The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

 TALK ON THE CANONICAL

 AND APOCRYPHAL WRITINGS

        2nd October 2008

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I like to take this opportunity to welcome you all to our first talk of the New Season. I’m sure you all had a long and lazy summer; I know I did, but now its time to return to our studies as it were and fill our minds with new spiritual knowledge. For the past month I was trying to find a suitable subject for our first talk, but without success, until a few days ago I received an email from someone who often writes to me with questions concerning the Church. Many of his questions and my answers can be found on the website under the section Questions and Answers. His latest question struck me as a good subject to begin the new season. He wrote: “In which way and according to what criteria was the separation of the canonical from the apocryphal text done by the fathers? If the apocryphal gospels are not canonical, why did the Church rely on them to formulate certain feasts of the Mother of God such as the Dormition and Entry?
I hope you all understood the question. He is asking how the church separated the books of the bible into those which now consist of the canon of the Bible which are the acceptable books and the apocryphal which are forbidden to be read. And he is also asking why the Church has used certain of these apocryphal writing or stories, which tell of the life of the Mother of God. His question is very important because during our times a lot has been said of the apocryphal books especially the book called the Gospel according to Judas.
What then are the Apocryphal Books? Apocryphal literally means those that are kept apart or hidden from the rest of Holy Scripture. There are many apocryphal books which the church did not include in the canonical list because she believed they were not authentic or God inspired. Some, like the gospel according to Judas, were written by Gnostic heretics. Other writings were adulterated in places as a way of discrimination against the new Christian religion that was rapidly growing and taking over the Jewish faith. Some are said to have been completely written by over-zealous Jews, opposed to the Christian faith, to discredit and give it a false image.
When we Orthodox talk about apocryphal books we usually mean the apocryphal New Testament books. Protestants consider ten of the Old Testament books that we accept as canonical as Deuterocanonical or apocryphal because they are not found in the Hebrew version they used for their translation into English. The Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which not only has more books than the Hebrew version, but also varies in certain passages from the books they both share. The Septuagint version is a translation made from the Hebrew into Greek and was translated by 72 Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, around 285 B.C. The 72 were made up by taking 6 scholars (scribes) from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. It became the most common used translation amongst the Jews outside of Palestine and the many references to the Old Testament prophecies found in the New Testament are quoted from the Septuagint version, showing that Christ and the Apostles considered it as the most authoritative and authentic.

In fact, at the time of Christ and the early Church, Hebrew had long since ceased to be the commonly spoken language, even among the Jews. Although Jesus understood Hebrew, He would have spoken Aramaic, the common language of Palestine, with His disciples. Jesus and His disciples were probably also familiar, with Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire. Greek was the most widely spoken and read language of the Empire at large, and that was why it was necessary for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The translation was made by Jews for Jews and not by Greeks, who as yet had no interest in the religious books of the Jews. But which of the two is actually the oldest? The Hebrew text at the time of Christ had been preserved by the rabbis and scribes of Israel. Those who read today about scriptural manuscripts will come across references made to the “masoretic” texts, which means the texts of the scribes (who were known as “masoretes”). In the first century, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70AD, and the end of the Jewish priesthood, the authority of the rabbis in Israel became absolute. Before that time the rabbis occupied a position secondary to the priests. The rabbis and scribes distrusted anything that was not written in the traditional Hebrew language, and consequently they rejected the Septuagint text. But the actual Hebrew manuscripts which formed the basis for the Septuagint translation three centuries before Christ have been lost. The Orthodox Church believes that the Hebrew text upon which the Septuagint is based is actually older and more venerable than the Hebrew text of the scribes.
Though both the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, are quite similar in many ways, there are significant differences. These differences can primarily be summed up by saying that the messianic prophecies (the prophecies concerning the Messiah) found throughout the Psalms and the prophetic writings are far more explicit in the Septuagint text than in the Masoretic text. A careful study of the Psalms will reveal how crucially different the Septuagint text is in these messianic portions.
For the most part, translators during and after the Reformation, in an attempt to get back to what they thought were the roots of the Old Testament text, chose to use the Hebrew texts of the scribes and rejected the traditional use of the Septuagint. Therefore the Bibles most commonly available in English are translations of the Hebrew text of the scribes, not translations of the Septuagint which is older. The traditional text of the Orthodox Church, however, whether it be in her singing of the Psalms in worship, or her study of the Old Testament, is still the text of the early Church: the Septuagint.
