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In every-day conversation, apocryphal means "of questionable (or lacking) authenticity", describing a story nevertheless frequently told and widely believed. This article is about the theological meaning. In literature, apocrypha refers to works that purport to have been created by somebody other than their real author, usually a famous figure, as in the case of the Ossianic cycle invented by James Macpherson.

The word apocrypha, from the Greek απόκρυφος, "hidden", refers in general to religious works that are not considered canonical, or part of officially-accepted scripture. Such works are generally considered not to have been inspired with Holy Wisdom. Even the casual Wikipedia reader will have noticed that entries for non-canonical works of Scripture almost inevitably have the word "apocryphal" applied in the first line. To take a secular parallel, few of the many mediocre and uninspired works of fiction with individual entries are so labelled in the opening words of their entries. Thus it should be remembered that "apocryphal" now is a value judgment, an assessment that has developed over time, and which has a theological, human, even a political history, which is reflected in the manuscript tradition: survival and suppression, editing, misattribution, excision and interpolation, incorporated glosses, the gamut of all the ills that text is heir to.

A second point was well put by R.M. Wilson in Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas):

"The Greek word apocryphos did not always have the disparaging sense which later became attached to it. In Gnostic circles it was used of books the contents of which were too sacred to be divulged to the common herd, and it was in fact the heretical associations which it thus came to possess which led to its use as a term of disparagement. In the Nag Hammadi library, for example, one document bears the title Apocryphon or Secret Book of John, another that of Apocryphon of James, and several Gnostic gospels contain solemn warnings against imparting their contents to any save the deserving, or for the sake of material gain."

Table of contents
1 Four Criteria
2 Two modern meanings
3 Apocrypha of the Old Testament
4 Apocrypha of the New Testament
5 The Jewish view of the Apocrypha
6 The Mormon view of the Apocrypha

Four Criteria

In historic Christianity, the Four Criteria for Canonicity are:

  1. Apostolic Origin – attributed to and based on the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal Acceptance – acknowledged by all major Christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the fourth century).
  3. Liturgical Use – read publicly when early Christian communities gathered for the Lord's Supper (their weekly worship services).
  4. Consistent Message – containing a theological outlook similar or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.

If the Four Criteria were rigorously applied, the New Testament would be a slender volume. The historical processes by which certain books have become canonical have been methodically analyzed during the 20th century, and a good Wikipedia entry on each book will outline this history.

Two modern meanings

In modern Christianity, the word has two different specific meanings. According to one meaning, primarily used by Protestants, it refers to the deuterocanonical books which Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians include as part of the Bible, but which many Protestants and present day Jews exclude. Before the Council of Jamnia in 92 C.E. Jews did not have a single unified canon of scripture. Some Jews (as evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls) included much of the Apocrypha as scripture. At the Council of Jamnia these books were excluded predominantly because they were in use by Christians.

According to the other meaning, primarily used by Catholics, it refers to those books from a similar period and in a similar style to the canonical books, but which nonetheless are not included in the Catholic canon (nor in the Protestant canon). Protestants call these books Pseudepigrapha.

The above terminology applies to the Old Testament. In relation to the New Testament, however, both Protestants and Catholics call books they reject Apocrypha (their NT canons are in agreement.)

Apocrypha of the Old Testament

When referring to the Old Testament, Protestant Christians use the term Apocrypha to refer to a different set of books from what Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians do, who accept a fuller canon based on the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament in use by Greek-speaking Jews in the time of Jesus and by some Palestinian Jews as well. In the case of the Catholic Church, the differences cover 7 books: Tobias, Judith, Baruch, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, First and Second Maccabees; and also certain additions to Esther and Daniel. For the Orthodox churches, there are some more.

We start with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) that was made in Alexandria, Egypt, about 300 BC. This translation included a number of writings that the leaders of the Palestinian Jewish community eventually rejected as part of the Jewish biblical canon. These rejected works became known as the apocrypha; one of the main reasons that these works were rejected was that they were composed at a later date than all the other books which did make it into the Tanach. They were rejected by Martin Luther for some verses contained in some of them which seemed to contradict his views, especially a verse in Macabees which alludes to purgatory "it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins".

