Apocrypha are works, usually written works, that are of unknown authorship, or of doubtful authenticity, or spurious, or not considered to be within a particular canon. The word is properly treated as a plural, but in common usage is often singular. In the context of the Jewish and Christian Bibles, where most texts are of unknown authorship, Apocrypha usually refers to a set of texts included in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Bible.
The word’s origin is the Medieval Latin adjective apocryphus, “secret, or non-canonical”, from the Greek adjective ἀπόκρυφος (apokryphos), “obscure”, from the verb ἀποκρύπτειν (apokryptein), “to hide away”.
Apocrypha is commonly applied in Christian religious contexts involving certain disagreements about biblical canonicity. The pre-Christian-era Jewish translation (into Greek) of holy scriptures known as the Septuagint included the writings in dispute. However, the Jewish canon was not finalized until at least 100–200 A.D., at which time considerations of Greek language and beginnings of Christian acceptance of the Septuagint weighed against some of the texts. Some were not accepted by the Jews as part of the Hebrew Bible canon. It must be said however that Jerome preferred the Hebrew canon whereas Augustine preferred the wider (Greek) canon. The Christian canon thus established was retained for over 1,000 years, even after the 11th-century schism that separated the church into the branches known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Apocrypha were initially long rejected by the Catholic church as inspired writings, however, after controversy were officially canonized following the Protestant Reformation during the Council of Trent in 1546 AD.
Those canons were not challenged until the Protestant Reformation (16th century), when both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches officially canonized them. The reformers rejected the parts of the canon that were not part of the Hebrew Bible and established a revised Protestant canon. Thus, concerning the Old Testament books, what is thought of as the “Protestant canon” is actually the final Hebrew canon. The differences can be found by looking here or by comparing the contents of the “Protestant” and Catholic Bibles, and they represent the narrowest Christian application of the term Apocrypha.
Among some Protestants, apocryphal began to take on extra or altered connotations: not just of dubious authenticity, but having spurious or false content, not just obscure but having hidden or suspect motives. Protestants were (and are) not unanimous in adopting those meanings. The Church of England agreed, and that view continues today throughout the Lutheran Church, the worldwide Anglican Communion, and many other denominations. Whichever implied meaning is intended, Apocrypha was (and is) used primarily by Protestants, in reference to the books of questioned canonicity. Catholics and Orthodox sometimes avoid using the term in contexts where it might be considered disputatious or be misconstrued as yielding on the point of canonicity. Most Protestant published Bibles that include the apocryphal books will relocate them into a separate section (rather like an appendix), so as not to intermingle them with their canonical books.
Explaining the Eastern Orthodox Church’s canon is made difficult because of differences of perspective with the Roman Catholic church in the interpretation of how it was done. Those differences (in matters of jurisdictional authority) were contributing factors in the separation of the Roman Catholics and Orthodox around 1054, but the formation of the canon was largely complete (fully complete in the Catholic view) by the fifth century, six centuries before the separation. In the eastern part of the church, it took much of the fifth century also to come to agreement, but in the end it was accomplished. The canonical books thus established by the undivided church became canon for what was later to become Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox alike. The East did already differ from the West in not considering every question of canon yet settled, and it subsequently adopted a few more books into its Old Testament. It also allowed consideration of yet a few more to continue not fully decided, which led in some cases to adoption in one or more jurisdictions, but not all. Thus, there are today a few remaining differences of canon among Orthodox, and all Orthodox accept a few more books than appear in the Catholic canon. Protestants accept none of these additional books as canon either, but see them having roughly the same status as the earlier Apocrypha. As Protestant awareness of the Eastern Orthodox increases in nations like the United States, interest in the full Orthodox canon might also increase enough for them to be published in the Apocrypha of some Protestant Bibles. That is not common yet in 2013, so they are not as widely available in English.
Before the fifth century, the Christian writings that were then under discussion for inclusion in the canon but had not yet been accepted were classified in a group known as the ancient antilegomenae. These were all candidates for the New Testament and included several books which were eventually accepted, such as: The Epistle to the Hebrews, 2 Peter, 3 John and the Revelation of John (Apocalypse). None of those accepted books can be considered Apocryphal now, since all Christendom accepts them as canonical. Of the uncanonized ones, the Early Church considered some heretical but viewed others quite well. Some Christians, in an extension of the meaning, might also consider the non-heretical books to be “apocryphal” along the manner of Martin Luther: not canon, but useful to read. This category includes books such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermas which are sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Fathers.
