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The Apocryphal Books—What is in them for us?

Bob Burns responds to Kent's questions - Part 2

Before getting into the individual books Bob, let us take some time to consider whether the body of literature known as the Apocrypha has any relevance for Christians living today. After all, they were written during the inter-testamental period, between the close of the Old Testament and before the New Testament.

Bob Burns

Question: Perhaps we might start with what it was that the Apocrypha (from now on AP will stand for Apocrypha) meant to the Jewish community during the time when they were written. And I think part of the answer to that question might have something to do with the Babylonian exile and the subjugations of the Jewish people after that, yes?

Answer: The theme of the persecution and suffering of God’s people is prevalent throughout the deuterocanonical books.  After the Babylonian captivity, Jews living within the land of Israel as well as those outside it suffered under a succession of gentile kingdoms, which is well-documented within the books we are discussing here.

“He gave them into subjection to all the kingdoms around us, to be a reproach and a desolation among all the surrounding peoples, where the Lord has scattered them.” (Baruch 2:4 ESV)

To be sure, these themes also show up in the thirty-nine universally accepted books of the Old Testament; however, in the books of the deuterocanon, these historical realities take center stage.  We see this theme prominently featured not only within historical books like 1, 2, and 3 Maccabees, but the theme recurs in the other books as well. 

In Tobit and 3 Maccabees, the suffering of God’s people in the Diaspora is central; in Judith and 1 and 2 Maccabees, gentile oppression of the Jews in Israel is the focus. 

You may be surprised to realize the oldest recorded martyrologies are to be found within the books of the deuterocanon.  The writer of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews refers to notable saints in former times who had been “stoned, and sawn in two” (Hebrews 11:37 ESV), but it is within the books of the deuterocanon we are informed it was Isaiah who was sawn in two by King Manasseh (The Ascension of Isaiah), and that Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt (The Rest of the Words of Baruch).

In 2 Maccabees, we read in great detail of the sufferings, the testimonies, and the deaths of those who refused to deny their faith in order to secure their release; as the Epistle to the Hebrews states, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life,” (Hebrews 11:35 ESV).  In the deuterocanonical books the testimonies of persons who suffered for righteousness’ sake in ancient times are immortalized for us in writing. 

These records of the suffering of Jews under their gentile rulers foreshadow the experiences which were to come to the followers of Jesus Christ in a later era.  In that light, I have no doubt these books would have provided comfort and hope to many who were living under similar conditions from the time of the Babylonians and even in the times of the early Church.

Q: Is there any evidence that authors of the AP considered their work to be inspired on a level with the Torah, Prophetic books, or the Writings?

A: It is a mixed picture. Within the deuterocanonical books there are books of wisdom literature and books of history; there are also books which lay claim to being the written records of prophets. 


A number of the books under consideration here are of the “apocalyptic” genre.  Our readers will no doubt be familiar with that most famous of all apocalyptic books, The Revelation of John.  An apocalypse represents a particular type of prophetic book.  The English word apocalypse comes from the Greek “apokalupsis”, which means “to uncover” or “to reveal”.  An apocalypse is a type of revelation from God to a prophet in which the prophet sees in visionary form the unveiling of spiritual realities and at times, future events.  A number of the deuterocanonical books lay claim to being apocalypses.

The apocalypses among these books are The Book of Enoch, The Apocalypse of Baruch, and The Ezra Apocalypse (2 Esdras).  The Book of Jubilees also has apocalyptic elements within it.

Other books of a non-apocalyptic type which lay claim to prophetic authorship are Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah, The Rest of the Words of Baruch, and Psalms 151, 154 and 155, which claim to be written by King David.


A number of the deuterocanonical books are histories.  At times, these historical books seem to show evidence of being looked at as different from a number of the historical books of the Old Testament.  The historical books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel and Kings, are traditionally assigned in Judaism as the writings of the “former prophets”, (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve minor prophets being of the “later prophets”).

The writer of 1 Maccabees clearly saw his own era as being after “the time that prophets ceased to appear,” (9:27 ESV), though he also states, the people anticipated and looked forward to a future time when “a trustworthy prophet should arise” (14:41 ESV).

The writer of 2 Maccabees, in a seemingly self-effacing style concludes his book with, “So I too will here end my story.  If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do.” (15:37-38 ESV).

Having said this, it seems worth noting the biblical historical books of 1 and 2 Chronicles were likewise apparently not viewed in ancient times as the writings of one of the prophets.  The Chronicles are traditionally assigned within Judaism to the last section of the Hebrew Bible referred to as “the Writings”.  Chronicles comes as the last entry in the Hebrew Bible; an inspired book, but apparently not from the pen of a prophet.

