The Canon and Extra-Canonical Writings

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21). These two verses are the alpha and omega of the biblical text, the first and last verses in our Bible. In between (and including) these two verses lays God’s Word, the Bible—sixty-six generally accepted books composing one book that defines Christianity and its tenets. However, people assault this composition from every perspective. Theists and atheists alike attack its inspiration. Scholars in our universities attack its message. Infidels and skeptics allege that it contains numerous discrepancies. Even its make-up is subject to intense scrutiny. With attacks growing more hostile (as is evident by an article titled “The Lost Gospels” that appeared in the December 22, 2003 issue of Time magazine; see Van Biema, 2003), some ask, “What books really belong in the Bible?”

This question is difficult for many people, because beyond the pages of the Bible lie a number of works which some people hold as inspired and therefore worthy of inclusion. Still others examine the Scriptures and read citations of works such as the Book of Jasher or the Acts of the Seers—none of which is included among the writings of our Great Tome. Some people turn to these existing, but unaccepted, works to “add to their faith.” The answers to this difficulty lie in understanding the canon of the Bible and considering what additional books, if any, we should include.


Our word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon and Hebrew word qaneh. These two words originally meant “reed.” The Greeks and Semitic peoples used reeds as measuring instruments, and so the meanings of kanon and qaneh changed gradually into “rule” or “measure.” To refer to a canon is to refer to those things that have been measured for acceptance; to refer to the biblical canon is to refer to the books considered Scripture—divinely inspired works that have been preserved for a purpose (Lightfoot, 2003, p. 152). The canons of the Old and New Testaments were set at different times, but each one had the influence of the Guiding Hand.

Development of the Old Testament Canon

The majority of Protestant translations of the Bible contain thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. These are divided into the five books of Law (also called the Pentateuch or Torah; Genesis through Deuteronomy), twelve books of History (Joshua through Esther), and five books of Poetry (Job through the Song of Solomon). The five Major Prophets (Isaiah through Daniel) and the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) complete the thirty-nine books. Our Old Testament canon comes from the canon of the Hebrew Bible. [NOTE: Some Old Testament canons include certain apocryphal writings, which we will discuss later. However, these apocryphal writings were considered non-canonical by the Jews, and therefore were not included in the Hebrew Bible.]

The Hebrews divided their Scriptures, twenty-four books total, into three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (also called the Hagiographa or Holy Writings). The order and numbering of the Hebrew Bible is different from the Old Testament, which explains why they list twenty-four books, while we list thirty-nine. The Law consisted of the five books of the Torah, exactly like our English Bible. The Prophets contained Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Prophets, in that order. They considered these eight books, but we divide Samuel into two parts, Kings into two parts, and the Twelve Prophets into their respective parts—yielding a new number of twenty-one books out of the same set of the Prophets. [NOTE: Stephen, in Acts 7:42-43, quotes from Amos 5:25-27 and cites it as the Book of the Prophets, showing how the Minor Prophets were considered a single composite work.] Finally, the Hebrew Bible placed Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Chronicles in the Writings. Our Bibles divide Ezra into two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) and Chronicles into two books. This order in the Hebrew Bible follows a rough chronology of authorship, based on Jewish tradition (Bruce, 1988, pp. 29-30; Rodkinson, 1918, V:44-45). However, the question remains. Whence did the canon of these books come?

From evidence in the New Testament, it is obvious that the Jews had a canon—a group of accepted scriptures—that included the Law and the Prophets (see Matthew 5:17-18; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16-17; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21). In one passage, Jesus mentioned the Law, the Prophets, and Psalms (part of the Writings) together (Luke 24:44), showing that at some point before the time of Christ, the Jews had codified a group of literature into Scripture. History supports this view. Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote (c. A.D. 90) of twenty-two books “which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine….” Five of these were written by Moses (the Torah), thirteen books were written between Moses and Artaxerxes, King of Persia (the Prophets and part of the Writings using a different order and enumeration), and four books contained hymns and moral precepts (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) [Against Apion, 1:38-40]. He went on to state:

It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation, is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it comes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them (1:41-42, emp. added).

