AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE APOCRYPHA. By W O E Oesterley D D Litt D. © W O E Oesterley 1935. First published S.P.C.K. 1935. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.



The settlement of many Jews during the last three pre-Christian centuries in various parts of the Greek-speaking world, especially in Egypt, and the hellenization of Palestine itself, resulted in great numbers of Jews being unable to understand their Scriptures in their original language.

Hence arose the need of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

The work of translation was begun about the latter half of the third century BC in Alexandria, when the Pentateuch was given to the Jews in a Greek form.

In course of time the other books were translated, but it is not known at what dates.

By the year 132BC, however, most of the Old Testament had been translated, since in this year the grandson of Ben-Sira translated his grandfather's book, Ecclesiasticus; and in the prologue of his translation mentions that "the Law, and the Prophets, and the rest of the books" were current in Greek at that time.

But the Greek Bible consisted not only of the books of the Hebrew Bible as we now have it, but of a number of others which were added from time to time, and which were all regarded as belonging to the Scriptures. That Ben-Sira reckoned his book as Scripture is clear from his words: "And I, last of all, came as one that gleaneth after the grape-gatherers. By the blessing of the Lord I made progress, and, as a grape-gatherer, filled my winepress. Consider that I laboured not for myself alone, but for all who seek instruction. Hearken unto me, ye great ones of the people; and ye rulers of the congregation, give ear to me" (Ecclus.xxi.16-18).

Other books were added after his time, some translated from Hebrew, others written in Greek.

These were also regarded as Scripture.

While some of the books of this Greek Bible were held in greater veneration than others, all were included under the category of the Scriptures; the idea of separating off some as specially holy, and putting them into a class by themselves, had not yet arisen.

Thus, the books of our Apocrypha, or most of them, ranked with the rest of the books of the Old Testament as Scripture. This was the Bible of the Jews of the Dispersion, and there is no reason to doubt that the Greek-speaking Jews of Palestine also used it.

On the other hand, among the Aramaic-speaking Jews the Scriptures, when read in the synagogue, were read in Hebrew, and translated into Aramaic, verse by verse if the passage was from the Pentateuch, three verses at a time if from the Prophets.

We are, however, concerned only with the Bible in Greek, the work of the Alexandrian Jews; and this was the Bible that was taken over by the Church. In the words of Swete:

As a whole, the work of translation was doubtless carried out in Alexandria, where it was begun; and the Greek Bible of the Hellenistic Jews and the Catholic Church may rightly be styled the Alexandrian Greek version of the Old Testament.
(Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, P.27 (1900))

In the early days of the Church the Septuagint was widely used among the Jews; as a rule, though there are exceptions, when the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament it is from the Greek, not the Hebrew Bible that the quotation is made. The early Jewish-Christians and the great majority of the Jews had the same Bible, and Gentile converts, obviously, could use no other Bible.

It was not until after the fall of Jerusalem that the attitude of the Jewish religious leaders towards the Greek Bible changed. There were reasons for this. In the first place, the rift between the Jewish and Christian communities had, even before this, become pronounced. The Greek Bible, as the Bible of the Christians, was a reason for it to be looked upon with disfavour by the Jewish Church. This was emphasized by the fact that passages from the Greek Bible were used by Christians to demonstrate the falseness of Jewish views. The Jewish religious leaders, having their Hebrew Scriptures, saw the numerous differences between these and their Greek form, some of which were used against the Jews by the Christians. Further, the movement, which had long been proceeding, towards the formation of a Canon, now became urgent, and for various reasons many books contained in the Septuagint were regarded as unworthy of being included in what was now becoming the Jewish Canon.

This increased the antipathy felt towards the Septuagint.
(The Jewish form of the Greek Bible translated by Aquila (circa 130AD) was undertaken for polemical reasons.
As it was translated from the Hebrew books after the fixing of their canonical character, this form of the Greek Old Testament does not contain the books of the Apocrypha.)

The Greek and Hebrew Bibles thus became, respectively, those of the Christian and the Jewish Church.