Most books in the apocrypha were composed between 200 BC and AD 100.

The books in the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew version of the Bible, include the following:

1 Books that are in the Greek, Slavic, and Roman Catholic Bibles
2 Books that are in the Greek, Slavic Bibles, but not in the Roman Catholic Bible
3 Books that are in the Slavic Bible and the appendix to the Latin Vulgate
4 Books that are in the appendix to the Greek Bible

Note that some of the above (namely the additions to Esther and Daniel) are counted by Protestants as additional books, whereas Catholics consider them integral parts of the books of Esther and Daniel; since they were composed as additions to these books, and never intended as "books" on their own, their labelling as books in the above list is not entirely accurate; it derives from a Protestant desire to give these additions some status less than the original Hebrew text without totally rejecting them as spurious. As regards the parts of Esther the separation of them from the rest of the book is difficult, since they are tightly integrated into the Greek text of Esther, and even the "unchanged" parts contain some smaller changes, compared to the Hebrew text. Some bibles that have the apocrypha in an appendix to the Old Testament thus print a translation of the entire Greek book of Esther in this appendix, instead of only printing the "added parts". The prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Youths is an integral part of the story of the three youths and the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, but the other additions to Daniel do not have this problem.

The naming scheme of the Esdras books is complicated. The Hebrew Bible has one book on this subject, called "Ezra-Nehemiah", but the Septuagint and modern editions of the Christian Old Testament has two separate books, Ezra (called Esdras I by Catholics and Esdras Β' by Greek Orthodox Christians) and Nehemiah (called Esdras II by Catholics and Neemias by Greek Orthodox Christians). This book is, or these books are, a canonical part of the Bible. However, two further books on the same subject are apocryphal, the first, which consists largely of material already found in the canonical books of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, being called Esdras III (by Catholics), 1 Esdras (by Protestants), or Esdras Α' (by Greek Orthodox Christians, who put it before the canonical Ezra). The second apocryphal book of Esdras, which contains a collection of prophecies and is believed by some to be of Christian origin, is called Esdras IV (by Catholics), 2 Esdras (by Protestants) and Esdras Γ' (by Greek Orthodox Christians, who do not usually include it in the Bible).

Not all books from the Septuagint are accepted by the Roman Catholic church as canonical. The Prayer of Manasseh, 3 and 4 Esdras, 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151 are not considered to be canonical, and are not included in the canon, although some Protestants include these books in the Apocrypha. In the Vulgate, these books are found in an Appendix.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches regard the apocrypha as canonical, and refer to them as "deuterocanonical" (literally, from the 'second canon'); their status as being 'second canon' does not mean they are viewed as being less divinely inspired, but is merely a recognition of the controversy which has ensued over them, or a recognition that they were written later than the other books of the Old Testament. Protestant churches do not consider these books as canonical, but they vary in their attitude towards them. Some Protestants, especially during and shortly after the age of the Reformation, view these books as useful for religious purposes, although not to be relied upon for doctrine. Other Protestants, especially in later times, largely ignore them, some even rejecting them as having any value at all.

All Eastern Orthodox accept the Catholic deuterocanonical books, sometimes also including books that Catholics do not accept (e.g. 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151).

Among the Oriental Orthodox, the Apocrypha are accepted, and with the Ethiopian Orthodox there are additional books such as Jubilees, Enoch, and the Rest of the Words of Baruch. Enoch was accepted as scripture because the book of Jude in the New Testament quotes it as scripture.

Texts rejected by orthodox Christian churches were also accepted by various Gnostic sects.

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha - books accepted neither by Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish readers - include a number of books with an apocalyptic theme.

