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On the Apocryphal Books

Aug 18, 2019

Why do some Bibles differ in terms of the number of books they include?

Just today I had this comment sent in to my website (obviously by a Catholic): “According to the Bible I read, it has 46 books in the Old Testament, not 39. This is a Protestant error and falsehood regarding the OT canon which should not be promulgated.”

So what was that all about? It has to do with differences concerning what is found in our Bibles. Some 7 to 15 extra books or parts of books can be found in some Bibles. Catholic and Orthodox Bibles will usually have more books than Protestant Bibles today.

Those who are not fully up on the details of all this, or have an axe to grind (as my commentator above), will make simplistic and reckless claims that Protestants removed books from the Bible. The truth of the matter is quite different, so we need to look at this issue in some detail.

First, let me offer a few broad remarks. An article like this involves trying to put into rather simple terms what are actually some rather quite complex and detailed historical, theological and ecclesiastical matters. So my aim here is to simply offer a popular-level rendition of things, not a PhD thesis.

As to terminology, the Greek term ‘apocrypha’ means ‘hidden’ or ‘hard to understand’. There are various books considered to be apocryphal, and they exist in both Old Testament and New Testament forms. Here I am only focusing on what is known as the OT Apocrypha.

Catholics and Protestants both agree on the 27 books in the New Testament. The main issue of contention has to do with why Catholic Bibles contain some of these other books, while most Protestant Bibles today do not. While the lists can vary, the books or parts of books found between the OT and NT are these:

1 & 2 Esdras
Tobit
Judith
Additions to Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiasticus (the Wisdom of Sirach)
Baruch
Suzanna
The Song of the Three Children
Bel and the Dragon
The Prayer of Manassah
1 & 2 Maccabees

They were written between around 300 B.C. and A.D. 70. While Protestants call these books apocryphal, Catholics call them deuteronomical (literally, second canon). The Greek word ‘canon’ literally means ‘measuring stick,’ and the term has come to be known as defining which books are actually God’s inspired word.

So what we have is a different understanding by Catholics and Protestants as to what the biblical canon actually is. The question is, why do Protestant Bibles not have these extra books? Let me answer this in part by offering a very brief and very sketchy look at the somewhat complicated historical situation.

Historical background

The Old Testament comes to us in two main forms: the original Hebrew version and the later Greek version (the Septuagint, or LXX). Simply put, the Hebrew Bible contains what we now know as the 39 books of the OT. They are broken down into some 22-24 books in the Hebrew Bible, because we have split a number of them up. For example, 1&2 Kings was originally one book, and the 12 minor prophets were one book, etc.

But the LXX did contain a number of extra books not found in the Hebrew Bible. As a Jew who knew Hebrew, Jesus relied on the Hebrew Bible, as did the Apostle Paul. But by this time many Jews no longer knew Hebrew, and as later converts came along, especially Greek-speaking gentiles, the LXX came to be used much more often.

Early church fathers such as Origen, Cyril of Alexandria and Athanasius used and preferred the Hebrew Bible. When Jerome was commissioned by the Roman bishop in 382 to produce a Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate), he followed in this pattern. However, as a result of correspondence back and forth with Augustine, he was persuaded to make use of the LXX instead, thus the addition of the Apocrypha.

But Jerome still felt that these extra books, while of some use for the edification of believers, were not properly to be thought of as being in the biblical canon. He also said that they were not to become the basis of formulating Christian doctrine.

Several regional councils, such as the Third Council of Carthage (397), affirmed this new listing as found in the Vulgate, but not the larger, universally recognised, ecumenical councils. Things basically remained this way until the time of the Reformation. By this point knowledge of the original languages was picking up steam, and manuscript discoveries were helping in the process of Bible translation.

The Reformers emphasised sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and so the question arose, what is the actual canon of Scripture? Luther had reacted to some church doctrines like purgatory and praying for the dead as found in 2 Maccabees 12.

So in part Luther rejected these doctrines by claiming they did not have Scriptural support (that is, support from the shorter Hebrew canon). In this the Reformers were following the lead of Jerome, and they made a distinction between the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.

So the Reformers returned to the earlier church tradition of making use just of the 39 books found in the Hebrew Bible. The Council of Trent (1546) was the official response to the Reformers, including Luther’s criticisms of the canon, and they declared that the books found in the LXX (or around 11 of them at least), were indeed part of Holy Scripture. This is the catalogue of works that they offered:

The five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), Josue, Judges, Ruth, the four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, the first and second of Esdras (which latter is called Nehemias), Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, the Davidic Psalter (in number one hundred and fifty Psalms), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaias, Jeremias, with Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel, the twelve minor Prophets (Osee, Joel, Amos, Abdias, Jonas, Micheas, Nahum, Habacuc, Sophonias, Aggeus, Zacharias, Malachias), two books of Machabees, the first and second.

