had appointed to be read to potential converts for instruction and edification.


This distinction between "canonical" and "ecclesiastical" books, however, seems to have been merely theoretical, because St. Athanasius, like the Church Fathers before him, freely quoted from the Apocrypha as inspired scripture.  He was well aware that the Jews and the Christians differed on the question of the Old Testament canon, and perhaps drew attention to that difference in order to remind Christians not to use the Apocrypha when dialoguing and debating with Jews.


St. Epiphanius held a belief about the Apocrypha that was essentially like that of St. Athanasius and Eusebius.  St. Hilary of Poitiers and Rufinus also accepted St. Athanasius' approach to the Old Testament canon, excluding them from the canon in theory while in practice quoting them as inspired scripture.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem, however, held a much more negative opinion of the Apocrypha, although he still acknowledged the Church's right to settle canonical questions without having to give the last word to Jewish tradition.


Finally, at the end of the 300s A.D., in the Prologus Galeatus St. Jerome famously uttered his negative view of the Apocrypha.  St. Jerome's opinion was very close to that of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and yet also resembled the more moderate approach of St. Athanasius.  As an expert scholar of the Hebrew language and a resident in the Holy Land, St. Jerome had a very high regard for what he called the Hebraica veritas ("Hebrew truth"), the authentic Old Testament texts in Hebrew.  Because the Jews did not admit the Apocrypha into their canon, and because most of those writings could no longer be found in Hebrew or Aramaic, St. Jerome had a negative opinion of them.  Nevertheless, he submitted to the Church's traditional acceptance of the Apocrypha, including them in his new Latin Vulgate translation.  He even quoted them as inspired scripture, just as Origen and St. Athanasius had done, and in a letter to Rufinus he indicated that he accepted the Church's judgment that the Additions to Daniel are a proper part of the Old Testament.


These different attitudes and approaches to the Apocrypha no doubt reflect the fact that in the third and fourth centuries A.D. questions about the canonicity of certain books remained both among the Jews and the Christians.  For practical purposes, those doubts would be resolved for Christians by a series of local councils in the late 300s and early 400s A.D.  Even so, because St. Jerome's Prologus Galeatus would be reproduced in copies of Latin Vulgate Bibles and in the influential Glossa Ordinaria for many centuries after, the negative judgments he expressed would cause questions about the proper status of the Apocrypha to continue to arise from time to time.


St. Augustine and the Councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage:


In 382 A.D., Pope Damasus held a synod or local council in Rome that addressed the question of the biblical canon.  From that synod came a list of books that is identical in every way to the subsequent biblical canon of the Catholic Church, grouping without distinction all of the Apocrypha among the rest of the Old Testament books.  One of the purposes of the Synod of Rome most likely was to determine which books were to be included in the proposed new Latin translation of the Bible that Damasus had in mind.  The older Latin versions were in need of revision, so Damasus assigned to St. Jerome the task of preparing a new translation, the origin of the Latin Vulgate Bible.


Not many years after Damasus' synod, a series of local councils or synods in North Africa --- at Hippo in 393 A.D., and at Carthage in 397 A.D. and again in 419 A.D.--- reiterated what had been affirmed at Rome regarding the biblical canon.  In 405 A.D. and 414 A.D., Pope Innocent I confirmed the biblical canon of the 393 A.D. council of Hippo.


The rulings of the councils at Hippo and Carthage bear the stamp of the most notable man in attendance:  the famous theologian St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who held, in opposition to St. Jerome's preference, that the Apocrypha should not be considered as of less authority than the other Old Testament books.  St. Augustine's view would practically become universal in both Western and Eastern Christendom, and was reaffirmed by Pope Eugenius IV and the Oecumenical Council of Florence in 1442.