Josephus considered everything written after the time of Artaxerxes to be non-canonical, because prophetic messages had ceased. It is highly probable, since Josephus was a historian, that this was not his own idea, but reflected an earlier Jewish tradition (see Bruce, 1988, pp. 32-34). [NOTE: Josephus added Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah, making twenty-two books (Bruce, p. 33).] Also around A.D. 90, a group of Jewish rabbis gathered at Jamnia in western Judea to discuss the established canon. Testing for books that “defile the hands” (i.e., were prophetically inspired), they debated including certain apocryphal books and removing some disputed books. However, the conclusion was that only the books that comprised the Hebrew Bible were the inspired, canonical books (Bruce, pp. 34-36; McDowell and Wilson, 1993, p. 37).

The Talmud speaks in several places of the inspired Scripture. The Talmud is a collection of Hebrew oral law (the Mishna) along with transcribed scholarly discussions and commentary (the Gemara). The Mishna was written in the second century A.D., and the Gemara was added later (see Bass, 2003). While the Talmud was completed after the first century, it does contain the oral traditions from the post-exilic Jews. Tractate Baba Bathra contains the divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Law, Prophets, and Hagiographa) with their contents, along with the traditional authors of each. The books listed match the books of our Old Testament—nothing added or taken from them (Rodkinson, 1918, V:43-46). The most interesting evidence concerning the Hebrew canon comes from tractate Sanhedrin: “The rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the Holy Spirit has left Israel…” (Rodkinson VII/VIII:24). Thus, Jewish oral tradition held that Malachi was the last inspired book of the Old Testament.

It is clear from the evidence that the Jewish people accepted the thirty-nine Old Testament books as their canon—no more, no less. The New Testament refers to an established division. Josephus said that Malachi, as the last inspired author, completed the canon of Hebrew Scripture. The rabbis at Jamnia, who had access to apocryphal writings, did not include them in the canon of Scripture. Moreover, the ancient oral tradition of the Jews held that the thirty-nine books in our Old Testament are the only Scriptures. This, however, does not explain how the canon came to be. Unfortunately, the first collection of these canonical books has been lost, but from the Bible we can construct how some books were canonized. It probably was a “piecemeal” process; as the inspired writers produced their books, they added them to the canon. Deuteronomy 17:18 refers to the Law as something written down in a book kept by the priests and Levites (see Deuteronomy 28:58; 28:61; 29:21; 30:10). Deuteronomy 31:9-13 and 31:24-29 recorded that Moses wrote the Law in a book and gave it to the priests and the elders, commanding them to read it before all the people every seven years. Immediately after the death of Moses, God Himself spoke to Joshua and referred to a Book of the Law that Moses had given to the people (Joshua 1:7-8). It is at this point that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was canonized—when it received God’s spoken seal of approval as the Law of Moses (see Joshua 8:30-35; 23:6; 2 Kings 14:6; 22:3-20, etc.). In like manner, the book of Joshua was canonized when Joshua wrote it down in the Book of the Law of God (the Old Testament), which, until then, contained only the Law of Moses (Joshua 24:26).

The remaining books of the Old Testament have no clear point of canonization; any dates or persons given for this process are speculation. Some have said that Ezra—with the assistance of Nehemiah, Zechariah, Malachi, and others—established the current canon before 400 B.C. (Milligen, 1868, pp. 155-159; see also Motyer, 2001, p. 15), while others have disagreed with this view (e.g., Briggs, 1970, pp. 120-122). The most likely theory is that the authors themselves were inspired to add their writings to the canon. At least part of Jeremiah appears to have been written by Jeremiah using Baruch as a scribe (Jeremiah 36, esp. vs. 32; 45:1), and perhaps the rest by his own hand (51:60). Sections of the Psalms contain the names of their authors, and tradition attributed the other books to various authors. According to tractate Sanhedrin,

Old Testament Authorship (Talmudic Tradition)




Torah, Job, and Psalm 90


Joshua 1-24:28 and Deuteronomy 34


Joshua 24:29-32


Joshua 29:33


1 Samuel 1-24, Judges, and Ruth

Gad and Nathan

1 Samuel 25-31 and 2 Samuel

David, et al.



Jeremiah, 1 and 2 Kings, and Lamentations

Hezekiah, et al.

Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes

The Great Assembly

Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Daniel, and Esther


Ezra and 1 and 2 Chronicles



Moses wrote Job in addition to the Torah. Samuel wrote the book that bears his name, along with Judges and Ruth. 1 Samuel 25:1 recorded the death of Samuel, so Jewish tradition held that Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet finished 1 Samuel and wrote all of 2 Samuel. Jeremiah, in addition to his book of prophecy, wrote Kings and Lamentations. King Hezekiah and “his company” (according to the Talmud) wrote down Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. The men of the Great Assembly (a group of post-exilic Jewish religious leaders that was founded by Ezra) copied down Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Daniel, and Esther; Ezra wrote Ezra and Chronicles (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4), and Nehemiah appended Ezra’s book with his writings (Rodkinson, 1918, V:45-46). [NOTE: Some held that Nehemiah wrote all of Ezra/Nehemiah (Rodkinson, VII/VIII:284).]

This tradition shows the possible development of the canon. Moreover, the New Testament supports some claims of the traditional authorship. If Ezra was the last author of Old Testament history (1 and 2 Chronicles according to the Talmud), then it would explain the order of martyrs that Jesus used in Matthew 23:35. While rebuking the Pharisees (Matthew 23), Jesus mentioned two martyrs: Abel and Zechariah. The story of Abel, the first martyr, is found in Genesis 4:1-9. Zechariah was a priest who was martyred by King Joash of Judah (2 Chronicles 24:17-22), and the last martyr mentioned in the historical books of the Old Testament. It appears that Jesus was giving the record of martyrdom from the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, written by Moses) to the end of Hebrew Scriptures (2 Chronicles, written by Ezra in the days of the last prophets)—thus denying any other books inclusion in the Old Testament canon (e.g., 1 and 2 Maccabees, which were penned after Ezra’s writings).

The conclusion, therefore, to the development and establishment of the Old Testament canon is this: certain portions of the Hebrew Scriptures were canonized upon the deaths of the authors (Genesis through Joshua); while men added the rest as they were written and/or collected—all under the oversight of God. The Jews considered inspiration to have ended with Malachi, and their canon of twenty-four books (the same as our thirty-nine books) supports this view. The New Testament writers, Josephus, the rabbis at Jamnia, and Talmudic tradition supported this finalized canon. This is what our Old Testament is based on, and we know that these thirty-nine books are in the canon, but the question remains: Should we add more books to this established Old Testament canon?

Development of the New Testament Canon

The New Testament contains twenty-seven books that are divided into five subcategories. These are the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the book of Christian history (Acts), thirteen Pauline epistles (Romans through Philemon), eight general epistles (Hebrews through Jude), and one apocalyptical epistle (Revelation). [NOTE: Hebrews sometimes falls among the Pauline epistles.] Colossians 4:16 states that the churches shared their epistles, and we know that the majority of the New Testament took the form of an epistle (the exceptions being the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John—their original form cannot be determined, but they were probably epistles). Over time, men gathered these writings and made lists of which epistles they considered acceptable reading in worship services. As early as the second and third centuries, there was a known canon of Pauline literature that usually included Romans through Philemon, although some placed Hebrews with them. This is evidenced by frequent allusions to Paul’s letters in the early Christian writings, showing that there was a commonly accepted set. The early Christian writers also referred to the gospels, again meaning that there was an accepted group of books (Matthew through John). As the other epistles spread, they became part of these sets of New Testament writings.

One of the first New Testament canons we see in history comes from the second century heretic Marcion. He was a radical who accepted Paul as the only “uncorrupted” apostle, and so accepted only the Pauline epistles. He wrote the Gospel, which was a corruption of Luke, and placed at the front what he considered the Pauline canon: Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Laodiceans (which was the name he gave to Ephesians; see Metzger, 2000, p. 532), Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Marcion also subjected these epistles to extensive editing; he took out anything that did not conform to what he thought was Paul’s “doctrine” (Bruce, 1988, pp. 134-141). Some have held that Marcion left the book of Hebrews out of his canon because of its close association to the Old Testament (Aland and Aland, 1981, p. 49).

A mutilated fragment of papyrus, known as the Murtorian Fragment, from the late second century, also contained a partial canon. It placed Luke and John as the third and fourth gospel accounts (mention of the previous two gospels existed at the top of the original manuscript, which is missing from the fragment), and attributed Acts to Luke. Paul’s letters were listed in the order of Corinthians (1 and 2), Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians (1 and 2), Philemon, Titus, and Timothy (1 and 2). It also mentioned Jude, two epistles of John (probably 1 and 2 John), and Revelation. It leaves out Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John, but accepts as canonical the Apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon (but it did not claim that it was written by Solomon himself, saying that it was “written by the friends of Solomon in his honour”). The Murtorian Fragment also stated that some accepted the Apocalypse of Peter, while others did not; and it mentioned the Shepherd of Hermas as a recent, uninspired composition (Caius, 1971, V:603-604). Kurt and Barbara Aland, a husband-and-wife team of distinguished Greek scholars, contended that the epistle to the Hebrews was left out of the Murtorian canon because of its “denial of a second repentance, cf. Heb. 6:4ff ” (1981, p. 49).

In his First Apology, Justin Martyr (c. 110-165) referred to the gospels as containing the account of the Last Supper, although he did not list the titles or authors (1973, I:185). He later mentioned that the writings of the apostles were read along with those of the prophets in the Sunday assembly (I:186). Origen (c. 185-254), one of the most prolific early Christian writers, mentioned Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as genuine (1974a, X:412; Eusebius, 1971, I:273), along with Paul’s writings (without listing or numbering them), 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. He listed 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John as disputed by some; and Origen mentioned a story from Acts as an apparent fact (the raising of Eutychus, Acts 20:7-12), which means he probably took Acts as a genuine writing (1974b, X:346-347; Eusebius, 1971, I:273). In his Homilies on Joshua, Origen listed the twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament as abolishing idolatry and false philosophies (McGarvey, 1974, I:66), showing that as early as the mid-third century, these were the accepted writings.

Eusebius (c. 270-339), the famed historian of the early church, wrote concerning the accepted, disputed, and rejected books of the canon. He began the list of universally accepted works with the four gospels (previously listed as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John [1971, I:152-155]). To them he added Acts and the Pauline epistles (without listing them), 1 John and 1 Peter. The disputed books were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation (I:155-157). Athanasius (c. 296-373) listed the canon of the New Testament—the twenty-seven books that comprise our current New Testament. Of these books he said, “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these” (1971, IV:552).

Early Christians in other parts of the world received certain books and translated them into their native tongues. Evidence from the earliest versions of the New Testament (the Old Syriac, Old Latin, and Coptic versions) shows what books were accepted in the second century. The Old Syriac version is the translation from Greek into the Syriac (Aramean) language of Syria and the northern part of Mesopotamia. It contained all the New Testament books with the exception of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation (McGarvey, 1974, I:34, 78). The Old Latin version was the African translation of the Bible into Latin during the second century; it lacked only Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter (I:34-35, 79-80). The Coptic (Egyptian) version of the New Testament existed in two dialects: Sahidic, used in Upper Egypt, and Bohairic, used in Lower Egypt. Both of these Coptic versions included all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, though they sometimes placed Revelation in a separate volume, as if they doubted its canonical status (I:35-36, 77-78). In speaking of the Old Syriac and Old Latin versions, McGarvey said:

Consequently we find the existence of every book of the New Testament except II Peter attested by translations as early as the middle of the second century. They were translated because they were the authoritative books of the churches, and they were authoritative because the churches believed them to have come from the apostolic hands. Is it possible that these churches could have been totally mistaken about such facts when the interval had been so short? (I:80).

