What is the Apocrypha and should you read it?

September 03, 2021 1 Comment

What is the Apocrypha and should you read it?

Michael F. Bird

The Apocrypha, from the Greek apokryphos for ‘hidden’, refers to a number of books written by Jewish authors that were widely read by Jews and Christians, but were regarded as of questionable authorship or having dubious origins. This is why Jews omitted them from their canon and why Christians eventually assigned them secondary status.

The books called by us ‘apocrypha’ were widely read and used by Christians in the early centuries and only gradually were siloed away from the Old and New Testaments. The Apocrypha provides a glimpse into the world of Second Temple Judaism (that is, Judaism from the time of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the return from Babylonian exile) and is helpful for understanding the backdrop to the New Testament period.

While the Apocrypha has been read and studied throughout church history, Christian churches differ among themselves when it comes to the status and extent of the Apocrypha.

On the status and order of these books in the Bible, Protestants call these books ‘Apocrypha’ and ordinarily place them between the Old and New Testaments, at least in the Tyndale-Matthews Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the King James Bible. Fun fact: the King James Bible (KJB) originally included the Old Testament, New Testament and Apocrypha, and it was not until the 1880s that Bible Societies began to omit the Apocrypha from printings of the KJB due to anti-Catholic animus. Even today, many evangelicals’ Bibles, like the English Standard Version and the Common English Bible, include the Apocrypha in some printings. The reading of the Apocrypha was encouraged by Protestant denominations, not because the Apocrypha should be used in preaching or in the establishment of Christian doctrine, but because ‘they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction’ (Geneva Bible) and ‘for instruction in life and manners’ (Anglican 39 Articles).

In contrast, Catholics recognise them as ‘deutero-canonical’, a second canonical collection, not merely useful, but as God-given and authoritative. The Greek Orthodox church recognises the Old Testament and Apocrypha, but doesn’t divide them up into those two categories. They simply consider them to be anagignoskomena, meaning ‘books to be read’.

To make things ever more confusing, there are disagreements on what books should be in the Apocrypha. Alas, the Protestant apocrypha, the Catholic deutero-canonicals, and the Greek Orthodox anagignoskomena do not all contain the same set of writings. If that were not complicated enough, consider this: the Slavonic Bible, a literary forebear of the Russian Synodal Version (the standard Russian Orthodox Bible), has slight variations from the Greek Orthodox Bible in terms of which apocryphal books it includes. Somewhat more exotically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church include in their Old Testament the entire Hebrew canon and the Apocrypha, but also add in ‘pseudepigraphical writings’ (texts falsely or fictitiously attributed to ancient figures) such as Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and 4 Baruch, while rejecting books like 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Let me be clear: Christians should read the Apocrypha! If you want to understand the historical period between Malachi and Matthew, then you should make a concerted effort to read the history, wisdom literature, and apocalyptic hopes contained in this body of writings. So tolle lege, take up and read!


Dr Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, and author of several books including Seven Things About the Bible That I Wish All Christians Knew. You can follow him at @mbird12 or michaelfbird.substack.com.

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Bibles printed today typically contain the Old Testament (39 books, the whole Jewish Bible) and the New Testament (27 books about Jesus and the birth of Christianity). The Apocrypha consists of Jewish texts written in the years between the Old and New Testaments, that is, between c. 400 BCE and the advent of Jesus. For this reason, the apocryphal books are often printed together as a collection between the Old and New Testament, though some Bibles disperse them throughout the other Old Testament books.

Many of the Bibles we see today do not contain the Apocrypha, especially those produced in Protestant contexts. However, throughout the history of Christianity, this is a relatively new development— it is only in the last 300 years or so that it has become common for these books to be omitted from printings of the Bible.

What’s it about?

The apocryphal books concern the time between the Jewish return from Babylonian exile under the Persian ruler, Cyrus, through to the time of the Greco-Roman empire. Through much of this intertestamental period the Jews were under various iterations of Greek rule. The Greek Empire had arrived with the conquests of Alexander the Great, but he died in 323 BCE, not long after establishing his vast empire. This was then divided between his generals. Jerusalem was located between the two most powerful of these divisions (Ptolemies and Seleucids) and was often caught up in their struggles for dominance.

The Jews were largely allowed to continue their religious and cultural life without hindrance until Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power. From 169 BCE he persecuted the Jews with increasing ferocity, forbidding Jewish religious practices like sabbath-keeping and circumcision on pain of death, and desecrating the temple. Jewish resistance to this culminated in the Maccabean revolt (167-164 BCE), which ultimately won the Jews a period of largely autonomous governance from 140 BCE until Jerusalem was placed under the rule of Herod the Great in 37 BCE. The Roman Empire had by this time become dominant, and Herod the Great was the Herod who, in time, was threatened by news of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2).

There are a variety of genres among the apocryphal books, including history (e.g. 1 & 2 Maccabees); wisdom (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach); stories (e.g. Tobit and Judith); and apocalyptic (e.g. 2 Esdras, Enoch). They, along with the books of the Old Testament, formed the Jewish body of writings that constituted the theological world of Jesus—a world that included demons (references first appear in Tobit), the presence of Greek ideas and values in Jewish thought (e.g. in Sirach), Pharisees, Sadducees, and debates about the resurrection and afterlife.

A key theme throughout the Apocrypha is the importance of maintaining Jewish identity and purity in a Gentile—in this case, Hellenistic—context. Sometimes the pressure to compromise took the form of ‘soft power’, for Greek culture was appealing to many Jews. At other times it involved overt force and persecution. Related to this is the recurring discussion of why God’s people were suffering and under foreign rule, especially as the Gentile sinners around them were flourishing. Parallels are drawn between their current situation and their years of exile in Babylon: distresses are attributed to faithlessness among the people, and they are encouraged to stand firm and trust God who will ultimately bring salvation to the faithful. Stories like Judith and Tobit are added to those of Daniel and Esther—Jews who remained heroically faithful under persecution and were vindicated by God and provided encouragement in this context.

Although not directly quoted by Jesus or the New Testament authors, many ideas and passages present in the apocryphal books are echoed in its pages. They were clearly part of the mental furniture of faithful first century Jews—the first Christians— and Christians have been encouraged to read them ever since for a deeper understanding of the world of the New Testament.

Included in Roman Catholic, Greek, and Slavonic Bibles*

1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees
Wisdom of Sirach (called Ecclesiasticus in RC Bible)
Wisdom of Solomon
Additions to Esther
Additions to Daniel

  • The prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews
  • Susanna
  • Bel and the Dragon

The Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch ch. 6 in RC Bible)

Also included in the Greek and Slavonic Bibles*
1 Esdras (called 2 Esdras in Slavonic Bible)
Prayer of Manassah
Psalm 151 (follows Ps 150 in Greek Bible)
3 Maccabees
Also included in the Slavonic Bible*
2 Esdras (called 3 Esdras in Slavonic Bible) 

* List taken from The Apocrypha: The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament (New Revised Standard Version). (CUP, 1992).

1 Response


June 08, 2023

The theme about these apocryphal books is really interesting. They have both good and bad readings. I’ve written a summary about each of them here as well (the more information the better): https://thebiblicalwriter.com/the-7-apocryphal-books-of-the-bible-catholic/

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