(forthcoming in some book 🙂 )

The collection known as the Old Testament Apocrypha exists as a discrete and identifiable body of works as a result of the reading practices of the Christian churches throughout the centuries and the different decisions made concerning the level of authority to be accorded to these particular texts in different Christian circles (related, in part, to the different degrees of value placed upon the Jewish community’s – that is, the parent religion’s – decisions about what texts ought to enjoy canonical authority).  The question of canonical authority, however, is secondary to the phenomenon of the expansive use and evident influence of these texts in the Christian movement from its inception. 

Influence at the Earliest Stages

We can speak of “use” with confidence where we have explicit citations of these texts, but the evidence for “influence” pushes considerably earlier, indeed, even to the Judean and Galilean milieu of Jesus himself.  Citation of a text by name (or less precisely with an introductory remark like “as it is written” or “as the scripture says”) already presumes, on the part of the writer, the expectation that the text ought to be accorded some level of authority by the audience, such that explicitly drawing attention to the fact of reciting the older text should carry persuasive or argumentative weight.  None of the authors of the New Testament introduce passages from the books that come to be called “Apocrypha” in this manner, which strongly suggests that they did not expect their audiences to recognize the first-level authority of these texts that they would assume (require?) for Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or the Psalms.[1]  Indeed, it suggests that these authors themselves did not accord such authority to Tobit, Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon, and the rest.  That said, however, it seems evident that they used these texts or, at the very least, that these texts were used sufficiently in their own contexts that they could become familiar with, approve, and incorporate a broad range of the material found therein.

            Jesus famously taught his followers that the most prudent use of wealth was to use it to relieve the pressing needs of those around them:

“Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust ruin and where thieves break in and steal; rather, lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust ruins and where thieves neither break in nor steal.” (Matt. 6:19-20)

“Sell your belongings and give alms: provide for yourselves moneybags that don’t wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in the heavens, where a thief doesn’t approach nor does a moth spoil.” (Luke 12:33)

While the Law of Moses prescribed charity toward the poor and the prophets reinforced this as an essential practice, the second-century B.C.E. scribe and teacher Yeshua ben Sira promoted a commitment to charity as the best way in which to “lay up a treasure” for oneself:

“For the commandment’s sake, help a poor person; don’t send him or her away empty-handed because of their lack of means [to repay]. Deprive yourself of silver on account of a brother and a friend, and don’t allow it to rust under a stone unto destruction. Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Highest, and it will prove more advantageous to you than gold. Stash away almsgiving in your storerooms, and this will deliver you from every hardship.” (Sir. 29:9–12)

Several points of contact emerge.  Both teach that the way to amass a lasting treasure is not through hoarding one’s possessions, but rather through sharing them with neighbors in need.  Ben Sira and Jesus further promote this shift in savings strategy by pointing to the vulnerability of the pile of possessions that sit idle that can end up lost and unfruitful. 

            Jesus is also remembered to have taught that our experience of God’s forgiveness of our sins depends in some way upon our willingness to extend forgiveness to other people.  This is enshrined within the Lord’s Prayer (undoubtedly the Jesus tradition most familiar to the greatest number of Christians!): “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12; cf. Luke 11:4).  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives further comment on this petition (and this petition only): “For if you forgive people their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive people, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).  This teaching is further reinforced in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35).  A slave who owes his master a tremendous debt is forgiven that debt rather than thrown into prison till the debt be (impossibly) repaid.  He then goes out and has a fellow slave cast into prison over a modest debt.  Upon hearing of this, the master reinstates the debt of the first slave and hands him over to the torturers till his debt be repaid.  Jesus concludes solemnly: “Thus also will my heavenly Father do to you, unless you forgive – each his or her brother or sister – from your hearts” (Matt 18:35).[2]

            This is a claim without precedent in the Hebrew Bible, though not without precedent in earlier Jewish literature.  Ben Sira had taught his students a very similar lesson:

The vengeful person will experience the Lord’s vengeance;

the Lord will surely remember that person’s sins.

Forgive your neighbor a wrong

and then, when you are praying, your sins will be dismissed.

Does a person treasure anger against another person,

and seek healing from the Lord?

He doesn’t have mercy on a person like himself,

and he makes petition concerning his own sins?