Moreover, 2 Peter, which was found in neither the Old Latin nor the Old Syriac versions, was found in both the Coptic Sahidic and Coptic Bohairic versions of the New Testament—showing that it was accepted by the early Egyptian Christians. Even the councils of the Catholic Church, which added the Apocrypha into the canon of the Old Testament, listed only the accepted twenty-seven books as canonical in the New Testament. The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) accepted them; and the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Sixth Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), and the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (A.D. 1546) reaffirmed this (Bruce, 1988, pp. 232-233,247). The very councils that added books to the Old Testament refused to add anything to the New Testament beyond the twenty-seven inspired, commonly accepted books.

While these early men, early versions, and the Roman Catholic councils show the progression of the canon’s acceptance, they did not establish the canon. God established the canon for the New Testament through the inspired writers of the New Testament. Since the majority of Jesus’ disciples were Jews, they knew the Hebrew canon was inspired. Thus, anything placed on the same level as that canon, they considered inspired and therefore canonical. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter stated that Paul had written to them “things hard to understand which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do the rest of the Scriptures” (3:16). Thus, Peter placed the writings of Paul (Romans through Philemon, and possibly Hebrews) on the same level as Scripture—referring to them as canonical alongside the Hebrew Bible. Paul, in Ephesians 2:19-20, placed the teachings of the apostles in the same category as those of the prophets, making the writings of Matthew, John, and Peter canonical. Again, Paul, in 1 Timothy 5:18, quoted from Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, citing both as Scripture. This leaves only Mark, Acts, James, Jude and possibly Hebrews unsupported by internal canonization. Mark and Acts were virtually undisputed in early Christian history, and Hebrews, James, and Jude gained acceptance over time; while other works that were previously accepted—such as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas—were removed from the canonical lists by the fourth century (Athanasius, 1971, IV:552).

The writers of the New Testament obviously considered each other’s writings as inspired work, and the majority of the New Testament writings were canonized internally. The inspired writers themselves added the books to the canon, and slowly the early church accepted them as canonical—eventually the Christian writers of the first four centuries wrote down lists of these accepted books. While there were disputes over certain books, eventually the majority of Christians accepted them, though other books lost their canonical status. “The New Testament canon was gradually formed, on the model of the Old, in the course of the first four centuries, under the guidance of the same Spirit, through whose suggestion the several apostolic books had been prepared” (Schaff, 1910, 2:516-517). We know that these twenty-seven inspired books are canonical, but the question remains: Should we add more books to this established New Testament canon?

The Biblical Canon

The canon is the rule, the measure, by which books are accepted or rejected. If they are inspired, then they are canonical. We know that the sixty-six books currently in the canon are inspired. God inspired men through the Holy Spirit to write them down, and as the books were completed, the authors added them to the canon of Scripture by inspiration. All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), recorded and taught through the Holy Spirit by prophets, ministers, eyewitnesses (1 Peter 1:12; 2 Peter 1:16-21), or by those who, also through inspiration, compiled the accounts of eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3). These men received the words of Christ Himself, and dispensed these words to the rest of Christianity; commanding that nothing but their words, which were the word of Christ, be taught and preached (Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Timothy 4:11; Galatians 1:8-9). As Geisler and Nix said, “Canonicity is determined or established authoritatively by God; it is merely discovered by man” (1986, p. 221, emp. in orig.). This is how we know what books belong in our Bible. What, then, do we say concerning such books as 1 and 2 Maccabees, or the Gospel of Mary? Do they also belong in the canon, and if not, why?


Every piece of literature outside of the Bible is extra-biblical. Everything of a biblical nature that is not included in the Bible is extra-canonical, which include the apocryphal writings, pseudepigraphal writings, and the Apocrypha. These are composed of books of prophecy, gospels, histories, acts, and apocalypses—many claiming to authorship by men and/or women mentioned in the Bible. Books have been attributed to Adam, Enoch, Barnabas, Thomas, Paul, and a number of others. Some are compilations containing the acts of such men as Pontius Pilate, Paul, Peter, and other noted men of the New Testament. The topics covered by this vast array of literature are extensive, from a yearly horoscope as found in the Treatise of Shem, to the childhood of Jesus as found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

