31 May 2024

Apocrypha: The “extra books” your bible may lack.

APOCRYPHON ə'pɑk.rə.fɔn noun. A writing or book not considered part of the accepted canon of scripture.
2. Story of doubtful authenticity.
3. Story that’s obscure or little-known.
[Apocrypha ə'pɑk.rə.fə plural, apocryphal əˈpɑkrəfəl adjective.]

One of my favorite stunts with new Christians used to be, “Turn in your bibles to the book of Wisdom, chapter 4.” And they’d try—they’d flip around their bibles, then give up and look at the table of contents… then realize the book wasn’t there.

“Well it’s in my bible,” I’d tell ’em. And hold it up to show them, confusing them all the more.

My bible included apocrypha. Actually a few of my bibles include apocrypha. And I know; you’re thinking, “Oh, those are Catholic bibles.” Nope; I do own a Catholic bible, but it’s only a New Testament, which has no apocrypha. All my bibles with the apocrypha included are Protestant. Yep, some Protestant bibles have them!

Unfortunately I can’t pull this stunt anymore, ’cause nowadays people look up the bible on their phones. And a lot of bible apps include apocrypha, so they can actually find Wisdom in there. Bible Gateway has apocrypha too. Spoils my little joke. Oh well.

But I had a reason for this joke: I wanted to introduce newbies to the fact not every bible includes all the same books. Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican bibles are gonna have books in them which your average Evangelical bible will not. Evangelicals call these books apocrypha. Catholics call ’em deuterocanon, and Orthodox anagignoskómena.

Contrary to popular belief, they’re not merely “extra books.” For four centuries before Jesus, Greek-speaking Jews had these books in their bibles. For 17 centuries thereafter, Greek-speaking, Latin-speaking, and English-speaking Christians had ’em in their bibles. Some of these books got quoted in the New Testament. Got quoted by the early church fathers. Got translated and included in the Geneva Bible and King James Version. Seriously.

So when people ask me “Why do Catholics have extra books?” I gotta point out the proper question is why we Evangelicals don’t include these books. ’Cause the majority of Christians in the world do have ’em. And Evangelical Protestants used to have no problem with including ’em in our bibles… well, for about two centuries. Wasn’t till the Puritans began purging apocrypha from bibles that they even became an issue.

Today we have some Protestants who insist not only should apocrypha not be in bibles, but claim they’re devilish. Doesn’t matter that Martin Luther called ’em nützliche, aber nicht heilige Schriften/“useful, but not holy writings.” To these dark Christians, not only are apocrypha not useful, but they (and Roman Catholics) are part of Satan’s evil conspiracy to corrupt the bible.

Here’s what conspiracy theorist Jack Chick had to say on the topic. [The Attack, 8]

According to these cranks, if you read any of the apocrypha, they’ll corrupt you too. Flee the scary books!

Well, let’s put aside the loopy paranoia and get to what apocrypha actually are.

Where’d these books come from?

In the 400s BC, the Egyptian Greeks translated the bible into Greek, producing the first of the Septuagints, which is what the Greek translations of the Old Testament came to be called. The Egyptians took the 22 books of the Hebrew scriptures, split a few of the larger ones into multiple scrolls (i.e. Samuel became 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, and the Twelve became our 12 books of Hosea through Malachi), and reordered them into Law, history, poetry, and prophecy.

Thrown into the mix were seven previously-unknown books. Plus some extra chapters of Esther and Daniel, and some greatly different chapters of Jeremiah.

Where’d these seven books come from? Dunno. It looks like the Egyptians translated every Hebrew-language book they had on hand, figuring if it was Hebrew, it oughta go into the bible. (The books were about God after all.) So they all got bundled together as if they’re all inspired, sacred scripture. And for the first 15 centuries of Christendom, with rare exceptions, every Christian presumed they are scripture.

To the Jews, whose scholars make an effort to learn Hebrew and stick to the original text, these seven books aren’t scripture and never were. In fact for most of those books, the Hebrew version was lost to history, and all we have is the Greek version, ’cause the Jews didn’t bother to keep copies of the Hebrew originals. (There are some Hebrew versions of some of the books, but there’s some debate as to whether they’re just Hebrew translations of the Septuagint.)

Anyway, the Jewish dismissal of these books raised the annoyance of various Christians throughout the centuries: “Jews don’t consider ’em bible? Wait, did the Jews take them out of the bible? How dare they?” (You know, pretty much the same accusation certain Christians make when current bibles remove any of the verses the Textus Receptus added.)

But every so often it raised Christians’ suspicions: “Maybe Jews have good reason to not consider them bible.”

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (347–420), a priest and linguist whom we know as St. Jerome, was hired by Roman Christians to fix the Vulgate, the popular Latin translation of the bible, ’cause parts of it were such a hasty, sloppy job. Jerome decided to translate it from the original Hebrew, not the Septuagint. So he went to Jerusalem to learn Hebrew. There, he learned the Jews don’t acknowledge the apocrypha—and figured they were on to something, so he didn’t acknowledge the apocrypha. But his Roman bosses insisted he translate it anyway. Remember, to them it was bible! So Jerome accommodated them.

Christians who fear the apocrypha love to point to Jerome’s objections. But they ignore the fact Jerome didn’t refuse to translate the books. He didn’t think them evil and corrupt—so much so, he had to keep ’em away from Christian hands, lest we be led astray.

Neither did professor and reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546). Like Jerome, he wasn’t so sure about apocrypha. (For that matter, Luther didn’t care for Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation either.) But he didn’t delete any of these books from the bible: He simply moved ’em to the back. He moved the New Testament books he didn’t like to the back of the NT, which is why the German book-order still differs from everyone else’s. And he put the Old Testament apocrypha into a whole separate section between the OT and NT, which Luther labeled “Apocrypha.”