He himself, being mere flesh, treasures anger;

who will propitiate for his sins? (Sir 28:1-5)

Ben Sira provides a clear rationale for the claims he is making: since God’s honor is incomparably greater than our own, we must not treat affronts to our honor (concerning which we cherish grudges and for which we seek satisfaction) as more weighty than our affronts to God’s honor.  To do otherwise would be to offer God a double insult. The reasoning embedded in Jesus’ parable is very similar, expressed however using the financial metaphor of “debt” to speak about affronts to honor.  Ben Sira, moreover, has already articulated both the warning and the assurance that stand behind Jesus’ own reinforcement of  the petition, “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:14-15).[3]

            I dwell here on these examples to stress that the texts of the Apocrypha were used and exercised influence even in circles where they were not generally accorded canonical authority – and several were in a position to exercise such influence upon the founding leaders of the Christian movement.  Ben Sira was particularly well situated to exercise such influence.  He was a respected teacher, the head of a school in Jerusalem in the early part of the second century B.C.E., who had committed a sizeable sampling of his instruction to writing.  It continued to be read in the land of Israel.  Physical evidence for this exists in the form of a small fragment of his work found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and a fragment containing several chapters found at Masada.[4]  Literary evidence for this exists in the form of the clear imprint his work has left in rabbinic literature, where it is sometimes (against the prevailing view, to be sure) cited as carrying scriptural authority.[5] It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some of Ben Sira’s teachings may have filtered through to pious Jews, like the family of Jesus and his brothers, who were raised and taught in the synagogues of Judea and Galilee.  This particular text, however, was also made available to Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt by virtue of the efforts of Ben Sira’s grandson, who translated it “for those living abroad who wished to gain learning and are disposed to live according to the law” (Prologue to Ben Sira, NRSV), thence to be disseminated first to other Greek-speaking Diaspora communities and then to the assemblies of Christ-followers who were birthed therefrom.

The Use of the Apocrypha for Ethical Guidance

            The books of the Apocrypha would continue to be mined by the early church for the ethical value of the instructions included therein, perhaps motivated in part by the growing recognition on the part of its leaders of the consonance of these instructions with the ethical teachings of Jesus, James, and other voices preserved in the texts that were emerging as part of a New Testament canon.  Indeed, the New Testament texts could be seen to endorse a good deal of material found in the books of the Apocrypha but not explicitly present in the books of the Hebrew Bible.  This might help to account for the elevation of the value of the former alongside the latter in early Christian communities (who were clearly open to affirming the value and even authority of texts outside the emerging Jewish canon, given the very fact of a New Testament).

The promotion of almsgiving, the rationales for the practice, and the specific advice found in Tobit and Ben Sira, for example, continue to appear in early Christian exhortations.  Thus Polycarp in the early second century echoes Tobit’s promise that “charity delivers one from death” (Polycarp, Phil. 10.2; cf. Tob. 4:10).[6]  The nearly contemporary church manual known as the Didache admonishes Christians not to be like “one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving” (Didache 4.5; see also Epistle of Barnabas 19.9), repeating Ben Sira’s instructions (Sir. 4:31); Didache 1.6 also cites a proverb, “Let your gift sweat in your hands until you know to whom you give,” which recalls an admonition from Ben Sira: “If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds” (Sir. 12:1).  The older sage had advised showing charitable generosity only to the righteous poor; the compilers of the Didache utilize the proverb to urge being a good steward of charity, taking care to bestow it on the genuinely needy.  Both Ben Sira and Tobit had promoted almsgiving as an atonement for sins (Sir. 3:30; Tob. 12:9), a motivation that also persists in Christian teaching (Did. 4.6). Gaudentius of Brescia (fl. 395) shows how well the ethical teaching of Tobit and Jesus might be combined in the early church as affirms the atoning power of almsgiving and connects this with Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “Not out of malice but out of providence has God made you rich.  He intended that through your works of mercy you would again find medicine to treat the wounds of your sins.  ‘Certainly alms freely given preserve one from death and purify from every sin.’  The rich man was not tormented because he was rich but because Lazarus suffered hunger while he feasted.”[7] Examples of how Ben Sira and Tobit’s ethical precepts pervaded early Christian discourse could be multiplied exponentially.[8]

