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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Definition.

The term ‘apocrypha’ was never used in antiquity to denote the separate corpus of disparate books which are printed under this heading in some modern Bibles. The current use of the term was popularized through the practice of Protestant scholars during the Reformation in distinguishing these books, which were standard in Catholic Bibles, from canonical biblical writings. This use reflected more general uses of the term in late antiquity.

The Greek word ‘apocrypha’ means books that have been hidden away in some sense. The term was sometimes used in antiquity to refer to books that contained mysterious or secret teachings, but although many such esoteric writings were known and highly regarded by both Jews and Christians (cf. 2 Esd 14:45–6 ) the description of them as apocryphal was rare. Other Christian writers described as ‘apocrypha’ those books which were reckoned to be spurious or heretical and thus unfit for Christian use (e.g. Athanasius and Rufinus, both in the 4th cent. CE). The use of the term to refer to the corpus of books that now forms an appendix to the OT began with Jerome in the early fifth century. Jerome was concerned to define the limits of the OT canon and elected to exclude those books found in the Greek and Latin versions but not in the Hebrew. He did not condemn these books as unworthy but only as non-canonical and hence useful for general edification rather than to define church dogma.

Since the MSS of Greek and Latin Bibles do not all contain precisely the same works, but all contain the writings included in the OT as defined by Protestants, the extent of the Apocrypha is not entirely fixed. Some biblical MSS include 3 and 4 Maccabees and Ps 151 which, since they are not part of the HB, have therefore sometimes been treated as part of the Apocrypha. Conversely, during disputes in the Reformation about the religious importance of the Apocrypha, some theologians declared unfitting for the corpus those writings that seemed to them to lack value; thus Luther excluded from his version of the Apocrypha both 1 and 2 Esdras. The books discussed in this Commentary are those commonly found in those Protestant English Bibles in which the Apocrypha is printed.

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