The Glossary of Terms

Apocrypha, or Deuterocanonical Books


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Apocrypha, Old Testament, a group of books or parts of books not part of the Jewish canon of the Hebrew Scriptures but found in early Christian versions of the OT. ‘Apocrypha’ is from the Greek for ‘concealed’ or ‘hidden’ (cf. 2 Esd. 12:37-38; 14:45-46), although in current Christian usage it has the sense of ‘set aside’ or ‘withdrawn’ from full canonical status as Scripture. The Christian scholar Jerome (ca. 331-420) labeled most of these books as apocryphal and did not include them in his translation of the Bible, the Vulgate (Vg). During the Reformation, Protestants gathered the books of that kind then current in Western Bibles into a separate section following the OT under the title ‘Apocrypha.’ Works so treated usually include:

While there is no universal agreement on which books properly belong to the Apocryphal OT, most scholars would agree that the list just given is to be considered standard. Similarly, these fifteen books also go by various titles. Occasionally the Rest of the Book of Esther is identified as Additions to the Book of Esther; or Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, and the Song of the Three Children (with or without the Prayer of Azariah) will be identified as the Rest of (or Additions to) the Book of Daniel; or Ecclesiasticus, because it was written by Jesus ben Sirach, will be called the Wisdom of Sirach, or even the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach. For the most part, the titles of the OT apocryphal books will be referred to in this Dictionary as they are given in the list above, but occasionally another form of their name may be used.

In English-speaking countries, Protestant practice has been to omit the Apocrypha from editions of the Bible. Catholics consider most of these books authoritative and use the term ‘deuterocanonical,’ meaning books recognized as canonical at a later date, to distinguish them from the ‘protocanonical’ books found in the Jewish canon of Scripture. In Catholic usage, the term ‘Apocrypha’ is applied to the Pseudepigrapha, a group of Jewish writings other than those included in the OT Apocrypha, which have been preserved and used by various groups of Christians but, with some exceptions (Ethiopia, for example), not included in the Bible.

The Jewish Background of the Apocrypha: The books of the Apocrypha are largely of Jewish origin, produced for the most part during the period preceding the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in a.d. 70. With the exception of 2 Esdras, they are interspersed among the other books of the OT in early Christian copies of the Septuagint (lxx), the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures derived from Alexandrian Judaism and adopted by early Christians as their first Bible. While the source of these books is the traditions that circulated in the Hellenistic synagogue, their status among Jews in Alexandria or elsewhere is not so certain.

In Palestine, the rabbis after a.d. 70 recognized a Palestinian canon of twenty-four books (according to their system of enumeration) divided into Law (Torah), Prophets, and Writings and reflecting the principle that revelation begins with Moses and ends with Ezra. The Apocrypha originated some time after Ezra, some of them having been composed in Greek, and thus not having a claim to be included in this definition of Scripture. Rabbinic debate after a.d. 70 is over Ezekiel, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes, which are retained in the Palestinian canon, rather than over the inclusion or rejection of books later found among the Apocrypha. The rabbis claim that the person who brings together more than twenty-four books creates confusion (Midr. Qoh. 12:12) and that one who reads in the outside books will have no place in the world to come (b. Sanh. 100b). Ecclesiasticus was read and quoted by the rabbis for several centuries and then was dropped from use; however, whether they meant to include other books of the Apocrypha than simply Ecclesiasticus among the ‘outside books’ is not certain.

Scholars have traditionally assumed that the Writings were a fluid collection prior to a.d. 70, that the Alexandrian Jewish community had an expanded version of this collection that included the books of the Apocrypha, and that this expanded collection of the Writings is the reason for the greater extent of the Christian LXX as compared to the Jewish Palestinian canon. The Alexandrian Jewish community, however, appears to have accepted only the Torah (in Christian terms, the Pentateuch—Genesis through Deuteronomy) as Scripture. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish commentator (late first century b.c. to early first century a.d.) quotes almost exclusively from the Torah when citing Scripture, while the translation of that section in the LXX is done with far greater care and attention to the literal text. There is thus little evidence for the existence of an expanded Alexandrian canon that would explain the extent of the LXX in Christian circles. (The Additions to Daniel and The Rest of Esther require separate treatment. Instead of the problem of the editing of collections of books into canonical Scripture, we encounter here the internal expansion of a book through the accretion of stories, legends, and appropriate prayers and letters—a process that must have taken place within Judaism.)

The Apocrypha in Early Christianity: It would appear more likely that the extent of the Christian LXX was determined by Christians themselves. This determination could have been haphazard, as the result of the combination of a larger selection of Jewish literature in Greek, which presumably would have been preserved as individual books in scroll form, into the codex, or ‘book’ form. The latter was pioneered by Christians because it permitted the inclusion of a number of books in one more easily managed volume. This process of editing could have taken place with minimal regard to what was considered canonical within the library of the Hellenistic synagogue. The extent of the LXX could also be the result of the conscious selection by the early church in the late first and early second centuries of a distinctively Christian canon of Scripture. In either case, Christians came to include in their OT a wider selection of books than was considered authoritative in Judaism and to arrange them more along the lines of chronology and genre than according to the tripartite division into Law, Prophets, and Writings.

