Why do the Protestants Reject The Apocrypha?

Jan 13, 2010             Updated Nov 2015
Is The Apocrypha Inspired?

On this page I am attempting to answer a question - this is what we do in the Feedback section of CH101. But really this is dancing around the real issue, the really important question not being asked: "Is the Apocrypha inspired?"

The first thing Protestants need to know is that some of the books in what we call the Apocrypha ARE included in the canon of scripture for other segments of the Christian Church. The Catholic Church accepts all of these documents. I am fairly sure the branches of The Orthodox Church accept all the works in The Apocrypha as well several other early Christian writings (like Didache). The Ethiopian Orthodox and the Coptic Church also accepts several books in The Apocrypha and several additional books into their New Testament as well.

The point here is that these movements existed long before the Reformation. We should at least realize that our "canon" is not the only one claimed by Christians.

The next unspoken question is: Can a writing be inspired without being in the official canon?
The answer will depend on what a person means by "inspired." Personally, I have a very open view of "inspired" writings. I would say that several early documents, viewed by early Christians as "inspired" are indeed inspired. Didache, Shepherd of Hermas and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch quickly come to mind. These documents were cited as authoritative by early fathers just like books now in the New Testament. When I read these writings I am moved and feel instructed in my faith.

I think some writings by other writers are inspired: C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Watchman Nee, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others. I have friends who feel like God speaks to them through T.D. Jakes and Max Lucado. Although I do not tend to read many modern authors, these are called "inspirational" writers and books - I think they are "inspired."

For the past several days I have been reading Maccabees. It is easy for me to see why many Christians throughout the last 2,000 years look at these writings as "inspired." Now, do I think these writings of The Apocrypha should be in the canon? I actually do not have an opinion. My answer would be - "they ARE in the canon, just not the Protestant one."

What I do think is that Protestant Christians would be well served to read and study these documents just like they do the writings in the Protestant OT and NT. As a young man I was taught that The Apocrypha had strange ideas that went against the proper "biblical" texts. I have read the Protestant OT and NT 10 times cover to cover that I kept count of and a few more times beyond that. There are strange passages throughout the 66 book Bible: Leviticus, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Jude and Revelation come to mind. Several stories in the gospels come to mind like the pigs being cast out and running off the cliff, the cursing of the fig tree and others.

This is NOT an argument against the Protestant canon. I accept our canon. I am simply giving reasons why I think we should be more cautious before we discount or condemn other branches of faith because they include books that Reformers wanted to exclude. I was taught reasons why passages in Job or Ecclesiastes are "inspired" even though these two books contain thoughts that go against the rest of "scripture." These reasons contain the same kind of arguments given for why The Apocrypha should be rejected. Again, I am not arguing FOR The Apocrypha to be included in the Protestant canon. I am fine with the canon as it is...but I will keep reading these books both to learn and to be inspired. Learn more about How the New Testament Canon Developed.

Some of my Catholic friends say that these books were included as part of the Bible until Martin Luther, who rejected them and some NT books because they didn't fit his theology. Is this right?
  David, in California

The Apocrypha was NOT in the original listings of the New Testament, but were included in the Latin Vulgate by Jerome between the Old and New Testaments. This was in the early 5th century.

The following comments have led me to make some edits to this page.

Comments sent on May 1, 2011
The information on this page is simply not accurate and presents unhistorical information. The Apocrypha IS in Codex Sinaticus which is the oldest known Christian Bible dated around 350AD WAY before Jerome was born and contains the books called Apocrypha today yet in this codex there is no distinction between old testament and apocrypha. The Catholic church is not responsible for the inclusion of the Apocrypha the Protestant reformation is responsible for it's EXCLUSION from the Bible.

Notice my initial comment: "...NOT in the original listings of the New Testament..."

These are works written during the inter-testamental time, between OT and NT. These writings were never in the Hebrew OT, but were included in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT. The comment I received is correct in a few points: the Apocrypha IS in the Codex Sinaiticus which is dated between 325-380 AD. Jerome was born around 347 AD and his Latin Vulgate was completed in 405 AD (so he is fairly contemporary with the Sinaiticus). Although I basically agree, to say the Sinaiticus is, "the oldest known Christian Bible" is somewhat problematic for a few reasons:
1. It is missing major sections of the Old Testament
2. The Hebrew OT never included the Apocrypha
3. The NT of Sinaiticus includes Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas
4. Several works commonly accepted in the Apocrypha are missing

My Comments: 05-03-2011
The thrust of my original post was to point out that the Apocrypha works were not in the NT.
I realize that my post was not as clear as it should have been and the comments sent by a reader were helpful. I think I allowed my Protestant roots to get in the way. My goal as an historian is to stay objective. I am sometimes accused of being "Catholic," and other times of being "Protestant." This was a case of the latter. My apologies and my thanks for the comment.