But if the Orthodox Church uses the Septuagint and the Roman Catholic Church uses the Vulgate which is similar to the Septuagint on what grounds do the Protestant churches claim to support their use of an incomplete bible?
The canon of the bible consists of 49 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books making a total of 76 books. The majority of Protestants blindly accept a Regulation (Canon) that includes only the 66 Books of the Holy Bible, because someone told them that those are the only Books that comprise the entire Holy Bible. They were “told” that there are the Canonical Books and the secondary or Deuterocanonic Books, and that only the 66 are Canonical, while the other 10 are apparently Deuterocanonic and therefore not “divinely inspired”. In fact, they have even confused the Deuterocanonic Books with the “Apocrypha”, which is an entirely different category of Books. We Orthodox, on the other hand, acknowledge the other 10 Books as Canonical Books and naturally we accept them as the product of a decision issued by an Ecumenical Synod, unlike the arbitrary Protestant acceptance.
In order to justify this arbitrary decision, Protestants have concocted a fake statement, which, out of ignorance, the followers have accepted without question. They claim that: “The Lord and the Apostles completely disregarded the “Deuterocanonic” Books that the Orthodox have accepted, and did not use them as references. On the contrary, they make references only to the other Books that we have acknowledged; therefore those only are the books that are divinely inspired and Canonical. Of course this statement is not only unfounded, it is positively false. In fact there are a great many examples found in the New Testament which are mentioned in the 10 books which the Protestants consider as Apocryphal. We do not need to mention them all here, but to show that their regulation is false, we could ask them the following question: “If you consider it imperative that the New Testament refers to extracts in the Old Testament then why do you accept the Book of Esther as canonical since neither the Lord or his Apostles have at any time quoted from this Book? By their own argument, the Book of Esther should also belong to the Deuterocanonic or Apocryphal list.
How then did the Orthodox Church form the Canon of the Bible? Firstly, the Church does not consider all the Books of the Old Testament as Divinely inspired. St. Athanasius in the Fourth Century proposed a list of the books for canonization where he separated the books into categories of “divinely inspired” and those “approved for reading by newcomers to the faith”. His proposal or canon was one of six canons that the Church acknowledged when finalizing the canon of the Bible during the Quinisext Ecumenical Synod in 691. These Canons are as follows: the canon of Laodicea in 364AD, the canon of Carthage in 418AD, the 85th Apostolic canon, and the canons of three individual fathers of the 4th century, Saint Athanasius, St Gregory the Theologian and St. Amphilochius of Ikonion. Thus, although no canon has been given directly by an Ecumenical Council concerning the Books of the Holy Bible, we do have 6 validated canons based on synodical decisions that are guidelines for the acceptance of the Books of the Holy Bible.
Of the above canons, the Synod of Laodicea issued a broad canon regarding the Canonical and Proposed Reading books.
The Synod of Carthage issued a fixed canon regarding the Canonical, Divine and Proposed Reading books.
The 85th Apostolic Canon issued a canon regarding Venerable and Holy books.
Saint Athanasius issued a canon regarding Divine Books for Canonization and another canon for Proposed Reading Books for the newly catechized.
Saint Gregory the Theologian issued a canon for the Genuine Books,
and Saint Amphilochius of Ikonion issued a canon of the Divinely Inspired Books.
The books in these canons are not exactly identical to each other and that is because each one of these canons uses different “characteristics”. One canon speaks of “divine” books and another canon speaks of “divinely inspired” books of the Holy Bible. There is a difference between the terms “
divine” and “divinely inspired”. Not every Book in the Holy Bible is divine and divinely inspired. We Orthodox Christians make very careful distinctions in our expressions, which is something that Protestants do not perceive, hence their assertion that all the books in the Holy Bible are divinely inspired. The Books of the Bible are referred to in the Canonizing sources either as Divine, or Divinely Inspired, or Canonical, or Proposed Reading, or Beneficial, or Venerable, or Canonized. These characterizations are not incidental. Differences do exist; hence, all books do not belong to every category. In the Church we speak with precision and make very delicate distinctions; we do not resort to coarse distinctions such as “Canonical” and “Deuterocanonical” (Secondary).
The Holy Bible contains books (such as the three Books of the Maccabees) which are only Venerable, but not Divinely Inspired or Divine. It contains books (such as Judith and Tobit) which are Canonical, but not Divinely Inspired or Divine. And it also contains Divine books (such as Solomon’s Wisdom) which are not however Divinely Inspired.
What are the differences to these clarifications?
Venerable is a book that Christians have a duty to respect.
Proposed Reading is a book that can be read by all.
