Should the Apocrypha be in the Bible?[1]


By Spencer D Gear

What is the Apocrypha? The Apocrypha (the deutero-canonical books) refers to the extra books in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, that are not in the Hebrew canon of Scripture. Bruce Metzger wrote of the Apocrypha:

‘With the exception of 2 Esdras these books appear in the Greek version of the Old Testament which is known as the Septuagint, but they are not included in the Hebrew Canon of Holy Scripture’ (Metzger 1965:vii).

The books listed in the RSV edition of the Apocrypha (Metzger 1965:iii) are:

  • The First Book of Esdras[2]
  • The Second Book of Esdras[3]
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • The Additions to the Book of Esther
  • The Wisdom of Solomon
  • Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach
  • Baruch
  • The Letter of Jeremiah
  • The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men
  • Susanna
  • Bel and the Dragon
  • The Prayer of Manasseh
  • The First Book of the Maccabees
  • The Second Book of the Maccabees

In all of this discussion about the Apocrypha, it is important to understand why there is some confusion among Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christianity in discussing this topic.
Some of the confusion surrounds two traditions for the Old Testament canon:[4]

  1. The Palestinian Canon contains 22 books in the Hebrew (39 in English);
  2. The Alexandrian Canon contains 14 additional books (or 15).

The Palestinian Canon was the Hebrew canon that arose in Palestine and was acknowledged by the Jews. The Alexandrian Canon is the Greek list of OT books and is supposed to have arisen in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Hebrew OT Scriptures were translated into the Greek Septuagint (LXX) about 250 BC and following years.

It is considered by some that there were really two Old Testament canons.[5] There was the broader one that included the Apocrypha and the other was the more narrow one without the Apocrypha. This two-canon hypothesis is built around the fact that the earliest extant copies of the Greek Septuagint that we have are from about the fourth century AD and they contain some of the apocryphal books. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible has only the 39 books that we now have in the Protestant English Bible.
This latter canon seems to have been the canon of Jesus, Josephus and Jerome. There is no quote from Jesus, to my knowledge, that is from the Apocrypha.

Added confusion: The Apocrypha in and out of the Bible

To add to the confusion, the Geneva Bible of 1560, produced by English Protestants taking refuge in Geneva, contained apocryphal books but there was an introduction that stated that these ‘bokes, which were not receiued by a commune consent to be red and expounded publikely in the Church’[6]. Note the spelling of antiquity!

F. F. Bruce states that this is a repetition and expansion of Jerome’s position that apocryphal books were not for the confirmation of doctrine, unless based on the canonical books, and were for the instruction of godly manners. Some who used the Geneva Bible did not appreciate the Apocrypha, so some copies of the 1599 edition printed on the Continent and in London ‘were bound up without the section containing the Apocrypha’. In 1640, an edition of the Geneva Bible was published in Amsterdam that eliminated the Apocrypha, with an explanation between the Old and New Testaments, giving the reason for its deletion. However, the Prayer of Manasseh was appended to 2 Chronicles. The Bishop’s Bible, published in London in 1568, also contained the Apocrypha, but unlike the Geneva Bible, it had no comment about distinguishing between the canonical books and the Apocrypha (Bruce 1988:107-108).

The English Bible that became the standard English translation was the King James (Authorised) Version, published in 1611, and it contained the Apocrypha. However, in 1615 the Archbishop of Canterbury who was a convinced Calvinist in theology, George Abbot, demanded that all Bibles must contain the Apocrypha. To refuse to include the Apocrypha would earn a year’s imprisonment. Why was this a necessary move? It seemed to be a measure to silence the growing influence of the Puritans who objected to the Apocrypha. In spite of this penalty, copies of the KJV without the Apocrypha started appearing as early as 1626. Since the Puritans were gaining influence, the Long Parliament in England in 1644 gave permission for the Apocrypha to cease to be read in Church of England services (Bruce 1988:108-109).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646 by the Westminster Assembly, consisting mainly of Church of England ministers, contained this statement in the chapter I.3, ‘Of the holy Scripture’,

The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.

When was the Apocrypha written?

