By Mary Jane Chaignot

It probably goes without saying that we don't know too much about these books. Few people could even name them. Not everyone will even refer to them in the same way. Some call them deuterocanonical texts; others refer to them as the Apocrypha. So why bother studying them? The answer to that question, of course, is dependent upon one's religious tradition. Jews will differ from Protestants who will differ from Catholics and Orthodox religions. And so it goes.

It might be helpful to start with the words themselves. Deuterocanonical means, of course, "second canon." It's the way that Roman Catholics might refer to these books. But therein lies the problem. What does it mean for these books to be in the "second canon"? Some would argue that it means they didn't make the cut for the first canon (the real one), while others say the term "second canon" means they were written later than the books of the first canon, or that they were accepted into the canon later than the others. The Protestant term, Apocrypha, is equally confusing. "Apocrypha" is derived from a Greek term that means "hidden things." Today, that has a rather pejorative sense, suggesting that they are "hidden" for good reason. It suggests that something might be lacking in these texts or that they are heretical and should be avoided. Scholars disagree, however, whether anything like that was the original intent. Some have suggested that these books were meant to be given to the wise, and "hidden" from others. Catholics use the term "apocryphal" for another whole series of writings that others refer to as pseudepigraphal. And the Greek Orthodox churches refer to these books by the term, "Anaginoskomena," which means "books that are being read." For simplicity's sake, it might be best to refer to them as the books between the testaments.

As it stands now the historical narratives of the Old Testament books in the Hebrew Bible end around 420 BCE. Both the northern and southern kingdoms had fallen -- the former in 722 BCE at the hand of Assyria, the latter in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BCE, leaving Babylon weary from war. His successor, Nabonidus, was neither effective nor popular with the people. When the Persian ruler, Cyrus, took Babylon in 539 BCE, he was hailed as a liberator. In 538 BCE, Cyrus decreed the restoration of Judah. In general, his policy was to respect other cultures and cults, and he was known to give responsibilities to native princes. Several OT books tell of the rebuilding of the temple and the return of people to the land.

However, in 334 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire with the intention of liberating the Greek cities. It wasn't long before he had conquered the whole of Asia Minor. He intended to continue on to conquer India, but he was unsuccessful. Alexander died suddenly in 323 BCE at the height of his power. Upon his death, his half-brother became king (in name only) for seven years, while Alexander's four generals maintained military control. Ultimately, the generals divided up the empire among themselves. Of those four, only two are germane to our study. Seleucid was made king of northern Syria and Babylon; Ptolemy was king of Egypt and southern Syria, including Israel. The Ptolemys ruled Israel for about a century and maintained a policy similar to the Persians. But the Seleucids were never content with this arrangement, and wars broke out frequently over Israel. In 217 BCE the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, was able to wrest Israel out of Ptolemaic control. After this, Israel was under Seleucid rule.

Initially, the Israelites welcomed him, and he treated them well. He gave them the right to live by their traditional law and a fixed sum from the state to support the cult. Cult personnel were also exempt from taxes. The Seleucids, however, were keen on following Alexander's policy of Hellenizing the area. They wanted the Jews to adopt Greek culture, the Greek language, and the worship of Greek gods. Some residents embraced this notion because it was economically and socially expedient; others resisted it because it violated their traditions, customs, and laws. In 190 BCE, Antiochus III challenged Rome and was categorically defeated. They levied a huge tax against him for his insubordination. He was killed three years later while robbing a temple looking for money to pay the Romans. His son, Seleucid, succeeded him and inherited those debts. He tried to get money from the temple in Jerusalem, but to no avail. Seleucid was soon murdered, and his younger brother Antiochus IV came into power. By this time, there was an open struggle in Jerusalem between those who favored and those who opposed the Hellenists. Tensions became especially critical after Antiochus IV came to the throne in 175 BCE. Antiochus took advantage of the turmoil and added to his coffers by selling the office of High Priest to the highest bidder. The winner was not even from the traditional high priestly family, which only increased the schisms in Jerusalem.

Antiochus, however, also had his eye on Egypt and tried to invade several times. Each time, he had to pass through Israel and took note of what was happening there. Finally, in 169 BCE, he simply went into Jerusalem and robbed the temple. Two years later he went back, ostensibly to "help" them deal with their problems; instead he attacked them on a Sabbath, knowing that they wouldn't fight back. He basically outlawed their religion, which had been the basis of their resistance. Anyone practicing the Law of Moses would be guilty of a criminal offense. Jews were not allowed to read the Torah, keep the Sabbath, circumcise their sons, keep the food laws, or offer sacrifices in the temple. His agents desecrated the temple by putting in statues of Zeus/Jupiter and by offering swine flesh on the altar.

Obviously, many Jews gave up their religion during this time; others, however, were more determined than ever to oppose him. In 167 BCE, in a village of Modein, NW of Jerusalem, one of Antiochus' agents tried to get the villagers to offer pagan sacrifices. An elderly priest of the Hasmonean family (Mattathias) killed both the agent and a renegade Jew, who had agreed to do so. Mattathias and his sons fled, starting a guerrilla band. When he died, his son Judas became a leader (Judas was nicknamed Maccabeus = Hammer) and the Maccabean revolt had started. In 164 they rededicated the temple and instituted the annual feast of Hanukkah (Dedication) to commemorate the event.

Shortly after this, Antiochus IV died while robbing another temple. A whole series of Seleucid kings followed in short succession. Meanwhile, the Hasmoneans were getting stronger. In 141 BCE, they were able to obtain independence for Judah. The people chose one of the leaders, Simon, to be their governor and "high priest." Thus the Hasmonean dynasty was established, and they ruled Judah until 63 BCE when the Romans took over, in part to resolve some of the factional fighting. This entire time was marked by violence and increased schisms among the Jews. The descendants of the Hasmoneans vied for power against the Idumean family of Antipater (the father of Herod the Great). It is also during this time that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were identified. After a century of Roman rule, the Jews revolted again in 66 CE, leading to the complete destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It was never to be rebuilt.

This is, essentially, the time frame of the Apocryphal books – from 587 BCE to 70 CE. Their stories are not limited to the land of Judah itself, but include some of the Diaspora Jews. Many of them were written in response to the question as to how Jews should respond to the efforts of Hellenism, especially in those areas outside Judah where Jews were definitely a small minority. The characters in these books act, then, like heroes and heroines showing how one can still be an observant Jew in the midst of a hostile culture. But the very fact that some of these books were composed in Greek shows the influence of Hellenization. Another theme common to these books is how to understand the suffering that befalls faithful people. It is no surprise that faithfulness is rewarded with divine blessings and vindication for the Jew.

The compilation of books between the testaments is comprised of these historical narratives, but there are also fictional narratives, poetic and wisdom books, sermons, and apocalyptic literature. They also build on OT themes, such as law, covenant, and divine wisdom. The destruction of Jerusalem and the resulting exile is interpreted as divine judgment for sins, while hope is held out that Israel's repentance will lead to a divine restoration.

In short, these books are a witness to the faith of the Jewish people living between the first and third centuries -- a time that was very tumultuous. They tried to live out their loyalty to God in a world that was hostile to their culture, their customs, and their laws. They were fighting to maintain a presence in a Greek world when Hellenization was the norm. These books were perhaps even more essential for Diaspora Jews than Palestinian Jews. Why, then, aren't they considered canonical? The answer varies for each book, but some history might be helpful.

Some scholars think the words of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) were canonically in place around the time of the Exile. Others think they came into being during the Persian reign, that indeed the Persians made the Jews compile a set of their sacred writings. In either case, these first books were soon followed by the prophetic writings, the historical accounts, wisdom literature, and the psalms, not necessarily in that order. This process lasted well into the first century CE. In addition to these books, devout Jews had written a variety of other materials in Greek. In fact, when the Septuagint was first translated, it included all the books of the Apocrypha. Actually, 2 Esdras counts 70 of these documents and claims they were meant to be "hidden" from the public and only given to the elect community. By the end of the first century, some of these books had fallen out of favor and were deemed to be non-authoritative. Josephus, a first-century historian, referred to an Old Testament canon of 22 books that included only those books written before 465 BCE. According to him, those were the books that were divinely conceived; anything written later was not equal in value. This was based on the fact that prophecy had fallen silent around that time. (Although, he did include the book of Daniel, which scholars estimate to be written around 165 BCE.) However, this did not stop others from continuing to write more books. Oftentimes, they were written in the name of a famous person – Enoch, Adam, Elijah, Ezra, Job, the sons of Abraham, or Solomon. Some were written as historical documents, romantic tales, liturgical songs, apocalyptic, or wisdom literature. Some were modeled after Greek, Roman, or philosophical writings.

When Christians started producing documents in the late first-century claiming Christianity was the fulfillment of God's promises, the Jews were forced to define what was authoritative for them. This became especially important since Christians were actually using some of these extra-biblical writings. The criterion at that time seemed to be to authenticate books that had been written in Hebrew (although parts of Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezra were also written in Aramaic). Things intensified after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE. Jews were highly motivated to consolidate their scriptures and put them under rabbinic oversight.

It is noteworthy, however, that documents of some of the church Fathers of the second and third centuries still have quotes from these Apocryphal writings. The Christians were also trying to finalize their canon at this point and for much the same reason. There were many extra-canonical writings in their tradition as well. By the time of Jerome (420 CE), only the Hebrew Scriptures were deemed authoritative, but the others could be used for "instruction" and edification of Christians. Still, when he translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), he was pressured into including all the apocryphal books. Augustine (ca 430 CE) included all the apocryphal books in his writings, too. Today the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions use the canon based on the Septuagint, while Protestant churches rely on the consensus of the Hebrew Bible. In the interest of solidarity among Christian faiths, it might be helpful to have at least a working knowledge of some of these writings.


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Jones, Ivor. "The Apocrypha." Epworth Commentaries. London, Great Britain: Epworth Press. 2003.

Kee, Howard Clark. Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press. 1989.

Kohlenberger, John, III. The Parallel Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha