Some Reasons to Accept the Apocrypha as Inspired Scripture

The so-called Apocrypha aren’t a book, or a section in the bible between the Old and New Testaments as in some Protestant bibles, but a number of books and portions (Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach [also called Ecclesiasticus], Baruch, and additions to Daniel and Esther) scattered throughout the Old Testament.  These books are called by Catholics “deuterocanonical” (second canon) books rather than “apocrypha” because they regard them as Scripture which wasn’t recognised as such at first, and whose canonicity was disputed.  The Pentateuch was recognized and accepted as scripture from the beginning, and is therefore known as “protocanonical” i.e. first canon.  Jerome, apparently, was the first to label them as “apocrypha” (hidden), and Martin Luther and all Protestants since the Reformation have called them that because they don’t recognise them as scripture due to their being found in the Alexandrian canon i.e. Septuagint (LXX) and not the Palestine (Masoretic) canon.  However, in the early Church the books that were regarded as apocrypha were the spurious and forged gospels, acts and epistles, written fraudulently by Gnostics under the names of apostles; they never regarded our Apocrypha as heretical or spurious.  The Church today calls these writings “pseudepigrapha”. 

The canonicity of other OT books, such as Esther and Ecclesiastes, was disputed by the Jews until the 4th century AD, so these too can be said to be deuterocanonical.  And in the NT there are also some books classed as deuterocanonical (DC) because they took longer than the protocanonical books (e.g. the Four Gospels) to be recognised.  Specifically, Revelation was recognised in the West but took longer in the East; Hebrews was not accepted by the West initially but was recognised in the East; and James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation took a while to be accepted.  Indeed, many “scholars” even today reject, not only these, but many of Paul’s epistles; but their condemnation does not slumber (Rev 22:19).

The version that the Jews used was the Septuagint (or LXX), a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament); this version was used by Jews all over the world and was regarded as authoritative scripture.  It was also the version primarily used by Jesus and the apostles; and consequently the version that the early Church used for the first four centuries.  The large majority of the NT quotes from the OT come from the LXX.  The LXX is what we know as the Alexandrian canon and is exemplified in the Codices Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus.    It is still the version used by Ethiopian Jews as their Holy Scriptures and by the Orthodox Christian churches as their Old Testament.

In the beginning of the Church there was no New Testament as we know it today, yet Paul tells us the Church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20).  So what did they have as Authority?  The Rule of Faith or Tradition (1 Thess; 2:13; 2 Thess 2:1; 1 Cor 15:3-11) which is the embodiment of apostolic teaching; of which the Apostles’ Creed is an example.  And the books which made it into the NT canon were those which reflected the teaching of the Tradition.  As well as all the NT writings, most of which were recognised as scripture from the beginning, there were other books which were circulating amongst the churches, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, letters of Clement, and several others; but the Holy Spirit guided the Church into recognising and accepting the 27 books we now have in our New Testament. 

The Holy Spirit also guided the Church into accepting not only the 39 books of the Palestinian and Protestant Old Testament but also the deuterocanonical books we call the apocrypha, all contained in the Septuagint.  The book which we today call our bible was first defined formally, in the West, at the Synod of Rome in 382/3, the Council of Hippo in 393, the Third Council of Carthage in 397, and the Sixth Council of Carthage in 419; and it contains the Apocrypha. 

Why aren’t the Apocrypha in Protestant Bibles Today?

While there were voices here and there which doubted or didn’t accept the OT deuterocanonical books, it was the Reformation which was responsible for the widespread rejection of them.  However, the Reformers couldn’t even agree on which books actually constituted the canon of scripture and eventually had to go back to the decisions of the Councils of Hippo and Carthage; thus the New Testament canon was preserved in Protestant bibles but the Reformers rejected the Old Testament deuterocanonicals because they were not accepted by the Palestinian Jews, and called them “apocrypha”, following Jerome’s example. 

The Old Testament Apocrypha in the New Testament

The crucifixion

There are some striking passages in the Apocrypha which can only be described as being inspired by God.  For example there is a passage in “Wisdom of Solomon” (2:12-20) which has a remarkable prophetic fulfilling in Matthew 27:39-43 of Christ’s agony and death on the cross.  It says, in part, “….he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father.  Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.  Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance.  Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for according to what he says, he will be protected” (RSV-CE).

How could any unbiased person deny that this is a prophecy of Jesus on the cross while the Jews were mocking him? 

The Seven Angels

In Tobit 12:15 the angel Raphael announces “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord” (RSV-CE).  It is surely no coincidence that in Revelation 8:2 John says “Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God….” (RSV-CE).   Raphael, in a book regarded by Protestants as not being scripture, and in a passage almost word for word with Revelation, reveals that there are seven angels that stand before the throne of God – it is the only passage in the whole bible, apart from Revelation, that says there are seven such angels.  How would an uninspired writer, centuries before the New Testament, know this?

And again, Raphael says “And so, when you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought a reminder of your prayer before the Holy One….” (Tobit 12:12 RSV-CE).  Compare this with Rev 8:3-4 “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne….” (RSV-CE).  Once again, there is no other passage that I’m aware of which refers to angels offering the prayers of the saints to God outside of Revelation, except for this one in Tobit.  So, if Tobit is not inspired, how can this be?

Whose will she be in heaven?

In Matthew 22:23-33 the Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to confound him with the problem of resurrection for the woman who had seven husbands, each of which died while she still lived.  This story obviously comes from the book of Tobit (3:7-17), in which a godly young virgin had married seven times but each time the new husband was slain by the demon Asmodeus (hence the need to banish Asmodeus before she could marry Tobias).  Although the Sadducees only recognised the Pentateuch as canonical, they would certainly be familiar with the other books; hence their ability to use this account against Jesus.  He replied “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt 22:29); and in doing so, endorsed Tobit as scripture.

Forgive and be forgiven

In yet another passage which has no parallel in the Old Testament, Sirach 28:2 says “Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (RSV-CE).  Could Jesus have had this verse in mind when he said “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25), and thus be endorsing Sirach as Scripture?

Incarnation of God in Christ

In the Latin variant of Baruch 3:36 -38 it says “This is our God, and there shall no other be accounted of in comparison of him.  He found out all the way of knowledge, and gave it to Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved.  Afterwards he was seen upon earth, and conversed with men” (DRB).  Is this not a prophecy of the incarnation of Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14)?

This verse is not in the Greek, only the Latin, which was highly regarded in the early Western Church.  However it is well documented in the Fathers (e.g. Justin Martyr) that the Jews removed several passages of the LXX which prophesied of Jesus.

And there were several variants of the Hebrew text in circulation at the time, just as there were variants of the Septuagint in circulation.  Even today with our Greek New Testament there are variants, as our English versions which are based on them demonstrate.  This would explain why the passage in Baruch is not in all versions today. 

Martyrdom

The writer of Hebrews lists among the heroes of the Faith some people who come from the Apocrypha of the Old Testament.  The verse says “Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might a better resurrection” (Heb 11:35).  The first part of this verse likely refers to a woman who had seven sons, each of whom was tortured and killed by the Greek king to try and make them renounce their faith (2 Macc 7:1-42); the second part to a pious old Jewish man who also was tortured to death after refusing to accept release by eating swine’s flesh (2 Macc 6:18-31). 

Of course, including these references in the epistle to Hebrews doesn’t have to mean the whole book of 2 Maccabees becomes scripture (e.g. Enoch is mentioned in Jude yet the whole of Enoch is not scripture) but it does mean that those who deny the DCs are scripture can’t use the argument that they’re not mentioned in the New Testament.

The Book of Life

The Book of Life is mentioned repeatedly in the NT; e.g. Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 13:8, 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; 22:19.  The only specific reference to the book of life in the OT is found in the Latin variant of Sirach: “All these things are the book of life, and the covenant of the Most High, and the knowledge of truth” (Sir 24:32 DRB).

There are two other references in the OT to a “book of God” which might be interpreted as the book of life, namely, when Moses interceded for Israel: “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin – and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Exodus 32:32); and when the Psalmist prayed “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears in thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Psalm 56:8).

Whether these two passages refer to the book of life or not is disputable, I suppose, but it doesn’t really matter because Sirach specifically calls it “the book of life” and no other OT reference does so.  This title is carried over into the NT and the “book of life” is referred to 7 times!  But this is not surprising because the apostles used the LXX with Apocrypha as their OT bible version – this is an inescapable fact.  And they used the title “book of life” unapologetically, even though, according to Protestants, it comes from a non-canonical source.

Controversial Aspects of the Deuterocanonicals

Prayer for the dead

Protestants reject the Apocrypha as being scripture because there are “unscriptural” doctrines and practices in them.  For example there is a passage in which Judas Maccabeus prays for his soldiers who had been killed in battle against the Greek oppressors (2 Maccabees 12:38-45).  We’re told that he took up a collection from the rest of the soldiers so they could offer a sin offering to God because the fallen soldiers were all found to have idols hidden under their tunics.  And the passage commends him for his faith and piety in doing so because he looked to the resurrection and to the “splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness”.  The passage ends with: “Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:45 RSV-CE).

