Apocrypha comes from a Greek word “apokryphos”, which means “to hide”, “what is hidden”. And the English word apocryphal has come to mean “false”. So when people talk about the Apocrypha, as a Protestant Evangelical, I’m talking about additional books that I don’t believe are part of the canon, but additional books that some Christian traditions, like Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy include within their Old Testament canon.
There’s no debate about the content of the New Testament among major Christian traditions. It’s as some people have said, it’s amazing when you look at the diversity and geographical spread, and there’s this affirmation of the 27 book New Testament canon that we have. But depending on how you divide it up, because there’s portions of books and so on, whether it’s 12 additional books, or for Eastern Orthodoxy there’s even more. Where did these books come from? And why do Protestants not believe they’re part of the canon?
The easy explanation for this is to say: Jesus and the apostles didn’t believe this was part of the canon. The Jews who wrote these books in the time between the Old and New Testament never included it in their canon, they’re not in the synagogue that you go to, they’re not quoted as Scripture, with “as the Scripture says”, “as Word of God says”, they’re not quoted as Scripture in the New Testament. And so we don’t believe that those should be included within our canon.
The Apocrypha also contains clear historical error, unlike the Old and New Testament Scriptures. You can see lists of these errors, for example in Paul Wagner’s book The Journey from Text to Translations. The Catholic Church, there were certain regional councils that affirmed books of the Apocrypha, but a church-wide council did not affirm the Apocrypha as Scripture within the Catholic Church, until the Council of Trent in 1546, in reaction against the Protestant Reformation. So that should give us pause if we don’t have a church-wide council affirming those books until a reaction against Protestants.
And having said that, I teach at a Baptist Seminary, and so many times students who come from the Baptist tradition are very skeptical about the Apocrypha, they think it’s almost like an evil book, don’t read it. But I think that’s wrong. I mean these are books that are written by early Jews who were seeking to live a life, many times pleasing to God, there’s a diversity within it, but portions of the Apocrypha sound just like the Psalms, calling out to God in praise for His attributes. There’s a beautiful passage in Sirach 38 about physicians, that don’t despise the physician, pray to God for healing, but don’t be afraid to go to the physician because God’s given him wisdom about the herbs of the Earth and how they can heal you too. So we read this and we think this is people seeking to live, to serve God. Many times, I’ve always thought the Book of Tobit would make an amazing Disney movie. It’s not Scripture, but if you read the Book of Tobit, it has love, it has intrigue, and it’s really enjoyable to read as a book, but it’s not Scripture.
We can also when we read the Apocrypha, it can help us understand what happened between the last book of the Old Testament and Jesus’ ministry. And where did these Pharisees come from? Where did these Sadducees come from? That story is told really in the Apocrypha, you read 1 and 2 Maccabees. And so it gives us helpful historical background.
Within the Protestant tradition, I’ve found that there are really two strands. There’s a strand that ends up in sort of Anglicanism, the English Church, and then there’s a strand that’s more like Baptist and Presbyterian, and I guess Lutheranism would be over here with Anglicanism, and they will use words from the Apocrypha for hymns and other things like that, they don’t believe it’s Scripture. But within the Baptist and more Presbyterian tradition, it’s really only looked at as valuable for historical background many times. But if you look in your hymnal, sometimes we even sing hymns based on the Apocrypha, but it usually doesn’t say that in our hymnal. For example, the famous hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” which is in the Baptist hymnal, is based on Sirach 50, almost word for word, this beautiful hymn to God. Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices. Or the famous Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is based upon a text out of the Apocrypha. So the Apocrypha is not Scripture, but it is helpful sometimes to understand the things that happened between the Testaments. And some Christian traditions have written hymns and other things that use some of the wording of the Apocrypha.