Before we come to deal with the use of the books of the Apocrypha in the Christian Church, it may not be amiss if a few words be devoted to the question as to why these books were excluded from the Hebrew Canon when the reading of them had not been forbidden. Doubtless they stood in a different category from the Pentateuch and the prophetical books. But there is no reason for doubting that, together with the "Writings," and probably many other books which have not come down to us, they were read as offering material for religious instruction and edification. Why, then, were they denied canonicity when others, unworthy of it, were included in the Canon?

The reasons varied for the different books.

A few would not in any case come into consideration, as they were not written until after the Hebrew Canon had, in effect, been formed.

This applies to Il Esdras (the apocalyptic character of which would have been sufficient to condemn it), and probably also to Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah and the Prayer of Manasses.

The exclusion of I Esdras may have been due to the fact that the Hebrew form, for long familiar, was believed to be a purer form; perhaps also the extraneous elements met with disfavour.

This last may possibly have been the reason why Tobit was excluded, assuming that it was known to the Jewish authorities that the extraneous elements were really such. Otherwise it is not easy to understand why a book with a strong devotional element, an orthodox belief, and a frequent emphasis on the observances of the Law, should not have been put on a level with such a book as Esther. It is also to be noted that inasmuch as Tobit purported to have been written during the Exile, it complied with the condition of canonicity laid down by the Jewish authorities, viz.: that a book must have been written within what was called the "prophetical period," i.e. between the time of Moses and Artaxerxes.

As it was originally written either in Hebrew or Aramaic, there was no linguistic bar to its inclusion in the Canon.
(See on this, Oesterley & Robinson, An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament, p.3.(1934).)

As to Judith, it is again difficult to account for its exclusion. It has a distinctly religious trend of the orthodox type, it is full of patriotic enthusiasm, it is extremely well composed, it purports to have been written in the time of Nebuchadrezzar, and it was certainly written originally in Hebrew, long before the Christian era. There is the possibility in the case of both Tobit and Judith, that they existed only in a Greek form at the time when the Hebrew Canon was fixed; if so, the reason for their exclusion is explained.

The Rest of Esther is a Greek writing, which naturally excluded it from the Canon, and the same applies to Wisdom. As to Ecclesiasticus, there are two things, which can explain its exclusion: its Sadducaean tendency, observable here-and-there, and that it does not belong to the "prophetical period." The fixing of the Canon was in the hands of the Pharisees. That is a sufficient explanation of its exclusion.

The Additions to Daniel, not being part of the original book, would, as one can understand, be excluded from the Canon.

Of I, II Maccabees it is sufficient to say that inasmuch as their dates do not comply with the Rabbinical conditions of canonicity, they were ipso facto excluded.

What has been said does not profess to be more than the offering of suggestions to explain why the Jewish Church rejected the books of the Apocrypha. There were probably other reasons as well, unknown to us; but those given may certainly be regarded as having contributed to the Rabbinical decisions regarding our books.

In the Christian Church it was different.

There can be no doubt that during the first two centuries all the books of the Greek Canon were regarded as Scripture. After this time the books of the Apocrypha came to be differently estimated according to the period and locality in which they circulated.

We have seen reason to believe that some of the New Testament books reflect the thought of much that occurs in the Apocrypha. This in itself is, of course, no proof that the New Testament writers regarded the books of the Apocrypha as Scripture. But the fact that the Septuagint was the Bible of the Church, and that most of the quotations from the Old Testament are from it, and not from the Hebrew, makes it certain these books were held to be Scripture by the New Testament writers.

In the earliest post-biblical Christian literature, some of the books are definitely quoted as Scripture; thus in the first Epistle of Clement xxvii.5, Wisd..12 is quoted, being prefaced by the words: "By the word of his majesty did he establish all things, and by his word can he destroy them: 'Who shall say ...' " In iv.3-6 Judith and Esther are described as women who received power through the grace of God. Once more, in the Epistle of Barnabas, the writer, in discussing an Ezekiel passage (xlvii.9) cites II Esdr.iv.3, v.5 with the words: "Similarly, again, he describes the Cross in another passage in another prophet." In the same epistle vi.7, Wisd.ii.12 is quoted as though part of Isa.iii.9, 10, an intermingling of texts that shows clearly that both books were regarded as of equal authority.

