Defending the Apocrypha

It is such a shame that the Apocrypha are regarded by Protestants with fear and loathing because they are robbing themselves of personal blessing.  There is so much of value in these books, not only of historical value but of spiritual value as well.  The reader will also be pleasantly surprised to find that these books have more in common with our canonical books than they realise.  I’m often surprised to find that many Protestants will read the Qur’an, the Hindu scriptures, the Buddhist scriptures, Greek and Egyptian mythology, and many other kinds of religious literature and scriptures, and yet they won’t have anything to do with the religious literature of their own religion. 

But this literature is so rich and often a delight to read; in fact, the only things that would offend Protestant theology or sensibilities are found in the 2nd book of Maccabees; they are where prayers are made for the dead, and where a departed saint (Onias) and the departed prophet Jeremiah intercede for Israel.  I will have more to say on these later in this article.

The wisdom books do indeed teach much wisdom; and where our book of Ecclesiastes is thought of by some Christians as negative and even miserable, the Apocrypha book of Ecclesiasticus (as it is known in the Latin) or Wisdom of Sirach (as it is known in the Greek) is very positive and gives much valuable advice on many practical everyday issues.  The book of Wisdom, likewise, has much of value. 

The historical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe what was happening during the so-called 400 Silent Years, that period between the Old and New Testaments.  They set the groundwork for what happens in the New Testament, showing us the origin of the Pharisees, and cryptically identify some of the people referred to in Hebrews chapter 11.  They also describe in great detail the wars between the Greek kingdoms of Egypt and Syria which are referred to in Daniel chapter 11 as the kings of the north and the south.  Indeed, these books provide more information on this period than any other.

The “fictional” books of Tobit and Judith gave great encouragement to the Jews during this brutal period of their history (Maccabean Period).  And Tobit seems to be the book from which the Sadducees drew their illustration to trap Jesus in Luke 20:27-40.  And the book of Tobit is a delight to read.

This is only a fraction of what is in the books of the Apocrypha, and those Christians who are not familiar with them are the poorer for it; and this consequently robs the Church of its heritage.

Objections against the Apocrypha

In order to set tender minds at rest by dealing with the fear and loathing of Protestants towards the Apocrypha, I thought it good to deal with the objections and criticisms made against these precious books.  I’m not trying to prove that the Apocrypha are canonical (although it is only the Protestant churches which wrongly take that position), but simply to remove the hindrances which Protestants are faced with.  The objections to the Apocrypha that I’ve come across are inconsistent and weak and I’m amazed that evangelical scholars and leaders would even use them; although it must be said that these objections are against regarding the Apocrypha as canonical scripture, and I’m not ultimately arguing for that.   

(1) One objection is that Jerome, Athanasius, and some other Church Fathers didn’t include these books in the canon.  But this link (http://matt1618.freeyellow.com/deut.html) gives ample quotes from the writings of those same Fathers showing that they did use them as scripture. 

However, even if Jerome and Athanasius didn’t believe the Apocrypha were scripture, it doesn’t make any difference, because it was the Church which defined which books were in the canon, not Jerome or Athanasius or any other individual.  The canon as we have it today, with the Old Testament including the books of the Apocrypha in their appropriate places therein, and the 27 books of the NT, was defined by the late 4th and early 5th centuries according to Tradition, widespread and general use, and some local church Councils; it was more definitely set at the Council of Florence (Catholic) in 1442 AD and formally finalised at the Council of Trent (Catholic) in 1546 AD. 

During the first few centuries various canons were proposed, and the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals in both Testaments were sometimes included and sometimes not – see “Development of the Canon of Scripture (Including Apocrypha) in the 2nd to 5th Centuries” on this website for these various canons.

 (2) Then there is the argument that the Apocrypha were not quoted in the New Testament.  But this is incorrect because they are quoted or alluded to in the NT.  But this is no argument anyway because if it were a true standard for a writing becoming scripture then the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, should also be excluded because neither are they quoted in the NT; therefore this rule is invalid.

And Ezekiel, as far as I can determine, is not quoted in the NT although the parallels in Revelation are clear.  This is also a positive for the Apocrypha because some of them have parallels or are alluded to in the NT, e.g. Wisdom, Tobit and 1 Maccabees.