A variety of dates has been given. Matt Slick states, ‘The Apocrypha consists of a set of books written between approximately 400 B.C. and the time of Christ.  The word “apocrypha” means “Hidden”‘. R. Laird Harris is of the view that ‘the Apocryphal books were written in Hebrew during the period from 200-50 B.C., and yet they were not revered by the Jews of Palestine, who did revere the others’ (1969:138). F. F. Bruce calls the Apocrypha a ‘really varied assortment of Jewish literature of the period 300 B.C.—A.D. 100…. While none of these books is included in the Hebrew Old Testament, they do (with one exception) form part of the Greek Old Testament’ (1963:164).[7]

As for Josephus, in his Complete Works (1867) in the writing Against Apion (1867:607-638), he defines the Jewish canon as 22 books in Hebrew that correspond to our 39 books in the English Old Testament. He did not include the Apocrypha. This is what he wrote in Against Apion 1.8:

8. For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in number, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws and the records that contain them; whereas there are none at all among the Greeks who would undergo the least harm on that account, no, nor in case all the writings that are among them were to be destroyed; for they take them to be such discourses as are framed agreeably to the inclinations of those that write them; and they have justly the same opinion of the ancient writers, since they see some of the present generation bold enough to write about such affairs, wherein they were not present, nor had concern enough to inform themselves about them from those that knew them; examples of which may be had in this late war of ours, where some persons have written histories, and published them, without having been in the places concerned, or having been near them when the actions were done; but these men put a few things together by hearsay, and insolently abuse the world, and call these writings by the name of Histories.

The canon of Scripture

There are a significant number of reasons for accepting the Palestinian canon of the OT (without the Apocrypha). Here are a few:

  1. Some of the Apocryphal books have teachings that contradict the NT. Two of these teachings that were raised at the time of the Reformation are promoted in the Apocrypha but denied in the NT. The Apocrypha promotes praying for the dead (2 Macc 12:45-46) and salvation by works (Tobit 12:9). The Bible is against praying for the dead. See 2 Sam. 12:19; Luke 16:25; Heb. 9:27. The Bible is strongly opposed to salvation by works (see Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:5; Gal 3:11).[8]
  2. Some of the apocryphal narratives promote non-biblical, fanciful stories. Take a read of Bel and the Dragon, Tobit, and Judith.[9]
  3. Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, who lived from about 20 BC – AD 40, quotes extensively from the OT and even recognised the three-fold classification of the OT books, but not once did he quote from the Apocrypha as containing inspired books.[10]

There has been quite a battle among the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians over whether the 14/15 books of the Apocrypha should be included in the Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church canonised the Apocrypha with the other books of the Bible at the Council of Trent, 1545-1563. The Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox have given the Apocrypha a status between that of the Roman Catholics and the remainder of Protestants.

In the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on Jerome, it states,

“He never either categorically acknowledged or rejected the deuterocanonical books as part of the Canon of Scripture, and he repeatedly made use of them”.

That is not the view of the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Jerome and the Apocrypha (only the introduction to the article is available to me online) which states,

“The Septuagint was an important basis for St. Jerome’s translation of the Old Testament into Latin for the Vulgate Bible; and, although he had doubts about the authenticity of some of the apocryphal works that it contained (he was the first to employ the word apocrypha in the sense of “noncanonical”), he was overruled, and most of them were included in the Vulgate”.

My research indicates that Jerome argued against including the Apocrypha (he coined that term), deuteron-canonical books in the Bible. He denied the inspiration of the Apocrypha. Why? When he studied Hebrew with the Palestinian rabbis, they influenced his rejection of the Apocrypha BECAUSE they were not in the original Hebrew canon of OT Scripture. Yes, there were Jews in other parts of the world who accepted the longer canon with the Apocrypha. However, because of the decree by Pope Damasus and the Synod of Rome in AD 382 that favoured the longer canon, Jerome began to translate the Apocrypha, based on the Greek Septuagint text.

However, Jerome regarded the Apocrypha only “for example of life and instruction in manners” but he did not use the Apocrypha to “apply them to establish any doctrine”. In fact, he argued across the Mediterranean Sea with St. Augustine of Hippo on this very point. To begin with, Jerome refused to translate the Apocrypha for the Latin Vulgate, but he eventually did translate a few. After his death, the apocryphal books were all brought into the Latin Vulgate from the Old Latin Version.

The Roman Catholic Church did not officially admit the Apocrypha into the RCC canon of Scripture until the Council of Trent in 1546. This article from Roman Catholic resources states: “1546: Council of Trent: Apocrypha added to the canon, tradition, states the same authority with the Bible”.

In there is this brief response:

Jerome and the Apocrypha

Question: St Jerome was persuaded, against his original inclination, to include the deuterocanonicals in his Vulgate edition of the Scriptures. What are your comments?

Answer: True, yet he classed the Apocrypha in a separated category. He differentiated between the canonical books and ecclesiastical books, which he did not recognize as authoritative Scripture. This is admitted by the modern Catholic church:

“St. Jerome distinguished between canonical books and ecclesiastical books. The latter he judged were circulated by the Church as good spiritual reading but were not recognized as authoritative Scripture. The situation remained unclear in the ensuing centuries…For example, John of Damascus, Gregory the Great, Walafrid, Nicolas of Lyra and Tostado continued to doubt the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books. According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church at the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent definitively settled the matter of the Old Testament Canon. That this had not been done previously is apparent from the uncertainty that persisted up to the time of Trent” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, The Canon).

