The Apocrypha, Early Church Councils, and Martin Luther

The Apocrypha, Early Church Fathers and Councils, and Martin Luther

Lesson 3

By Pr. Rich Futrell

Jan 16, 2011


Last week, we learned that the Apostolic Fathers quoted and referenced the Apocrypha, without distinction, in the same way they did the others part of the Old Testament.



To understand the distinction in Old Testament books that would develop in the New Testament Church, one must first understand the Jewish concept of Hagiographa (Kethuvim in Hebrew).  The Jewish Old Testament is separated into three parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings.  The Holy Writings are the Hagiographa.

The Hagiographa was the last group of books included in the Old Testament.  Before the Jewish canon was closed in the 2nd century, the Hagiographa included the Apocrypha.  Even as late as the time of Jerome (347-420 AD), in his Prefaces to Judith and Tobit, Jerome mentioned that the Jews of his day included these books among the “Hagiographa” but did not use them to make doctrine.

If Jerome was correct, why would the Jews choose not to use the Hagiographa to make doctrine?


Athanasius (295-373), Bishop of Alexandria: The Anagignoskomena

As was the custom in ancient Alexandria, the bishop would write a letter to the congregations under his charge.  In the 39th Festal Letter, in 367 AD, Athanasius dealt with some spurious books that were circulating in the churches.  To help separate Scripture from the spurious books, Athanasius wrote:

The Old Testament is made up of 22 books….  In this order [Athanasius lists the books in the Protestant Old Testament, adding Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, and excluding the book of Esther] so far are the books of the Old Testament….

But for greater accuracy, I consider it necessary to say this.  Other books exist that are not part of the Canon, but which the Fathers have decreed should be read to those who have recently come into the fold, seek to be catechized, and who study to learn the Christian doctrine.  These are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the Teaching of the Apostles [Didache], and Pastor [Shepherd of Hermas].

Here we see the first distinction of the Anagignoskomena books, that is, books worthy of being read, studied, and preached on.  However, like the Jewish classification of “hagiographa” (holy books) for some of the Old Testament books, doctrine was not to be created from such books.

–          Discuss Athanasius’ words that “other books exist that are not part of the Canon, but which the Fathers have decreed should be read …”

Cyril (315-386), Bishop of Jerusalem: The Deuterocanon

Like Athanasius, Cyril had to deal with spurious books being circulated among the churches.  And so he wrote a letter to his congregations.  From his Catechetical Lectures:

Learn diligently from the Church what are the books of the Old Testament and of the New.  Read none of the apocryphal writings [here referring to spurious writings, not the Apocrypha] …  Read the Divine Scriptures, the 22 books of the Old Testament that have been translated by the 72 interpreters [the Septuagint].  [Cyril then lists the 22 books, which included Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, and then goes on to say:] But then let all the rest be put aside in a secondary rank [deutero].

From Cyril, we get the first distinction of the deuterocanon, canonical books of secondary rank.  It is this classification that changes later in the Roman Catholic Church, especially during the Council of Trent.

–          Discussion: if the books of secondary rank books are still part of the Old Testament, why were they classified as secondary?

Jerome (347-420), Translator: The Apocrypha

Jerome was charged to make a new translation of the Bible into Latin for the Roman Catholic Church.  The Old Latin translation was based on the Septuagint but had become corrupted and had about as many variants as texts.

Instead of translating from the Greek Septuagint, Jerome chose to work from the Hebrew.  He called this “Hebrew Verity.”  Jerome concluded that working from the original Hebrew was a better way to produce the official Latin translation than making a translation of a translation.

–          Why was Jerome’s concept of Hebrew Verity good?

–          Why was Jerome’s concept of Hebrew Verity bad?

With Jerome working from the Hebrew (then a pre-Masoretic text), the Apocrypha was not in the Hebrew for him to translate.  Couple not having Hebrew texts to translate from with the Jewish rejection of the Apocrypha (although, even in Jerome’s day, the rejection was, ironically, not fully complete), we begin to see a new view of these secondary, but worthy to read, books emerge.

Jerome was the first Church father who wanted to categorize the Apocrypha as NOT part of the Old Testament (although earlier Sextus Julius Africanus doubted the Apocrypha).  Jerome coined the term “apocrypha” from the Greek word for “hidden,” to distinguish these from Scripture and other religious writings.  This new understanding was an innovation and drew much criticism, especially in Jerome’s day by Rufinius.

