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 Issues | The Apocrypha | Attitudes

Attitudes to the Apocrypha

The confused attitude of Christians to the Apocrypha is well illustrated by Origen (early 3rd century). He was a Hebrew scholar and he consulted with Jewish scholars. He accepted the view set out by many other early church writers that the canonical Hebrew Scriptures consisted of 22 books. (The number is smaller than in our Bibles today because some books were grouped together. For example the twelve minor prophets count as one book. The benefit of the number 22 is that it corresponds to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.) Nevertheless Origen quoted freely from the apocryphal books as if they were Scripture and defended some of them against others. Cyril of Jerusalem, by contrast, told people to have nothing to do with the Apocrypha because it was not Scripture, whilst he himself did read it and quote from it.

The mature view of the early church leaders is found in Jerome. He also was a Hebrew scholar, but that was a rarity in the Latin West. Article 6 actually quotes Jerome, who did not consider the Apocrypha to be Scripture nor did he include it in his Latin translation of the Old Testament. He was strongly criticised for this and eventually the Apocrypha was included in the Latin Vulgate, derived from Jerome’s work, which became the standard western text for over a millennium.

The New Testament both shows us what the very earliest Christians thought but also, being the Word of God is our supreme authority on all such matters. Is Jerome’s view, quoted in our Articles, consistent with the New Testament? It has already been remarked that when quoting Scripture some NT writers appear to have used the Septuagint, so they were familiar with that translation, yet there is no instance in the New Testament where any parts of the Apocrypha are quoted. However, there is at least one place (Heb 11.35) where the people whose lives are given as an example to us are found in the Apocrypha (2 Macc 6.18-7.14). In other places moral instruction is given which is remarkably similar to sayings in Wisdom or Sirach, but noticeably these are not given as straight quotation. Thus it seems that the New Testament itself models what Jerome and our Articles assert, that these books are not Scripture, but they do provide example of life and instruction in manners.

Roman Catholics
In the immediate aftermath of the Reformation, in this as in so many other areas, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent made things much worse. The Council issued a list of Canonical Books and declared that the Latin Vulgate was the standard text. Thus some of the parts of the Apocrypha (additions to Daniel and Esther) are included with the main text and the other books are listed by name. Moreover, they declared it anathema to disagree with them. It is somewhat absurd that this gathering, given so much authority and weight in Roman-Catholicism, could in one breath canonise the Latin Vulgate which derives from the work of Jerome, and then declare Jerome’s own views to be anathema. G.R.Snaith in the introduction to the Commentary on the Apocrypha writes that the decision of Trent “was ratified by 53 prelates among whom there was not one scholar distinguished by historical learning, not one who was fitted by special study for the examination of a subject in which the truth could only be determined by the voice of antiquity.” (p.xxxii)

The decision of Trent is an embarrassment to some Roman-Catholic scholars who are well aware that it was wrong. Indeed the Apocrypha is often referred to as the ‘Deutero-canonical’ books, indicating that they were included in the canon second, rather than they have a second rate authority. Nevertheless there are still those who argue for the decision taken by Trent and in large part this is because of the support lent by the Apocrypha to some Roman dogmas such as prayers for the dead (2 Macc 12.44). By the same token, Protestants have subsequently distrusted the Apocrypha partly because of these texts.

Easter Orthodox

“The Church accepts these latter books also a useful and instructive and in antiquity assigned them for instructive reading not only in homes but also in churches, which is why they have been called “ecclesiastical”. The Church includes these books in a single volume of the Bible together with the canonical books. As a source of the teaching of the faith, the Church puts them in a secondary place and looks on them as an appendix to the canonical books. Certain of them are so close in merit to the Divinely inspired books that, for example, in the 85th Apostolic Canon the three books of Maccabees and the book of Joshua the son of Sirach are numbered together with the canonical books, and concerning all of them together it is said that they are “venerable and holy”. However this means only that they were respected in the ancient Church; but a distinction between the canonical and non-canonical books of the Old Testament has always been maintained in the Church.” Michael Pomazansky : Orthodox Dogmatic Theology

Reformed Churches

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England evidence that the first wave of protestants took the same view as the more sober and learned of the Church fathers, that the Apocrypha is not Scripture but has its place. Luther put the Apocrypha in an appendix (he was not the first to do this though) and the same was done with the Geneva Bible and Authorised King James Version of 1611. The Prayer Book lectionary provided for it to be read in Church, but only on weekdays, and one or two saint’s days. Attempts were made to change both these positions during the 1600s and the Westminster Confession made it clear that the authority of the Apocrypha is no greater than any other human writing. Precisely when the Apocrypha began to drop out of English Bibles completely I am not sure but it appears to have been in the early 1800s.

The inclusion of these “other books” in the Greek Bible ensured that they were not lost, which is no bad thing, but also caused people to use them and treat them as Scripture, which they are not. Within Protestantism we have now come full-circle, the books are no longer in our Bibles but they are also now largely unknown.

 

See Also

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