Differing degrees of authority

The point of all this then, is there does seem to have been differing degrees of authority or status among the deuterocanonical books.  But does this differ significantly from the universally accepted 39 books of the Old Testament?  Indeed, within that body of literature there also seems to have existed certain differences of status between the various books… The Torah (the books of Moses) can be seen as the bedrock of all that would come later; the former and latter prophets can be viewed as expositors of the Law, calling the nation back to its Mosaic roots.  Most of “the Writings” too seem to have had a different status within the Hebrew Scriptures.  After all, one would be hard pressed to develop significant doctrine by resorting solely to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or The Song of Solomon.

To sum up, it seems there were among the Jews those who assigned relative degrees of “weightiness” to the various books of Scripture; a similar sort of differentiation was likely done with the deuterocanonical works as well.  Some of the deuterocanonical books claim prophetic authorship others do not.  Their relative weightiness was likely judged on an individual basis.

Q: What about the Jewish religious leadership of the First Century A.D.? Do we know anything about how they felt about the AP?

A: It is important to realize there was a wide difference between the Jewish religious leadership of the first century, before and after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.  Before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, we do not know much of what their attitude was toward these books.  We know that the broad categories of classifying the Old Testament books were being established.  We know that some of the books in question were being copied and preserved in Israel and some were being copied and preserved by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt.  From the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we also know that some of these books were at times stored and preserved alongside the scrolls of the books we find in the Jewish Bible of today; among the Dead Sea Scrolls we have every book of the Jewish Bible except Esther; we also have The Book of Jubilees, The Book of Enoch, The Book of Tobit, The Wisdom of ben Sirach, and Psalms 151, 154 and 155.   From excavations at Masada, scroll fragments for Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Ezekiel were recovered as well as fragments from The Book of Jubilees and The Wisdom of ben Sirach.

Of primary importance to the religious leaders of Judaism after the destruction of the temple was the perpetuation of their religion without the sacrificial system which had been afforded by the temple worship.  The Jewish religious leadership after the destruction of the temple was concerned with redrawing their religion in order that it may survive in the midst of a hostile Roman world, a world in which, too, the numbers of Christians were beginning to surpass the numbers of Jews. 

Some time late in the first century, a “canon” of authoritative Scripture appears for the first time which excludes all but the books which we find in the Jewish Bible today; the additional books we are considering here were excluded as well as were the growing collection of New Testament books which were being written and accepted by the new Christian movement.

Q: What about the primitive church, say from the resurrection to the early years of the Fourth Century? What did the AP mean to the Church during that period?

A: After the Apostolic age, within the writings of the Early Church Fathers, there are numerous instances of the deuterocanonical books being quoted in a favorable fashion.  Polycarp, Athenagorus, Hippolytus, Origin, Tertullian, Cyprian, Dionysius of Alexandria, Aphrahat of Persia, Athanasius, Cyril, Hilary, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, John Cassian the Roman, and Jerome all quote favorably from the these books referring to them at times as “Scripture” or “holy Scripture” and quoting from them with the prefatory formula, “It is written…,” --a formula inherited from the Jews which signifies that the quoted material is regarded as authoritative Scripture.

However, the picture is not monolithic.  There were voices in those centuries who advocated for the smaller Old Testament canon, following the one which had lately been adopted by the Jews at the close of the first century A.D.  Melito of Sardis, Athanasius, and Origen advocated for the shorter Old Testament canon based upon the one recognized within Judaism.  Oddly, though Athanasius and Origin advocated for the smaller Old Testament, both of them can be found to use deuterocanonical books for teaching purposes, at times referring to them as Scripture and quoting from them with the prefatory formula, “It is written…”

Generally speaking, after the Apostolic age, doubts concerning the deuterocanonical writings increased over the course of the next three centuries.

Q:  Did the AP impact our New Testament at all?

A: I am aware of only one explicit quote in the New Testament from the group of books under consideration here.  In the Epistle of Jude 1:14-15 is a direct quote from the Book of Enoch 1:9.  None of the other deuterocanonical books are quoted explicitly.  However, a persuasive case can be made for numerous allusions to the books of the deuterocanon within the New Testament. 

Relevant to this it may also be helpful to bear in mind that the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Nahum, and Zephaniah are not explicitly quoted in the New Testament as well. 

In future editions of this journal, as we discuss the individual books under consideration, we will seek to show examples of New Testament reference being made to them.

Q: Do you consider it important for Christians living today to have some understanding of the AP?

A: It is my contention that the study of the disputed books of the Old Testament has been an important aspect of Biblical studies in the life of the Church throughout its 2,000 years.  No matter whether one concludes that these books are best called Apocrypha, Deuterocanon, or Scripture, the lack of attention to these books among Western Christians in the last few centuries is a relatively late development in Church history.  The study of the disputed books of the Old Testament sheds light on our understanding of the rest of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  Our ignorance of them leaves us that much bereft of a fuller, richer understanding of our Bible.

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