Myths of the Apocrypha – Part I
Dear Protestant brothers and sisters, I have seven free gifts for you today! Hopefully you won’t mind my re-gifting them since I received these presents myself a few years ago. They’re not brand new either, but they are divine! I got my seven gifts when I learned that a long-standing idea in Protestantism turned out to be a myth. Philosopher Norman Geisler and other prominent theologians taught me that Roman Catholicism inserted several apocryphal books into their Bibles in the 1600’s at the Council of Trent in response to Martin Luther because those books backed up Roman Catholic doctrines of purgatory and prayers for the dead:
“Then, in 1546, just twenty-nine years after Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses, the Council of Trent elevated the Apocrypha, or rather the part of it which supported their position, to the level of inspired Scripture . . .”1
I wholeheartedly believed this claim. Yet I offer you today seven gifts: seven Old Testament books that are tragically missing in Protestant Bibles. All of Christianity including non-Roman Catholics accepted these seven books across the world as divine Scripture long before the Protestant Reformation.
- Myth #1: Roman Catholics inserted “apocrypha” books into their canon to disprove Martin Luther.
- Myth #2: Early Christians rejected the “apocrypha” books because those books contained false teachings.
- Myth #3: Jesus and His apostles never quoted these books in the New Testament.
MYTH BUSTERS DIVIDED
A terrible thing happened in the fifth century. Christian bishops got in ugly arguments with one another and began dividing themselves politically and geographically. As tragic as it was however, their divisions help us today in correcting myth #1. The division of Christianity politically and geographically ensured that we have four completely independent witnesses about the wider canon of the Old Testament.
The greatest enemy of the ancient Roman Empire was the Persian Empire. When Roman Christians excommunicated a theological hero of Persian Christians in the fifth century, the Persian government was glad to see her Christian subjects alienated from its rival, thereby making them less of a potential threat to Persia. Persian Christians thrived therefore for centuries in Persia, divided from Roman Christians by the borders of their empire, the politics of bishops, and the distance of their geography. They were divided from the West more than 1,000 years before the Protestant Reformation. They had no interest in Martin Luther, yet Persian Christians (also known as the Assyrian Church of the East) have these seven additional books in their Bible and consider all seven of them to be holy Scripture.
Shortly after the split between Roman and Persian Christians, Egypt broke ranks with the rest of Roman Christians in AD 451, forming Oriental Orthodox Christianity in Egypt, Armenia, Ethiopia, Persia, and India. With no interest in Martin Luther, Oriental Orthodoxy also has these seven books in their Bibles all around the world. They were separated from Roman Christians for over 1,000 years before the Protestant Reformation both by politics and in some cases, by vast geographical distance.
Eastern Orthodoxy later divided from Roman Catholicism almost five hundred years prior to the Protestant Reformation. Like the Assyrian Church of the East and Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy has claimed all seven these books of the Bible as holy and divinely inspired from the early years of Christianity. Rome did not follow the lead of Christians all over the world at the Council of Trent. Rome did not decide to add rejected books to Scripture because of Martin Luther. Like all other Christians in the world, these seven gifts from God had been their Scriptures since the days of the apostles.
ROME HAS A ROMAN TO BLAME
Ironically, it was a Roman Christian who first insulted these seven books of Scripture as “apocrypha” more than 1,100 years before the Protestant Reformation and laid the groundwork for their Protestant rejection. Around AD 400, Jerome veered from the Christian norm by learning Hebrew. Christians had always relied on a translation of the Old Testament called the Greek Septuagint, an authoritative translation created by more than seventy Jewish Rabbis beginning in the 3rd century BC.2
Jerome moved to the Palestine region of the Roman Empire to learn Hebrew under Jewish tutors. His studies enabled him to claim a greater understanding of Old Testament Scripture than any other Christian. He referred often in his writings to the “Hebraica Veritas” or the “Hebrew Truth.” The problem however, was that some Old Testament Scriptures originated in Greek, reducing Jerome’s claim of superiority. Worse yet, Jews were the only ones who had preserved Hebrew manuscripts,3 therefore those books and passages which Jews eventually rejected had not been preserved in Hebrew. Perhaps because of the influence of Jewish teachers, Jerome went so far as to insult these seven books which could not be found in Hebrew as “apocrypha,” the same label that Christians of that era had placed on the heretical writings of Gnosticism.
MEANING OF THE WORD “APOCRYPHA”
“Apocrypha” is a Christian dirty word, worse than heck, shucks, and golly combined. It is a grave insult because the real apocrypha are books written by Gnostics, a heretical religion that challenged early Christianity for several hundred years. Gnosticism offered a secret knowledge by which people could realize that they were divine. The most famous Gnostic book is the so-called “Gospel of Thomas,” which was written long after the New Testament and was consistently rejected by the “apostolic bishops.”
Many professing Christians fell into Gnosticism. The early safeguard against Gnosticism however, was the line of “apostolic bishops.” Jesus appointed apostles who bishops who in turn appointed other bishops, etcetera. Those bishops who could trace their appointments directly to the apostles were “apostolic bishops,” and the apostolic bishops always rejected Gnostic books. They called the writings of Gnostics “apocrypha,” literally meaning “hidden” in reference to the hidden or secret knowledge of Gnosticism. In his 39th festal letter, Bishop Athanasius used the word “apocrypha” in AD 367, referring to the spurious writings of Gnostics: “nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics . . . to lead astray the simple.” The word “apocrypha” first referred to Gnostic writings and not to these seven books which every apostolic branch of Christianity accepted prior to the Reformation.