Furthermore, if being quoted in the NT is a criterion for inclusion in the canon, then Enoch (Jude 14) and the Assumption of Moses (Jude 9) should be there because Jude quotes from them.

(3) Another objection is that the Apocrypha were not written by prophets.  Who set this criterion?  If this is a true requirement then there are other books which would fail to make the cut, such as Joshua, Judges (mentions prophets but no prophetic writings or “Thus saith the Lord” statements), Ezra, Nehemiah,  Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon; and in the NT, Mark and Luke/Acts, at least, would fail the test. Conversely, Wisdom of Solomon makes a remarkable prophecy about Christ on the cross, and the angel Raphael in Tobit says he is one of the seven angels before God’s throne which we find mentioned in Revelation.

Besides, the Church always recognised, and in the 4th century (as mentioned above) specified, these “apocryphal” books as scripture.  Either the Holy Spirit guided the Church in the formation of the canon or he didn’t.  If he did guide the Church then we have no right to change it; if he didn’t guide the Church, then how do we know which books are canonical and which are not; and anything goes. 

(4) The Palestinian Pharisees, who had earlier accepted the Alexandrian canon (containing the apocrypha/deuterocanonicals) for 2-3 centuries, when they saw the use the Christians were making of them to prove Christ as Messiah, narrowed their canon, insisting that only those books written in Hebrew were scripture.  But this is a wrong criterion for several reasons:

  • It is an arbitrary standard made after the fact; the book of Daniel, for example, has a large section written in Aramaic.
  • Baruch and 1 Maccabees were originally written in Hebrew, and Tobit and Judith were originally written in Aramaic, possibly Hebrew, and therefore should not be exempted from the canon on these grounds.
  • Further to this point, some critics say that the Septuagint (LXX) was not written by Levites or priests, therefore it is invalid as a translation of scripture.  But the Masoretic text on which all bibles in the West since Jerome are based, is a version concocted by rabbis and Pharisees, not Levites; therefore, according to this rule, we shouldn’t be using it.  Besides, we don’t even know who the authors of most of the OT books were; and of those who are specified as the author, we don’t know to which tribe they belonged.  So we wouldn’t be able to accept most of the OT as Scripture, according to this rule.
  •  But more importantly, this criterion is unacceptable because the Jews have absolutely no right to determine anything the Church does (Matt 21:43; 22:7-8); the temple curtain was torn in two as Christ died, symbolising the end of the Jewish system and the Old Covenant; and the Church became the new Israel at Pentecost (1 Tim 3:15, 1 Per 2:9-10).  If Protestants want to reject the Apocrypha because to the Jews “were committed the oracles of God” (but only in the OT era), then they also have to reject the New Testament and Jesus Christ, the Messiah, because these same Pharisaic Jews rejected them too!

 (5) The apocrypha can’t be scripture, say its enemies, because some passages contradict NT doctrines, e.g. that giving alms gains eternal life for the giver.  The passage that offends Protestants comes from the book of Tobit, which reads “To all those who practice righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it.  Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you.  If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have.  So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity.  For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness.  Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High…..do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms (Tobit 5:5-11, 16 NRSV-CE). 

And later, the angel Raphael says “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness…..it is better to give alms than to lay up gold,  For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin.  Those who give alms enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies” (Tob 12:8-10 NRSV-CE).

What is wrong with this passage?  As far as I can see it simply echoes the Law, Psalms and Proverbs, as well as passages from the NT such as Matthew 6:19-21 where we’re exhorted to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, among many.  And Daniel counselled Nebuchadnezzar with some pretty remarkable recommendations – remarkable, that is, if you have a problem with that in Tobit.  “Wherefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable unto thee, and break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity” (Dan 4:27).

And what do we do with Cornelius in the book of Acts?  Just as in Tobit, an angel visits a righteous man, Cornelius.  We’re told “There was a man in Caesarea called Cornelius…..A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.  He saw in a vision….an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him…. “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up as a memorial before God (Acts 10:1-4).  Consequently God sent Peter with the gospel to Cornelius and his household and they were saved – and almsgiving played a significant role in this!  And wasn’t Cornelius simply doing what Tobit counselled his son, Tobias, to do?  If Tobit was wrong, why did God bless Cornelius who did the same?  Shouldn’t we toss out Acts because it suggests almsgiving delivers from death?

