Section 91

DC 91 Historical Background

"On 8 March 1833, Joseph Smith received a revelation (D&C 90) concerning the First Presidency of the Church and its role in taking the gospel to the world.  In that revelation, it was also indicated to Joseph that he was to continue his work on the Joseph Smith Translation by completing his inspired revision 'of the prophets' (D&C 90:13), that is, the Old Testament books. Accordingly, on the very next day, 9 March 1833, Joseph resumed work on the Joseph smith Translation in his quarters above Newel Whitney's store. It appears, however, that a question soon arose concerning the exact definition of 'the prophets.' The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches include in their Old Testament a dozen or so books known as 'the Apocrypha,' which they consider to be inspired scripture and the word of God. Unfortunately, ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible do not include these books, so Protestants, following the example of Martin Luther, have generally excluded the Apocrypha from their bibles. However, the copy of the King James Bible that Joseph Smith used in his work on the Joseph Smith Translation did contain the Apocrypha at the end of the Old Testament, so naturally the question arose: Exactly which books belong in the Old Testament? Were the Apocrypha part of 'the prophets' and therefore part of Joseph's translation obligation according to the instructions in Doctrine and Covenants 90:13, or were they later additions to the Bible and therefore beyond the scope of his translation of the biblical scriptures?" (Stephen E. Robinson, H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2001] 3:165-166)

DC 91 What is the Apocrypha?

The Apocrypha is a group of books historically part of the Old Testament. Over time, their authenticity was questioned-leading Protestants to omit them from their Bibles. The Catholics, however, kept these books as canon.

"The Apocrypha formed an integral part of the King James Version of 1611, as they had of all the preceding English versions from their beginning in 1382. But they are seldom printed as part of it any longer, still more seldom as part of the English Revised version, and were not included in the American Revision.

"This is partly because the Puritans disapproved of them; they had already begun to drop them from printings of their Geneva Bible by 1600, and began to demand copies of the King James Version omitting them, as early as 1629.  And it is partly because we moderns discredit them because they did not form part of the Hebrew Bible and most of them have never been found in any Hebrew forms at all.

"But they were part of the Bible of the early church, for it used the Greek version of the Jewish Bible, which we call the Septuagint, and these books were all in that version. They passed from it into Latin and the great Latin Bible edited by St. Jerome about A.D. 400, the Vulgate, which became the Authorized Bible of western Europe and England and remained so for a thousand years. But Jerome found that they were not in the Hebrew Bible, and so he called them the Apocrypha, the hidden or secret books...

"Both British and American Bible Societies more than a hundred years ago (1827) took a definite stand against their publication, and they have since almost disappeared.

"Great values reside in the Apocrypha: the Prayer of Manasseh is a notable piece of liturgy; I Maccabees is of great historical value for its story of Judaism in the second century before Christ, the heroic days of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, when Pharisaism had its rise. The additions to Esther impart a religious color to that romantic story; Judith, Susanna, and Tobit while fascinating pieces of fiction, were meant by their writers to teach important lessons to their contemporaries. Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are among the masterpieces of the Jewish sages.

"But to us this appendix of the Old Testament is important as forming a very necessary link between the Old Testament and the New; and if we had no Old Testament at all, the Apocrypha would still be indispensable to the student of the New Testament, of which it forms the prelude and background...

"The period of which the books in this volume are a significant monument, roughly the last two centuries B.C., is of central importance for the cultural history... It is very likely , for example, that the organization and discipline of the Essene-like community of Qumran near the Dead Sea were influenced by Pythagorean patterns; and the path from the Essenes to Christianity is straight and smooth."  (Edgar J. Goodspeed, translator, The Apocrypha, [Random House:  New York, 1959], v-xiii)

In order, the books of the Apocrypha were scattered throughout the Old Testament.  Their titles with a brief description are provided:

