Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

What Are the "Apocrypha?"

by Hugh Pope, O.P.


Hugh Pope, O.P., in this article from 1946, explains the nature of the Apocrypha, a collection of writings which were rejected by the churches of the Reformation based on their absence from the Hebrew Bible, therefore allowing them much less authority than sacred Scripture.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review


176 – 187

Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., March 1946

Catholics are sometimes puzzled when they hear their non-Catholic friends speaking of the "Apocrypha." If they question them they discover that they understand by that term the Books of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobias, Judith, Baruch, First and Second Machabees and portions of Esther and Daniel. If further questioned, their friends should be able to say that at the Reformation the churches which separated from Rome and followed the lead of Luther and others decided that the above Books were not of equal authority with the rest since they are not to be found in the Hebrew Bible, but only in the Greek version; hence Catholic scholars call them "Deuterocanonical" or Books to be found only in the second or Greek list of canonical Scriptures. Strangely enough, Coverdale, in his version of 1535, calls these Books "Hagiographa" or "Sacred Writings" — an absolute misnomer, for that title belongs to the third section of the Hebrew Bible, viz, ., the Sapiential Books, Job, Psalms, etc.

This application by the Reformers of the term "Apocrypha" to our Deuterocanonical Books, besides being quite unjustifiable, has led to confusion of mind, since many fail to realise that there exist a vast number of writings which are correctly known as "Apocrypha," though as we shall see, a better term would be "pseudepigrapha." The word "apocryphal" means "hidden" and does not in the least imply that such writings are therefore undesirable, though as a matter of fact they are "undesirable" in the sense that they have no claim to a place among the canonical — and therefore inspired — Books of the Bible.

The notion that there were such apocryphal or "hidden" writings presupposes that, in addition to published Revelation, many things had been handed down secretly, esoteric information for the elect. Thus there are references to "sealed" Books in Isaias 8:16, 29:11 ; Dan. 8:26, 12:9. The "hidden" writings with which we are dealing treated of the future of Israel and the Messianic hope, aspirations which, intensified by the triumph of the Machabees over their Seleucidan persecutors, were rendered nugatory by the failure of the later Machabean rulers to fulfill expectations. This failure led to the emergence of the Pharisees or "separatists" with their emphasis on adherence to the letter of the Law, and over against them, of the Sadducees with their materialistic outlook and consequent support of the national dynasty. Most conspicuous in their ascetic life were the Essenes, the "Assideans" of 1 Mach. 2:42, 7:13.

As already remarked, really apocryphal writings should, more correctly, be called "pseudepigrapha" since, in order to secure their acceptance and circulation, they were published under the names of famous Biblical characters. Reaffirming "national" hopes, as they did, they had a great vogue, whether as portending a great future for the Jewish nation or as proclaiming the glories of the future Messias. Christians, too, seeing the fulfillment of such predictions in the person of Christ, and eager to emphasize their prophetical character, inserted in these writings details taken from the life of Christ. Hence St. Paul's repeated condemnations of the craving for such esoteric knowledge.1 "These writings," says Origen, "seem to speak too openly concerning the life of the Blessed Hereafter."2 Yet despite their legendary character the Apocrypha do contain historical statements often of great value; they also afford us an insight into the ethical and religious notions current at the time they were composed. Hence scholars have been at pains to discover so far as possible at what dates these Books were first in circulation.

The attitude of the Fathers to the Apocryphal writings is often misunderstood. Many of these they condemned emphatically, St. Jerome speaking of them as "deliramenta"3 and as the source of heretical notions. He blames Jovinian, for instance, for basing his heterodox views "in reconditis prophetiis quae vocantur 'apocrypha'."4 Origen, too, insists that, among other writings, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs5 and the Doctrina Petri6 are "not in the Canon." But the Fathers had at the same time to face the fact that the New Testament writers certainly did quote some apocryphal writings. St. Jude's reference to the dispute between St. Michael and the devil (Jude, 9) is a case in point; so, too, St. Paul's use of the non-Scriptural passage : "Rise thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead: and Christ shall enlighten thee" (Eph. 5:14). "This," says Origen, "these writers did under Divine inspiration." St. Jerome reminds us that the New Testament writers did not necessarily approve of the works from which they took citations. St. Augustine is characteristically cautious:

Let us dismiss the fables contained in those books known as "Apocrypha" since their origin was not clear to the Fathers . . . and though there may be some truth enshrined in those books, yet they have no canonical authority owing to their large admixture of error. We cannot, for instance, question that Enoch wrote of some divine truths, for the Apostle Jude says so in his canonical Epistle. Yet quite reasonably it is not in that list (canone) of the Scriptures preserved in the Temple by the careful diligence of successive generations of priests; indeed the high antiquity assigned to these writings as well as the prevailing uncertainty as to whether they really represent what Enoch wrote, render them suspect.7

Further, some apocryphal works were so widely read that the Fathers felt bound to speak of them as "doubtful." Nor, on the other hand, would it be easy to find any Father affirming the canonicity of any writing formally rejected by the Church.

Apocryphal Literature of Pre-Christian Times

As most of this apocryphal literature is not readily accessible a brief account of some small portion of it will not be without interest.

We will consider first the Enoch literature. It was only to be expected that legends should gather round the shadowy figure of one "who walked with God and was seen no more because God took him" (Gen. 5:18-24), and of whom the author of Ecclesiasticus says: "he pleased God and was translated into Paradise that he might give repentance to the nation" (44:16; cf. Heb. 11:5). Tertullian terms him "the ancient Prophet,"8 and Enoch soon came to be identified with one of the "two witnesses" of Apoc. 11:2. Yet Tertullian declares that the writings, of this "ancient Prophet" were rejected, "since written before the Flood"9 — certainly a strange argument. Origen, too, speaks almost hesitatingly: "if any one likes to regard this Book as holy."10 The Apostolic Constitutions (6, 15), condemn "Apocryphal Books of Moses, Enoch, Adam, Isaias, David, Elias — as pernicious, and alien from the truth, books which stand in our name but were in fact written by the ungodly."

Interest in Enoch was aroused through the publication by the Ethiopic scholar, Laurence, of an Ethiopic version in 1821 and 1833. For this showed how early in Hebrew history Messianic notions were prevalent. Particularly interesting were those mysterious Angels of Gen. 6, to whose promiscuous unions with the daughters of men the fall of 219 angels under nineteen leaders is ascribed, the progeny resulting from their relations with women being known as the "Giants" or "Rephaim" who figure so largely in Josue's conquest of Palestine and in the wars waged by David. Mysterious beings called "Watchers" ("Shomerim"), escort Enoch through the Underworld where he converses with Abel and is shown the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge.

A few words should next be said about The Book of Jubilees, also known as The Little Genesis. This might be described as a glorification of the Patriarchs. In it an "Angel of the Presence" reveals to Moses the history of the ages that had gone before, even representing the Law, e.g., the Day of Atonement and the Passover, as having been well known to the Patriarchs. It was Abraham who appointed Levi to the priesthood; and that priesthood is confirmed to him though Juda is to be "a Prince sitting on the Throne"; in other words, the combination of kingship and priesthood in the one person of the Messias is not even hinted at. (Cf. Zach. 6:9-15.) In fact there is no reference to a personal Messias, even the Protoevangelium (Gen. 3:15-16) being omitted and the Mosaic ritual being treated as the one basis of the Messianic kingdom; the year of jubilee and the cycle of forty-nine years are made the pivot on which revolves a solar calendar with the year comprising 364 days. As in the Enoch literature, Angels, the "Watchers" or "Shomerim," though sent to teach men, themselves fall into sin (Gen. 7) for which they are punished; but some are allowed to tempt men, while the rest are dismissed to "the place of condemnation." The offspring of their illicit unions with "the daughters of men" are the "giants" who, however, slay one another.

