In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biblical Apocrypha

  • Introduction

Medieval Studies Biblical Apocrypha
Brian Murdoch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0108


The term “biblical apocrypha” is imprecise. What is not meant is what is commonly known as the Apocrypha, the (variable) group of books placed separately in some post-Reformation Bibles between the two Testaments. Those are works found in the 3rd-century BCE Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) but not accepted in the Hebrew canon, which was established later. When Jerome translated the Old Testament into Latin for his Vulgate, he included books (such as Judith), for which he had no Hebrew original, as deuterocanonical, a “second list” of nevertheless biblical books. The word apocrypha (Greek: “hidden things”) can imply simply “noncanonical,” but more specifically the term refers to noncanonical texts involving (or ascribed to) biblical personages, or expanding upon biblical books and events. Alternative terms used include pseudepigrapha (“spuriously attributed writings,” though this too is imprecise), midrash (Hebrew: “story”), generic designations such as apocalypse (many Old and New Testament apocrypha are apocalyptic), or blanket terms such as legend (or legend cycle). Recent studies refer to “the re-written Bible,” the “Bible in progress,” or (in the title of an important Festschrift) “the embroidered Bible.” The word apocryphus in medieval Latin means “uncertain,” “unreliable,” or “anonymous” or “pseudonymous.” Old Testament apocrypha may date from the 2nd century BCE to the early Middle Ages, New Testament apocrypha continued to be produced well into the medieval period, and some overlap exists between the two. Some Old Testament apocrypha are extant in Hebrew or Aramaic, but frequently the original is fragmentary or only presumed on philological grounds or external evidence. Surviving versions are often in Greek and were themselves often translated into one or more languages, such as Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, or Latin. The earliest New Testament apocrypha are in Greek or Latin. Relatively recent discoveries have confirmed the antiquity of some, other apocrypha not known in the Middle Ages have been identified, and Christian writers refer to now-lost apocrypha. The manuscript tradition of many Old and New Testament apocrypha, however, is medieval, and, unlike biblical texts, they were not subject to standardization. Many enjoyed wide circulation throughout the Middle Ages and were translated or adapted into vernacular languages. Sometimes the sole known text may be a medieval version in a language such as Slavonic or Irish. The often neglected but continued development of Old and New Testament apocrypha in the Middle Ages is important, as is the knowledge of these texts within different Eastern and Western medieval cultures. It is thus appropriate to consider individual apocryphal works, and then the various cultures in which they are located.

Canon, Apocrypha, and Status

Establishing a canon, a list of books with official status for church use, for each Testament took many centuries, with variations (made clear for the New Testament in Metzger 1987) between different churches. The New Testament canon remained local for some centuries. Rabbinic schools seem to have established by about 70–100 CE a canon for the Hebrew Old Testament, though disputes continued about some books. Those extra works included in the Septuagint Greek Old Testament were omitted, though the Christian tradition retained (some of) them as the deuterocanonical works. The Council of Carthage in 397 (and 419) established a New Testament canon more or less matching the present one. Lampe 1969 provides a good general introduction for the medievalist, and the essays in McDonald and Sanders 2002, and McDonald 2007 on the New Testament, are more detailed. A good summary of various aspects of the establishing of the canon is found in Harvey and Hunter 2008. The official status of the four canonical gospels was established relatively early; Hill 2010 is a deliberate counter to the sensationalism sometimes popularly attached to the existence of (a modest number of) gospels not given that status. There is a small group of works—including the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the epistles ascribed to Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and a few others—the position of which resembles that of the Old Testament deuterocanonical works in that they did enjoy canonical status in some churches and at some periods. They are usually referred to as the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (there are texts with a translation in Ehrman 2003), and they are not now normally considered as apocrypha. Even in modern Bibles the status of some texts remains unclear: the Vulgate, the version most used by medievalists in the West, has some appended apocryphal material (see Weber 1994). In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages a number of documents listed those works accepted as having canonical status, and in the early Middle Ages the most important text known (pseudepigraphically, in fact) as the Decretum Gelasianum, “Gelasian Decree” (or as De libris recipiendis et non recipiendis, “acceptable and nonacceptable books”) condemned specific, though not always securely identifiable, apocryphal writings. This work, as Dobschütz 1912 makes clear, was not an official list, however, and many of the texts remained known over a long period, though whether they were always recognized as having the status of apocrypha is questionable. Burke 2013 has tried to counter the sometimes distorted interest in apocrypha and pseudepigrapha encouraged by some recent popular fiction.

  • Burke, Tony. Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.

    Works like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code have led to a frequently uninformed interest in the concept of “secret writings,” which Burke sets out to correct with his readable introductory survey.

  • Dobschütz, Ernst von. Das Decretum Gelasianum. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1912.

    The most useful scholarly edition and study in German of the major early medieval document listing apocryphal works, pointing out that its ascription to Gelasius (and several other popes) is false, and locating it in the 6th century.

  • Ehrman, Bart D., trans. The Apostolic Fathers. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library 24–25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    The two-volume collection in the Greek section of the Loeb Classical Library contains all the texts (some of which were included in early Bible manuscripts) in a recent Greek/English parallel version, making it the most convenient edition.

  • Harvey, Susan Ashbrook, and David G. Hunter, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    The reference work contains a series of essays on authority and the Christian canon, as well as material on Christian apocrypha.

  • Hill, C. E. Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A readable and scholarly survey (the slightly sensationalist title is deliberate) examining the gradual achievement of prominence by the present canon of four gospels, and taking account of other New Testament apocrypha. The work has a useful glossary and notes, but no bibliography.

  • Lampe, G. W. H., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2, The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

    The second volume of the standard work on the growth of the Bible and the different versions is especially useful on the various versions of Jerome’s Vulgate in the Middle Ages.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.

    Provides a clear and detailed introduction to the Old and New Testament canons, and discusses the dates by which the canons were accepted.

  • McDonald, Lee Martin, and James A. Sanders, eds. The Canon Debate. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

    The collection contains a large number of detailed essays on pseudepigrapha in the early church, and also on the Old and New Testament canon.

  • Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

    This is a standard work, a very full study looking in detail at Eastern and Western canons, and at their variability.

  • Weber, Robert, ed. Biblia Sacra: Iuxta Vulgatam versionem. 4th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

    The standard modern edition of the Vulgate, which contains the deuterocanonical texts in any case, but which also has an appendix of works with apocryphal status (containing more texts than the 1592 “Clementine” Vulgate). First edition published 1969.

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