The practice of the Church up to the time of the Reformation was to follow the judgment of Jerome who rejected the Old Testament apocrypha on the grounds that these books were never part of the Jewish canon. These were permissible to be read in the churches for the purposes of edification but were never considered authoritative for establishing doctrine. The Protestants did nothing new when they rejected the apocrypha as authoritative Scripture. It was the Roman church that rejected this tradition and ‘canonized’ the ecclesiastical books.

Please read the following explanation from the Roman Catholic Cardinal Cajetan, a contemporary of Martin Luther:

“Here we close our commentaries on the historical books of the Old Testament. For the rest (that is, Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees) are counted by St. Jerome out of the canonical books, and are placed amongst the apocrypha, along with Wisdom and Ecciesiasticus, as is plain from the Protogus Galeatus. Nor be thou disturbed, like a raw scholar, if thou shouldest find anywhere, either in the sacred councils or the sacred doctors, these books reckoned as canonical. For the words as well of councils as of doctors are to be reduced to the correction of Jerome. Now, according to his judgment, in the epistle to the bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, these books (and any other like books in the canon of the Bible) are not canonical, that is, not in the nature of a rule for confirming matters of faith. Yet, they may be called canonical, that is, in the nature of a rule for the edification of the faithful, as being received and authorised in the canon of the Bible for that purpose. By the help of this distinction thou mayest see thy way clearly through that which Augustine says, and what is written in the provincial council of Carthage.” (Cardinal Cajetan, “Commentary on all the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Testament,” cited by William Whitaker in “A Disputation on Holy Scripture,” Cambridge: Parker Society (1849), p. 424)

The apocrypha are useful for edification, but canonical in the sense that they are the rule for confirming matters of faith, no!

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes.

Here are “Some reasons why the Apocrypha does not belong in the Bible“. Here are examples of theological and historical “Errors in the Apocrypha“.

The Apocrypha and Scripture?

Geisler and Nix (1986:274-275) conclude with a responsible summary:

Whereas there is no doubt a devotional and even homiletical and historical value in them [the apocryphal books], yet they are not part of the theological canon to which the other thirty-nine books of the Old Testament belong because:

1. Some of their teaching is unbiblical or heretical.

2. Some of their stories are extra-biblical or fanciful.

3. Much of their teaching is sub-biblical, at times even immoral.

4. Most of the Apocrypha was written in the post-biblical or intertestamental period.[11]

5. Finally, all of the Apocrypha is non-biblical or uncanonical, because it was not received by the people of God.

Works consulted

Bruce, F F 1963. The Books and the Parchments: Some Chapters on the Transmission of the Bible, rev. ed. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company.

Bruce, F F 1988. The Canon of Scripture. Glasgow: Chapter House.

Geisler, N L and Nix, W E 1986. A General Introduction to the Bible (rev & exp). Chicago: Moody Press.

Harris, R L 1969. Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Josephus F 1867. Josephus: Complete Works. Tr by W Whiston. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications.

Metzger, B (ed) 1973. The Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press.

Surburg, R F 1975. Introduction to the Intertestamental Period. St. Louis / London: Concordia Publishing House.


[1] For this brief article, I have gained considerable information from Geisler and Nix (1986). When I attended Summit Pacific College in 1975-1976, this was the text used for a subject on bibliology and I have gained great benefit from it since then.

[2] This was previously known as The Third Book of Esdras (Bruce 1963:163).

[3] This was previously known as The Fourth Book of Esdras (Bruce 1963:163).

[4] Geisler and Nix (1986:264).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Note the early English spelling. Today the quote would be: ‘books, which were not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church’.

[7] Surburg (1975:92) almost quotes F. F. Bruce (1963:164) word-for-word, but without bibliographical acknowledgement, affirming the Apocrypha’s writing over the period, 300 B.C. to A.D. 100. It reads like plagiarism to me as F. F. Bruce’s book was published in 1963 and Surburg’s in 1975.

[8] Geisler and Nix (1986:270).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Geisler and Nix (1986:272).

[11] The intertestamental period is considered to be the time between the close of the Hebrew Old Testament and the beginning of writing of the Christian New Testament.. This is the period from the writing of Malachi (ca. 420 BC) and the early first century AD. It’s a period of about 400 years. Surburg (1975:9).placed the intertestamental period between Malachi and the appearance of John the Baptist, a period of 400 years that some have called the ‘silent centuries’.


Copyright (c) 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 7 October 2015.