To Include or Exclude the Apocrypha (Deutero-Canon)?

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome and 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death …. but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but has not been esteemed of like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.

Against Apion 1.8

First, Josephus only identifies twenty-two books. What you have to keep in mind is that some of the books were one volume. For example, the minor prophets, which are twelve, were all one book then. Ezra-Nehemiah was one book, so some of these historical factoids explain why the Jews had fewer Old Testament books than what we have in our Bibles.

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms [1 & 2 Samuel and Kings], two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras [Ezra-Nehemiah].

Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). When you consider how active the Reformation was at this time, it necessitated an answer from both the Catholic and Orthodox churches regarding the Old Testament canon. Even in our own time, Orthodox bishop and theologian, Kallistos Ware, recognizes that these books weren’t present in the Hebrew text.

The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deutero-Canonical Books.” … most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Detero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 200.

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth.

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

13 thoughts on “To Include or Exclude the Apocrypha (Deutero-Canon)?”

  1. Scripture nowhere tells us how many and which books belong to Scripture. Maybe you don’t realize it that we need external authority to determine the canon. In what you wrote you depend on authority of the Jews and Josephus to determine canon. You may do so but they are external authority outside Scripture. Melito canon also belonged to the Jews where he traveled to the East, presumable to present day Israel, from Sardis in modern Turkey. Jesus said in Mat. 11:13 that the Law and the Prophets prophesied until John the Baptist or there was NO period between OT and NT when God stopped talking. The Jews closed their canon long after NT times or during Christ time on earth there was no closed canon. We know this because NT citation from Scripture is wider than both your 39 book and longer Catholic OT.


    1. If I cited historical sources to substantiate the Old Testament canon, clearly I do understand that external authority is required. If the Law and Prophets prophesied until John, then was the Law still being written? No, it had been firmly established by at least 400 BCE. I’d taken this not as a timeline, but as them having the say in the life of God’s Israel. No, the Jews didn’t close their canon long after NT times. One consensus places this at the Council of Jabneh (Jamnia) after Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. I grant that NT citation is from the Old Testament and even apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works, but Paul also cites from Greek poets but that doesn’t make them on equal footing with Scripture.

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      1. You confuse between”to write” and “to prophecy”. The Law was completely written but it did not stop prophesying when Christ said that verse.

        The so-called Jamnia council is only hypothesis and might not happen.

        Paul did cite from Greek poet but that person was not Jewish. According to Rom. 3:2 Jews were given oracles of God. But God might use non-Jews as His channel for His words like He did to Necho in 2 Chro 35:22.

        Even if you do not cite historical source to substantiate OT canon, what makes you so sure that OT has only 39 books?


      2. How else can we arrive at any form of truth without history? Even to this day, the Jewish canon is the same as the 39 books of the OT. Since Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism, ascertaining what existed then better helps us understand what they esteemed as Scripture. I realize that we’ll not agree on the canonicity of these books given our traditions, and that’s alright. This isn’t my attempt so much to prove others wrong as it is to explain why we adhere to the 39 and not so much the others.


      3. The Jews closed their canon long after NT times. We are not under any obligation to follow their choice, following what Christ said in Mat. 21:43 that the kingdom of God shall be taken from them because they rejected Him. When you accept Jewish canon, you also accept their authority (which is external authority from the Bible) to decide which books belong to canon. Canonicity is not based on voting, i.e. how many choose a particular canon.


      4. I think it’s important to remember that for the first decade of Christianity, the only Christians were Jewish. Their canon is more than validated in the New Testament by what the apostles appealed to in those writings, so it’s not so much taking their canon as it is following apostolic precedence.


      5. According to Melito, it was pretty close. Josephus’ remark mentions 22 which is easily explainable when you consider that some of the books were counted as one volume rather than two (e.g., Ezra-Nehemaih was Esdras, and the Twelve was one book).


      6. Yes, again Melito canon was that of the Jews and it did not have Esther. You may accept Jewish canon, if you so wish, but this implies you accept their authority to determine canon of OT. Remember there is no single verse in the entire Bible that tells us how many and which books belong to Scripture. You need external authority to know canon of Scripture, regardless whether that authority belongs to the Jews or other.


      7. Correct, but why would the early church have gone along with the canon Melito discovered and added Esther unless that canon was already viewed as valid? It’s true that other books were later formally declared Scripture, as I point out in the post, but they had been in use long before the times of the Councils mentioned.


      8. Melito canon was that of the Jews, not of Christians. There is no evidence that early Christians accepted the same canon or they did have a closed canon in 2nd century AD.


  2. As mentioned Melito canon was that of the Jews, not of Christians. There is no evidence that Christians in 2nd century AD has closed canon.


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