Section 91: The Apocrypha
In D&C 90:13, which Joseph received on March 8, 1933, the Lord counseled Joseph that he was to continue his work on the Joseph Smith Translation by completing his inspired revision of “the prophets,” that is, the Old Testament books. Accordingly, on the very next day, March 9, 1833, Joseph resumed work on the JST in his quarters above Newel K. Whitney’s store.
In Joseph Smith’s King James Bible, which he was using to create his inspired revision, there were fourteen books (or parts of books) between the Old Testament and the New Testament known as the Apocrypha. The word “apocrypha” is from the Greek word generally meaning “that which is hidden or secret.” Most latter-day saints are not familiar with the apocryphal Old Testament books because they were eliminated from the King James Bible and all protestant Bibles in the early 1800s. They are still present in some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, though there is some skepticism over their authenticity among the leadership of those churches. The apocryphal books are: The First Book of Esdras; The Second Book of Esdras; Tobit; The Book of Judith; The Additions to the Book of Esther; The Wisdom of Solomon; Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach; Baruch, including the letter of Jeremiah; the Prayer of Azariah and the song of the Three Young Men; Susanna; Bel and the Dragon; the Prayer of Manasseh; the First Book of Maccabees, and the Second Book of Maccabees. Today, if one is interested, these books are available and may be easily found and purchased.
The apocryphal books (with one or two exceptions) first appeared in a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint (or LXX) which began to circulate in the ancient world in the second century before Christ. Compared to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) which followed, the Septuagint had more books. There are two possible explanations for this: (1) either the Greek translators in 200 BC added material to their Bible which was not found in the original Hebrew, or (2) the rabbis of the first centuries after Christ removed some books from the Hebrew Bible of which the Septuagint translation, made earlier, still bears witness. Most contemporary biblical scholars favor the first option. This extra material found in the Septuagint Greek translation but not in the Hebrew Bible has come to be called the Apocrypha.
It would appear that on the first day of Joseph’s resuming his translation of the Old Testament, a question arose concerning the exact definition of “the prophets.” Particularly, Joseph wondered whether or not he should “translate” the Apocrypha. The Lord gave him, in essence, the following answer which is the position of the Church on the Apocrypha:
- These books contain many things which are true, and they are mostly translated correctly.
- There are also many things contained therein that are not true but are the false traditions of men.
- There is no need to revise the Apocrypha.
- Any member of the Church may read the Apocrypha, but he should make certain he has the Spirit with him to help him discern what is true from what is not.
We have come to apply this counsel more widely than to just the Apocrypha. For example, is it all right for a church member to read the Dead Sea Scrolls and accept as true those things which are witnessed as such by the Spirit? Yes, indeed!
Today, there are literally hundreds of pieces of ancient literature that have been discovered that are as old as the Old Testament books in our Bible. We do not accept them as canonized scripture, but certainly acknowledge that they may contain some truths. The scholar in our Church who has done more work in this area than any other is the late Dr. Hugh Nibley.
D&C 91 The Lord gives instructions concerning the Apocrypha
1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;
verse 1 “the Apocrypha” Though we used the word Apocrypha with and without a capital “a” in the introduction to this section, it is important to understand the word when it is used with either the uppercase or lowercase “a.” The expression “the Apocrypha” (note the capital “A” and also the definite article) refers specifically and exclusively to those fourteen extra books of the Old Testament found in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, strictly speaking, the divine counsel which is given in section 91 about “the Apocrypha” cannot be legitimately applied to any other category of ancient literature.
The adjective apocryphal (with a lowercase “a”) may be used to refer to the Apocrypha (in such expressions as “the apocryphal books of the Greek Septuagint”), but it may also be applied to many other works of ancient literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi codices (ancient records discovered in 1945 in Egypt), and the apocryphal books of the New Testament. In other words, it may be used to describe any non-canonical ancient religious manuscript. These manuscripts may be said to be apocryphal literature. These manuscripts also are sometimes referred to by the title pseudepigrapha. Because of its usage in describing noncanonical literature, the adjective apocryphal has also come to mean spurious or of doubtful authorship or authenticity. In section 91, the Apocrypha receive a limited endorsement, but this endorsement does not necessarily apply to all apocryphal literature, some of which is frankly spurious.
“There are many things contained therein that are true” Some of the writings in the Apocrypha are historically true or contain spiritually inspiring material. For example, much of our knowledge of Jewish history between the Old and New Testaments comes from 1 and 2 Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon, while the Prayer of Manasseh is a moving example of the broken heart of a repentant sinner, though it is probably not really written by the evil king Manasseh.
“it is mostly translated correctly” The problem with the Apocrypha is not the translation, but the nature of the documents themselves. Being historically true is not exactly the same thing as being divinely inspired.
2 There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.
verse 2 “many things contained therein . . . are not true” For example, it is easy to see the popular folklore in Tobit, or the pseudosophisticated “wisdom” of Ecclesiasticus. And 2 Maccabees covers much of the same history as 1 Maccabees but “spices things up” considerably to make the event recorded seem more dramatic.
“interpolations by the hands of men” To interpolate means to add something between two other things; to interject; to interpose. This language would seem to favor the view that the extra books contain additions that alter the meanings and corrupt the original text.
3 Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.
verse 3 “it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated” Joseph’s instructions that the Apocrypha did not comprise part of his translation obligation left the very clear implication that the Aprocrypha is not to be considered part of the Latter-day Saint canon of scripture. This verse essentially defines the Latter-day Saint biblical canon along Protestant lines: the Old Testament is rightly understood to consist of the books found in the Hebrew Old Testament rather than in the Greek Septuagint.
4 Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;
verse 4 “whoso readeth it” It should not be understood that the saints are forbidden to read the Apocrypha or that these books are without merit. The Holy Spirit can bear witness to truth even on the stony ground of the Apocrypha.
5 And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;
verse 5 “shall obtain benefit therefrom” The most plausible meaning here is that benefit or edification (temporal and even spiritual) may come to the individual who reads the Apocrypha if he is favored, as he reads, by the influence of the Holy Ghost.
This principle would be just as true if one were reading any other type of literature, such as a newspaper or a good novel, but reading it “by the Spirit.”
6 And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.
verse 6 “cannot be benefited” When compared with the scriptures, the Apocrypha is apparently less fruitful soil for spiritual growth without greater than usual assistance from the Spirit. While historians and scholars can find much in these documents of importance to their research, average church members will receive a greater spiritual return on their investment of time by reading the canonized scriptures.
- Michael J. Preece