The Apocrypha and the Biblical Canon/Part 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2004
Someone who reads only casually on the subject may easily be misled and conclude that the early church accepted the Apocrypha as scripture—and that it is the modern church that is confused on the issue. Ankerberg and Weldon explain why such a conclusion is inaccurate.

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The Apocrypha and the Biblical Canon—Part 2

Unfortunately, someone who reads only casually on the subject may easily be misled and conclude that the early church accepted the Apocrypha as Scripture and that the modern church is confused on the issue. Neither conclusion would be true. Consider the kinds of statements one may find in various sources. “Down to the 4th century the church generally accepted all the books of the Septuagint as canonical…”;[1] or, “the church of the first centuries made no essential difference between the writings of the Hebrew canon and the so-called Apocrypha.”[2]

Even church historian J. N. D. Kelly, author of Early Christian Doctrines and Early Christian Creeds, comments, incorrectly, that, “For the great majority [of early fathers]…the deuterocanonical writings [the apocrypha] ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense.”[3]

Citing statements such as this, former evangelical turned Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong wrote us at The John Ankerberg Show in defense of Catholic views generally. He began by quoting The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, which declared, as we just quoted,

Down to the 4th century, the Church generally accepted all the books of the Septuagint as canonical. Greek and Latin writers alike (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian) cite both classes of Books without distinction…. With few exceptions [St. Jerome and St. Hilary]…. Western writers (esp. Augustine) continued to consider all as equally canonical…. At the Reformation, Protestant leaders, ignoring the traditional acceptance of all the Books of the Septuagint in the early church… refused the status of inspired Scripture [to the Apocrypha]…”

But what The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church also stated about the Apocrypha is this:

The Biblical Books received by the early Church as part of the Greek version of the Old Testament, but not included in the Hebrew Bible, being excluded by the non-Hellenistic Jews from their Canon. Their position in Christian usage has been somewhat ambiguous…. In the E. Church opinion varied, and for some centuries the Books continued to be widely accepted; but at the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 it was decided that Tobit, Judith, Ecclus., and Wisd. alone were to be regarded as canonical. Opinion in the W. was also not unanimous, some authorities considering certain books uncanonical;…[4]

This gives us a somewhat different picture of things. Note that the non-Hellenistic Jews, who determined their Old Testament canon, rejected the Apocrypha. We must also observe that there is no evidence that the Hellenistic or Alexandrian Jews regarded the Apocrypha as Scrip­ture, despite their preservation of it in the Septuagint [LXX]. It is crucial to note that the Jews themselves never accepted the Apocrypha as Scripture and yet they were the very ones trained to recognize divine authorship. They had carefully done so with 39 other books, rejecting as spurious scores of false texts. Why then did they reject the Apocrypha if it was so clearly scrip­tural? Perhaps then, some in the early church were wrong and the issue is not as clear as others would have us think.

In his letter, Mr. Armstrong proceeded with the following argument in defense of the Apocry­pha:

As for the Apostles and Jesus, everyone agrees that they used and cited the Septuagint, which contained the Apocrypha. The earliest Greek manuscripts contain the Apocryphal books interspersed with (not separate from) the others, proving they were part of the early Christian Bible. The Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) listed the Apocrypha as canonical, along with the other 39 that Protestants accept. Who are Protestants to decide 1100 years later that these Councils erred on some books but not others? The only reason you have the Bible you do is because you inconsistently accept the authority of these Councils as to the Canon (except for the Apocrypha). The late Protestant rejection of these books is largely based on inadequate and arbitrary grounds, as usual: the clear teaching in some of prayers for the dead and the intercession of saints and angels, which had been unbroken Christian (and Jewish) Tradition. This is the same rationale that caused Luther nearly to toss out James and other books, based on his personal aversion to their (Catholic) teachings. Thus, P’s have “subtracted” from the Bible, rather than C’s “adding” to it. Yours is the radical and novel innovation (i.e., corruption) not ours. The practice of separating the Apocryphal books from the others dates back no further than 1520, according to The New English Bible (Oxford, 1976,

