Apocrypha (from the Greek word πόκρυφα, meaning "those having been hidden away"[1]) are texts of uncertain authenticity or writings where the authorship is questioned. In Judeo-Christian theology, the term apocrypha refers to any collection of scriptural texts that falls outside the canon. Given that different 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" acquired a negative connotation, and it has become a synonym for "spurious" or "false". This usage usually involves fictitious or legendary accounts that are plausible enough to commonly be considered as truth. For example, the Parson Weems account of George Washington and the cherry tree is considered apocryphal.


 Denotation and connotation

The term "apocrypha" has evolved in meaning somewhat, and its associated implications have ranged from positive to pejorative. The term apocryphal, according to Merriam-Webster, means "writings or statements of dubious authenticity."

Esoteric writings

The word "apocryphal" (πόκρυφος) was first applied, in a positive sense, to writings which were kept secret because they were the vehicles of esoteric knowledge considered too profound or too sacred to be disclosed to anyone other than the initiated. It is used in this sense to describe A Holy and Secret Book of Moses, called Eighth, or Holy (Μωυσέως ερ βίβλος πόκρυφος πικαλούμενη γδόη γία), a text taken from a Leiden papyrus of the third or fourth century AD, but which may be as old as the first century. In a similar vein, the disciples of the Gnostic Prodicus boasted that they possessed the secret (πόκρυφα) books of Zoroaster. The term in general enjoyed high consideration among the Gnostics (see Acts of Thomas, 10, 27, 44)[1].

 Questionable value

"Apocrypha" was also applied to writings that were hidden not because of their divinity but because of their questionable value to the church. 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." It should be obvious no one has license to distort any original writing. In this case, if we hold to a strict hermeneutic, this "book of prophecy" does not refer to the Bible as a whole but to the Book of Revelation. Origen, in Commentaries on Matthew, X. 18, XIII. 57, distinguishes between writings which were read by the churches and apocryphal writings: γραφ μ φερομένη μέν ν τος κοινος κα δεδημοσιευμένοις βιβλίοις εκς δ' τι ν ποκρύφοις φερομένη (writing not found on the common and published books in one hand, actually found on the secret ones on the other). The meaning of αποκρυφος is here practically equivalent to "excluded from the public use of the church", and prepares the way for an even less favourable use of the word[2].

Spurious writings

The word "apocrypha" came finally 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: De scripturis his, quae appellantur apocryphae, pro eo quod multa in iis corrupta et contra fidem veram inveniuntur a majoribus tradita non placuit iis dari locum nec admitti ad auctoritatem. [3] "Concerning these scriptures, which are called apocryphal, for the reason that many things are found in them corrupt and against the true faith handed down by the elders, it has pleased them that they not be given a place nor be admitted to authority." (Translation by a Wikipedia editor.)

 Other meanings

Other uses of 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. 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. On the other hand, Jerome (in Protogus Galeatus) declared that all books outside the Hebrew canon were apocryphal [4]. 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 (see: Deuterocanon). As a result, various church authorities labeled different books as apocrypha, treating them with varying levels of regard.

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 [5]. 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 [6].

These three opinions regarding the apocryphal books prevailed until the Protestant Reformation, when the idea of what constitutes canon became a matter of primary 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 Trent[7]. The Protestants, in comparison, universally[citation needed] held the belief that only the books in the Hebrew collection were canonical. John Wycliffe, a 14th 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" [8]. Nevertheless, his translation of the Bible included the apocrypha.[2]

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, (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 [9].

According to The Apocrypha, Bridge of the Testaments at orthodoxanglican.net:

On the other hand, the Anglican Communion emphatically maintains that the Apocrypha is part of the Bible and is to be read with respect by her members. Two of the hymns used in the American Prayer Book office of Morning Prayer, the Benedictus es and Benedicite, are taken from the Apocrypha. One of the offertory sentences in Holy Communion comes from an apocryphal book (Tob. 4: 8-9). Lessons from the Apocrypha are regularly appointed to be read in the daily, Sunday, and special services of Morning and Evening Prayer. There are altogether 111 such lessons in the latest revised American Prayer Book Lectionary [The books used are: II Esdras, Tobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Three Holy Children, and I Maccabees.] The position of the Church is best summarized in the words of Article Six of the Thirty-nine Articles: ďIn 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 ChurchÖ 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 doctrineÖĒ

Apocryphal texts by denomination

 Jewish apocrypha

Main article: 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 a secret literature (see Dead Sea scrolls). A large part of this literature consisted of the apocalypses. Based on prophecies, these books were not considered scripture, but rather part of a literary form that flourished from 200 BC to 100 AD.[citation needed]

 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 rising Jewish-Christian communities. Occasionally these writings were changed or added to, but on the whole it was found sufficient to reinterpret them as conforming to a Christian viewpoint. Christianity eventually gave birth to new apocalyptic works, some of which were derived from traditional Jewish sources. Some of the Jewish apocrypha were part of the ordinary religious literature of the early Christians. 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[3] as well as most of the other biblical apocrypha.[4]

Slightly varing 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.

The high position which 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, the timeframe of true inspiration was limited to the apostolic age, and 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.

 New Testament apocryphal literature

Main article: New Testament apocrypha

New Testament apocrypha ó books similar to those in the New Testament but almost universally rejected by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants ó 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, 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.

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. With them, as with most Christians of the first and second centuries, apocryphal books were highly esteemed.

Though Protestants, Catholics and, in general, Orthodox agree on the canon of the New Testament, the Ethiopian Orthodox have 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.


  1. ^ Specifically, πόκρυφα is the neuter plural of πόκρυφος, a participle derived from the verb ποκρύπτω [infinitive: ποκρύπτειν], "to hide something away".
  2. ^ Wyclif's Bible
  3. ^ Deuterocanonical books literally means books of the second canon. The term was coined in the 16th century.
  4. ^ 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.

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

 See also