            Early Christian writers frequently look to the characters encountered in the Apocrypha as models for piety (which was itself a cardinal value in Greco-Roman ethics).  Already at the end of the first century, Clement of Rome presents Judith alongside Esther as examples of women who, “being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed many manly deeds” (1 Clem. 55.3), pointing to their piety as the root of their strength.  He was clearly reading the expanded, Greek edition of Esther, for he marks Esther’s preparation, how “through her fasting and her humiliation she entreated the all-seeing Master, the God of the ages” (1 Clem. 55.4-6).  Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) similarly holds up Esther, with her “perfect prayer to God,” as a model of the faith and service to the cause of God and his people to which Christians of both genders can attain (Strom. 4.19).  His student, Origen (c. 185-254), likewise points to Tobit and Azariah as models for proper prayer, mingling petition with praise of God, though he adds the example of Hannah from 1 Samuel specifically because the authority of the additions to Daniel and of Tobit are disputed ( On Prayer 14.4).  Cyprian of Carthage (fl. 250) commends the example of Tobit to parents among his congregations, who should be as attentive to giving their children sound instructions for life and piety (Works and Almisgiving 20).

            A number of texts from the Apocrypha not only modeled prayer for the faithful but entered into early Christian liturgical practice.  Most notable among these is the Prayer of Manasseh, a moving penitential psalm, that is preserved and prescribed for use in the Didascalia (3rd c.) and the Apostolic Constitutions (4th c.).  The Prayer of Manasseh appears alongside the two liturgical additions to Daniel, namely the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, in a book entitled “Odes” in the fifth-century Greek Bible now known as Codex Alexandrinus.  The book consists of liturgical pieces culled from the whole of scripture (along with an additional “Morning Hymn”) and appears immediately following the book of Psalms as a kind of early “hymnal supplement.”

            A cluster of texts among the Apocrypha address the issue of Gentile religious practice and seek to reinforce their Jewish (especially Diaspora Jewish) readers’ insulation against thinking that there might be something to such practice, since so many of their neighbors carry out their rites with such evident devotion.  These texts would include the Letter of Jeremiah (a short but potent tirade), portions of Wisdom of Solomon 13-15 (a more thoughtful attempt at deconstruction), and the tale of Bel and the Dragon (a more satirical, even farcical, presentation of the theme).  Christian leaders found these works equally suitable for encouraging the Christian heirs to the Jewish commitment to one and only one God to persevere in abstaining from the religious practices around them (indeed, that many of them had personally left behind).  Wisdom of Solomon sought to delegitimate Greco-Roman idolatrous cults by explaining their very human origins, for example in the desire of the bereaved to memorialize their dead or the desire to flatter monarchs.  These explanations reappear in the work of Minucius Felix (Octavius 20.5; c. 200) and Lactantius (Inst. 2.2–3; c. 300). It is difficult to demonstrate a direct link, but the fact that Wisdom was widely read in the early church makes it the most likely source. Writing in the second century, Aristides drew upon the scathing logic of Letter of Jeremiah in his assault on Greco-Roman practice, centered on the impotence of idols to help themselves.  Their neighbors “shut [their gods] up together in shrines, and worship them, calling them gods, even though they have to guard them securely for fear they should be stolen by robbers. . . . If their gods are unfit to look after their own safety, how shall they bestow protection upon others?” (Apologia 3; cf. Let. Jer. 18, 49, 57–58).  After his own conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, Firmicus Maternus also attacked pagan religion reciting portions of the Letter of Jeremiah (De errore profanarum religionum 28.4–5; cf. Let. Jer.  5–10, 21–24, 28–31, 50–57).[9]

            It was, of course, precisely this withdrawal from their neighbors’ gods – this flagrant display of atheism, as their neighbors counted it – that early Christians from Gentile backgrounds met with increasing hostility.  Here, too, their shepherds found a great deal of inspiration and encouragement from the books of the Apocrypha to help them remain firm in their loyalty and commitment.  Tertullian (c. 225) recites Letter of Jeremiah 6—“Say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship’” —as the unshakable commitment that allowed Daniel’s three companions to face the bitter consequences of refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Scorpiace 8; cf. Dan. 3:16–18).  His near-contemporary Hippolytus read the tale of Susanna allegorically as a depiction of the contest of the early church against its pagan and Jewish antagonists, who sought to denounce and eliminate her.  He reads Susanna’s statement of her predicament and stance and finds there the plight of every Christian martyr: “I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands” (Susanna 22-23, NRSV).[10]

