Anabaptists and the Apocrypha
During a recent Bible study, a friend asked if anyone knew anything about the books of the Bible that were in between the Old and New Testaments of his new Bible. I tried to explain the concept of Apocrypha, realizing in the process that I did not know as much about the topic as I would like. I since have remedied that lack of knowledge, and feel the need to share the fruits of my research with all of you. There is a long and interesting relationship that exists between the Anabaptists and these hidden books of the Bible, a relationship that has in recent generations been lost or forgotten.
We have to begin our investigation all the way back at the time of the early Christian church. In those days there were a significant number of books that were floating around, from Hebrew sources as well as translations in Greek and Aramaic. There were disagreements over which books were inspired by God and were therefore authoritative, and some of that disagreement still lingers to this day. Some church fathers gathered a collection of the books we now commonly find in the Old Testament, while others added a small collection of additional books or parts of books. Those additional collected works are sometimes collectively referred to as the Apocrypha, although some others use the word “deuterocanonical” to describe them (as opposed to protocanonical, the name used to refer to the rest of the Old Testament). The Apocrypha includes the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Judith, an extra chapter for Esther, and some other interesting reads. While the version of the Old Testament that included the Apocrypha became standard among Christians for the next millennium, the doubts about their authenticity still lingered.
Those doubts found voice in Martin Luther and other theologians during the Protestant Reformation. While quoting early church critics, the reformers moved the Apocryphal works out of the rest of the Old Testament and placed them in a section by themselves. Martin Luther himself explained that the Apocryphal books "are not to be esteemed like the Holy Scriptures, ... yet [they] are useful and good to read" (Johns 2012). In response to the Reformation, the Catholic Church called the Council of Trent (which lasted 18 years and saw the leadership of three different popes). The first decree that came out of the Council affirmed the Apocryphal books as being on the same level of authority as the rest of the Old Testament. The Catholic Church and several other Orthodox churches have maintained that position to this day. The Anabaptist movement was birthed into the middle of the controversy about the Apocrypha, with the Reformers on one side and the Catholics on the other.
Scholars have disagreed over the exact nature of the relationship between the earliest Anabaptists and the Apocrypha. The writings of early Anabaptists such as Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and Jacob Hutter contain references to Apocryphal books, but none made it clear whether they viewed those references as carrying the full weight of Scripture or as simple nods to valuable Christian literature (Hamilton 1988). One analysis found that a group of early Anabaptist writers referenced the Apocrypha about two thirds as much as the rest of the Old Testament, which is a substantial amount considering how much larger the rest of the Old Testament is (Johns) (the same analysis found that the New Testament was referenced about 11 times as much as the Old Testament, which is a far more informative statistic). The lack of a clear definitive answer has not stopped some people from speculating though.
Some writers are quick to paint the Anabaptists as holding the Apocrypha as inspired Scriptures, in line with the Catholic church. One such author is John Hooper, who uses that conjecture as part of a broader, logically fallacious, and hyperbolic attack on Anabaptism. (Hooper n.d.) Other more level-headed scholars have reached the same conclusion, and have suggested a few possible explanations for this divergence from other reformers. One possible reason for the Anabaptist acceptance of the Apocrypha was its inclusion in almost every Bible available. That fact, combined with the way that some Apocryphal passages supported the doctrines of free will, could have led to a general acceptance of the Apocrypha. (Johns) Of course, there have been writers willing to dispute that conclusion. For example, the Mennonite Encyclopedia argues that most Anabaptists only considered the Apocrypha to be worthy of study and not on par with the inspired Scriptures (Bender 1953). Regardless of the position of the Anabaptist forefathers, it has become something of a moot point.
In modern times, the average layperson has very little knowledge or experience with the Apocrypha. Pressure from other Protestant groups and the elimination of the disputed works from most Protestant Bibles has led to their disappearance from the collective consciousness. On one hand, perhaps we are saved from being led astray by false writings and imitations of Scripture. But on the other hand, maybe we have lost a valuable collection of Christian literature which forms a small piece of our heritage. This article is too narrow to speculate on these possibilities, but we can at least acknowledge that we can never know too much about our faith and its story.
Bender, Harold S. and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Apocrypha." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 7 Jan 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Apocrypha&oldid=162820.
Hamilton, Alastair. “THE APOCRYPHAL APOCALYPSE 2 ESDRAS AND THE ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT.” Nederlands Archief Voor Kerkgeschiedenis / Dutch Review of Church History, vol. 68, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1–16. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24008920.
Hooper, John. “The Anabaptists and Holy Scripture.” Bible League Trust. Web. 7 january 2019. www.bibleleaguetrust.org/the-anabaptists-and-holy-scripture/.
Johns, Loren L. "Reading the Maccabean literature by the light of the stake: Anabaptist appropriations in the reformation Period." The Free Library. 01 April 2012. Web. 07 January 2019 <https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Reading the Maccabean literature by the light of the stake:...-a0286973032>.