This article shows that though the Apocrypha are not and were not regarded as part of Scripture because of their teachings, they can still be of great help in sharing some knowledge on the inter-testament history.

Source: Clarion, 2013. 3 pages.

The Apocrypha Are Not Canonical

Intriguing🔗

Have you ever wondered about the Apocrypha? Arti­cle 6 of the Belgic Confession introduces these books to us and so we usually first have contact with them in our senior year of catechism. Some of the titles are fascinat­ing. One is called "The Song of the Three Young Men in the Furnace," referring to Daniel's three friends. Another one is called "Bel and the Dragon." What young person isn't interested in reading a story about a dragon? Still another is called "The Prayer of Manasseh" and recounts what King Manasseh prayed after he was humbled by God.

If you read through the Apocrypha, you find that there is a collection (depending on how they are being counted) of fourteen books in total, namely, 3 and 4 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (of Jesus son of Sirach), Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, additions to Esther, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men in the Furnace, Susannah, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 1 and 2 Macccabees. They are all set in Old Testament times and some make references to Old Testament figures. Some of these books give us additional history about the Jews that we don't find in the Bible. Others seek to flesh out and give more background to biblical stories and still others seek to give words of wisdom.

Are they true?🔗

These are all interesting books. But when you read them over, you are left with the question: are they true? Did Manasseh really say these things? Can we accept the proverbs contained in Wisdom in the same way as we accept the book of Proverbs? Is the history contained in First Esdras an accurate portrayal of what really happened? Really the question is: Are these books the inspired Word of God which we should accept as the Holy Scriptures or not?

Historical background🔗

In order to answer that question, it would be import­ant for us to consider the background of the Apocrypha. Where did they come from? The name Apocrypha is a Greek word meaning "things hidden." Originally this word was used to describe books which were meant only for a limited number of people because of their mysterious, magical nature. But over the course of a few centuries, many of the church fathers (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and later Athanasius and Jerome) used the word "Apocrypha" to refer to books that contain things that are questionable and are therefore deliberately excluded from the canon.

Augustine went further and explained the word "Apocrypha" to mean "of hidden origin or authorship." By the time of the Reformation, all of these meanings were adopted so that it was understood that many of these books are of hidden origin or authorship and that they contain matters that are questionable and not necessar­ily in line with the rest of Scripture. As a result, the term "Apocrypha" came to mean "that which is not canonical."

Place in the early church🔗

What authority did the Apocrypha have in the early Christian church? Although the Apocrypha were written between about 200-70 B.C., they were not written in Heb­rew like almost all of the Old Testament.1In his providence and by the power of his Holy Spirit, the LORD led his people in the Old Testament to recognize that the Bible contained the law, the prophets, and the writings. Therefore the excluded the Apocrypha from Scripture. No Jew (e.g. the famous historian Josephus who lived during early New Tes­tament times) ever included the Apocrypha in the Bible.

Later, however, a few of the church fathers, (e.g. Clem­ent of Alexandria) accepted the authority of a few books of the Apocrypha and recognized them as fully canonical. Furthermore, in a few ancient manuscripts, the Apocrypha were included with the rest of Scripture. But these were exceptions, rather than the norm. When once again after the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, the LORD led his church in his providence to recognize which books were to be in­cluded in the Bible, they did not include the Apocrypha.

Furthermore, during the course of the first four cen­turies AD, most of the church fathers also excluded the Apocrypha from the Scriptures. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (called the Vulgate) he did so by going back to the Hebrew Old Testament, which did not contain the Apocrypha. Even though he resisted their inclusion, he was overruled, so that the Apocrypha was included in the Vulgate. Their authority was also increasingly accepted in the church over the course of the centuries.

Reformation's view of Apocrypha🔗

When the Reformers set about translating the Bible into their own languages, they went back to the original Hebrew (for the OT) and Greek (for the NT) as preserved in the manuscripts. Since the Apocrypha were not written in Hebrew, they were immediately suspect. Their hidden origin and sometimes fanciful content also caused the Re­formers to question their validity. As a result, they were either gathered together and placed separately between the Old and New Testament, or they were excluded altogether.

