AskDefine | Define apocryphal

Dictionary Definition

apocryphal adj
1 of questionable authenticity
2 of or belonging to the Apocrypha

User Contributed Dictionary

see Apocryphal



  • a RP /əˈpɒkrɪfəl/|/əˈpɒkrəfəl/
  • a US /əˈpɑːkrɪfəl/|/əˈpɑːkrəfəl/


From Late Latin apocryphus secret, not approved for public reading, from Greek apokryphos hidden, obscure, thus (books) of unknown authorship (especially those included in the Septuagint and Vulgate but not originally written in Hebrew and not counted as genuine by the Jews), from apo- away + kryptein to hide. Properly plural (the single would be apocryphon), but commonly treated as a collective singular. Apocryphal of doubtful authenticity is from 1590.


  1. Of, or pertaining to, the Apocrypha.
  2. Of doubtful authenticity.
    Many scholars consider the stories of the monk Teilo to be apocryphal.
  3. Of dubious veracity; of questionable accuracy or truthfulness; in the nature of an urban legend.


of doubtful authenticity
  • Chinese: 杜撰
  • Croatian: apokrifan
  • Dutch: apocrief
  • Finnish: apokryfinen
  • French: apocryphe
  • German: unecht
  • Portuguese: apócrifo
  • Japanese: 典拠が疑わしい, うその
of dubious veracity; urban legend

Extensive Definition

Apocrypha (from the Greek word , meaning "those having been hidden away") are texts of uncertain authenticity or writings where the authorship is questioned. In Judeo-Christian theology, the term apocrypha refers to any collection of scriptural texts that falls outside the canon. Given that different denominations have different ideas about what constitutes canonical scripture, there are several different versions of the apocrypha. During sixteenth-century controversies over the biblical canon the word "apocrypha" acquired a negative connotation, and it has become a synonym for "spurious" or "false". This usage usually involves fictitious or legendary accounts that are plausible enough to commonly be considered as truth. For example, Laozi's alleged authorship of the Tao Te Ching, Napolean Bonaparte's self-coronation rather than at the hands of Pope Puis VII, and the Parson Weems account of George Washington and the cherry tree, are all considered apocryphal.

Denotation and connotation

The term "apocrypha" has evolved in meaning somewhat, and its associated implications have ranged from positive to pejorative. The term apocryphal, according to Merriam-Webster, means "writings or statements of dubious authenticity."

Esoteric writings

The word "apocryphal" () was first applied, in a positive sense, to writings which were kept secret because they were the vehicles of esoteric knowledge considered too profound or too sacred to be disclosed to anyone other than the initiated. It is used in this sense to describe A Holy and Secret Book of Moses, called Eighth, or Holy (), a text taken from a Leiden papyrus of the third or fourth century AD, but which may be as old as the first century. In a similar vein, the disciples of the Gnostic Prodicus boasted that they possessed the secret () books of Zoroaster. The term in general enjoyed high consideration among the Gnostics (see Acts of Thomas, 10, 27, 44)

Writings of questionable value

"Apocrypha" was also applied to writings that were hidden not because of their divinity but because of their questionable value to the church. Many in Protestant traditions cite Revelation 22:18-19 as a potential curse for those who attach any canonical authority to extra-biblical writings such as the Apocrypha. However, a strict exegesis of this text would indicate it was meant for only the Book of Revelation. Revelation 22:18-19 (KJV) states: "(18) For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: (19) And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." It should be obvious no one has license to distort any original writing. In this case, if we hold to a strict hermeneutic, this "book of prophecy" does not refer to the Bible as a whole but to the Book of Revelation. Origen, in Commentaries on Matthew, X. 18, XIII. 57, distinguishes between writings which were read by the churches and apocryphal writings: (writing not found on the common and published books in one hand, actually found on the secret ones on the other). The meaning of αποκρυφος is here practically equivalent to "excluded from the public use of the church", and prepares the way for an even less favourable use of the word

Spurious writings

In general use, the word "apocrypha" came to mean "false, spurious, bad, or heretical." This meaning also appears in Origen's prologue to his commentary on the Song of Songs, of which only the Latin translation survives: De scripturis his, quae appellantur apocryphae, pro eo quod multa in iis corrupta et contra fidem veram inveniuntur a majoribus tradita non placuit iis dari locum nec admitti ad auctoritatem. "Concerning these scriptures, which are called apocryphal, for the reason that many things are found in them corrupt and against the true faith handed down by the elders, it has pleased them that they not be given a place nor be admitted to authority." (Translation by a Wikipedia editor.)

