Church HistoryTheology & Spirituality

Myths of the Apocrypha – Part II

Welcome back to “Myths of the Apocrypha!” In the previous episode, we looked at the widespread idea that Roman Catholics added several apocryphal books to their canon of scripture after the Protestant Reformation in order to support disputed doctrines against Martin Luther. As it turns out, Christians all around the world who had been separated from Rome for 500-1,000 years before the Reformation all had these seven books in their Bible canons and affirmed all seven as holy scripture: Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, 1st Maccabees , and 2nd Maccabees. We also looked at the word “apocrypha,” finding that it originally referred to spurious Gnostic books and not to these seven holy Scriptures. A better term for these books is “the wider canon,” distinguishing them from the shorter Protestant canon.

  • 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.

Today, we will investigate Myth #2. I once believed that early Christians rejected the wider canon and that those books taught false doctrines like praying for the dead and purgatory. If these beliefs are true, then surely we will find early Christians condemning false teaching in these books. After all, we have a comparative wealth of Christian writings from the second and third centuries AD available for investigation. Before searching for such condemnations, though, we should investigate the passages which are accused of teaching purgatory and praying for the dead.



As it turns out, there is just one passage in all of the wider canon that is accused of teaching about purgatory. Wisdom of Solomon chapter three reads:

“1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, And no torture will ever touch them. 2 In the eyes of the undiscerning they seemed to have died, And their departure was considered to be misfortune, 3 And their passage from us to be their destruction; But they are at peace. 4 For though in man’s view they were punished, Their hope is full of immortality. 5 Though chastened in a few things, Great kindness will be shown them, For God tested them and found them worthy of Himself. 6 He tested them like gold in a furnace And accepted them as a whole burnt offering. 7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, And they will run about like sparks through straw.”1

We cannot find the word purgatory here, nor can we find the teaching of it. Verse five includes the words “Though chastened in a few things,” but it does not say that such chastening occurs after death. Instead, it specifically says, “no torture will ever touch them,” and, “they are at peace.”



Just as the charge of purgatory has only one accused passage, so likewise does the idea that the wider canon teaches praying for the dead. In 2nd Maccabees chapter twelve, Judas Maccabeus offered a sin offering on behalf of several Jewish soldiers who had died carrying idols, apparently guilty of idolatry. Beginning in verse 43, the book then lauds him for doing so:

“In doing so he acted properly and with honor, taking note of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not looking for the resurrection of those fallen, it would have been utterly foolish to pray for the departed. 45 But since he was looking to the reward of splendor laid up for those who repose in godliness, it was a holy and godly purpose. Thus he made atonement for the fallen, so as to set them free from their transgression.”2

Judas did not pray for them, but he did try to intercede. The reader will have to discern whether Judas is commended for believing in the resurrection of the righteous or commended for how effective his intercession was. He certainly intended to intercede “so as to free them from their transgression,” but the passage does not state that he was successful. It seems more apparent that Judas was commended for believing in the resurrection of the righteous: “those who repose in godliness.” He may have done something imperfect, but he did so, “taking note of the resurrection.”



Let us ask then, what early Christians thought of the wider canon. Did they warn one another against reading the strange doctrines of Wisdom of Solomon and 2nd Maccabees? To the contrary, we find quotations of the wider canon sprinkled throughout early Christian writings of respected bishops in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Often their quotes include the phrase, “as it is written,” equating these books with holy scripture.3 Other times, they called the authors of those books “prophets.”4 As often as early Christians quoted and wrote about the wider canon, they never accused those books of false doctrine.

Among the earliest Christian writings still available outside of New Testament is “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” often shortened to the title “Didache” meaning “Teaching.” The author is unknown, but the book is dated by many to the first century AD. The author of the Didache exhorts his readers in chapter four toward righteous living, then uses Wisdom of Sirach:

Didache 4:5, “Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving.”

Wisdom of Sirach 4:31, “Do not let your hand be extended to receive And shut when you should repay.”