Church Text is that which can be read in Churches.
Newcomer Reading is that which is useful for the newly catechized.
Canonical is that which belongs to a Canon (regulation).
Holy is a book that is merely beneficial and not necessarily infallible or Divine or Divinely Inspired. In other words, it can be used as an aid, but it cannot be used to support dogmatic or canonical truths.
Divine is the book that has been written under the supervision of the Holy Spirit, and possibly even by human wisdom. Divine books are infallible in matters pertaining to salvation, but are not necessarily Divinely Inspired.
Divinely inspired is the book that contains a revelation of the Holy Spirit. It is also considered Divine and infallible in matters of salvation.
The majority of the so called Deuterocanonic or Apocryphal Old Testament books are therefore not apocryphal
, but canonical, even though the Church doesn’t consider them as divinely inspired. They are still beneficial to the reader and they contain nothing that would harm the spiritual state of the reader. There are of course many other Old Testament books that are considered as apocryphal such as the Revelations of Adam, Revelations of Lamech, the Prayer of Joseph the All- Good, Revelations of Moses, Psalms of Eldad and Solomom, Foreign sayings of Isaiah, Revelations of Sophonias and the Third book of Esdras. There are even others that we know were pure and unadulterated up to the times of the Apostles like the apocryphal books of Elias, Jeremiah and Enoch. Paul quoted from the apocryphal book of Elias when writing his first Epistle to the Corinthians, and from the apocryphal book of Jeremiah when writing to the Ephesians. St Jude in his General Epistle quotes a whole passage from the Apocryphal book of Enoch: “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 1: 14-15) These books, even during the times of Moses, were never considered as part of Holy Scripture, but it seems they were acceptable to be read. After the times of the Apostles parts of these readings were adulterated or tampered with, probably by devout Jews who knew that the Apostles made references to them, so as to discredit the writings of the Apostles.
With the New Testament writings we have no Deuterocanonical books. There are only the Canonical and Apocryphal. But who gave us the New Testament as we have it today? Many Protestants churches stand dogmatically on “Sola Scriptura” in other words they rely only on Scripture and in the process reject the Church of God which not only produced the New Testament, but also selected through the guidance of the Holy Spirit those books which compose the New Testament. The history of God’s Church didn’t stop with the first century. If it had, we would not possess the New Testament books which are now so dear to every Christian believer. The phenomena of separating Church and Bible which we see so prevalent in much of today’s Christian world is a modern phenomena. Early Christians made no such artificial distinctions.
When the church began, there were no New Testament books. Old Testament texts alone were used as scripture. As we saw in another talk last year, the four Gospels were written from thirty to seventy years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. During that time the Church relied on oral tradition, the accounts of eye-witnesses. The first Gospel was that of St. Mathew which was written between 42AD and 62 AD. Thus, the church existed for a few years with no New Testament books, and only the oral form of the teaching of the apostles. Even after a book was written, it was not immediately widely available. They didn’t have printing facilities which today can print and distribute thousands of books at a time. Each copy had to be written by hand on parchment which was very time consuming. By the end of the first century the Church had universally accepted the four Gospels, the Act of the Apostles, most of St. Paul’s Epistles and most of the Epistles General, but there was no canon saying which books were canonical and which were not. There was not as yet a New Testament as we know it today, but only individual books.
Some books like the Second Epistle of Peter were read almost exclusively only in their regions for which they were originally targeted. This continued for a long time, leading to their (temporary or permanent) rejection from the canon due to doubts about their apostolic origins. Even if not universally accepted, some books were highly regarded by its recipients and those church's in the surrounding areas. This led to local canonicity, in other words a certain book was used in public worship only in a particular region. In time, 27 of these books came to have universal canonicity, but others (e.g. Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, I Clement, Gospel of the Hebrews) were rejected for inclusion in the New Testament canon, even though they often retained a reputation for being profitable Christian reading.
For over two hundred years a number of books we now take for granted as being part of the New Testament were disputed by the Church before being included. Many other books were considered for inclusion, but eventually excluded. The earliest complete listing of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament was not given until A.D. 367, by St. Athanasius. This means that the first complete listing of New Testament books as we have them today didn’t appear until over 300 years after the death and Resurrection of Christ.
During the first four centuries there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture. The first person we know of who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament, the Creator God, was contemptible, a very different God from the God of the New Testament. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage, and in so doing dispense with the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only one Gospel, and ten of Paul’s epistles. The only Gospel he accepted was that of St. Luke, but even this he considered was adulterated and he set out to edit and reconstruct what he considered was the uncorrupted text.
