Solid Snippet Article #031
What about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and other writings?
Earlier, I wrote two articles this past year about the Canon of Scripture. The first was a basic understanding of how the Bible was made and what books were affirmed by the church. The second article sought to go a bit deeper in expressing the doctrine of inspiration, one of the keys to deciding which books would be in the Bible. However, as occurs from time to time in the media and in scholarship, someone inevitably discovers some ancient document and asks why it cannot be included in the Canon of Scripture.
Indeed, there are several books that are sometimes included in the Bible but not considered by Protestants to be inspired. And there are a host of other ancient pieces of literature that beg our attention. So what should we say about these documents, like the Gnostic Gospels, the Old Testament Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha? Why can we not consider these as inspired works that belong in the Canon? Those are precisely the questions we seek to prompt us into a closer look at these claims in this final article on the Canon of Scripture.
Let me start by defining terms and pointing out the books exactly that we are referring to. Then I will give the reasoning for why these books are not included, and finally, I will state the theological reason for why most people would tell you they don’t deserve to be in the Canon. Let us start with some definitions. The word Apocrypha means “hidden things” and refers to books that are included in some Bibles and manuscripts. Most people might not realize this, but the apocryphal books applies not only to works that historically were written between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, but also refers to some works written after the New Testament as well. But another term also speaks specifically to the post-New Testament writings. The word I have heard more commonly used is Pseudepigrapha. This word in Greek means “false writings.” It is more direct in its meaning than Apocrypha. For the purposes of our article, I will use Apocrypha only to refer to the Old Testament works and Pseudepigrapha to refer to the post-New Testament works.
First, let us deal with the Old Testament books. We have 39 books that compose the Old Testament in the canon today. Most people don’t know that different rabbis have actually challenged about 5 of those books for different reasons. One example is the book of Esther, which never mentions God’s name. However, others have convincingly argued that the letters of God’s name, YHWH, are used in literary patterns that are purposefully composed, as well as the message being useful to everyone that God can use people in His plans. Another example is the Song of Solomon, which many suggest is not important to the canon. This book has been interpreted usually one of two ways. Either an interpreter could view it as an image of Christ and the church, or it could be viewed as a romance that gives godly principles for married couples and even dating. For these reasons, and a few others, the books have never truly been in question.
However, there are some books, called the Apocrypha, which have been written between the final book of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and about the 200s AD. There are several works, numbering around 20 books or excerpts. Some of the apocrypha are extensions of inspired books, such as Esther and Daniel. Others are historical accounts such as the Maccabees. Still others are simply stories or even wisdom literature, like the Wisdom of Sirach. There are lists of the Apocrypha in many sources, and they are actually included in certain Bibles as well. Here is a list of the most common books in the Old Testament Apocrypha:
Looking at the history of Bible translation and formation also points out some interesting items concerning the Old Testament Apocrypha. These works are found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. They were also translated in the Vulgate, the Latin translation, and even are found in the earliest editions of the King James Version. However, not all 20 or so books are in each one. There is a variance of the books in even these three translational works I have mentioned, which tells us that these books were not considered as crucial as the inspired books in the Bible. Almost completely the canon is preserved in these translational works, yet the apocrypha is not as strongly represented.
- Addition to Esther
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Wisdom of Joshua Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus)
- The Letter of Jeremiah
- Additions to Daniel
- The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews
- Bel and the Dragon
- 1 Maccabees
- 2 Maccabees
- 1 Esdras
- 2 Esdras
- 3 Maccabees
- 4 Maccabees
- Prayer of Manasseh
- Psalm 151
Most scholars would remind us that not even the Jews considered these apocryphal books to be inspired as well. But that does not mean that they are not useful. In fact, they tell us a lot about the times in which they were written, as well as the cultural and historical understanding of those eras. Some books do not contain completely accurate data historically or geographically at some points. These are all reasons why they are not considered inspired. It is enjoyable to read them and interesting. I have not truly studied them myself, but I have read all of them at some time or another.
One book of great interest is Enoch’s work, although Enoch did not write it. It was given his name for credibility. This is another reason that some of these books are not inspired. It is believed that they try to garner the credibility of a true writer of Scripture in their names at times. Jude quotes from Enoch in Jude 14-15. But quoting from a book by the inspired writers does not give that work inspiration, for Paul quotes from secular poets in Acts 17:28 and 1 Corinthians 6:13. Use of another source does not make it inspired, especially when the source is being used in a counterpoint to an argument, and its premise being denied.
One more note on the Old Testament Apocrypha might assist us in assessing whether or not these books should be included in the inspired canon. When the Protestant Reformation occurred in the early 16th century, the Catholics and the Protestants went to war not just over ideas and principles of faith, but also over the canon itself. The Council of Trent took place from 1545-1563 and part of its vast influence determined that the Catholics would consider the Apocrypha inspired because the Protestants did not consider them inspired. Even the canon became a bone of contention among these two groups. My point is simply that when the Apocrypha is not always translated and also used to separate groups of Christians, it is not preserved or achieving the goal of unity in the Body of Christ. The books are of interest and even profitable, but they are not inspired.
Let us now think about the works done after the New Testament was completed around 95-96 AD with the book of Revelation. We have several works that are important in this time period, from the second to fifth century AD. First of all, there are books that no one considers inspired, which were written by the Early Church Fathers, the second generation Christians and disciples of the apostles, as well as successive generations of Christians. These are not inspired, nor have they really been suggested for inspiration and addition to the canon of Scripture. They are helpful as they contain quotes of Scripture as well as sermons and a history of theology and Christian thought through the ages. They are also interesting to read.