It was at Trent that for the first time these books were officially declared to be part of the biblical canon. The earlier regional councils were not accepted by all of the church universal, and they did not have the same official authorisation as Trent did. At Trent it was announced that anyone not holding to this listing of the OT books was to be anathema (accursed).

Why Protestants reject the apocryphal books

Protestants have long said that these books may well have much of religious, historical and cultural value. But they usually do not regard them as part of inspired Sacred Scripture for various reasons. These include:

1.They were never in the Jewish canon – that is, in the Hebrew Bible. The LXX came about much later (in the 4th century BC). While some Protestant Bibles before (and after) Trent included the Apocrypha, they were usually placed in a separate section to show they were not of equal authority.

2.They are not quoted by Christ or any of the New Testament writers. They may be alluded to, but not clearly and directly quoted. In contrast, consider the Gospel of Matthew, which has some 130 OT citations and allusions. It should be pointed out that some NT books do refer to pseudepigraphal (‘false writings’) books. For example, Paul quotes pagan philosophers in Acts 17, and Jude 9 refers to the ‘Bodily Assumption of Moses,’ a writing that even Catholics do not consider to be inspired.

3.None of these apocryphal books claim to be divinely inspired. Some passages, such as 1 Macc. 9:27, 2 Macc. 2:23 and 15:38 imply otherwise, or even claim not to be inspired!

4. Some questionable doctrines (at least for Protestants) are taught there, such as almsgiving for salvation (Tobit), and the doctrine of purgatory and prayers and offerings for the dead (2 Maccabees). And some of the books are quite fanciful, such as Bel and the Dragon.

5. No apocryphal book was written by a true prophet or apostle of God. This is in contrast to the authors of the Hebrew canon such as Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah, or Peter and Paul in the New Testament.

6. No apocryphal book was confirmed by divine miracles, as was often in the case in both the OT and the NT (see for example 1 Kings 18, and Hebrews 1:4).

7. No apocryphal book contains predictive prophecy, which would help to confirm divine inspiration, as found in so many canonical OT books.

8. While some church fathers used them or viewed them as Scripture (eg., Iraneaus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandra, and Augustine), many did not so readily (Origin, Jerome, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem). And as mentioned, none of the early full church councils favoured them.

9. Also, while some fathers did use the books in preaching and devotions, they usually did not consider them to be fully canonical.

10. From what we now know about the Qumran community and its library of hundreds of books, it seems that they did not regard the Apocrypha as canonical.

In sum, various apocryphal books were given varied degrees of esteem by different figures in the early church, but they usually fell short of canonicity. They certainly contain some historical value, and provide useful information about the intertestamental period.

Thus most important scholarly and critical commentaries by Protestants today will interact with them and offer references to them. But they have never been seen by the entire universal church to be on a par with the divinely inspired 39 books found in the Hebrew canon.

Cautionary closing note

In closing, let me remind my readers of a long-standing practice of mine. Anyone who knows me well and knows my work will realise that I have always said that gung-ho sectarian battles should be taken elsewhere. I have heaps of Catholic friends and colleagues, and I prefer not to let Cath-Prot warfare take place here.

In this piece I simply offer some reasons why Protestants have had issues with the OT Apocrypha. This piece is mostly for those who ask me why this is. I am not forcing anyone to agree with me. And I do not want yet another major war to break out here.

So I don’t need angry Catholics coming here trying to ‘set me straight’. Nor do I need angry Protestants coming here seeking to tell me why we should have nothing to do with Catholics. Those who want to engage in such polemics will find plenty of other places where they can do this to their heart’s content. Thanks for understanding.

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18 Responses to On the Apocryphal Books

  • Thanks for the good run-down. Interestingly, the first editions of the Belgic Confession (a Reformed confession) still included proof-texts from the Apocrypha. Guy de Bres, the author of the BC, also referred to them occasionally in his other writings, most of the time in a positive way. And he wasn’t the only Reformer doing this. Since it raises some questions, I wrote a paper on it: “Guy de Brès and the Apocrypha.” It can be Googled for those interested.

  • Fascinating insight and background – thanks Bill, yet again.

  • Bill, I have always seen and referred to these books as useful for filling historical gaps (such as Maccabees) or as background or such like. However, I have always been reticent to get into any discussions about them. I too have great friends with similar beliefs to Catholic ( Orthodox something). I have seen their works and am continually amazed at their natural everyday approach to supporting those less fortunate and in need. They just do it and say well of course, it is what we should be doing.
    So long as no heretical or apostate application of the more left field material in the apocryphal writings are promulgated in a ‘causing others to stray’ intent, then I will leave it for the Lord to correct them in whatever way He deems right.
    Our primary function is outward not inward.
    Have you ever seen a shield wall with the spears facing towards friendlies?