Many believe that it was in reaction or response to Marcion's canon that the early Church determined to have a clearly defined canon of its own. The church insisted on a catholic scripture, one that encompassed Jewish and Gentile Christianity and that faithfully reflected the apostolic teachings. But like Marcian, there were many who did not accept all Four Gospels and other books of the New Testament. Another problem was that during the Second and Third Centuries many other books appeared bearing the Names of Apostles.
In those early years of Christianity a controversy arose over which of the four Gospels to use. The Christians of Asia Minor used the Gospel of John rather than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And based upon the Passion account contained in John, Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a different day than those in Rome, which resisted the Gospel of John and instead used the other Gospels. The Western Church for a time hesitated to use the Gospel of John because the Gnostic heretics also made use of it in addition to their own “secret Gospels.”
St. Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200), Bishop of Lyons, produced the first known catholic canon. He recognized the four gospel canon as an already established entity and championed it as “an indispensable and recognized collection against all deviations of heretics.” Thus, sometime in the last half of the second century, the four church gospels began to be viewed as a single unit. He defended the four gospels and refused to accept new gospels, and also defended the book of Acts by pointing out that it is illogical to accept St. Luke's gospel and reject Acts (as did Marcion). The Pauline letters needed no defence as even the heretics acknowledged them as authoritative. He cited most of them, in fact he cited from every New Testament book except Philemon and III John, but given that both are extremely short, this does not indicate one way or the other what he thought of their canonicity. While citing both Revelations and the Shepherd, he did not cite them as canonical books, although he considered them important.
By the year 200 the canon had almost reached its final form, but there were still some books that were disputed like Revelations, Hebrews, Philemon, and the Catholic Epistles (I and II Peter, I and II and III John, and Jude). For instance, the Old Latin translation of the New Testament which was made around that time contained the present day canon without the books, II Peter, James, and Hebrews. The Epistle to the Hebrews was clearly excluded in the Western Church in a number of listings of the second, third, and fourth centuries. Prominent among reasons for excluding this book were concerns over its authorship. Primarily due to Augustine and his influence upon certain North African councils, the Epistle to the Hebrews was finally accepted in the West by the end of the fourth century.
On the other hand, the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, written by the Apostle John, was not accepted in the Eastern Church for several centuries. Once again, questions concerning authorship of the book were at the source of the controversy. Among Eastern authorities who rejected this book were Dionysius of Alexandria (third century), Eusebius (third century), Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century), the Council of Laodicea (fourth century), John Chrysostom (fourth century), Theodore of Mopsuesta (fourth century), and Theodoret (fifth century). In addition, the original Syriac and Armenian versions of the New Testament omitted this book. Many Greek New Testament manuscripts written before the ninth century do not contain the Apocalypse, and it is not used in the liturgical cycle of the Eastern Church to this day.
St. Athanasius supported the inclusion of the Apocalypse, and it is due primarily to his influence that it was eventually received into the New Testament canon in the East. The early Church actually seems to have made an internal compromise on the Apocalypse and Hebrews. The East would have excluded the Apocalypse from the canon, while the West would have done without Hebrews. Simply put, each side agreed to accept the disputed books of the other.
With the passage of time the Church discerned which writings were truly Apostolic and which were not. It was a prolonged struggle taking place over several centuries in which the Church decided what books were her own. Many criteria were used to determine if a book was to be included as canonical:
1) It had to have Apostolic authority in other words it had to have been written by an apostle, by someone associated with an apostle, like St. Mark and St Luke, or by a member of the Lord's family.
2) It had to be from the Apostolic age.
3) It must have been widely accepted for a long time and in many places. Regular use of a book liturgically was also an important principle. Liturgical use both provided a powerful motivation to produce the canon since knowing what books ought be used in public worship was critical and was itself an important determinant in setting the bounds of the canon.
4
) It must conform to the oral tradition and rule of faith taught by the Church.
5
) It must be considered inspired of God.
6
) It must be accepted by the Church.
This then is a short account of the history of the Bible Canon and how it was formed. A more detailed form would take us into another week or two on the same subject which would bore you out of your minds.
But the question posed in the beginning was in two parts. It still remains for us to see the answer to the second part: If the apocryphal gospels are not canonical, why did the Church rely on them to formulate certain feasts of the Mother of God such as the Dormition and Entry?
