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.


HOME | The term "Apocrypha." | The Greek Canon. | Character and general content of the Apocrypha. | Hellenistic influence observable in the Apocrypha.


The subjects of the Canon of Holy Scripture and of the origin and meaning of the term Apocrypha have been dealt with in "An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament". It will suffice, therefore, if we summarize what has been said there.

As a technical term used in reference to the Scriptures the word "Canon" is Christian, appearing in this connexion for the first time, so far as is known, towards the end of the fourth century AD (by Amphilochius, Archbishop of Iconium).

In the Jewish Church the process whereby the books of the Old Testament, as we now know it, were finally marked off from all other books was a long one. The need of such differentiation first began to be felt owing to the rise of Greek culture and the growth of Greek literature, with the resultant spread of many books that were deemed harmful by the Jewish religious leaders. But the more immediate cause, which was in part however, an indirect outcome of this, was the appearance of apocalyptic books among the Jews.

The idea of forming a collection of holy books standing on a plane different from and higher than all others, began to take concrete shape, in all probability, towards the end of the second century BC. But the actual formation of what we now understand as the Canon of Holy Scripture did not take place until about AD100-120. (On the opposition of the Jewish Church to the Septuagint as being the Bible of the Christians & the subsequent exclusion of the books of the Apocrypha from the Canon, see Chap.ix. Below, pp.122 f.)

And while, during this period, veneration for the books of the Old Testament, and especially the Pentateuch, prevailed and went on increasing, they could not be spoken of as "canonical" in our sense of the word. The contention that the formation of a Canon of the Old Testament went through three stages, first the canon of the books of the Torah or Law, then that of the prophetical books, and finally that of the "Writings", rests on no adequate evidence. Even after the Canon of the Old Testament, as we understand it, was formed, in one act as it were, at the Council of Jamnia (about AD90.), as is usually held, disputes arose, and continued for some time, as to whether or not certain books should be regarded as "defiling the hands", the Rabbinical equivalent for "canonical". (i.e. Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs; the controversy did not cease until about AD120.)

As to the term "Apocrypha", this was used, in the first instance, of books containing hidden teaching not to be disclosed to ordinary people. The Greek word "apokryphos", in its technical sense, "is derived from the practice, common among sects, religious or philosophic, of embodying their special tenets or formulae in books withheld from public use, and communicated to an inner circle of believers." (James: Encyl.Bibl.i.249.)

In reference to Jewish books this is well illustrated by what is said in our Apocryphal book, II Esdr.xiv.44-47:

So in forty days were written fourscore and fourteen books.
And it came to pass, when the forty days were fulfilled,
That the Most High spake unto me, saying,
"The first that thou hast written publish openly,
And let the worthy and unworthy read it;
But keep the seventy last,
That thou mayest deliver them to such as be wise among the people;
For in them is the spring of understanding,
The fountain of wisdom,
And the stream of knowledge.

The first twenty-four books here refer to the canonical books of the Old Testament, the seventy last to apocalyptic books; the passage shows that in certain Jewish circles at the beginning of the second century AD, the latter were held in higher esteem than the canonical books.

A second stage in the history of the term "Apocrypha" is reflected in Origen's use of it. He distinguishes between books read during public worship and those that he calls "apocryphal". (Comm in Matt.x.18, i.57.)

By this word, however, he does not mean the books of what we call the Apocrypha, but those which we designate Pseudepigrapha. But Origen is not consistent in his use of the term, because elsewhere he applies it to heretical books. (Prolog. In Cant. Cantic. (Lommatsch xiv.325).)

A third stage, which we find in the fourth century in the Greek Church, is that in which a distinction is made between canonical books and books read for edification. By the latter are meant the books of our Apocrypha, while the word "apocryphal" was still applied to those that we call Pseudepigrapha.

Finally, Jerome distinguished between libri canonici and libri ecclesiastici, the latter referring to the books of our Apocrypha, which were then called "apocryphal" in a new sense.

By degrees this use of the term came to be generally accepted, and this has continued to the present day. (Augustine, however, continues to use "apocrypha" in the earlier sense (De. Cit. Dei, xv.23).)



We use the expression Greek Canon for convenience' sake. Strictly speaking, there never was a Greek Canon. Books were added to the Greek Version of the Scriptures, but they were not "canonized".

This Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, The Septuagint, contains all the books of the Hebrew Bible, and in addition almost all the books of our Apocrypha. (So called because of the tradition (contained in the "Letter of Aristeas") that this translation was the work of seventy, strictly seventy-two Jewish elders in the reign of the Eqyptian king Ptolomy II Philodelphus (285-246BC.))

These latter, with two exceptions, are interspersed among the canonical books, though their positions vary in the different MSS. (The order of the canonical books also varies in the Greek MSS.)

