How do the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches differentiate between which Apocrypha are part of their holy tradition and which are not?

For example, the story of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not contained in any books of the Bible and is rather coming from the early Apocrypha: "The Protevangelium of James".

However, as far as I know, at least in the Orthodox Church this story is absolutely believed upon and its validity is never questioned. The Orthodox definitely consider this story to be a part of their tradition. On the other hand, there are many Apocrypha that describe exactly the same stories that are described in the New Testaments, however, those Apocrypha are just considered Apocrypha, their authorship and spiritual validity are held under question, and they are not considered by the Orthodox to be the part of their tradition.

  • No writings contradicting canonical ones can constitute an acceptable source of extra-Biblical tradition.
    – user46876
    Nov 4, 2019 at 4:12

3 Answers 3


Eastern Orthodox Old Testament "Apocrypha"

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Old Testament Apocrypha comprises books such as the Assumption of Moses, Ascension of Isaiah, Apocalypse of Elijah, Book of Enoch, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Other traditions sometimes refer to these books as apocrypha and/or pseudoepigrapha.

None of the these books were included in the Old Testament canon confirmed by the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787, nor in any of the preceding related councils (i.e. Council of Carthage in 397, Council of Trullo in 692). In some other Orthodox traditions that broke away after the 3rd and 4th Ecumenical Councils (e.g. Ethiopean/Eritrean), the Book of Enoch is also included in the Old Testament and not considered as being part of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Eastern Orthodox New Testament "Apocrypha"

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition again, the New Testament Apocrypha includes the Didache, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the First Epistle of Clement, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Protoevangelium of James.

Some of the above books (e.g. Gospel of Thomas) were considered truly spurious and heretical (usually gnostic) and were never considered as part of the canon by the Church of the 7 Ecumenical Councils.

Some of the books were included in some manuscripts we have of the New Testament used in the early Church (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus - the two principal witnesses behind the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament text). These include Clement, Barnabas, and Hermas. Although eventually excluded form the canon, they were not considered heretical and to this day are part of the written tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Other Orthodox traditions (e.g. Ethiopean/Eritrean) continue to include some of these books (e.g. Clement) in their New Testament canon to this day.

Still others were never included in any New Testament compilation, but neither are they considered heretical. These include the Didache and the Protoevangelium of James.

The Deuterocanon

Again in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there are a number of Old Testament books which, though not part of the Hebrew canon, are included in the overall Old Testament canon. Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, this set comprises:

  • I Esdras
  • The portion of II Esdras called the "Prayer of Manasseh"
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Portions of Esther
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • Baruch
  • Epistle of Jeremiah
  • The portions of Daniel:
    • Song of the Three Children
    • Susanna
    • Bel and the Dragon
  • Psalm 151
  • I Maccabees
  • II Maccabees
  • III Maccabees

Although "apocrypha" is a Greek word, the Greek Church never referred to any of the above books as apocrypha, which has a derogatory connotation. They are instead referred to as the deuterocanon (the second canon). You will sometimes find the books referred to as "Apocrypha" in Orthodox sources nonetheless, but this is largely in deference to non-Orthodox terminology.

Jerome seems to have been the first to have labeled the deuterocanon as "apocrypha" in one of his introductions to his Latin translation of the Old Testament. He seem to have objected to the inclusion of books outside the Hebrew canon in the Old Testament, but elsewhere he wrote that he felt he must defer to the Church. (He translated all of the deuterocanon and included it in his work.)

Timeline of the Deuterocanon/"Apocrypha"

An overview of how the Old Testament canon developed within the Church is discussed here and here. A brief timeline would be:

Through 2nd century

There is not consensus on the content of the Old Testament.

  • Marcion (85-160) holds that that the entire Old Testament - Hebrew or otherwise - should be excluded from the Bible.

  • Melito of Sardis (d. 180) seems to exclude the deuterocanon from what he considers to be the Old Testament.

  • Deuterocanonical books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  • Some early Church Fathers quote from the deuterocanon (e.g. Irenaeus, 130-202), others do not (e.g. Justin Martyr, 100-165).

3rd century

  • Origen includes Maccabees in the Old Testament canon he enumerates, although it is not clear which specific books.

  • Canon LXXXV of the Apostolic Canons include a number of deuterocanonical books in the Old Testament, including Sirach and Maccabees. (These canons are of indeterminate origin. Some scholars say they may date to the 2nd century, others to as late as the 5th or 6th, though.)

4th century

  • Hilary of Poitiers (310-368) includes Tobit and Judith in his enumeration of the Old Testament

  • Jerome (347-420) includes the entire deuterocanon in his Latin translation of the Old Testament (see above)

  • Virtually every Church Father quotes from the deuterocanon in their works, including John Chrysostom (349-407) (called by John MacArthur "the greatest preacher of the early Church").

