Apocryphal Books in the Catholic Bible: A Brief Summary

Book Review
  • Approximate Time Commitment: 15 minutes

This book review was written by Hank Griffith of South Suburban Evangelical Free Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota.

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Introduction: The New American Bible, the English version that most Catholics in the US use today, includes seven apocryphal or what they would call “deutero-canonical books.” These are books that were not in the Palestinian Canon, thus not accepted as inspired by either Jews or Protestants. Below is a brief summary of each of them:

The Book of Tobit is included in the historical section of the Catholic Old Testament right after Nehemiah. It’s named after its principal hero. The book combines specifically Jewish piety and morality with oriental folklore in a fascinating story. Tobit was a devout and wealthy Israelite living among the captives deported to Nineveh from the northern kingdom of Israel in 721. He suffers many reverses and is finally blinded. He sends his son Tobiah home to bring back a wife (Sarah) from there. Sarah had lost seven husbands on her wedding night because of the demon Asmodeus. Tobiah and Sarah pray that this won’t happen again so God sends his angel Raphael in disguise to help them, as well as to help Tobiah’s father Tobit. A fish heart and liver are used to drive the demon Admodeus from the wedding chamber. Tobiah then rubs the fish’s gall into his father’s eyes to heal him of his blindness at which time Tobit tells his son and daughter-in-law to leave Nineveh because it’s going to be punished. … It’s a fascinating story that perhaps has some lessons to teach us. However, it’s quite fanciful and combines pagan elements that we don’t see in other books of the Bible.

The Book of Judith is also in the historical section of the Catholic Old Testament. It’s a vivid story of how God delivered His people the Jews through a woman named Judith. An unknown writer composed this story. It’s said to have taken place during the second century B.C. or at the beginning of the first century B.C. The book is the interesting story of a beautiful widow, Judith, who uses her beauty to entice a pagan king, Holofernes, and eventually, with the help of the Lord whom she calls on, to behead him in his bedroom with his own sword, thereby procuring a great victory for the Jews. This story of divine providence is interesting and somewhat edifying, but its history doesn’t correspond to the history of the Jews of this period. Scholars believe the story was written as a pious reflection on the meaning of the yearly Passover observance. It draws its inspiration from the Exodus narrative, especially Ex. 14: 31, and from parts of Isaiah and Psalms portraying the special intervention of God for the preservation of Jerusalem. It can be divided into three sections: the peril of the Jews (1:1 -7:32), the deliverance of the Jews (8:1-14:10), and victory (14:11 – 16:25.)

The First Book of Maccabees is also in the historical section of the Catholic Old Testament. The name Maccabee means “the hammer.” This name was only applied to one man “Judas,” the third son of the priest Mattathias and first leader of the revolt against the Seleucid kings who persecuted the Jews. First Maccabees was written about 100 B.C. in Hebrew, but it has come down to us through an early pre-Christian, Greek translation full of Hebrew idioms.  The author’s purpose is to record the rescuing of Israel which God worked through the family of Matthias. It’s noteworthy that “God” is not mentioned in the book, but rather “heaven” is (in the prayers of the Jews). The book is not the most interesting; it seems almost repetitive as it tells of one war after the other in this period in Jewish history. In addition to the history recorded in the book, it has seven poetic sections.  The theme of the First Book of Maccabees seems to be not just the conflict between Jews and Gentiles, but the conflict between those who uphold the law and those who do not.

The Second Book of Maccabees is also in the historical section of the Old Testament. It is not a sequel to 1 Maccabees; the two differ in many aspects. Whereas 1st Maccabees covers the period from the beginning of the reign of Antiochus IV (around 175 B.C.) to the accession of John Hyrcanus 1 (134 B.C.),  2nd Maccabees treats the events in Jewish history from the time of the high priest Onias III and King Seleucus IV (around 180 B.C.) to the defeat of Nicanor’s army (161 B.C.) The author states that his book is an abridgement of a certain (unknown) five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene. This book has some historical value in supplementing 1 Maccabees, and it contains some apparently authentic documents 11:16-38.) Its purpose is to give a theological interpretation to the history of the period.  There is less interest, therefore, in the actual exploits of Judas Maccabeus than in God’s marvelous interventions, which makes it more edifying to read than 1 Maccabees. It focuses on God’s interventions to punish the sacrilegious and blasphemous pagans, and to purify God’s holy temple and restore it to His faithful people. There are some exaggerations of figures in the book. Of theological importance are the author’s teachings on (1) the resurrection of the just on the last day (7:9, 11:14,23, and 14:46), (2) the intercession of the saints in heaven for people on earth (15:11-16), and (3) the power of the living to offer prayers and sacrifices for the dead (12:39-46.) The main divisions of the book are (1) letters to Jews in Egypt (1:1-2:18); (2) the author’s preface (2:19-32); (3) Heliodorus’ attempt to profane the Temple (3:1-40); (4) profanation and persecution (4:1- 7:42); (5) victories of Judas and purifications of the Temple (8:1-10); (6) renewed persecution (10:9-15), (7) epilogue (15:37-39).