Although traditional rabbinical Judaism insists on the exclusive canonization of the current 24 books in the Tanakh, it also claims to have an oral law handed down from Moses. The Sadducees—unlike the Pharisees but like the Samaritans—seem to have maintained an earlier and smaller number of texts as canonical, preferring to hold to only what was written in the Law of Moses (making most of the presently accepted canon, both Jewish and Christian, apocryphal in their eyes). 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). Other traditions maintained different customs regarding canonicity. The Ethiopic Jews, for instance, seem to have retained a spread of canonical texts similar to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, cf Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol 6, p 1147. A large part of this literature consisted of the apocalypses. Based on prophecies, these apocalyptic books were not considered scripture by all, but rather part of a literary form that flourished from 200 BCE to CE 100.
New Testament apocrypha—books similar to those in the New Testament but almost universally rejected by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants—include several gospels and lives of apostles. Some were written by early Jewish Christians (see the Gospel according to the Hebrews). Others of these were 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. 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.
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, these apocryphal books were highly esteemed. A well-known Gnostic 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.
Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians as well as Protestants generally agree on the canon of the New Testament, see Development of the New Testament canon. The Ethiopian Orthodox have in the past also included I & II Clement and Shepherd of Hermas in their New Testament canon.
Jerome completed his version of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate, in 405. In the Middle Ages the Vulgate became the de facto standard version of the Bible in the West. The Vulgate manuscripts included prologues that Jerome clearly identified certain books of the Vulgate Old Testament as apocryphal or non-canonical.
In the prologue to the Books of Samuel and Kings, which is often called the Prologus Galeatus, he says:
This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a “helmeted” introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which generally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style.
Also included is the book of the model of virtue (παναρετος) Jesus son of Sirach, and another falsely ascribed work (ψευδεπιγραφος) which is titled Wisdom of Solomon. The former of these I have also found in Hebrew, titled not Ecclesiasticus as among the Latins, but Parables, to which were joined Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, as though it made of equal worth the likeness not only of the number of the books of Solomon, but also the kind of subjects. The second was never among the Hebrews, the very style of which reeks of Greek eloquence. And none of the ancient scribes affirm this one is of Philo Judaeus. Therefore, just as the Church also reads the books of Judith, Tobias, and the Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical Scriptures, so also one may read these two scrolls for the strengthening of the people, (but) not for confirming the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas.
He mentions the Book of Baruch in his prologue to the Jeremias and does not explicitly refer to it as apocryphal, but he does mention that “it is neither read nor held among the Hebrews”. In his prologue to the Judith he mentions that “among the Hebrews, the authority [of Judith] came into contention”, but that it was “counted in the number of Sacred Scriptures” by the First Council of Nicaea. In his reply to Rufinus, he affirmed that he was consistent with the choice of the church regarding which version of the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel to use, which the Jews of his day did not include:
What sin have I committed in following the judgment of the churches? But when I repeat what the Jews say against the Story of Susanna and the Hymn of the Three Children, and the fables of Bel and the Dragon, which are not contained in the Hebrew Bible, the man who makes this a charge against me proves himself to be a fool and a slanderer; for I explained not what I thought but what they commonly say against us. (Against Rufinus, II:33 [AD 402]).
According to Michael Barber, although Jerome was once suspicious of the apocrypha, he later viewed them as Scripture as shown in his epistles. Barber cites Jerome’s letter to Eustochium, in which Jerome quotes Sirach 13:2.; elsewhere Jerome also refers to Baruch, the Story of Susannah and Wisdom as scripture.
Apocrypha in editions of the Bible
Apocrypha are well attested in surviving manuscripts of the Christian Bible. (See, for example, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, Vulgate, and Peshitta.) After the Lutheran and Catholic canons were defined by Luther (c. 1534) and Trent (8 April 1546) respectively, early Protestant editions of the Bible (notably the Luther Bible in German and 1611 King James Version in English) did not omit these books, but placed them in a separate Apocrypha section apart from the Old and New Testaments to indicate their status.
This famous edition of the Vulgate was published in 1455. Like the manuscripts it was based on, the Gutenberg Bible lacked a specific Apocrypha section; its Old Testament included the books that Jerome considered apocryphal, and those Clement VIII later moved to the appendix. The Prayer of Manasses was located after the Books of Chronicles, and 3 and 4 Esdras followed 2 Esdras (Nehemiah), and Prayer of Solomon followed Ecclesiasticus.
Apocryphal apocalypses of the Old Testament
The word “apocalypse” is a transliteration of the greek ἀπōκάλυψις, which literally means ‘the rise of a veil’, and figuratively ‘revelation’ or ‘revelation’ of hidden things. Some apocalyptic Texts are part of the Bible: The Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse of John (only accepted in the Christian canon).
