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Apocrypha (from the Greek: ἀπόκρυφα, meaning "hidden"[1]) is a term used in a variety of different contexts. Originally, the term referred to secret texts of wisdom found in Gnostic and Christian sects. Over time, the term developed negative connotations and became associated with texts of uncertain authenticity, thus meaning "spurious" or "false."

For most Protestants, the term apocrypha refers to scriptural texts that fall outside of the Biblical canon. However, given that various denominations have different ideas about what constitutes canonical scripture, there are several different versions of the apocrypha. During sixteenth-century controversies over the Biblical canon, the word "apocrypha" was used pejoratively to describe the books in the Roman Catholic canon that are absent from the Protestant version of the Bible; however, Catholic and Orthodox Christians describe these books as deuterocanonical and consider them to be canonical parts of their scripture.


The word "apocryphal" (ἀπόκρυφος) was first applied, in a positive sense, to secret writings that were seen as vehicles of esoteric knowledge. These writings were also considered too important to be disclosed to anyone other than the initiated. In this sense, Gnostic sects boasted that they possessed the secret knowledge and books of wisdom and truth. The term in general enjoyed high consideration among the Gnostics (see Acts of Thomas, 10, 27, 44).[2] Thus, the Gnostic tradition was a prolific source of apocryphal gospels. While these writings borrowed the characteristic poetic features of apocalyptic literature from Judaism, Gnostic sects largely insisted on allegorical interpretations based on a secret apostolic tradition. Among Gnostics, as with most Christians of the first and second centuries, apocryphal books were highly esteemed.

However, the high position that some apocryphal books occupied in the first two centuries was undermined by a variety of influences in the Christian church. All claims to the possession of a secret tradition (as held by many Gnostic sects) were denied by the influential theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian; Second, the timeframe of true inspiration was limited to the apostolic age, and, thirdly, universal acceptance by the church was required as proof of apostolic authorship. As these principles gained currency, books deemed apocryphal tended to become regarded as spurious and heretical writings, though books now considered deuterocanonical have been used in liturgy and theology from the first century to the present.

The term "Apocrypha" was also applied to writings that were hidden not because of their sacredness but because of their questionable value to the church. Augustine defined the word as meaning simply "obscurity of origin," implying that any book of unknown authorship or questionable authenticity would be considered as apocrypha.

Origen, in Commentaries on Matthew, X. 18, XIII. 57, distinguishes between writings that were read by the churches and apocryphal writings. His meaning of apocryphal was equivalent to "excluded from the public use of the church," and prepared the way for an even less favorable use of the word.[2]

The word "apocrypha" eventually came to mean "false, spurious, bad, or heretical." This meaning also appears in Origen's prologue to his commentary on the Song of Songs, of which only the Latin translation survives.

Other uses of the word apocrypha developed over the history of Western Christianity. The Gelasian Decree refers to religious works by church fathers Eusebius, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria as apocrypha.

Some apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint with little distinction made between them and the rest of the Old Testament. Origen, Clement and others cited some apocryphal books as "scripture," "divine scripture," "inspired," and the like. On the other hand, teachers connected with Palestine and familiar with the Hebrew canon excluded from the canon all of the Old Testament not found there. This view is reflected in the canon of Melito of Sardis, and in the prefaces and letters of Jerome.[3] A third view was that the books were not as valuable as the canonical scriptures of the Hebrew collection, but were of value for moral uses, as introductory texts for new converts from paganism, and to be read in congregations. They were referred to as "ecclesiastical" works by Rufinus,[4]

These three opinions regarding the apocryphal books prevailed until the Protestant Reformation, when the issue of the canon became a major concern for Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. In 1546, the Catholic Council of Trent reconfirmed the canon of Augustine, dating to the second and third centuries, declaring "He is also to be anathema who does not receive these entire books, with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church, and are found in the ancient editions of the Latin Vulgate, as sacred and canonical." The whole of the books in question, with the exception of 1st and 2nd Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses, were declared canonical at Trent1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. The Protestants, in comparison, held the belief that only the books in the Hebrew collection were canonical. John Wycliffe, a fourteenth century reformer, had declared in his Biblical translation that "whatever book is in the Old Testament besides these twenty-five shall be set among the apocrypha, that is, without authority or belief."[5] Nevertheless, his translation of the Bible included the apocrypha.[6]

