Apocrypha, The

Apocrypha is a Greek word meaning ‘hidden.' There are Apocrypha to the Old Testament and to the New Testament, but there are various opinions about what should be included.

The Old Testament Apocrypha

These are books which Catholics and Orthodox Christians regard as part of the Old Testament but Protestants do not.


When, in the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE, the Jews decided what should be in their Scriptures, they chose only holy books in Hebrew written by the time of Ezra. All later books, whether written in Greek or translated into Greek from Hebrew, were rejected. Christians had already begun to use all the books: the ones written in Greek and those translated from Hebrew into Greek. This means that the Old Testament used by the Christian Church until Reformation, and still used by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, has more books in it than the Hebrew Scriptures.

Saint Jerome

When the Pope asked Saint Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin, about 400CE (a translation later known as the Vulgate), Jerome assumed that the Hebrew books had a higher status than the Greek ones, and so made a division in the Old Testament. He gave the Greek books the name ‘Apocrypha'.

The Names of the Apocryphal Books

  • 3 Esdras (sometimes called 1 Esdras)

  • 4 Esdras (sometimes called 2 Esdras)

  • Tobit

  • Judith

  • The Additions to Esther

  • The Wisdom of Solomon

  • The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira (sometimes called Ecclesiasticus)

  • Baruch

  • The Song of the Three Children (sometimes called the Benedicite)

  • The Story of Susanna

  • Bel and the Dragon

  • The Prayer of Manasseh

  • 1 Maccabees

  • 2 Maccabees

The Status of the Old Testament Apocrypha

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches describe these books as ‘Deutero-canonical Scripture, that is, of lower status than the rest of the Old Testament. At the Reformation, Protestants decided to reject these books and use only those in the Hebrew Bible. The Church of England reads these books for an example of good living, but does not allow any teaching or doctrine to be based on them.

Stories in the Apocrypha


Tobit, was a poor but pious Jew who lived in Nineveh. His son Tobias was sent to collect some money his father had left in another town, and he hired a man to go with him for protection. This man was the Rapgael and TobiasArchangel Raphael, but Tobias did not know this. On the way, they caught a fish, and saved its heart, liver and gall to use for magic. Tobias met and wanted to marry Sarah, but a demon had already killed seven men who wanted to marry her. Raphael told Tobias to drive the demon away by burning the fish heart and liver. The demon left and so Tobias married Sarah. They returned to his home, and Tobit used the fish gall to cure his father's blindness. Then Raphael revealed he was an angel.

The story of Tobit was used to show that God always protected his faithful people.

The archangel Raphael became the patron of travellers and healers, and his symbols were a fish and an ointment jar.

There are many pictures of Tobias and Raphael, especially from 15th century Forence where there was a society devoted to Raphael. James Bride wrote a play Tobias and the Angel, and Sally Vickers' novel Miss Garnett's Angel has this story as its theme.


Nebuchadnezzar the king of Nineveh sent his general Holofernes with a great army to conquer Israel. They laid siege to the town of Bethulia and the people had no water left. Judith, a rich widow, planned to kill JudithHolofernes and save the city. She dressed in her finest clothes and went to his camp to seduce him. When he was drunk, she cut off his head with his own sword and put his head in her bag. She then took the head back to her own city. All the men of Israel then fought and drove the enemy from their land.

There are many stories of the heroic exploits of Jewish women. In the Bible there are Esther and Jael, and Judith belongs with them.

Judith killing Holofernes was painted by Donatello, Michaelangelo in the Sistine chapel, Botticelli, Cranach the elder, Caravaggio, and Gentileschi. Vivaldi wrote an oratorio about Judith, and Mozart's opera Betulia Liberata tells this story.


Susanna, by RembrandtSusanna was a beautiful married woman. One day two old men saw her in her garden and both wanted to seduce her. They said that if she refused, they would tell her husband she had a lover and they had seen them together under a tree. Susanna was desperate, and was put on trial. Daniel wanted to help her. He asked the court if he could question the two men separately, and asked them what sort of tree she had been lying under. They said two different trees, and so they were shown to be liars, and Susanna was set free.

