Question: One of the books debunking The DaVinci Code mentions “The Apocrypha.” What is it? Are Catholics supposed to be reading The Apocrypha?
Answer: The word “apocrypha” is a plural noun, derived from the Greek “απόκρυφος” meaning “secret” or “hidden.” Customarily, the word is capitalized, but the Apocrypha are not a unified and specific collection of writings like the Bible. Protestants use the word to refer to the specific books that they have omitted from the Old Testament, but nearly all Christians admit that there is a much wider body of apocryphal literature.
In the broad sense, “apocryphal” may refer to any of a number of writings which are similar to the writings of canonical Scripture but which the Church does not recognize as inspired by the Holy Ghost. The similarity may be may be one of style, resembling, for example, the historical books, the Psalms, or an Epistle, a Gospel, the Acts, or the Apocalypse. The similarity may arise through claiming authorship by an important biblical character, say, Moses, or Solomon, or one of the Apostles. In some cases, the works are authentic writings of early Church leaders, but lack the character of inspired writings-these last are usually referred to as “patristic” works, and not lumped with the Apocrypha.
In the narrow sense, “apocryphal” may refer to the “secret writings” of the Gnostic sects-writings which claimed to have esoteric knowledge that could be shared only with initiated members of the sect-a sort of ancient Freemasonry. When used narrowly, the word is often a pejorative, meaning “spurious” or “false.” (Conversely, of course, from the point of view of the esoteric sects, the word is used to praise the “special” or “secret” character of the text.)
Some of the Apocrypha (in the wide sense) were written for laudable reasons-to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of our Lord and Lady left by the canonical scriptures, as legitimate histories of events tangential to the Scriptures, or merely to edify the faithful. Some are a bit fanciful, portraying our Lord as a child with magical powers, eager to play with them (the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas” has the young Jesus giving life to creatures He made from mud, and striking His offensive playmates dead!). Still others were also written to foster beliefs in the early heresies (the alleged “Acts of Peter,” for example, have Mass offered by the Saint with bread and water, after the Gnostic error which held wine to be evil).
As the canon of Scripture became clearly defined in the second and third century, the public reading of Apocryphal materials became less and less common. The truly heretical books-generally Gnostic literature which should be read by no one-were condemned by name or theme by such notables as Origen, and Saints Irenæus of Lyons, Epiphanius, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Pope Leo the Great. A decree (probably incorrectly) attributed to Pope Saint Gelasius (492-496) forbade the reading of Apocryphal writings in church.
In some degree, the Church has drawn from the Apocrypha for Her own good purposes. Saint Jude almost certainly cited the apocryphal “Book of Henoch” and “Assumption of Moses” in his canonical Epistle. Our knowledge of Mary’s early life, who her parents were, and how she married Saint Joseph comes from apocryphal books deemed historical or at least harmlessly edifying. Her Assumption into heaven, known through Tradition, is also chronicled in the Apocrypha. The “Quo vadis?” account of Saint Peter trying to leave Rome and the account of his inverted crucifixion are given in his apocryphal “Acts.”
In the Liturgy we borrow from 4 Esdras for the Introit of the Requiem Mass and the Reproaches of Good Friday. The feast of the Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple to receive her education at the age of three is based on the apocryphal Gospels of James, Pseudo-Matthew, and the Nativity of Mary-the charming, though unlikely, story is based on the Old Testament Saint Anne, who presented Samuel in the Temple in fulfillment of a vow.
Should Catholics read the Apocrypha? Currently, there is no Church law on the matter. But if the motive for reading is to find spectacular stories or to gain the “secret knowledge” of the Gnostics it would be a waste of time. The Patristic works-the writings of early Popes and bishops, like Pope Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, or Irenæus of Lyons-would be a much better choice. There are things to be gained from the more benign books-but it would be pointless to begin without a solid knowledge of the canonical Scriptures, and the history and culture of the lands of the Bible. The canonical Scriptures guarantee a true knowledge of the things God has determined to make known to us-no other literature does the same. One who makes a “fast read” of the Reader’s Digest edition of the Bible, before quickly going on to Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels or to the Nag Hammadi library is simply fooling himself!