The respect accorded to apocryphal books varied between Protestant denominations. In both the German (1537) and English (1535) translations of the Bible, the apocrypha are published in a separate section from the other books. In some editions of the Bible (like the Westminster), readers were warned that these books were not "to be any otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings." A milder distinction was expressed elsewhere, such as in the "argument" introducing them in the Geneva Bible, and in the Sixth Article of the Church of England, where it is said that "the other books the church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners," though not to establish doctrine.[7]

Apocryphal texts by denomination

Jewish apocrypha

Although Traditional Judaism insists on the exclusive canonization of the 24 books in the Tanakh, it also claims to have an oral law handed down from Moses. Certain circles in Judaism, such as the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt, were said to have had a secret literature (see Dead Sea scrolls). A large part of this literature consisted of the apocalypses.

Biblical books called apocrypha

Main article: Biblical apocrypha

During the birth of Christianity, some of the Jewish apocrypha that dealt with the coming of the Messianic kingdom became popular in the nascent Jewish-Christian communities. Christianity eventually gave birth to new apocalyptic works, some of which were derived from traditional Jewish sources. This was not strange, as the large majority of Old Testament references in the New Testament are taken from the Greek Septuagint, which is the source of the Deuterocanonical books[8] as well as most of the other biblical apocrypha.[9]

Slightly varying collections of additional Books (called deuterocanonical by the Roman Catholic Church) form part of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox canons. New Testament possible reliance on these books includes these examples: James 1:19-20 shows dependence on Sirach 5:13-14, Hebrews 1:3 on Wisdom 7:26, Hebrews 11:35 on 2 Maccabees 6, Romans 9:21 on Wisdom 15:7, 2 Cor. 5:1, 4 on Wisdom 9:15, etc.

The Book of Enoch is included in the biblical canon only of the Oriental Orthodox churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, the Epistle of Jude quotes the prophet, Enoch, by name, and some believe the use of this book appears in the four gospels and 1 Peter. The genuineness and inspiration of Enoch were believed in by the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, and much of the early church. The epistles of Paul and the gospels also show influences from the Book of Jubilees, which is part of the Ethiopian canon, as well as the Assumption of Moses and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which are included in no biblical canon.

New Testament apocryphal literature

New Testament apocrypha — books similar to those in the New Testament but almost universally rejected by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — include several gospels and lives of apostles. Some of these were clearly produced by Gnostic authors or members of other groups later defined as heterodox. Many texts believed lost for centuries were unearthed in the 19th and 20th centuries (See Qumran and Oxyrhyncus), producing lively speculation about their importance in early Christianity among religious scholars, while many others survive only in the form of quotations from them in other writings; for some, no more than the title is known.

Though Protestants, Catholics and, in general, Orthodox agree on the canon of the New Testament, the Ethiopian Orthodox has in the past also included I & II Clement, and Shepherd of Hermas in their New Testament canon. This is no longer the case, according to Biblical scholar R.W. Cowley. A well-known New Testament apocryphal book is the Gospel of Thomas, the only complete text of which was found in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. The Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic gospel, also received much media attention when it was reconstructed in 2006. Artists and theologians have drawn upon the New Testament apocrypha for such matters as the names of Dismas and Gestas and details about the Three Wise Men. The first explicit mention of the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in the pseudepigraphical Infancy Gospel of James.

Biblical Apocrypha

The biblical apocrypha includes texts written in the Jewish and Christian religious traditions that either:

  • were accepted into the biblical canon by some, but not all, Christian faiths, or
  • whose canonicity or lack thereof is not yet certain,[10] or
  • are frequently printed in Bibles despite their non-canonical status.

The biblical apocrypha are sometimes referred to as "the Apocrypha." Although the term apocrypha simply means hidden, this usage is sometimes considered pejorative by those who consider such works to be canonical parts of their scripture.