            By far the most important texts for Christian martyrs, however, were 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42 and 4 Maccabees, which focused on nine Jews who endured grisly tortures to the point of death rather than renounce their loyalty to the covenant God.  The story of these martyrs, woven as it was into the larger story of the Maccabean Revolt and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple celebrated annually during the festival of Hanukkah, were well known in Jewish circles and in early Christian communities.  The so-called Letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians who had endured significant deprivation and hardship as a result of their allegiance to Jesus, encouraging them to persevere in that allegiance.  As part of his exhortation, the author presents a series of exemplars of faith-in-action.  Toward the climax of this segment, he contrasts the faith of those mothers who received back their dead children through resuscitation (as in the stories of the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kgs. 17:17-24 and the Shunammite woman in 2 Kgs. 4:18-37) with that of “others [who] were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35, NRSV).  The author refers here to the martyrs known from 2 Macc 6:18-7:42, especially the seven brothers whose defiance of the tyrant is grounded in their conviction that God will restore their bodies in an everlasting existence as a reward for their faithfulness (2 Macc. 7:9, 11, 14, 23, 29), which is indeed “better” than resuscitation to the moribund life of this age.

            As hostility against the early church rose to the pitch of empire-wide persecutions in the third century, the example of these martyrs became ever more important and useful – even as Christian themselves were increasingly facing similarly gruesome experiences in the course of inquiries and executions.  Origen of Alexandria turned to their example during the emperor Maximin’s persecution of Christian clergy (c. 235) in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, written to encourage two young deacons named Ambrose and Protoktetos to remain steadfast in the face of torture and death (see Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.28).  Origen alternately paraphrased and recited portions of the account of the martyrs’ contest in 2 Macc 6:18-7:42 closely, notably referring to these as examples taken “from the Scripture” (Exh. 27), conferring that level of authority upon 2 Maccabees.  Origen also drew upon 4 Maccabees as a secondary resource throughout his Exhortation.  That text provided him with the images of the “noble contest” (4 Macc. 16:16) as well as the idea that the martyr’s death represented the “perfection” of a life nobly and faithfully lived (4 Macc. 7:15), both images by which he could encourage the deacons to face martyrdom not as victims but as active contenders and witness-bearers (Exh. 18, 28).  Origen also appeals to the same logic that one finds in 4 Maccabees, namely that showing loyalty to God to the point of death is an appropriate expression of gratitude to the Gog who gave the gift of life in the first place (Origen, Exh. 28; 4 Macc. 13:13; 16:18–19).[11]  During a persecution launched by Valerian in 256 CE, Cyprian of Carthage also turned to the story of the Maccabean martyrs (from 2 Maccabees) to encourage his congregations to hold fast for the sake of the faith (Exhortation to Martyrdom 11).  Their example was so valued that they rose to the stature of Christian saints, celebrated on August 1 – the only pre-Christian figures so honored.  While some objected to the practice, both Augustine and Chrysostom defended these martyrs’ right to recognition for having endured so bravely for piety’s sake even before Christ had overcome death and conquered its fearsomeness (thus Chrysostom, Sermon on Eleazar and the Seven Boys, 5; see also Augustine, City of God 18.36).

Christian teachers continued to return to 2 Maccabees 6-7 and, more especially, 4 Maccabees long after Constantine’s edicts of toleration quenched the flames of persecution.  With the threat of martyrdom removed, Christian leaders focused more explicitly on the original ethical goal that motivated the author of 4 Maccabees himself, namely to affirm God-centered reason’s mastery over the passions – the emotions, cravings, and sensations that could lead one to relinquish virtue and indulge vice. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), for example, drew extensively upon 4 Maccabees in his treatise On Jacob and the Blessed Life, promoting virtue and mastery of the passions as the marks of any life that could be called “happy” or “blessed.”  He opens his work with an elaborative paraphrase of 4 Macc. 1:1-3:18 (De Jacob 1.1.1-1.3.8) and, after finally discussing the example of the patriarch Jacob, returns to a lengthy reflection upon the contests of the nine martyrs, largely following 4 Maccabees but showing clear awareness of 2 Maccabees as well, to underscore the power that reason can exercise over the flood of the passions (De Jacob 2.10.43-2.12.57).  Ambrose, however, appears to draw a distinction between 4 Maccabees and canonical texts: as he transitions from the material he has borrowed and developed from 4 Maccabees, he states his intention to turn next to examples from “Scripture” that will also demonstrate the teachability of particular virtues (De Jacob 1.3.9).  This suggests that he did not think himself to be drawing upon “scriptural” resources up to that point.  At the same time, the distinction does not diminish the obvious value and utility he believes 4 Maccabees to possess for the edification of his Christian audience.

