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 Issues | The Apocrypha | Origin

The Origin of the Apocrypha

The traditional story goes that in about 250BC the King of Egypt wanted to include the Hebrew Scriptures in his magnificent library in Alexandria so he commissioned seventy-two Jewish scholars to make a translation into Greek. This Greek Bible is therefore known as the Septuagint, which means “seventy” and often referred to by the Roman numerals LXX. This account of the origin of the Greek Bible is quoted by a number of early church leaders but is generally not accepted by scholars today. One problem is that in the oldest known account the seventy-two only did the Pentateuch, so someone else must have done the rest of the books. It also does not explain how two of the books translated (Esther and Daniel) have substantial passages not in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. Nor does it explain why there are other whole books included which are not in the Hebrew canon and some of which describe history after the time the translation was said to have been made.

Alternative theories involve complex arguments about manuscripts, which are well beyond this article (and this author). What seems to be clear is that Jews in places like Alexandria (where it is estimated that 100,000 such lived) often did not know Hebrew so they used Greek. The Greek Bible, however composed, includes chapters and books which were either in the ancient Hebrew and were later removed, or were never part of the canonical Scriptures but came to be collected with them to preserve other events, sayings and history of Jewish background.

When the early Christians took the gospel message beyond Israel to the Gentiles they too were using Greek and therefore when they taught or quoted from the Old Testament they very often used the Septuagint. This can be seen in the New Testament itself where some Old Testament quotations are word for word the same as the Septuagint translation.

Before long the Church was predominantly Greek (and Latin) in its focus and few of its leaders knew Hebrew. Bibles would have been relatively scarce but what they used for the Old Testament was the Septuagint and as time went on many simply assumed that it was the authentic Old Testament. Matters are complicated further because some writers call the ‘Apocrypha’ ‘the books ecclesiastical’ and use the term ‘Apocrypha’ for what would be called ‘pseudepigripha’ today. This is a reference to books which claim to have been written by famous figures in the OT and hidden away (hence the name) which some group or other suddenly said that they had discovered and wonderfully found that it supported their view. Some of the pseudepigriphal books are not like that, but it is the origin of the term.

Were the apocryphal books part of the Hebrew Canon? In his extensive work “The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church” Roger Beckwith concludes that there is “no significant evidence” that this was the case and considerable evidence to the contrary” p386. It is clear that many early church leaders, particularly those who knew Hebrew, were well aware that the apocryphal books were not part of the Hebrew Canon. Nevertheless some, more so in the West than the East, seem to have been unaware of this fact, whilst others who did know argued that the Jews had deliberately removed the extra books from their Bible because they supported Christian claims. Some refused point blank to accept the evidence of what the Jews had in their Scriptures, because they believed them to be blasphemers and untrustworthy, whilst others insisted that because the Church treated the apocryphal works as Scripture then they were Scripture.

The Jews of this period appear to have been well aware of the apocryphal books and it has become clear that many of the books were originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Nevertheless the Jews argued that these books were not part of the canonical Scriptures because by the time they were written the Spirit of prophecy had left Israel so they could not be divinely inspired.

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