In the great uncials BA they are placed thus:

The two exceptions are:
II Esdras, which does not appear in any MS. of the Septuagint;
and the Prayer of Manasses, which figures among the canticles appended to the Psalms.

Thus, except for some parts of I Esdras, no book of our Apocrypha is found in the Hebrew Old Testament, but all, with the exception of II Esdras, belong to the "Greek Canon".

Although the Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures originally undertaken for the benefit of the Jews of the Dispersion (primarily that of Egypt), the books of the Apocrypha were never recognized as forming part of the Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Church. But that many of them were read as books for edification is probable from the fact that most of them were originally written in Hebrew. In the Christian Church - at any rate in the Western Church - all the books of the Apocrypha, with the exception of Il Esdras, were included in the Canon (see further chap. ix).

The Septuagint Version of the Hebrew Scriptures was made in Egypt, as already indicated; but the work does not belong to any one period; it was begun in the third century BC, but was not concluded until about 100BC, perhaps even somewhat later.

The books of the Apocrypha were added at different times, but it is impossible to say at what times, for in the oldest MSS. of the Septuagint they are all included (excepting II Esdras), and the earliest extant MSS. belong to about 350AD. The dates of the books themselves are in some cases uncertain, and some time must have elapsed between their first appearance and their inclusion in the "Greek Canon".

Since the Septuagint in its original form consisted only of books contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, it may well be asked how it came about that the Jews, with their veneration for their sacred books, should have mixed up with them books not recognized as holy? How, in other words, are we to account for the existence of uncanonical writings, added by Jews, interspersed among those marked off as sacrosanct? In plain language, how did the books of our Apocrypha ever get into the Greek Bible? In reply to this we cannot do better than quote Swete's hypothesis:

A partial explanation of the early mixture of non-canonical books with canonical may be found in the form under which the Greek Bible passed into the keeping of the Church. In the first century the material used for literary purposes was still almost exclusively papyrus, and the form was that of the roll. (See Kenyon, Palaeography of Greek papyri, pp.24, 113 ff. (1899).)

But rolls of papyrus seldom contained more than a single work, and writings of any length, especially if divided into books, were often transcribed into two or more separate rolls. (Ibid., p.132.)

The rolls were kept in boxes (κιβωτοί, κίσται, - kibotoi, kistai, capsae, cistae), which served not only to preserve them, but also to collect them in sets. (Thompson, Greek & Latin Palaeography, p.57 (1894).)

Now, while the sanctity of the five books of Moses would protect the cistae that contained them from the intrusion of foreign rolls, no scruple of this kind would deter the owner of a roll of Esther from placing it in the same box with Judith and Tobit. The Wisdoms, in like manner, naturally found their way into a Solomonic collection. While in a still larger number of instances the two Greek recensions of Esdras consorted together, and Baruch and the Epistle seemed rightly to claim a place with the roll of Jeremiah.... (An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, p.225 (1900). As to the linguistic character of the Septuagint, see Swete, op. cit., pp.289 ff. & R. R. Ottley, A Handbook to the Septuagint, pp.159 ff. (1920).)


The collection of writings comprised in the Apocrypha offers an interesting illustration of Jewish literary versatility during the last two or three centuries BC. The variety of subject matter is amazing. Here we have, in the books of the Maccabees:
history, recounting

Then we have

Then, in the religious domain, almost every book gives

further, there is

This does not by any means exhaust the riches of subject matter, but it will have given some insight into the variety of topics dealt with.

Naturally enough, this material is not all of equal value or importance. As with the books of the canonical scriptures, so with those of the Apocrypha. In the former it must be recognized that in a few cases there are writings which are of less value than the great majority. This would apply to the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Not that these are without their use and value. But their content seems hardly to be of the same high order as the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures. In the same way, while most of the books of the Apocrypha are altogether worthy of their place, the Epistle of Jeremy, the Story of Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon, which have doubtless certain points of interest, are nevertheless of greatly inferior value in comparison with the rest of the books.

No classification of the books of the Apocrypha is satisfactory, because in the case of almost every one, into whatever class it is placed from one point of view, it will belong to another class from some other point of view. If, for example, the Prayer of Manasses is, rightly of course, classified under "Additions to canonical books", it is also liturgical. If II Esdras is classified under "Pseudepigrapha", it is also apocalyptic. If Tobit is classified under "Legendary writings", it is also a romance. If II Macc. is classified under "Authentic writings", it is also, in part at any rate, legendary - and so on.