Apocrypha in the editions of the Bible

Surviving manuscripts of the whole Christian Bible include at least some of the Apocrypha as well as disputed books. After the Protestant and Catholic canons were defined by Luther and Trent respectively, early Protestant and Catholic editions of the Bible did not omit these books, but placed them in a separate Apocrypha section apart from the Old and New Testaments to indicate their status.

The Gutenberg Bible

This famous edition of the Vulgate was published in 1455. Like the manuscripts on which it was based, the Gutenberg Bible lacked a specific Apocrypha section;[11] its Old Testament included the books that Jerome considered apocryphal, and those which Clement VIII would later move to the appendix. The Prayer of Manasses was located after the Books of Chronicles, and 3, 4 Esdras followed 2 Esdras, and Prayer of Solomon followed Ecclesiasticus.

The Luther Bible

Martin Luther translated the Bible into German during the early part of the sixteenth century, first releasing a complete Bible in 1534. His Bible was the first major edition to have a separate section called Apocrypha. Books and portions of books not found in the Hebrew Tanakh were moved out of the body of the Old Testament to this section.[12] The books 1 and 2 Esdras were omitted entirely.[13] Luther placed these books between the Old and New Testaments. For this reason, these works are sometimes known as inter-testamental books. Many twentieth century editions of the Luther Bible omit the Apocrypha section.

Luther also expressed some doubts about the canonicity of four New Testament books: the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistles of James and Jude, and the Revelation to John. He did not put them in a separate section, but he did move them to the end of the New Testament.[14]

The Clementine Vulgate

In 1592, Pope Clement VIII published his revised edition of the Vulgate. He moved three books not found in the canon of the Council of Trent into an appendix, "ne prorsus interirent," "lest they utterly perish".[15]

  • Prayer of Manasses
  • 3 Esdras (1 Esdras in the King James Bible)
  • 4 Esdras (2 Esdras in the King James Bible)

All the other books of the Old Testament, including the deuterocanonical books, were placed in their traditional positions.

Apocrypha of the King James Version

The Apocrypha of the King James Bible constitutes the books of the Vulgate that are present neither in the Hebrew Old Testament nor the Greek New Testament. Since these are derived from the Septuagint, from which the old Latin version was translated, it follows that the difference between the KJV and the Roman Catholic Old Testaments is traceable to the difference between the Palestinian and the Alexandrian canons of the Old Testament. This is only true with certain reservations, as the Latin Vulgate was revised by Jerome according to the Hebrew, and, where Hebrew originals were not found, according to the Septuagint. Furthermore, the Vulgate omits 3 and 4 Maccabees, which generally appear in the Septuagint, while the Septuagint and Luther's Bible omit 4 Ezra, which is found in the Apocrypha of the Vulgate and the King James Bible. Luther's Bible, moreover, also omits 3 Ezra. It should further be observed that the Clementine Vulgate places the Prayer of Manasses and 3 and 4 Ezra in an appendix after the New Testament as apocryphal.

The English-language King James Version of 1611 followed the lead of the Luther Bible in using an inter-testamental section labelled "Books called Apocrypha." It included those books of the Vulgate and the Septuagint that were not in Luther's canon. These are the books that are most frequently referred to by the casual appellation "the Apocrypha." They comprise the following:[16]

These books are also listed in Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England,[17] which states:

“In the name of Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority there was never any doubt in the Church… And the other Books (as Hierome [St. Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…”

Other sixteenth century Bible editions

All English translations of the Bible printed in the sixteenth century included a section or appendix for Apocryphal books. Matthew's Bible, published in 1537, contains all the Apocrypha of the later King James Version in an inter-testamental section. The 1538 Myles Coverdale Bible contained the Apocrypha minus Baruch and the Prayer of Manasses. The 1560 Geneva Bible omitted the Prayer of Manasses from its Apocrypha, but did include the other texts. The Douay-Rheims Bible (1582-1609) placed the Prayer of Manasses and 3 and 4 Esdras into an appendix of the second volume of the Old Testament.

In 1569, the Spanish Reina Bible following the example of the pre-Clementine Latin Vulgate contained the deuterocanonical books in its Old Testament. Valera's 1602 revision of the Reina Bible removed these books into an inter-Testamental section following the other Protestant translations of its day.

