Why I Read the Apocrypha, & Why You Should Too

Preston Sprinkle —  March 19, 2012 — 11 Comments

Why are Protestants scared of the Apocrypha? I think it’s because we think that it’s Catholic, and since we’re Protestant, we don’t want to taint our theology with the dogma of Rome. But such fear is based on an inaccurate understanding of what these books are. The books of the so-called “Apocrypha”—yes, the ones that are placed inside the Bible of Roman Catholics—were not written by Catholics, for Catholics, nor did its authors set out to expound Catholic doctrine. The Apocrypha wasn’t even included in the so-called “Catholic canon” until hundreds of years after it was written, and many of its authors would probably be appalled that it was.

So what is the Apocrypha?

The Old Testament Apocrypha (to distinguish it from the New Testament Apocrypha, which is much different) is a collection of 7 (or sometimes 10 or more) books written by faithful Jews living during the intertestamental period. Here’s a snapshot of their content:

  • 1-2 Maccabees. A history of the Greek persecution of the Jewish people, and the subsequent Maccabean revolt (around 180-140 B.C.).
  • Wisdom of Solomon. A Jewish philosophical treatise about the righteous and wicked
  • Tobit. A tale about a righteous male Jew, similar to Job
  • Judith. A tale about a righteous female Jew, similar to (though in many ways, quite different from) Esther
  • Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus). Wisdom literature similar to Proverbs
  • Additions to Daniel and Esther. Like it sounds, these contain bits that are left out of the biblical books.
  • Baruch. A book that longs for God’s restoration of Israel.

Now again, these books were written by God-fearing Jews—not Catholics nor Protestants. And they were written before Christ, so its authors did not have a chance to accept Jesus as Lord and Savoir. The books ended up being collected in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) and then the Latin Vulgate, and since the Vulgate was the standard Bible of the church for over 1,000 years (around AD 400-1500), the Apocrypha became part of the canon. However, they were considered “deuterocanical,” or in layperson’s terms “not as important as the 66 books of the canon.” When the Reformation hit (1500s), the Reformers rejected the Apocrypha as part of inspired Scripture.

Interestingly, however, the Reformers didn’t rip out and burn the Apocrypha when they stood against the Catholic Church. In fact, Martin Luther and others continued to print their Bibles with the Apocrypha in it. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when even Protestant King James Bibles began to be printed without the Apocrypha.

The fact that you don’t have the Apocrypha in your English Bible is a rather recent phenomenon.

So the Apocrypha is not Catholic. It’s a collection of Jewish books written between the Testaments, when faithful Jews were seeking to live righteously in the midst of a pagan environment. And I’m pretty convinced that we will see and embrace its authors in the New Creation.

So why are Protestants so scared of the Apocrypha? We’ve already shown that it’s not Catholic, so there should be no fear of transforming into a worshipper of Mary by flipping its pages. I’ve also heard people raise the question: “Since it’s not inspired, then we shouldn’t read it.”

Hmmm…do I even need to address this, or is the inconsistency as glaring to you as it is to me? If we should only read inspired literature, then our libraries need a serious renovation.

What about all the supposed doctrines in the Apocrypha that are dangerous? I mean, even though it wasn’t written by Catholics, it contains stuff that leads to Catholic doctrine, right?

Well, sort of, but not really. Yes, there are certain passages that Catholics will go to in order to support certain doctrines (praying for the dead, purgatory, salvation by works), but you’d be surprised at how unclear such passages are. If you read the Apocrypha and weren’t looking for these doctrines, you’d probably pass right over them. Moreover, there are passages in the NT that could (but don’t) suggest the same thing: 1 Corinthians chapters 3, 15, and James 2 all could be taken to support purgatory, praying for the dead, and salvation by works respectively (again, I don’t think they do). But we still read them.

So what benefit is there in reading the Apocrypha? Here are a couple.