However, theoretical doubts did arise over the centuries, due to the abiding influence of Origen, St. Athanasius, and St. Jerome.  For example, the Eastern Fathers St. John the Damascene and Nicephorus, following St. Athanasius, expressed doubts about the proper status of the Apocrypha.  In the West, St. Jerome's Prologus Galeatus continued to influence theologians.  In 1333 the Franciscan theologian Nicholas of Lyra, following St. Jerome, discussed the differences between the Latin Vulgate Bible and the "Hebrew truth."  On the eve of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s, Cardinal Cajetan championed St. Jerome's views expressed in the Prologus Galeatus.  These were, however, theoretical discussions only -- in practice, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox did not distinguish between "protocanonical" and "deuterocanonical" Old Testament books.


The Era of the Reformation:


Along with the fracturing of Western Christendom during the era of the Reformation came a division of belief regarding the biblical canon.  One of the first signs of this division was Jacob van Liesveldt's Dutch translation of the Bible, printed in 1526 in Antwerp.  This was the first modern vernacular Bible to group all the Apocrypha together in its own section, separate from the Old and New Testaments.  That was six years after Martin Luther was excommunicated and his doctrines formally condemned by Pope Leo X.  Then in 1534 came Luther's own German Bible, which also grouped all of the Apocrypha in its own section between the Old and New Testaments, and which was the first Bible to name these books "the Apocrypha."


Luther had adopted St. Jerome's view that these books should be demoted from the rank of inspired, sacred scripture, and that the Christian Old Testament should include only those books and chapters found in the Orthodox Jewish canon of 22 or 24 scrolls.  The first public sign of Luther's belief that the Apocrypha were not authoritative scripture came in 1519 during a debate with Johann von Eck.  When Eck cited II Maccabees in support of the doctrine of purgatory, Luther replied that II Maccabees and the other Apocrypha were uncanonical and therefore had no binding authority.  Even so, Luther recommended that Christians should still read these books for edification.


Luther's approach to the question of the Apocrypha (i.e., "not canonical, but good things for Christians to read") remains popular in certain mainline Protestant denominations, particularly Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopalian churches.  Even today Anglican liturgy retains a few lections from the Apocrypha.  However, most Protestants adopted the more radical views of John Calvin and his disciples, who strenuously rejected the Apocrypha.  That gave rise to a tendency among many Protestants to refuse to read these books for any reason.  Despite the view that these books were not canonical, many Protestant Bibles --- especially the King James Version -- continued to include the Apocrypha, even though they would be grouped together in their own section.  In fact, in the 1600s a law was enacted in England forbidding editions of the KJV from being printed without the Apocrypha.  The Calvinist "Geneva Bible" of 1599 was the first Bible printed in England that intentionally excluded the Apocrypha.  Still, only in the first half of the 1800s did the familiar KJV minus the Apocrypha become common, due to the 1827 decision of the British and Foreign Bible Society to refuse to distribute Bibles containing the Apocrypha.


In response to the Protestant belief that the Apocrypha did not belong in the Old Testament canon, the Catholic Church's reforming Council of Trent issued a decree in 1546 that reaffirmed the biblical canon that had been in accepted use in Catholicism for at least the previous 1,200 years. The decree listed the books of the Catholic biblical canon, and then mandated that all Catholics must accept "as sacred and canonical, the said books entire and with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition."  This decree, coupled with the knowledge among Catholics that Protestants were championing St. Jerome's negative comments about the Apocrypha, would soon serve to put an end in the Catholic Church to theoretical doubts about the Apocrypha and their relation to the other Old Testament books.


The Biblical Canon in Eastern Christendom:


As was alluded to in the above reference to St. John the Damascene and Nicephorus, in the East the history of the biblical canon took a somewhat different path than it did in the West.  The influence of St. Athanasius' distinction between "canonical books" and "ecclesiastical books" was very strong in the East, especially due to reverence for St. Athanasius as the fourth-century champion of theological and christological orthodoxy.  But the tradition that placed both "protocanonical" and "deuterocanonical" books on the same level was also to be found in Eastern Christendom, especially as mediated through the authority of the great oecumenical councils of the early Middle Ages, which endorsed the biblical canon of the local councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage.