Similarly, it is only in a somewhat doubtful and partial way that one can classify the books as "Palestinian" and "Hellenistic". Schurer, who adopts this classification, is careful to point out that he does this only for the want of a better method. "It must be expressly emphasized," he says, " that the division between the two groups is a fluid one, and the designation must, in any case, be taken cum grano salis." He is dealing with the whole body of extant Jewish literature belonging to the period 200BC onwards, of which the Apocrypha forms a part only, so that what he says applies only in a limited degree to our collection:

By the Palestinian-Jewish literature we are to understand that which in essentials - but only in essentials represents the standpoint of Pharisaic Judaism as this had developed in Palestine. By Hellenistic-Jewish literature is meant that which either in form or content, exhibits in any marked degree Hellenistic influence. (Geschichte des judischen Volkes ?, iii. Pp.188. (1909).)


In the case of the books of the Apocrypha it is primarily in the book of Wisdom that Hellenistic influence is seen. Thus, in vii.24 it is said: "For Wisdom is more mobile than any motion, yea, she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness "; and in viii.1: "But in full might she reacheth from end to end, and doth order all things properly." That we have here a reflection of Stoic philosophy is evident.

Zeller, in describing the doctrine of the Stoics, says: (Outlines of Greek Philosophy, pp.239 f. (Eng. Transl. 1909); more fully in Die Philosophie der Griechen, iii.271 f. (1881).)

But all the powers operating in the world come from one original power, as is proved by the unity of the world, the combination and harmony of all its parts. Like all that is real, this also must be corporeal, and is regarded more precisely as warm vapour (pneuma), or fire, for it is warmth which begets, enlivens and moves all things. But, on the other hand, the perfection of the world and the adaptation of means to ends, and more especially the rational element in human nature, show that this final cause of the world must, at the same time, be the most perfect reason, the kindest, most philanthropic nature - in a word - the Deity. It is this just because it consists of the most perfect material. As everything in the world is indebted to it for its properties, its movement and life, it must stand to the universe in the same relation as our soul to our body. It penetrates all things as the pneuma, or artistic fire (pur technikon), enlivening them, and containing their germs in itself. It is the soul, the spirit (nous) the reason (logos) of the world ... .

Again, Stoic influence is observable in the enumeration of the four cardinal virtues (viii.7): Temperance (sophrosune), Prudence (phronesis), Justice (dikaiosune), Manliness (andreia).
(Cp. The stoical writing IV Maccabees, where these find frequent mention.)

The influence of Platonic philosophy is to be discerned in such passages as viii.19, 20, where the pre-existence of the soul is taken for granted: " Now I was a goodly child, and a good soul fell to my lot; nay, rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled"; and ix.15, which teaches the corruptibility of the body: " For a corruptible body weigheth down the soul, and the earthly frame oppresseth the mind that museth upon many things."

To quote Zeller again, where he discusses the Platonic philosophy: (Outlines ?, pp.152 f.)

The soul of man is in its nature homogeneous with the soul of the universe, from which it springs. Being of a simple and incorporeal nature, it is by its power of self-movement the origin of motion in the body; inseparably connected with the idea of life, it has neither end nor beginning. As the souls have descended from a higher world into the earthly body, they return after death, if their lives have been pure and devoted to higher objects, to this higher world, while those who need correction in part undergo punishments in another world, and in part migrate through the bodies of men and animals.

The intellectual part of man is eternal, the corporeal is perishable. It need hardly be insisted that this teaching is wholly different from the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

With regard to Ecelesiasticus, although this is a distinctly Jewish-Palestinian book, there are, nevertheless, traces of Greek influence; but these are to be found in general conception rather than in definite form. For example, the identification of virtue with knowledge is a distinct Hellenic trait, and is treated in the book as axiomatic. In the past, human and divine wisdom had been regarded as opposed, whereas owing to Greek influence, in Ecclesiasticus, as well as in the Wisdom literature generally, it is taught that Wisdom is the one thing, of all others, which is indispensable to him who would lead a godly life. (See the present writer's The Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, p.xxv (Cambr. Bible, 1912).)

Other books of the Apocrypha, which may be classed as Jewish-Hellenistic are: I Esdras, the Additions to Esther and the Additions to Daniel, the book of Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy. These are undoubtedly predominantly orthodox-Jewish, but slight indications of Hellenistic influence may be discerned here and there in each of them.

It is, however, necessary to repeat what was implied above, that while Greek influence is to be detected in some of the books of the Apocrypha, they contain nothing that would have offended Orthodox Judaism of those days. It is simply that the Greek atmosphere, which permeated the world, was breathed in unconsciously by the writers and manifested itself at times in their writings.

As to those Jewish-Palestinian writings in which Hellenistic traits are rarely, if ever, to be discerned - Tobit, Judith, I, II Maccabees, II Esdras, and, in the main, Ecclesiasticus (see above) - we need not discuss their Judaism here, as this will be gone into fully below (chap.vii).