  • I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but for a while the book of Enoch has been floating around..
    Can anyone give me some insight with regards to this please,,

  • Thanks Kylie. It is another jewish apocryphal book, pushing some dubious things. See one lengthy piece on it here: https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/earth/book-enoch-and-flat-earth/

  • Bill on enoch the late JR Church did a in-depth study of it in his prophecy in the news magazine a while back an 11 part series. worth looking at.

  • What you said with some protestants saying we should have nothing to do with catholics always surprises me. Many of the same people will talk to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Atheists, etc. yet NOT catholics. And the former know NOTHING of Christ and the latter, even these people would have to admit, know at least something about Christ and the faith even if the aren’t “correct” in everything. (I am using quotes because I too don’t want to start a sectarian flame war) Why engage with UNbelievers hoping to have a chance to witness to them but have nothing to do with catholic believers hoping to change their “erroneous” beliefs??? Is the catholic worth LESS to God than the Muslim??? Are catholics greater sinners than Hindus?? More unenlightened than Buddhists?? While yes some of the rituals and things they do I question, I don’t have reason to say they aren’t saved. the ONLY ones I would question the salvation of are the co-redemptrix ones who elevate Mary on par with Christ. And while veneration of Mary SEEMS to be widespread among catholics the ones who hold her as co-redemptrix only appear to be a small minority. As with any christian, even protestants, I would have to ask them what they believe regarding Jesus, sin etc., the fundamentals, to know if the are saved. True we can’t know a person’s heart but by their fruit you shall know them. Through careful questioning you can fairly accurately determine who is and isn’t christian. (on a side note we should be asking these questions of anyone who dies to know what they believed before we pronounce they are “in a better place” or in heaven or with the lord or however we wish to say it. since we wont ever say “I’m sorry but he did not believe in Christ so he is NOT in heaven” to people whose loved ones who were not christian died the belief that everyone goes to heaven or all ‘good’ people go to heaven abounds these days).

    As far a the Apocrypha we need scholars, like the above mentioned J.R. Church, to look at them and see if any parts are inspired and other parts not or if there is anything of value in the writings that while not inspired do not contradict scripture and give valuable insight. (Just like many religious books today offer insight but are not inspired) Some books may have over time been corrupted where the original was acceptable yet after the corruption is no longer good. Or the original was inspired but what we now have is corrupted and needs to be examined to find the uncorrupted portion. Some we can tell are outright falsehoods based on what they say but others need to be examined not simply accepted or rejected outright.

  • Thanks Paul. But I must differ with you here somewhat. Simply put, there is no such thing as a partly inspired book. Either a book is fully inspired by God and is part of our biblical canon, or it is not inspired and is not part of it. As I said in my article, there may well be helpful historical and cultural aspects to non-inspired and non-canonical books that are worth studying and learning from, but we do not equate them with the authoritative and inspired word of God.

    Of course this does not mean that we cannot find real truth in non-Christian writings. Of course we can. If uber-atheist Richard Dawkins for example says that 2+2=4, he is speaking the truth. He is not inspired, but he is speaking truth. In the same way we can find some truth in non-Christian religions, and so on. This is because of God’s common grace. But all that is different from the issue of inspired Scripture.

  • my point on the ‘parts inspired’ was that there might be books that original were inspired but had been corrupted with changes and/or additions and all we have is copies of the corrupted version. Imagine if the only copies of Revelation we had had been corrupted with additions to make it appear that it had been fulfilled in 70 AD??? In that case if you eliminated the corruption, the additions, you would have an inspired book but with the corruptions you can’t call it inspired.

    I think you should look at JR church’s series on Enoch you might see the book differently. It too suffers from additions to change its timing of fulfillment. the 11 part series was in his prophecy in the news magazine and is very worth the read.

  • Thanks Paul but respectfully you continue to be rather confused about the biblical understanding of divine inspiration. The original documents only are inspired, but sadly we do not have those original manuscripts. Thus we only have various copies of those originals, which may well have minor errors, or variants, as they are called. But the job of textual criticism is to get back as close as possible to those inspired original Hebrew and Greek texts. And that has been done very carefully and thoroughly for centuries now.

    The idea that God may have inspired other books, but because of human incompetence or whatever they are now lost to us is simply incorrect. If that were the case we would have no reliable word from God at all. Indeed, this is a favourite tactic of atheists, sceptics and folks like Dan Brown: they speak of the Bible being corrupted because of various agendas, etc. That sort of thinking is well worth avoiding. And to be honest, Church would not be the first guy that I would run with here as any sort of authority on such matters.