The Biblical narrative is added to freely: Esau was not circumcised, and Jacob bestows on him a full blessing; Adam and Eve are said to have lived seven years in Eden; Cain's wife is named and his death described. On the death of Isaac, Jacob slays Esau and wages war against the Amorrhites (cf. Gen. 48:22); after the Fall of our first parents the animals are deprived of the power of speech. Death is described as "going into the eternal house" (cf. Eccles. 12:5); there will be a Day of judgment and a place of condemnation; there is a Book of Reprobation as well as the Book of Life; but there is no suggestion of a personal resurrection.

The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is a document in which each Patriarch is described as blessing his descendants as Jacob had blessed them (Gen. 49), yet the whole might not unjustly be described as a glorification of the Levitical priesthood; it almost reads as though the author had in mind the Epistle to the Hebrews. Thus Juda says: "To me the Lord gave the kingdom, but to Levi the priesthood, and he set the kingdom beneath the priesthood; to me the things of earth, to Levi the things of heaven." Even Reuben and Dan, though tempted to rebel, must obey Levi, who is instructed by Isaac in rites and ceremonies. Juda confesses his former sin (Gen. 38), but adds: "When drunk I revealed the commandments of God and the Mysteries of Jacob to the Canaanite woman Bathshua, though the Lord had forbidden me to do so."

Christian writers interpolated passages putting a different complexion on the pre-eminence assigned to Levi: "The seed of Levi will be divided into three offices for a sign of the glory of the Lord who is to come: the first shall be greater than any previous, the second consists in the priesthood, the third shall arise in Juda where a king shall rise and establish a new priesthood to mediate with the Gentiles as Prophet of the Most High, of the seed of Abraham." Yet, though combining the offices of priest, king, and prophet, the Levitical priesthood will err and the chief priests will lay hands on the Saviour of the world who is to be born of a Virgin, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world and whose kingdom shall be everlasting; He is greater than all the Angels who shall rejoice at His coming. But He is humble and poor, true and longsuffering, meek and lowly; without sin He shall open Paradise and remove the curse on Adam, He is "the Star of Jacob" and "the Prince of peace"; "He shall be lifted up upon a tree and the veil of the Temple shall be rent; the Spirit of God shall pass on the Gentiles; He shall ascend from Hades and pass from earth into heaven. The Lord shall visit all the Gentiles in his tender mercies forever; in his priesthood the Gentiles shall be multiplied in knowledge and enlightened through the grace of the Lord." Again as in Jubilees there are some strange additions to the Biblical narrative; Jacob and Juda perform martial exploits rivalling those of David; in the end, indeed, Jacob slays Esau. Nephtali in his Testament treats in Aristotelian fashion of the five senses and of the relation between soul and body; Reuben and Gad give admonitions on the dangers of wine and women, while Benjamin insists on a final resurrection of the body.

Sibylline Oracles is the title given to a heterogeneous collection of "prophecies" generally couched in hexameter form and often constituting acrostics. These are referred to a number of "seers" the supposed meaning of the name "Sibyl," and their mystic sayings date in their present form as far back as the beginning of the second century B.C. Though constantly quoted by the Fathers these latter nowhere seem to have regarded them as divinely-inspired oracles. Clement of Alexandria does, it is true, speak of the Sibyl as "the prophetess of the Hebrews"11 and quotes the Oracles repeatedly;12 yet not so much as authoritative but rather as illustrative of otherwise-known revealed truth. Tertullian, indeed, seems to suggest that a divine authority attached to these Oracles: "antecedent to all other literature we have the Sibyl, that true seer of the truth whose name you have stolen and applied to your demon-deities."13 St. Justin Martyr, too, often quotes the Sibyl and in terms which might at first suggest that he held for her Divine inspiration: "Plato and Aristophanes," he says, "call her a prophetess, and she in oracular verses taught you of One only God: 'There is one only unbegotten God Omnipotent, invisible, most high, All-seeing, but Himself unseen of mortal eye.'"14 And further on: "You readily learn the true religion — in some sort at least — from the Sibyl of old who, by some sort of powerful inspiration, teaches in her prophetic oracles truths apparently closely akin to the Prophets."15 But startling though these words are, they, and indeed the whole context, show that he regarded these oracles as something quite apart from Holy Scripture, though remarkably illustrative of it.