First, it helps us breathe the ancient air that Jesus and the apostles breathed. Books like 1 Maccabees acquaint us with the history that branded the idea of the kingdom of God on the hearts and minds of first century Jews. Wisdom of Solomon helps us see a blend of Jewish and philosophical reasoning that we see in Hebrews and (to some extent) in John. Plus, Paul was probably in critical dialogue with the Wisdom of Solomon when he wrote Romans. Other books such as the apocalypse of 2 Esdras (or 4 Ezra, which is in some versions of the Apocrypha) helps us to interpret the book of Revelation. It too talks about weird creatures coming out of the sea. In short, these books help us to situate the NT in its own context.

Second, these books can be downright inspiring. No, I didn’t say inspired, but inspiring. Many of the faithful Jews who wrote and resonated with the books of the Apocrypha lived in a time where obedience meant death and apostasy could result in much wealth and cultural acceptance. The Apocrypha, therefore, may be a healthy alternative than much of the fluffy junk that inundates our Christian bookstores today. And, if we are going to read non-inspired literature (John Piper, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, Beth Moore, etc.), then why not read stuff that was written right around the time of Jesus?

All in all, I’ve been tremendously blessed by reading the Apocrypha and have a better handle of the NT because of it.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Andrew Smith

    Thanks, Dr. Sprinkle. Thoughtful and well-said. I remember you saying similar things in your Spiritual Formation class during your Cedarville days.

    Would you agree though that it’s probably best to print the OT Apocrypha in a separate codex from the Bible in order to avoid confusion regarding what texts are inspired and not inspired? I suppose we should say the same thing about study bibles and such (though I have my own reservations about those for the same reason) but for the average reader even those would be clearly distinct from the Scripture itself. That wouldn’t be the case with the Apocrypha, which pre-dates the NT and to a uneducated Bible reader would look no different from it.

    • Hey Andrew, great to hear from you!

      No, I don’t think the Apocrypha should be printed within the canon. That would certainly cause confusion.

  • Tyler Goens

    Thanks for the challenge Preston. Though some contemporary authors are great, there’s so much to learn from those before us. And how often do we read non-biblical literature from the same context as our scripture? In my own life, even as a bible/theo major, I’ve hardly treaded in the apocrypha. So thanks again for the challenge. On a side note, have you done much research as to the different ways the apocrypha was used pre-reformation (canonically vs useful to edfiy vs somewhere in the middle)?

    • Tyler, no I haven’t done much study on the pre-reformation understanding of the Apoc. I do know, though, that before the canon was closed around AD 400, many other books were considered to be Scripture or “useful to edify” among the church fathers.

      Thanks for dropping in!

  • Tyler Goens

    Thanks for the

  • Dean Knudsen

    Thanks Preston for the insight. I personally had never considered reading them and not for any other reason than they weren’t in my bible. Now I know I should read them. Thanks again!

  • Adam F

    Yeah that would be a very interesting post! I meant to say “store up treasure above and not on earth where rust destroys” – haha.

  • Adam

    Thank Preston. Yeah, it really does seem like we have a fear of these books because we see everything in terms of Catholicism and Protestantism – great point. I think it’s interesting how in the introduction to Sirach, the author basically says “here is some great wisdom from my grandfather to help you understand Scripture better” and not “here is another book of the Bible”. It appears that there are some direct references/influences of this book in the NT, like “don’t store up treasure above where rust destroys” (I’m paraphrasing) and “mourn with those who mourn”.

    • Great point, Adam. Yes, it’s very true–undeniable, in fact–that the NT writers were influenced by and read several books of the Apocrypha and other Jewish books. Jude clearly quoted from 1 Enoch 1:9, and several other traditions from other Jewish books have found their way into the NT. Maybe this should be my next post!

  • torri

    i like this. i’m gonna read some of that today.

    • 1 or 2 Maccabees is a great place to start. 2 Macc 7 is truly inspiring, though a bit gruesome. And the whole book of Tobit is very well written.