It is true that Christians prior to Jerome quoted many of the books of the Apocrypha as inspired, but the same can be said of many other writings. Jerome included these writings in his Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible in between the OT and NT and he called it "apocrypha," or "hidden" writings. Apocrypha was used in the ancient world to indicate something either orginating from oral tradition, or containing "secret" material, not suitable for a general audience.

It appears from some of his comments in the prefaces of a few books that Jerome did not think the Apocrypha writings belonged in the OT canon, but he did quote some of the apocryphal writings as "inspired." Some of the early fathers did not want these documents to be accorded the same respect as the "official" texts. However, the Council of Hippo in 393 did affirm numerous (but not all) of writings in the Apocrypha. A few other following councils did the same. These were not major councils, but these decisions were made and did have some influence moving forward.

In fact, in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367 where we have the first exact listing of the 27 NT documents he also lists several writings of the Apocrypha. He then says this,

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read... Epist 39.7

What you see is a lack of uniform thought. This was fairly common in the early church.

The visitor commented, "The Catholic church is not responsible for the inclusion of the Apocrypha the Protestant reformation is responsible for it's EXCLUSION from the Bible."

This is partly correct. The Apocrypha WAS counted by many as inspired text prior to the "official" Catholic Church. Over time these writings became more accepted as "inspired" and included in the canon. As Jerome's Vulgate version of the Bible was copied some monasteries were not as careful to designate it as "apocrypha" and thus these writings began to be used by some in the Catholic Church. Some doctrinal concepts were affected by these texts.

As part of a reaction against some of the developments in the Catholic Church, Protestant Reformers DID exclude the Apocrypha.

Doctrinal issues that are raised in 2 Maccabees include:
- Prayer for the dead and sacrificial offerings, both to free the dead from sin
- Merits of the martyrs
- Intercession of the saints (15:11-17)

Interestingly, none of the NT writers quote any of these writings, although there are a few quotes from non-OT "apocryphal" works. [I have had a few readers challenge this comment, saying that many NT texts do have writings in the Apocrypha in mind. These are allusions, but not quotations. Allusions to a text can be uncertain, using only 1-3 words/phrases and maybe not in the same word order. A quotation is usually more than three words used in the exact order of the work being quoted. The point is that the writer intends to quote and there is not as much guessing.]

Comments: 12-08-2013
Sitting in church this morning something clicked in my mind and I looked up the text in 2 Maccabees 12 regarding prayers for the dead. This text is describing a battle between the Jewish forces of Judas Maccabeus and that of Gorgias of Idumea. Some of the Jews were killed and the text gives an account of retrieving their bodies after the battle. Those who recovered the bodies found pagan amulets in the tunics of the dead. [An amulet is something like a charm carried for protection.] The text says that this idolatry is why the men had perished (12:40):
So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. (v.41-42)

The text then states that Judas took up an offering to send back to Jerusalem so that a sin offering could be made for the men,
For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (v.44-45)
I wonder if Paul's comment to the Corinthians regarding "baptism for the dead" has something to do with this text from 2 Maccabees 12. (1 Cor 15:29ff) Paul's Greek here has some similarities to the apocryphal text and it does seem clear that some believers in Corinth were either familiar with the practice or engaging in it or both. This certainly could be an allusion to the Maccabean text.

This led me to think about the text in Jude 14,15 that quotes from the apocryphal 1 Enoch text. Jude is apocryphal in nature and is quoting Enoch which is also apocryphal. This is one key reason why this small document had such difficulty gaining full acceptance in the early church, yet this suggests that Enoch had more than a little influence.

Many of the second century church fathers make citations from "The Apocrypha" as inspired text. These apocryphal writings were accorded "scriptural" status by some fathers prior to Jerome as being in the OT, not the NT.

Luther and other Protestants did reject The Apocrypha as biblical text and their rejection may indeed have had something to do with purgatory and prayers for the dead (something Luther really disagreed with). Luther and the other Reformers [Protestants] also demanded that the biblical text should be translated directly from the original languages and NOT from Jerome's Latin which was a less than satisfactory translation of the Greek and a very poor translation of Hebrew. Most of the best known Reformers were biblical scholars and knew that The Apocrypha had not been included in the Hebrew OT - this probably affected their view of the writings as well.

It was only AFTER Luther, at the Council of Trent in 1546, that the Catholic Church officially stated these writings were included in the inspired text of the Bible. No matter what doctrinal positions one takes, these data points are not "Catholic" or "Protestant," but historical. As with many other early extra-biblical texts, some early Christians viewed these texts as "inspired," while others did not.

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