The Book of Wisdom, included in the poetic section of the Catholic Old Testament, was written about 150 B.C. by an unknown author who was a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote in Greek but in a Hebrew style. At times he speaks in the person of Solomon, placing his teachings on the lips of the wise king. He had a profound knowledge of the Old Testament which is reflected in what he wrote. The primary purpose of the writer was the edification of other Jews of the period in a time when they had experienced suffering and oppression, in part at the hands of apostate fellow Jews. To convey his message he made use of the most popular religious themes of his time, namely the splendor and worth of divine wisdom, the glorious events of the exodus, God’s mercy, the folly of idolatry, and the manner in which God’s justice is vindicated in rewarding or punishing the individual soul. The first ten chapters are said to form a preparation for the fuller teaching of Christ and His Church.  Many passages from the first chapters, especially 3:1-8, are used by the church in her liturgy. Most of the book could well fit in with the rest of the Bible and is rather edifying spiritually. It seems quite similar in many ways to Proverbs.

The Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, derives its name from the author, Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach. The author, a sage who lived in Jerusalem was thoroughly imbued with love for the law, the priesthood, the temple and divine worship. As a wise and experienced observer of life he addressed himself to his contemporaries with the motive of helping them to maintain religious faith and integrity through study of holy books and through tradition. The book contains numerous maxims formulated with care, grouped by affinity, and dealing with a variety of subjects such as the individual, the family, and the community in their relations with one another and with God. It treats friendship, education, poverty and wealth, the law, religious worship, and many other matters which reflect the religious and social customs of the time. It was written in Hebrew between 200 and 175 B.C. and translated into Greek sometime after 132 B.C. by the writer’s grandson who also wrote a foreword to the book. Though not included in the Hebrew Bible after the first century A.D., nor accepted by Protestants, the Book of Sirach has always been recognized by the Catholic Church as divined inspired and canonical. The Foreword, though not inspired, is placed in the Bible because of its antiquity and importance. The contents of Sirach are of a discursive nature and thus not easily divided into separate parts. The Catholic Church uses the Book of Sirach extensively in her liturgy. Most of the book is in line with the rest of the Bible, but there are certain verses that are not, for example: “He who honors his father atones for sin” (3:3); “In whatever you do be moderate, and no sickness will befall you” (31:22); “How awesome are you, ELIJAH! Whose glory is equal to yours” (48:4).

The Book of Baruch is placed right after Lamentations in the prophetic section of the Catholic Old Testament. It’s ascribed in it opening verses to Baruch, the well known secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. It contains five very different compositions, the first and the last in prose, the others in poetic form. The prose sections were certainly composed in Hebrew, though the earliest known form of the book is in Greek. An observance of the feast of Booths with a public prayer of penitence and petition (1:15-3:8), such as is supposed by the introduction (1:1-14) would not have been possible during the lifetime of Baruch after the fall of Jerusalem.  The purpose of this literary device is to portray for his own and later generations the spirit of repentance which prompted God to bring the Exile to an end. The lesson thus gained is followed by a hymn of praise of Wisdom (3:8- 9:4) exalting the Law of Moses as the unique gift of God to Israel, the observance of which is the way to life and peace. The ideal city of Jerusalem is then represented (4:5-29) as the solicitous mother of all exiles, who is assured in the name of God that all her children will be restored by her (4:30- 5:9). The final chapter is really a separate work, with a title of its own (6:1). It is patterned after the earlier letter of Jeremiah (Jer. 29) in the spirit of the warnings against idolatry contained in Jer. 10 and Is. 44. Its earnestness is impressive, but in restating previous inspired teachings at a later day, it does so with no special literary grace.  Thus, the principal divisions of the book are seen to be (1) prayer of the exiles (1:1-3, 8); (2) praise of wisdom in the law of Moses (3:9-4:4); (3) Jerusalem bewails and consoles her captive children (4:5-29); (4) Jerusalem consoled : the captivity about to end (4:30 – 5:9); (5) the letter of Jeremiah against idolatry (6:1-72.) In general, the teachings of the book of Baruch accords well with the rest of the Old Testament.


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