What makes the Apocrypha apocryphal?

As I continue doing data-collection and reading for the paper on Protestant vs. Puritan names I’m working on, I’ve run up against an interesting issue about the categorisation of Biblical names, especially those of Hebrew origin.

You might think that every Biblical name could be neatly categorised into “Old Testament” or “New Testament” (or maybe “both” if it turns up in both), but it turns out, this classification will only get you so far, because some of the traditional “Biblical” names are not actually found in the Bible! Or rather, not found in the canonical Bible…Three classic examples are Judith, Anna/Anne, and Susan. The Judith and Susanna whose popularity translated into use of their names are not mentioned in the canonical Old Testament; nor is Mary’s mother’s name given in the canonical New Testament. Nevertheless Judith, Susan(na) and Anne are generally counted as “Biblical” names, because of their occurrence in books that used to be considered canonical but no longer are (the Apocrypha).

As we try to provide an analysis of the distinctly Protestant Biblical names used in the 16th C, we are thus faced with the question of “what counts as Biblical?” That is, what apocryphal and deuterocanonical books would the Protestants have accepted as canonical? This question led us to the article we’re discussing in today’s post:

Floyd C. Medford, “The Apocrypha in the Sixteenth Century: A Summary and Survey”, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 52, no. 4 (December, 1983): 343-354.

(Isn’t it great when you’ve got a concrete question and someone has a targeted article that is basically designed to answer your question?)

How — and why — then did this shifting understanding of the Apocrypha come about, and how — and why — did it affect the changing namepools? Medford starts out by laying the scene that motivates his investigation:

the sixteenth century witnessed the first serious reconsideration the problem of the Biblical canon in over a thousand years (p. 343).

This reconsider was triggered, Medford argues, by a long-running discrepancy between what the learned fathers of the Church maintained as canonical (that is, the canon of Jerome) and what was incorporated into actual ecclesiastical practice, a broader collection (p. 343). Many medieval Bibles incorporated the Apocrypha without distinction from the canonical books (p. 345), and as a result only scholars could have distinguished the canonical from the apocryphal.

The books labelled as apocryphal in the King James translation of the Bible (and hence typical of the Protestant apocrypha) are:

  • I Esdras
  • II Esdras
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • “the rest of Esther”
  • Wisdom
  • Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Sirach, or Sirach)
  • Baruch, with the epistle of Jeremiah
  • the Song of the Three Children
  • the Story of Susannah
  • The Idol Bel, and the Dragon
  • The Prayer of Manasses
  • I Maccabees
  • II Maccabees

In this list, all except I and II Esdras and the prayer of Manasses are books that were considered canonical by the Catholic church.

Medford surveys how over the course of the 16th C the apocryphal books were successively separated out from the canonical books in various Protestant vernacular translations. Luther’s 1534 translation included the books, but provided explanatory prefaces on a number of them decrying them; concluding that “while they are not placed on the same footing as the Holy Scripture, [they] are yet profitable and good for reading” (p. 347). The first edition of the Bible to separate out the apocryphal books from the rest, putting them into their own section, was the Van Liesvelt translation into Dutch (p. 347). Other editions separated them out even further, by moving them after the New Testament in order.

This suspicion (or perhaps “concern with” is better) of the apocryphal books was not specific to the Protestant denominations, with similar sentiments being expressed by Catholic scholars in the early part of the century (p. 348). But the fact that the Protestants abrogated these books was — by the middle of the century — sufficient to reinforce their canonicity in the Catholic tradition, as witnessed by the Council of Trent (p. 348) which affirmed od as the author of all the books of the Old and New Testament as well as the Apocryphal books noted above.

Medford concludes his discussion with a survey of English translations, discussing how and where the apocryphal books were put, and whether they were introduced with a preface (and if so, whether it is the preface of Coverdale or Calvin). From this survey, he concludes:

Thus the sixteenth century English translations generally retain the Apocrypha for church use, while carefully demarking their secondary status by title, preface, position, and/or other means (p. 353).

This holds true for the Protestant tradition; but he goes on to say that the Puritans separated themselves out from the general Protestant tradition “with a complete rejection of the Apocrypha, resulting in the exclusion of those books from many editions of the King James Version since the middle of the seventeenth century” (p. 353). Here then we have the basis for a conjecture: If there is a distinctive Protestant vs. Puritan name-pool, we would expect to see apocryphal names in the former but not in the latter — no more Judiths or Susans or even possibly Annes…


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3 responses to “What makes the Apocrypha apocryphal?

  1. Anna is a New Testamant name. It is the name of a prophetess in Luke 2:36 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A36&version=KJV

    Judith appear in Genesis 26:34 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+26%3A34&version=KJV

    Susanna appears in Luke 8:3 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+8%3A3&version=KJV

    So none of them are purely aporcryphal names, and all might be legitimate for Puritans to use.

  2. Jörg Knappen

    “The” Anne is not even mentioned in the deuterocanonical books of the bible, but her name comes from old Christian legends. It is the mother of Mary or the grandmother of Jesus. The three were depicted together in many paintings, the motive has the strange German name Heilige Anna selbdritt.

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