The word “Apocrypha” commonly denotes the fourteen or fifteen books which are present in Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Old Testament but which are not included in the canon of the Hebrew Old Testament. Most of them were written during the period between the close of the Old Testament and opening of the New Testament.

The apocryphal books represent a variety of literary forms. Some are historical in content (such as I Esdras and I and II Maccabees); others resemble the Book of Proverbs (such as Ecclesiasticus); one is a devotional piece (The Prayer of Manasseh); one stands in the succession of the prophetical books (Baruch); still others are moralizing novels and entertaining legends (such as the books of Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and Bel and the Dragon).

In view of the fact that these books have been recently translated into English by a group of the Standard Bible Committee and published by Thomas Nelson and Sons (September 30), it is appropriate to review some right and wrong uses of the Apocrypha. First, however, it will be useful to put them in correct historical perspective.

Apocrypha In English Bibles

It may be a surprise to some that the books of the Apocrypha were included in all English Bibles of the sixteenth century (that is, Coverdale’s translation, Tyndale’s translation, the Geneva version, the Bishops’ Bible, etc.), as well as in the King James Version or so-called Authorized Version of 1611. In fact, one of the translators of the King James Version, George Abbot, as Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a decree in 1615 that if any printer should dare to bind up and sell a copy of the Bible without the Apocrypha he would be liable to a whole year’s imprisonment. Despite this decree, however, during subsequent centuries fewer and fewer Bibles were published containing the Apocrypha, and today virtually the only editions of the King James Version containing the Apocrypha are the large Bibles found on the pulpits of most Protestant churches.

Two main factors operated in the dropping of the books of the Apocrypha. One was an economic consideration; since the books of the Apocrypha are almost as long as the New Testament in bulk, it is cheaper to print and bind Bibles without these books. Chiefly, however, it was for doctrinal considerations that they fell out of general usage among Protestants.

Doctrinal Statements

Although Jerome at the close of the fourth century clearly differentiated between the canonical books of the Hebrew Old Testament and the others which circulated in Greek and Latin manuscripts, most people during the Middle Ages who used his Latin Vulgate translation quoted indiscriminately from both canonical and apocryphal books alike. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Luther and Calvin once again reiterated Jerome’s fundamental distinction. The reason they insisted upon this distinction was that certain Roman Catholic practices and emphases (including the efficacy of prayers and masses for the dead in purgatory, and stress upon merit acquired through good works) were based largely upon texts in the Apocrypha. Such a use of the Apocrypha, the Reformers maintained, attributed to these books an authority which they did not possess.

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On the other hand, the Reformers also recognized the proper use of the Apocrypha. Luther, for example, in his very influential German translation of the Scriptures (1534) gathered together all but two of the books of the Apocrypha (he did not include I and II Esdras) and printed them between the Old and New Testaments with this heading: “APOCRYPHA—that is, books which are not held equal to the Holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read.” He also provided prefaces before the text of the several books of the Apocrypha, in which he pointed out the ethical and devotional help which Christians could derive from perusing these books. His edition of the Bible formed the basis for the first Bibles to be translated into Swedish (1541), Danish (1550), Icelandic (1584), and Slovenian (1584), all of which have the Apocrypha with Luther’s heading and prefaces.

Similarly, Reformed churches in France and part of Switzerland used the first Protestant translation of the Bible in French (1535), which was prepared by Pierre Robert Olivétan, Calvin’s cousin; this contained the books of the Apocrypha. Olivétan’s rendering, revised by Calvin (1545), was reissued in 1551, with a new translation of the Apocrypha by Theodore Beza.

As a reaction to Protestant insistence on the fundamental difference between canonical and the apocryphal writings, at the Council of Trent (1546) an anathema was pronounced upon anyone who would not receive as sacred and canonical all the books in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. This decree, it should be noted, was arrived at only after prolonged debate and the opposition of some of the more learned of the Roman prelates, who were well aware that the distinction between the Hebrew canon and the apocryphal books had been maintained from the time of Jerome by a succession of Catholic scholars, including even Cardinal Ximenes and Cardinal Cajetan, Luther’s opponent.

