What Is the “Apocrypha”?

Question: “What do the terms “apocrypha” and “deuterocanonical” mean, and how does the Orthodox Church view them?”

Answer: The question of the Biblical canon is a somewhat complicated one, because it developed over a very long period of time, and there certainly have been some historical disagreements on the matter. The word “canon” comes the Greek word κανών, which means a measuring rod, or a rule. And so when we speak of the canon of Scripture, we are speaking of the lists of books that affirmed to be Scripture.

Christians have a precisely defined New Testament Canon, about which there is no dispute… at least not since the 4th century, and this is due in part because of a heretic by the name of Marcion who produced a very truncated New Testament canon, which included only the Gospel of Luke and some of the Epistles of St. Paul, which he edited to fit his heretical views. And then there were also heretical books that claimed to be written by Apostles, but which were not which the Church wanted to clearly reject. There was never any dispute about most of the books of the New Testament, but there were a few books that were not immediately accepted throughout the Church, but were eventually.

When it comes to the Old Testament canon, there is a precisely defined core canon, and fairly well defined next layer, and then less clearly defined edges. So why the precision in the case of the new, but not the Old? This is partly because there was not nearly as much controversy on the question, which is not to say that there were no disagreements, but the level of concern over these disagreements did not rise to nearly the same level. It was not until the time of the Protestant Reformation that this question did become a bigger issue, because for Protestants who generally took a low view of Tradition, whether or not a book was really part of Scripture became almost an all or nothing question. Either the book was Scripture, in which case it had all authority; or it was not scripture, in which case it had essentially no authority, though it might be a matter of some historical interest.

When we speak of the Canonical books of the Old Testament, or the “Protocanonical” books as Roman Catholics put it, we have general agreement. These books are the same as the books recognized by the Jews as Scripture. The only difference you find is that in some canonical lists the books of Baruch is sometimes listed as part of these books, and Esther is not.

But what are the names used for the “extra” books that are not part of the undisputed Old Testament Canon? Many early Fathers simply made no distinction, and referred to them as Scripture. Then you have some sources that refer to these books as “non-canonical”… but we will need to consider further what they really mean by that. St. Athanasius the Great referred to these books as “readable” books — books not included in the Jewish canon, but which could be read in Church in the services. Then you have the term “Deuterocanonical,” which is, I think, a useful term, but it is a Roman Catholic term that came into use to counter the Protestant rejection of these books. The implication of this name is that these books comprise a second Old Testament Canon, or you could say a list of canonical books which were known not to have been accepted by the Jews, but which were accepted by Christians. Then you have Protestants who labeled these books as “Apocrypha.” To these terms we could add the term “Pseudepigrapha”, which is a label applied to many texts that are almost universally rejected, but which claim the names of Old Testament saints as their authors.

There is a very interesting comment by Origen in his letter to Africanus (ANF v. IV, pp 386ff.), in which he responds to Africanus, who had asked him why he quoted from the portion of the book of Daniel which contains the story of Susanna, which is not found in the Hebrew text. Origen responds that he was not unaware of this fact (after all, he produced a six column text of the Old Testament, the Hexapla, which was the first critical edition of the Old Testament, and which compared the Hebrew text with various Greek editions). Origen defended the authenticity of this portion of Daniel. His response is detailed, but let me highlight a few points:

“And, forsooth, when we notice such things, we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our Churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery! Are we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the Churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things?

In all these cases consider whether it would not be well to remember the words, “Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set.” Nor do I say this because I shun the labour of investigating the Jewish Scriptures, and comparing them with ours, and noticing their various readings. This, if it be not arrogant to say it, I have already to a great extent done to the best of my ability, labouring hard to get at the meaning in all the editions and various readings; while I paid particular attention to the interpretation of the Seventy, lest I might to be found to accredit any forgery to the Churches which are under heaven, and give an occasion to those who seek such a starting-point for gratifying their desire to slander the common brethren, and to bring some accusation against those who shine forth in our community. And I make it my endeavour not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures. For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true reading as they have them. So far as to the History of Susanna not being found in the Hebrew.”

Two important points are made here: Christians should use the texts preserved by the Church, and not feel like we have to go cap in hand to the Jews to find out what the Bible is. However, it is important for us to know what texts they accept and do not, so that when speaking to them, we not appear to be ignorant, and thus harm our witness to them.

Skipping further on in the text we find Origen saying that the reason for many of the omissions in the Hebrew texts are because the Scribes and Pharisees omitted things that made them look bad:

“But probably to this you will say, Why then is the “History” not in their Daniel, if, as you say, their wise men hand down by tradition such stories? The answer is, that they hid from the knowledge of the people as many of the passages which contained any scandal against the elders, rulers, and judges, as they could, some of which have been preserved in uncanonical writings (Apocrypha). As an example, take the story told about Isaiah; and guaranteed by the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is found in none of their public books.”