- Apocalypse of Abraham
- Apocalypse di Adam
- Apocalypse of Baruch or 2 Baruch or Syrach Apocalypse of Baruch
- Greek Apocalypse of Baruch or 3 Baruc
- Apocalypse of Daniel or Persian Apocalypse of Daniel
- Apocalypse of Elija (coptic) o 1 Elija
- Apocalypse of Elija (Jewish) or 2 Elija or Book of Elija
- Apocalypse of Ezra or 4 Ezra
- Apocalypse of Sedrach
- Apocalypse of Moses
- Apocalypse of Zephaniah
Wills Apocrypha of the Old Testament
The literary genre of the will, similarly to the use of the word current, is characterized by a description by a dying character of his last will. Often these moral exhortations.
- Will of Abraham
- Will of Adam or Book of Adam
- Will of the twelve Patriarchs
- Will of Isaac
- Will of Jacob
- Will of Job
- Will of Moses or Accession of Moses
- Will of Salomon
Jewish Christian gospels
- The Gospel of the Ebionites (“GE”) – 7 quotations by Epiphanius.
- The Gospel of the Hebrews (“GH”) – 1 quotation ascribed to Cyril of Jerusalem, plus GH 2–7 quotations by Clement, Origen, and Jerome.
- The Gospel of the Nazarenes (“GN”) – GN 1 to GN 23 are mainly from Jerome; GN 24 to GN 36 are from medieval sources.
- Gospel of Marcion (mid 2nd century)
- Gospel of Mani (3rd century)
- Gospel of Apelles (mid-late 2nd century)
- Gospel of Bardesanes (late 2nd – early 3rd century)
- Gospel of Basilides (mid 2nd century)
- Gospel of Peter
- Gospel of Nicodemus (also called the “Acts of Pilate”)
- Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem, On the Life and the Passion of Christ
- Gospel of Bartholomew
- Questions of Bartholomew
- Resurrection of Jesus Christ (which claims to be according to Bartholomew)
Dialogues with Jesus
- Apocryphon of James (also called the “Secret Book of James“)
- Book of Thomas the Contender
- Dialogue of the Saviour
- Gospel of Judas (also called the “Gospel of Judas Iscariot“)
- Gospel of Mary (also called the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene“)
- Gospel of Philip
- Greek Gospel of the Egyptians (distinct from the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians)
- The Sophia of Jesus Christ
General texts concerning Jesus
- Coptic Apocalypse of Paul (distinct from the Apocalypse of Paul)
- Gospel of Truth
- Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter (distinct from the Apocalypse of Peter)
- Pistis Sophia
- Second Treatise of the Great Seth
Sethian texts concerning Jesus
- Apocryphon of John (also called the “Secret Gospel of John”)
- Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians (distinct from the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians)
- Trimorphic Protennoia
- Acts of Andrew
- Acts of Barnabas
- Acts of John
- Acts of the Martyrs
- Acts of Paul
- Acts of Paul and Thecla
- Acts of Peter
- Acts of Peter and Andrew
- Acts of Peter and Paul
- Acts of Peter and the Twelve
- Acts of Philip
- Acts of Pilate
- Acts of Thomas
- Acts of Timothy
- Acts of Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca
- Epistle of Barnabas
- Epistles of Clement
- Epistle of the Corinthians to Paul
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians
- Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
- Epistle to Diognetus
- Epistle to the Laodiceans (an epistle in the name of Paul)
- Epistle to Seneca the Younger (an epistle in the name of Paul)
- Third Epistle to the Corinthians – accepted in the past by some in the Armenian Orthodox church.
- Apocalypse of Paul (distinct from the Coptic Apocalypse of Paul)
- Apocalypse of Peter (distinct from the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter)
- Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius
- Apocalypse of Thomas (also called the Revelation of Thomas)
- Apocalypse of Stephen (also called the Revelation of Stephen)
- First Apocalypse of James (also called the First Revelation of James)
- Second Apocalypse of James (also called the Second Revelation of James)
- The Shepherd of Hermas
Fate of Mary
- The Home Going of Mary
- The Falling Asleep of the Mother of God
- The Descent of Mary
- Apostolic Constitutions (church regulations supposedly asserted by the apostles)
- Book of Nepos
- Canons of the Apostles
- Cave of Treasures (also called The Treasure)
- Clementine literature
- Didache (possibly the first written catechism)
- Liturgy of St James
- Penitence of Origen
- Prayer of Paul
- Sentences of Sextus
- Book of the Bee