There are two sets of Old Testament extra-canonical writings: the Apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha. When most people hear about the extra-canonical (also called the deuterocanonical) books, the books that come to their mind are the books commonly known as the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are a subset of the apocryphal writings, which literally means the “hidden away” writings. These words (Apocrypha and apocryphal) are derivatives of the Greek apokruphos, which is a compound of apo (“away from”) and krupto/kruptos (“I hide/hidden”) [Danker, 2000, pp. 114,105-107,570-571]. The Apocrypha refers to the apocryphal books that the Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox Churches accept as canonical, but that the Hebrew canon rejects. The Catholic and Orthodox canons vary, not only from the Hebrew and Protestant canon, but also from each other. The Catholic Church regards Tobit, Judith, an additional 107 verses scattered throughout the book of Esther (see Apocrypha, 1977, p. 96), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and 1 and 2 Maccabees as canonical. 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh were added as an appendix at the end of the New Testament, and are considered non-canonical by the Roman Catholic Church (Apocrypha, pp. xi-xii). The Greek Orthodox Church accepts the Catholic canon, but adds 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees to their canon, while placing 4 Maccabees in an appendix. In addition to the Catholic canon, the Russian Orthodox Church regards 1 and 2 Esdras (which they called 2 and 3 Esdras), Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees as canonical (Apocrypha, pp. xiii). How did these additional books come to be regarded as canonical by some, but not by others?

As the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) gained prominence throughout the world, a group of writings was added to the traditional twenty-four of the Hebrew canon—these were the Apocrypha. Why would these books be in the Greek Old Testament but not in the Hebrew Old Testament? In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim gave a probable explanation for the development of both the Apocrypha and Old Testament pseudepigraphal writings. With the translation of the Old Testament into Greek around 250 B.C., the Jewish people (particularly those outside of Palestine) began a transition from traditional Judaic thought to Judeo-Hellenistic thinking. This involved the melding of Grecian philosophies, most notably Stoicism and Epicureanism, with Old Testament theology. As this digression from traditional thought occurred, a new group of writings was sought that would help reconcile sometimes opposing viewpoints of Judaism and Hellenism. The result was the Apocrypha and the Old Testament pseudepigrapha—books that were the middle ground between the truth of the Old Testament and the mythology and humanistic philosophies of the Greco-Roman world (1972, 1:31-39). It is because of this that the Apocrypha, which had some verifiable historical significance to the Jewish nation and theological significance to the Hellenistic Jews, were included in the Greek canon of the Old Testament.

While the Hebrew canon never included the Apocrypha, the Hellenist and some early Christian canons and manuscripts included them. Existing copies of the Septuagint include them, some of the early Christian writings quote from them, and some Greek Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, et al.) regarded them as canonical (Geisler and Nix, 1986, pp. 266-267). The Catholic Church’s Council of Hippo (A.D. 393), the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Sixth Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), and the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (A.D. 1546) accepted the Apocrypha as canonical (Bruce, 1988, pp. 97,104-105). Thus, they gained acceptance in the Catholic Church and the later divergences of the Orthodox churches, but why do we reject them? One objection is that they were written after the Old Testament revelations had ceased (after the time of Malachi), and before the New Testament revelations had begun. While certain books, like 1 and 2 Maccabees, contain accurate historical records, they should not be included any more than the histories written by Tacitus or Herodotus. In addition, many of the apocryphal additions to the Old Testament contain errors and contradictions. Nevertheless, the foremost objection to the inclusion of the Apocrypha is that the Hebrew Bible did not include them, and the majority of Jews did not consider them inspired writings. The Jews considered the canon complete and closed, consisting of only those thirty-nine books that make up our Old Testament. It was closed in the days of Ezra, and should not be re-opened to include such late additions as the Apocrypha.