Here Origen gives an interesting meaning to the term “Apocrypha” (hidden books). His argument is that the story of Susanna was omitted in the Hebrew text because it made the Jewish elders look bad. If you look at the Wisdom of Solomon, you could see how they might also have had incentive to have hidden this book too.

“Therefore let us lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and he is clean contrary to our doings: he upbraideth us with our offending the law, and objecteth to our infamy the transgressings of our education. He professeth to have the knowledge of God: and he calleth himself the child of the Lord. He was made to reprove our thoughts. He is grievous unto us even to behold: for his life is not like other men’s, his ways are of another fashion. We are esteemed of him as counterfeits: he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness: he pronounceth the end of the just to be blessed, and maketh his boast that God is his father. Let us see if his words be true: and let us prove what shall happen in the end of him. For if the just man be the son of God, he will help him, and deliver him from the hand of his enemies. Let us examine him with despitefulness and torture, that we may know his meekness, and prove his patience. Let us condemn him with a shameful death: for by his own saying he shall be respected” (Wisdom 2:12-20).

This is a very clear prophecy of the attitude which the Jewish leaders would take toward Christ. This text was used very effectively by Christians in the Early Church, and the Jews had good reason to want to dismiss it.

I think Origen puts his finger on the reason why many Fathers made a distinction between the “canonical” books of the Old Testament which the Jews accepted, and the books which they did not accept. Even to this day, you still find these books referred to as “non-canonical” by contemporary Orthodox writers, who mean by that only that they are not in the Jewish canon.

For example, Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, in The Law of God, wrote:

“Besides the canonical books, a part of the Old Testament is composed of non-canonical books, sometimes called Apocrypha among non-Orthodox. These are books which the Jews lost and which are not in the contemporary Hebrew text of the Old Testament. They are found in the Greek translations of the Old Testament, made by the 70 translators of the Septuagint three centuries before the birth of Christ (271 B.C.). These book have been included in the Bible from ancient times and are considered by the Church to be sacred Scripture. The translation of the Septuagint is accorded special respect in the Orthodox Church. The Slavonic translation of the Bible was made from it.

To the non-canonical books of the Old Testament belong:

1. Tobit
2. Judith
3. The Wisdom of Solomon
4. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Sirach
5. Baruch
6. Three books of Maccabees
7. The Second and Third book of Esdras
8. The additions to the (Book of Esther,) II Chronicles (The Prayer of Manasseh) and Daniel (The Song of the Youths, Susanna and Bel and the Dragon)” (Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, The Law Of God: For Study at Home and School (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996), p. 423).

While generally, not much is made of a distinction between the “canonical” and “deuterocanonical” books in the Orthodox, some writers continue to argue that there is a distinction, such as Fr. Michael Pomazansky:

“The Church recognizes 38 books of the Old Testament. After the example of the Old Testament Church, several of these books are joined to form a single book, bringing the number to twenty-two books, according to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. These books, which were entered at some time into the Hebrew canon, are called “canonical.” To them are joined a group of “non-canonical” books-that is, those which were not included in the Hebrew canon because they were written after the closing of the canon of the sacred Old Testament books. The Church accepts these latter books also as useful and instructive and in antiquity assigned them for instructive reading not only in homes but also in churches, which is why they have been called “ecclesiastical.” The Church includes these books in a single volume of the Bible together with the canonical books. As a source of the teaching of the faith, the Church puts them in a secondary place and looks on them as an appendix to the canonical books. Certain of them are so close in merit to the Divinely-inspired books that, for example, in the 85th Apostolic Canon the three books of Maccabees and the book of Joshua the son of Sirach are numbered together with the canonical books, and, concerning all of them together it is said that they are “venerable and holy.” However, this means only that they were respected in the ancient Church; but a distinction between the canonical and non-canonical books of the Old Testament has always been maintained in the Church (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, trans. Fr. Serpahim (Rose), (Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 1984), p. 26f).

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), on the other hand, says:

“In contemporary editions of the Bible the books of the Old Testament are subdivided into those books that are canonical and those not canonical. Those books that fall under the canonical category are understood to be those of the Hebrew canon. This canon (i.e. the list of books recognized as holy in the Jewish tradition) was formed over centuries and was finally solidified in the year 90 CE by the Sanhedrin in the Galilean city of Jamnia. The canonical texts differ from the non-canonical in their antiquity; the former were written in the period between the fifteenth and fifth centuries BCE, while the latter were written between the fourth and first centuries BCE. As for the number of non-canonical books concerned there are the books of Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, 2 and 3 Esdras, the letter of Jeremiah, Baruch and 3 Maccabees, and also the Prayer of Manasseh at the end of 2 Chronicles, as well as various parts of the book of Esther, Psalm 151, and three fragments from the book of the Prophet Daniel (3.24-90, 13, 14).

