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TitleBackground for the Testaments
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1982
AuthorsRobinson, Stephen E.
Issue Number12
Date PublishedDecember 1982
KeywordsApocrypha; Dead Sea Scrolls; Nag Hammadi Library; Pseudepigrapha

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Background for the Testaments

By Stephen E. Robinson

During the past several decades an increasing number of ancient religious writings have come to the world’s attention. Whole libraries of religious texts have been discovered at Qumran in Palestine and at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These and other exciting discoveries have in turn renewed interest in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments times.

Since some of this literature provides important information for biblical studies, a strong interest in it has naturally developed among Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, the texts were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Coptic, and other exotic languages, and informed discussion of the documents is often confined to scholarly journals. Thus, few Latter-day Saints are able to study the texts firsthand or to evaluate the claims that are sometimes made about them.

The following information is intended to help interested students understand what this ancient literature is, where it comes from, and what might be said about its relationship to the gospel.

The Apocrypha

The word apocrypha means “hidden” in Greek. In Judaism and early Christianity, this term was originally applied to important teachings that were to be kept hidden from the general public. However, by the fourth or fifth century A.D., the Christian world of that time had largely rejected the idea of special or “hidden” teachings and thus rejected any books that claimed to preserve such teachings. Consequently, during this period the word apocrypha came to have a new meaning—“heretical” or “rejected.” Over the centuries the terms apocrypha or apocryphal have again been amended through usage, and are now understood to mean “not scriptural.” In this broad sense any religious writing that claims divine inspiration but which is not found in the scriptures is called “apocryphal.” It is in this sense that the ancient writings discussed in this article are called “apocryphal.”

However, when the term “the Apocrypha” is used (usually with a capital A) it refers specifically to a collection of books accepted as scripture by Roman Catholics and by the Eastern Orthodox church, but believed by most Protestants to be non-scriptural. Hence their designation by Protestants as “the Apocrypha.”

In the third century B.C., Greek-speaking Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek language. Three centuries later, about A.D. 90, the rabbis revised and standardized the Hebrew Old Testament. Comparing the earlier Greek translation, called the Septuagint, with the later Hebrew text of the rabbis, one finds that the Septuagint version contains about fifteen more books than the Hebrew. These “extra” books are the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Obviously, the translators of the Greek Septuagint believed that the books of the Apocrypha were scripture, and the later rabbis did not. Since the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches accept the contents of the Septuagint as authoritative, they accept its additional books as inspired scripture. However, since most Protestants accept the Hebrew text of the rabbis as authoritative, they do not accept the Apocrypha as scripture.

The books usually included in the Apocrypha are First and Second Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach), Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Suzanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and First and Second Maccabees. To these the Eastern Orthodox add Third and Fourth Maccabees and Psalm 151.

While the larger Christian world is divided in its views on the Apocrypha, Latter-day Saints are fortunate to have received revelation on this subject. In March 1833, the prophet Joseph Smith asked the Lord if his studies of the scriptures should include the books of the Apocrypha. The Lord’s response is preserved as section 91 of the Doctrine and Covenants: [D&C 91]

“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;

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

“Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.

“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. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.” (D&C 91:1–6.)

Accordingly, it has been the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the Apocrypha are not scripture, but that they may be of value if read with the Spirit. One who studies the gospel aided by the Spirit is equipped to discern truth from error in the Apocrypha. The words to one of our hymns, “Now Thank We All Our God” (Hymns, no. 120), were taken from the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (50:22–24). First and Second Maccabees provide valuable historical information for the period between the Old and New Testament. The Apostle Paul seems to have quoted more than once (Eph. 6:13–17; Rom. 1:20–31, Rom. 9:20–22) from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which teaches, among other things, the premortal existence of souls (8:19f) and the creation of the universe out of unformed, uncreated matter (11:17). The Prayer of Manasseh is surely one of the most beautiful prayers of repentance ever written.

Yet these same books also contain passages that are incompatible with the principles of the gospel—hence the important limitations imposed by the Lord in his discussion of the Apocrypha in Doctrine and Covenants 91. [D&C 91] Furthermore, the revelation considers only the Old Testament Apocrypha. Since that revelation was given, other apocryphal literature has been discovered. Obviously, section 91 does not address such recent discoveries as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi codices, and other newly found manuscripts, but the principle of that revelation undoubtedly still applies: “Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth.” (D&C 91:4.)

The Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament

The word pseudepigrapha (pronounced sood-ehpig-ra-fa) literally means “falsely attributed.” Originally this term referred to books such as the Psalms of Solomon, the Testament of Adam, or the Apocalypse of Moses—all of which were attributed to Old Testament characters who could not have written them. Eventually, however, it came to be used for all the books written by Jews in the period roughly between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 which claim to be inspired but which are not found in the Hebrew bible or among the Apocrypha. A few books authored by Christians are also generally included among the Pseudepigrapha.

Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi codices, the Pseudepigrapha were not discovered, but have been preserved individually in museums, libraries, and monasteries throughout the world. The major importance of the Pseudepigrapha is that they come from around the time of Jesus and therefore provide a background of popular culture and religious beliefs against which to place our study of the Old and New Testaments. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha together partly fill in the historical, cultural, and religious gap that otherwise exists in our knowledge of the period between the testaments. They also reveal that some of the beliefs and practices of Judaism and Christianity at the time of Christ were quite different from what they became shortly thereafter.

Like the Apocrypha, the character of the Pseudepigrapha is not uniform. Some of them, like the Treatise of Shem, which deals with astrology, are clearly of little interest to Latter-day Saints. But others are of extreme interest. For example, the History of the Rechabites, also called the Narrative of Zosimus, preserves an ancient but mixed-up tradition about people leaving Jerusalem at the time of the prophet Jeremiah and being led by the Lord across the ocean to a land of promise (VII–IX). The Book of Enoch teaches that the spirits of the dead are segregated into special areas according to their degrees of righteousness to await the resurrection and the judgment (1 En 22). Second Enoch (23:5) teaches the premortal existence of the soul, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (TLevi 2–4) refer to three heavens or degrees of glory. Second Baruch stresses the free agency of man and teaches that the consequences of Adam’s sin were limited to physical death and that each person is responsible for his own sins. The Testament of Adam (3:1–5), the Apocalypse of Moses (14, 15), and the Vita Adae et Evae (29, 30) describe how Adam called his posterity together shortly before his death, blessed them, and prophesied all that would happen to them down to the end of the world. This event is also described in Doctrine and Covenants 107 as the gathering at Adam-ondi-Ahman. (D&C 107:53–56.)

Latter-day Saint interest in the Pseudepigrapha is based mainly on these and other bits of tradition which parallel the beliefs and practices of the Church. Nevertheless, in many cases these same books also contain teachings which Latter-day Saints would regard as not doctrinally accurate. One must remember that the Pseudepigrapha are indeed “falsely attributed.” They consist mostly of bits and pieces of older traditions which have been reworked by later authors. Even the Book of Enoch, which is referred to in the New Testament (Jude 1:14–15), shows signs of having been edited since that time.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Sometime in late 1946 or early 1947, Bedouins discovered some ancient leather manuscripts in a cave on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Over the next decade ten more caves in the general area of Wadi Qumran were also found to contain ancient manuscripts. These Hebrew and Aramaic documents, now called the Dead Sea Scrolls, are the literary remains of an ancient Jewish sect that once lived at Qumran. Most scholars now identify this sect with the Essenes.

Archeologists have determined that Qumran was inhabited roughly between 130 B.C. and A.D. 68. This means that the Dead Sea Scrolls were being written in the period just before, and perhaps even during, the lifetime of Christ. Naturally, the scrolls add greatly to our knowledge of the “theological climate” of the time.

Both biblical and nonbiblical writings are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Fragments of every book of the Old Testament except Esther have been found at Qumran, including more or less complete copies of Isaiah, Psalms, and an Aramaic text of Job. The importance of these biblical manuscripts is that they are about a thousand years older than the oldest previously known manuscripts of the Old Testament. Because the biblical manuscripts among the scrolls show relatively little change from the Old Testament that has come down to us, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm the basic reliability of the Old Testament as we know it, at least as far back as the beginning of the Christian era.

The nonbiblical material from Qumran falls roughly into three main categories: (1) rule books, (2) wisdom literature, and (3) biblical commentaries. The rule books include such items as the Manual of Discipline, the War Rule, and the Temple Scroll. Together they define the regulations of the community. Often these regulations are written as though coming directly from God, who speaks in the first person.

The Manual of Discipline lays down rules of personal conduct, lists the various officers of the community and their duties, outlines the procedures for joining and for being expelled from the community, and describes the community’s ordinances and rituals. The War Rule instructs the community how to conduct the final battle that the Essenes believed would take place between good and evil at the last day. The Temple Scroll discusses rules of ritual cleanness and uncleanness, proper conduct for the king and his subordinates, instructions for building a future temple at Jerusalem, and other matters.

It should be noted here that there is nothing in the Temple Scroll connected with the Latter-day Saint concept of temples and temple work. The temple described in the Temple Scroll is closed to women, and the ordinance to be performed there is animal sacrifice. The Manual of Discipline does refer to a progressive initiation within the community with some familiar elements (such as wearing white clothes and learning sacred teachings), but this is nowhere related to the temple.

