There are over 50 versions of the Bible in English alone. Pull any two off the shelf, and it will be quickly evident that some are much heavier than others. A Bible’s weight doesn’t just depend on the size of typeface, the presence of commentary or the thickness of the paper. Some Bibles have as few as 66 books, others 81. Protestants traditionally prefer the slim ones; on average, they are about 152,185 words shorter than the Catholic versions. In its broadest sense, the term “apocrypha” can encompass all sorts of books that are not officially included in the biblical canon; so there are Old and New Testament apocrypha, as well as various other writings commonly called “pseudepigrapha” (meaning they were written under an assumed name).
Traditionally, though, when the word “Apocrypha” (with a capital A) is used, it specifically applies to 15 books containing stories, homilies, wisdom and apocalyptic literature written from roughly 420 BC to the early first century: Tobit; Judith; the Additions to the Book of Esther; the Wisdom of Solomon; Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach; Baruch; the Letter of Jeremiah; the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews; Susanna; Bel and the Dragon; 1 Maccabees; 2 Maccabees; 1 Esdras; 2 Esdras; and the Prayer of Manasseh.
While the books of the Apocrypha are not found in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Jewish Bible), most are contained in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint.
How did these 15 books find their way into the Greek Septuagint? The history is complicated. But sometime between 275 BC and 100 BC, Hellenized Jews living outside Palestine began to translate Hebrew religious books into the Greek Septuagint, drawing on the hundreds of such books in circulation at the time. The Septuagint was the Bible read by most of the early Christians. It was also the collection that New Testament writers used and referred to.
No one knows exactly when the Old Testament canon was finalized, but it is clear that after the rise of Christianity, the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament was rejected by the Jewish communities that remained in Israel. Perhaps to preserve their national language or to counter the groundswell of early Christianity, Jewish religious leaders tossed out the books whose source documents didn’t exist in Hebrew or that contradicted earlier biblical teachings. The Protestant Old Testament that we read today surfaced from this accepted Hebrew stream, while the rejected books eventually came to be known as the Apocrypha.
Whether the Apocrypha should be considered revelatory and authoritative has been hotly debated ever since. For centuries, religious authorities gathered at council meetings to determine which books should be deemed Holy Scripture. At each meeting, the list of “authoritative” books was determined by a majority vote.
By the time of the Reformation, two major biblical traditions were considered authoritative. The Greek Orthodox tradition adhered to the Greek Bible (containing the Apocrypha), and the Catholic tradition adhered to Jerome’s fourth-century translation into Latin, which also included the works of the Apocrypha, although he made a distinction between these and the other scriptures.
During the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther rejected the Apocrypha, claiming that the books aren’t on par with the standard scriptures but “are useful and good to read.” To make his point, he separated the Apocrypha texts from the Old Testament scriptures and wedged them between the testaments, where they remain in some versions today. In response, Catholic religious leaders met at the Council of Trent in 1546 and officially recognized the Apocrypha as canonical. In versions of the Bible that reflect a high regard for the Apocrypha, the 15 books are spread throughout the Old Testament.
For centuries, the word “Apocrypha” (which literally means “hidden”) has been levelled favourably in a “too good to be read” kind of way and in a damning “should never be read” way. As the saying goes, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.
Whether a Bible contains the books of the Apocrypha and where it chooses to place them in relation to the other texts reflects centuries of deep wrestling with what qualifies as scripture and how we discern the voice of God.
Having so many Bible versions to choose from isn’t a sign of failure. On the contrary, it is testament both to the difficulty of the task of discerning God’s Word and the faithfulness of those who have pursued it.
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a writer and minister in Ottawa.