Apocrypha of the New Testament

The New Testament apocrypha strictly defined - books accepted neither by Catholic nor Protestant readers - includes several extra gospels and lives of apostles. Some of these books were clearly produced by Gnostic authors or by members of other groups later defined as heterodox, or outside the body of the Church. Many of these writings were discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, and have produced lively speculation about the state of affairs in Early Christianity.

Though Protestants, Catholics and most Orthodox agree on the canon of the New Testament the Ethiopian Orthodox are an exception. They add I & II Clement, and Shepherd of Hermas to the New Testament.

Originally however, Martin Luther considered the epistle of James as apocryphal, because it contained the line which seemed to contradict his teachings of salvation by faith alone: "Faith without works is dead". He had similar feeling about the epistle to the Hebrews, the epistle of Jude, and the Revelation of John, and removed those four books to an appendix in his bible. Later Lutherans included these books as full parts in their New Testaments, but kept them in their positions behind all the other books. Because of this the Lutheran New Testament is arranged slightly differently from that of most other churches to this day.

The most famous apocryphal book of the New Testament is without doubt the Gospel of Thomas. Most of the codices found in Nag Hammadi, including the only complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, are also considered as apocrypha of the New Testament. Also see the entry on Gnosticism for a list of other recovered works considered to be of Gnostic origin.

While the teachings of the apocrypha are not allowed to be of divine inspiration, artists and theologians have extracted concepts from them. For example, the names of Dismas, Gestas and data about the Three Wise Men. The first known expressions of the developing concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, are to be found, not in the canon, but in the pseudepigraphical Infancy Gospel of James.

Some specific books of the New Testament apocrypha and the Apostolic Fathers

For Papyrus Egerton 2, a famous unknown (fragmentary) Gospel compare: http://www-user.uni-bremen.de/~wie/Egerton/Egerton_home.html

For the so called Secret Gospel of Mark, mentioned in a letter of Clement of Alexandria discovered in 1958 by Morton Smith compare: http://www-user.uni-bremen.de/~wie/Secret/secmark_home.html

The Gospel of Barnabas appears to have been written in the 14th century.

The most complete online archive of New Testment Apocrypha is available at http://www.comparative-religion.com/christianity/apocrypha/ and comprises more than 80 works, including fragments.

The Jewish view of the Apocrypha

While Jews reject the apocrypha as having religious value in and of itself, at various times some in the Jewish community have drawn from it as a legitimate part of Jewish literary creativity; elements of the apocrypha have even been used as the basis for two important parts of the Jewish liturgy. In the Mahzor (High Holy day prayer book), a medieval Jewish poet used Ben Sira as the basis for a beautiful poem, Ke'Ohel HaNimtah. This is a closing piyut in the Seder Avodah section, in the Yom Kipur Musaf. It begins:

"How glorious indeed was the High Priest, when he safely left the Holy of Holies.
Like the clearest canopy of Heaven was the dazzling countenance of the priest".

(This can be seen, for example, on page 828 of the Birnbaum edition of the Mahzor.) The Conservative Mahzor replaces the medieval piyut with the relevant section from Ben Sira, which is more direct. The apocrypha has even formed the basis of the most important of all Jewish prayers, the Amidah (the Shemonah Esrah). Ben Sira provides the vocabulary and framework for many of the Amidah's blessings, which were instituted by the men of the Great Assembly.

The description of the origins of Chanukah is also to be found in the apocrypha; thus while the texts themselves may not be accepted as canonical, some of their contents are still accepted as historical truth.

The Mormon view of the Apocrypha

Those who claim Joseph Smith, Jr was a prophet believe that he received a revelation from God in answer to a question about the validity of the Apocrypha at Kirtland, Ohio, March 9, 1833, which is now Section 91 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The section reads in part:

There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; there are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men…Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;

This echoes the sentiment held by most American protestants of his day.

Although Latter-day Saints use an edition of the King James Version (KJV) of the bible that does not currently include the Apocrypha, it has been used by members and leaders in the past - especially when it was still part of most printed editions of the KJV.

Latter-day Saints, and most Mormon sects in the wider sense, believe that more "hidden" or apocryphal texts will come to light prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ.