Many have wondered whether the books of the Apocrypha should be included as inspired Scripture. Should we treat the Apocrypha as part of the Bible?
Some Bibles, in addition to the generally recognized (canonical) 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament, include a number of books called the Apocrypha. Most translations in English do not include these books, since many churches and scholars do not consider them on the same level as inspired Scripture.
Should the Apocrypha be included as part of the Holy Bible?
To make this determination, let’s begin by defining the Apocrypha. This term means “hidden writings,” implying that they contain special knowledge.
History of the Apocrypha
For the Old Testament, the Apocrypha refers to a collection of books, or portions of books, that were not considered part of the Holy Scriptures by the Jews, but were preserved with the biblical books in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.
The Apocrypha refers to a collection of books, or portions of books, that were not considered part of the Holy Scriptures by the Jews, but were preserved with the biblical books in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.As we will show below, we believe the canonization of the Old Testament was committed to the Jews, so we accept their list of inspired books.
So what is the Apocrypha?
“The books of the Apocrypha form a very varied collection of Jewish literature from the period between about 300 BC and AD 100. The majority of the books were written in Hebrew, but in many cases the original Hebrew has disappeared since the Jews themselves refused to recognize these writings as inspired. Most of the books have survived only through their use in Greek and other versions by the early Christian church” (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 462).
During the Reformation, Martin Luther included the Apocrypha at the end of the Old Testament with the note, “These are books which are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures and yet are useful and good for reading.” The Anglicans wrote that they did not apply the Apocrypha “to establish any doctrine.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith shows the typical teaching of the Reformed churches: “The Books commonly called the Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are not part of the canon of Scripture; and are therefore of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (ibid., p. 461).
Catholics call part of the Apocrypha deuterocanonical books
Partly in response to the Reformation, in the 16th century many of these books and passages were officially added to the Catholic Bible by the Council of Trent.
“Catholics refer to the disputed books as the ‘deuterocanonical’ books, and reserve the term ‘Apocrypha’ for the books Protestants call the ‘Pseudepigrapha’—works of similar character and date to the Apocrypha which were never considered canonical” (ibid., pp. 461-462).
Deuterocanonical refers to these books being accepted, but on a secondary level, by the Catholic Church.
List of apocryphal books (Old Testament)
Different churches and different translations recognize different sets of these writings. The books of the Apocrypha included in the New Revised Standard Version are:
- The additions to the book of Esther
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach
- The Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch chapter 6)
- The additions to the book of Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon)
- 1 and 2 Maccabees
- 1 Esdras (called 2 Esdras in the Slavonic Bible and 3 Esdras in the Appendix to the Latin Vulgate)
- Prayer of Manasseh
- Psalm 151
- 3 Maccabees
- 2 Esdras (called 3 Esdras in the Slavonic and 4 Esdras in the Vulgate Appendix)
- 4 Maccabees
Not all of these are included in Catholic Bibles. “Catholic Bibles do not contain First or Second Esdras or the Prayer of Manasseh; the additions to Esther are included in Esther and the Letter of Jeremiah in Baruch; and the Song of the Three Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon form part of Daniel” (ibid., p. 462). Also, 3 and 4 Maccabees are not included.
All of the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha were conspicuously absent from the references to accepted books recorded by the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (De Vita Contemplativa 25), and by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Contra Apion 1:8).
But most significant is the fact that none of the apocryphal books are quoted in the New Testament, indicating the New Testament writers did not revere them as the inspired Word of God.
Some books of the Apocrypha (such as 1 Maccabees) may be helpful for insight into the history and customs of their times, but they do not belong in the collection of holy writings inspired of God and preserved in our Bibles.
We should also note that while the men God inspired to write the Bible occasionally referenced other sources (Joshua 10:13; 1 Kings 11:41; 1 Chronicles 29:29; 2 Chronicles 12:15; 2 Chronicles 13:22; 2 Chronicles 9:29; 2 Chronicles 20:34; 2 Chronicles 33:19; Colossians 4:16; Jude 1:14), this did not mean that these sources should be included in the Bible itself.
What does the Bible say about the subject? First, let’s notice that the apostle Paul said the “oracles of God” were committed to the Jews (Romans 3:1-2). The Jews preserved the Holy Scriptures, and they were entrusted to keep track of which Hebrew writings were inspired.
Jesus Christ made a comment that supports the traditional Jewish breakdown of the Old Testament Scriptures, speaking of “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). These three sections are also known as the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings. Together they consist of the 39 recognized canonical books included in English Bibles.
New Testament Apocrypha
Apocryphal books aren’t limited to the Old Testament. There are many early Christian writings that some call the New Testament Apocrypha. They are also called extracanonical literature, since they were not part of the “canon,” or official list of books considered part of the inspired Holy Bible.
Some of the books that can be considered the New Testament Apocrypha are:
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Gospel of Peter
- Secret Gospel of Mark
- The Gospel of the Egyptians
- The Gospel of the Hebrews
- The Apocalypse of Peter
- The Secret Book of James
- The Preaching of Peter
- The Gospel of the Ebionites
- The Gospel of the Nazoreans
- The Traditions of Matthias
- The Gospel of Mary
- The Dialogue of the Savior
- The Gospel of the Savior
- The Infancy Gospel of James
- The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
- The Acts of Peter
- The Acts of John
- The Acts of Paul
- The Acts of Andrew
- The Acts of Peter and the Twelve
- The Book of Thomas the Contender
- The Acts of Thomas
Like the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, these do not belong in the New Testament according to most scholars. We agree with their view.
“All things that pertain to life and godliness”
The apostle Peter tells us that “His [God’s] divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
In other words, God made sure that His people would be in possession of all they needed to receive eternal life. This would seem to exclude books that have been contested and omitted from many Bibles through 2,000 years of New Testament history.
God has made clear, as recognized by the process of canonization, which books are inspired Scripture. The apostle Peter hinted at this when he referred to the writings of the apostle Paul being included along with “the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
We believe the recognized canonical books are the books the apostle Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
We also read that “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the LORD endures forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25, emphasis added).
Peter here quotes from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-8) to emphasize that God Himself has made sure His Word survives. There is, therefore, an element of faith in God’s divine preservation of the Scriptures and His provision of the correct canon.
Scripture cannot be broken
Many details of the books of the Apocrypha conflict with the books of the basic King James Bible and similar translations. Those who argue in support of the Apocrypha say these conflicts reveal additional knowledge.
What Christ said in John 10:35 disagrees with that view. In saying, “The Scripture cannot be broken,” Jesus revealed that the books of the true Bible will be in harmony with each other.
For these reasons, we do not view the Apocrypha as inspired Scripture.
For more on how to effectively study the Bible and practice what it teaches read the articles in the section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”