The Protestant Bible does not include the non-canonical books of the Old Testament, and in this way it differs from the Orthodox just as from the Catholic Bible. The Catholic Bible includes the non-canonical books under the category of “deuterocanonical” (this term was coined by the Council of Trent in 1546). For the Orthodox Christian, the difference between the canonical and non-canonical books of the Old Testament is of a conventional character inasmuch as the question is not about an Orthodox or Christian canon, but is about the Jewish canon, completed independently from Christianity. In the Orthodox Church, the basic criterion for the specific canonicity of this or that book in the Old Testament is its use in the divine services. In this regard one cannot consider the Wisdom of Solomon and those fragments of the book of Daniel which are absent from the Hebrew canon, but which hold an important place in Orthodox services, to be non-canonical. Sometimes the non-canonical books, from the viewpoint of the Hebrew canon and the “deutercanonical” Catholic canon, in Orthodox usage are called by the Greek term anaginoskomena, αναγινώσκωμένα (i.e. acknowledged, recommended reading).

While all of the canonical books of the Old Testament are written in Hebrew, the basis of the Old Testament text in the Orthodox tradition is the Septuagint, a Greek translation by the “seventy interpreters” made in the third to second centuries BCE for the Alexandrian Hebrews and the Jewish diaspora. The authority of the Septuagint is based on three factors. First of all, though the Greek text is not the original language of the Old Testament books, the Septuagint does reflect the state of the original text as it would have been found in the third to second centuries BCE, while the current Hebrew text of the Bible, which is called the “Masoretic,” was edited up until the eighth century CE. Second, some of the citations taken from the Old Testament and found in the New mainly use the Septuagint text. Third, the Septuagint was used by both the Greek Fathers of the Church, and Orthodox liturgical services (in other words, this text became part of the Orthodox church Tradition). Taking into account the three factors enumerated above, St. Philaret of Moscow considers it possible to maintain that “in the Orthodox teaching of Holy Scripture it is necessary to attribute a dogmatic merit to the Translation of the Seventy, in some cases placing it on equal level with the original and even elevating it above the Hebrew text, as is generally accepted in the most recent editions” (Orthodox Christianity, Volume II: Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, (New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2012) p. 33f).

To complicate matters further, if you look at the Russian Synodal Bible and compare with the standard Orthodox edition of the Bible in Greek, there are some books that included in one that are not in the other (the Greek Bible included 4th Maccabees, and the Russian Bible includes 2nd Esdras (also called 4th Esdras in some editions), and so what should we make of all of this?

If you think of the Tradition as a target, with concentric circles, you could put the Gospels in the middle, the writings of the apostles in the in the next ring, maybe the Law of Moses, in the next, the prophets in the next, the writings in the next, the deutrocanonical books in the next, the wrings of those who knew the Apostle in the next, the Ecumenical Canons in the next, etc. The only debate would be which ring to put them on… and ultimately, is that the most important question? For a Protestant, this is a huge question. For the Orthodox, it is not so much.

For most of the books in the Orthodox Bible, there is no question that they are Scripture in the full sense. The Deuterocanonical books are certainly Scripture as well, though some Fathers and some writers would argue that they have secondary authority. Then there are some books that are included more along the lines of being appendices to the Scriptures (4th Maccabees and 2nd Esdras). They all are part of the larger Tradition, and they all have to be understood within the context of that larger Tradition — and that is the key thing to keep in mind.

Source: http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2019/07/stump-priest-what-is-apocrypha.html

About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.


  1. Dear Editor,

    thank you for this most well researched read. Upon finishing the article i immediately went an earlier article pertaining to the LXX. Does the comment from the editor conflict with the quotes i point out immediately below?

    “But probably to this you will say, Why then is the “History” not in their Daniel, if, as you say, their wise men hand down by tradition such stories? The answer is, that they hid from the knowledge of the people as many of the passages which contained any scandal against the elders, rulers, and judges, as they could, some of which have been preserved in uncanonical writings (Apocrypha). As an example, take the story told about Isaiah; and guaranteed by the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is found in none of their public books.”

    Here Origen gives an interesting meaning to the term “Apocrypha” (hidden books). His argument is that the story of Susanna was omitted in the Hebrew text because it made the Jewish elders look bad. If you look at the Wisdom of Solomon, you could see how they might also have had incentive to have hidden this book too.

    And this is from the editor of that time.

    Dear William,

    The thought that Jews were altering the verses of Scripture in order to somehow challenge the messianic and Divine character of Jesus is widespread and absolutely wrong. The authority of the Tanah for Jews is so extremely high that they even do not cancel the ancient mistakes made by the scribes, so high is their fear to alter the Scripture.
    The difference between LXX and Masora is not in several words but sometimes even in number of chapters and the books containing in the canon. That is due to the different editing schools and traditions in ancient Judaism. LXX and MT are only mainstream traditions of collection of Scripture and both are acceptable.

    There are quite many messianic parts in MT.

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