The story of Susanna shows how the good woman triumphs over her enemies, how truth defeats lies. The story of Susanna is important for feminists.

Since about 1500, this story has inspired many works of art, for example by Rembrandt, not least because it gave the opportunity to paint a female nude in a religious picture. Handel wrote an oratorio Susanna.

1 Maccabees

This is the story of how the Jews drove out the occupying Syrian army and recaptured their capital city Jerusalem in 163BCE. They restored their ancient temple there, and lit the lamps again. Every years Jews still remember this when they celebrate Hanukkah in December, and light their Hanukkah lamp of independence.

2 Maccabees

This is another version of the story in 1 Maccabees, but with different details. The most famous story tells how the king of Syria sent his agent Heliodorus to steal the temple treasure. A golden horseman mysteriously appeared from heaven to defend the temple, and his two attendants beat back Heliodorus and saved the temple treasure.

The stories of the Maccabees praised the bravery of the Jewish patriots who wanted liberation from the Syrians.

Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus was based on these books.

The New Testament Apocrypha

Although some of these books are incorrectly attributed to New Testament authors and other apostles, they have never been included in the New Testament.

The Names of the New Testament Apocryphal Books

There is no agreed list of books, but these are usually included:

  • Infancy Gospel of James [also called the Protevangelium]

  • Infancy Gospel of Thomas

  • Gospel of Peter

  • Gospel of Nicodemus

  • The Acts of John

  • The Acts of Paul

  • The Acts of Peter

  • The Acts of Thomas

  • The Apocalypse of Peter.

The Status of the New Testament Apocrypha

They have never been considered as holy books or scripture, but scenes from them often appear in Christian art.

Stories in the New Testament Apocrypha

The Infancy Gospel of James

This gospel claims to describe the early life of Mary and the story of Cappella degli Scrovegni's fresno in Padua showing the presentation of Mary at the templethe birth of Jesus. Mary's parents Anna and Joachim are said to have given her to the temple when she was three years old. She grew up there and became a temple weaver. When she was old enough to marry, the priests found Joseph, a widower, to be her husband. The gospel shows Gabriel coming twice to tell her she would be the mother of Jesus. The first time, she was at the well, and the second time, she was spinning red wool. Jesus was born in a cave near Bethlehem, and Mary put him in the manger under the straw to hide him from King Herod's soldiers.

Scenes from this gospel are often painted on the walls of Greek churches. It is the source of all descriptions of the early life of Mary. It was very important for the veneration of Mary, especially in mediaeval Europe. The fresco in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua is a fine example. The Christmas icon of the Orthodox Christians is based on this Gospel, and some of these stories about Mary appear in the Koran.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

This gospel claims to tell stories from Jesus' childhood. He made clay birds and brought then to life. When one of his playmates fell off a roof and died he brought him back to life. When Joseph the carpenter cut a valuable piece of wood too short, Jesus made it grow to the right length.

These stories were popular themes for Christian art, especially stained glass windows. There is another completely different book called the Gospel of Thomas which was discovered in Egypt in 1945. This is a collection of the teachings of Jesus.

The Gospel of Nicodemus

This gospel includes stories about the Passion of Jesus. The first half tells the story of the trial and crucifixion in greater detail than the New Testament gospels. Many people whom Jesus had healed are shown giving testimony to Pilate at Jesus' trial. After the resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus debate with the Jews about what had happened. Several characters in the story are named: the soldiers were Longinus and Stephaton, the two thieves were Demas and Gestas.

The second part describes Jesus going into the underworld between his death and his resurrection, in order to release the faithful dead, including Adam, Eve and other figures from the Old Testament. A huge crowd of resurrected people appeared in Jerusalem and told the high priest how they had been released from hell. Jesus had appeared in a great light and demanded that the gates be opened. Satan had tried in vain to retain them but the dead were released.

Jesus' release of the faithful dead is known as the ‘Harrowing of Hell', and is an important theme in the mediaeval mystery plays and much Christian art. The Easter icon of the Orthodox Church depicts Jesus rising from the underworld on the broken doors of hell, reaching to bring up Adam.

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