The Old Testament pseudepigrapha are the set of writings that are attributed falsely to Old Testament era men, hence their name as the “false inscriptions.” The word is a Greek compound of pseudos (“false”) and epigraphe (“inscription,” which comes from epi, “upon,” and grapho/graphe “I write/writing”) [Danker, pp. 1097,369,363-367,206-207]. Some scholars contend that certain books from the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Esdras, and the Letter of Jeremiah) belong in the Old Testament pseudepigrapha because they are falsely attributed, while certain books in the pseudepigrapha (3 and 4 Maccabees) should be included in the Old Testament apocryphal writings (Ladd, 1986, 3:1040). One of the most extensive and authoritative editions of pseudepigraphal writings of the Old Testament comes from James H. Charlesworth’s two-volume set entitled The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, which includes fifty-two complete works and a supplement containing fragments of other Old Testament pseudepigraphal writings.

Charlesworth gave the following requirements for a book’s inclusion in the Old Testament pseudepigrapha: (1) They are predominantly Jewish or Christian; (2) Usually, they are falsely attributed to Old Testament figures; (3) Most of them claim inspiration; (4) Often, they expand stories and concepts in the Old Testament; (5) They were either written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, or they preserve tradition from that time period (1983, 1:xxv). The pseudepigrapha include apocalyptic books, testaments, legends, wisdom and philosophical literature, Old Testament expansions, prayers, psalms, and odes.

Why are these books not included in the canon? The first, and most obvious, answer is that they contain false information about their respective authors. If a book lies about its origin, then its contents most likely contain falsehoods. If a book requires a false attribution in order to be canonical, then it must have characteristics that make its inspiration and canonicity suspect. For example, these books were written far too late to be included in the Hebrew canon of the Bible, and therefore do not belong in the canon of our Old Testament. Geisler and Nix rightly noted that “the Pseudepigrapha books are those that are distinctly spurious and unauthentic in their over all content…. Although they claim to have been written by biblical authors, they actually express religious fancy and magic from the period between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 200” (1986, pp. 262). They also stated regarding the pseudepigrapha:

There are a vast number of false and spurious writings that deserve mention at this point; not because anyone would seriously contend for their authority, but because they do represent the religious lore of the Hebrews in the inter-testamental period. The New Testament writers make use of a number of these books… Of course, it should be remembered that the New Testament also quotes from the heathen poets Aratus (Acts 17:28); Menander (1 Cor.15:33); and Epimenides (Titus 1:12). Truth is truth no matter where it is found, whether uttered by a heathen poet, a pagan prophet (Num 24:17), or even a dumb animal (22:28). Nevertheless, it should be noted that no such formula as “it is written” or “the Scriptures say” is connected with these citations. It should also be noted that neither the New Testament writers nor the Fathers have considered these writings canonical (p. 262, emp. added).

They contain fanciful additions to the biblical record, a mixture of Greek philosophy/mythology and Old Testament theology, platitudes that contradict the Bible, and errors in the areas of science, history, geography, etc. It is on these grounds that we reject the pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament as non-canonical. Nevertheless, some canonical books contain possible references to pseudepigraphal writings. Geisler and Nix maintained that there were possible quotations or allusions in Jude and 2 Timothy to the pseudepigraphal books of 1 Enoch, the Testament of Moses, and the book of Jannes and Jambres (1986, pp. 262). The Testament of Moses and the book of Jannes and Jambres date to the first century A.D. or later, so if Jude and Paul were referring to them, it would have been as contemporary fictional literature. The same is true for 1 Enoch, which dates between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D. In a similar fashion, preachers today sometimes use extra-biblical sources in their lessons in order to make a point. Nowhere does the biblical text state that Jude and Paul equated pseudepigraphal writings with those of Scripture, so any reference to them in the biblical account was merely inspired use of an uninspired source.

The New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

The New Testament pseudepigrapha are those books that were written in the form of New Testament works (gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses) but that exist outside of the New Testament canon. They often bear the names of apostles, prominent disciples, early Christian writers (e.g., Clement, Matthew, Barnabas), or famous figures from the New Testament (such as Pilate and Gamaliel). Some of them were attributed to groups of people, such as the Egyptians or Ebionites. We can quickly reject the New Testament pseudepigrapha because of their false attribution, errors, discrepancies, and false teachings. They were also written too late to be inspired, and some exist only as fragments. Moreover, most importantly, the early church rejected them as non-canonical.

