Q. What are the apocryphal books of the Bible? I have read that they were eliminated from the Bible centuries ago, and that they should be restored and again be part of the Scriptures. Is that true? If so, why hasn’t that happened? (Michigan)
A. There’s a good bit of misinformation underlying the questions you ask. Christian documents we call the apocrypha are not and, with perhaps one or two exceptions, never were considered part of Scripture. Generally, they owe their existence to two "needs."
During the first Christian generations, many believers, just as lots of Christians today, were excessively curious about details of our Lord’s life that the four Gospels don’t touch:
What did Jesus do during his years at home in Nazareth? How did Mary take care of him? Who were their friends and relatives? When did Joseph die, and where did Mary live her final years? Some people used their vivid imagination, based perhaps on a bit of information they discovered, attempting to answer such questions.
In addition, a few early dissenters from the common teachings of the first church communities, particularly various Gnostic sects, needed "authentic" documents to support their theories, which did not harmonize with the four Gospels, the letters of St. Paul and other accepted New Testament books.
The apocrypha (totaling a few dozen texts) grew up in response to those wishes.
Originally, most were considered too sacred to be exposed openly for everyone to read. Later, they took on the more common meaning today: books that are false, to be rejected as outside the canon of authentic, foundational Christian texts.
To gain wider acceptance, the documents — the gospels of Peter and Thomas, the Acts of Andrew, the Apocalypse of Mary, and so on — were usually attributed to one of the apostles or other well-established Christian figures.
The process by which the early church determined the authentic biblical texts was too complex to describe here. Very simply, we believe that, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the living Christian communities in those early centuries gradually discerned which of the numerous Christian documents floating around were the authentic word of God and constituted the norm or rule for Christian faith.
Anyone familiar with the New Testament, however, will quickly recognize the superficial, even bizarre, nature of most of the apocryphal texts. They include cryptic "sayings" of Jesus, odd legends (one describes how the boy Jesus formed a bird out of mud and made it fly away) and much which simply includes material already in the New Testament.
Some writers, as apparently the ones you refer to, claim that apocryphal books are not in the Bible only because of whim and jealousies between conflicting factions in the early church.
One scholar of Christian history suggests that the best response is to let the books tell their own story: "It will very quickly be seen that there is no question of anyone’s having excluded them from the New Testament; they have done that for themselves."
At one level of history, however, these documents do provide valuable insights into the cultural, political and daily circumstances of biblical times, even perhaps some genuine information about the family of Jesus. The only source we have, for example, that Joachim and Anna were the names of Mary’s parents, or that the "brethren of the Lord" were the children of Joseph by a former wife, is the apocryphal gospel of James.
Christian art through the centuries draws heavily from apocryphal legends, as did Alighieri Dante in his scenes of hell, purgatory and heaven in the Divine Comedy.
Finally, we should note again that a few books in Catholic Scripture are treated as apocrypha, noncanonical, in many Protestant Bibles.
The late Father Dietzen was a columnist for Catholic News Service. He died March 27, 2011, shortly after this column was published..