The apocryphal do indeed mention the birth and childhood of the Mother of God, her entry into the temple and also her Dormition. But, I would say to the person who posed the question: why do you assume that the written text came first and that the Church used these texts to formulate the feasts of the Mother of God? This is a very Protestant approach which only accepts the written Testament without regards to Holy Tradition which gave them the Bible in the form they now have. We have already seen that for many years the teaching of the Church was made orally without any written data on the life of Christ. Surely this applies also to the life of the Mother of God. Oral tradition handed us the stories concerning the Mother of God which were later recorded in the liturgical hymns of the Church. The fact that the apocryphal Gospels also contain these stories only confirms that they were well known and accepted within the Church at the time of them being written. As I have said elsewhere, “the Gospels do not teach us everything for when the Lord was to leave this world He promised us another teacher: “And I will pray to the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever. Even the Spirit of Truth” (John 14: 16) and “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things” (John 14: 26).
Evidently then, there is a Christian teaching, which supplements the Gospels, and this teaching is found in Holy Tradition. Let us not forget that not all that the Lord taught, said or did is written in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament; neither everything that the Apostles taught are recorded in the Acts. Does not St John the Evangelist say towards the end of his Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21: 25).” This also applies to Holy Tradition, not everything needed to be written down on paper to be accepted as the truth within the Church. St. Paul, writing to the Christians of Thessalonica says: “stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” [that is whether oral or written] (2 Thessalonians 2: 15). This shows that the unwritten and orally transmitted Apostolic teachings, along with the divinely inspired books written by the Lord’s disciples and Apostles, make up Sacred or Holy Tradition, which is the basis and the foundation of the doctrine of the Orthodox Faith. Both the oral and written are equal sources of authority.
Not all the apocryphal are complete fairytales, some contain a great deal of information which is beneficial, but they were rejected by the Church because, even though they bear the names of the apostles, they were not written by the Apostles or because they contain teachings that are not in line with the official teachings of the Church. They were written or adulterated by heretics who conformed them to their own teachings. The Gnostic tradition was an abundant source of apocryphal gospels. 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, another Gnostic gospel, also received much media attention when it was reconstructed in 2006.
The Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a very naughty, wicked and vindictive little boy. Listen to the following passage and then decide if that is the Jesus you know in your hearts.
“Jesus went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: You shall not finish your course. And immediately he fell down and died. But certain when they saw what was done said: Whence was this young child born, for that every word of his is an accomplished work? And the parents of him that was dead came unto Joseph, and blamed him, saying: You that has such a child cannot dwell with us in the village: or do you teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slays our children. And Joseph called the young child apart and admonished him, saying: Why have you done such things, that these suffer and hate us and persecute us? But Jesus said: I know that these thy words are not yours: nevertheless for thy sake I will hold my peace: but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway they that accused him were smitten with blindness. And they that saw it were sore afraid and perplexed, and said concerning him that every word which he spake whether it were good or bad, was a deed, and became a marvel. And when they saw that Jesus had so done, Joseph arose and took hold upon his ear and wrung it sore. And the young child was angry and said unto him: It is enough for you to seek and not to find, and verily thou hast done unwisely: do you not know that I am yours? vex me not.”
The Gospel of Judas is no better. It tells of a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas. Among the many things they discuss is also the subject of the creation of humanity. Jesus tells Judas about certain ranks of ruling angels. One of these angels called Saklas says to the other angels “Let us create a human being after the likeness and after the image. They fashioned Adam and his wife Eve, who is called, in the cloud, Zoe. For by this name all the generations seek the man, and each of them calls the woman by these names.”
What this gospel is trying to say is that we were created by angels and not by God.
But enough of these silly and blasphemous books: It is obvious to anyone with any intelligence that they contain nothing of the truth. Most lies contain a little of the truth. In fact, a lie is a mixture of true and false. It is the truth taken and distorted so that the receiver of the lie cannot easily distinguish that it is a lie. This is the original lie that the devil used to deceive Eve in the Garden of Eden and this is the pattern of lies that the devil continues to use against the faithful. An outright lie is easily spotted, but take the truth and add even a small and hardly noticeable lie to it and you have a weapon that will deceive the un-knowledgeable and unsuspecting. The books mentioned don’t even fall into the category of a lie, they are just blatant blasphemies. Let us then not, even for an instance, think that the Church, in all her wisdom, borrowed from such books for her liturgical worship. Let us not think that the Church shares in these lies and blasphemies for that in itself would be a blasphemy. Rather let us acknowledge that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has always contained and preached the truth, the truth which some writers, guided by the unholy spirit, have taken and used to support and give weight to their own lies.