Other meanings

Other uses of apocrypha developed over the history of Western Christianity. The Gelasian Decree refers to religious works by church fathers Eusebius, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria as apocrypha. Augustine defined the word as meaning simply "obscurity of origin," implying that any book of unknown authorship or questionable authenticity would be considered as apocrypha. On the other hand, Jerome (in Protogus Galeatus) declared that all books outside the Hebrew canon were apocryphalædia_Britannica. In practice, Jerome treated some books outside the Hebrew canon as if they were canonical, and the Western Church did not accept Jerome's definition of apocrypha, instead retaining the word's prior meaning (see: Deuterocanon). As a result, various church authorities labeled different books as apocrypha, treating them with varying levels of regard.
Some apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint with little distinction made between them and the rest of the Old Testament. Origen, Clement and others cited some apocryphal books as "scripture", "divine scripture", "inspired", and the like. On the other hand, teachers connected with Palestine and familiar with the Hebrew canon excluded from the canon all of the Old Testament not found there. This view is reflected in the canon of Melito of Sardis, and in the prefaces and letters of Jeromeædia_Britannica. A third view was that the books were not as valuable as the canonical scriptures of the Hebrew collection, but were of value for moral uses, as introductory texts for new converts from paganism, and to be read in congregations. They were referred to as "ecclesiastical" works by Rufinusædia_Britannica.
These three opinions regarding the apocryphal books prevailed until the Protestant Reformation, when the idea of what constitutes canon became a matter of primary concern for Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. In 1546 the Catholic Council of Trent reconfirmed the canon of Augustine, dating to the second and third centuries, declaring "He is also to be anathema who does not receive these entire books, with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church, and are found in the ancient editions of the Latin Vulgate, as sacred and canonical." The whole of the books in question, with the exception of 1st and 2nd Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses, were declared canonical at Trentædia_Britannica. The Protestants, in comparison, universally held the belief that only the books in the Hebrew collection were canonical. John Wycliffe, a 14th century reformer, had declared in his Biblical translation that "whatever book is in the Old Testament besides these twenty-five shall be set among the apocrypha, that is, without authority or belief"ædia_Britannica. Nevertheless, his translation of the Bible included the apocrypha and the Epistle of the Loadiceans.
The respect accorded to apocryphal books varied between Protestant denominations. In both the German (1537) and English (1535) translations of the Bible, the apocrypha are published in a separate section from the other books, although the Lutheran and Anglican lists are different. In some editions, (like the Westminster), readers were warned that these books were not "to be any otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings." A milder distinction was expressed elsewhere, such as in the "argument" introducing them in the Geneva Bible, and in the Sixth Article of the Church of England, where it is said that "the other books the church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners," though not to establish doctrineædia_Britannica.
According to The Apocrypha, Bridge of the Testaments at On the other hand, the Anglican Communion emphatically maintains that the Apocrypha is part of the Bible and is to be read with respect by her members. Two of the hymns used in the American Prayer Book office of Morning Prayer, the Benedictus es and Benedicite, are taken from the Apocrypha. One of the offertory sentences in Holy Communion comes from an apocryphal book (Tob. 4: 8-9). Lessons from the Apocrypha are regularly appointed to be read in the daily, Sunday, and special services of Morning and Evening Prayer. There are altogether 111 such lessons in the latest revised American Prayer Book Lectionary [The books used are: II Esdras, Tobit">Book of TobitTobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Three Holy Children, and I Maccabees.] The position of the Church is best summarized in the words of Article Six of the Thirty-nine Articles: “In the name of Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority there was never any doubt in the Church… And the other Books (as Hierome [St. Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…”

Apocryphal texts by denomination

Jewish apocrypha

Although traditional rabbinical Judaism insists on the exclusive canonization of the current 24 books in the Tanakh, it also claims to have an oral law handed down from Moses. The Sadducees, - unlike the Pharisees but like the Samaritans - seem to have maintained an earlier and smaller number of texts as canonical, preferring to hold to only what was written in the Law of Moses (making most of the presently accepted canon, both Jewish and Christian, apocryphal in their eyes). Certain circles in Judaism, such as the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt, were said to have a secret literature (see Dead Sea scrolls). Other traditions maintained different customs regarding canonicity The Ethiopic Jews, for instance, seem to have retained a spread of canonical texts similar to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, cf Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 6, p 1147. A large part of this literature consisted of the apocalypses. Based on prophecies, these apocalyptic books were not considered scripture by all, but rather part of a literary form that flourished from 200 BC to AD 100.