“Introduction to the Apocrypha,” p. iii). And, of course, the original KJV contained it, too. So, again, you are refuted entirely from Protestant sources and the indisputable facts of church history. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.[5]

Mr. Armstrong has, unfortunately, as many Catholic apologists do, oversimplified the issues and failed to answer the real questions. For example, the mere fact that Jesus and the apostles used the Septuagint says nothing about the canonical status of the Apocrypha. Certainly, they used Hebrew Manuscripts or compilations that did not contain the Apocrypha as well. Also, what proof exists that the Septuagint of the first century contained the Apocrypha? Does the fact that apocryphal books were included in some Greek manuscripts prove the early church considered them Scripture? Are the decrees of all church councils infallible? Is it really the Protestants who removed Scripture or have Catholics decreed noncanonical writings into Scripture? And is the Protestant view “refuted entirely from Protestant sources and the indisputable facts of church history” so that Protestants should be ashamed of what they have done? Or is Mr. Armstrong just being a good Catholic apologist? Let’s see just where “the facts of church history” take us. Before we proceed, let us supply a few pertinent questions and comments to introduce our subject. We will then return to these points and others in more detail.

First, how can the Apocrypha possibly be considered God’s Word when everyone, Protestant and Catholic, agree it contains demonstrable errors? This thoroughly undermines the crucial doctrines of divine inspiration and inerrancy. To our way of thinking, this single fact alone forever disqualifies the Apocrypha from canonical status.

Second, the argument from tradition, which Catholics rely so heavily upon, is irrelevant. The councils or statements of church tradition are not inerrant, nor are they to be placed in the same category as Scripture, despite Catholic claims. Indeed, it would hardly matter if every church father, council, etc., officially declared the Apocrypha was Scripture—because, again, what proves the claim to divine inspiration of the Apocrypha false is the presence of errors.

Third, the mere fact that Jesus and the Apostles used the Septuagint cannot prove the inspi­ration of the Apocrypha; again, we have no proof that the Apocrypha was in the Septuagint that Jesus and the Apostles used. Assuming it contained these writings, the real issue is what Jesus and the Apostles believed about the Apocrypha. As we will see, they did not view it as Scripture.

Fourth, while some in the early church accepted the Apocrypha, others did not. And those who accepted it had different views. The Encyclopedia Britannica also comments:

There seems to have been no unanimity as to their exact canonical status. The New Testament itself does not cite the Apocryphal books directly…. The Apostolic Fathers (late 1st-early 2nd centuries) show extensive familiarity with this literature, but a list of the Old Testament books by Melito [2nd century]… does not include the additional writings of the Greek Bible, and Origen… [it] explicitly describes the Old Testament canon as comprising only 22 books.[i.e., the 39 Old Testament books in Protestant Bibles today; the Jews had a different classification system such that our current Old Testament was divided into 22 or 24 books.] From the time of Origen on, the Church Fathers who were familiar with Hebrew differentiated, theoretically at least, the Apocryphal books from those of the Old Testament, though they used them freely….[6]

It is important to realize that there was a theological method and historical process for recog­nizing which books were inspired and which were not. By the time the full Canon was universally recognized, the Apocrypha was not considered part of Scripture. As noted Old Testament scholar R. K. Harrison correctly points out, then, these “books at best do no more than hover on the fringe of canonicity”—and we note, that’s “at best.”[7]

To argue that the Apocrypha was accepted implicitly or explicitly by the church as Scripture up until the time of the Protestant Reformation and then thrown out by the Reformers, for whatever reason, is not true. It was very carefully reasoned arguments, based on full and complete trust in our 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, that forced the church to reject the Apocrypha.

