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Readers will find the term "Apocrypha" used in my Early Leaf Catalog to describe Old Testament books with which they may be unfamiliar, so I add this discussion of the subject. The Greek word Apocrypha (the word is plural, the singular form being Apocryphon) means "hidden", and is today applied to the following Books of the Old Testament : Esdras I and II, Tobit, Judith, Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Baruch, Susannah, the Song of the Three Children, the Prayer of Manasseh, and Maccabees I and II.

These books formed an integral part of the 1611 First Edition King James Bible, as indeed they had in all previous Bibles. They began to fall from favor in part due to Puritan opposition, being first omitted from a 1600 Geneva translation and then by 1629 being excluded from some printings of the King James version itself. Stylistically, they bear a general resemblance to analogous works in the Hebrew Testament, and were for the most part written in Hebrew or Aramaic. These books were not present in the Hebrew text of Scripture but they were included by the translators of the Greek Septuagint (done in the 3rd to 1st centuries B.C.). The Bible of the early Christian church was not based on the original Hebrew version but upon the Greek Septuagint translation, which was employed by St, Jerome in his Latin "Vulgate" translation, which was first published around A.D. 405 and soon became the authoritive Biblical text approved for use throughout Christendom

Jerome himself however spoke of the disputed books found in the Greek but not in the Hebrew text as Apocrypha, though he was the only early writer to do so. On Jerome's authority the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 omitted the Apocrypha, while Coverdale's "Great Bible" of 1539 did include these books, but for the first time as a separate section of the Old Testament rather than as they had been placed in earlier editions, where they seemed logically or chronologically to belong among the Hebrew books. It was Martin Luther who first so organized these books, in his German Bible of 1534. As part of the Protestant Reformation the decisive step of denying the Divine inspiration of these traditional books of the Bible was taken, breaking with over a thousand years of Christian belief.

It must also be noted, sadly, that the religious fervor that characterized the Protestant Reformation was accompanied by a dramatic rise in mainstream anti-Semitism across Europe. This was particularly true in Germany, where Martin Luther's repellant hate tract Von den Juden und jren Lugen (About the Jews and Their Lies) (Wittenberg, 1543) was widely circulated, and indeed would be enthusisatically reprinted by Hitler's government in Nazi Germany. Accordingly, several traditional Biblical books of indisputable historical value and authenticity, such as Maccabees, were dismissed as "too Jewish" for a general Christian audience.

Today, Protestants accept only those books found in the Greek translation as the authentic "Old Testament", while the Catholic Church affirmed at the Council of Trent in 1546 that these books were and remain to this day Canonical. Thus the term "Apocrypha" is generally of Catholic usage, while Protestants refer to these Biblical books as "pseudepigrapha". The Apocrypha continued to be part of printed Bibles until about 1827, when both the British and American Bible Societies took a definitive stand against their continued publication. And so they have faded from the collective memory of modern Christians.

In the Preface to The Apocrypha, An American Translation (1938), it is stated: "Great values reside in the Apocrypha...this appendix to the Old Testament is important as forming a very necessary link between the Old Testament and the New; if we had no Old Testament at all, the Apocrypha would still be indispensable to the student of the New Testament, of which it forms the prelude and background...The strong contrast they [The Apocrypha] present in sheer moral values to the New Testament is most instructive. And they form an indispensable part of the historic Christian Bible, as it was known in the ancient Greek and Latin churches, in the Reformation and the Renaissance, and in all authorized English Bibles, Catholic and Protestant."


The word "Apocrypha" comes from the Greek apocryphos, "hidden," which is the equivalent of a Hebrew term derived from a root meaning "to store up" (ganaz); it means also "to store up in secret," and in the technical sense, used in reference to books, it meant "to with.draw from use." But the books in reference to which this term was used by the Jewish religious leaders were such as contained heretical teaching; they never used it in reference to the books of the Bible or of our Apocrypha; when they applied the word to any of these it was not to the book as such, but to the particular copy of it, because it happened to be worn by use, or damaged in some way, and therefore was unfit to be used in public service. The Greek word apocryphos was originally used of books the contents of which were kept hidden, or secret, because they embodied the special teaching of religious or philosophical sects; it was only the members of these sects who were initiated into the secrets of this teaching. So that both these terms were used in reference to books, which, for different reasons, were withheld, from public use. Origen (he died in A.D. 254) was the first to apply the word "apocryphal" to books used by the Church; he says that he borrowed his terminology from the Jews, and his use of apocryphos entirely corresponds with the Jewish use of ganaz. Both used these terms, respectively, not to the books of the Bible nor to those of the Apocrypha, but to what we call Pseudepigrapha, i.e., largely apocalyptic books, but also many others. It was not until the time of Jerome (he died in A.D. 420) that the word "apocryphal" was used in a new sense; he was the first to apply it to the books of our Apocrypha. The term was an unfortunate one to use in reference to these books, and it did not at first command general approval. But by degrees, owing to his great authority on the subject of sacred literature, Jerome's nomenclature was adopted in the Western Church; and this has continued ever since. Thus it has happened that we call the sacred books of the second rank the "Apocrypha," though there is not, nor ever has been, anything "hidden" about them or their teaching.