Even so, copies of the LXX do not suggest a rigidly fixed Christian canon, since some manuscripts omit the Prayer of Manasseh and others include Psalm 141 and 3 and 4 Maccabees. 2 Esdras, a Jewish apocalyptic writing stemming from the end of the first century a.d. and no longer extant in Greek, appears in some manuscripts of the Old Latin (ol) version, the initial Bible of Western Christianity translated from the LXX, and thus has also come to be included among the Apocrypha.

Jerome and the Vulgate: Early Christians tended to cite from the whole of the LXX, although, as time passed, scholars and theologians in the East became aware of the extent of the Jewish canon, and some began to limit their use of the OT to the books preserved by the Jews. In Western Christianity, the books of the Apocrypha retained their status. As the result of dissatisfaction with the ol version of the Bible, however, Jerome began a new translation (fourth century a.d.). His initial intention was to translate the LXX anew, but studies of the text of that version convinced him that, in order to establish a secure text, he would need to return to the Hebrew original. Journeying to Bethlehem, he studied Hebrew with a Jewish teacher and produced a new Latin version of the OT, the Vg, based on the Hebrew text and essentially limited to the extent of the Jewish canon. He treated the apocryphal works as edifying but not to be used for the purpose of establishing doctrine. His Vg does include the additions to Esther and Daniel, clearly marked to indicate their absence from the Hebrew text, and, as the result of a request from two friends among the Western bishops, he hastily produced versions of Judith and Tobit.

The Vg became the standard Bible of the Western church, and the writings that Jerome set aside as apocryphal were added to its text from the ol version. Right up to the Reformation, however, an awareness of Jerome’s position persisted in the West.

The Reformation and the Apocrypha: In the Protestant Reformation, the question of the canonical status of the Apocrypha became involved in disputes over doctrine. 2 Macc. 12:43-45 was used to support the idea of purgatory and masses for the dead, while Tob. 12:9; Ecclus. 3:30; and 2 Esd. 8:33 claim that good deeds bring merit, counter to Martin Luther’s emphasis upon grace. Under the influence of Jerome, and perhaps also of Renaissance scholarship (which preferred texts in the original languages), Luther gathered the apocryphal books into one section at the end of the OT in his 1534 edition of the whole Bible and gave this section the title ‘Apocrypha.’ He indicated that these books were not of the status of Holy Scripture but could be read profitably.

The Reformed tradition came to accord an even lower status to the Apocrypha, particularly in England, where editions of the Geneva Bible began in 1599 to omit it and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646-48) equated it with secular literature. The Church of England, on the other hand, resisted this tendency and included readings from the Apocrypha in its lectionary. In 1827, after a decade of particularly acrimonious debate, the British and Foreign Bible Society refused to support continental societies that circulated Bibles containing the Apocrypha.

As in Christian use of the codex in an earlier age, the technology and economics of publishing may have had an impact upon the Apocrypha. English language editors have sought to fill a demand for lighter and perhaps more economical Bibles by omitting it from their editions. Such a measure, however, is only possible as a result of its devaluation in status.

Catholic response to the Protestant treatment of the Apocrypha was to affirm their canonical status. On April 8, 1546, the Council of Trent declared anathema anyone who did not accept the whole of the Vg as canonical. The edition of the Vg intended includes all of the disputed works with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. In later Catholic editions of the Bible, these three books are sometimes printed in an appendix.

Orthodox Christianity shows a greater latitude in its treatment of the canon of the OT. Bibles approved by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church currently include what Catholics term the deuterocanonical books plus 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151. In 1977, with the Orthodox Bible in mind, the Revised Standard Version Bible Committee expanded its translation of the Apocrypha to include the last three books in an effort to produce an ecumenical Bible.

The Importance of the Apocrypha: Along with the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the writings of Josephus and Philo, the Apocrypha are of immense importance for historical research into Judaism during the period of the Second Temple (515 b.c.-a.d. 70). Their content reflects the struggle of the Jewish people to maintain faith as they encountered religious, political, and military oppression under foreign rule in Palestine and attempted to preserve their way of life in the face of the power of Hellenistic culture both at home and in the Diaspora (i.e., those lands other than Palestine where Jews lived). Strikingly absent from this body of literature is the prophetic voice, which was now associated with the previous age. The books, on the other hand, give abundant evidence of the continued importance of narrative in Jewish culture.

The Apocrypha exist as a group, however, primarily because of their role in Christian discussions of the extent of the canon of the OT. As a result of their place in the Christian OT, the Apocrypha have a potential role in the ecumenical movement as groups of Christians seek for the means of communication with one another. In including 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151 among the Apocrypha, the Revised Standard Version Bible Committee seemed to be reaching for an inclusive rather than an exclusive understanding of the canon of the OT, in which the extent of Scripture is defined as broadly as possible to permit the interests of as many groups as possible to intersect in one body of Scripture. This principle has been absent from discussions of the canon of the OT but was of importance in the final determination of the extent of the NT .


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Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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