–          Discussion: How do the categories deuterocanon, angignoskomena, and apocrypha differ?  How are they similar?

Church Councils, Canonization, and the Apocrypha

Today, what books make up the New Testament books in the Bible go back to the 3rd Council of Carthage in 397 AD.  However, that same council also listed the Old Testament books of the Bible.  In Canon 24, the council wrote:

Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of divine Scriptures.  Moreover, the canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings [1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings], Paralipomena [Chronicles] two books, Job, the David’s Psalter, the five books of Solomon [Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach], the twelve Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, Ezra two books, Maccabees two books.

This list is the Protestant Old Testament and the seven books of the Apocrypha.  (Note: the extra Apocrypha books in the Eastern Orthodox Bible go back to the 2nd Council of Nicea in 787 AD.)

F.F. Bruce in his authoritative book, The Canon of Scripture, wrote:

In 393 a church council held in Augustine’s see of Hippo laid down the limits of the canonical books along the lines approved by Augustine himself.  The proceedings of the council have been lost but they were summarized in the proceedings of the Third Council of Carthage (397), a provincial council.  These appear to be the first church councils to make a formal pronouncement on the canon.…  The Sixth Council of Carthage (419) re-enacted the ruling of the Third Council, again with the inclusion of the apocryphal books.

Although the Council called the Apocrypha “canon,” the Western Church treated the Apocrypha as secondary canon (deuterocanon), recognizing the historical context of the 3rd Council of Carthage, which was affirming Athansius’ and Cyril’s view of the Old Testament.

–          Protestantism hails the Council of Carthage (397 AD) as historical validity for the books that comprise the New Testament.   Why isn’t the same council used for Old Testament support?

Luther (1480-1546)

During his lifetime, Luther translated the Bible into German.  His translation did include the Apocrypha; so Luther did not reject the Apocrypha.  What Luther did that was novel was his placement of the Apocrypha: he placed them between the two testaments.  This tradition of placing the Apocrypha between the two testaments helped set in place two views of thought:

  1. Positive: The Apocrypha was a secondary category of books within the Bible.  This was nothing new, and may, in truth, have helped better understand the Apocrypha as deuterocanon and/or anagignoskomena.


  1. Negative: By putting all the Apocrypha together instead of interspersing them as before, Luther helped set up a churchly culture that could later more-easily remove the Apocrypha altogether from the Bible.  And this largely took place in the Bibles Protestant used in the 1800s (1900s for German Lutherans who were transitioning to English).


Luther’s most-famous quotation about the Apocrypha comes from his preface to the Apocrypha in his German translation of the Bible: “These books are not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.”

Yet, Luther’s view of Scripture is more complex than today’s simple yes-or-no approach.  Luther’s view was more catholic than the average Christian has today.  Ralph Bohlmann in Criteria of Biblical Canonicity, wrote:

In both Testaments Luther thus regarded a number of books to be of lesser authority than the chief books.  But did inferiority mean non-canonicity?  The answer is not simple, for in spite of Luther’s negative attitude toward such books, they were included in every edition of Luther’s Bible published during his lifetime (and for many years thereafter).  If the disputed books were not in some sense “biblical,” it is difficult to understand why Luther neither eliminated them from his Bible nor added other useful apocryphal writings to each Testament. Moreover, his language at least occasionally suggests that these books remain “Scripture,” as, for example, when he contrasts them with “all other Scripture.” [pg. 120]

So we find that Luther included the apocryphal books in his Die Bibel.  He did not consider them equal in authority to canonical Scripture, and held they should not be used to define Christian doctrine.  In other words, Luther saw them as secondary, yet still worthy of being read, as anagignoskomena.

Although Luther’s denigration of the Apocrypha was atypical, his views were still within the norm of the Church catholic in that he treated the Apocrypha as biblical but not canonical, not for making or creating doctrine.

We will find later movements dealing with the Apocrypha, both within Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Roman Catholicism will begin to treat the secondary books as equal to the primary books of the Old Testament.  Protestantism will accept only the shorter, post-Akiba Hebrew canon.  We will also find that Luther’s views of the Apocrypha are weaker than those of the Lutheran Confessions.  But that’s next week’s lesson.

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  1. Chad Myers says

    There are some significant factual inaccuracies in this article. I suggest reading the book “Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger” by Gary Michuta (Groto Press, 2007) which is a semi-scholarly work that is well-footnoted (with full scholarly works) and fairly exhaustive on the various subjects in play here.