True Pseudepigrapha

Pseudepigrapha, literally, "writings of falsely ascribed authorship," is appropriate enough as a designation for Enoch, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Letter of Aristeas, and the like, but it is equally appropriate for a number of writings in the Apocrypha: Jeremiah, Baruch, Manasseh, and Solomon cannot have written the works ascribed to them. In the books labeled Pseudepigrapha we recognize that the false ascriptions are not a deception but a literary device to enhance the dignity of an imaginative work. But the books of the Apocrypha (with the exception of Maccabees) are similarly imaginative works, artistically superior, indeed, and therefore following accepted literary forms more faithfully. Hellenistic literature gave a respected place, for example, to historical romance calculated to foster political or religious loyalty; audiences were not deceived because they knew what kinds of truth the romance was intended to communicate. If, by reason of its association with Old Testament history, we read Judith or Tobit as a chronicle of actual events, we must either resort to most implausible interpretation or dismiss the chronicler as an ignorant bungler; but if we realize that such books were intended as edifying romances for the purpose of inculcating and strengthening loyalties under trying conditions, we can appreciate them as honest and effective pieces of literary art.

Between Canon and Pseudepigrapha

In the total body of Jewish religious writing surviving from the last centuries B.C., then, the Apocrypha occupies a place below the later books of the Old Testament and above the Pseudepigrapha. There is enough common ground between them to give the three groups a certain unity, not only in date and place but even in religious outlook and literary merit, but there are perceptible gradations. Enoch, the most influential of the group, and similar apocalypses, may have been too vivid in their eschatology and too chaotic in form to be acceptable. Jubilees and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs may have dealt with the patriarchs too imaginatively. IV Maccabees, which is the most elegant book of the group and most attractive to the modern reader, may have been excluded by reason of its late date or possibly Antiochene provenience. These books would all be anomalous if they were included in the Bible.

But this is not true of the books of the Apocrypha, and it is difficult to see why some of them were not in fact included. Those who argued for their retention in the canon could maintain that the Wisdom of Solomon and Baruch are at least as useful for religious instructions Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, that if Esther is worthy of inclusion so is Judith also, that the Books of Maccabees are as deserving as Chronicles and Ecclesiasticus as Proverbs. If Wisdom was not actually written by Solomon, neither were Ecclesiastes or the Song, which make the same claim. The Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus, it is true, admit to dates in the second century B.C., and this may have been sufficient reason for excluding them; but modern scholars are quite certain that Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon and Daniel and Esther are as late or later. The history of the establishment of the Old Testament canon, which is to say, the decision on whether or not a given book was inspired, is full of uncertainties. About the inclusion of the first two divisions, the Law of the Prophets, there could be no question. The third category, called Writings, is not so firmly defined, for the Jews attributed a lower authority to it; the rationale for accepting or rejecting books for this category is not always clear. All that can be said is that a modern panel of religious teachers might well question the inclusion of certain books now found in the Hebrew Bible and advocate the inclusion of others found only in the Greek Bible.

Theme and Variety

Like the Old Testament itself the Apocrypha is rather a library than a single book. As in the older library so in the later the unifying theme is the relations between God and Israel. The actual working out of the theme in politics and war is described in the historical books of Esdras and Maccabees. Instruction and encouragement in the proper attitude to the relationship is provided in the Wisdom of Solomon and in the additions and annexes to Esther, Daniel, and Jeremiah. Edifying examples of the proper relationship are offered in Judith and Tobit, and Ecclesiasticus shows how awareness of the relationship can ensure a reasonable practical life.