As Catholic and Orthodox Christians regard the Apocrypha as scripture, they are simply (and faithfully) following Scriptural practice and acknowledging that prayer for departed believers is exemplified in Scripture.  Even if Protestants don’t accept this passage as Scripture they still can’t accuse Catholics of inventing any unbiblical ideas, because this practice was pre-Christian.

And even if the Apocrypha aren’t Scripture, the passage still shows that the OT Jews did pray for their righteous dead because they looked forward to the Resurrection.

Having said this however, there is no other place in either Old or New Testaments of the Protestant canon which specifically refers to some kind of middle place between heaven and hell, unless you believe it is that place where Peter says Jesus went to between his death and resurrection: [Jesus] went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:18-19).  Is this the time Paul wrote about when he said “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph 4:8).  Some believe that at this time Jesus went to the place where the OT saints were awaiting their release from the place which held them until he should come and deliver them and take them to heaven with him.   It is the same place, they say, where Lazarus went when he died (Lk 16:22, 25-26).  But this view presents its own problems.

Or else there are those Christians who don’t believe we go anywhere when we die but that our soul or spirit sleeps within our body in the grave until Jesus returns, and then comes the judgment when “all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn 5:28-29).

Otherwise there is the standard Protestant view that when we die our spirit leaves our body and goes straight to be with Jesus, there to await the resurrection and our new bodies (see Phil 1:23); but again, this view presents its own problems.

For Protestants, the main problem with a middle place where dead souls are held for however long is that it takes away from the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners.  As he died Jesus said “It is finished”, and the curtain in the Holiest Place within the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom, signifying that the sacrificial system, the Old Covenant, and the types of Christ, were fulfilled, and the way to God was open.  Christ, as our substitute, paid for our sins in full.  That human beings must therefore spend time in a place such as Purgatory to effectively work off their sins is unthinkable to Protestants, but the idea has been in the Church from the beginning. 

However the passage in 2 Macc 12:45 doesn’t actually say that the place where the fallen soldiers had gone after they died was a place (such as Purgatory) where they had to somehow work off their sins – this idea developed within the Church as they tried to understand how it all worked.  A complex system emerged wherein the Western Church, through its priests, gained power and wealth as they hijacked this simple yet not-so-clear passage of praying for the dead and used it to their own advantage.  The Eastern churches of Orthodoxy are deliberately less specific in how they speak of such a place/state.

Intercession of the saints

Another doctrine that Protestants regard as unscriptural is that of the intercession of saints i.e. holy people who have died and gone to heaven pray for Christians still living on earth.

Again, Catholics and Orthodox are simply following (their) scripture when they ask a saint in heaven to pray for them.  Their biblical source for this practice is found in 2 Maccabees 15:6-19, in which Judas Maccabeus is rousing his troops before a battle with the Greeks.  During his speech he told them of a vision he’d had, in which Onias, a godly High Priest of the Jews who had earlier been murdered, was praying for the Jews for the coming battle.  During his prayer Jeremiah the prophet (long since dead) also came to pray for the Jews.  Onias told Judas that Jeremiah prayed much for the Jews and Jerusalem.  In the vision, Jeremiah handed Judah a golden sword, a gift to him from God, to strike down the Greek army.

Catholics and Orthodox glean from this passage that not only do departed believers pray for those still on earth, but that Christians on earth can request saints in heaven to pray for them, just as they would request a believer on earth; that there is no difference between them except for their location; that whether we are in heaven or on earth we are still part of the Church; and that asking a saint in heaven to pray is not the same as necromancy, an occult practice forbidden in scripture.

Again, whether one believes in the practice or not, the fact is that it is written in a pre-Christian Jewish writing and is therefore not something that the Catholics have invented.

It should also be observed that the practices of praying for the dead and the intercession of saints are regarded by Protestants as unbiblical only because they’ve removed from scripture the passages that teach them.  It’s easy to prove a thing is unbiblical if you remove all reference to it from the bible!

Conclusion

The Apocrypha were accepted by the apostles and the early Church as inspired Scripture – this is reason enough for the contemporary Church to accept them as inspired Scripture.  They used the Greek version (Septuagint) which included the Apocrypha, and they have been received as scripture ever since, except by the Protestant churches.  It’s not for me to decide whether or not the Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha are scripture – the Church has already done that.  Surely my/our obligation is to accept them.  In the words of St Augustine, “We receive the New and the Old Testament in that number of books which the authority of the Holy Catholic Church determines”

But, at the very least, if we still have a problem with regarding the Apocrypha as canonical, we ought to see 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”.

For further reading see my article on this website: “Defending the Apocrypha”.