The Apocrypha

1 Maccabees

2 Maccabees

Sometimes Called the Deuterocanonical Books

The books that are sometimes called the Apocrypha are the fourteen books of the Septuagint that were included in the Latin Vulgate, but were never part of the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh.  The word “apocrypha” comes from a Greek word meaning “secret” or “hidden”—we do not know whom the authors of these books were.  Some Christians call these works, Deuterocanonical, or “secondary canon,” because they were not included in the original, Catholic canon but were later accepted by the theologians who met at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

The Septuagint is a Jewish work done for the Jewish people long before the Christian era in order that those Jews who spoke Greek as their primary language could more easily understand the message of the Bible.  Hebrew was not widely spoken or understood, even by many Jews, but Greek was the common language of much of the oikoumene, the “civilized world,” when the Septuagint was first produced.  According to Jewish tradition, it is called the Septuagint (sometimes abbreviated as LXX) because seventy (or seventy-two) biblical scholars, fluent both in Hebrew and in Greek, were involved in this effort to translate the Hebrew Bible and other relevant Jewish texts into Greek. 

The Vulgate is a work that comes from the Christian era, done by the fourth century Christian scholar, Jerome.  It is called the Vulgate, Vulgata Editio, Latin for “Popular Edition,” because Saint Jerome sought to give the common people, the vulgus, a copy of the Bible in their own Latin language.  In time the Latin Vulgate became the standard biblical text for the Church in the West, while the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament remained the standard texts of Scripture for the rest of the Church.

The Tanakh is often how Jewish people refer to what Christians call the Old Testament.  Tanakh is an acronym representing the first letters of the Hebrew Scriptures three major divisions:  the Torah (The Law), the Nevi’im (The Prophets) and the Ketuvim (The Writings), Psalms being the first and principle book of the Ketuvim.  Therefore, in Luke 24:44, when the Lord Jesus spoke about “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms,” he was referring to the Tanakh, and showed his approval for the Jewish canon of the Old Testament.

As I have plowed my way through the Greek New Testament, I have often found that its quotations from the Old Testament are taken from the Septuagint rather than being direct, new translations of the Hebrew text.  Since the first Christians were all Jewish, this suggests widespread Jewish acceptance of this version of the Bible, both before and during the first half of the first century of the Christian era.  However, while pre-Christian, Hellenistic Judaism used the Greek Septuagint widely, after the conversion of so many Jews to “the Way,” as well as the growing number of Gentiles in the new movement and the destruction of the second Temple in A.D. 70, the decimated, demoralized remnant reacted and distanced itself from everything that had come to be associated with Christianity, including the Septuagint. 

In other words, just as the institutional form of the Western Church reacted to the Reformers and to some degree in a practical sense became a new institution with its rigid Tridentine theology, so Judaism became radically different, too, having suffered the double blows of the departure of so many thousands to its new sect of Christianity and the complete loss of its core symbol, the second Temple.  While it would not be accurate to say that after the destruction of the Temple, Judaism came to have as much similarity with the religion of the Old Testament as Islam, it is true that it underwent a more radical transformation than did Rome at the Council of Trent.

During this reactionary phase of Judaism, it is not unlikely that some minor modifications took place in what later became the standard Hebrew text.  This is called the Masoretic text, because the Masorah is the body of Judaic tradition related to how the rabbis understood the Hebrew text prior to the tenth century of the Christian era.  The written Hebrew Bible contains no vowels, only consonants, and requires the reader to supply the vowel sounds from tradition rather than from the written text itself.  While no one ever deliberately altered the consonantal Hebrew text itself, during this reactionary time following the destruction of the second Temple, whenever there was any doubt regarding the correct reading of the Hebrew consonantal text, there was compelling reason to choose the one most opposite to the way that Christian apologists understood the text to read.  One might therefore say that while Judaism produced Christianity, it is also true that, along with the cruelty of the armies of Rome, Christianity, with its growing Gentile membership, helped to produce Judaism, at least as we know it after the time of Jesus. 

It is interesting that certain Septuagint readings are confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls.  For example, in the Song of Moses, the Septuagint has “according to the number of the angels of God” at Deuteronomy 32:8, while the Masoretic text has “according to the number of the sons of Israel.”  But the Hebrew text preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls has “according to the number of the sons of God.”  In other words, at some points at least, the Septuagint reflects an older Hebrew text, even though the Septuagint was a “dynamic equivalency” translation.