    But I have written much more extensively before about the biblical doctrine of inspiration and related matters. See these three articles for starters:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/05/01/scripture-authority-inspiration-culture/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/05/05/scripture-inspiration-dual-authorship/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/28/scripture-inspiration-and-sharing-biblical-truth/

  • I will read those right away. what do you think of JR church??? ever read his book and articles???

  • Thanks again Paul. Looking over his books at amazon, I am not all that impressed to be honest. He seems to be far too much of a gung-ho prophecy devotee while being far too less of a serious biblical scholar. I am sure he might have some helpful things to say in general, but when it comes to important issues such as textual criticism, canonicity, the nature of inspiration, and the like, I prefer more serious scholars and experts, such as those I list in this bibliography:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/15/recommended-reading-on-scripture/

    And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/02/24/the-importance-authority-and-trustworthiness-of-scripture/

  • prophecy can’t be ignored thou. Jesus rebuked the jewish authorities for not knowing the time of his visitation and prophecy is the key to him not being upset with us for not recognizing the time of his return.

    Curious do you have anything about mark 16:9-20??

    or about 1 john 5:7-8??? it fits in her a bit because of this I found “The words were included in ancient Latin versions of the Bible, and in the year 1520, a great scholar named Erasmus produced a new, accurate edition of the Bible in ancient Greek. When people studied Erasmus’ Bible, and compared it to the Latin version, they noticed he left out this passage, and they criticized him for it. When he was criticized, Erasmus said, “You won’t find these words in any ancient Greek manuscript. If you find me one Greek manuscript with these words in them, I’ll include it in my next printing.” Someone “discovered” a manuscript with the words in them, but it wasn’t an ancient manuscript at all. Erasmus knew this, but had already promised to add the words if someone found a manuscript with the words, so he reluctantly added the words in his 1522 edition. However, he also added a footnote, saying he thought that the new Greek manuscript had been written on purpose, just to embarrass him. That manuscript (Codex Montfortii) is on display in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.”

  • Thanks Paul. A few quick points:

    -Where did I say that we should ignore prophecy? Certainly real and inspired prophecy we should not ignore. But there is plenty of stuff that may have a prophetic aspect to it which is not inspired nor part of the biblical canon.

    -As I mentioned, the whole issue of textual criticism, manuscript evidence, canonicity, translation theory and the like is all rather complex, and therefore not easily dealt with in a little comment on a website! But see one article of mine for starters: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/06/15/on-textual-criticism/

    -Also, my brand new article you might find of interest, and may in part help answer some of your concerns: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/08/23/difficult-bible-passages-jude-14-15/

    -As to the various endings of Mark, I discuss that briefly in the article I link to above. Also, any good critical commentary on Mark will give you heaps more information on the various options and so on.

    -The same can be said about 1 John 5:7-8 – the best manuscript evidence does not support it. And most good Bibles will mention that fact in a marginal note. But for more detail, see a piece like this: https://carm.org/KJVO/1-john-5-7-and-kjvo

  • sorry I simply misinterpreted what you were saying it appeared you were upset at his prophecy focus as if it was wrong and I didn’t want it to be ignored. I am glad you feel it is important. I just got the wrong impression from what you said.

    I mentioned 1 John because it shows sometime people do take a inspired book and add to it which can cause people to question the book. sometimes it is from people thinking they are “helping God out” sometimes because they like some verse and want to keep it original or not (I like it so it doesn’t matter if God put it there or not) and sometime to change the meaning of passages or books. careful examination can find passages that don’t belong especially when you see the earliest text without them. I will read those articles tomorrow, I put them on my fire, I have to get off the computer now my head is spinning (medical doctors can sometimes be so useless).

  • Thanks Paul. Prophecy in the Bible has two main senses: the majority of times it means telling forth (offering a word of rebuke or judgment or encouragement, etc), while in the minority of times it refers to forth-telling (predictive messages referring to the future). It was that latter sense which seemed to dominate Church’s books. One can get a bit too carried away with such things.

  • Thanks for that, very interesting. I remember a teacher reading some of these books to us during reading hour when we were maybe 8 or 9 in Primary school. This was a small village protestant (I e run by the state) primary school in Northern Ireland. Caused havoc amongst the Gospel Hall pupils’ parents and consternation by my own – interestingly after I asked them about these they simply just countered with the fact that it was all just based on the Lord of the Rings or Dungeons & Dragons (which I was familiar with) – Mum always came up with great responses to difficult questions!

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