    • Chad, I will have to disagree with you. As for Gary Michuta’s book, I’ve read it and consider it the best lay-friendly book on the subject. I believe he is working on a revision and may incorporate some of my suggestions (I hope!).

      I suspect (but am not sure) that you may disagree with my statement that the deuterocanon/anagignoskomena has a secondary role in its use within the Church. If you go back to Athanasius’ statement concerning the anagignoskomena and Cyril’s use of deuterocanon, they too held a secondary status for those books. It was in that context that the 3rd Council of Carthage affirmed the OT and NT parts of Scripture, rebuffing the Jeromian view.

      That being said, the Deuterocanon/anagignoskomena is fully biblical. The New Testament, Church councils, and history all affirm this.

      Chad, I think if you read all the articles on the Apocrypha on this website in succession, you will find much with which you agree, some new facts you may learn, and some things yet to ponder. But I’m guessing here.

      Thanks for your comment and reading of this article. This is an area where most know little and the distortions–especially among some Protestants–are often most egregious.

      Pastor RF

  2. David Opperman says

    Hi Pastor Rich,

    I was interested to read about St. Athanasius’ view of anagignoskomena. I have a couple of questions related to which books were included in this category. It seems that Luther as well as the King James translators included 1 and 2 Esdras (3 and 4 Esdras depending on how one numbers Ezra and Nehemiah) and the Prayer of Manasses among the apocryphal/deuterocanonical writings, but these writings were rejected as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and were not printed in most editions of the Vulgate (but were printed in the Clementina Vulgate edition). Why did previous church councils distinguish between 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses and the rest of the deuterocanon? It seems like earlier church councils affirmed the deuterocanon, but assigned these books an even lower status. Do you believe that these books should be included in printed Bibles today as they were in the Luther Bible and the original KJV?

    My second question was with regard to St. Athanasius’ list above. He includes two books in what could be called the New Testament anagignoskomena that are the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. I’m aware of these two books, but Athanasius seems to stand alone in giving these books equal status with the books of the Old Testament anagignoskomena. Would St. Athanasius have argued that the Didache and the Shepherd were part of the Bible as well? I’m not aware of other Fathers who included these books in their list of anagignoskomena/apocrypha/deuterocanonical writings. Should these two books be included in the Bible as well, albeit in a non-canonical role?

    Finally I have one more question. Jude, which is part of the New Testament antilegommena itself, cites The Book of Enoch and the Assumption of Moses. Could these books be considered similar to 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses as part of a “tertiary” cannon?

    • David,

      Wow, you really are on top of things! In this response I’ll only cover 1-2 Esdras, because they are really confusing. Depending on your source, they can refer to different books.

      Just so we don’t lose folks in a jumbled mass of confusion, perhaps this chart can help.

      Septuagint Latin Vulgate Luther’s Die Bibel/KJV

      1 book = 2 Esdras 1 Esdras Ezra
      1 book = 2 Esdras 2 Esdras Nehemiah

      1 Esdras 3 Esdras 1 Esdras

      Not in 4 Esdras 2 Esdras

      This begs the question: What is the source of the Vulgate’s 4 Esdras [the Apocrypha’s 2 Esdras]? It’s a compiling of three different texts:

      1. The original Jewish Apocalypse, which has the title “4 Ezra,”
      2. An early Christian prologue, which some now refer to as 5 Ezra! (as if it’s not confusing enough!)
      3. A Christian appendix (3rd century), which some now call 6 Ezra!

      David, as for the Council of Trent “rejecting” 1-2 Esdras (3-4 Esdras in the Vulgate), I’m not sure if it’s a rejection or if something else was taking place. At most, it is a rejection; at least, it is an oversight. For the Council of Trent specified that the books the Church is to be receive are those “contained in the old Latin Vulgate.” So the Council of Trent states that but then leaves out 1 and 2 Esdras (3-4 Esdras in the Vulgate) and the Prayer of Manasseh. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing!

      How do the Eastern churches handle these three books? The Eastern Orthodox churches don’t have 2 Esdras (4 Esdras in the Latin Vulgate) in their Old Testament because it was not in the Septuagint. They do have a 2 Esdras, which, in this case, is Ezra and Nehemiah combined.

      As the Septuagint is really the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used as Scripture and the early Church councils affirmed, a book lacking in the Septuagint would take precedence over a book that later made its way into the Vulgate.

      As the Apocrypha has a secondary status to begin with, it’s not as critical as the books from which we derive doctrine (Canon). I include 1 Esdras (3 Esdras) as part of the Old Testament but not 2 Esdras (4 Esdras). I would only read 2 Esdras as a “tertiary” document (as you say), in much the same way I read the Church fathers.

    • David,

      The Prayer of Manasseh should be part of the OT. It was in the Septuagint, but again I am not sure why the Council or Trent did not list it as Scripture. It is the Eastern Orthodox Bible (because it was in the Septuagint). In Protestantism, it is used as a canticle for Morning Prayer in the Anglican Communion.

      The Prayer of Manasseh is of value because it is a witness to God’s mercy and a prayer that one can use to express his own repentance to God.

    • David,

      On the New Testament antilegomena books (or apocryphal books, if you want to use that term), they really get their disputed status from Jerome. He brought out the history of some NT books that were disputed in the Early Church and so should not be used to make doctrine. To this day, the Lutheran church “officially” still honors this distinction.

      But what about the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas? Athanasius didn’t list them as NT books in his Easter Letter, but he did say the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas were useful for instruction. Even more, both of those books have an even-more distinguished distinction. Based on 9 pre-3rd-Council-of-Carthage Canon Lists–Muratorian (170), Origen (200), Cyprian (250), Dionysius (250), Hippolytus (250), Eusebius (320), Laodicea (363), Athanasius (367), and Jerome (385)–the Shepherd and the Didache made it into three lists! So those books were very highly regarded in the NT Church.

      However, they were not affirmed as having apostolic authorship in some way, which even Mark (from Peter) and Luke/Acts (Paul) had. For that reason, they did not make the canon list (not because they were rejected doctrinally).

      I view these two books, again using your terminology, as “tertiary,” after the NT antilegomena books, such as Revelation. I really like the Didache, but find the Shepherd of Hermas as too apocalyptic for my taste.

  3. Rich, delighted to find this post. You are quite right that the views of the early church and even Luther himself are more complex than is often portrayed in popular Protestant (and Roman Catholic) apologetics. The early church valued different Old Testament Apocrypha “differently.” Some became important doctrinally and others became part of the liturgical and devotional life of the early church.

    For most of the year I have been blogging on the “Ancestry of the King James Version” and within that series I have been covering each of the Apocryphal books. I have quoted from Luther’s Prefaces to each Apocryphal book and these reveal his attitude toward various books. He valued many greatly. Here, for example, is a portion of what Luther writes in his Preface to Tobit …

    “What was said about the book of Judith may also be said about this book of Tobit. If the events really happened, then it is fine and holy history. But if they are all made up, then it is indeed a truly beautiful, wholesome, and useful fiction or drama by a gifted poet. . . Tobit shows how things may go badly with a pious peasant . . . there may be much suffering in married life, yet God always graciously helps and finally crowns the outcome with joy . . . Therefore this book is useful and good for us Christians to read. It is the work of a fine Hebrew author who deals not with trivial but important issues, and whose writing and concerns are extraordinarily Christian.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 pp. 345-347).

    This is hardly a disparagement of this ancient book. Though he may not use the work for establishing doctrine he clearly felt it had a place among works that were more than fit for Christian consumption and edification.

    If you are curious about my own brief examinations of these books (so far I have “What is the Apocrypha?”, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Additions to Esther, Rest of Daniel, Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah. I am not ready to concede “canonical” authority to these works but I think it is nearly a crime that Evangelicals have consigned them to the dust bin …

    Bobby Valentine
    Tucson, AZ

    • Bobby,

      You are right on what you have shared. The traditional Lutheran view is that these books are “worthy to be read,” in other words, they are Anagignoskomena. So we hold to the Eastern Orthodox view but adopted Jerome’s verbiage, “Apocrypha.” Lutheran pastors used to have no problem preaching from such texts and reading from them in our worship services. What has happened is that 500 years of anti-Roman Catholicism (without a counterbalancing anti-Protestantism) has left of devoid of such an understanding.

      Our Lutheran Confessions even call the Apocrypha “Scripture” in our Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession, section XXI, paragraph 9. Martin Chemnitz, the second greatest theologian in the Lutheran Church, called them the “apocryphal books of the Old Testament.” So he saw them as Scripture. He considered and treated the OT Apocrypha the same way he did for NT books of 2 Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation–biblical but not canonical.