In Judeo-Christian tradition theologies, apocrypha refers to religious sacred texts that have questionable authenticity or are otherwise disputed. When most in the Western world refer to the Apocrypha, they are typically referring to the 14 books excluded from Protestant Bibles (see below).
The word apocrypha, from the Greek απόκρυφος, "hidden", refers in general to religious works that are not considered canonical, or part of officially-accepted scripture, but are of very roughly similar style and age as the accepted scriptures.
For those people who consider the apocrypha canonical, they hold that it was written under the influence of the Holy Spirit and are thus divinely inspired; however they are held to be written under a lower and less-direct form of prophecy than the other books of the Bible. For those people who consider the apocryphal totally non-canonical, they view it as the historical and religious writings of the Jewish people during the inter-testamental period.
Most works that are considered apocryphal in the Hebrew Bible were written in languages other than Hebrew, such as Greek or Aramaic, or at least survive only as translations into non-Hebrew languages.
Usage is important. In some contexts the term "apocryphal" has a denotation of heresy, but many other commentators instead use it to mean "non-canonical".
Commenting on the connotation of the word apocrypha, R.M. Wilson wrote:
"The Greek word apocryphos did not always have the disparaging sense which later became attached to it. In Gnostic circles it was used of books the contents of which were too sacred to be divulged to the common herd, and it was in fact the heretical associations which it thus came to possess which led to its use as a term of disparagement. In the Nag Hammadi library, for example, one document bears the title Apocryphon or Secret Book of John, another that of Apocryphon of James, and several Gnostic gospels contain solemn warnings against imparting their contents to any save the deserving, or for the sake of material gain."
—from Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (the "apocryphal" Gospel of Thomas)
Apocrypha of the Bible and Jewish scripture
At least until the Council of Jamnia in AD 92, Jews did not have a single unified canon of scripture. Some ancient Jewish sects (including the Essenes, as evidenced in the Dead Sea scrolls) included as scripture much of what modern Jews consider to be non-canonical. The Council explicitly excluded certain books because they were composed later (mostly between 200 BC and AD 100) than other canonical books and/or had no Hebrew version. Christian writers, on the other hand, made use of many of these writings. Protestant scholars sometimes call these books "intertestamental" because they were written between the accepted books of the Old and New Testaments. These Protestants hold that God imposed a period of silence, with no prophecy or scripture, to prepare for the coming of Jesus.
Previously, during the 3rd through 1st centuries BC in Alexandria, Egypt, the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek, and was published together with several books that were later denied at Jamnia. This translation has become known as the Septuagint. Following Protestant terminology, those books not included in the Tanakh are often termed apocryphal by Jewish authors.
While Jews reject the apocrypha, saying that it does not have religious value in and of itself, at various times some in the Jewish community have drawn from it as a legitimate part of Jewish literary creativity; elements of the apocrypha have even been used as the basis for two important parts of the Jewish liturgy. In the Mahzor (High Holy day prayer book), a medieval Jewish poet used the book of Sirach as the basis for a beautiful poem, Ke'Ohel HaNimtah. This is a closing piyyut in the Seder Avodah section, in the Yom Kippur Musaf.
- "How glorious indeed was the High Priest, when he safely left the Holy of Holies.
- Like the clearest canopy of Heaven was the dazzling countenance of the priest."
Mahzor replaces the medieval piyyut with the relevant section from Ben Sira, which is more direct. The apocrypha has even formed the basis of the most important of all Jewish prayers, the Amidah (the Shemonah Esrah). Sirach provides the vocabulary and framework for many of the Amidah's blessings, which were instituted by the men of the Great Assembly.
The description of the origins of Hanukkah is also to be found in the apocrypha; thus while the texts themselves may not be accepted as canonical, some of their contents are still accepted as historical truth. Particularly 1 Maccabees is cited by Jewish scholars as being highly reliable history. It was used by Josephus in his history of the Maccabean revolt as well.
The books that did not appear in the Tanakh, although in widespread use in the Catholic Church, were rejected by Martin Luther due to some verses that seemed to contradict his views, especially a verse in 2 Maccabees which alludes to purgatory: "it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins". Luther also cited Jerome's preference for the "Veritas Hebraica" ("Hebrew Truth")
Some Protestants, especially Lutherans and Anglicans, and generally those living during and shortly after the Reformation, have viewed these books as useful for religious purposes, although not to be relied upon for doctrine. Other Protestants, especially Calvinists and generally those living in later times, largely ignore them, some even rejecting them as having no value at all. These books, if printed in the Protestant Bible, are generally grouped together after the canonical Old Testament under the heading Apocrypha. Their reception varies from tradition to tradition, for example in the Lutheran areas of Germany until World War II, all Luther Bibles contained the apocrypha. It was only after the war, when some American Bible Societies offered funding to restart Bible printing in Germany on the condition that the Apocrypha be omitted, that they started to be dropped from most editions.
Luther also wrote that the Books of Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John and Jude should be set aside as "deuterocanonical" and doubted the authenticity of the Revelation of St. John — see "Apocrypha of the New Testament" section below.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy
On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches accept some or all of the books rejected by Jamnia and by Luther. They are termed deuterocanonical books ("second canon") in these traditions, not because they are considered somehow less divinely inspired than the others, but because the final determination of their canonical status came much later. (For Roman Catholics, they were cited at the Council of Rome in 382 and confirmed at the Council of Trent.)