St. Augustine says that once, when discussing the nature of Christ with the Proconsul Flaccianus, "a most eloquent and learned man," the latter showed him a Greek copy of the Oracles of the Erythraean Sibyl in which the opening letters of twenty-seven consecutive lines formed an acrostic which ran: "Jesus Christus Dei Filius Salvator."16 Again, when quoting, in a letter to a recent convert, a passage from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue:

Te duce si qua manent scelera vestigia nostri,
Irrita perpetua solvent formidine terras,

he remarks: "Quoniam fortasse illa vates (the Sibyl) aliquid de uno Salvatore in Spiritu audierat, quod necesse habuit confiteri."17 But elsewhere he dryly notes of similar oracular sayings: "etiamsi sint vera — ante fidem inutilia, post fidem superflua."18

Perhaps the most interesting portions that have survived are contained in what is termed Book III where many details of the coming Messianic Kingdom are given; in it Jerusalem with its Temple is depicted as the future center of a universal kingdom of righteousness.

If we turn to the end of almost any copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible we find a Latin version of The Prayer of Manasses, a composition by an unknown author intended to express the sentiments suggested in II Paralip. 33, where we are told that Manasses repented of his enormities. This Prayer is a cento of passages from the Old Testament, and clauses from it still appear in the Missal, Introit for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, and in the Breviary during the second week after Pentecost and the fourth after Trinity. The Tridentine Fathers, though well aware of the apocryphal character of this and Third and Fourth Esdras which follow appended them to the Vulgate "lest they should be altogether lost, whereas they are sometimes quoted by the Fathers."

Third Esdras is a compilation. The portions of the Hebrew taken over in Third Esdras are translated independently and with some additions. The section peculiar to Third Esdras, viz., 3:1-5, 6, contains the much-quoted story of how, Darius being unable to sleep, his servants were called upon to tell stories illustrating their ideas as to the strongest thing on earth: the first said wine, the second the king, the third, Zorobabel, began by suggesting women, but went on to assert the claims of truth: "magna est veritas, et praevalet" (not "praevalebit"). Third Esdras is quoted by St. Jerome as "historia,"19 also by St. Augustine20 and Josephus.21

Fourth Esdras consists of a series of visions vouchsafed to Esdras, ninety-four books being dictated to him, twenty-four to be divulged at once, the rest to be reserved; this seems to be the basis of the legend that when the Bible was destroyed Esdras rewrote it by divine inspiration. In 1875 Bensly discovered the seventy-five verses missing from the Latin version after 7:35.

Apocryphal Writings of the Christian Epoch

Since there were but four Gospels, and of their writers only two were Apostles; since, too, the Acts of the Apostles were practically limited to the doings of Saints Peter and Paul, while the only Apocalypse was that of St. John, it was only to be expected that some of the early Christians would be tempted to fill up the gaps. Hence we have Gospels of the Infancy, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Protoevangelium of St. James, and a host of others; likewise Acts of Paul, Peter, Thomas, Andrew, John, etc., as well as Apocalypses of other Apostles.

Though these productions are full of extravagant episodes, they yet contain much that may be genuine history which it is the function of the expert to disentangle. Moreover they throw an interesting side-light on the mentality and outlook of the early Church. Here we can only deal, and that cursorily, with a selection of these writings.

First in interest should be — at least to judge by the title — the Sayings of Christ, known as the "Logia." St. Paul (Acts, 20:35) told his hearers at Miletus to "remember the word (saying) of the Lord Jesus, how he said: 'It is a more blessed thing to give rather than to receive,'" words not appearing in the Gospel; and Papias had styled the Gospels "the Oracles ("Logia" or "sayings") of Christ";22 the same term, too, is frequently used in the New Testament when referring to the Old Testament.23 Great interest was aroused, then, by the discovery in recent years of small collections of such "sayings" of Christ. But it must be confessed that these proved disappointing, for they add little or nothing to our previous knowledge of Our Lord's teaching.