Gregory of Nazianzus (fl. 372-89) and John Chrysostom both preached sermons upon 4 Maccabees, applying its principal lesson to Christian audiences: the example of the martyrs’ victory over the most extreme pains and emotions should spur the hearers on to display the same endurance in resisting “anger, greed, lust, empty pride, and all other such things,” so that they might similarly be crowned before God (Gregory, Or. 15, In Maccabaeorem laudem; John Chrysostom, De Maccabaeos homiliae; De Eleazaro et de septum pueris; quote from Chrysostom, De Maccabaeos homiliae 1, 11). For all his own scruples concerning the precise authority that ought to be ascribed to these texts, Jerome also cites 4 Maccabees as proof that reason can “overcome and rule the disturbances of the soul” (Dialogus adversus Pelagianos 2.6). Fourth Maccabees thus comes to be used to support New Testament authors’ exhortations that Christians should contend against the “self with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:25) and against the “passions that wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11, my translation).[12]

Discovering Further Prophecies Concerning the Christ and His Work

Just as early Christians pored over the books of the Hebrew canon, reading the texts for intimations of the fulfillment of the scriptural hope that they had found in Jesus the Christ, they gave the same attention to other Jewish texts held in high esteem among them for signs that the shape of Jesus’ Messiahship was indeed the outworking of a divine plan announced long before. 

Several church fathers seized upon Baruch 3:35–37 as a prophecy of the incarnation – the scandalous notion that the immortal and immutable God would take on physical form: “This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. Afterward she [he?] appeared on earth and lived with humankind” (NRSV).  The NRSV (rightly) translates the subject of the last verse as “she,” understanding the verse to pick up on the career of “Wisdom.”  The Greek, however, does not specify the gender of the subject and most church fathers read the verse as a continuation of the action of God, the subject of the preceding verse.  Thus here, according to Irenaeus (for example), we find “the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by human beings and interacting with them on the earth” (Haer. 4.20.4).[13] Here was a prediction not merely of the appearance of a Messiah, but of the coming of a divine being in human flesh.  

            A passage in the Wisdom of Solomon – a product of the Hellenistic Jewish Diaspora that also has impressive parallels with Pauline texts (compare Rom. 1:18-32 with Wis 13:1–9; 14:22–27) – also attracted considerable attention as a prophecy about the suffering and degrading death that “the righteous one” would suffer. 

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord… and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture …. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” (Wis. 2:12-13, 16-20)

The author of Wisdom of Solomon was speaking about the mindset that possessed apostate Jews, who had become self-seeking animals, toward the Torah-observant Jews in their midst that were a living reproach to them.  His description of the righteous person as God’s son, however, and the plot to impose a shameful death upon this one, led Christians to see herein a reflection – indeed a prediction – of Jesus’ story.  Augustine, for example, found “the passion of Christ is most openly prophesied” here in a speech that could just as easily have been uttered by “his impious murderers” (City of God 17.20).[14] 

            Early church fathers found not only predictions about Christ but also about the work of the church and the consummation of God’s kingdom in several passages from the Apocrypha (alongside texts from the books of the Hebrew canon).  Augustine (Civ. 17.20) read the opening of a prayer in Ben Sira, in which the Jewish sage asked God to “put all the nations in fear of you” and make them come to “know, as we have known, that there is no God but you” (Sir. 36:1-5) as a prophecy “in the form of a wish and a prayer.”  The fulfillment came not through God’s intervention to consume the nations in God’s wrath, but through God’s intervention to illumine them with the light of God in Christ, fulfilled in the church’s proclamation of the good news among the nations.  In his dispute with those who held that God’s kingdom was a spiritual, heavenly reality only, Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) cited the vision of the restored Jerusalem in Baruch 4:36-5:9 as proof that God would yet establish his kingdom on earth, for God would “show [Jerusalem’s] splendor everywhere under heaven” (5:3; see Adv. Haer. 5.35.1-2). His use of Baruch in a theological debate far from incidentally shows that he himself regarded this book to carry the authority accorded scripture and that he expected that his disputants would as well.  Along with the Letter of Jeremiah, Baruch tended to be regarded as an extension of Jeremiah’s own prophetic work, since Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe (Jer. 36:4-10, 26, 32).  This is indeed Irenaeus’s assumption in the passage in question, but it was pervasive in the early church (see also Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 1.10.91–92; Lactantius, Inst. 4.38; Methodius, Symposium of the Ten Virgins 8.3; Fulgentius of Ruspe, Letters 17.10.18; Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 4.42; John Chrysostom, Commentary on Isaiah 1.3).  The result was that even some church fathers who regarded Tobit and Ben Sira, for example, to occupy a second tier of authority tended to accept Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah as part of Jeremiah’s corpus (along with the longer, Greek forms of Daniel and Esther).

