Reading the Apocrypha

A while back I mentioned that last year as part of my Bible read through I'd read the Apocrypha.  It was part of the reading plan in my NRSV and it was something I was intrigued by.

The Church of England, like all protestant churches, does not include them in the canon of Scripture.  Of the Apocrypha, Article VI says:
And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine
which it is worth noting is in deliberate distinction to the Roman Catholic church whose position was and is still that these books are part of the canon of Scripture (see paragraph 120 of Catechism of the Catholic Church).  It is also different from the Eastern church (with some variation of who accepts what - see the NRSV introduction to the Apocrypha for the details).  For some history and discussion on this position see Bray's The Faith We Confess (pp.44-47) and Thomas' The Principles of Theology (pp.113-115 in my 1963 CBR revised edition).

That is essentially how I read these books.  Not as divinely inspired Scripture, but as useful teaching and information.  In essence, we read them like we might read many Christian books, although accepting a longer historical pedigree.

That said, it's not been a common part of my daily reading, as I would think it's not a common part of most evangelical Christian piety.  As a friend joked at theological college, he felt there might be a niche for evangelical commentaries on the Apocrypha!

Should we as evangelicals read the Apocrypha?  I think it is useful - it does genuinely give you interesting information for the time between the Old Testament and the New (for example in the books of Maccabees) and also there is quite a lot of interesting wisdom literature reflecting on how we should live (e.g. Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) and some interesting examples for living (Tobit, Judith and in some of the historical books).  Accepting the limitations expressed by Article 6, I suppose it's worth asking why we wouldn't read the Apocrypha if we will read other Christian books and biographies.  In particular, it is useful for New Testament study, which can allude to apocryphal passages (see a useful table here) and commentaries do quite often refer to the Apocrypha because of the background it provides.

However, I think there are a few of words of caution.  First, we do need to be aware that these books are not Scripture.  Stylistically they feel like Scripture sometimes and especially, if like me, you read them as part of a Bible reading plan and find them in the same binding as the Bible.  Article VI reminds us to not build our doctrine on those books because they are not reliable and authoritative as Scripture is.  We need not to forget that!  Second we need to remember that if we are talking to members of Roman Catholic or Eastern churches their opinion of these books is (at least officially) different.  That will just require us to adjust our thinking with them.  Actually, when we're talking about the Bible, we mean a different thing.  Third, you don't need to read the Apocrypha, that is for many people it will never be part of their Christian reading, which is OK.

For me, another question is, having read the Apocrypha, would I read it again?  My basic answer is probably not as part of a Bible read through.  I would instead now be able to refer to the Apocrypha and chase things up a bit more comfortably, with an idea of what the books are about.  So while I'm glad I did it, I'm not enthused for a lifelong study of the Apocrypha!  Ultimately that follows from my last observation, which is that reading the Apocrypha made me grateful for Scripture.  In Scripture I have God's Word for me and at an individual level I felt the contrast between the self-attesting Scriptures and a secondary book.  My devotion is to the LORD who reveals himself in his infallible word.


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