Except for Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus, where the actual historical situation is plainly indicated, the materials are retrojected to a fictive date in the remote past, as are some books in the Old Testament also. Wisdom is ascribed to Solomon, but its author has plainly learned from, and polemicizes against, current philosophic doctrine. The annexes to Jeremiah are naturally placed in Jeremiah's own time. Tobit, Judith, and the additions to Esther and Daniel are referred to the period of the Babylonian exile or earlier; actually the books of Daniel and Esther were themselves written not earlier than about 164 B. C. There is evidently purposeful conformity to the literary forms and doctrines of the Old Testament, but the characteristics of a later age are apparent nevertheless. Judith shows the influence of Hellenistic romance as plainly as Maccabees shows the influence of Hellenistic historiography. Wisdom is influenced by the form of the Cynic-Stoic diatribe, which may itself have been an eastern invention. Moreover Wisdom is the first Jewish (not Greek) writing to promise not merely national survival but a personal immortality. The phraseology of Wisdom, incidentally, shows striking parallels with that of the New Testament. This need not imply direct influence, but it indicates a common climate of theological discourse.

The Essential Link

But interesting as the connections of the Apocrypha with its Old Testament antecedents may be, its connections with the New Testament are more instructive. Between the 0ld Testament conceived of as a totality and the New Testament there is as wide a gap as that which separates Homer from the literature of Rome. Both later literature presuppose the earlier to the degree that they are completely intelligible only in the light of the earlier; but just as the literature of Alexandria supplies the essential link between the classical literatures, so the Apocrypha does for the Testaments. Scholarly commentaries on individual books of the New Testament as of the Apocrypha point to specific echoes of phrases and images and ideas from books of the Apocrypha in books of the New Testament; what is more illuminating is that the Apocrypha reflects the social and intellectual climate, the religious premises and the literary forms, of the area and the culture out of which the New Testament grew.

The Individual Books

In the sense that they derive from a single culture and a single conjuncture of history the books of the Apocrypha have a certain homogeneity, greater, it may be, than the homogeneity of the Old Testament, and for the reader of a translation this homogeneity is enhanced, as in the case of canonical books, by the circumstance that all are translated by a single hand or in a uniform style. But the character of the group can better be apprehended by considering the books severally, and an inventory may incidentally be serviceable to readers who may not wish to start at the beginning and read through to the end. The order, which is that in which the books are regularly printed, has no relation to genre and but little to date, except that the books associated with Ezra are put first and those on the Maccabees last

A. I Esdras is an uninspired chronicle of the exile to Babylonia and the return to Jerusalem, largely identical with the narrative in Ezra and Nehemiah. The most attractive section is the story of the three young guardsmen (3. 1 5.6) for which there is no extant analogue. The date may be late third century B.C.

B. II Esdras is an apocalypse. Its mature reflections on the continuing problems of human life and God's justice make it an important document in the history of religious thought. It was written after the death of Nero (A.D. 68); chapters 1, 2, 15, and 16 are Christian additions, and it may be that other parts are influenced by Christian teaching.

C. Tobit combines pre-existing novella motifs into an edifying romance. Characterization and plot construction are effective, and the piety genuine and moving. The emergence of individuality and of personal religion and the fusion of elements from disparate sources are characteristic phenomena of the Hellenistic age. The date of Tobit is probably early second century B.C.

D. Judith, of similar date, is another romance based on identifiable Hellenistic patterns. The story of the virtuous heroine who saved her people by decapitating the enemy general whose lust she had aroused is probably the most familiar in the Apocrypha.

E. The Additions to the Book of Esther comprise six separate fragments inserted at appropriate junctures in the canonical book of Esther. The passages may have been added to correct the secular tone of that book, or, less probably, they may represent a fuller early recension of the story. A likely date is the early first century B.C.

F. The Wisdom of Solomon, perhaps of the same date, is important for the development of theology. It is the first Jewish book specifically to promise individual retribution after death. It is also a good example of the fusion of Greek and Hebrew ideas. The book is a composite, with the break at chapter 11. The first part is probably a translation from Hebrew, and the second a Greek continuation by the translator of the first.

G. Ecclesiasticus, otherwise called The Wisdom of Jesus (Jeshua) the Son of Sirach, is the longest and most attractive book in the Apocrypha. The author is concerned for religious truth but his emphasis is on worldly wisdom that comes from experience. Ecclesiasticus was written about 180 B.C.

H. The Book of Baruch is the closest approach in the Apocrypha to the style and spirit of Old Testament prophecy. The themes are confession of sin, encouragement to pursue Wisdom, and comfort for affliction. Echoes of Daniel indicate a date later than 164 B.C. The appended Letter of Jeremiah, which can hardly be earlier than the first century B.C., is mainly an admonition against idolatry.

