Symposium Examines Apocryphal Literature
December 1983

“Symposium Examines Apocryphal Literature,” Ensign, Dec. 1983, 70–71

Symposium Examines Apocryphal Literature

“It’s time, and appropriate, for the Religious Studies Center to do something on the subject of apocryphal literature,” said Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, during a symposium at BYU October 11 and 12.

Under consideration at the symposium were (1) the Apocrypha of the Old Testament (a collection of books considered scriptural by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches but held as noncanonical by Latter-day Saints and most Protestants); (2) the Pseudepigrapha (Jewish—and a few Christian—writings stemming from around the time of Christ and preserved individually in various monasteries, museums, and libraries around the world; the word literally means “falsely attributed”); (3) the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in 1947 near the Dead Sea, written by an ancient Jewish sect before and during the lifetime of Christ); (4) the New Testament apocrypha (Christian books generally written between the second and ninth centuries A.D. in imitation of books in the New Testament); and (5) the Nag Hammadi Codices (a collection of thirteen Gnostic papyrus books dating from the fourth century A.D. and discovered in Egypt in 1945).

Using the Holy Spirit to evaluate apocryphal literature was a consistent theme throughout the symposium. Speakers often quoted the Lord’s words to Joseph Smith concerning the Apocrypha: “There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;

“There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. …

“Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;

“And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;

“And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited.” (D&C 91:1–6.)

Although this guidance from the Lord had reference only to the Old Testament Apocrypha, speakers echoed the view that it could be applied to all other apocryphal books.

C. Wilfred Griggs, director of Ancient Studies at BYU, detailed the reversal in meaning of the term apocrypha through history. Originally it was a label given to books that were to be kept hidden from public view and reserved strictly for the faithful. For centuries, the only distinction made among sacred writings was between “scripture” and “special scripture.”

During the second century, however, the word apocrypha began to be corrupted as scribes and teachers diluted and falsified genuine apocryphal (sacred, secret) writings in order to further their own interpretations. At first, the fathers of what was left of Christianity fought this corruption of good apocryphal literature. Later, however, they began to oppose the very idea of secret sacred literature, considering such works worthless.

In the fourth century, use of the term shifted again and was attached to the noncanonical—though popular—works of the Septuagint. Centuries later, Martin Luther found these apocryphal Jewish records “not to his liking and is essentially responsible, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, for giving them a bad name,” Brother Griggs said.

Speakers at the symposium offered varying degrees of allowance for apocryphal writings. Robert J. Matthews spoke in favor of a tolerant approach toward them. Labeling something apocryphal or canonical is the work of people or councils, he said, and is sometimes influenced by preference and religious conditions. “Items that are regarded as canon by one group might not be by another. The selection of what is apocryphal and what is canonic varies with who is making the decision.

“There is much interesting and useful reading in the apocryphal literature,” he continued. “And one can often decide what is correct by the Spirit. But if we try to make those decisions without the Spirit, we may make colossal errors. Much apocryphal literature is obviously spurious,” he warned. However, “the presence of ideas and names in latter-day revelation that are not found in the Bible but are found in apocryphal writings should quicken our interest in these ancient things.”

Stephen E. Robinson, assistant professor of religion and chairman of the honors program at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, urged caution in using apocryphal writings to buttress revealed truth. “It has been my experience,” he said, “that Latter-day Saints are usually much too anxious to accept ancient documents at face value and seldom bother to ask themselves whether the apocrypha they so readily employ to support their modern arguments might not have been forgeries even when they were first written.

“Of course,” he pointed out, “not all the apocryphal books involved the possibility of deceit. Some of the documents were written anonymously merely for edification and entertainment and were circulated in antiquity merely as good and useful books. They were never intended to be taken as inspired or authoritative.”

He detailed the history behind some apocryphal writings—texts written by well-meaning authors who, “driven by the needs of their theology or by their perceived role as advocates for God and defenders of the faith, adopted the falsehood of ancient authorship to gain credulity for what they believed to be the truth.” Thus, they created “scripture” and attributed it to a well-known prophet or Apostle. “They deceived for the very best of reasons—but they deceived. They became ‘liars for God.’

“Sadly,” said Brother Robinson, some members, “finding the standard works and the revelations of the modern prophets inadequate for their purposes—although I do not know why—turn to the apocrypha for more concrete ‘proof’ that the Church is true. And in that crusade to defend the faith, they inevitably distort and misrepresent the texts and so become, as much as the original author, ‘liars for God.’ Some are even guilty of “proof-texting—selecting certain passages to prove a particular point while ignoring the rest of the text. Is it not dishonest,” Brother Robinson asked, “to represent the apocrypha as firm evidence of the truth when it agrees with us and yet quietly look the other way when it does not?”

Apocryphal literature is of great value, he concluded, because of the enhanced understanding it gives us of biblical history, biblical languages, and the background of the biblical books themselves—“not because it teaches Mormonism, for by and large it does not.”

S. Kent Brown, chairman of Ancient Scripture at BYU, extended similar cautions to Latter-day Saint use of the Nag Hammadi library. He explained that although teachings that resonate with LDS doctrines are from the oldest texts in the collection, other teachings which are alien to LDS theology also come from the earliest Nag Hammadi writings.

“I do not mean to imply that the [Nag Hammadi] texts are not worth careful study,” he continued. “On the contrary, they are—and I have spent a good deal of my life doing such. What I am suggesting is that their potential worth as something akin to scripture should be soberly approached. There is a good deal in them that is uplifting and edifying. But a significant presence of other elements which have a very strange ring about them obliges us to be cautious where we Latter-day Saints place our support.”

Richard L. Anderson, director of Bible studies at BYU, gave five guidelines on how to avoid apocryphal pitfalls: (1) Don’t accept a document just because it’s in print. (2) Consider it only after determining if there’s an original manuscript or a responsible copy. (3) Check out the historical correlation between the work and known fact. (4) The more sensational the document, the more care ought to be used in checking it out. (5) Read the text for yourself.

“Some apocryphal texts are rich sources for important insights,” he said, “and surely qualify for the Lord’s comment to Joseph Smith that we should test them by the Spirit.” However, the Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament apocrypha seem to be, in many cases, “imagination running riot.” Much of it “may be hazardous to your spiritual health.”

It is easy for Latter-day Saints to be receptive to the idea of “new scriptures” for a couple of reasons, said Gerald E. Jones, director of the LDS Institute at Berkeley, California. The concept of certain truths being hidden and reserved only for the faithful is repeated several times in scripture. And the idea that truth may come from noncanonical sources is also found in Latter-day Saint scripture. He noted, however, that the position of the General Authorities concerning apocryphal literature has been one of restraint.

Robert L. Millet, assistant professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, reviewed how the four New Testament Gospels were formed, contrasting their origin and content with apocryphal works, He defended the authenticity of the New Testament gospels—both in authorship and content—while noting that it is possible they are abbreviated versions of the originals. “The canonical Gospels combine simplicity with the power of their message and present a dignified and appropriate glimpse into the life and words of the Savior,” he noted. “It is wise for us to recognize the hand of Providence in the formation, inspiration, and preservation of the four canonical Gospels that we have.”

Robert Matthews summed up the conclusions of many who attended the symposium: “What we have in the present-known apocryphal literature,” he said, “is a poor transmission from the earlier, more correct sources. We’ll just have to wait until the better sources are discovered and are made available—through a prophet—before we can drink from the pure spring. In the meantime, from Latter-day revelation—and to an extent, less reliably, from the noncanonical, apocryphal writings—we can catch glimpses of what the ancient prophets knew and wrote.”