What Is the Apocrypha?

by Rev. Richard Phillips

This is a collection of books during the Old Testament and New Testament eras that were excluded from the biblical canon but regarded by the church as having varying degrees of value.  The word apocrypha means hidden or secret, a name that arises from its rejection and occasional suppression by the Jews and by the early church.

The Old Testament Apocrypha consists mainly of books composed during what is called the Second Temple Period, that is, after the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple and before the fall of Jerusalem.  It seems to have been a human response to the cessation of divine revelation after the prophecy of Malachi.  Several of these books deal with the Babylonian exile and the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes, and thus are of some historical value – especially 1 Maccabbees.  The main value of the Old Testament Apocrypha is in showing us the history, customs and religious views of the Jewish people in the centuries leading up to Christ.  Because of this, Bible versions have occasionally included it, with the clear understanding of its inferior standing.

The New Testament Apocrypha are a collection of legendary and spurious gospels, acts of the apostles and epistles that are of little value and are generally heretical.  It is no surprise that heretics such as the 2nd century Gnostics, wrote their own phony gospels and epistles in order to advance their teaching.  Smith’s Bible Dictionary says: “They are entirely inferior to the genuine books, so full of nonsensical and unworthy stories of Christ and the apostles, that they have never been regarded as divine, or bound up in our Bibles. It is said that Mohammed obtained his ideas of Christ entirely from these spurious gospels.”

The popular novel The Da Vinci Code has troubled the minds of many by asserting that the apocryphal books contain the true account of Jesus.  This book is rife with errors of the most basic sort; to believe its “facts” is to be badly deceived.  Furthermore, author Dan Brown’s open purpose is to promote paganism, so he naturally favors the heretical books.  The early church collected the canon as we know it not because of a power play by the Vatican, as Brown asserts (the Roman Catholic Church came into power centuries after the canon was formed), but because they recognized the apostolic documents passed down from their original recipients.

The Old Testament Apocrypha are another matter.  While Protestants rightly exclude them from the Bible, other churches include them between the Old and New Testaments.  This is most importantly practiced by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.  There are four reasons why Protestants reject them.  First, the Jewish people, God’s custodians of the Old Covenant revelation, rejected their spiritual authority and often suppressed them.  Second, by the time of Christ, the Old Testament canon as we know it was fixed and our Lord received and treated it as authoritative.  No apocryphal books were included.  Third, the Old Testament is repeatedly cited by the New Testament and treated as the Word of God.  No apocryphal book is so treated, except for a couple of possible allusions (to the Maccabbees in Hebrews 11 and to Enoch in Jude).  Fourth, teachings at odds with biblical doctrine and morality are found in much of the Apocrypha.

It is the latter situation that accounts for part of the Apocrypha’s inclusion in Roman Catholic Bibles.  St. Jerome, the translator of the official Latin Vulgate Bible was one of the strongest opponents of the Apocrypha, and until its battle with the Protestant Reformation, the Catholics also rejected these writings.  However, not finding biblical support for many of its teachings, Rome turned to these books.  Such teachings as purgatory, salvation by works, and the immaculate conception of Mary find their only justification in the Apocrypha.  Unwilling to change its doctrine to fit the Bible, Rome tragically changed its Bible to fit its doctrine.  At the Council of Trent, in 1546, a selection of Apocryphal books was admitted into the Catholic Bible, designated as deuterocanonical (that is, secondary sacred books).

Given the rising tide of paganism in our culture, especially in literary and academic circles, we are going to hear more about the Apocrypha.  Especially, the bogus Gospels and other Gnostic documents will be set forth to discredit the apostles’ teaching and to promote an alternative and sensual spirituality.  Anyone with any grasp of biblical teaching will be little swayed by a novel likeThe Da Vinci Code, with its brazen advocacy of a sexually-driven spirituality.  Christians can be confident that God has providentially revealed, recorded, preserved and protected his Word for us, and should treasure the Bible alone as our source of faith and life.