Thus, over time Eastern Christians showed more of a tendency to ignore or to forget St. Athanasius' distinction.  At the time of the Photian Schism in the 800s A.D., the Greek Church is known to have publicly read all of the Apocrypha.  Then after the Great Schism of 1054 A.D., by about 1100 A.D. the Greek Orthodox biblical canon is known to have been almost identical to the Catholic biblical canon, the only difference being that the Orthodox Churches recognised III Maccabees as scripture, a book always regarded as apocryphal among Catholics.


The Orthodox Churches responded to the Protestant Reformation about a century after the Catholic Church's official response at Trent.  This came about when Cyril Lucaris, who was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 1621, converted to Calvinism and attempted to bring Calvinist doctrine into Eastern Orthodoxy.  His attempts naturally met with intense opposition from the Orthodox Churches, and after his death in 1638 the Orthodox condemned his doctrines in several synods, including the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem.  Just as Catholicism reaffirmed the canonicity of the Apocrypha at Trent in 1546, Orthodoxy reaffirmed their canonicity at Jerusalem in 1672.


There were, however, still Orthodox who followed St. Athanasius' approach to the canon, particularly in the Russian Orthodox Church and other Slavic Orthodox Churches.  In the 1700s, Russian Orthodox theologians began to emphasise St. Athanasius' tradition, and in consequence that particular tradition has become more prominent among Orthodox Churches.  Thus, among the Orthodox the Apocrypha in practice are used as Holy Scripture, but that practice is coupled with the ancient theoretical distinction placing them on a lower level than the rest of Scripture.


Non-canonical books in Christian Bibles:


As mentioned last time, the question of "what is apocrypha?" is answered differently depending on the Jewish and Christian tradition.  Jews and Protestants have a shorter biblical canon than Catholics, who in turn have a shorter canon than the Orthodox and other Eastern Christian traditions.  However, just because someone believes that a particular book is uninspired and uncanonical, that doesn't mean he would object to the book being included with the books that he accepts as canonical.  As noted above, some Protestants do not object to Bibles that contain the books and chapters they call "the Apocrypha," and the Anglican/Episcopal liturgy even includes readings from the Apocrypha, even though they are not regarded as a part of the Bible proper.


A similar phenomenon can be found in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  In the early Church, several writings that lacked much support for their canonicity were nevertheless frequently included in handwritten biblical codices.  These writings often enjoyed popularity with early Christian writers, some of whom even quoted them as Scripture, but Church councils never formally recognised their canonicity.  As time went on, those writings would continue to appear in Bibles, but would be relegated to appendices to indicate that they were apocrypha -- useful, but not divinely inspired.


For example, ancient Greek Bibles commonly included at least some of the following writings interspersed among unquestionably canonical Old Testament books:  I Esdras, the Prayer of Manasses, Psalm 151, and III & IV Maccabees.  Similarly, Syriac and Latin and Ethiopic Bibles would commonly include some of those writings.  However, Latin Bibles also included II Esdras, an apocalypse that could also be found in Slavonic and Ethiopic Bibles.  Meanwhile, Syriac Bibles frequently lacked not only the Apocrypha, not to mention several canonical Old Testament books, but sometimes included additional psalms (such as Psalms 154 and 155, also found in pre-Christian psalters, as seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls).  As mentioned last time, Ethiopic Bibles have long included Jubilees and I Enoch, which were both very popular writings among the Jews who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, and were quoted by many early Christian writers, beginning with St. Jude's quote from I Enoch in the New Testament.  But Ethiopic Bibles have also included the Kebra Nagast, the tale of how Menelik, alleged son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem and smuggled it down to Ethiopia.  The Kebra Nagast understandably is not found in any other sort of Jewish or Christian Bible.


Before the 1500s, the Latin Vulgate Bible would intersperse among its Old Testament the books of I & II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses.  After the Council of Trent, however, those writings were moved to an appendix --- both to prevent any confusion about their uncanonical status and to enable Catholics to continue to read them if they wished.  Thus, just as some Protestants have Bibles with Apocrypha, Catholic Bibles have also included books that the Catholic Church regards as apocryphal.


The former popularity of the Catholic apocrypha is seen not only in the fact that some early Church Fathers (such as St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine of Hippo) quoted them as Scripture, but also in their influence on Catholic liturgy and belief.  II Esdras, for instance, helped shape popular medieval conceptions of the afterlife, and, sadly, reinforced popular anti-Jewish attitudes.  But it also provided several moving prayers in Catholic liturgy, such as the traditional Latin "requiem" prayer, while passages from the other Catholic apocrypha have provided other prayers and canticles.  More recently, however, Catholic Bibles have not included these books, not even in an appendix, while they ironically continue to appear in some Protestant Bibles, and still have some degree of liturgical use in the Anglican/Episcopal communion.  For instance, the Daily Office Lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a reading from II Esdras for Morning Prayer on All Saints Day, and the Prayer of Manasses is used as a canticle.  Each revision of the Book of Common Prayer has fewer readings from those books, however.


In contrast to the Catholic tradition, Greek and Russian Orthodox Bibles include I Esdras, the Prayer of Manasses, Psalm 151, and III Maccabees not as "apocrypha" but as canonical scripture.  Thus, Orthodox Bibles have Old Testaments that include all the books recognised by Catholics, with four additional writings.  However, II Esdras does not appear anywhere in the Greek Bible, while IV Maccabees (an extended meditation on II Macc. 7) is included in an appendix, that is, as apocrypha.  From this survey of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox usages, we can see that just because a writing is included in a Bible, that doesn't mean it is regarded as canonical or divinely inspired.


Some Final Thoughts:


In looking back at the things we've learned in this study of the Apocrypha, we can see that each tradition -- Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc. -- accounts for its respective biblical canon through various arguments that rely on religious tradition, manuscript evidence, liturgical use, doctrinal content, citation as scripture by ancient authorities, and authoritative rulings from recognised leadership.  But each tradition's arguments place different weight on the evidence provided by those things.  In this study we've had a chance to survey some of that evidence.  In brief, Judaism bases its canon on the Oral Law as mediated through rabbinic tradition, while Catholicism and Orthodoxy similarly emphasise apostolic tradition and the authority of councils.  With Protestantism, however, one finds the argument that tradition and church authority are not necessarily dependable, so the shorter canon of the Jews -- the list of books that is recognised by all Christians ---would be the "safest" option.  In contrast, Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not give Jewish tradition the final say in this matter.  The one thing not in dispute is that the questions of what is canonical and what is apocryphal are in fact much more difficult to answer than may appear at first glance.




In this series, the following sources were utilised, and are recommended for further study of this vast subject:


The Holy Bible -- Containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books -- New Revised Standard Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1989.


The New American Bible -- Translated from the Original Languages with Critical Use of All the Ancient Sources -- Saint Joseph Edition, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1970, 1986, 1991.


The Holy Bible -- Translated from the Latin Vulgate -- Douay -Confraternity Version, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1949.


The Septuagint with Apocrypha:  Greek and English, Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, London, 1851, 2001.


The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible:  The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English, Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, 1999.


The Creeds of Christendom -- With a History and Critical Notes, vols. I & II, Philip Schaff, 1931, 1998.


The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Pontifical Biblical Commission, Vatican Press, 2002, at



"Biblical Literature and Its Critical Interpretation," in The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th. edition, 1986, vol. 14, pp.754-858.


"The Written Word," by Father Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, at http://www.companysj.com/v141/written.html


Also consulted were the following articles from The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Co., 1909, at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/ --- Baruch, Canon of the Old Testament, Daniel, Ecclesiasticus, The Book of Henoch, Esdras, Esther, Judith, The Books of Machabees, Manasses, Tobias, Book of Wisdom.

Apocrypha Series

Issue 18


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