I. The Additions to Daniel comprise three separate pieces whose date must be later than 164 B.C.:
      1. The story ofSusanna, who rejected the solicitations of two lustful elders who surprised her at her bath, was accused by them of adultery, and vindicated by the youthful Daniel, as she was being led to execution.
      2. The Song of the Three Children, which comprises a long prayer of Azariah (the Hebrew name of Abednego), and a formal hymn purportedly recited by the three prospective martyrs in the fiery furnace.
      3. The story of Bel and the Dragon, which ridicules the worship first of Bel and then of a sacred serpent. The King James Bible's extensive use of the term "dragon" is held in some quarters as evidence of familiarity with dinosaurs, as dragons were imagined in the European Middle Ages as huge, ferocious reptiles. In fact the Hebrew word thus translated, tannin (plural tannim or tannoth) simply means "snake." It is also translated in the KJV as "sea-serpent", "whale", "monster", and even "jackal."

J. The Prayer of Manasseh purports to be the prayer which Manasseh is reported (in II Chronicles 33.18) to have recited while he was captive in Babylonia.

K. I Maccabees is a concise and competent account probably by an eyewitness and a devoted partisan of the Maccabees, of the course of-events during the years 167-134 B.C. The book was written in Hebrew but exhibits the characteristics of Hellenistic historiography.

L. II Maccabees is not a continuation but a parallel account, covering the years 175-160. Its author describes it as an abridgment of a five-book work by Jason of Cyrene. It too rests ultimately on eyewitness accounts, but it is more emotional, more rhetorical, and more avowedly propagandistic than I Maccabees.

Apocrypha in Literature and Art

Tobit, Judith, Susanna, Maccabees evoke memories even for readers who have never encountered the books in which their stories are told. The limbo into which these have been relegated has estranged ordinary readers, but poets and painters and composers of earlier centuries could assume that their audiences were familiar with the Apocrypha. For artists Judith has understandably been the great favorite. Her story has been painted by Baldassare, Botticelli, Cranach, Giorgione, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Veronese, and a dozen other masters. Pictures suggested by the story of Susanna are almost as numerous, and there are a good number drawn from Tobit. Of the numerous echoes of the Apocrypha in literature perhaps the most interesting is the tenth century English (West Saxon) epic on Judith. The Monk's Tale in Chaucer tells the story in brief. And Shakespeare could count on his audience catching the allusion to the Susanna story when he has Shylock speak of Portia as "A Daniel come to judgment." In music, aside from frequent allusions in hymnody, mention ought be made of Handel's stately oratorios on Susanna and on Judas Maccabaeus.

Translations and Introductions

Even after the Reformation excluded the Apocrypha from the canon, it continued to be recommended as "useful for instruction" and selections were read in public worship. But as early as the time of Elizabeth, Puritans objected to the public reading of these "inferior" writings, and complaints became more vocal during the eighteenth century. But the ordinary editions of the English Bible included the Apocrypha. The British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804, included the Apocrypha in the English and foreign language Bibles it subventioned, but the practice was vigorously protested, especially by the Edinburgh branch of the Society. The protesters had their way, and in 1826 a rule was formally adopted: "The Principles of the Society exclude the circulation of those Books, or parts of Books, which are usually termed Apocryphal." The action of the London society confirmed the American Bible Society (founded at New York in 1816) in its own practice, and commercial publishers naturally followed the same practice.

In consequence general familiarity with the books of the Apocrypha declined, though they were included in small editions of the Authorized Version issued by the Oxford and Cambridge presses and also in separate printings. But in their work on the Apocrypha the King James translators were careless and perfunctory, so that it is inferior to the rest of their work in both accuracy and style. To remedy these defects and to make the Apocrypha more generally accessible Professor Edgar J. Goodspeed published his "American translation" in 1938. More recently (1957) a Revised Standard Version Apocrypha has been prepared by a committee of American scholars. But the freshness and directness of Professor Goodspeed's version and its closer approach to a dignified vernacular make it more desirable for the general reader.

For Further Reading

A welcome by-product of the nineteenth-century debate on the worth of the Apocrypha was a spurt of scholarly activity on text and interpretation. A precipitate of this activity, still highly useful, is available in R. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in two quarto volumes (Oxford, 1913). The handiest modern Greek text is Alfred Rahlf's Septuaginta (Stuttgart, 1935 and reprints). Series of translations of individual books of commentaries are published by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish organizations. The three most useful introductions to Apocryphal literature are by American scholars. The most technical is C. C. Torrey, The Apocryphal Literature (Yale University Press,1945); the most devout is Bruce M. Metzger An Introduction to the Apocrypha (Oxford University Press 1957). Far the fullest, with due account taken of other scholarly opinion, is R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (Harper's, 1949).

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