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Posted on Mar 06, 2024 by Mike LeDuke Next article:The Torah's Origin

The Apocrypha

Depending on what denomination of Christianity you associate with, you’ve maybe heard before of Judith or Susanna. Perhaps you’ve read some of the wise sayings of Ben-Sirach, or read the story of Tobit during the Israelite deportation. Or, perhaps you’ve never heard of any of these people and don’t ever remember seeing their names in your Bible. Each of these characters appears in a disputed portion of the Bible called the “deuterocanonical books” by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and the Apocrypha by both Jews and Protestants. The former groups see these books as part of their Bible, and the latter groups do not (hence, a Catholic Bible will have a whole additional section that Protestant Bibles do not).

But where did this set of books even come from? And why do some groups see it as part of the Bible and some don’t? As always in history, the answer is complicated. Nevertheless, for the sake of this post, we’ll consider a simplistic version of the story: the canon of the Bible seems fixed, taking away or adding books would seem blasphemous and would distress many people. However, a few centuries before Jesus, the canon wasn’t as fixed as it is today. Therefore, when the first Bible translation of the Jewish Scriptures was made (called the Septuagint), all of the books of the Apocrypha were also translated. They were not seen as part of the inspired Bible, but were certainly considered relevant, and therefore, translated from Hebrew to Greek, so that those who read the biblical stories could also read these historical accounts.

Josephus, however, a first-century Jewish historian, specifically leaves these books out of what he says Jews considered to be the divine books (Josephus, Against Apion1.38–40). These books thus ended up in the Bible, but were not seen as inspired.

Because these books were in the Greek Bible translation, things started to get confusing. When people in the first century, such as Jesus and the apostle Paul, read from the Septuagint (which they did occasionally), they were reading from a text that included the books of the Apocrypha. Like all first-century Jews, however, they did not see the Apocrypha as inspired, hence the fact that neither Jesus nor Paul referenced any of the Apocryphal texts as divine. Nevertheless, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, many of the Gentile converts had no idea how to read or write Hebrew, and therefore, their Bible of choice was the Septuagint. As time passed, the Jewish view of the books became less and less known, until 382 CE, when the Council of Rome declared the books to be part of the canon.

Not until Martin Luther were the books removed, and then again, they were only removed from the Protestant canon. If you read this carefully, you may have noticed, however, that today, all sides have essentially fallen from what Jesus and Paul did. While reading these books as Scripture isn’t what Jesus did, completely dismissing them and ignoring their existence isn’t what he did either. In other words, if you haven’t heard before of Judith or Susanna, it might be worth taking some time to read their story, not as a divine narrative, or an expression of the mind of God, but as part of Jewish history that helped to shape the way that people understood the world at the time of Jesus. While we don’t see these books as “Bible,” we do see them as valuable, and learning about them not only can help us understand other branches of Christianity, but can also help us better grasp the context of the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, what really concerns us is the inspired portions of the Bible. Where did they come from and who decided that they were inspired?

— Jason Hensley, PhD