As we might expect, a large number of apocryphal works were attached to Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, such as Acts and an Apocalypse.24 But the most noticeable of all was the Gospel of Peter, the discovery of which in 1887-88 was of peculiar interest since we already knew from Eusebius that Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, about 190 A.D., had felt compelled to repudiate this Gospel because "after reading it through we find many things in accordance with the true doctrine of our Saviour, but also some things added to that doctrine."25 Study of the newly-discovered copy shows that it upheld Docetic ideas on the nature of Christ's human nature; in other words that He only "seemed" to be human, but was not so in reality. Under the title Clementines are grouped a series of writings such as the Homilies, the Recognitions, the Itinerarium of Peter, etc. To them we owe the statement that St. Peter was tonsured, also that he had a daughter, Petronilla.

The treatise entitled The Epistle of Barnabas can hardly have been the work of the Apostle Barnabas if only for the reason that a writing by an Apostle would presumably have been inspired and therefore canonical. For as St. Augustine points out, "had certain testimonies alleged to emanate from St. John or St. Andrew really been from their pens they would have been received by the Church through unquestionable Apostolic succession."26 Eusebius and St. Jerome have no hesitation in rejecting the Epistle as being apocryphal. The date of its composition is still a matter of dispute; the reference in ch. 16 to the rebuilding of Jerusalem suggests a date posterior to A.D. 138 when it was destroyed by Bar Chocheba.

The name, at least, of The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles has been made familiar to many, owing to its comparatively recent discovery by Bryennios, Patriarch of Nicomedia, in 1873 and its publication by him in 1883. Fresh portions were found in 1923. Its existence was already known to us from Clement of Alexandria and St. Athanasius. This tiny treatise may be described as an early "Manual of Christian Life." It falls into two parts: sections 1-5 dealing with the Two Ways of good and evil living: viz., love of God and consequent keeping of His commandments, and the opposite, the Way of Death. The second part is concerned with practical details: the method of administering Baptism, of fasting and prayer, especially the Lord's Prayer, of preparation for and thanksgiving after Holy Communion, of the reception to be accorded to visiting teachers, of Sunday observance, of care in choosing bishops and deacons, finally of certain moral obligations. The treatise presents many problems quite apart from the still-disputed question of the date at which it was composed.

The Pastor (or Shepherd) of Hermas is best described as spiritual teaching in allegorical form given under the guise of a dream or series of dreams which may well have been genuine experiences. The teaching is conveyed in three sections entitled respectively "Visions," "Commandments," and "Similitudes." Some have thought that Hermas was the person referred to by St. Paul (Rom. 16:14), and the injunction to hand the treatise to Clement (Vision 2:4) might support this. But the positive statement in the Muratorian Canon: "During the Episcopate of Pius his brother Hermes wrote a book containing commandments given him by an Angel who appeared to him in the guise of a shepherd," cannot be disregarded. This reference to the "shepherd" explains the title by which the treatise is generally known.

The Pastor was long a popular book, but never had any place among canonical Scriptures, though constantly quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others; St. Jerome simply remarks of it: "si cui placet illius recipere lectionem."27 Like the Canticle of Canticles the Pastor has to be read with discrimination. Tertullian twice speaks of it — ungenerously — as "Pastor moechorum."

St. Jerome seems to have identified The Gospel according to the Hebrews with the Gospel of the Nazarenes and that of the Ebionites.28 He translated it into Latin and was therefore accused by Theodore of Mopsuestia of holding there were five Gospels. Jerome's translation has not come down to us; we have only fragments quoted by him, by Origen and others.