The wisdom literature among the Dead Sea Scrolls consists mainly of psalms, poetry, prayers, and other texts used in worship services. Most of this material is fragmentary except for the Hymns Scroll and the Psalms Scroll. The Psalms Scroll contains forty-one psalms from the Old Testament, four psalms that are known from apocryphal Latin, Greek, and Syriac sources, and three psalms previously unknown to modern scholars.

The commentaries found at Qumran are the Genesis Apocryphon (a retelling of the stories of Noah and Abraham) and commentaries on the books of Habakkuk, Isaiah, Nahum, Micah, and others. Most of these are fragmentary. In addition, there is a short work about Melchizedek as a kind of divine warrior-judge who will return to the earth at the end of the world. There is also a scroll made of copper which was not part of the Essene library but which was put into one of the caves perhaps fifty to a hundred years after the Essene community had been destroyed. The Copper Scroll is of particular interest to Latter-day Saints, since it confirms that important information was preserved on metal by Palestinian Jews.

The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal many beliefs and practices similar to those of the early Christian church and of the Latter-day Saints. Among these are a belief in baptism by immersion for the remission of sins (CD 10; baptismal fonts have been found at Qumran) and a belief in the necessity of receiving the Holy Ghost (CD 3). The community was governed by three presidents assisted by a council of twelve (1QS 8). In each local area of the sect there was a bishop who administered financial affairs, ascertained the worthiness of members, and acted as a common judge (CD 9, 13–14). The sect had a sacred meal of bread and wine administered by a priest (1QS 6). They believed in revelation through prophetic leaders and accepted the writings of these leaders as scripture (1QpHab 7). They also had a form of communal living (1QS 1, 6) similar to that of Christians in the New Testament (Acts 4:34ff).

All of this leads to the conclusion that in many ways the Essenes may have been closer to the gospel than other Jewish sects. And yet, we must remember that the Essenes did not have the fulness of the gospel. They were not Christians, and no New Testament material has ever been found at Qumran. Despite the similarities to Latter-day Saint beliefs in some respects, the Essenes also had doctrines and practices incompatible with the gospel. For example, they expected not one Messiah but two. They practiced celibacy and believed in a form of astrology. Although Jesus accepted the authority of the Jewish high priest and the sanctity of the Jerusalem temple, the Essenes denied both. And, contrary to certain claims, there is no evidence that the prayers on the bread and wine at Qumran were in any way similar to our own.

The New Testament Apocrypha

The term New Testament apocrypha refers to books written by Christians in imitation of the books of the New Testament. They deal with characters or events taken from the New Testament and claim divine inspiration in the writing. (This narrow definition of the New Testament apocrypha excludes works like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Didache, which are usually classed with the Apostolic Fathers or as Patristic literature. These will not be discussed in this article.)

Generally, the New Testament apocrypha were written between the second and the ninth centuries A.D. They are valuable to historians because of the evidence they give for the changes that took place in Christianity during this period. Some of these books were written for entertainment or as historical fiction. Others attempt to provide fictional details of events not fully explained in the New Testament, such as the childhood of Jesus. Other texts dwell endlessly on the torments of the damned after the day of judgment. Still others seem to have been written in an attempt to justify new doctrines that were making their way into the church after the Apostolic period.

There are over one hundred texts in the New Testament apocrypha. Most are of little use to Latter-day Saints. One notable exception, however, is the Syriac Hymn of the Pearl, which is preserved in a later work entitled the Acts of Thomas. The Hymn is a beautiful allegory of the plan of salvation. It includes references to a premortal existence, heavenly parents, mortal probation, an exalted elder brother, reunion with the heavenly family, and ultimate exaltation. The Hymn of the Pearl was probably written in the first century A.D.

A few others of the New Testament apocrypha are of interest because they preserve pieces of older traditions that may have come from earliest Christianity. For example, the Acts of Pilate preserves several fragments about Jesus’ descent into the spirit world, his preaching there, and his leading out the righteous souls who accepted him.

The Nag Hammadi Codices

In late 1945, a collection of thirteen papyrus books was discovered in a jar buried near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. These thirteen books, or codices, contained a total of forty-four separate works written in the Coptic language. Most of these date from between the late second and early fifth centuries A.D. and are the product of a kind of Christianity called Gnosticism.

The terms Gnosticism and Gnostic come from the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis). While not all Gnostics believed the same things, the Nag Hammadi Codices confirm that most believed salvation was determined more by what one knew than by what one did. In fact, many Gnostics believed that good works were of little value and that the proper function of religion was to teach a knowledge (gnosis) of secret mysteries.

Some Gnostics rejected the Old Testament scriptures (as in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth 63:17ff), and most revised or reinterpreted them. A common element in the Nag Hammadi codices, for example, is the identification of Jehovah with the devil (Apocryphon of John 13; On the Origin of the World 103), and the consequent reversal of the Old Testament perception of good and evil (as in the Testimony of Truth 46–48). Thus, many Gnostics believed that the serpent was the hero and Jehovah was the villain in the Garden of Eden (Hypostasis of the Archons 88–89; On the Origin of the World 118–119). It followed from this that those who obeyed God were evil, and those who disobeyed him were good (as in the Apocalypse of Adam and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth 62–64).

