Why do some Bibles include 15 extra books that are not found in other Bibles? Today, Barry Cooper digs into the history behind these books and considers what role they should serve in the Christian life.
When I was 11 and starting at a new school, the older kids wasted no time in telling us various legends about the teachers. One story was about the metalwork teacher who, according to some of the older boys, would throw a chisel at pupils’ heads if he became sufficiently irritated, thus explaining the teacher’s unofficial nickname, which of course was “Chisel.” When pressed, nobody seemed to have actually been present during one of these chisel-launching events or could explain why on earth Chisel was still actively teaching at a Church of England grammar school. So, to me, the story seemed pretty unlikely.
The tale of Chisel is an example of what we might call an “apocryphal” story, a story of dubious authenticity, without the historical evidence to back up its claim to be genuine. In a similar way, there are what we call “apocryphal” books that are included in some versions of the Bible. (Apocrypha literally means “things that are hidden.”)
On another episode, we’ve talked about which books were recognized by the early Church as being worthy of inclusion in the canon of Scripture. These are the sixty-six books that appear in most modern translations of the Bible. But there are some additional books, so-called apocryphal books, on which Protestants and Roman Catholics have disagreed.
From the Roman Catholic perspective, there are the sixty-six books whose authority has been accepted from the beginning of the church—they’re called the protocanonical books—but there are also twelve additional books in the Old Testament that were acknowledged later in church history—they’re called the deuterocanonical or apocryphal books.
These are the names of the twelve Old Testament books in question: Tobit, Judith, additions to the book of Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and finally 1 and 2 Maccabees. The Eastern Orthodox Church goes a step further and recognizes three other books in its Old Testament: the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras.
Together, these fifteen extra books are known as the Apocrypha.
However, none of them were in the original Hebrew canon received by the ancient Jews, the Scriptures that Jesus Himself quotes from extensively as carrying God’s authority.
That’s why Protestants have reasoned that while the books of the Apocrypha have some value, they should not be recognized as canonical. That is, they should not be recognized as being divinely inspired and suitable for establishing Christian doctrine and practice. Their value lies in the fact that they help us better understand the history, politics, and culture of the four-hundred-year period between the time when the Old Testament was completed and the time when the New Testament era began. So they give us some valuable context as we read the New Testament.
Martin Luther, in his 1534 translation of the Bible, refers to the Apocrypha as “books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures, and nevertheless are useful and good to read.” Another translator, Miles Coverdale, who published his translation the following year, also includes the Apocrypha, but with the following disclaimer: they are “books and treatises which among the Fathers of old are not reckoned to be of like authority with the other books of the Bible, neither are they found in the Canon of Hebrew.”
Another reason Protestants don’t recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture is that the New Testament writers themselves didn’t recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture. The New Testament writers quote the Old Testament as Scripture roughly three hundred times, but they never quote the Apocrypha in that way. It’s true that there are occasional allusions to the Apocrypha, but they’re never spoken of as Scripture or as “inspired.”
In fact, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in April 1546 that the Roman Catholic Church decreed that the canon of the Old Testament should—with the exception of the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras—contain the Apocrypha.
Some of the church fathers do quote regularly from the Apocrypha in the second and third centuries. But many of them didn’t read Hebrew, which meant that they were reading the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which included the Apocrypha. However, as we’ve seen, those books were most certainly not included in the original Hebrew Old Testament. And actually, church fathers who did know Hebrew, such as the great biblical scholar Jerome, tended to reject the Apocrypha as canonical, and even many Roman Catholics at the Council of Trent didn’t want these books to be formally recognized as Scripture.
So while these Apocryphal books are worth reading for the background they can give us to the New Testament, we shouldn’t mistake them for the real deal, those sixty-six books of Scripture that carry with them the weight of God’s inspiration and authority.