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.