However, despite their non-canonical status, many of the New Testament pseudepigrapha are useful historical and theological writings, because they show the traditions, myths, and superstitions of some of the early Christians, as well as the heretical branches of early Christianity (i.e., Doceticism, Gnosticism, Asceticism). One of the most extensive and authoritative editions of pseudepigraphal and apocryphal writings of the New Testament comes from R.M. Wilson’s English translation of Wilhelm Schneemelcher’s two-volume set titled New Testament Apocrypha, which includes translations or discussions of about ninety of the most prominent writings. [NOTE: In the ninth century, Photius listed around 280 pseudepigraphal and apocryphal works of the New Testament, and more have been discovered since then (Geisler and Nix, 1986, p. 301). Because of their great number, it is almost impossible to include all of them in a single collection, causing Schneemelcher to include only the most prominent in his work.]

However, there were some writings that early Christians accepted as either inspired works, or genuine (but uninspired) works—the New Testament apocrypha. Geisler and Nix listed these as the Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, 1 and 2 Corinthians from Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Gospel According to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, and the Seven Epistles of Ignatius. Many of these were listed or included in the best Greek manuscripts (Sinaiticus [א], Alexandrinus [A], and Bezae [D]): the Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas (א and D), 1 and 2 Corinthians from Clement (A), the Shepherd of Hermas (א and D), the Apocalypse of Peter (D), and the Acts of Paul and Thecla (D). Moreover, some of the early Christian writers cited these as Scripture or listed them among sacred writings: the Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas (Clement of Alexandria and Origen), the Shepherd of Hermas (Irenaeus and Origen), and the Didache (Clement of Alexandria and Athanasius) [Geisler and Nix, 1986, pp. 313-316]. With this evidence, why do we reject these as uninspired?

First, listing or including books in a Greek manuscript does not make it part of the canon of Scripture. Most of the books that were included in the manuscripts were placed after Revelation, almost as an appendix to the canonical works. Most modern Bibles contain a concordance, dictionary, or maps after the text, but none of these are considered inspired. In a similar fashion, these apocryphal works were included in the manuscripts (which date from the fourth and fifth centuries) as additional—but uninspired—literature. Moreover, the books that some early Christian writers listed as Scripture were not included in the canon lists of these men. They may have considered them as genuine as Scripture, but uninspired—and therefore non-canonical. For other writings (1 and 2 Corinthians from Clement, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, and the Seven Epistles of Ignatius), the authors never intended them to be Scripture, but simply letters from one Christian to another. Some of these apocryphal works contained errors and false teachings, making them uninspired. Finally, they were written after the time of inspiration, and therefore after God had closed the canon. Nevertheless, these are some of the most valuable non-canonical writings. Even more than the New Testament pseudepigrapha, the apocryphal writings show what the early Christians thought concerning the church, worship, and the tenets of Christianity.

Many of the early Christian writers cited the New Testament apocrypha genuinely historical or as something of religious value, but uninspired—some even considered them canonical. Eventually, however, these works lost their status as canonical works, and rightly so. They were written too late to be inspired, and some teach religious errors and discrepancies. Gnostics and other heretics wrote several of the pseudepigrapha, and so introduced their deviant ideas through letters, gospels, and apocalypses under the guise of authentic New Testament figures. While some of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha of the New Testament are valuable for historical and theological study, they should not be placed on the same level as inspired Scripture.


God has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him…” (2 Peter 1:3), and our knowledge of Him is complete through the revealed Word. “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). The Bible that we possess is the inspired Word of God, and the only thing we need—no additions and no subtractions, only sixty-six canonical books. While some of the extra-canonical writings are useful for historical or literary study, they are not inspired and do not belong within the pages of the Bible. They do not possess the same authority as the sixty-six inspired books, and should not be regarded as Scripture. This canon was created and established by God, and was closed by Him.

However, God presented these books to us with special directives. The writer of Proverbs said: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (30:5-6, emp. added). Moses commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” Again, in Deuteronomy 12:32, Moses said: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” As diligent students of the Scriptures, let us always keep in mind that these sixty-six inspired books contain everything we need to know. We have the Word of God just as He wanted us to have it—nothing more, nothing less.


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