Should Protestants Read the Apocrypha?August 01, 2018
by David E. Briones
Should Protestants read the Apocrypha? I imagine that this question will elicit one of two responses from Protestants. Some will yell out, “Absolutely not!” and cringe with anti-Roman Catholic sentiment, while the majority will have a perplexed look on their face and ask, “What in the world is the Apocrypha?” With these very different responses in view, this short essay will define the term Apocrypha, briefly survey how various church fathers responded to it as a collection of writings, and then conclude with two reasons why Protestants should consider reading the Apocrypha.
What is the Apocrypha?
The term Apocrypha literally means “hidden writings.” These writings (except 2 Esdras) first appeared in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced in Alexandria, Egypt, around 200 BC. It initially began as a translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), but, as more and more ancient Jews came to speak Greek rather than Hebrew, it became necessary later on to translate the rest of the Old Testament as well. Over time, the writings that constitute the Apocrypha made their way into the Septuagint, potentially broadening the parameters of what Protestants refer to as the Old Testament. Some scholars have argued that Jewish religious authorities in Alexandria accepted the Apocryphal books as part of the canon—as authoritative texts that define doctrine and practice—and that the Jews in Palestine rejected these books as canonical. Others have disagreed, stating that the ancient Jews were united in rejecting the Apocrypha as Scripture.
The term Apocrypha literally means “hidden writings.”
The Apocrypha and the Early Church
But how did Christians from the first century to the Reformation respond to the Apocrypha? Did they completely reject it, or did they see some advantage in reading it? The New Testament authors may have been familiar with these texts. Echoes of several works can be detected in the New Testament (compare, for example, Heb. 11:35 with 4 Macc. 9:13–18 or James 1:13–14 with Sir. 15:11–17, 20). However, it is important to note that the New Testament authors never directly quote from the Apocrypha or introduce portions of it with phrases that presuppose its divine inspiration, such as “as it is written,” “as the Spirit says,” or “as the Scripture says.” Jesus also never quotes or explicitly refers to the books of the Apocrypha.
In the writings of the patristic era (second–fifth centuries AD), various texts from the Apocrypha were paraphrased and used to guide Christians. For instance, the Didache (4:5) paraphrases Sirach 4:31 concerning almsgiving as a rule binding on Christians. More shockingly, the Epistle of Barnabas (12:1) refers to 4 Ezra (also known as 2 Esdras chaps. 3–14) as “another of the prophets.” The reason for this high esteem is that 4 Ezra contains a possible reference to the cross, when “blood shall drip from wood” (2 Esdras 5:5).
By the time of Origen, the Apocryphal books were read frequently in the church. Origen, in his Letter to Africanus, presents two arguments in favor of accepting the Apocrypha as canonical: (1) God’s providential care for the new Israel (i.e., the church); and (2) respect for the practice that had already been established in the church. When we arrive at Jerome and Augustine, a division begins to emerge. Jerome makes a distinction between texts that are “canonical” (used to inform doctrine and practice) and texts that are “ecclesiastical” (read in churches and used for edification but not to establish or confirm doctrine). Augustine, however, advocates for the canonicity of the Apocrypha. In fact, he draws from Wisdom and Sirach to support his explanation of the Trinity. The Council of Carthage (AD 397) eventually affirmed Augustine’s view, though many questioned the place of the Apocrypha and therefore followed Jerome’s distinction. These two opposing views on the canon of the Old Testament persisted within the Western church until the Protestant Reformation. Intriguingly, one follower of Jerome stands out, Nicholas of Lyra, for he eventually influenced a well-known monk with a mallet, Martin Luther.
The Apocrypha and the Reformation
The doctrine of sola Scriptura and various doctrinal objections to the teaching of the medieval Western church drove the Reformers to examine again the canonical status of the Apocrypha. With Rome using texts such as 2 Maccabees 12:39–46 to legitimate the saying of Masses and prayers on behalf of the dead as well as almsgiving as a meritorious act of penance, one can readily understand why Reformers such as Luther, John Calvin, and many others would follow Jerome rather than Augustine on this matter. It is not surprising, then, to hear Luther echo Jerome’s canonical distinction in his preface to the Apocrypha: “These are books that, though not esteemed like the Holy Scriptures, are still both useful and good to read.” It is even more unsurprising to find a well-informed interaction with the Apocrypha within the writings of Luther and Calvin. They were undoubtedly familiar with those texts and found them useful for edification or to confirm already accepted doctrines. But they were not to be used as an independent, infallible source of theology.
The New Testament authors never directly quote from the Apocrypha.
The Council of Trent (1546) responded to the Reformed position by ruling all the books of the Apocrypha, with the exception of 3 and 4 Maccabees, as canonical. The Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras appear in an appendix to the Latin Vulgate. (The Eastern Orthodox Church includes all of those rejected books in its canon, as well as the Apocryphal books accepted by Roman Catholicism and the Old Testament recognized by Protestantism.) The Roman Catholic Church considers the books of the Apocrypha that it accepts as “Deuterocanonical,” while they reserve the use of “Apocryphal” for the books they reject (i.e., 3 and 4 Maccabees).
In response to the Council of Trent, definitive views on the matter were inscribed in Protestant confessions of faith. Two Reformed confessional statements are noteworthy:
Belgic Confession (1561) 6: “The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books. But they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion. Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.”
Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) 1.3: “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”
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