The Apocrypha and the Biblical Canon/Part 4

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2004
The Apocryphal books were in existence and well-known at the time when Jesus lived, but they were not accepted as part of the canon recognized by Jesus, by the apostles, or by the Jewish leaders of the time.

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The Apocrypha and the Biblical Canon—Part 4

In previous articles we discussed: 1) the meaning of the term Apocrypha; 2) the historical value of the Apocrypha; 3) the Jewish view of the Apocrypha; 4) the Apocrypha and the Septuagint; and 5) the Apocrypha and Propheticity. We now continue.

6) Divine Providence and the Canon

The Apocrypha was in existence and well known at the time that Jesus and the apostles lived. But again, it was the Jewish canon, not the Roman Catholic canon that Jesus and the apostles considered the Word of God. And no one should think that this issue of apocryphal books had not been debated and resolved for some time because the extent of the canon itself had already been resolved. As Allan A. MacRae, Chancellor and Emeritus professor of Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania points out:

There is abundant evidence that the Jews in the first century hotly disputed many questions. The Talmud gives evidence of some discussion as to whether certain books of the Old Testament were inspired. Yet examination of the evidence for these disputes shows that actually what they amount to was a discussion of the ways to defend these books from attack. There is no evidence of any Jewish suggestion in the first century that a book which is now not contained in our Old Testament might really belong there. The way in which the discussions were carried on clearly presupposes a definite and fixed canon. The evidence fits with the statement of Josephus that there was a definite unanimity among the Jews as to which were the inspired books.[1]

Dr. MacRae proceeds to argue a very important point: one is almost forced to accept the providential nature of the Jews’ acceptance of our present Old Testament in light of the historical context and content of these books, e.g.:

Many of the prophets did not speak as recognized leaders of the nation. When we read their strongcriticism of many of the leaders of the people, and even of the nation as a whole, we find it hard to imagine how any nation would accept such books as part of its national treasure. It is a phenomenon that can hardly be paralleled in any other nation.
Nor was there any lack of attempts to dispute the authority of the prophets during their lifetime. Jeremiah tells us that there were other prophets, both in Palestine and in Mesopotamia, who denied his claim to be a prophet. Some of them gave alleged revelations from God that were directly contrary to what he was saying…. The natural result would be that some groups of people would accept the books of Jeremiah as inspired, while others would accept those of one or more of his opponents…. Thus many shades of opinion as to which books were inspired might be expected to develop.
The fact that there is no disagreement among Muslims as to what belongs in the Koran is no objection to this expectation, since the entire Koran was composed by one man, and he was the recognized leader of the entire Islamic movement. The case of the Old Testament is entirely different, for the books were written by more than a score of different writers, and included men from many different social classes, with very diverse backgrounds. It would not have been at all strange if the Jews at the time of Christ had been divided into several groups, each of which considered a different selection of books to be inspired.
This, however, did not occur. Within a very few centuries after the last book in our Old Testament was written, the entire Jewish nation was unanimous in accepting every one of its books as canonical and in rejecting as false the claims of any other book to similar recognition.
That such unanimity should thus have been reached is little short of a miracle. There is absolutely no evidence that this result was due to the influence of a particular leader or that it resulted from the decision of any council…. It would be hard to believe that it was purely a result of chance, and yet one would hesitate to say that the Holy Spirit had providentially led the people of God to this result if there were no further divine attestation.[2]

MacRae’s point is that there is such additional unambiguous divine attestation in Jesus Christ’s view of the Old Testament. He approved only the books that the Jews affirmed as ca­nonical and no others (cf. John 17:17). In fact, as we will see below, the same providential method for the recognition of divinely inspired books and rejection of false claimants that has been applied to the Old Testament must also be applied to the determination of the New Testa­ment canon. Indeed, given the large number of pseudepigraphal books, one might expect that Christians also would have been hopelessly divided over the many claims to divine inspiration, apostolic authority, new gospels, etc. (Some of these pseudepigraphal books include titles such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Nicodemus, The Gospel Accord­ing to the Hebrews, The Epistles of Paul, The Acts of Paul, The Acts of John, The Apocalypse of Paul, The Apocalypse of Peter, etc.)

After all, Jesus never gave any instructions as to how the church would be able to distinguish a divinely inspired book from a false claimant and He provided no list of the books that would be in the New Testament canon.

Further, as the book of Acts reveals, the early church was soon persecuted and scattered everywhere. Given these conditions, 1) that no criteria were set down by Jesus for distinguish­ing divinely inspired books from those that were not, 2) that there were many books claiming to be gospels or divine revelation, plus other writings by church authorities, and 3) that the church had no central authority, etc., how is it that any agreement was ever arrived at concerning the New Testament canon? The New Testament books were written in various places by various people and their spread from church to church would have taken some period of time. Further, most of the New Testament books were not written by the 12 apostles Jesus had named and many New Testament books don’t even directly claim divine inspiration. So how did the church come to accept the New Testament canon it did?

Take only the fact of additional literature written by Christians. All this literature, some of it quite good, was widely read by the early Church. It was also being widely circulated. So how did unanimity ever arise on the canon of the New Testament with 1) inspired books, 2) false claim­ants to inspiration and 3) good literature besides? It would seem to be a difficult situation at best:

Since Jesus did not state any way in which the books that were free from error could be distinguished from the others, it would be natural to expect that soon there would be great disagreement about this question. Those churches that knew the author of a particular book or group of books would be strongly inclined to accept his books, while other churches where he was less known might question whether his writings were inspired. It would be natural to expect there would be different views in different places and even considerable differences of opinion within certain groups as to which were the books God wanted accepted as part of His infallible Word.[3]

MacRae’s point here is that, humanly speaking, there could be no unanimity unless the Holy Spirit providentially guided His people in the formation of the New Testament canon in the same way He did with the Old Testament. Thus, Jesus Himself promised that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, would guide the disciples into all the truth.