The following will serve to show their character: "In the Gospel used by the Nazarenes and the Ebionites, which I have recently translated from Hebrew into Greek and which many consider to be the authentic [text copy?] of Matthew, the man whose hand was withered [Matt. 12:13] is described as a mason, and it is said that he begged Christ's help, saying: 'I was a mason earning my living by my hands; prithee, Jesus, restore my health so that I may no longer need to beg the bread of shame.'"29 St. Jerome himself clearly did not regard this Gospel as the "Matthaei authenticum"; he would not have undertaken the superfluous labor of translating a work already familiar to him in Greek. Of the rich young man who made the great refusal Origen says:

It is written in the Gospel according to the Hebrews that when the Lord said to him, "Go, sell all that thou hast," that young man began to scratch his head. Wherefore the Lord said to him "How can you say: I have fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, whereas it is written in the Law 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself' and yet here are many of thy brethren, sons of Abraham, who are clad in filth, are dying of starvation, while all the time your home is overflowing with wealth; but from it none go out to succour them?" Therefore did the Lord rebuke him by saying, "If thou wilt be perfect, go . . ." For it is not possible to fulfill the commandment which says "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" and at the same time be a rich man and even have immense possessions.30

It might seem that Origen, using the expression "it is written," considered this Gospel as canonical, but his words in another place show that he thought differently.31

The Protoevangelium, attributed to St. James, was always a popular work. To it we owe the accounts of Joachim and Anna and of the espousals of Mary and Joseph, a theme popular with mediaeval artists. The Child is described as born in a cave. The same details appear in an exaggerated form in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a work full of the marvelous. To this book we owe the notion that Christ had brethren according to the flesh.

The Gospel of Nicodemus is of much greater interest. It is also known as the Acta Pilati since in it Pilate, through the mouth of Nicodemus, describes his attempts to save Christ at His trial; the paralytic cured by Our Lord (John, 5), the man born blind (John, 9), and Claudia Procula, the wife of Pilate (Matt. 27:19) intervene to the same end. The names of the two thieves are given as Dysmas and Gesmas; various appearances of the risen Christ are narrated; the priests maintain that the darkness on Calvary was simply due to an eclipse. In chapter four, Christ's descent into Hell and the greeting between Him and the Patriarchs and Prophets is beautifully told — a section known in the Middle Ages as "The Harrowing of Hell"; Annas and Caiphas have to acknowledge that all these happenings had been foretold in Scripture. Chapter five gives Pilate's letters to the Emperor, his trial for himself and Claudia Procula. Chapter six tells the legend of Veronica and the reported suicide of Pilate.

End Notes

  1. I Cor. 2:7-10; Col. 2:8, 16-18; 1 Tim. 6:20; Tit. 1:14; 3:9.
  2. On Matthew, 17.
  3. Adv. Helvidium, 8.
  4. Adv. Jovinianum.
  5. Hom. on Josue, 15, 6.
  6. De principiis, Preface, 8.
  7. De civ. Dei, 15, 23, 4.
  8. De idololatria, 15.
  9. De veste, 3.
  10. Contra Celsum, 5, 54.
  11. Cohortatio ad Graecos, 1, 12, 6 and 8.
  12. Cf. Stromata, 1, where he discusses the age at which the Sibyl lived, and 5, 14. Cf. also Paedagogus, 3.
  13. Ad nationes, 2, 12.
  14. Ibid., 37.
  15. Cohortatio ad Graecos, 16.
  16. De civ. Dei, 18, 22, 1.
  17. Ep. 258, 5.
  18. Contra Faustum, 13, 1.
  19. On Ezechiel, 4, 4.
  20. Ant. Jud., 11, 3, 2-8.
  21. De civ. Dei, 8, 36.
  22. Eusebius, H.E., 3, 39, 8, 16.
  23. Acts 7:38; Rom. 3:2; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 4:11.
  24. St. Jerome mentions Acts of Peter, a Gospel, an Apocalypse, the Preaching of Peter, and the Judgment of Peter, all to be repudiated as apocryphal.
  25. H.E., 6, 12.
  26. Contra adversarium legis et prophetarum, 1, 20.
  27. On Osee, 8, 10.
  28. In Matt., 12, 13; De viris illust., 1.
  29. In Matt., 12, 13.
  30. On Matthew, 8.
  31. Contra Celsum, 1, 3.

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