What Is the Jewish Approach to the Apocrypha?
The word “apocrypha” originates from the Greek and Latin words for “secret” or “non-canonical.” It is commonly used to refer to ancient, mostly Second Temple–era works that are “outside” of the Jewish Bible.1
The Apocrypha includes, but is not limited to, works such as Sirach (BenSira), Maccabees, Judith, the book of Enoch, Jubilees, the story of Susanna, and Baruch.
Some of these works were known to us all along, and others were recently discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran Caves and in the Cairo Genizah, both of which had preserved ancient Jewish manuscripts.
The 24 books of the Bible (Tanach) were canonized by the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”), which included some of the greatest Jewish scholars and leaders of the time, such as Ezra the Scribe, and even the last of the prophets, namely Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. With the death of these prophets, the age of prophecy came to an end.2 Any later works are not considered Divinely inspired, and are therefore not included in the 24 books of the holy Scriptures.3
While none of the books of the Apocrypha are considered to be Divinely inspired and are therefore not included in Jewish scripture, the question of whether they have any value from a Jewish perspective is a bit more nuanced.
Is the Apocrypha Kosher?
On the one hand, we find statements in the Talmud that seem to prohibit one from even reading these works.4 On the other hand, the Talmud5 and other Jewish works6 do on occasion cite specifics works of the Apocrypha.
Some commentators explain that the Talmud’s prohibition relates to giving these books a holy status and/or the same status as Scripture, but that one may read (some of) them.7 Others explain that the prohibition was especially in force in the earlier generations, closer to the time the Apocrypha was written. Since these works were written in the style of Scripture, there was a fear that some would mistakenly surmise that they were included in it.8
Even if we were to ascertain that a certain book would be “kosher,” the surviving versions of many of these works are translations from the Greek or Latin versions, which were themselves originally translated from Hebrew or Aramaic, with many additions and deletions along the way.
When discussing the Jewish view on the Apocrypha, it is helpful to split it up into three categories:
1. Antithetical to Jewish Scripture
Some of these books contain stories or ideas that contradict Scripture and/or Jewish thought. This category includes works such as the Story of Susanna (which, among other things, gives an erroneous portrayal of Jewish law, such as the laws of false witnesses), as well as the books of Enoch and Jubilees (in that they portray the dynamics between angels, G‑d and men in a way that is contrary to Judaism), as well as various other works.
2. Historically Valuable Information
Then there are the books that may not be sacred, but are useful in that they provide valuable information, not unlike history books. This category includes works such as 1 and 2 Maccabees (as opposed to 3 and 4 Macc., which would probably fit into the previous category), as well as Judith. Since these books are not Divinely inspired, there is no assurance that their contents are fully accurate, and they are given about the same weight as any other book of history.
3. Sirach—Book of Ecclesiasticus
Deserving a category of its own is the book of Sirach (Ben Sira), which the Talmud itself quotes a number of times. Also called the “Wisdom of Sirach,” it would seem that of all the books of the Apocrypha, this work got the closest to being included in the canon. We know when Ben Sira lived, since at the very end of the book9 he praises the high priest Shimon Hatzaddik, who was one of the last members of the Great Assembly.10
It should be noted, however, that some of the quotes found in the Talmud from Ben Sira aren’t found in the version of the work commonly included in the Apocrypha. That work is actually a Greek translation made by Ben Sira’s grandson in the 2nd century BCE. The original Hebrew version had been lost for many years, and has been found only in the last century (in the Cairo Genizah and among the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Why was it not included in Tanach? Besides for the fact that it was written after the end of the age of prophecy,11 some of the teachings contained in the work were deemed not to be in sync with Jewish values. However, it appears that the rabbis considered at least some of the teachings to have value—if understood properly.12
The Apocrypha isn’t Divinely inspired, and is therefore not part of the canon, and some of its works are even antithetical to Judaism. Other works may indeed contain some valuable information, but they aren’t given any more credence than any other book, and be aware that there have been various additions and deletions made throughout the ages.