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Asbury Bible Commentary – History and Evaluation
History and Evaluation

History and Evaluation

These Apocryphal books were never included in the Palestinian Jewish canon. Since the eighteenth century some scholars have argued that their presence in the Christian canon for many centuries can be traced to an expanded Jewish/Alexandrian canon that was subsequently adopted by Christians. This hypothesis was built upon the presence of various (not all) Apocryphal books in several LXX manuscripts of the OT (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus). But for cogent reasons this theory is no longer tenable.

In addition, it is now known that some assumptions that might seem to support an expanded Alexandrian canon are not well founded. It is, for instance, now known that Hellenistic Judaism was not independent of Palestinian Judaism and would not have arrogantly formed its own canon. And it is known that most of the Apocryphal books were not composed in Greek in Egypt, as was supposed in the past, but are translations of Palestinian originals, which were written in Aramaic or Hebrew.

Also, 1 Maccabees 4:46; 9:27; 14:41 explicitly assert that the spirit of prophecy had ceased in that day. Beckwith (Mulder's Mikra, 83) notes, as does Philo, that the famous prologue of Ecclesiasticus, which was written in Egypt, refers to the three divisions of the Hebrew canon (Law, Prophets, Writings). But there is no evidence that any of the Apocrypha had a place among the three divisions of the Hebrew canon. Philo never once quotes a book of the Apocrypha as Scripture.

So it is clear that nearly all the evidence points to the fact that the Apocrypha were never part of the Hebrew canon. It is equally clear that Jesus and his disciples did not receive these books as canonical. While OT history from Abraham culminates in Christ, the intertestamental period covered by the Apocryphal books is disregarded by the historical summaries in the sermons of the book of Acts. Bruce Metzger observes that recognition of the difference between noncanonical and canonical books can be reached by a careful examination of them. He says, “When one compares the books of the Apocrypha with the books of the Old Testament, the impartial reader must conclude that, as a whole, the true greatness of the canonical books is clearly apparent” (Metzger, Apocrypha, 172).

Nevertheless, some Apocryphal books did get into the Christian canon and were uncritically considered canonical throughout the Middle Ages. Jerome (fourth century a.d.) began a translation of the OT into Latin (see “Introduction to the OT,” pp. 116ff.) from available LXX texts. But he decided to translate into Latin from Hebrew and to limit his translation (Vulgate) to the Jewish canon. He did not include the Apocryphal books and did not use them to establish doctrine. Eventually, however, they were included, but Jerome's position toward them never changed.

During the time of the Reformation (sixteenth century), doctrinal disputes raised the issue of the canonical status of the Apocryphal books. The Roman Catholic Church used 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 to bolster the idea of purgatory and of masses for the dead. Job 12:9, Ecclesiasticus 3:30, and 2 Esdra 2:33 support the notion that good deeds earn merit. Therefore, Luther placed them at the end of the OT section in his German Bible (1539). As others had, he termed them “Apocrypha,” not to be read as Holy Scripture, but as literature that could be read beneficially. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646-48) designated the Apocrypha as merely secular literature. The Anglican Church accepted the Apocrypha for instruction in life, but not for the purpose of doctrinal formation.

The Roman Catholic Church, in response, declared the entire Vulgate canonical, which lacked only 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. These three books were included as an addendum in some later Roman Catholic editions of the Bible. Today the Apocrypha is commonly termed deuterocanonical by the Roman Catholic Church.

Interestingly, the Orthodox Church considers the Roman Catholic deuterocanonical (Apocryphal) books as orthodox, plus 3 and 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh. In an effort to create a truly ecumenical version, editors of Oxford Annotated Bible (rsv, 1977 edition) included the entire Apocrypha.

There is, however, as Luther stated, much profit from reading the Apocrypha. These books give invaluable historical and cultural background information. John Bunyan, in a famous narrative, tells how, while he was incarcerated, God spoke to him from Ecclesiasticus 2:1, a passage he had stored away in his memory. But this experience is more indicative of the manifold ways God can teach truth and comfort his people than of how an Apocryphal book can be elevated to the level of inspired Scripture. A humorous anecdote about how 2 Esdras 6:42ff. inspired Christopher Columbus to search for new lands illustrates the ingenuity of the human mind more than it establishes grounds for adding the book to the sacred canon.

Above all, these books help us to understand Judaism during the Second Temple period (515 B.C.-A.D. 70). Theology, angelology, demonology, history, politics, religious development, the use and interpretation of the OT canonical scriptures (see Mulder, 379-420) are all pieces the Apocrypha contributes to the puzzle of the intertestamental period. This material also provides background essential to an understanding of the development of various sects we read about in the NT. Information on the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, the Hasidim, and Greek philosophy and religion is also in the Apocrypha.