Modern editions

All King James Bibles published before 1640 included the Apocrypha. In 1826, the British and Foreign Bible Society decided to refuse to distribute Bibles containing the Apocrypha. Since then most modern editions of the Bible and re-printings of the King James Bible omit the Apocrypha section. Many modern reprintings of the Clementine Vulgate and Douay-Rheims version no longer contain the Apocrypha section either. Several modern translations and revisions do not contain an apocrypha section at all.

There are some exceptions to this trend, however. Some editions of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible include not only the Apocrypha listed above, but also the third and fourth books of the Maccabees, and Psalm 151; the RSV Apocrypha also lists the Letter of Jeremiah (Epistle of Jeremy in the KJV) as separate from the book of Baruch. The American Bible Society lifted restrictions on the publication of Bibles with the Apocrypha in 1964. The British and Foreign Bible Society followed in 1966.[18] The Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate (the printed edition, not most of the on-line editions), which is published by the Bible Society, contains the Clementine Apocrypha as well as the Epistle to the Laodiceans and Psalm 151.

Brenton's edition of the Septuagint includes all of the Apocrypha found in the King James Bible with the exception of 2 Esdras, which is no longer extant in Greek.[19] He places them in a separate section at the end of his Old Testament, following English tradition. In Greek circles, however, these books are not traditionally called Apocrypha, but Anagignoskomena, and are integrated into the Old Testament.


The Septuagint, the pre-eminent Greek version of the Old Testament, contains books that are not present in the Hebrew bible. These texts are not traditionally segregated into a separate section, nor are they usually called apocrypha. They are referred to as the Anagignoskomena. The anagignoskomena are Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus Sirach, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremy (sometimes considered chapter 6 of Baruch), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azarias, Sosanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, and Psalm 151. 4 Maccabees is relegated to an appendix in modern editions of the Greek Bible. Some editions add the Odes, including the Prayer of Manasses. Some Slavic Orthodox Bibles add 2 Esdras; the Greek text of that book did not survive, however.

Vulgate prologues

Saint Jerome completed his version of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate, in 405. In the Middle Ages, the Vulgate became the de facto standard version of the Bible in the West. It was divided into Old and New Testaments only; there was no separate Apocrypha section. Nevertheless, the Vulgate manuscripts included prologues[20] which clearly identified certain books of the Vulgate Old Testament as apocryphal or non-canonical. In the prologue to the books of Samuel and Kings, which is often called the Prologus Galeatus, Jerome described those books not translated from the Hebrew as apocrypha; he specifically mentions that Wisdom, the book of Jesus son of Sirach, Judith, Tobias, and the Shepherd "are not in the canon." In the prologue to Esdras, he mentions 3 and 4 Esdras as being apocrypha. In his prologue to the books of Solomon, he mentioned "the book of Jesus son of Sirach and another pseudepigraphos, which is titled the Wisdom of Solomon." He says of them and Judith, Tobias, and the Books of the Maccabees, that the Church "has not received them among the canonical scriptures." On the other hand, Jerome (in Protogus Galeatus) declared that all books outside the Hebrew canon were apocryphal.[21] In practice, Jerome treated some books outside the Hebrew canon as if they were canonical, and the Western Church did not accept Jerome's definition of apocrypha, instead retaining the word's prior meaning. As a result, various church authorities labeled different books as apocrypha, treating them with varying levels of regard.

He mentions the Book of Baruch in his prologue to the Jeremias and does not explicitly refer to it as apocryphal, but he does mention that "it is neither read nor held among the Hebrews." In his prologue to the Judith he mentions that "among the Hebrews, the authority [of Judith] came into contention," but that it was "counted in the number of Sacred Scriptures" by the First Council of Nicaea.

Although in his Apology against Rufinus, Book II, he denied the authority of the canon of the Hebrews, this caveat does not appear in the prologues themselves, nor in his prologues does he specify the authorship of the canon he describes. Whatever its origin or authority, it was this canon without qualification that was described in the prologues of the bibles of Western Europe.