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. (Jn. 16:12-15)

In essence, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide the disciples into all the truth—and this must also refer to the recognition of the canon. In fact, given the circumstances, we have no other way to account for the existence of a unanimous New Testament canon apart from such a conclusion:

The evidence is quite definite that the Christian church did not decide on its canon because of the attitude of any one influential human leader. Nor was a decision made by any Christian council to include a certain book in the New Testament or to drop out any book that some had considered to belong to it. Yet within a few centuries after the last New Testament book was written there was a unanimous attitude on the part of all portions of the professing Christian church, accepting exactly those books which are in our present New Testament.[4]

Of course, there were particular councils that made statements as to which books were to be accepted as God’s Word. But this was never an official decision determining this, it was merely a recognition affirming what was already widely believed.

For certain logical reasons, there was indeed a winnowing process on six or seven of the New Testament books between Christians in the Western and Eastern portions of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless,

…soon all groups of Orthodox Christians came to a complete agreement, accepting the twenty-seven books that are contained in our present New Testament and no others. The attainment of such a unanimity, within a few centuries after the writing of the last book, among people so widely scattered as the early Christians, is almost miraculous, particularly when we consider the great arguments and strong divisions of opinion that were found among them on varied doctrinal questions. That the unanimous conclusion reached in such a way could be correct could hardly be assumed aside from the providential activity of the Holy Spirit.[5]

In essence, since the Holy Spirit was the very One who inspired the Word of God, we are surely able to trust His providential guidance of the Church, i.e., true believers, as to the recog­nition of the canon.

Some of the criteria used to determine inspired Scripture include Prophetic/Apostolic origin or sanction, a book’s contents, its moral effect, its spiritual impact, acceptance and use by believ­ers, tradition and, clearly, the witness of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, to have such books recog­nized so quickly, the witness of the Holy Spirit to the divine content of the message had to be evident from the beginning.

Thus, by those who heard it, the divine authority of Scripture was recognized at its inception. Consider two examples. The acceptance of the revelation given to Moses in the first five books of the Bible is implied and recorded in may places such as Exodus 19:7-8; 24:3-4; Deuteronomy 5:27 and Joshua 1:7-8, 16-18 (cf. Deut. 31:24). In the New Testament, we see that as early as ca. 65 A.D., the apostle Peter declares that Paul’s writings were already considered Scripture on par with the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:16).

Some may wonder why Jesus did not give us more specific criteria for determining the canon? In a similar vein, we could ask why Jesus never wrote a biblical book Himself. He didn’t in either case because He knew it was unnecessary. First, Jesus never wrote a book because He knew the Holy Spirit would inspire men to write an inerrant Word of God for the present dispensation. In a similar manner, He knew it was unnecessary to give criteria for determining the canon because the Holy Spirit would sovereignly direct God’s people to this determination. And, because Jesus Christ gave His seal of approval on the specific Old Testament books that the Holy Spirit providentially guided the Jews to accept, He also pre-authenticated the New Testament by declaring the Holy Spirit would lead the disciples into all the truth. In essence, He authenticated the same process for recognition of the NT the canon that occurred in the Old Testament.

The only conclusion possible is that Jesus authenticated this process, and that we can rest secure that its results are correct…. Our whole Christian faith is based on the authority of Christ, and on this authority we can be sure which books are inspired of God.[6]

In light of this discussion, MacRae’s conclusion regarding the Apocrypha is apropos:

The fact that the Roman Catholic church, since the 16th century, considers the Old Testament to contain seven additional books which Protestants reject, does not affect this conclusion [concerning the limits of the canon]. The people of God to whom the Old Testament was given were Jews. At the time of Christ all groups of Jews agreed on the contents of the Old Testament. The New Testament was given to the Christians, who took over the Old Testament from the Jews. Among the Christians unanimity regarding the books of the New Testament came into being within a few centuries, and has continued ever since.[7]

If we approach the canon in this manner, resting our conclusions on the authority of Jesus Christ, who is Himself God, and the Providence of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, there can be no doubt concerning which books belong in the canon and which do not. To argue that the Holy Spirit intended to have recognized and placed into the canon additional books 1,500 years later, when those books are clearly errant and contain teachings that deny what He inspired earlier, is logically impossible.

What explains the current status of the Apocrypha in the Catholic Church is not its authentic­ity, but the foibles of human traditions.

Just as the organized church over many centuries slowly lost the foundations of sola fide until at the time of Trent a system of faith/works was in place, so all the church did not adequately discern the issue of sola scriptura, until at the time of Trent, Rome canonized the Apocrypha. In our next two sections, we will further see why this was such an error. First, we will briefly prove that the Apocrypha is not inerrant and thus could not be divinely inspired. Then we will see why Rome, unfortunately, came to accept the Apocrypha regardless.


  1. Allan MacRae, “The Canon of Scripture: Can We Be Sure Which Books Are Inspired by God?” in John Warwick Montgomery (ed.), Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question (Dallas: Probe, 1991), p. 222.
  2. Ibid., pp. 223-224.
  3. Ibid., pp. 225-226.
  4. Ibid., p. 226.
  5. Ibid., pp. 226-227.
  6. Ibid., pp. 227-228.
  7. Ibid., p. 227.

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