For Catholics, the deuterocanonical books are Tobit, Judith, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch, as well as certain additions to Book of Esther and Book of Daniel.
Eastern Orthodox churches sometimes also include 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 3 Ezra and/or 4 Ezra as deuterocanonical books and include Psalm 151 with the Psalms.
Among the Oriental Orthodox, all the deuterocanonical books are accepted, and with the Ethiopian Orthodox there are additional books, such as Jubilees, Enoch, and the Rest of the Words of Baruch . Enoch was accepted as scripture because the Book of Jude in the New Testament quotes it as scripture. However there are conflicting accounts on what is actually included in the Ethiopian canon; see here for details.
Outside the Canon
Books that are in neither the Jewish-Protestant nor Catholic canons are called Apocrypha by Catholics and Jews, and Pseudepigrapha by Protestants. Some of these have apocalyptic themes.
Note that the additions to Psalms, Esther and Daniel are counted by Protestants as additional books, whereas Catholics consider them integral parts of the books. Unlike the additions to Daniel, separation of the additions to Esther from the rest of that book is difficult, since they are tightly integrated into the Greek text, and even the "unchanged" parts contain some smaller changes compared to the Hebrew text. Some bibles that have the (Protestant) Apocrypha in an appendix to the Old Testament thus print a translation of the entire Greek book of Esther in this appendix, instead of only printing the "added" parts.
See also: Books of the Bible, a side-by-side comparison of the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox canons.
Apocrypha of the New Testament
The New Testament apocrypha strictly defined—books accepted neither by Catholic nor Protestant readers—includes several gospels and lives of apostles. Some of these books were clearly produced by Gnostic authors or by members of other groups later defined as heterodox, or outside the body of the Church. Many of these writings were discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, and have produced lively speculation about the state of affairs in Early Christianity.
Though Protestants, Catholics and most Orthodox agree on the canon of the New Testament, the Ethiopian Orthodox are an exception, according to some scholars adding I & II Clement, and Shepherd of Hermas to the New Testament; however others deny this. See the Link given in the section above for details.
Martin Luther considered the Epistle of James as apocryphal, because he highly doubted its Authorship by any of the several New Testament figures named James, and because it contained the line which seemed to contradict his teachings of salvation by faith alone: "Faith without works is dead". He had similar feeling about the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Jude, and the Revelation of John, and relegated those four books to an appendix in his bible. Later Lutherans included these books as full parts in their New Testaments, but kept them in their positions behind all the other books. Because of this the Lutheran New Testament (at least when printed in German) is arranged slightly differently from that of most other churches to this day.
Today the most famous apocryphal book of the New Testament is without doubt the Gospel of Thomas. Most of the codices found in Nag Hammadi, including the only complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, are also considered as apocrypha of the New Testament. See the entry on Gnosticism for a list of other recovered works considered to be of Gnostic origin.
While the teachings of the apocrypha are not considered to have divine inspiration, artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas, for example the names of Dismas and Gestas and data about the Three Wise Men. The first known expressions of the developing concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are to be found, not in the canon, but in the pseudepigraphical Infancy Gospel of James.
An extensive online archive of New Testament Apocrypha is available at www.comparative-religion.com/christianity/apocrypha/ and comprises more than 80 works, including fragments.
See also: New Testament Apocrypha, a listing of books rejected by most Christians.
Latter Day Saints views of the Apocrypha
In Mormonism, adherents of Latter Day Saints denominations, believe that Joseph Smith, Jr., as a prophet, received a revelation from Jesus Christ in answer to a question about the validity of the Apocrypha at Kirtland, Ohio, March 9, 1833, which is now Section 91 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The section reads in part:
- There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; there are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men—Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.
This echoes the sentiment held by most American protestants of his day.
Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("LDS Church"; see also Mormon - the largest Latter Day Saint denomination), typically use an edition of the (Protestant-canon) King James Version (KJV) of the Bible that does not currently include the (Protestant) Apocrypha, it has been used by members and leaders in the past—especially when it was still part of most printed editions of the KJV. In non-English-speaking lands, Latter-day Saints use bibles other than the KJV, some of which include the Apocrypha, and some of which do not. The LDS Church plays a part in the distribution of such Bibles.
Latter Day Saints, and most Mormon sects in the wider sense, believe that more "hidden" or apocryphal texts will come to light prior to the second coming of Jesus.
Specifically Latter-day Saints texts, like the Book of Mormon are sometimes termed "apocryphal" by Catholics and Protestants, but usually the term is reserved for books which are uncontroversially known to have existed in Antiquity; the Book of Mormon fails this standard since no uncontroverted evidence for its existence prior to the 1820s exists.
Non religious use
In every-day conversation, apocryphal typically denotes "questionable (or lacking) authenticity", describing a story nevertheless frequently told and widely believed. In literature, apocrypha refers to works that purport to have been created by somebody other than their real author, usually a famous figure, as in the case of the Ossianic cycle invented by James Macpherson.
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13