The Roman Catholic rockstar of the early 1500’s was Desiderius Erasmus. Beloved by Europe’s academia and political elites for his scholarly work, Erasmus adeptly challenged the great Latin Vulgate Bible of Roman Catholicism by publishing an edited version of it. Erasmus wisely laid the groundwork for his daring publication however, by singing his praises of Jerome loudly and in advance of his edited Latin Vulgate.
When the protesting Reformers rebelled against Rome, the writings of Erasmus had been living rent-free in their minds for many years. Erasmus had painted Jerome as the ultimate scholar, a man whose opinions and writings deserve everyone’s respect. The Reformers therefore had logical reason to follow Jerome by insulting and rejecting seven Old Testament books, despite the fact that Jerome’s insults had not removed these books from the Latin Vulgate, nor the Eastern Orthodox Scriptures, nor those of Ethiopia, Egypt, India, Russia, and the Middle East. Protestants alone lost seven treasuries of divine Scripture during the Reformation.
After the Reformation, a new word was coined for the Gnostic writings. Prior to the Reformation, Gnostic works had been called “apocrypha.” Once Protestants began calling several books of the Christian Old Testament “apocrypha,” the word “pseudepigrapha” was invented for Gnostic writings in order to differentiate between them and the books which Protestants insult as “apocrypha.” I now call these seven Old Testament Scriptures “the wider canon” and not “apocrypha” because they are not apocryphal. That is to say that they are neither Gnostic nor heretical writings.
So here are those seven books which I received (despite the fact that I am not Catholic) and which I regift. Ecclesiasticus is the Roman title for Wisdom of Sirach, a book of wise sayings, much like the book of Proverbs. Wisdom of Solomon is my favorite. It includes a lengthy prophecy of Jesus with shocking detail. Maccabees I and II extend the history of the Jews like the books of Kings and Chronicles. Baruch is very brief; it rails against the sin of idolatry. Finally, Tobit and Judith are adventurous narratives similar to Esther.
In the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, several books of the Protestant Bible are significantly larger. If you trust the first fifteen hundred years of global Christianity, then these enlarged versions are like the Director’s cut of your favorite movie, including scenes which early Christians said Jews had edited out of the Originals.4 Daniel, Esther, Jeremiah, and 2nd Chronicles in the Septuagint include divine passages which are missing in Protestant Bibles.
All of these Scriptures can be read for free at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/. For a printed version, I recommend the “Orthodox Study Bible,” which can be purchased many places including: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0718003594/.
WHAT IS A CANON?
I look forward to answering many questions about the wider Old Testament canon in future articles, but I close with one important question about these seven books, the fact that there are a few historical “canons” which excluded some of these books. It’s important to notice a difference between the Protestant approach to Scripture and that of Jews and non-Protestant Christians. While Judaism today recognizes 22 books (the Protestant 39 combined as 22), five of those books enjoy an elevated status in Judaism. Those five are the Torah, also known as “the Law,” the five books by Moses. The elevation of the Torah does not in anyway deny the divine inspiration in Jewish eyes of the remaining books in their canon. Likewise, many Christians outside of Protestantism, elevate the four gospels as one book, “the Gospel,” encasing it in precious metals and parading it around the sanctuary during Sunday liturgy. Their elevation of the gospels does not however, deny the divine inspiration of the remaining books of the New Testament.
Second, the word “canon” outside of Protestantism does not always mean what it does in Protestantism. “Canon” sometimes referred historically to only those books which were read during liturgies. In the eighth century (long after the Christian canon had been established), Saint John of Damascus listed his “canon” without including these seven books in “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.” Yet he quoted from Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, and 2nd Maccabees as authoritative for doctrine, written by prophets, and even “divine Scripture.”
Like the elevation of Torah among Jews and like the elevation of the gospels among non-Protestant Christians, the appearance of a lesser status for some books by some of the Church Fathers does not mean they rejected such books as inspired Scripture. Paul addressed such elevation of various books when he clarified to Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for . . .” A more detailed look at Christian canons can be found in “Hebrew Scripture in Patristic Biblical Theory” by Edmon Gallagher. Exciting book title, I know!
Finally, even if a few Christians of old did consider these seven books less inspired than the rest of Scripture, the opinions of a minority do not negate the vast majority. For example, Martin Luther’s rejection of James and Revelation did not cause Protestants as a whole to follow suit. If the reader has any doubt regarding the ancient Christian view of these seven books, he or she need only visit a congregation of one of the non-Roman Catholic traditions of old and inquire about that church’s Bible. Whether Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Assyrian Church of the East, the Scriptures will be found there to include all seven of these books without disclaimer, without question, and without the insulting label of “apocrypha.”
Tune in next time for more “Myths of the Apocrypha!”
- Geisler, Norman and Nix, William, “General Introduction to the Bible,” (Moody Press, Chicago, IL), 177.
- Another early translation of the Old Testament is called the “Peshitta,” a translation in Syriac. A minority of scholars believe the Old Testament Peshitta predates the Septuagint, but these two versions are very similar to one another and similar in their differences from the Masoretic.
- Origen obtained Hebrew Manuscripts of the Old Testament in the third century, publishing the Hebrew in his “Hexaplara.” Christians preserved only the annotated Greek column of his “Hexaplara” however.
- See for example, chapters 71-73 of “Dialogue with Trypho” by Justin Martyr.