Biblical books called apocrypha

During the birth of Christianity, some of the Jewish apocrypha that dealt with the coming of the Messianic kingdom became popular in the rising Jewish-Christian communities. Occasionally these writings were changed or added to, but on the whole it was found sufficient to reinterpret them as conforming to a Christian viewpoint. Christianity eventually gave birth to new apocalyptic works, some of which were derived from traditional Jewish sources. Some of the Jewish apocrypha were part of the ordinary religious literature of the early Christians. This was not strange, as the large majority of Old Testament references in the New Testament are taken from the Greek Septuagint, which is the source of the deuterocanonical books as well as most of the other biblical apocrypha.
Slightly varying collections of additional Books (called deuterocanonical by the Roman Catholic Church) form part of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox canons.
The Book of Enoch is included in the biblical canon only of the Oriental Orthodox churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, the Epistle of Jude quotes the prophet, Enoch, by name, and some believe the use of this book appears in the four gospels and 1 Peter. The genuineness and inspiration of Enoch were believed in by the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, and much of the early church. The epistles of Paul and the gospels also show influences from the Book of Jubilees, which is part of the Ethiopian canon, as well as the Assumption of Moses and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which are included in no biblical canon.
The high position which some apocryphal books occupied in the first two centuries was undermined by a variety of influences in the Christian church. All claims to the possession of a secret tradition (as held by many Gnostic sects) were denied by the influential theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian, the timeframe of true inspiration was limited to the apostolic age, and universal acceptance by the church was required as proof of apostolic authorship. As these principles gained currency, books deemed apocryphal tended to become regarded as spurious and heretical writings, though books now considered deuterocanonical have been used in liturgy and theology from the first century to the present.

New Testament apocryphal literature

New Testament apocrypha — books similar to those in the New Testament but almost universally rejected by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — include several gospels and lives of apostles. Some of these were clearly produced by Gnostic authors or members of other groups later defined as heterodox. Many texts believed lost for centuries were unearthed in the 19th and 20th centuries, producing lively speculation about their importance in early Christianity among religious scholars, while many others survive only in the form of quotations from them in other writings; for some, no more than the title is known. Artists and theologians have drawn upon the New Testament apocrypha for such matters as the names of Dismas and Gestas and details about the Three Wise Men. The first explicit mention of the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in the pseudepigraphical Infancy Gospel of James.
The Gnostic tradition was a prolific source of apocryphal gospels. While these writings borrowed the characteristic poetic features of apocalyptic literature from Judaism, Gnostic sects largely insisted on allegorical interpretations based on a secret apostolic tradition. With them, as with most Christians of the first and second centuries, apocryphal books were highly esteemed. A well-known Gnostic apocryphal book is the Gospel of Thomas, the only complete text of which was found in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. The Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic gospel, also received much media attention when it was reconstructed in 2006.
Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians as well as Protestants generally agree on the canon of the New Testament. However there is one notable exception. The Ethiopian Orthodox have in the past also included I & II Clement, and Shepherd of Hermas in their New Testament canon. This is no longer the case, according to Biblical scholar R.W. Cowley. According to Abba Brahana Selassie (an Ethiopian Orthodox priest currently residing in England) at the end of the New Testament, the Ethiopian canon contains the following Books of Church Order: The Order of Zion, Commandments, Gitzew, Abtils, 2 Books of the Covenant, Clement and Didascalia. The Ethiopian Orthodox canon also places the General Epistle of St. James immediately before the General Epistle of St. Jude.


Information concerning the Hellenist Jews was incorporated from the Catholic Encyclopedia at

External links

apocryphal in Arabic: أبوكريفا
apocryphal in Bulgarian: Апокриф
apocryphal in Catalan: Llibres apòcrifs
apocryphal in Czech: Apokryf
apocryphal in Danish: Apokryfe skrifter
apocryphal in German: Apokryphen
apocryphal in Estonian: Apokrüüfid
apocryphal in Modern Greek (1453-): Απόκρυφα
apocryphal in Spanish: Texto apócrifo
apocryphal in Esperanto: Apokrifoj
apocryphal in Basque: Apokrifo
apocryphal in Persian: ابوکریفا
apocryphal in French: Apocryphes (Bible)
apocryphal in Friulian: Apocrif
apocryphal in Scottish Gaelic: Apocruiphia
apocryphal in Korean: 외경
apocryphal in Croatian: Apokrifi
apocryphal in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Apocryphos
apocryphal in Icelandic: Apókrýf rit
apocryphal in Italian: Apocrifo
apocryphal in Latin: Apocrypha
apocryphal in Lithuanian: Apokrifas
apocryphal in Hungarian: Apokrif iratok
apocryphal in Macedonian: Апокриф
apocryphal in Malayalam: അപ്പോക്രിഫ
apocryphal in Dutch: Apocrief
apocryphal in Japanese: 外典
apocryphal in Norwegian: Apokryfer
apocryphal in Norwegian Nynorsk: Dei apokryfe skriftene
apocryphal in Polish: Apokryf
apocryphal in Portuguese: Livros apócrifos
apocryphal in Russian: Апокриф (религия)
apocryphal in Simple English: Apocrypha
apocryphal in Slovak: Apokryf
apocryphal in Finnish: Apokryfiset kirjat
apocryphal in Swedish: Apokryferna
apocryphal in Tagalog: Apokripa
apocryphal in Ukrainian: Апокрифи

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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