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Now that the Roman church had moved to canonize certain apocryphal books (namely, all but I and II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, which are printed as an appendix after the New Testament in the official editions of the Latin Vulgate), it was natural that some Protestants would tend to deprecate any and all use of the Apocrypha. Thus it came about that, though Luther had declared these books to be “profitable and good to read,” others, in reaction to the use made of them by the Romanists, refused to have anything whatever to do with them. Not all, however, took this extreme position. In the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican or Episcopal church, issued in 1562, it is declared that, though uninspired, these books are “read for example of life and instruction of manners” (Art. VI). After lengthy debate as to the merits of the intertestamental books, the representatives of the Reformed churches meeting at the Synod of Dort (1618) voted that the new official translation of the Bible, which had just been decreed, should include the Apocrypha, placed after the New Testament. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), though sometimes popularly thought to forbid the reading of the Apocrypha, actually only cautions against their improper use, stating that these books “not being of divine inspiration … are not … to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (Chap. I, sec. iii).

In commenting on the attitude of Protestants respecting the disputed books, Œcolampadius, perhaps on the whole the best representative of the Swiss Reformers, declared in a formal statement: “We do not despise Judith, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the last two books of Esdras, the books of Maccabees, the additions to Daniel; but we do not allow them divine authority with the others.” Here he clearly distinguishes between proper and improper use of the intertestamental books.

Usefulness Of Apocrypha

There is an old Latin proverb to the effect that the abuse of anything does not do away with its use. Granted that the Apocrypha are not inspired and that the Roman church erred in elevating them to canonical status, the intertestamental literature is far from being without value for Protestants.

In the first place, these books are useful in interpreting and elucidating various aspects of Western culture. In English literature, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Ruskin, Longfellow and many others have borrowed more or less freely themes and statements from the Apocrypha. In art, many of the old masters, as well as several modern painters, have chosen subjects from this body of literature. In music, such hymns as “Now Thank We All Our God,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and dozens of Charles Wesley’s compositions disclose the adoption of ideas, phrases and even whole sections from the Apocrypha. Anthems, oratorios and several operas incorporate material from these books. Even Christopher Columbus was influenced in his decision to sail westward by a passage in II Esdras. (Since there is not room here to document these instances of the pervasive influence of the Apocrypha, perhaps the author may be allowed to refer those who are interested to his recent book, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, where all these and many more examples are discussed.)

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In the second place, just as the works of the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, are useful to the serious student of the New Testament, so too the apocryphal books throw much light upon the history of the Jews between the Old and New Testaments. The development of the sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees; the growth of interest in the coming of the Messiah; the extension of beliefs regarding angels and demons; the dissemination of the doctrine of the resurrection—in all these respects the Apocrypha provide great assistance in tracing the growth of institutions and beliefs which are taken for granted everywhere in the New Testament but of which there is scarcely an allusion in the Old Testament. All such study constitutes the proper use of the Apocrypha.

In the third place, despite the presence of obviously frivolous and superstitious statements in some of the apocryphal books, it cannot be denied that they also contain several passages of great inspirational and devotional value. The saintly Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, incorporated the greater part of the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh in his book of Private Devotions, and thus made it widely familiar to users of that excellent devotional aid. In conducting funeral services many a minister who reads the words of a hymn of comfort, or Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” also may use the exalted passage in the Wisdom of Solomon, beginning, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (3:1–5).

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Proper Attitude

John Bunyan provides an instructive example of a sane and sensible attitude toward the Apocrypha. In his remarkable autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan describes how in 1652 he received help to overcome a lengthy period of spiritual despondency from the text, “Look at the generations of old, and see; did ever any trust in the Lord and was confounded?” Though he could not at first locate this verse, when at length he found it in the Apocrypha (Ecclus. 2:10), he was honest enough to confess that “this, at the first, did somewhat daunt me; but … when I considered, that though it was not in those Texts that we call Holy and Canonical, yet forasmuch as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the Promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it; and I bless God for that word, for it was of God to me.” He concludes this moving account with the admission, “That word doth still, at times, shine before my face” (section 62 ff).

As a postscript, one may ask whether it is too far-fetched to speculate what might have been the result if Bunyan had not been somewhat familiar with the Apocrypha. In that case, humanly speaking, he might never have overcome his spiritual despondency and consequently might never have written his immortal allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress.


Harold B. Kuhn is now in India, serving as guest professor at Union Biblical Seminary in Yeotmal, the training school of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. He is on leave until January from his post as Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before returning to the U.S., Dr. and Mrs. Kuhn will be speaking at several conventions and Bible conferences.

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