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How important is the Apocrypha?


One of my interests that separates me from many people within my church group is really my interest in those set of books commonly called the Apocrypha. (I’m really interested in the much wider net of Second Temple literature, but we’ll stick with the apocrypha). It is hard, however, to convince them to look at these books, especially to look at them more than saying, hey the Catholics have these or some such nonsense.

The Apocrypha, is important and I think the historic Church has thought so as well. Sure, Protestants have not usually included them in the canon and I’m not arguing that they do so at this time. But I would argue that any faithful preacher of the words should have some sort of working knowledge of these books, especially as they try to interpret the New Testament.

Really? Some might say. In fact, I have gotten such a response before, but I am being totally honest.

These books have within them the expansion of themes that appear within the Old Testament and help to explain some of the theology and culture that surrounds the New Testament background. Tobit, has an extensive theological background on angels for example. Wisdom’s passages on Lady Wisdom had an important part of the Christological debates of the early church for another example. That’s just two brief mentions, which could certainly be expanded upon.

Culturally these books gives us hints on such things as marriage ceremonies and cultural values (again Tobit and the Wisdom books), important historical events for the Jewish people (the Maccabees), the stand against idolatry (Wisdom, Baruch, Daniel’s addition, just to name a few) and so much more.

It is true that the New Testament doesn’t cite any of these books, (although let’s be honest, there are other books in the OT canon it doesn’t cite either), but some scholars argue, and I think rightly, that does allude to them in several places. The author of Hebrews, for example, in the faith passage mention some that were sawed in two, which could easily refer to extra-biblical belief that Isaiah was sawed in two by Manasseh. Or 11.35, which appears to allude to the story of martyrs founds in 2 Maccabees.

Do we need to know the apocrypha to understand these passages, certainly not, but having a knowledge of them, helps us to more fully understand the author’s intent in the various writings.

Above, I also mentioned that the historic church has indeed made use of the apocrypha. The patristic church used and cited the scripture as canon (except for those few fathers who knew Hebrew i.e. Jerome, but he still made use of the Apocrypha), and this naturally followed into the medieval period.

Protestants, however, with a renew sense of returning back to the original languages of the Bible, took more time to look at the canon and the church’s differing opinion of these books and took them out of the canon (and I would argue with good reason). Yet, many of these same leaders still commented that these books were still of use.

Luther for example wrote in the preface to the Apocrypha: “Apocrypha: these books are not held equal to the Scriptures but are useful and good to read.” (Martin Luther, vol. 35, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 35:337.)

Calvin gives a list of reasons of why he does not accept the books of the apocrypha as canonical; however, he like the other Reformers does not throw the books out completely. They do not have any sort of doctrinal authority, however, they are useful reading. (For instance, see his tracts against Trent)

The Anglican Church viewed Apocrypha like Jerome and says they are to be read “for example,” but they were not to be used to “establish any doctrine.” (“The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England,” in the Creeds of Christendom, ed. Phillip Schaff, volume 3 (New York: Harper and Row, 1931), 3:490.)

These, are just few examples, but they do show how early protestants felt about these books, which show a tremendously different outlook than many of those who I deal with today.

So what should one think about these works? I think they should look at them and come to their own conclusions and not simply lean on the views of others. I certainly see a use in knowing them slightly and not just saying they’re Catholics books, because honestly if anything they are Jews in the Second Temple period books.

They help to give us insights that too often are shrugged at, and provide wonderful stories of faithful people during the interim period of the Old and New Testament.

I say read some of them, it’s certainly more worth your time them some of the other things we read and watch today and I’m including stuff we would call Christian. What would it hurt? It would take two seconds to look it up online, or to pop up in most Bible apps on your phone.

The choice is yours.


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