Introduction to the Apocrypha
That strange collection of books retained in the Catholic Bibles, the NRSV, and some old KJV Bibles is not just additional history reading. These books are called the Apocryphal writing and are filled with teachings that create a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament theologically. They are also referred to as the Deuterocanonical books. Deuterocanonical is a long word that just means its a canonical text for Deuteronomy historian. The Deuteronomy was believed to be a school of redactors who helped form the text of the Old Testament.
The Apocryphal books were included in the Greek Septuagint that was read and quoted by Paul, Jesus, and other New Testament figures. It would have been part of the standard Greek Bible of Jesus’ time and nearly all gentiles Christians would have used this version of the Old Testament as the default. Even some Hebrew synagogues have been discovered that were using the Greek text rather than the Hebrew. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the “extra” books in our modern Bibles were just considered canonical by 2nd temple Jews and even by the early church.
The Apocryphal books remained a part of the Christian Bibles for some 1600 years until English versions started removing them. Even the 1611 KJV retained the Apocryphal writings.
New Testament Theology Only Found In The Apocrypha
I have previously created a detailed listing of quotes and references between the New Testament and the Apocryphal writings. These can be read in the article titled “Does Jesus or The New Testament Quote from The Apocryphal Books?“. This article is going to focus specifically on New Testament theology that is not really found in the Old Testament but is found in the Apocryphal writings. Among the topics are:
- Earning salvation through works
- The importance of almsgiving and other deeds
- The resurrection of the dead on the day of the Lord
There are a lot more but these pieces of theology but these are some of the most traversed themes in the New Testament so they get special mention. Without the Apocryphal writings much of the theology of the New Testament would be completely nonsense because it’s simply not in the the Old Testament.
Resurrection of the Dead
Besides a single verse in Daniel and some vague allusions in the Psalms, there is not developed theory about the resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament. However, it’s a pervasive belief in the 4 centuries before Jesus was born.
When you find any who are dead, commit them to the grave and mark it, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection.
(2 Esdras 2:23)
And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.
(2 Maccabees 7:9)
When he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”
(2 Maccabees 7:14)
He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.
(2 Maccabees 12:43-44)
It shall be that whoever remains after all that I have foretold to you shall be saved and shall see my salvation and the end of my world.
(2 Esdras 6:25)
I will not grieve over the great number of those who perish; for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke—they are set on fire and burn hotly, and are extinguished.
(2 Esdras 7:61)
There is no doubt that the development of the resurrection was an exilic and post-exilic theme that arose due to the bondage that Israel was in. How could God’s promises be true if we are exiles in a foreign land? When and where is the promise of God going to come? These longings gave rise the Apocryphal theology as well as apocalyptic writings like Enoch. The idea was that God was waiting until the very end to bring in His kingdom, to give humanity time to repent. This was the theme behind the suffering servant in Isaiah and it’s parallel passage in the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Solomon).
12 “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
13 He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
14 He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
15 the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
16 We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
17 Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
19 Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
21 Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
22 and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
23 for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
24 but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
3 and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
6 like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever.
9 Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.
Earning Salvation through Works
The 2nd temple period Jews believed that salvation through the resurrection would come to those who’s deeds and righteousness outweighed the sin they did. The Egyptians believed a similar theology and that as a person sinned, their hearts physically became heavy. In the afterlife, their hearts would be weighed on a golden scale against the feather of truth. Likewise, a Jew could lighten his or her heart through deeds of righteousness. This is where the phrase “credited as righteousness” comes from. The New Testament emphasis on faith came from the idea that Abraham’s faith was “credited” to him as righteousness, or as a righteous deed. The phraseology is that is balancing an account. A credit goes back into your account, whereas a debit goes out of the account. This was the mechanism that allowed one to be saved through faith.
This model of earning one’s salvation through deeds and righteousness is all over the New Testament. But it doesn’t really exist in the Old Testament. There is no resurrection of the in the Torah or the prophets, other than Daniel 12. So where did it come from? I came through a single verse in Daniel 12, followed by a dozen or more Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical writings. The bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament theology is the built on the intertestamental books.
Verses on deeds and righteousness for salvation
For indeed I will not concern myself about the fashioning of those who have sinned, or about their death, their judgment, or their destruction; 39 but I will rejoice over the creation of the righteous, over their pilgrimage also, and their salvation, and their receiving their reward.
(2 Esdras 8:38-40)
But the righteous live forever,
and their reward is with the Lord;
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. 9 For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin.
For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.
They will come with dread when their sins are reckoned up,
and their lawless deeds will convict them to their face
The New Testament authors provide a much more nuanced view of faith which is thought to now be more important than deeds and righteousness. The basis for the replacement of faith as a suitable replacement for deeds and righteousness is from Genesis 15.
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.
The idea that faith could account for a lack of righteousness was developed throughout New Testament. By Jesus’ time nearly everyone except for the Sadducees believed that the righteous would be raised up on the last day. As long as your scales balanced you were in. Jesus’ teaching moved the goal post in a slightly different direction. Rather than just having deeds and following the law, one must also be pure of heart. In fact, this internal purity was much more important than external purity. That is why he condemned the Pharisees whom were the most righteous of the Jews.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus goes on to teach on what it means to be truly righteous. We call this the sermon on the mount. However, people tend to skim over the section on almsgiving (6:1-4). The section on almsgiving perfectly explains the Apocryphal theology on the importance of almsgiving in obtaining salvation. The giving of alms was considered the most righteous of the deeds a person could do because they were giving to something in which there would be no rewards or paybacks. Their reward was in being raised up in the last day. However, Jesus says that your righteous deed is a waste if you seek the admiration of men rather than just doing something out of the goodness of your heart.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Therefore, Jesus is trying to expand the target so that people are not just doing deeds for the sake of recognition. The rest of the New Testament writers emphasized faith in Jesus as a replacement for righteous deeds. Although, James vehemently admonished people for not having any fruit. In James’ eyes, the faith should be observable through deeds. It’s not that faith just replaces them and they are no longer needed, but that faith is true righteousness but it leads one into the pathway of being righteous. Faith was not the end goal but the vehicle to achieving true righteousness, which includes a pure heart.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.
(1 John 2:29)
The rest of the New Testament appears to treat faith as more of an axiomatic concept and they ignore the deeds that Jesus and James spoke of.
he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.
For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6 So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:13)
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
I most of the Pauline writings faith alone is enough to balance the scales. However, there are some passages that seem to indicate that those of the faith will naturally do the works of righteousness because they have the Holy Spirit in them.
For anyone who is interested in the origins of Christian thought and how the Old Testament was interpreted, the Apocryphal books are completely indispensable. They were part of the Christian narrative for 1500 years and should be part of it today. The fact that they are so ubiquitously used by the New Testament authors demonstrates that they are indeed sacred to the Jews of the first century, or at least the Greek speaking Jews. I would submit that even most Hebrews also held them in high esteem, as we know that the narratives about the Maccabees are pervasive even in modern Jewish thought and liturgy.
Suggested books for reading
- The actual books (the Apocryphal books)
- These are in the oldest KJV bibles, RSV, NRSV, CEB, GNB, and a few others
- Introducing the Apocrypha, 2nd Edition Message, Context, and Significance, By David A. deSilva
- Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha
- The Use of the Apocrypha in the Christian Church, by William Heaford Daubney
- The Value of the Apocrypha, by Bernard Snell