It was made clear that the Apocrypha were not part of God's Word. For example, the introduction to the Apocrypha in Luther's Bible (1534) reads, "Apocrypha, that is books which are not to be esteemed like the Holy Scrip­tures, and yet which are useful and good to read." This sentiment has carried on since then and is also summar­ized in the Belgic Confession, Article 6,

We distinguish these holy books (the canonical) from the apocryphal ... The church may read and take in­struction from these so far as they agree with the ca­nonical books. They are, however, far from having such power and authority that we may confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian reli­gion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the holy books.

Why are they not God's Word?🔗

So why don't we accept them as God's holy Word?  Beyond what's been said already, there are several more reasons why the Apocrypha are not included in the Bible. Although the New Testament either quotes or alludes to almost every book in the Old Testament as Scripture, it never refers to any passages in the Apocrypha in the same manner, that is, as being God's Word. We do not read in the Scriptures of our Lord Jesus or one of the apostles using the phrase "it is written" when referring to an Apocryphal book.

Apocryphal teachings🔗

The main reason they have never been accepted as Scripture is because the Apocrypha contain teachings that directly oppose the Scriptures. For example, the Bible is clear that when a person dies they either go to heaven to be with Christ or they are sent away from him. In contrast, the Apocrypha teach the doctrine of purgatory, that is, that there is a place of purging between heaven and hell, to which a person goes for a period of time to be cleansed of sin before they can enter heaven. This comes out in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, where it says,

Two thousand drach­mas of silver were sent to Jerusalem for a sin offering ... Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

Another doctrine that is upheld in the Apocrypha is that we can be saved by doing good works. In Ecclesias­ticus 3:30 it says, "As water quenches a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin." Similarly in Tobit 12:8-9, it says, "Better give alms than hoard up gold. Almsgiving preserves from death and wipes out every sin." Once again this is in direct conflict with what God's Word teaches us. The LORD is clear that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that our good works cannot pay for our sins or earn salvation for us. Clearly in these places, as in numerous other places, the Apocrypha are teaching doctrines that are contrary to Scripture.

Rome's approval🔗

You may recognize that these teachings have been up­held by the Roman Catholic Church. Rome teaches that people enter purgatory after they die and remain there until their sins are atoned for. This is why people have bought indulgences, or continue to offer prayers for the dead or light a candle on behalf of a dead relative. Similar­ly, the Roman Catholic Church teaches us that good works are necessary for salvation. It should come as no surprise then that the Roman Catholic Church took a different view of the Apocrypha than the Reformers. Rather than dis­tancing themselves from the Apocrypha, they recognized them as canonical at thecouncil of Trent (1545-1563) and can be found in every Roman Catholic Bible. Part of the motivation for doing so is because the Apocrypha defend beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church which were being challenged by the Reformation.

Benefit today🔗

All of this is not to say that the Apocrypha hold no benefit for us. One of the real blessings that comes out of reading them is that some of them provide us with reliable information. For example, the book of 1 Maccabees is a historical account of Jewish history from 175 to 135 B.C. which is regarded as a source of accurate information by many scholars. Another benefit of the Apocrypha is that they give us a window into Jewish thought in the centur­ies between the testaments. When you read through the Apocrypha you get a real flavour of the religious convic­tions of the Jews during this time period. This can be very helpful for us in understanding the New Testament, for the Apocrypha give us information about many of the wrong teachings that the Lord Jesus and the Apostles encoun­tered and addressed.

Conclusion🔗

So if you are intrigued by these books and wish to read them one day, hopefully by now you will be able to appre­ciate the balanced approach taken by the Belgic Confes­sion. In the first place, we confess, "The church may read and take instruction from these so far as they agree with the canonical books." There can be some benefit in reading them. But at the same time, we confess that they are not God's Word and therefore they don't have authority nor may they ever detract from the inspired 66 books.

They are, however, far from having such power and authority that we may confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the canonical books.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ Several chapters in the books of Ezra and Daniel are written in Aramaic but the rest of each is written in Hebrew. Very likely their use of Aramaic relates to their high positions in the throne rooms of Gentile kingdoms where Aramaic was one of the regularly-used official language. 

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