How to Use the Apocrypha and the Its Contents: A Re-education

Lesson 5: How to Use the Apocrypha and the Its Contents: A Re-education

By Pr. Rich Futrell

Jan 30, 2011

The Protestant Churches’ Rejection of the Apocrypha

When some claim the Apocrypha is not biblical, they often cite many “proof texts” showing why we should reject the Apocrypha, such as, it teaches false doctrine.  Ironically, people don’t use this logic for “difficult” Scripture passages that others may also use to get false teachings (for example: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Matthew 24:40-41, or Luke 17:34-35 to support the idea of the Rapture).

This partly comes from a flattened view of Scripture–that all Scripture is also canonical.  The Apocrypha has been scriptural–but not canonical–since the days of the early New Testament Church.  So we need to learn again how to use the Apocrypha.


How to use the Apocrypha

For instance, if you wanted to show that Jesus rose from the dead and what that means for the Christian, you would first go to the New Testament as it is a New Testament event.  You would start with the four Gospels, the eyewitness accounts.

Then you would go to the canonical books of the New Testament, such a 1st Corinthians 15:3-4.

Then you could go to an “apocryphal” book of the New Testament, such as Revelation, to affirm what the canonical books teach.  In this case, you could refer to Revelation 20:5.

After that, you could go to the canonical books of the Old Testament.  For instance, a person may choose to reference Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2-3, and Ezekiel 37:1-14.

Finally, you could bring in the Old Testament Apocrypha.  Here, you could refer to 2 Maccabees 7:14, when being tortured a young man said: “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him.”

–          On another doctrine, if you wanted to show that God is creator, how could you use 2 Maccabees 7:28: “I urge you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them and recognize that not out of things that already existed did God make them …”?

An Analysis of Roman Catholic Use of the Apocrypha

We will now analyze how the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses Scripture (and the Church Fathers) to support and teach a doctrine.  Here we look at purgatory.

1030    All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031    The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned (Cf. Council of Florence [1439]: DS 1304; Council of Trent [1563]: DS 1820; [1547]: 1580; see also Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus [1336]: DS 1000).  The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.  The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire (Cf. 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7):

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.  He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come.  From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come (St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4, 39: PL 77, 396; cf. Mt 12:31).

1032    This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46)….

–          Read 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.  What will be burned up?  When (vs. 13)?

–          Read 1 Peter 1:3-7.  When will a Christian be “tested by fire”?

–          Do either 1 Corinthians 3:15 or 1 Peter 3:7 have anything to do with purgatory?

–          Discuss using the Church Fathers on Church doctrine.

–          Should the Church use a description of what a Jewish general (from the Apocrypha) did grieving for those who may have died outside the faith to make a doctrine?

–          What if the description were from a canonical book of Scripture.  Should we make a doctrine from such a description?

Descriptions of the Books of the Apocrypha

Tobit: A Man of Godly Character

Who is Tobit?  He is the father of the chief character, Tobias, in a book that bears his name.  Written in the 4th or 3rd century BC, Tobit is a dramatic story of reversals.  Here there are all the dark sides of humanity: violence, hatred, jealousy, intrigue.  But there is another side to this story: faith, hope, trust, and courage.

It is this blend of tragedy and triumph that surely recommended Tobit and the other books of the Apocrypha to the ancient Church.  Here the difficulties, duplicities, and doubts do not triumph.  God comes to the rescue of those who trust in Him, even when they are driven to ask that He take them home!


Judith: The Godly Woman vs. an Evil Empire

Another remarkable person, Judith, follows on the heels of Tobit.  Judith is the embodiment of the brave and faithful woman.  Even the archenemy of Israel, Holofernes, the Assyrian general of King Nebuchadnezzar’s vast armies, praises Judith: “There is not such a woman from one end of the earth to the other, either for beauty of face or wisdom of speech!” (Judith 11:21).

Wise indeed!  Judith knew the general’s aim was to seduce her and destroy her people.  With composure and courage, she risks her honor and life by attending Holofernes’ private banquet.  Petitioning God to guide events and to guard her, she disarms the monarch with her beauty and seeming compliance with his designs.  As the uninhibited partying progresses, Holofernes becomes so drunk that he collapses on his canopied bed.  The text is direct as it records Judith’s actions to save her people:

She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes’ head and took down his sword from it.  She came close to his bed and took hold of the hair of his head and said, “Give me strength this day, O Lord God on Israel!”  And she struck his neck twice with all her might and severed his head from his body.  Then she tumbled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts; after a moment she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her servant (Judith 13:6-9).

Hardly a delicate or cautious description of events!

What separates this action from the many sordid television shows is that we are to understand this as divinely providential deliverance.  God “saves” His people through Judith’s faith and courage.


Additions to Esther: The Godly Woman as Deliverer

A collection called The Additions to Esther follow the Book of Judith.  Again, God protects and delivers His people through a godly woman.

Supplementing the Book of Esther, these Additions include Mordecai’s dream, more detail on Artaxerxes’ banquet, and extended prayers and accounts.

The nobility of Esther’s faith again emerges as central to the story and key to the future of Israel.  A sample of her prayer provides a window into her godliness.  She prays:

“Remember, O Lord, make yourself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O king of the gods and Master of all dominion!  Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion and turn his heart to hate the man who is fighting against us, so that there may be an end of him and those who agree with him.  But save us by your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, O Lord” (14:12-14).


Sirach (Ecclesiasticus, “the Church’s Book”)

Sirach was a teacher in Jerusalem around 200 BC.  At the time, the city was at the center of a power struggle between the Seleucid rulers in Syria and the Ptolemies of Egypt.  As the Seleucids slowly won control from their opponents, two challenges arose for the Jewish community: the presence of a foreign king and the vigorous advance of Hellenism (Greek-influenced humanistic culture).

