Reading the Apocrypha

Our church follows a daily Bible reading plan called the Lectionary. You can find it starting on p. 738 in the Book of Common Prayer (2019), and in the Bible portion of our App. We just finished 2 Kings, and had a shift in the Old Testament reading – we’re starting to read from the Apocrypha. If you’re thinking “Hold up a second, Kaitlyn… the Apocrypha?! Why is that in the Lectionary, alongside the actual Bible?” I’d like to introduce you to what the Apocrypha is, what it is not, and how to engage with it as it comes up in the Lectionary and elsewhere.

What the Apocrypha IS
Our Catechism says:
"The fourteen books of the Apocrypha, historically acknowledged by [the Anglican] church, are pre-Christian Jewish writings that provide background for the New Testament and are included in many editions of the Bible. They may be read as examples of faithful living but “not to establish any doctrine.” (Articles of Religion, 6) 

The various writings of the Apocrypha come from the 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments. The earliest manuscripts are from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament put together in the 2nd-3rd century BC, and widely used by Jews during the time of Jesus and the early church. St. Jerome (a Bible scholar in the 3rd/4th century AD) said the books of the Apocrypha were worth reading, but not authoritative Scripture, mostly because they were not included in the Hebrew canon. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church firmly included the Apocrypha (what they call the Deuterocanon) within the canon of Scripture. Some reformers threw the Apocrypha out completely, while Luther, Calvin and the Anglican reformers stuck with Jerome’s position.

Our Lectionary contains passages from these books of the Apocrypha:
  • Judith – a dramatic story of a Jewish widow who seduces and beheads an Assyrian general (Holofernes) to save her town from invasion.
  • Ecclesiasticus, aka. Jesus the Son of Sirach, or Ben Sira – a collection of wisdom sayings and poems with ethical teaching, which resembles the book of Proverbs.
  • Wisdom, aka the Wisdom of Solomon – also similar to Proverbs, depicting Wisdom (called “she” throughout the book) as an attribute of God.
  • Baruch – attributed to the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, and includes the Epistle of Jeremiah at the end, which is sometimes separated out as its own book.
  • Susanna – a prologue to the book of Daniel in which a young Hebrew woman is spied on and then blackmailed by two elders, and Daniel intervenes to get to the bottom of what actually happened.
  • 1 & 2 Maccabees – historical accounts of the cultural, religious and political struggle in Judea during the 2nd century BC.

There are a few others books listed in the 39 Articles that aren’t included in the Lectionary:
  • 3 & 4 Esdras, aka 3 & 4 Ezra; 1 & 2 Ezra are the canonical books of Ezra & Nehemiah
  • Tobias, aka Tobit
  • A longer ending of the Book of Esther 
  • Additions to Daniel:
    • The Song of the Three Children, aka The Prayer of Azariah
    • Of Bel and the Dragon 
  • The Prayer of Manasses, also spelled Manasseh
What the Apocrypha IS NOT
First and foremost, the Apocrypha is not inspired Scripture. Second, it is not a catch-all term for all other Jewish and Christian writings that are not Scripture. There are a lot of ancient Jewish religious texts that are not included in the Apocrypha (e.g the book of Enoch). There are also a ton of writings by early Christians, including the Apostolic Fathers which our staff team is reading right now. You may have also heard about Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, which claim to have additional information about the life and teachings of Jesus and his apostles. All that to say, not all ancient Bible-adjacent texts are part of the Apocrypha.

How to engage the Apocrypha
The 66 books of the Bible contain all things necessary for salvation, and establish the guardrails of our faith. Full stop. That is a core Reformed Catholic belief, and so we don’t claim the Apocrypha has the same status as Scripture. That said, reading the Apocrypha can be edifying and helpful as long as we lean on our Bible knowledge to keep us within the guardrails. We needn’t be afraid to check out these books. Personally, I’ve especially appreciated the historical context of 1 & 2 Maccabees; they’ve helped me understand what was going on in the time of Jesus, especially all the power dynamics and Messianic expectations. I also enjoy the story of Judith because she’s an incredibly courageous and clever woman.

To end on a practical note, since the Bible translations available in our App don’t include the books of the Apocrypha, there will be gaps in the reading plan there, so you’ll need to find those passages elsewhere if you’d like to read them. Also, if you prefer not to read the Apocrypha, and replace it with other Old Testament readings, that’s totally fine. “All may, some should, none must”, as we like to say.

You can access the Apocrypha in a few different ways. Anglican Liturgy Press recently published an ESV Bible with the Apocrypha in the back. Various editions of the Apocrypha alone have also been published. If you’re curious how others at Christ Church are experiencing the Lectionary, check out the Divine Office Lectionary group on our App.

To learn more about reading the Apocrypha from a Protestant perspective, take a look at this series on “Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha” by the Anglican scholar Stephen Noll. You can also check out this article by a Baptist scholar, which helpfully points out how the Apocrypha has been used and misused throughout history. 
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