Many in Protestant and Evangelical traditions cite Revelation 22:18-19 as a potential curse for those who attach any canonical authority to extra-biblical writings such as the Apocrypha. However, a strict exegesis of this text would indicate it was meant for only the Book of Revelation. Revelation 22:18-19 (ESV) states: "(18) I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, (19) and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."

Cultural impact

  • Christopher Columbus was said to have been inspired by a verse from 4 Esdras 6:42 to undertake his hazardous journey across the Atlantic.[22]
  • The introitus, "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them," of the traditional Requiem in the Catholic Church is loosely based on 4 Esdras 2:34-35.
  • The alternative 'introitus for Quasimodo Sunday in the Roman rite of the Catholic Church is loosely based on 4 Esdras 2:36-37.
  • The Story of Susanna is perhaps the earliest example of a courtroom drama.
  • Bel and the Dragon is perhaps the earliest example of a locked room mystery.


  1. Specifically, ἀπόκρυφα is the neuter plural of ἀπόκρυφος, a participle derived from the verb ἀποκρύπτω [infinitive: ἀποκρύπτειν], "to hide something away."
  2. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  5. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  6. Wyclif's BibleWesley Center for Applied Theology. Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  7. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  8. Deuterocanonical books literally means books of the second canon. The term was coined in the sixteenth century.
  9. The Style Manual for the Society of Biblical Literature recommends the use of the term deuterocanonical literature instead of apocrypha in academic writing, although not all apocryphal books are properly deuterocanonical.
  10. Proemial Annotations of Volume I of the Old Testament of Douay
  11. Scanned pages of the Gutenberg BibleBritish Library. Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  12. 1945 Edition of the Luther Bible on-line Lutherbibel 1545 Original-Text "übersetzt von Dr. Martin Luther aus dem Textus Receptus" Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  13. Preface to the Revised Standard Version Common Bible
  14. James Swan.Six Points On Luther's "Epistle of Straw", 3 April 2007 Alpha and Omega Ministries.Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  15. Introductory material to the appendix of the Vulgata Clementina, text in Latin
  16. The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, (Oxford World's Classics, 1998, ISBN 978-0192835253)
  17. Article VI at episcopalian.org
  18. Edwin H. Robertson, "A Brief History of the United Bible Societies." United Bible Societies.Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  19. 2 Esdras at earlyjewishwritings.com
  20. From R. Weber, Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam versionem, (Stuttgart, 3rd edition, 1983). Prologues of Saint Jerome, Latin text.Retrieved April 1, 2008.
  21. [1]
  22. Christopher Columbus: Motivations to Reach the Indies by Sailing West, Janet L. Dotterer

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Information concerning the Hellenist Jews was incorporated from the Catholic Encyclopedia at newadvent.com.

  • Bissell, Edwin Cone. Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Edinburgh, 1880.
  • Echürer, Emil. Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes, vol. iii. 135 sqq., and his article on "Apokryphen" in Herzog's Realencykl. i. 622-653
  • Fritzsche, O.F. Libri Apocryphi V. T. Graece. (1871).
  • Fritzsche, O.F. and Grimm, Kurzgef. exeget. Handbuch zu den Apok. des A.T. Leipzig, 1851-1860.
  • Holmes and Parsons, Vet. Test. Graecum cum var. lectionibus. Oxford, 1798-1827.
  • Porter in James Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible. i. 111-123.
  • Swete, Henry Barclay. Old Testament in Greek, i.-iii. Cambridge, UK: 1887-1894.
  • Wace, Henry. The Apocrypha. ("Speaker's Commentary") (1888)
  • Zöckler, Otto. Die Apokryphen des Alten Testaments. Munchen: 1891.

External links

All links retrieved August 11, 2023.

  • Ethiopian Orthodox Canon Cowley, R.W. "The Biblical Canon Of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today." Ostkirchliche Studien, 1974, Volume 23, pp. 318-323. Accessed online via islamicawareness.org.
  • Major collection of pseudepigrapha Large number of NT and OT apocrypha and general pseudepigrapha.
  • Deuterocanonical books - Full text from Saint Takla Haymanot Church Website (also presents the full text in Arabic)


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