What is the Apocrypha?

Man deepens his spiritual life by reading the Bible.

Whenever discussing the Bible with other Christians, regardless of their confession, you may hear the word Apocrypha. What does this word mean to Orthodox Christians? What does it mean for Roman Catholics? Protestants? And what books does the Orthodox Church truly consider Apocrypha and why?

8 minutes

It is important to know and understand your Scriptures as an Orthodox Christian. And that begins with understanding the canon itself, and what is and isn’t part of it and why!

What does Apocrypha mean?

The word Apocrypha comes from the Greek word apokryptein, which means “to hide away”. You may see some books of the Old Testament labeled as “apocrypha” in many English language bibles today. However, this designation comes only from Protestants, who rejected those books from their canon of Scripture 500 years ago. Orthodox Christians fully accept those books rejected by Protestants, as they were part of the Jewish canon of Scripture in usage during the time of Christ, the Septuagint, with which Christ and the Apostles were intimately familiar.

Therefore, in Orthodox usage, Apocrypha refers to any collection of scriptural texts that were rejected from the canon of the Scriptures. These would include both heretical texts (called pseudoepigrapha) and edifying texts one could read outside of worship. (More on these later on!)

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

When the Jews formed their Old Testament canon (the same canon we see in the Septuagint), they excluded certain books. The Church does not call these books apocrypha, but rather pseudepigrapha (from the Greek pseudḗs, “false” and epigraphḗ, “name” or “inscription” or “ascription”; in other words, “false writings”. This helps to distinguish them from the books excluded from the New Testament: the true apocrypha.

The following books are considered pseudepigrapha, and thus are not included in any canon of the Old Testament, whether Jewish or Christian:

  • Assumption of Moses
  • Ascension of Isaiah
  • Apocalypse of Elijah
  • Book of Enoch
  • Testament of the Twelve Patriachs
  • IV Maccabees (I, II, and III Maccabees are part of the Septuagint/Orthodox canon)

Put simply: the pseudepigrapha were false writings pertaining to the Old Testament canon. While apocrypha refers to false writings that the Church excluded from the canon of the New Testament.

The Protestant “apocrypha”

During the 1500’s, Martin Luther desired to create a translation of the Scriptures into his native tongue of German. To better translate the Old Testament into German, he decided to use what scholars refer to as the Masoretic Text (ca. 9th century), the Hebrew Scriptures that were in use by his local Jewish community. The Masoretic Text excludes several books from its canon of the Old Testament than the Septuagint, a much earlier translation from the third century BC. Seeing them removed from the Masoretic Text, Luther considered them a lower form of Scripture and thus rejected them. Unfortunately, Luther did not know that the Masoretic Text had been altered, and books removed, to counteract early Christians who were using the Septuagint translation of the Scriptures to convert Jews in diaspora to Christianity.

List of books in the Protestant “apocrypha”

Though the Protestant world rejects the following books, Jews at the time of Christ (including Christ Himself and His Apostles) considered these books as Scripture:

  • I Esdras
  • The portion of II Esdras called the “Prayer of Manasseh”
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Portions of Esther
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • Baruch
  • Epistle of Jeremiah
  • The portions of Daniel:
    • Song of the Three Children
    • Susanna
    • Bel and the Dragon
  • Psalm 151
  • I Maccabees
  • II Maccabees
  • III Maccabees
  • IV Maccabees

Protestant bibles, therefore, contain only 39 Old Testament books. Roman Catholic bibles, which accepts only 7 “deuterocanonical” books from the Septuagint, contain either 46 or 47 books. And Orthodox bibles, which accept the entirety of the Septuagint, contain 49 books in the Old Testament canon.

Removal of the “apocrypha” from Protestant bibles

At the time of Luther’s translation, he did not omit these books altogether, but placed them at the back of the bible under the heading, “Apocrypha”. In other words, they were not esteemed as Scripture, but were useful and edifying to read. However, over time, the so-called apocrypha came to inherit lower and lower status in the eyes of Protestant translators, copyists, and printers. And eventually, these books disappeared completely from modern Bible translations.

Interestingly enough, in articulating His teachings, we see Jesus reference statements in these so-called “apocryphal” books on several occasions:

  • Matt. 6:19-20 echoes Sirach 29:11
  • Matt. 7:12 is the converse of Tobit 4:15
  • Matt. 7:16,20 mirrors Sirach 27:6
  • Matt. 9:36 conveys the same message Judith 11:19
  • Matt. 11:25 uses the same description as Tobit 7:18
  • In Matt. 16:18 Jesus references Wisdom 16:13
  • Matt. 22:25; Mark 12:20; Luke 20:29; Gospel writers refer to the canonicity of Tobit 3:8 and 7:11 regarding the seven brothers.
  • Matt. 24:15 is taken from 1 Macc. 1:54 and 2 Macc. 8:17
  • Matt. 24:16 is taken from 1 Macc. 2:28
  • Matt. 27:43 echoes Wisdom 2:18
  • In Mark 4:5,16-17, Jesus’ description follows Sirach 40:15

What does deuterocanonical mean?