The Use of the Apocrypha for Early Christian Theology

            While Jerome would urge that the books of the Apocrypha be read for general edification but not for the development or confirmation of doctrine, these books had already made (and would continue to make) significant contributions to the emerging theology of the church. One can find traces of this process at work already within the writings of the New Testament themselves as their authors continued to reflect upon the person and work of Jesus.  As Christian thinkers pushed beyond regarding Jesus as merely “born” but also as having been “sent” in some sense prior to that birth, they found the raw material for their expressions concerning the pre-incarnate being and activity of the Son in Jewish texts reflecting on the figure of “Wisdom.” Proverbs already presented Wisdom in personified form inviting disciples to seek her and speaking about her role beside God in creation itself (see esp. Prov. 8:22-31).  The author of Wisdom of Solomon, writing within a few decades of the turn of the era, had developed this theology of Wisdom considerably farther.  Writing in the persona of Solomon, the famed student of Wisdom, he says:

“Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me…. because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wis. 7:22, 24-26 NRSV)

The relationship of Wisdom to God gave early Christian theologians the images they needed to speak about the relationship of the pre-incarnate Son to the Father.  In one of his most elevated reflections about the Son, Paul speaks of him as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), attributing to the Son agency in creation and the ordering of creation (Col. 1:16-17).  The author of Hebrews, also within Paul’s circle (see Heb. 13:23), also speaks of the Son as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” and as the agent through whom creation happened (Heb. 1:2-3, NRSV).  Both authors attribute to the Son an ongoing role in sustaining or governing creation, as the older text did in regard to the figure of Wisdom (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; Wis. 7:27; 8:1). Immediately after the New Testament period, Ignatius of Antioch used material from Wis. 7:29–30 and 18:14–15 when he spoke of Christ’s manifestation (Ign. Eph. 19.2–3; Ign. Magn. 8.2).

            Christian theologians through the fourth century (and beyond) would continue to return to this passage from Wisdom alongside texts whose authority was not in dispute as they worked out their positions on the relationship between the persons of the Trinity – positions that came to be enshrined in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.  In their debate with the Arian position, the equation of the Son with Wisdom proved particularly useful.  Ambrose, for example, wrote:

“Arius asserts that the Father is different from the Son.  He maintains that the Father generated someone who is different from him, as though he were incapable of generating someone like himself.  The prophets say, “In your light we see light.”  They say, “He is a reflection [or, “he is the radiance”] of the eternal light, an unspotted mirror of the majesty of God and an image of his goodness.”  See in how many ways they speak.  “Radiance,” because the brightness of the Father’s light is in the Son.  “Unspotted mirror,” since the Father is visible in the Son.  “Image of his goodness,” since it is not one body seen reflected in another but the whole power of the Godhead in the Son.  “Image” teaches that here is no difference.” (On the Christian Faith 1.7.48-49; tr. Voicu, Apocrypha, 99).

Ambrose includes Wisdom among the books of prophetic inspiration.  Its figure of the relationship between a light source and the light emitted was critically important for establishing the equality and the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son.  Thus Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) reasoned that if the Son is “an emanation of the power of God” (Wis 7:25), as the “radiance” from God’s light (Heb 1:3), the Son and the Father must share in the same eternal nature since an eternal light source will eternally emit radiance (To Dionysius of Rome 4).  The Son is thus “eternally begotten of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God,” in the words of the Creed – words that would come to enshrine the phrase inspired by reflections such as those by Dionysius:

“Because the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, since he is light from light… God is light, Christ is radiance” (To Dionysius of Rome 4).[15] 

