Many people coming into the Anglican tradition have been told that the Apocrypha is bad, that its books are pure mythology, or that they distract from the aim of Scripture.
Yet, upon closer examination, there seems to be a place for the Apocrypha. The New Testament contains allusions to the Apocrypha, and these writings enjoyed a prominent place in the early church.
So, how should we treat these typically neglected books?
Here’s the short and sweet answer.
By way of summary, here’s what Thomas McKenzie has to say about the Apocrypha in the glossary at the back of his The Anglican Way: A Guidebook:
“Apocrypha (n.) Writings of history and prophecy read by the Jewish people in the time of Jesus, considered by some to be part of the Christian Bible, but generally not received by Christians as the Word of God.”
Put simply, as Anglicans, we believe that the Apocrypha is well worth reading in the church today, but that there is a difference between apocryphal writings and canonical Holy Scripture. Theologically, we don’t believe or teach anything from the Apocrypha that isn’t also affirmed by the Old and New Testaments.
Practically, Anglicans often note this distinction between the Apocrypha and the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments by saying “here ends the reading” after a reading from the Apocrypha, as opposed to saying “the Word of the Lord.”
(Note: there’s not usually a congregational response to “here ends the reading,” whereas people do respond to “the Word of the Lord” with “thanks be to God.”)
Want to learn more? Keep reading.
In what follows, I will discuss:
- what the Apocrypha is and
- why readings from it are included in the Daily Office.
(The “Daily Office,” by the way, refers to praying at specific times throughout the day, most simply at Morning and Evening Prayer. Here are 5 reasons why you should do the Daily Office. Here’s a guide to the Daily Office Lectionary. And here are instructions on how to lead the Daily Office in a group setting.)
What is the Apocrypha?
The word “apocrypha” (adjective: “apocryphal”) means “secret, hidden, obscure.” Today, this label makes little sense, because the books that make up “the Apocrypha” have been known for centuries. But, oh well.
New Testament Apocrypha vs. Old Testament Apocrypha
Apocryphal writings exist that are related to both the Old Testament and the New Testament. However, the “New Testament Apocrypha,” as H.F. Vos notes in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, refers to
“a substantial collection published under the names of apostolic writers during the second and subsequent centuries [AD]. For the most part they were deliberate fabrications and never had any serious claim to canonicity. In this connection, apocrypha means untrue or spurious” (p. 68).
Therefore, when we’re talking about taking the Apocrypha seriously today, it’s important to clarify that we mean the Old Testament Apocrypha.
How did the Old Testament Apocrypha get included in some of our English Bibles?
The answer to this question is a bit complicated. Here’s how D.H. Wallace summarizes the history, again from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:
“The Jews uniformly denied canonical status to these books [the OT Apocrypha], so they were not found in the Hebrew Bible; but the LXX [the Septuagint, the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek] manuscripts include them as an addendum to the canonical OT. In the second century AD, the first Latin Bibles were translated from the Greek Bible and so included the Apocrypha. Jerome’s Vulgate distinguished libri ecclesiastici [“ecclesiastical books”] and libri canonici [“canonical books”], with the result that the Apocrypha were accorded secondary status” (p. 69).
(Nevertheless, this didn’t stop the Council of Carthage in 397 from accepting most of the Apocrypha as canonical. Their reasoning? “Because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church.”)
What about the Reformers of the 16th century? What did they think about the Apocrypha?
“The Reformers repudiated the Apocrypha as unworthy and contradictory to the doctrines of the uncontroverted canon; Luther, however, admitted that they were “profitable and good to read” (p. 69)
The inclusion of the Apocrypha in English Bibles was quite common at first, but then fell off.
“The Coverdale Bible , the Geneva Bible , and the King James Bible  included the Apocrypha but set them apart from the OT canonical books. After much debate, the British and Foreign Bible Society decided in 1827 to exclude the Apocrypha from its Bibles; soon afterward the American branch concurred, and this action set the pattern for English Bibles thereafter” (p. 69).
And yet! “Among Protestant communions, only Anglicans make much use of the Apocrypha today” (p. 69).
Why do Anglicans read the Apocrypha today?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, one of the foundation documents within the Anglican Communion:
The title of Article 6 is “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.”
The article begins with a discussion of canonical Holy Scripture:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.
Article 6 then lists the canonical books of the Old Testament:
- The First Book of Samuel,
- The Second Book of Samuel,
- The First Book of Kings,
- The Second Book of Kings,
- The First Book of Chronicles,
- The Second Book of Chronicles,
- The First Book of Esdras [Note: this is Ezra],
- The Second Book of Esdras [Note: this is Nehemiah],
- The Book of Esther,
- The Book of Job,
- The Psalms,
- The Proverbs,
- Ecclesiastes or Preacher,
- Cantica, or Songs of Solomon,
- Four Prophets the greater,
- Twelve Prophets the less.
Regarding the New Testament, it states:
All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.
OK, so far so good. What about the Apocrypha? Here’s what Article 6 says:
And the other Books (as Hierome saith [that’s the Jerome of the Latin Vulgate, mentioned above]) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine;
The article then lists the books it’s talking about:
- The Third Book of Esdras [1 Esdras],
- The Fourth Book of Esdras [2 Esdras],
- The Book of Tobias [Tobit],
- The Book of Judith,
- The Song of the Three Children,
- The Story of Susanna,
- Of Bel and the Dragon,
- The rest of the Book of Esther,
- The Book of Wisdom,
- Jesus the Son of Sirach [Ecclesiasticus],
- Baruch the Prophet,
- The Prayer of Manasses,
- The First Book of Maccabees,
- The Second Book of Maccabees.
To zero-in on the key phrase from this article: “the Church doth read [these apocryphal books] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”
As Reginald H. Fuller puts it in his chapter on Scripture in The Study of Anglicanism:
“Anglicans have always made some liturgical use of the apocryphal books, and twentieth-century [and now twenty-first!] lectionaries have extended that use. Modern scholarship has broken down the sharp division between the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and it might be a good thing if Anglicans were to adopt the Roman Catholic designation of the apocryphal books as ‘deutero-canonical’. We read them and value them, but they have a secondary position, being used only to reinforce the doctrines of the proto-canonical Old Testament books” (p. 93).
He’s right, by the way. Readings from the Apocrypha were included in the first Daily Office Lectionaries in the “classic” Books of Common Prayer (1549, 1559, 1662).
Where/how can I read the Apocrypha today?
If your Bible doesn’t include the Apocrypha, you might be wondering where/how you can read the Apocrypha today.
- The easiest thing to do would be to read a translation that features the Apocrypha via a website such as BibleGateway.
- Try the Common English Bible
- or the New Revised Standard Version.
- You could also buy a copy of just the Apocrypha.
- Again, try the CEB
- or NRSV.
- You could buy a Study Bible that features the Apocrypha.
- Again, try the CEB
- or NRSV (either the New Oxford Annotated Bible or the New Interpreter’s Study Bible.)
- Finally, you can buy a normal (non-study) Bible that features the Apocrypha. Personally, I like this leather pocket edition of the NRSV.
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