In Roman Catholic circles, Christians often call the books listed in the Protestant “apocrypha” the deuterocanonical books. At the Council of Trent (AD 1545), the Roman Catholic church rejected Martin Luther and his reforms, affirming (among other things) the use of the Septuagint. The Council articulated that the additional books in the Septuagint may not be as important as the other books in the Old Testament canon, but nonetheless they form a secondary canon (from the Greek deutero and canona), which translates literally to “second list”.

If you hear Orthodox scholars use the term deuterocanonical, they are (mistakenly) referring to the books excluded from Protestant Bibles. However, these books are not “deuterocanonical” to the Orthodox. Nor are they “apocrypha”, as they are to Protestants. They are part of the original canon of Scripture!

Now that we have looked at the Old Testament, let’s shift gears toward the era of the early Church. The Church uses the word apocrypha to designate false writings from Apostolic times that were excluded from the New Testament canon. We do not use it in the manner Protestants do – because the books Protestants call apocrypha…are actually Scripture!

The need for a New Testament canon

In the days of the early Church, after Christ’s ascension to Heaven, many false writings began to circulate among the faithful. Some of these writings were simply fanciful (and blatantly false) stories, while others were deliberately crafted by gnostics and other heretics prevalent at the time to draw people away from the Church. Many of these fake books boasted apostolic authorship, carrying the name of an Apostle to bolster their credibility in the eyes of the faithful.

For the first time, the Church found herself facing the problem of determining which books were true and genuine, and which were not. Which books should be read during worship, and which ones should not. Which books should be used for the formulation of Christian doctrine, and which ones should not. The discussion of establishing a New Testament canon began, and would continue for more than 200 years before anything resembling our current canon would be agreed upon by the body of the Church.

The true Apocrypha

The books the Church designated as Apocrypha often told fanciful and legendary stories about the childhood of Christ. After all, it was a period of His life many knew little to nothing about, and their appeal is not difficult to imagine. The false writings also spoke of the life of the Virgin Mary and the activities of various Apostles.

The following list is not exhaustive, but here are some writings considered Apocrypha by the Orthodox Church and should be avoided by the faithful:

  • False Gospels
    • Gospel of Mary
    • Gospel of Peter
    • Gospel of Thomas
    • Gospel of Judas
    • Gospel of Nicodemus
    • Gospel of Pilate
    • Gospel of Hebrews
  • False Epistles
    • Third Epistle to the Corinthians
    • Epistle of St. Paul to the Laodiceans
    • Epistle of Peter to Phillip
  • Other false books
    • Acts of Peter and Paul
    • Acts of Paul and Thekla
    • Acts of Phillip
    • Apocalypse of Peter
    • Protoevangelion of James

There are many more false writings out there, but this at least can give you an idea. Even upon a cursory reading of these books, one can easily determine why the Church considered these books apocrypha. Dr. Jeannie Constantinou gives a great handful of lessons on the Apocrypha. In these lessons, she reads from a handful of these fake books, so you can hear some of the heresies contained within them, without putting yourself at spiritual risk. You can access those lessons here (they are titled “The Apocrypha”, Parts 1 and 2). She also speaks at length about the canon, so listen to those talks as well if you are interested in the formation of the canon in the early Church.

Christian writings that didn’t make the cut

Not every edifying Christian writing made it into the canon of Scripture. There are many writings that the Church found edifying, but did not officially canonize for use in worship or determination of doctrine. A good number of these come from those we call the Apostolic Fathers, those who were direct disciples of the Apostles of Christ. Men like St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and St. Clement of Rome, left many epistles and other writings that Orthodox faithful are encouraged to read for their own spiritual growth and edification.

Here is a list of some of these writings:

  • Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles)
  • Shepherd of Hermas
  • Epistle to Diognetus
  • First Epistle of Clement
  • Second Epistle of Clement
  • The Seven Letters of St. Ignatius
    • Epistle to the Ephesians
    • Epistle to the Magnesians
    • Epistle to the Trallians
    • Epistle to the Romans
    • Epistle to the Philadelphians
    • Epistle to the Smyrnaeans
    • Epistle to Polycarp
  • Epistle of Barnabas

Keep in mind: the above list of books are not apocrypha, because they are not fake writings. Their authorship is legitimate, and they are genuine Patristic writings. They simply did not make it into the canon of Scripture. They still contain content that is edifying to those Christian faithful who wish to read them.


In summary, the Apocrypha is the list of false writings excluded from the New Testament canon of the Church. Though Protestants use this term to refer to the books missing from the Masoretic text, and thus the books they rejected from their own canon of the Old Testament, that is not what the apocrypha truly are. The books the Church rejects from the Old Testament are called pseudepigrapha, and those also were false writings that both Jews and (all) Christians reject from the canon.

Questions? Share them in the comments below!

Keep Reading: Do I Really Need To Go To Church?

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