            These same metaphors bespeak the identity of the unity of essence shared by the Father and the Son, such that they are not two beings, but one.  As Augustine would argue, again on the basis of Wisdom of Solomon, “It is said of his wisdom that ‘it is the splendor of the eternal light’… If you could separate the sun’s splendor from the sun itself, so also could you separate the Word from the Father” (Tract. in Joh. 20.13).[16] Thus Wisdom supported the affirmation of the Creed that, the Son is “of one being with the Father.”  Against the claim that the Fourth Gospel’s depiction of the Son as “sent” by the Father (see, famously, John 3:16) implies the Son’s inferiority or subordination to the Father, Augustine argued that “the Son is sent, not because he is not equal to the Father but because he is ‘a pure emanation of the light of God’ almighty.  Here what is emanated and that from which it emanates are of one, identical being,” and therefore exhibit complete equality (On the Trinity 4.20.27).[17] Similarly, Quodvultdeus (fl. 430) argues that the Son “reaches in strength from one corner of the earth to the other, ordering all things well” – applying Wis. 8:1 to the Son – argues for the Son’s equality with the Father, as he displays the same omnipresence and omnipotence (On the New Song 7.1-17). Wisdom of Solomon thus proved very useful for the affirmation of core Christian doctrines concerning the Trinity and the person of Christ.[18]

Conclusion: The Authority of the Apocrypha in the Early Church

            The widespread use of these texts generated conversations about their level of authority, and it is important to recognize that many of those early voices that believed they should be accorded a level of authority below that of other books nevertheless continued to use them regularly for a wide variety of pastoral ends. A major question in this conversation concerned whether the decisions made by Jewish community concerning the canonical scriptures that would enjoy the highest level of authority among them ought to inform Christian decisions about the extent of their “Old Testament.” 

Melito of Sardis (d. 190) answered the question in the affirmative, for the narrower canon emerged in “the place where it all happened and the truth was proclaimed” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.26.7).[19]  Jerome (d.420) would champion this position as a result of his own close study of the Hebrew texts and canon (having learned Hebrew there from a resident rabbi) during his years resident in Bethlehem working on the Latin translation that would become known as the Vulgate. At issue here was not only the question of books like Tobit and Ben Sira, which stood completely outside the Hebrew canon, but also those parts or textual traditions of books that differed from the forms in the Hebrew canon.  Thus in his prefaces to Daniel and Esther, for example, Jerome carefully noted the absence of large portions of both from the Hebrew text that he himself regarded as the authoritative form.  Jerome nevertheless affirmed a place for the outside books, which he designated “ecclesiastical” rather than “apocryphal” in light of their longstanding use in and value to the Christian Church. 

            In an important exchange of letters between Julius Africanus and Origen (d. 254), Origen affirmed that usage in the Christian churches was a more important factor in determining the canonical authority that books or forms of books should enjoy.  While he was himself deeply aware of the differences between the Hebrew and Greek text traditions of the Old Testament as a result of his work on his Hexapla, he argued that it would be wrong to abandon the forms of Daniel and Esther that had nurtured Christian communities for over a century and a half.  His final word is theological, to trust the providence of the God who had redeemed the Christian churches at the cost of his own Son’s death in regard to the textual tradition that had come down to those churches (Epistula ad Africanum 4-5). 

            Augustine fervently championed the scriptural authority of the disputed books against the claims of his contemporary, Jerome.  In his On Christian Doctrine, he affirmed that canonical authority must be determined by usage among the Christian churches.  Those books that were accorded such authority by all or a majority of churches were to be regarded as canonical, that is, the measure by which other books and statements concerning Christian faith and practice are to be evaluated.  Where there is some dispute, the opinion of the largest number of churches, particularly where those of weightiest authority agree, was to be followed (2.8.12).  He therefore listed Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and the Wisdom of Solomon among the books of the Old Testament, as these had broadly gained “recognition as being authoritative” (2.8.13).  The additions to Daniel and Esther were naturally included in the form of each book used in the West.  The Third Council of Carthage would affirm Augustine’s position in 397 CE.

            The boundaries of the Christian Old Testament would continue to display some flexibility, as evidenced by the slightly different contents of the three great surviving Septuagint codices from the 4th and 5th centuries. Nevertheless, esteem for, and the use and influence of, the collection that would come to be called “the Apocrypha” continued despite ongoing discussion of their canonical authority, even in the early history of the Protestant churches led by the great Reformers.[20] 


[1] Jude’s recitation of 1 Enoch 1.9 (see Jude 14-15) is a noteworthy exception, though there he refers to a text that stands outside of the standard collection we call “Apocrypha.”