The New Testament claims repeatedly that we are judged by our works (e.g. Rom 2:6; Rev 20:12), and James says faith without works is dead.  In Matthew 25 the goats will be rejected by Jesus on the Day of Judgment because they didn’t do works of charity, while the sheep will be received because they did do those works of charity.  There is no mention whatsoever of faith in this passage – did Jesus get it wrong?  If this passage was in the Apocrypha it would be rejected by us all-knowing Protestants.

And concerning almsgiving, is this not simply caring for the vulnerable, a concept dear to God’s heart, as we see in James 1:26-27, where it is called “pure religion and undefiled”?  And James, Peter, and John, required of Paul “that we should remember the poor” (Gal 2:9-10). 

 (6) Some extreme Protestant fundamentalist opponents of the LXX go so far as to say that the LXX is a post-Christian forgery by Origen; and that the OT quotes in the NT are also Origen’s. The fact is Origen was aware that the integrity of the text of the LXX was in danger because of the many poor copies in circulation, so he preserved it in his Hexapla. 

They also say there are no copies of the LXX before the NT era.  To this I say that there is evidence for several Hebrew and several other LXX’s in circulation before the NT era despite there being no extant complete copies today.  And the Ethiopian Jews have always used the LXX.  Jerome is known to have had access to Hebrew texts to which we no longer have access.  And, incidentally, it was Jerome who testifies to having seen a copy of the Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew in the library at Alexandria – the Church was aware that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, but we no longer have it today.

And Jesus, the apostles, and the whole Jewish nation celebrated the Feast of Hanukkah, the origin and scriptural reference of which is found only in 1 Maccabees 4:36-59.

Unfortunately many ancient texts have disappeared because of deterioration or destruction e.g. the library at Alexandria, with the wealth of the knowledge of the ancient world within its walls, burnt down and everything in it was destroyed.  Persecutions also account for the loss of many NT and OT texts as the emperor Diocletian set out to destroy every copy of scripture in the empire.  So it is no wonder that we do not have many ancient texts available to us now; the wonder is that we have any.  The Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the existence of the LXX in the scrolls found in the cave at Qumran, and they pre-date Origen by centuries, and the Masoretic text by over 1000 years!

(7) Another objection is that some, at least, of the books of the Apocrypha are historically inaccurate and therefore they can’t be inerrant scripture.  But what is wrong with Fiction as a genre in the bible?  Did not Jesus use fiction in the form of parables when teaching?  In fact, the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus is still a disputed topic among some Christians as they argue over whether it is biographical and factual, or simply a story to make a point i.e. fiction, picture, allegory.  And Lazarus went to the “bosom of Abraham” for comfort and rest, when the NT tells us that when we die we go to be with the Lord (Phil 1:23). 

Even Paul the Apostle made a statement which, if one wanted to be pedantic, could be challenged.  In Titus 1:12-13 he writes “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’.  This testimony is true”.  I doubt that every individual Cretan was like that, but Paul made his point and we get it. 

So what is wrong with books such as Tobit or Judith having historical inaccuracies or folklore when they’ve been such a blessing to Christians since the Church began?  “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom 15:4); Judith was written to give the Jews hope in spite of the threat of the overwhelming forces of the Greeks.  The point of Tobit was similarly to encourage the Jews during this same period, assuring them that God rewards faithfulness in his people.  Susanna (an extra part of Daniel not found in the Palestinian canon), is an example of faithfulness and sexual purity; and in Bel and the Dragon, Daniel exposes the deceptions of idolatry and demonstrates that our God is the living and true God.   And the Church, a thousand years before Protestantism was even an inkling in somebody’s thoughts, being guided by the Holy Spirit, saw fit to include these books into the canon.

Bizarre?  Some may think so, especially those who are not familiar with these books.  But wouldn’t you say that some of the demands God made of his OT prophets are equally bizarre?  For example, Ezekiel was told to lie on his left side for 390 days; and when these days were completed he was told to lie on his right side for 40 days.  And during this time he was given a strict diet and told to bake the barley cakes on human dung (Ezek 4:1-17).  Is this not bizarre?  And it is just one example of strange things in the bible which, if they were in the Apocrypha, would be criticised and ridiculed by Protestants.  But it’s in the bible that Protestants use, so we explain it and preach it without question.

