What is the Apocrypha, and Why Should You Read It?

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This is the first part of Dr. Noll’s series, “Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha.”


It is hard enough to pronounce or spell Apocrypha, so why should you want to read it? Good question. Answering that question is my task in this series of articles.

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Did you know that the Apocrypha is part of the Bible? Well, that depends on which Bible you are talking about. It does not show up in most Protestant editions of the Bible you’ll find in Anglican pews like the ESV and NIV. Meanwhile, Catholic editions of the Bible include the Apocryphal books alongside those of the Old Testament, calling them “Deuterocanonical Books.”

What is the Apocrypha?

So what is the Apocrypha? The name means “hidden texts” in Greek, which is odd since the books of the Apocrypha exist throughout the Greek Old Testament—the so-called Septuagint—from the 2nd century BC. The earliest Christian bibles, called codexes, from the 4th century AD, also contain them.

However, the books of the Apocrypha were absent from the standard Hebrew Bible, which many early church Fathers like St. Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, and most of the Protestant Reformers took to be authoritative for the Old Testament.

Anglicans and the Apocrypha

What do Anglicans think about the Apocrypha? Good question. Let’s go to the Thirty-nine Articles for help. Article 6—“Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”—states a central thesis of Christian faith and life:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

The Article proceeds to list the names and number of the Canonical Books of the Old Testament, “of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” These are the books found in our standard Protestant Bibles based on the Hebrew canon.

But it adds another listing of “the other Books (as Hierome [Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”

The Article concludes,

All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.

The ACNA and the Apocrypha

The new ESV Bible with Apocrypha from Anglican Liturgy Press.
The new ESV Bible with Apocrypha from Anglican Liturgy Press.

The Church of England continued to print the Apocrypha in its early Bibles, placing it in between the Old and New Testament, and it included occasional readings from it in its lectionary. The ACNA lectionary has readings on seven Sundays and Feast Days and an extended series of readings in Morning and Evening Prayer (in October, November, and December). So if you are a devoted follower of the Daily Office, as my wife is, you will ask in frustration: “Where do I find these?” Hie thee to the Anglican House website and get the beautiful new edition of the Bible (ESV) with the Apocrypha, complete with a brief introduction by Archbishop Emeritus Robert Duncan and Dr. J.I. Packer.

I want to go one step further and suggest that reading the Apocrypha extensively and thoughtfully can be a valuable exercise and even a pleasant experience.

The Apocrypha’s Value

The Apocrypha is valuable not because it is Scripture but because it is almost Scripture. Putting it another way, the Apocrypha sits on the sidelines of Scripture. It is like the corona of the sun, not the direct light of revelation itself but its derivative rays. Let’s see how.

1. The Apocrypha bridges the time gap between the Old and New Testaments.

If you turn a page in your bibles from Malachi to Matthew, you skip over four hundred years of history. Most of the Apocryphal books were written between the last prophet and the coming of Christ.

For this reason, the Apocrypha gives us special insight into Jesus the Jew, and the kinds of things Jews of Jesus’ day were thinking and saying. To be sure, there are other writings from the intertestamental period such as the “Pseudepigrapha” and the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, Jews of Jesus’ day accepted the Apocrypha more widely.

2. The Apocrypha overlaps with different kinds, or genres, of Old Testament literature.

These include prophetic history, novelistic stories, proverbial wisdom, and end-time prophecy. I shall look at these different genres in the coming series of articles.

3. The spirituality of the Apocrypha is a clear echo of the Old Testament canon.

If you hadn’t been clued in, you could read a psalm, hymn, or prayer in the Apocrypha and think you were reading Scripture. That is why “The Prayer of Manasseh” and “The Song of the Three Young Men” are included in the Supplemental Canticles in the Prayer Book (##3 and 10).

4. Major bodies such as Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Syriac churches consider these books canonical.

This fact can remind us that the dividing line between Scripture and tradition is not always black-and-white, and we can listen and learn with brothers and sisters who see the Light that has come into the world in Jesus Christ in a refracted lens.

In a series of upcoming articles, I shall look at particular books of the Apocrypha, seeking not only to learn about them but to enjoy them as among those writings that are true and honorable, just and pure, lovely, commendable and praiseworthy which St. Paul urges us to think upon (Phil 4:8).

Next month Dr. Noll will be posting an article on two historical books from the Apocrypha: First and Second Maccabees.


Photo by BalticBoy for Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

September 1, 2023

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

View more from Stephen Noll

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