[2] On the authenticity of these sayings, see D. A. deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Oxford and New York: Oxford University, 2012), 72-74 and the literature therein discussed.

[3] For further discussion of Ben Sira and his potential influence on the teachings both of Jesus and his half-brother James, see deSilva, Jewish Teachers, 58-85; on the potential influence of several of the Apocrypha across the New Testament, see D. A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Content, and Significance (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 8-14, 79-81, 157-59, 206-10.

[4] The five fragments of the book of Tobit found among the Dead Sea Scrolls provide physical evidence that this text was also read in Israel during the time of Jesus and the growth of his movement there.

[5] See Solomon Schechter “The Quotations from Ecclesiasticus in Rabbinic Literature,” JQR 3 (1891): 682–706; J. R. Labendz, “The Book of Ben Sira in Rabbinic Literature,” AJSR 30 (2006): 347–92; Lee McDonald, The Formation of the Biblical Canon.  Volume 1: The Old Testament (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 396-400. 

[6] Quotations from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

[7] Trans. Voicu, Apocrypha, 27.

[8]See the collection of excerpts from the patristic period citing and interpreting Tobit and Ben Sira in Voicu, Apocrypha, 1-33, 176–415.

[9] Carey D. Moore, Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1977), 324.

[10] See Hippolytus, Comm. Dan. 1.14.4–6; 1.20.1–3; 1.23.23; texts in Voicu, Apocrypha, 462–65.  P. Boitani (“Susanna in Excelsis,” pp. 7-19 in E. Spolsky, ed., The Judgment of Susanna [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996], 11–17) offers a helpful discussion.

[11] On the possible influence of 4 Maccabees on the reflections of, or upon, the earlier Christian martyrs Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110) and Polycarp of Smyrna (d. 154), see deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 420-21. 

[12] On the influence of 2 and 4 Maccabees, see further: Raphaëlle Ziadé, Les martyrs Maccabées: de l’histoire juive au culte chretien: Les homelies de Gregoire de Nazianze et de Jean Chrysostome (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkowski, Christian Memories of the Maccabean Martyrs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); D. A. deSilva, Fourth Maccabees and the Promotion of the Jewish Philosophy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020), 182-210. Translations of the major patristic works are available in John J. O’Meara,Origen: Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom (Westminster, MD.: Newman, 1954); St. Ambrose, Seven Exegetical Works (tr. Michael P. McHugh; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1972); St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations (tr. Martha Vinson; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017); and St. John Chrysostom, The Cult of the Saints: Selected homilies and letters (tr. Wendy Mayer; Yonkers, NY: Vladimir Press, 2006).

[13] Translation from Voicu, Apocrypha, 432.  See also Athenagoras, Legatio pro Christianis 9; Cyprian, Exhortation to Martyrdom 2.6; Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.13; Epitome 44; Athanasius, Against the Arians, Discourse 1, 13.53; Discourse 2, 19.49; Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith 1.3.28, 2.9.80; Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 2.2; 19.12; Apostolic Constitutions 5.3.20; Gregory of Nazianzen, Or. 30.13; Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 4.42; 5.39; Jerome, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed 5; Quodvultdeus, The Book of Promises and Predictions of God 3.3; Augustine, Civ. 18.33. Voicu (Apocrypha, 416–38) provides a good sampling of excerpts.

[14] See also Origen, Homilies on Exodus 6.1; Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 11.2; Hilary of Poitiers, Homilies on the Psalms 41.12; Ambrose, Expositions on the Psalms 35.3; Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms 48.1.11.  Most of these passages may be found in Voicu, Apocrypha, 49-52.

[15] Trans. from Voicu, Apocrypha, 99.

[16] Trans. from Voicu, Apocrypha, 100. See also Ambrose, On the Christian Faith, 1.7.48-49; Gregory of Elvira, On the Faith 5; Augustine, On the Trinity 4.20.27. 

[17] Trans. from Voicu, Apocrypha, 100.

[18]See further the fine discussion of the use of Wisdom in the patristic period in Moyna McGlynn, Divine Judgement and Divine Benevolence in the Book of Wisdom (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeckm 2001), 237–45.

[19] Eusebius, The History of the Church (tr. G. A. Williamson; London: Penguin, 1965), 189.

[20] For a fuller account of the question of the level of authority accorded the books of the Apocrypha in the synagogue and church, see deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 14-30.