Why did the Jewish scholars who translated the Tanakh into Greek also add books that were never part of the traditional Hebrew Bible?  One may surmise that at least part of the reason was to preserve Jewish cultural and historical information that was not found in Scripture itself, not unlike modern annotated Bibles, from the Reformation era, Geneva Bible, to the Scofield Reference Bible.  To add alongside the Greek translation of the books from the Hebrew Bible some historically valuable books, gave the Jews of the Diaspora much profitable background in understanding their religion.  As one example, First Maccabees describes the struggle of the Jewish people against the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties and gives significant insight into the book of Daniel as well as providing the background for “the Feast of the Dedication,” Hanukkah, which the Lord Jesus himself observed. (John 10:22-24.)

The Westminster Confession of Faith says in I, iii, “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”  I am not in disagreement with that, but I can also affirm that these “other Books (as Hierome saith {referring to Saint Jerome who gave us the Latin Vulgate}) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, Article VI, “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.”)

Simply because these books are not on a par with Scripture, does not mean that they do not have a lot of interesting material that helps us understand how many Jewish people thought during the time shortly before the coming of the Lord Jesus.  One may take, for example, the story of the angel Raphael, who disguised himself as a man name Azariah and traveled with Tobiah.  At one point Tobiah asks Raphael about the medicinal value in a particular fish, and Raphael answers:  “As regards the fish’s heart and liver, if you burn them so that the smoke surrounds a man or a woman who is afflicted by a demon or evil spirit, the affliction will leave him completely, and no demons will ever return to him again. And as for the gall, if you rub it on the eyes of a man who has cataracts, blowing into his eyes right on the cataracts, his sight will be restored.” (Tobit 6:8, 9.)

These Greek, extra-biblical books passed down some wonderful stories of Jewish heroism and wisdom that would otherwise have been forgotten.  Here we find Daniel working as a detective, uncovering how the worshippers of the idol Bel used a secret room to steal the idol’s food every night, Bel and the Dragon.  Here, too, is the story of Daniel defending Susanna, the virtuous wife of Joacim, against charges of two elders, who were simply lust-filled, peeping Toms. (Susanna)

Material in these books sometimes answers the questions of the curious Bible reader.  For example, in the English translation of the Hebrew Bible, we read:  “The other events of Manasseh’s reign, including his prayer to his God and the words the seers spoke to him in the name of the LORD, the God of Israel, are written in the annals of the kings of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 33:18.)  Undoubtedly, students often asked their rabbis what it was that Manasseh had said to God when he repented during his Babylonian captivity. The Prayer of Manasseh gives an answer to that question, either factually or as a piece of fiction.  Apart from the statement that the Lord is “the God of the just,” and that he has “not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee,” it really is a beautiful penitential prayer, especially as it is found in the King James Version of the Bible:

“O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is unmeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquities. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Perhaps my favorite verse in the whole Apocrypha is from the Sirach, or “The Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach,” its fuller title coming from Sirach 50:27, “Jesus the son of Sirach of Jerusalem hath written in this book the instruction of understanding and knowledge, who out of his heart poured forth wisdom.” 

Sirach 27:4 says, “In a shaken sieve manure is left behind, so the crap of man (is seen) in his reflections (calculations, reasoning, sentiments).”  The King James Version can make even ugly stuff sound lovely and translates that verse:  “As when one sifteth with a sieve, the refuse remaineth; so the filth of man in his talk.”  The word translated “filth” in the King James above is the Greek word pronounced SKOObahlon; it’s the same Greek word the King James translators render as “dung” when Saint Paul used it in Philippians 3:8, “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”

Thinking about Jesus ben Sirach’s words in Sirach 27:4, one gets the modern picture of people sitting around “shooting the bull.”  Human beings are all experts in Bovine Scatology, and there is a “B.S. artist” down inside us all. That was true in Jesus ben Sirach’s day in the second century before Christ, and it is true today. When I think about human foolishness, I sometimes mutter “SKOObahlon.” SKYBALON—what a word; it sums up all my efforts to feel good about myself except as I stand washed in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and clothed in his righteousness.

Bob Vincent