Nowhere in early Christian literature are the books of what we call the "Apocrypha" spoken of as "apocryphal books". When the term "apocryphal" is applied to a book it refers to one belonging to some sect, and is used in an opprobrious sense. (E.g., Irenaeus, I.xx.i.)

During the first two centuries, at least, the early Church both east and west, as represented by Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, accepted all the books of the Apocrypha as inspired, i.e. as Scripture; the last two quote from almost every book.

Here it may also be mentioned, as illustrating the estimation in which the books of the Apocrypha were held in the early Church; that in the catacombs scenes depicting episodes described in the books of Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees are frequently to be met with.

By the fourth century a change is to be observed.

The eastern Church, as represented by Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus, (See also the synodical lists of canonical books of the Eastern Church, Swete, op. cit., pp.203ff) did not recognize the books of the Apocrypha as canonical. Nevertheless, in citing them they use the same formulas as when citing from canonical books.

In the western Church, on the other hand, which was farther from the home of the Hebrew Canon, and which knew the Old Testament chiefly through the Latin Version of the Septuagint, there was no scruple about mingling together the books of the Greek and Hebrew canons. Thus, the western Church, as represented by the Synods of Hippo (AD393) and Carthage (AD397 and AD419), and by Augustine, Innocent I, and Gelasius, held the books of the Apocrypha to be canonical. But the western Church was not unanimous on this matter.

Jerome formed a notable exception, due, in part at any rate, to his sojourn in Palestine, where he learned Hebrew, and, in general, to his intercourse with the east. By his time the Greek Church, as we have seen, had ceased to regard the books of the Apocrypha as canonical Scripture, and following this example, he came to look upon all books not included in the Hebrew Canon, and therefore all those books of the Septuagint which were not represented in the Hebrew Bible, as what he called "apocryphal". By this term he meant "libri ecclesiastici," as distinguished from " libri canonici." Jerome's use of the word "apocryphal" was new, and was not intended to be an opprobrious term; but, unlike the great majority of the Fathers of the western Church, he did not recognise these books as canonical. Jerome was not, it is true, the only notable figure in the western Church to take this line. Hilary of Poictiers and Rufinus also rejected the books of the Apocrypha as inspired writings, owing doubtless to their contact with the east; but they formed a very small minority in face of the otherwise unanimous attitude of the western Church.

This unanimity is further illustrated, in addition to what is said in the writings of the Latin Church Fathers, by what is found in the great Biblical manuscripts.

Thus, in the Vatican Codex (B) all the books of the Apocrypha are included, with the exception of the two books of the Maccabees.

It is the same in the Alexandrian Codex (A) and Cod. Venetus (V); but in these the books of the Maccabees are also included.

The Sinaitic Codex (א) is incomplete, but in its original form it doubtless contained all the books of the Apocrypha, for a number of those of unquestioned canonicity - Amos, Hosea, Micah, and others, are also missing; I, II Maccabees are included.

In all these manuscripts the books of the Hebrew Canon and of our Apocrypha are interspersed; no differentiation is made between them.

Since the three great Codices B א A were almost certainly copied in the Egyptian-Palestinian area, they testify to the fact that in the fourth century there was no universal rejection of the books of the Apocrypha even in the eastern Church.

In this connexion there is another significant fact, viz. that while the original Peshitta Old Testament, translated from the Hebrew in the second century, did not contain the books of the Apocrypha, the Syriac Apocrypha was added in the fourth century. (On this point see Dennefeld, Introduction a l'Ancien Testament, p.212 (1934).)

In any case, as Swete has said: (Op.cit., pp.223 f.)