Many Gnostics denied the true humanity of Jesus and the reality of his death and resurrection (the First Apocalypse of James 31:15ff, Apocalypse of Peter 81–3, and the Book of Thomas the Contender 143:10ff). Since they believed that salvation was determined more by knowledge than by behavior, most Gnostics denied the need of any atonement for sins. In most Gnostic documents Jesus is represented not as a Savior but as a teacher of mysteries (as in the Gospel of Thomas).

In spite of all this, a few of the Nag Hammadi writings do show traces of doctrines familiar to Latter-day Saints. For example, the Exegesis on the Soul teaches that the soul came from the presence of God where it lived in a premortal state (133:20ff). The Teaching of Silvanus mentions Christ’s descent into the underworld and his freeing of the captive spirits there (104, 110). The Gospel of Thomas, which is only slightly Gnostic, contains several statements attributed to Jesus which some scholars feel may in fact be genuine, though they are otherwise unknown.

Nevertheless, it is those passages among the Nag Hammadi codices which deal with mysteries and initiations that have generated the most interest among Latter-day Saints. For example, the gospel of Philip describes an initiation in three stages, corresponding to the three chambers of the Jerusalem Temple (69:14ff). In the last stage, which was called the Bridal Chamber, a sacred marriage was performed which was believed to be eternally binding (70:19ff) and which had to be performed in mortality (86:1ff). In the Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus supposedly tells the disciples how to ascend to the Father (120:20ff). And in the Apocalypse of Paul (23:1–25), Paul is represented as vanquishing the hostile ruler of the sixth heaven by showing him a sign and then proceeding on to the tenth heaven. The actual content of the mysteries taught in the Nag Hammadi codices usually centers on the themes of creation and the fall of Adam and Eve (as in the Apocryphon of John).

In the initial excitement over finding some ideas among the Nag Hammadi codices that are similar to those of the Latter-day Saints, some readers have lost sight of a very important fact: though some things are similar, they are never the same. There is not a single passage among the Nag Hammadi codices which could be said to exactly describe Latter-day Saint practices. There is not a single line of text that could be called a translation of Latter-day Saint ordinances. On rare occasions there are similarities, but always there are differences. The reason for this is simple: the Gnostics did not have the Gospel. By the time the Nag Hammadi codices were written, Gnosticism had already been an apostate movement for generations, perhaps even centuries.

There has been a tendency in some Latter-day Saint circles to suggest a direct link between the Gnostics and the true primitive Church. This is impossible, for the Nag Hammadi codices show the Gnostics to have been in some respects even further from the gospel than the post-apostolic “orthodox” church. But just as a Geiger counter can still detect traces of radiation in an empty container that once held radioactive elements, so Latter-day Saint readers can detect traces of departed truth in the empty writings of the Gnostics. Thus, the Nag Hammadi codices are of interest to Latter-day Saints because they seem to demonstrate that certain doctrines and ordinances, whose very existence was denied by later “orthodoxy,” were part of early Christianity. They also provide us with the negative example of a people whose lust for mysteries and secret doctrines caused them to lose the simple truths of the gospel.

In Conclusion

The apocryphal literature of the Bible provides important historical information and other background for the study of the scriptures and early Christian history. It provides large samples of the languages of biblical times, and this helps translators and scholars better understand the exact meanings of difficult words and phrases in the biblical texts. Some of these documents are of interest to Latter-day Saints because they seem to confirm that doctrines taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith and subsequent modern prophets were known in the ancient world. Often these parallels are exciting, but always we must remember to treat the evidence honestly. Sadly, sometimes enthusiasts misstate facts and distort perspective in their eagerness to find support for their views.

Apart from the revelation about the Apocrypha in Doctrine and Covenants 91, [D&C 91] no official statements about apocryphal literature have been made. Everything said about them, even by well-meaning Church members, is only opinion.

For Further Information

The Apocrypha

Metzger, Bruce M. An Introduction to the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

The Pseudepigrapha

Charles, R. H. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Volume 2. Oxford University Press: Clarendon, 1913. (This classic edition will be rendered obsolete by the publication of the following title.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, in press.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Vermes, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Second edition. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1975.

Vermes, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

The New Testament Apocrypha

Hennecke, Edgar; Schneemelcher, Wilhelm; and Wilson, R. McL., eds. New Testament Apocrypha. 2 volumes. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

The Nag Hammadi Codices

Robinson, James M. The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977.

Stephen E. Robinson is assistant professor of religion and chairman of the Honors Program at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He serves as a high councilor in the State College Pennsylvania Stake.