Over against the pagan practices all around them, Sirach holds up the life of studying the Torah as the way to be faithful to God.  His extensive use of proverbs and practical advice shows real pastoral concern.


Baruch: Encouragement from One in Exile

This book is a letter from Baruch, the secretary of Jeremiah, to the people of Jerusalem.  It was complied between 200 and 60 BC, after Baruch had long been dead.  Yet, it is another example of how God called the Jewish community to faithfulness.

In this work, a prayer, a wisdom poem, and a section of comfort are combined to encourage the people to persevere.  Baruch sees a time when the marvelous prophecies of Isaiah will be fulfilled: “For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him” (Baruch 5:9, referring to Isaiah 60:1-3).


The Letter of Jeremiah: Encouragement for the Exiles

This letter reverses the direction of Baruch’s letter: Jeremiah writes from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon.  In a word, the prophet offers pastoral advice on how to remain faithful to the God of Israel.  Especially prominent are his warnings about idolatry.  Surrounded by idols and pagan worship, the Israelites were not to bow their heads or bend their knees.  They were to worship only the true God.  Jeremiah had called the people away from the worship of Baal.  The probable date of composition is between 300 BC and 100 BC, after Jeremiah was already dead.


The Wisdom of Solomon: Fidelity vs. Conformity

The Wisdom of Solomon provides a striking analysis of the tension between religious conviction and a culture’s pressures toward conformity.

The Greek culture of the day had wooed over many Jews in the centuries before Christ.  In athletic contests, in economic dealings, and in social commerce, the Greek gods played a major role.  Many Jews saw this as a sophisticated and attractive alternative to the “old ways.”

Writing between 250 and 50 BC, the author tells us that we are to find real wisdom in the God of Israel.  The clear message is that true wisdom will, in the end, be rewarded.  The foolishness of the Greeks and their idolatry will bring disaster (chapter 13).


The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Men

This prayer and hymn–probably added to Daniel 3 in the 2nd or 1st century BC–are spoken by men who have been thrown into the fiery furnace in Babylon.  Their crime?  Failure to bow before the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had made (Daniel 3:16-18).  The Prayer is moving: “Do not withdraw Your mercy from us, for the sake of Abraham your beloved” (vs. 12).  When God miraculously delivers the men, the lesson is clear: Worship only the God of Abraham!


Susanna: The Godly Woman vs. Corrupt Elders

The plot of Susanna is all too modern.  Susanna’s beauty had enamored several leaders in Israel.  They make it clear to her that she must surrender her virtue to their desires or face the false accusation of promiscuity from them.  Since the penalty for promiscuity was death, everything was at stake.

Susanna bravely responds to the elders’ demands: “I am hemmed in on every side.  For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands” (22-23).

True to their threat, the elders accuse Susanna of having sex with a young man.  Daniel is asked to judge the case.  By interviewing the two elders separately, he unmasks their plot.  “Then all the assembly shouted loudly and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him” (vs. 60).

The two elders, in a just reversal, meet the fate they wanted for Susanna by being put to death “in accordance with the law of Moses” (vs. 62).


Bel and the Dragon: The Godly Prophet vs. an Idolatrous King

The prophet Daniel is caught in a contest with the priests of Bel, an idol.  King Cyrus is enticed to worship Bel because the Bel daily devours food that the priests had prepared.  Daniel, faithful to the true God, reveals a secret passageway to the king.  The priests had been secretly retrieving, under cover of darkness, the gourmet meal that they had earlier presented to Bel.

The prophet next faces off with the “dragon,” which was being worshiped as a god.  When the king gives Daniel permission to test the dragon’s divinity, Daniel prepares some cakes and feeds them to the dragon.  The dragon dies most ungraciously by bursting open.  Daniel points to the unappealing result as hardly the makings of a god.  The critique of idolatry could hardly be more picturesquely put.

But the plot has one more twist.  The power of Bel’s constituency is so powerful that they offer the king an alternative: Either let us kill Daniel, or we’ll kill you and your family.

As we might expect, the king decides for his own life.  Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel 6).  The prophet Habakkuk is alerted to Daniel’s distress and an angel carries him to Daniel’s side.  There he gives Daniel food.  Later, a sad king opens the den to mourn Daniel, but finds him alive among the lions.  Again there is a reversal.  Those who sought to have Daniel eaten by the lions are themselves devoured!


First and Second Maccabees: Heroism vs. Idolatry

The Apocrypha closes with an epic account of heroism for God and His holy house–the Jerusalem Temple.  The Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons lead a revolt against the Temple being profaned.

When one of these rulers, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, orders the people to worship idols, eat pork, and abandon the “ways of the Lord,” a small band begins physical resistance (chapter 2).  A terrible struggle follows in which the tide slowly shifts in favor of the Jewish forces.  Again, faith sees farther than the eye.  God grants the pious rebels victory over far greater forces.  Second Maccabees offers more details on the people and events in the period between 200 and 100 B.C.

To read the last installment, which is a list of optional Old Testament Apocrypha readings for the Lutheran Service Book lectionaries, click here.



  1. I am enjoying reading through your thoughts on the Apocrypha. I appreciate your effort to raise awareness of the value of these works for Bible believing Christians. On this particular post I, kindly, demur on the characterization of Revelation as “apocryphal.” However some Christians (like Luther) did not appreciate the book.

    On a different note. First Cor 3, 1 Peter 3 not only have nothing to do with “purgatory” neither does 2 Maccabees 12. Jonathan Goldstein deconstructs that misinterpretation of this Jewish text in his II Maccabees: Anchor Bible Commentary (p. 449f). Daniel J. Harrington, Catholic scholar, agrees in his Invitation to the Apocrypha.

    Bobby Valentine