I mentioned the Puritans started purging the apocrypha from bibles. Originally they had no beef with it either. But over time some of ’em got paranoid: “Why are these books in our bibles if they’re not God-inspired scripture? If they’re not God’s word, they gotta be mens’ word—and we don’t want these men corrupting our theology.” So out they went.

You’d be surprised to hear that at the time Luther reorganized the bible’s book order, no church had formally decided which books belong in the bible. Everybody was just going with tradition. Luther’s action got the Catholics to declare, in their first Council of Trent (1543–63), that their edition of the Vulgate is authoritative, and the apocryphal books are deuterocanon—a word which tends to confuse Protestants, ’cause Catholics and Orthodox define it differently.

CATHOLICS: Deuterocanon means they were written second: The Hebrew-language OT books were written first, and the Greek-language books written second. But they’re all canon. All inspired scripture. All bible.
ORTHODOX: Deuterocanon means they’re lesser canon: They’re bible, but not as authoritative as the other books of the Old Testament.

That’s why Orthodox often just call ’em anagignoskómena/“good to know.” Yep, same attitude as Martin Luther.

“Extra books.”

In Protestant bibles with a separate section for apocrypha, the seven separate books and the extra chapters of other books become the following:

TOBIT. During the Babylonian exile, a pious Hebrew’s son was directed by the angel Raphael to rescue his cousin from a husband-killing demon.
JUDITH. A rich widow from Bethulia rescued her town by seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes, then beheaded him as he slept.
ESTHER ADDITIONS (Esther 10.4–16.24 in the Vulgate). Y’know how the text of Esther never specifically mentions God? (Oh, you didn’t? It doesn’t.) This fixes that by throwing in some prayers.
1 MACCABEES. When Syrian Greeks attempted to replace YHWH with Zeus, Judas Maccabaeus and his family fought and overthrew them.
2 MACCABEES. Same story as 1 Maccabees, but slightly different point of view, and name-drops God more often.
WISDOM OF SOLOMON. Yet more of Solomon’s wise proverbs.
WISDOM OF JESUS BEN SIRACH, or SIRACH for short, or sometimes ECCLESIASTUCUS. Jesus ben Sirach had some wise proverbs too.
BARUCH. The prophecies of Jeremiah’s scribe.
LETTER OF JEREMIAH (Baruch 6 in the Vulgate). An extra prophecy of Jeremiah.
SONG OF THE THREE HEBREW CHILDREN or PRAYER OF AZARIAH (Daniel 3B in the Vulgate). How Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego (whose Hebrew name is Azariah) rejoiced after surviving the furnace.
SUSANNA (Daniel 13 in the Vulgate). Daniel proved two elders falsely accused the virtuous Susanna.
BEL AND THE DRAGON (Daniel 14 in the Vulgate). Daniel proved neither Bel nor a living dragon are real gods.

Some Protestant bibles, like mine, also include the books you’ll find in Orthodox bibles:

PRAYER OF MANASSEH. When the Assyrians took King Manasseh ben Hezekiah captive, he prayed to the LORD, who set him free. 2Ch 33.13 Supposedly this is that prayer.
PSALM 151. An extra psalm, supposedly by David about himself.
1 ESDRAS. A variant form of Ezra, with a few bits of 2 Chronicles and Nehemiah included.
2 ESDRAS. An apocalypse, supposedly by Ezra.
3 MACCABEES. It’s not actually about the Maccabees. It’s a Maccabee-like story, taking place a century before, when the Egyptian Jews hassled the Jews, and God defeated them.
4 MACCABEES. A sermon about how reason is better than emotion, which uses examples from the Maccabees’ experiences.

Then the Ethiopian church has Enoch, Jubilees, 1 Meqabyan, 2 Meqabyan, 3 Meqabyan (variant forms of the books of Maccabees), and a bonus chapter of Baruch. Plus a “broader canon” concept which considers certain books to be important like scripture, but not necessarily scripture.

And before any Evangelicals pish-pish the idea of a broader canon, may I point out how we totally have our own broader canon: We have Christian authors we revere so greatly, we’re willing to hike ’em up to a near-scriptural level. Calvinists frequently prioritize John Calvin’s views above the clear meaning of scripture, and of course we all know heretics do likewise. C.S. Lewis’s fans treat his writings as if he was wiser than Solomon. Let’s be honest: Some of us are totally willing to put favorite books on nearly the same pedestal as the scriptures because we find them so inspiring. Ethiopian Christians just happen to formally admit it.

Okay. If our churches don’t consider these books to be scripture, what’re we supposed to do with them?

Well we can read them, y’know. Or not. Reading them makes us aware of the sort of stuff first-century Israelis, like Jesus and his students, read other than bible. Makes us aware of some popular Jewish myths. Fills us in on some of the history which took place during “the silent years”—which were clearly far from silent.

Or we could fall in line with popular paranoia, and avoid these books out of fear. Though I’d be far more concerned about Christian romance novels or the Left Behind books. Good Lord, those things are awful.

If you’re reading a book, any book, with the mindset of, “Maybe this is true; maybe not,” you’ll do much better than someone who reads it with the mindset of, “It's Christian, so it must be true.” Read the apocrypha with a dose of good old healthy skepticism. You’ll be just fine.

But more likely what you’ll find is these books are very inspiring and uplifting. They’re about God, of course, and Christians kept ’em around for centuries for good reason. Martin Luther called them good and profitable to read, and I would agree. Indeed they are.