What about the Apocrypha?

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

I notice some Bibles include a number of books called the Apocrypha. Why is that?

The word “Apocrypha” is Greek for “hidden things.” No one knows for certain why some Jewish books were designated by that title. Perhaps they were originally thought to contain a kind of secret knowledge, available only to a particular group. The books of the Apocrypha were produced between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. The list of books or materials generally included in the Apocrypha are: 1, 2 Esdras; 1, 2 Maccabees; Tobit; Judith; additions to Esther and Daniel; Prayer of Manasseh, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah; Psalm 151; Sirach (Ecclesiasticus); and the Wisdom of Solomon. Most of those books were incorporated into the Old Testament canon of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

1. The Apocrypha and the Greek Version of the Old Testament: It is usually argued that the Apocrypha was originally included in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and from there it came into the Christian Bible. But that is far from certain. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the (Septuagint (LXX), began in the first half of the third century B.C. At that time it was almost certainly a translation of only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch or Torah). Little is known about the process that led to the translation of the rest of the Old Testament into Greek, particularly to the translation or incorporation of the books we call the Apocrypha. We do not know the exact books included in the Septuagint during the time of the apostles. Neither do we know whether there ever was an official list of apocryphal books. We do know that Jews never considered those books to be part of the Hebrew canon. But we also know the Jews esteemed them and read them. Manuscripts or fragments of some of the books have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls.

2. The Apocrypha and the Christian Church: It used to be believed that Christians took as their Bible the larger Jewish Alexandrian canon that included the Apocrypha. That idea has been totally discredited. In the early centuries of the Christian era there was some debate among Christians concerning those books. The most-well-known case is that of Jerome (A.D. 345-420). He decided to translate the Old Testament into Latin using the Septuagint, which then already included most of the apocryphal books. But he decided to base his translation on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.  Although he included the Apocrypha in his translation, he made it clear that those books should not be considered part of the inspired canon and should not be used to establish Christian beliefs. His canon was the short Hebrew canon. Nevertheless, he considered the Apocrypha worth reading.

Augustine argued that a Latin translation of the Bible should be based on the Septuagint so as to contribute to the unity of the church in both the east, where Greek was used, and in the west, where Latin was used. He argued for regarding the Apocrypha as inspired, and his views prevailed. The Latin Bible (the Vulgate) became the official Bible of the Christian church.

3. The Apocrypha and the Reformation: The Reformers revisited the questions of the Apocrypha. In his translation of the Bible into German, Martin Luther included the apocryphal books, but, like Jerome, did not consider them equal in authority to the Scripture, and established they should not be used to define Christian doctrine. Reformed tradition totally excluded the Apocrypha from the canon, accepting instead the shorter Hebrew canon.

One of the reasons for the rejection of the Apocrypha was that the books supported some erroneous views, contrary to those promoted by the church as Christian dogmas. For instance, they support the idea that human works contribute to salvation (Tob. 4:7-11), that saints can intercede for others (2 Macc. 15:13-14), and that atonement can be made on behalf of the sins of the dead (2 Macc. 12:39-45).

Today many Bible versions and translations include the apocryphal books. Although not considered inspired by God, they contain information that contributes to a better understanding of the development of Jewish thought during the period between the Old and New Testaments and provide useful cultural, historical, and religious backgrounds for the study of the New Testament.