Unfortunately, it is the Catholics who refuse to look objectively at the facts of church history and the logical implications of the content of the Apocrypha. Again, if the Apocrypha contains errors and doctrines that deny biblical teaching, how can it possibly be inspired by God? The illogic of the Catholic Church on this point is the fault of the Catholic Church, not the canon of Scripture. To argue that Protestant rejection of the Apocrypha is “based on inadequate and arbitrary grounds” is simply false.

Finally, the fact that Bibles such as the Septuagint and the King James Version included the Apocrypha as relevant historical materials says no more about their inspired status than the inclu­sion of historical introductions in modern study Bibles says about their inspired status. Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce supplies several examples of the inclusion of the Apocrypha in different Bibles— but these Bibles also observe that the Apocrypha was not to be considered Scripture.[8]

In essence, the fact that some in the early church accepted the Apocrypha, that some books were included in some canonical lists and manuscripts, that the Catholic church officially de­clared it Scripture in the mid 1500’s or that many Protestant versions contained the Apocrypha are still not proof that the Apocrypha was divinely inspired.

Now let’s look at these and other subjects in more detail. We will show why it is impossible for any thinking person committed to the full authority and inerrancy of Scripture to regard the Apocrypha as the Word of God.

1) The Meaning of the Term Apocrypha

First, what is the meaning of the term Apocrypha? Old Testament scholar R. K. Harrison supplies the background of the word, pointing out the term was used in the early church of writings withheld from general circulation due to doubts concerning their nature or value:

The term itself is the neuter plural of the Greek word apokruphos meaning “concealed” or “hidden.” Applied to literary productions it designates those compositions intended to be kept from the profane gaze of the public because of the esoteric wisdom which they contained. Thus a magical book attributed to Moses, which may be as early as the 1st century of the Christian era, was designated by this term…. However, in the early Christian era the term came to be applied to writings that were withheld from general circulation owing to doubts either about their authenticity or their general value for faith and practice. From the time of Origen [ca. 185-254] an even more unfavorable sense of the word “Apocryphal” interpreted it as describing that which was false, spurious, or heretical. Thus according to the approach of the particular individual concerned, the term could have either an honorable or a derogatory sense, and could designate writings not included as well as books deliberately excluded from the Scriptural canon.[9]

In the early church the term Apocrypha could thus also refer to what we today call the pseudepigraphal books—those clearly containing false statements or which were heretical. This is one reason the Catholic Church uses a different term, “deuterocanonical” (lit. “second canon”), for these books, while Protestants have largely retained the term Apocrypha. However, those in the early church who rejected the Apocrypha as canonical did not necessarily reject the Apocrypha as a whole. In the case of some of these books having homiletic or historical value they accepted these and they believed they could be read in the church for edification or in­struction. Other apocryphal books were simply rejected as spurious or heretical.

2) The Historical Value of the Apocrypha

Thus, we can recognize the historical value in the Apocrypha without conceding its inspiration or canonicity. As a collection of books, they offer valid insights into the times in which they were written. Dr. Harrison again points out that one reason that many (not all) of these books were considered valuable is “because they mirror with considerable accuracy the religious, political and social conditions in Judaea following the close of the Old Testament period proper” and that “they are an important and lasting record of men and nations in conflict over political, moral and spiritual values, and as such their message transcends the boundaries of their own day.”[10] In this sense certain of the apocryphal books may give us useful historic and cultural information of the period in which they were written. But this is a far cry from constituting divine inspiration.


  1. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 70.
  2. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 1, p. 214.
  3. In Norman L. Geisler, Ralph MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), p. 162.
  4. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, pp. 70-71.
  5. Letter of Dave Armstrong to John Weldon, August 20, 1995.
  6. The Encyclopedia Britannica, qv. “Biblical Literature,” Macropaedia, Vol. 2, p. 883.
  7. R. K. Harrison, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 1193, emphasis added.
  8. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), pp. 101ff.
  9. Harrison, p. 1185; Greek term transliterated.
  10. Ibid., pp. 1175, 1193.

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