What About Apocryphal Literature?

Many large books could be written to answer this question. First of all, it is necessary to note that the term "apocryphal literature" means different things to different religious groups. Secondly, there is need to mention that such literature is commonly divided on the basis of a relationship to the Old Testament or the New Testament. Now that we have recognized these two conditions, let us proceed to a brief discussion of a very large subject.

Any thoughtful student of the Bible who compares the various versions of the Bible which are endorsed by the Roman Catholic church with some widely recognized version used by Protestants will find a major difference. The Catholic version will have 46 books in the Old Testament whereas the Protestant version will have 39. In reality the Catholic version will have 12 extra books or part books interspersed among and attached to the 39 undisputed Old Testament books.1 These extra writings are called apocryphal, a term which originally meant "hidden."2

A little investigation will reveal that this larger Catholic-approved list or canon was not dogmatically fixed until the Council of Trent in 1546. It is not possible within the scope of this article to deal at length with the process of canonization which had given the Jews an authoritative list by the first century. Suffice it to say that Jesus did not quote from the Apocrypha nor did Paul and Peter in the their turn. Some have claimed that the Jews of Alexandria had a broader canon of authoritative books by the first century. If we were to grant this, the fact still remains that Jesus and His apostles paid no attention to it. Jesus recognized the Hebrew Canon because He could see by divine insight that this was authoritative. These books constituted His Bible.3

The Apocrypha has some historical and devotional value. For instance, First Maccabees is generally regarded as having considerable historical trustworthiness in its story of the struggle by the Maccabee family to remove religious oppression. Ecclesiasticus, another apocryphal book, reads very much like Proverbs and has a fine spiritual tone. One may grant the value of some of these books without agreeing that they should be considered as Scripture.4

Some religious persons have had an incorrect view as to the basis of the determination of the true canon. They have said that books were made canonical on the basis of the decision of church councils. In reality all that the church leaders could do would be to discover and recognize that list of books which were obviously inspired. Geisler and Nix in their useful book, A General Introduction To The Bible, give the correct view in a brief statement: "Canonicity is determined or established authoritatively by God; it is merely discovered by man." 5

The same authors have produced a useful chart to show this relationship:

   The Incorrect View  
The Correct View
 The Church is Determiner of Canon  The Church is Discoverer of Canon
 The church is Mother of Canon  The Church is Child of Canon
 The Church is Magistrate of Canon  The Church is Minister of Canon
 The Church is Regulator of Canon  The Church is Recognizer of Canon
 The Church is Judge of Canon  The Church is Witness of Canon
 The Church is Master of Canon  The Church is Servant of Canon6

We mentioned at the beginning that there is need to divide apocryphal literature on the basis of its relationship to either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Much of what has been said above applied to the inter-testamental books which are commonly associated with the Old Testament in some versions. What about the New Testament apocryphal literature?

The question is really twofold. First, upon what grounds has the church accepted the 27 books of our canon? Secondly, why were other similar books not included or recognized?

Three main elements seem to have been involved in the acceptance of the 27 books as Scripture. The first is the promise on the part of Christ to give His apostles the guidance of the Holy Spirit or Spirit of Truth after His departure from the earth (John 14:26; John 16:13, 14). The second is the claim on the part of these men and others such as Paul to be speaking authoritatively in their letters to others (1 Corinthians 2:12, 13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). Peter, from his point of view, could refer to Paul's epistles as scripture (2 Peter 3:15, 16).

The third element is the recognition on the part of Christians in general of the difference between the other writings of the day and those of the select group. For the most part, these other works never had a chance to be accepted. When one reads the New Testament apocryphal books, one soon recognizes that the canonical books are in a class by themselves. The apocryphal writings are of four main literary categories: Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses. These were written under assumed names and are generally dated in the second century or later.

One of the fundamental differences is described in a statement by F.F. Bruce as follows: "But it is a remarkable fact that there is no teaching in the New Testament (the 27 books, RDM) which is not already present in principle in the teaching of Jesus himself. The apostles did not add to His teaching under the guidance of the promised Spirit they interpreted and applied it."7 Add to this the fact that the apocryphal literature is generally very fanciful and in some cases ridiculous.

Although we recognize under the heading of apocryphal literature these books associated with the New Testament, nevertheless, it is the group of 12 extra writings included in the Roman Catholic Bible which has caused most of the controversy. Their presence or absence has been a bone of contention down through the years. Lightfood sets forth seven reasons why they were excluded from the more common Protestant versions:

  1. They were never included in the Hebrew Old Testament.
  2. They were never accepted as canonical by Jesus and His apostles.
  3. They were not accepted by early Jewish and Christian writers.
  4. They do not evidence intrinsic qualities of inspiration.
  5. They have been shrouded with continual uncertainty.
  6. They cannot be maintained on a compromise basis.
  7. Objections to them cannot be overruled by dictatorial authority.8

In the final analysis, the larger controversy between different parties among those who would wear the name of Christ is not concerning the number of books in the Bible. It is rather a matter of how we are to treat that which is plainly taught in all versions. Here is the test of our allegiance to Christ and our willingness to let Him be our King as well as our Saviour. The real question is, "What will you do with Jesus who is called the Christ?"

1Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), p. 89.
2Bruce M. Metsger, The New Testament, its background, growth and content (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), p. 35.
3F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1962), p. 104.
4R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible (Zondervan Grand Rapids, 1971), pp. 180-181.
5Norman L. Geisler an William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), p. 136.
7Bruce, op.cit., p. 106.
8Lightfoot, op.cit., pp. 94-95

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