  • The deuterocanon is bound up with the Bible codices of this period (see above)

  • Canon XXXIII of the 3rd Council of Carthage (397) includes the deuterocanon in the Old Testament

7th century

The Council of Trullo (692) ratifies and adopts many ancient local canons, including the Apostolic Canons. Canon LXXXV of the Apostolic Canon includes the deuterocanon in the Old Testament (see above).

8th century

The 7th Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (787) ratifies and adopts the canons of both the 3rd Council of Carthage and the Council of Trullo. This effectively establishes the following Old Testament canon for the entire Chalcedonian Church (i.e. the Church recognizing all 7 Ecumenical Councils to that date):

  • Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Joshua, Judges, Ruth
  • 1-4 Kings (referred to as 1/2 Samuel and 1/2 Kings in most Bibles today)
  • 1/2 Chronicles
  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Songs
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • The books of the 12 Prophets: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Esther
  • Ezra and Nehemiah
  • 1-3 Maccabees

"Great Schism" to the Reformation and beyond

The See of Rome and the other four Sees (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) mutually separated in 1054 as the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Constantinople mutually anathematize each other.

  • The Roman Catholic Council of Trent (c 1546) issues a decree (De Canonicis Scripturis) re-affirming the canon of the 3rd Council of Carthage, resulting in minimal changes to the canon established by the 7th Ecumenical Council.

  • The Geneva Bible is published in 1560 with the deuterocanon specified the 7th Ecumenical Council.

  • The King James Bible is published in 1611 with the deuterocanon specified by the 7th Ecumenical Council.

  • The Synod of Jerusalem (1692) amends the Old Testament canon to include the Prayer of Manasseh and a 4th Book of Maccabees. Technically, the canons of this synod only apply to the Jerusalem Patriarchate. To date, most Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions recognize the Prayer of Manasseh, but not 4 Maccabees.

  • The deuterocanon begins disappearing from editions of the King James Bible beginning in the early 19th century.

  • Once again a thorough answer. This is a great help to me, even though I am somewhat familiar with the differences in canon. +1. Feb 2, 2018 at 18:33
  • (1) Thanks, but your answer is about apocrypha and the canon, while my question is about apocrypha and tradition. "Still others were never included in any New Testament compilation, but neither are they considered heretical. These include the Didache and the Protoevangelium of James." - So, how does the EOC determine whether the stories written in them must be accepted as true and valid (and, therefore, all of the church members must accept them as true) or not? I mean, mere the fact that the stories are not heretical doesn't make them valid stories.
    – brilliant
    Feb 3, 2018 at 4:15
  • (2) On the other hand, if the stories contained in them are to be by all means accepted as true (that is, they are a part of the tradition), and yet at the same time they are not contained in any of the canon books (that is, they are only in the non-heretical apocrypha), then this begs a question of why these apocrypha were not included in the canon then.
    – brilliant
    Feb 3, 2018 at 4:27

There's the Gospels of Eve, Judas, Philip, Mary, Ebionites, Hebrews, Marcion, Mani, Apelles, Bartholomew... there's a huge list. To be "Apocrypha", a book need only be unaccepted into the official Bible. This, added to the propensity of early Christians (especially Gnostics) to write what were essentially fan-fics at the time, and you end up with numerous apocryphal books.

Different denominations' canons can be found here under Intertestamental books and here.

As for why some are canon an some are not, for Catholics it was decided in the Council of Trent and subsequent discussions, while the Eastern Orthodox canon is still mercurial, for a lack of such a unified council.

  • I see your historic relativism and raise you one Council of Nicaea. May 18, 2015 at 14:37
  • I see your historic relativism and raise you one Council of Nicaea - What do you mean?!
    – brilliant
    May 18, 2015 at 17:48
  • The "there is no single Bible" message in user10149's answer is... inaccurate. For the purposes of canon, the Bible used by most denominations was decided in the Council of Nicaea and subsequent communications. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea May 18, 2015 at 17:56
  • So where in my words have you seen my "historic relativism"? And what did you mean by saying "I raise you one Council of Nicaea"? Did you mean to say "I refer you to the Council of Nicaea"?
    – brilliant
    May 18, 2015 at 23:43
  • I wasn't referring to you, I was referring to user10149. And it was a modification of the phrase en.wiktionary.org/wiki/I'll_see_you_and_raise_you May 19, 2015 at 16:00

I'm not aware of any. I would say that it's not possible. First off, there is no single Bible. The word "bible" means "books" plural in Greek. Various groups picked certain ancient books to be part of their Bible, and ignored many others. Different groups ignored different books. The Protestant believe there are 66 books. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church says 81. Some churches regard "Book of Jubilees" to be holy, and other don't. Each church decided which books were going into their bible, and if they didn't, the book is not holy to them by definition.

  • "Each church decided which books were going into their bible, and if they didn't, the book is not holy to them by definition" - Well, this is at least not true about the Orthodox Church. They consider many books outside of the canon to be the part of their Holy Tradition and believe whatever is written in them and don't question the validity of the events described in them.
    – brilliant
    May 17, 2015 at 3:52

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