(8)  Critics of the Apocrypha claim that in the book of 2 Maccabees, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV “Epiphanes”, was killed twice; once in chapter 1 and again in chapter 9.  The account in chapter 1 says he was lured into a temple in Persia when he invaded that country, and he and some of his men were killed inside it.  The account in chapter 9 says that he died of a disease and, recognising his sinfulness before God, attempted reconciliation with the Jews.  Antiochus, referring to his return from Persia, said: “On my way back from the region of Persia I suffered an annoying illness…..” (2 Macc 9:21 RSV-CE).  Here we have Antiochus’ own account of the circumstances leading to his death, and he was obviously concerned about it enough to nominate his son, Antiochus Eupator, as his successor.  The account in 1 Macc 6:1-16 coincides more closely with the account in 2 Macc 9.  The notes in the New American Bible Revised Edition (a Catholic bible) shed some light on the issue:

  • “[1:11-12] The king: Antiochus IV of Syria, the bitter persecutor of the Jews, who, as leader of the Syrian army that invaded Persia, perished there in 164 BC”
  • “[1:14-17] Differing accounts of the death of Antiochus IV are found in 2 Mc9:1-29 and in 1 Mc 6:1-16 (see also Dan 11:40-45).  The writer of this letter had probably heard a distorted rumour of the king’s death.  This and other indications suggest that the letter was written very soon after Antiochus IV died, perhaps in 164 BC”

So does this discrepancy preclude 2 Maccabees from being scripture?  No, because it was accepted into the canon of Christian scripture, along with 1 Maccabees,  in the 4th century AD after having been used as such by the Church from the beginning, while the books of 3 and 4 Maccabees were rejected, at least by the Western Church.  This book is one of those termed “deuterocanonical” because its universal acceptance took longer than the protocanonical books such as the Pentateuch.  But the Holy Spirit guided the Church into accepting it as scripture, in spite of its discrepancies. And it’s clear that the author didn’t set out to deceive when he wrote the history, unlike the forged gospels and epistles of the Gnostics during the period of the early Church.

A similar example of this kind of discrepancy can be found in the New Testament, where Judas Iscariot also dies twice.  In his gospel Matthew tells us that Judas “went and hanged himself”.  With the 30 pieces of silver that he obtained to betray Jesus, the chief priests “took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in” (Matt 27:5, 7).

However in Acts, Luke tells us that it was Judas who bought the field, and that he died in it.  “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18-20).  And they can’t be fused together in order to harmonise them as one.

So which account is the right one?  They can’t both be.  But we still accept the books of Matthew and Acts as scripture in spite of this discrepancy because the Holy Spirit guided the Church into accepting them as such.

And when it comes to discrepancies in scripture, Luke has yet another, and very serious.  In his gospel he tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven on the day of his resurrection (Luke 24:1, 13, 29, 51).  Yet in Acts he tells us that Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3, 9).  Should we therefore reject the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles because of these discrepancies?  I don’t think so!  So should we not therefore make the same concessions for the book of 2 Maccabees? 

Again, on the first day of the resurrection of Jesus, Matthew and John contradict each other.  Matthew has “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary”, in obedience to the angel’s instruction, running to the disciples to tell them the tomb was empty.  On the way Jesus met and greeted them.  “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him” (Matt 28:9).  However, John’s account contradicts Matthew.  John has Mary Magdalene at the tomb, alone.  After Peter and John had departed, she is standing outside the tomb, weeping, and peering into the empty tomb.  After a brief discussion with two angels, she turned around and saw Jesus standing behind her.  When he said her name, she recognised him.  Jesus said to her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (Jn 20:1-18).

There are several discrepancies between these two passages and, it would seem, they can’t both be true because they are totally different to each, contradicting one another.  So which version is true?  But Protestant scholars are able to explain them and we accept their explanations and make allowances because we believe they are scripture; therefore we must also accept the explanations for the “discrepancies” in 2 Maccabees and make the same kind of allowances.