From the end of the fourth century the inclusion of the non-canonical books in Western lists is a matter of course. Even Augustine has no scruples on the subject. He makes the books of the Old Testament forty-four (de doctr.Chr.ii.13: his xliv libris Testamenti Feteris terminatur auctoritas), and among them Tobit, Judith, and the two books of Maccabees take rank with the histories. And the two Wisdoms, although he confesses that they were not the work of Solomon, are classed with the Prophets. His judgement was that of his Church (Conc.Carth.iii. can. xlvii: sunt canonica scriptura Salomonis libri quinque ... Tobias, Judith ... Machabaeorum libri duo). The African Church had probably never known any other canon, and its belief prevailed wherever the Latin Bible was read.

In somewhat later days the Greek Church reverted to the attitude of the earliest Church in accepting all the books of the Apocrypha; for at the council in Trullo (692AD) the decision of the council of Carthage was adopted; similarly Photius in the ninth century. Finally, at the council of Jerusalem in 1672, most of the books not included in the Hebrew Canon were rejected, but Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, and Wisdom were accepted as canonical.

While in the Western Church the Greek Canon continued to be accepted, there were not wanting some notable leaders who rejected certain books. Thus, Gregory the Great held that the two books of the Maccabees were not canonical, but should be read for edification. Alcuin rejected Ecclesiasticus, and Walafrid Strabon, Baruch; these two lived during the ninth century. During the following centuries, different opinions were held by foremost Churchmen, some regarding all the books as canonical, others rejecting them.

At the Council of Trent, in 1546, all the books of the Apocrypha, with two exceptions, were pronounced canonical. The exceptions were II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses. These were placed in an Appendix at the end of the New Testament, showing that they were intended to be read for edification. In some of the ancient manuscripts the Prayer of Manasses is found among the Canticles added to the Psalter. The Roman Church thus adhered to the Greek Canon, in conformity with the early Church. It was when the Reformers rejected the Apocrypha, that the Council of Trent re-affirmed the canonicity of the books, and added the anathema clause to their decree. But even after this there have not been wanting, prominent Roman Catholics who challenged the canonicity of the Apocrypha, for example, Sixtus of Sienna, Lamy, and J. John (1802). Hence the Vatican Council Of 1870 officially confirmed the decree of the Council of Trent.

The Protestant Churches, on the other hand, followed the Hebrew Canon; but their attitude towards the Apocrypha varied. In Luther's translation of the Bible (1534) it is said in the Preface: "The books of the Apocrypha are not to be regarded as Holy Scripture, yet they are useful and good to be read". Appended to his translation are all the books of the Apocrypha with the exception of the two books of Esdras. Other reformed Churches on the Continent at first followed this usage, but later the entire Apocrypha was omitted from the printed Bible.

The sixth article of the Church of England declares: "the other books (i.e. those of the Apocrypha) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners." Against this declaration of the Church, in the Westminster Confession it is decreed that these books are not "to be otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings."

In the Preface prefixed to the books of the Apocrypha in the Genevan Bible, it is said:

As books proceeding from godly men they are received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners; which books declare that at all times God had especial care of His Church, and left them not utterly destitute of teachers and means to confirm them in the hope of the promised Messiah.

Summing up, then, it is of importance to recognize that while, on the whole, the Apocrypha has been in the Bible of the Church from the earliest times, with the exception of the Protestant Church, it has never, since the end of the second century, been unchallenged - first in the east, and then by a long line of westerns, and then again in the east. On the other hand, the Protestant rejection has only been absolute in certain sections of the Protestant community; other sections, including Luther and the Anglican Church, having allowed it edifying value. The more rigid canonization in the Tridentine decree was doubtless due to reaction against the Protestant seizing on that strain in Catholic tradition that doubted the canonicity of the Apocrypha, while the fact of the Tridentine decree tended to make more absolute the rejection of the Apocrypha in Protestant circles.

It is a welcome fact that in modern times the value of the Apocrypha is being increasingly recognized as a source for the understanding of the background of the New Testament in all circles. And the modern view of inspiration, which does not hold that inspiration guarantees the historic and scientific accuracy of every statement, but that inspiration lay in the spiritual principles and message set forth, and that it worked through the personality of the writer, which could therefore dim the message. This modern view of inspiration can find much in the Apocrypha that is as truly inspired as much that is in the Old Testament.