November 03, 2022

Should Christians Read the Apocryphal Books?

Nathan W. Bingham & Stephen Nichols
Should Christians Read the Apocryphal Books?

Should Christians read texts that were intentionally excluded from the canon of Scripture? Today, listen as Stephen Nichols offers advice to anyone interested in reading the fourteen books that comprise the Apocrypha.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining us this week is Teaching Fellow and Chief Academic Officer here at Ligonier Ministries, Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols, should Christians read the apocryphal books?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: This is a great question. And let’s start with, What is the Apocrypha? I remember one time getting a call from someone who was a Roman Catholic and they had recently converted to the gospel, and they said, “What happened to your Bible? It’s smaller than mine.” And what they were referring to, of course, was the Apocrypha. These are fourteen books that come in what we call the intertestamental period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. They are indeed recognized as canonical in the Roman Catholic Church, but Protestants do not recognize them as canonical. So, I think the way this question is worded is very important: Should Protestants read the Apocrypha?

I’m going to answer yes, and I’ll explain why in a moment, but that’s different than asking, Must Christians read the Apocrypha? And the answer to that is, no. If we were to ask, Must Christians read the sixty-six books of the Bible, the answer would be absolutely yes. We are obligated to do so, and we are commanded to study the whole counsel of God. So that’s all sixty-six books, even those sometimes overlooked Minor Prophets. We’ve got to read it all.

But the Apocrypha is in a different category. So where does the Apocrypha come from? These books are both historical and prophetic in nature, and so they reflect the genres of the Old Testament of narrative, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic—it’s all sort of in there. They were included in the Septuagint, and the Septuagint was extremely important. This was a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the apocryphal books into the Greek language, done around 200 BC and, of course, was very important in first-century Judaism, where there was a lot of Greek-speaking and also important for the New Testament authors.

So the Apocrypha was there in the Septuagint, and because it was in the Septuagint, it means it’s going to show up in church history. Now, when we go to the New Testament, we see very clearly the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, which encompasses the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, and so that is not including the Apocrypha. So, we have to remember that. But since it’s in the Septuagint, let’s see what happens to the Apocrypha in church history. Obviously the New Testament authors were aware of it. And at one time, there’s a reference to the Apocrypha. And at another time, there’s likely what you could see as a veiled reference to the Apocrypha. But it’s not at all in the same category of the other quotations from the Old Testament, which are introduced with, “Thus says the Lord,” or “the Lord says,” or some kind of authoritative introduction to the quote.

Once we move out of the first century and we go into the era of the early church, there were actually two camps. Jerome, who’s going to translate the Bible into Latin (and in his Vulgate, he’s going to include the Apocrypha), he says there are the canonical books and then there are what he calls the ecclesiastical or the ecumenical books. And the canonical books are the thirty-nine books. The ecclesiastical books are the Apocrypha. And he says they’re for the church, they’re helpful, but obviously he’s saying they’re not authoritative. Well, that’s by and large the view when you get to the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers, same thing: they are aware of the Apocrypha, they reference the Apocrypha, but they don’t see it as canonical. And it’s actually right after the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Reformation at the Council of Trent, where for the first time the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the apocryphal books as canonical.

So, a Protestant distinction is that we do not recognize the apocryphal books. And going back to that phone call I had with the recent convert from Roman Catholicism, I was able to say to her, “We did not take the books out, the Roman Catholic Church put the books in, and they actually didn’t put them in until the 1540s.” So that’s just helpful to know.

Now back to this question: Why should we read them? I think they’re helpful for us. In between the Old Testament and the New Testament, we have what we call four hundred silent years. And so, as we come into the New Testament, we’re not just coming into a vacuum from the final word of the Old Testament until the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and the beginning of the revelation that begins then with inscripturation of the New Testament—there’s not a vacuum. There’s a history there. There’s God at work in His people there. And the apocryphal books can be very helpful for us to understand that era, and especially understanding what we call the intertestamental period that can then help us as we come in to read the New Testament and understand our New Testament. To recap, Must Christians read them? No. Should Christians read the apocryphal books? Sure, they can be helpful for us.