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Definition

The Apocrypha are made up of two groups of writings, the OT apocryphal books, which are more well-known due to their inclusion in the Roman Catholic canon, and the NT apocryphal books, that are not included in the Protestant canon of Scripture.

Summary

The Apocrypha are made up of two groups of writings, the OT apocryphal books, which are more well-known due to their inclusion in the Roman Catholic canon, and the NT apocryphal books. The OT apocryphal books were written in between the end of the OT and the beginning of the NT and were not considered canonical by the Jews of Jesus’s own time, nor by most of the early church fathers. While Augustine was the first significant theologian to argue for their full inclusion in the canon, it was not until the Council of Trent that the Roman Church officially declared the OT Apocrypha to be fully canonical. The NT apocryphal books, with one exception, were never contenders for inclusion in the Christian canon. This is because they were all written in the second or even third century. Many of them also include systems of doctrine that are antithetical to the doctrine included in canonical Scripture.

Although we have good historical evidence that the OT canon was established by the time of Jesus and that a core NT canon existed by the middle of the second century (see article The Biblical Canon), there were also “other” books circulating amongst God’s people. Some of these other books hovered on the edges of the canon, creating occasional dispute and disagreement over their status.

We call these books the Apocrypha (which just means “hidden”). There are both OT apocryphal writings and NT apocryphal writings, which we will address briefly in this essay.

The OT Apocrypha

The books that constitute the OT Apocrypha are well known mainly because they are point of division between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Written approximately between the third century BC and the first century AD, these books include 1 & 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, Judith, Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, as well as some smaller works and even some additions to existing canonical books. All of these books are preserved in Greek, though some may have been originally written in Hebrew/Aramaic.

Although these books were known and used among the Jews of this time period, there is little evidence to suggest they were regarded as Scripture. Neither Josephus nor Philo—key sources for our understanding of the scope of the OT canon—used them as Scripture. In addition, no NT author (most of whom were Jews) cites even a single book from the Apocrypha as Scripture. And later rabbinic writers do not receive the Apocrypha, affirming only the Hebrew Scriptures as part of the Jewish canon (b. Baba Bathra 14–15).

The fact that the Jews limited their Scriptures to the Hebrew canon should not come as a surprise given that there was an established belief that inspired prophecy had ceased by the time of the fourth century BC. This sentiment is evident even within the OT Apocrypha itself (1 Macc. 4:46; prologue to Sirach), as well as other Jewish sources like Josephus (Against Apion, 1:8), and later rabbinic writings (b. Sotah 48b).

As for early Christians, it seems they at first accepted the Hebrew canon as delivered by their Jewish forbearers. Melito of Sardis, the Bryennios list, and Origen all appear to affirm the same general OT canon we know today, though Origen acknowledges that the books of the Apocrypha can still be profitably read by the church (though not as Scripture) (see Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.26.13, 6.24.1-2). Augustine goes further, arguing that the Apocrypha should be regarded as among the scriptural books (Doctrina christiana 2.8). Some of earliest Christian codices and canonical lists also include the OT Apocrypha (for example, the Council of Carthage; codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus).

But other early Christians continued to insist that the original Hebrew canon was, and always had been, the right one. Jerome led the way, agreeing that the apocryphal books were useful but arguing that the church “does not receive them among the canonical scriptures” (Prologue to Wisdom and Sirach).

Throughout the middle ages, views of the Apocrypha among Christians were mixed. But during the time of the Reformation the two sides clashed. Due to the fact that the Apocrypha was the basis for many controversial doctrines (e.g., purgatory), the Reformers revisited the issue of which books were properly Scripture, concluding that the OT Apocrypha should not be the basis for Christian doctrine.

In a counter-Reformation move, the Roman Catholic church at the Council of Trent (1546) made an official declaration that the Apocrypha was henceforth to be regarded as Scripture. So, despite the controversial and mixed status of the Apocrypha throughout the history of Christianity, the Roman Catholic church made their view official, creating a division with Protestants over this issue that continues to this day.

NT Apocrypha

Unlike its OT counterpart, the NT Apocrypha is not a tightly defined group of texts. Rather the NT Apocrypha refers to large array of books that look similar to our NT writings in both style and genre, may even claim apostolic origins, and yet never found a permanent home inside the church’s emerging canon. The four major genres of these apocryphal writings match the four major genres of the NT itself: gospel, acts, epistle, and apocalypse.

Not surprisingly, the most well-known apocryphal works are those that focus on the words or deeds of Jesus, i.e., gospels. However, the term “gospel” might not always be appropriate since many of them look very different from our canonical versions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, does not cover the standard historical moments in Jesus’s life (birth, death, resurrection) but is just a list of 114 sayings of Jesus. Likewise, the Gospel of Truth is not a narrative gospel at all but instead a lengthy theological treatise on Valentinian theology.

Apocryphal acts also circulated in early Christianity, cataloging the travels and adventures of the apostles, often with eccentric and embellished stories such as a dog talking, a man (Simon Magus) flying, and a lion being baptized. Such acts include the Acts of Paul, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Peter.

Apocryphal epistles were less common, but we do have some in early Christianity. An epistle known as 3 Corinthians purportedly comes from Paul but is clearly an anti-docetic treatise designed to combat heretics in early Christianity. There is also the forged Epistle to the Laodiceans, attributed to Paul but is clearly a patchwork of quotes from the authentic letters of Paul (like Galatians and Philippians).

The most notable apocryphal apocalypse is the Apocalypse of Peter. It contains a post-resurrection dialogue between Jesus and Peter which highlights (in great detail) the future judgment experienced by unbelievers. This was a popular work in some quarters of early Christianity, even being mentioned by the Muratorian fragment, our earliest canonical list.

While the amount of Christian apocryphal material can be overwhelming, there are a few of considerations to keep in mind.

  1. All of these apocryphal writings are dated to the second or third century, or even later. Although attempts have been made to trace some of these writings to the first century, such efforts have not won wide support. Thus, there are no reasons to think that these writings have any genuine claim to apostolic authorship.
  2. Many (though not all) of these apocryphal writings contain systems of doctrine that were out of accord with the rule of faith that had been passed down to the early church. The Gospel of Philip, for example, contains a version of Valentinian Gnosticism which is essentially polytheistic, affirming a multiplicity of divine beings in the heavenly realms. It would be hard to characterize such a book as “Christian” in any recognizable sense.
  3. None of the apocryphal NT writings, with only a rare exception, were ever serious contenders for a spot in the canon. Despite the claims of some that apocryphal works were as popular as canonical works, the historical evidence tells a very different story. Indeed, most apocryphal works were either ignored, or condemned outright by the church fathers. By the time the edges of the NT canon were solidified in the fourth century, the apocryphal works were noticeable mainly by their absence.

Conclusion

The story of the OT and NT canon is a story that also involves “other” books. These other books have been a point of contention and controversy at various points within the history of Christianity. Moreover, these other books can raise concerns for modern day Christians who might wonder whether they’ve been improperly left out.

But the historical evidence suggests we can have confidence in the content of both the OT and NT canon. Despite many years of wrangling over the OT Apocrypha, the Hebrew canon handed down by the Jews still stands as the Bible known by Jesus and the apostles and therefore is properly regarded as Scripture. Likewise, even though there has been much talk about “lost gospels,” these texts were written much later than our canonical ones and have little claim to historical authenticity.

Thus, our biblical canon is complete. As Origen declared, “The net of the law and the prophets had to be completed . . . And the texture of the net has been completed in the Gospels, and in the words of Christ through the Apostles” (Comm. Matt. 10.12).