Despite many available examples, we will peruse just one more source today. The earliest Christian writing outside of the Bible with a clear author is Clement of Rome’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. According to tradition, Clement was personally discipled by the Apostle Peter, and he employed Wisdom of Solomon side by side and on par with Psalm 19:

Clement 27:5-7 “Who will say to him, ‘What have you done?’  Or who will resist the power of His strength?”  He will do all things when he wills and as he wills, and none of those things decreed by him will fail.  All things are in his sight, and nothing escapes his will, seeing that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Wisdom 12:12 “For who will say, ‘What have you done?’ Or will resist your judgment?”

Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Clement also placed the account of Judith on equal footing with that of Esther:

Clement 55:5-6 “The blessed Judith, when the city was under siege, asked the elders to permit her to go to the enemy’s camp.  So she exposed herself to danger and went out for love of her country and her besieged people, and the Lord delivered Holophernes into the hand of a woman.  To no less danger did Esther, who was perfect in faith, expose herself, to deliver the twelve tribes of Israel from imminent destruction.”



Myth #2 is laid aside. We can easily defend the wider Christian canon of seven Old Testament books against the idea that these books were rejected for teaching strange doctrines. Rather than accusing these books of false teaching, early Christians quoted the books often, quoted them at length, referenced them with “as it is written,” and even called their authors prophets. In closing today however, it may help to note the source from which early Christians read and quoted the wider canon.

While parts of the wider canon were likely written in Hebrew5, all of the Old Testament canon was received by Christians in Greek, specifically the Greek “Septuagint” translation. As odd as it may sound to us today, early Christians viewed the Septuagint not only as inspired by God, but as superior to the Hebrew which preceded it.

  • Justin Martyr (mid 2nd century) said even King Ptolemy of Egypt, when he saw the miraculous agreement of the seventy rabbis, “believed that the translation had been written by divine power.”6
  • Bishop Irenaeus Bishop of Lyons (before AD 200): “Thus it is the same Spirit of God who spoke through the prophets of the coming of the Lord, who properly translated through the elders what was really prophesied and who preached the fulfilment of the promise through the apostles.”7
  • Origen of Alexandria (early 200’s) insisted that he “kept to the Septuagint in all respects,” because, “the Holy Spirit wished the forms of the mysteries to be hidden in the divine scriptures, and not dealt with clearly and openly.” He believed the Hebrew contained hidden mysteries that were explained in the Septuagint.8
  • Eusebius of Caesarea (early 300’s) wrote of the Septuagint that God “arranged that the predictions concerning Him who was to appear before long as the Saviour of mankind, and to establish Himself as the teacher of the religion of the One Supreme God to all the nations under the sun, should be revealed to them all, and be brought into the light by being accurately translated, and set up in the public libraries.”9
  • Epiphanius (Bishop of Salamis in the latter 300’s AD) said of the Septuagint translators, “For where they added words lacking in these (other versions), they gave clearness to the reading, so that we regard them as not disassociated from the Holy Spirit. For they omitted those that had no need of repetition; but where there was a word that was considered ambiguous when translated into the Greek language, there they made an addition. This may be surprising, but we should not be rash to bring censure, but rather praise that it is according to the will of God that what is sacred should be understood.”10
  • Augustine (circa AD 400): “We are right in believing that the translators of the Septuagint had received the spirit of prophecy; and so if, with its authority, they altered anything and used expressions in their translation different from those of the original, we should not doubt that these expressions also were divinely inspired.”11

So not only do we find the wider canon quoted authoritatively by early Christians, but we also find that they preferred the Jewish “Septuagint” translation in Greek over and above the original Hebrew writings. Early Christians believed that the Greek Septuagint, including the wider canon, was divinely inspired and the clearest presentation of Holy Scripture, provided by God as a preparation for the arrival of the Anointed King and his gospel. Tune in next time for the final installment of “Myths of the Apocrypha,” when we investigate whether Jesus and His apostles quoted the wider canon of Scripture in the New Testament.

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Matthew Bryan

Matthew Bryan

Matthew is a post-Protestant disciple of Jesus, an avid disciple-maker, a father of 2 grown men, and the delighted husband of Kristy. He holds a Bachelor of Science summa cum laude from the University of Memphis and has authored 3 books. A former church planter, Matthew now serves within the Restoration Movement. He enjoys reading the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, learning the history of empires, and encouraging believers to take up Biblical Greek for the twin purposes of clarity and unity.

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