What Are Biblical Apocrypha?

[This is the second in a series of posts as I write and gear up for the publication of a new introduction to biblical apocrypha for general audiences. See the first post here.]

One of the most basic questions we encounter in learning is how we define terms. For a book about “biblical apocrypha,” we need to consider what that phrase means. Below are a few excerpts from my book in progress, about defining certain terms. Then, I offer some reflections about collapsing categories. Finally, I offer some thoughts about the term “apocrypha” from my perspective, as someone who researches the subject in the Middle Ages.

Defining Terms

Broadly defined, apocrypha are works that deal with biblical subjects or are attributed to biblical figures even though they did not make it into the Bible. But different communities recognize different scriptures. The works that one community might consider to be apocryphal may seem strange and mysterious, but they are (or used to be) sacred and meaningful to others.

Certain scriptures are apocryphal to some Jews and Christians but canonical—or deuterocanonical—to others (as I discussed in this previous post). This is the case with certain books accepted as canonical by the Beta Israel Jews as well as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East Christians, even though they are not accepted by Protestants and were never part of the Hebrew Bible. These are known as “Deuterocanonical.” But Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Tewahedo Christians have different biblical canons, and some of their scriptures are considered apocryphal to Western Christians.

In fact, the designation “apocrypha” belongs to a whole cluster of terms. In my book, I define them as follows.

  • Canon: Works accepted as authoritative scriptures; from the Greek word meaning “rule” or “measuring stick.”
  • Protocanon: Works in the Hebrew Bible accepted by all Christian communities as canonical.
  • Deuterocanon: Works accepted as part of the Old Testament by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East Christians, even though they are not accepted by Protestants and were never part of the Hebrew Bible; from the Greek word meaning “second canon.”
  • Apocrypha: Works about biblical subjects or attributed to biblical figures that were not included in the canonical Bible; from the Greek word meaning “hidden.”
  • Pseudepigrapha: Works attributed to a certain figure who is meant to be the author, even though the work was not written by that person; from the Greek word meaning “falsely ascribed.”
  • Antilegomena: Works of disputed or doubted authenticity and authority as scripture; from the Greek word meaning “spoken against.”

Collapsing Categories

As scholars like Irena Backus, Tony Burke and Brent Landau, Lorenzo DiTommaso, and Annette Yoshiko Reed have discussed, the terms “pseudepigrapha” and “apocrypha” as many scholars use them emerged as categorical definitions in the early modern period. But these terms have a lasting power and still affects categories and discussions.

A lot of the time, categories and distinctions regarding apocrypha play out around the concept of how works relate to the “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” So we find titles of collections like “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” and “New Testament Apocrypha.”

Of course, as these names indicate, they are problematic in how they implicitly uphold a supersessionist understanding of the Hebrew Bible in relation to the later Christian scriptures. For this and other reasons, recent scholarship has attempted to shift some of the terminology of “New Testament apocrypha” to “Christian apocrypha.”

Even more, in many cases, often “pseudepigrapha” are thought to be “Jewish” while “apocrypha” are thought to be “Christian.” But easy distinctions do not often do justice to the subject.

A few complicating examples are the works known as the Life of Adam and Eve and Joseph and Aseneth. These works are often included in collections of “Old Testament pseudepigrapha” and scholars used to think they were composed during the Second Temple period by Jewish authors. More recent studies have demonstrated that both were probably (more likely) written by Christian authors between about 100 and 600 CE.

As these examples reveal, apocrypha related to subjects of the Hebrew Bible were sometimes written by Jews, sometimes by Christians, and perhaps sometimes written by Jewish-Christians. Still, future research might trouble or nuance even these ideas.

“Apocrypha” in the Middle Ages

As a medievalist, I’m often most concerned with the transmission of apocrypha–that is, their afterlives and how they were later read and used. From that perspective, there is little or no distinction between “deuterocanon,” “pseudepigrapha,” and “apocrypha.” More often in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the term “apocrypha” was used in a general sense to refer to works related to but excluded from the Bible–again, dependent on the context of the author.

More often than not, in my own research, I use the term “apocrypha” as a general umbrella concept for anything not formally part of the canon. But, again, we have to ask whose canon. For example, in medieval Western Europe, “the Bible” was the collected works known as the Latin Vulgate–the books of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament translated by Jerome.

But even boundaries between the Vulgate and apocrypha were somewhat fluid, since some works formally understood to be non-canonical were included in many biblical manuscripts. This was the case with Psalm 151 and 2 Esdras. Psalm 151 is a particularly interesting example, since it is often found with a heading indicating that it is “outside the number” (in Latin, “extra numerum”) of the 150 canonical Psalms. Still, it was incorporated into many medieval psalters.

Many late antique and medieval authors used the term “apocrypha” as an umbrella concept, too. Jerome sometimes used it to refer to deuterocanonical works; other times, he used it for works like apocryphal gospels and acts of the apostles. The early medieval author Bede (who often synthesized patristic ideas) used the word for works like 1 Enoch as well as stories about Mary’s Dormition and non-canonical gospels. Many other medieval authors followed suit.

All of this presents a sort of sliding scale of what is considered “apocrypha” to any single person or community at any given time. As I say up above: The works that one community [or person] might consider to be apocryphal may seem strange and mysterious, but they are (or used to be) sacred and meaningful to others.

What is important in all of this is that even definitions and categories are fluid–just like boundaries between the Bible and apocrypha in the history of Judaism and Christianity. Complexity is more often the case than simple categorical definitions. That’s just one part of the fun of exploring biblical apocrypha.

Further Reading

On the modern construction of definitions and collections of pseudepigrapha and apocrypha, see:

Irena Backus, Historical Method and Confessional Identity in the Era of the Reformation (1378-1615), Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 94 (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

Tony Burke and Brent Landau, “Introduction,” in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume 1, edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016), xx-xlvi.

Lorenzo DiTommaso, “The ‘Old Testament Pseudepigrapha’ as Category and Corpus,” A Guide to Early Jewish Texts and Traditions in Christian Transmission, edited by Alexander Kulik, David Hamidović, Gabriele Boccaccini, Lorenzo DiTommaso, and Michael E. Stone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 258-80.

Annette Yoshiko Reed, “The Afterlives of New Testament Apocrypha,” Journal of Biblical Literature 134 (2015): 401-25.

—, “The Modern Invention of ‘Old Testament Pseudepigrapha’,” Journal of Theological Studies 60 (2009): 403-36.

On some of the uses of “apocrypha” for patristic and medieval authors, see especially:

Frederick M. Biggs, “An Introduction and Overview of Recent Work,” in Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald G. Scragg, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003), 1-25.

Brandon W. Hawk, Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England, Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series 30 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), especially the introduction.

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