But there are other works, which are clearly railed against by Christians in the days that they were written and are considered heretical. One of the most common heretical groups were known as the Gnostics. Gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge. These were false teachers who believed that a person could gain a secret knowledge of Jesus, and we see them popping up even in the New Testament. John surely deals with them in some of the messages in Revelation 2-3 as well as in some of his epistles. They did not believe that Jesus was actually a human being, but was a spirit masquerading as a human. They did not believe that Jesus had a physical body. They believed that the spirit was good, but the flesh was innately evil.
These Gnostics would take what sounded like Scripture, or even quotes from Scripture, and they would intersperse false and perverted stories and doctrines throughout the work. We call these the Pseudepigrapha, from two Greek words meaning “False Writings.” Recently, there has been a great revival of these false writings and a challenge to have them added to the canon by several scholars. But this must never be done. The list of these works can become quite long, but you can find many of the whole texts on the internet if you search for them. Let me give a couple of examples of them, and then point out what makes us sure they are not inspired.
There are, of course, more where those came from. But notice already why they are called the false writings? They are taking the names of biblical authors and also the genres that they would use, for instance the gospel style or the acts style. But these writings do not date to the times of their suggested authors. These works were written after the deaths and martyrdoms of the apostles, so they cannot have been written by them. That is why they are false, to begin with.
- Gospel of Thomas
- Gospel of Peter
- Gospel of Mary
- The Acts of Peter
- The Acts of Paul
- The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas
But someone will tell me that they could be dated earlier. Okay. If I allow that, we still have many problems with these writings. They contradict historical and theological data that we have in the inspired books. Some tell fanciful stories of Jesus stretching wood because as a carpenter he cut the piece too short. Others talk of Jesus resurrecting childhood friends that jump off of roofs. Several of these books lead the reader on and sound so good until they hit that, “Umm, what just happened?” moment. These are just the historical differences between the inspired writings and these others. One case for inspiration and inclusion in the canon is that they must be written by prophets and apostles, but these are written after the apostles are gone.
Let me conclude this by showing you the theological dangers of wanting to include these books in the canon of Scripture, the reason they do not fit at all. Let’s take a look at one common Gnostic gospel that seeks a hearing, the Gospel of Thomas. You can find an online translation of this work here at http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/gthlamb.html. As you read, you can see how some verses of this text might pass for sayings of Jesus. But as you get farther and farther, there is one terribly shocking ending to the book. Take a look at verse 114. This one will make all the ladies super happy. It reads:
(114) Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."
Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
Now I thought that we had to become like children (and even then not literally children but LIKE them) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a good thing I’m a guy, because I don’t need a sex-change to get to heaven. But sorry, ladies. Apparently, you’re not good enough as women, and so Jesus will have to “lead” you there. Does that bother anyone at all? I seem to remember from my reading of books that are not questionable as to inspiration things like this:
These are only a few of the reasons this Gnostic gospel and other works like it within the False Writings can be very dangerous. The Pseudepigrapha are very dangerous. I do not recommend reading them unless you are strong in your faith and can discern between the truth of God’s Word and these works in which truth and lies are interwoven. I have found as I study these works, and also the Apocrypha, that the simple matter of the fact is that with the 66 books of the Bible, we have enough to blow our minds and deal with as believers. There’s enough in there to save us completely, to teach us God’s truth, and to guide us into His presence. We don’t need these other books.
- Genesis 2:18, 20 – Where it is not good for the man to be alone and God makes a “helper” for him.
- Proverbs 31:10-31 – If such a woman is so wonderful, then why must she be changed to enter heaven?
- The whole books of Esther and Ruth. Without them, the line of David in Ruth and the whole Jewish nation in Esther would not exist.
- The first evangelists were women who went to Jesus’ tomb early on Sunday morning after His resurrection. Why did they get to be first in a male-dominated society if they are not good enough to share the gospel?
- Very importantly – Galatians 3:28. I cannot stress how paramount this verse is. Paul is making an argument that anyone can be saved, despite their background and environment, and he says that when we are “in Christ,” saved into the Kingdom, there is neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ. That does not mean that there is no gender in heaven, but that gender is not a dividing factor in the Kingdom of God. It would make no sense, and go against Scripture, then, to suggest that a woman must have a sex-change to enter the Kingdom she is already a part of as a believer!
We are not missing any essentials or even non-essentials of the faith by not having these extra books in the Bible. Until we can say with assurance that we have mastered what God has given us in His Word, the 66 books, we should not attempt to put our efforts into these books, especially when they are contrary to His Word. The final point I wish to make about inspiration and the canon and whether or not the Bible is complete is this: Do we trust God that He would give us everything we need to know Him?
You see, these questions over the canon come down to our trust in a good Father who gives us every good gift. Would God leave out essentials that we need to know to love and serve Him? Is He that kind of God? If we have everything that we need in the canon, we don’t need the other books. Is there mystery in the Word of God? Absolutely. But it is a mystery that is designed to be there. This year, I’m going to write an article about mystery in the Bible. I hope it will help you come to grips with our Western “Know it all” mindset. So when we look at Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, they are indeed interesting, but they do not help us grow closer to God. And after all, that is the true test for inspiration, that His Words to us help us to know Him more!