Yet again, did Jesus depart this earth from Galilee (Matt 28:16-20); or from Bethany (Luke 24:50-53)?  Galilee is about 80 miles from Bethany, which is about 11 miles from Jerusalem.

So if 2 Maccabees is rejected as scripture because of the discrepancies and different accounts of Antiochus’ death, then Matthew, Luke, John and Acts should be rejected on the same grounds.  But we should not reject any of these books because the Holy Spirit guided the Church to include them in the canon.  So we just have to accept them, discrepancies and all, and trust that God didn’t make a mistake, and that he has preserved his Word as he promised (Ps 12:6-7 KJV).

(9)  Then there is the accusation of the practice of magic.  In Tobit 8:2-3, a demon is banished by the smoke from the heart and liver of a fish after they have been placed on burning incense; this was in accordance with instructions from the angel Raphael.  However as I showed above, God does do some things which we don’t understand and we think of them as strange.  Why he chose to banish the demon in this manner I don’t know, but if it’s from God then it isn’t magic. 

Another example is Tobit 11:7-8 where Raphael tells Tobias to rub his father’s (Tobit) eyes with the gall of a fish in order to remove his blindness.

When Jesus healed a blind man, “he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam” (Jn 9:6).  Why did Jesus do that?  Wasn’t this also magic?  He could much more easily have touched the man’s eyes or just healed with a word; besides, putting spittle and mud on a man’s face is so unhygienic!  Yuk!  Is this very much different in nature to what Tobias did with the fish?

Or what about the paralysed man at the Pool of Bethzatha/Bethesda?  Many sick people lay there in the hope of being cured – all they had to do was step into the water as soon as it stirred.  Problem was, only the first person in the water would be healed.  The Authorised Version and New King James Version use the Textus Receptus Greek text and this text tells us that an angel came and stirred the water.  I’m sure that if this narrative was in one of the books of the Apocrypha, Protestants would label it as superstitious paganism or magic or similar, and would reject the whole book on that account.

 (10)  Finally, some Protestants say that the apocrypha aren’t scripture because they “feel different” when they read them.  But what kind of argument is that?  What have our feelings got to do with determining whether or not a text is scripture?  I must admit, whenever I read Philemon I wonder why it is in the bible; but the judgment is not mine to make, it belongs to the Church – and the Church has recognised that Philemon is inspired scripture, so who amI to question?  There are other books in the Apocrypha that I love to read for various reasons.  Sirach is excellent and has so much practical wisdom; if it comes to feeling whether a book is scripture or not, I have to say that Sirach certainly “feels” like scripture.  I also love 2 Maccabees – it has some very exciting passages showing supernatural deliverance e.g. 3:22-28; and the courage and perseverance of the martyrs in 6:18-7:42 are so inspiring and encouraging.  Conversely when I read parts of Zechariah or some of the Minor Prophets, for example, I can make neither head nor tail of what I’m reading, and I don’t get the same “feeling”.  And what am I supposed to do with Revelation?  But thank God – he has shown the Church which books are to be included in the canon, and whether we feel they are inspired or not is totally irrelevant.

In Conclusion

If we were to apply the same principles to the NT as we do to the Apocrypha as tests of canonicity, we’d have to remove Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation because they were disputed at first; we’d have to remove Matthew, Luke, John and Acts because there are discrepancies between them; the synoptic gospels because they contain fictional accounts (parables); and all four gospels because their accounts surrounding the choosing of the apostles, the death and resurrection of Christ, and numerous other examples, don’t match and even seem to contradict each other.  That’s twelve books in the New Testament that shouldn’t be there if the criteria placed on the Apocrypha were applied to the NT!  And the majority of people who dismiss these books (apocrypha) haven’t even read them!

These are some of my reasons why I think that Protestants should re-think their view of the Apocrypha.  The Reformation churches did not regard the Apocrypha as canonical scripture, but they did, in general, value them and placed them within the covers of the various editions of the bible, including the Authorized Version, although they placed them as a unit either between the Old and New Testaments or after the New Testament.  And they encouraged their members to regard them as edifying and profitable to read. 

As Article VI of the Church of England Prayer Book says “….the Church doth read (the books of the Apocrypha) for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet it doth not apply them to establish any doctrine”.