  • First Book of Esdras-similar in content to 2 Chron. 25-26 and the book of Ezra
  • Second Book of Esdras-apocalyptic tone; some chapters may have been written in the Christian era
  • Book of Tobit-an unspired tale of Tobit's righteousness and his son's quest for a wife.  Story demonstrates Hellenistic influence of author
  • Book of Judith-similar to the story of Esther, Judith saves Israel from Assyrian attack with her beauty and deceit.  It also evokes the romance of a heroine in the Greek style.
  • Additions to the Book of Esther-an interesting addition of detail and story line to the Old Testament version of the Book of Esther
  • Wisdom of Solomon-reads like the Psalms but lacks the prophetic power and Messianic content
  • Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Sirach-a long book filled with practical religious advice not unlike Proverbs in content and tone
  • Book of Baruch-discusses the Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon as a consequence of the Jews violation of the Mosaic Law and covenant.  Purportedly contains a letter written by Jeremiah warning the Jewish captives to avoid the idols of Babylon during their captivity.
  • Story of Susanna-story about two Jewish elders who lust after a beautiful married woman, try to seduce her, then when she cries out, accuse her of adultery with a young lover.  She is saved by the wisdom of Daniel's judgment.
  • Song of the Three Children-claims to be the prayers, conversation, and praise of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego while they were in the fiery furnace
  • Story of Bel and the Dragon-story of Daniel demonstrating to the Babylonian king that his god, Baal (Bel), has no strength or life
  • Prayer of Manasseh-claims to be "the prayer which Manasseh is reported (in 2 Chron 33:18) to have recited while he was captive in Babylon." (Apocrypha introduction, xxii)
  • First Book of Maccabees-a reliable and important historical account of the Maccabean uprising of 167-134 BC
  • Second Book of Maccabees-a second more propagandistic account, by a different author of the same time period and conflict. "Two texts from the Apocrypha, 1 and 2 Maccabees, help illuminate some of the historical shadows of this period and give us valuable New Testament background." (Gaye Strathearn, "I Have a Question," Ensign, Dec. 1998, 49)

DC 91:1  There are many things contained therein that are true

As an exercise, we will give examples of some of the more useful passages included in the Apocrypha.

King Darius had three bodyguards who began to ask themselves the question, "What in the world is the strongest?"  Seeking favor from the King, they decided to pose to him the question and their answers.  The first suggested wine was the strongest because it can overcome the strongest man.  The second suggested men are the strongest, especially the King himself.  The third suggested woman and truth were the strongest-woman because all of men's strength ultimately comes from a woman, and truth-because it is eternal.  The third bodyguard's description of truth is worthy of review:

So truth is great, and mightier than all other things.
The whole earth calls upon truth, and heaven blesses her; all his works quake and tremble, there is no wrongdoing with him.
Wine is not upright, the king is not upright, women are not upright, all the sons of men are not upright, and all their doings, all such things, are not upright; there is no truth in them, and through their unrighteousness they will perish.
But truth endures and is strong forever, and lives and reigns forever and ever.
There is no partiality or preference with her, but she does what is right, rather than all that is wrong and wicked. 
All men approve her doings, and there is no injustice in her judgment.
To her belongs power and the royal dignity and authority and majesty in all the ages; blessed be the God of truth!  (1 Esdras 4:35-40)

The Apocrypha tells of Ezra's interesting millennial vision wherein he sees the righteous "clothed in white" having received "splendid garments from the Lord."  He describes the King of kings as follows:

I Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great throng which I could not count, and they all praised the Lord with songs.
And in the midst of them was a youth of lofty stature, taller than all the rest, and he put crowns upon the heads of each of them, and he was still more exalted.  But I was possessed with wonder.
Then I asked the angel, and said, "Who are these, sir?"
And he answered and said to me, "These are those who have laid aside their mortal clothing, and have put on immortal, and have confessed the name of God; now they are crowned and receive palms."
And I said to the angel, "Who is that young man, who puts the crowns on them and the palms in their hands?"
He answered and said to me, "He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world." (II Esdras 2:39-47)

The Wisdom of Solomon reads a lot like Psalms.  The book of Psalms has 150 chapters.  If that is not enough, the Wisdom of Solomon has another 19 chapters.  Some of the text, however, is quite good.  Unfortunately, it lacks the messianic and prophetic content of the Davidic Psalms: 

   For God created man for immortality, And made him the image of his own eternity,
   But through the devil's envy death came into the world, And those who belong to his party experience it.
   But the souls of the upright are in the hand of God, and no torment can reach them. (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23 - 3:1)

DC 91:2  There are many things contained therein that are not true

Taken as a whole, very little of the Apocrypha is false doctrine.  However, much of the text is either not that instructive or perceptibly uninspired.  The phrase "interpolations by the hands of men" is a perfect description.  Some of the more questionable passages are given below.

The book of Tobit is remarkable for its lack of humility.  It is an autobiographical text encouraging us to honor and revere Tobit.  This guy is really full of himself:

I, Tobit, walked all the days of my life in ways of truth and uprightness.  I did many acts of charity for my brothers and my nation...
A tenth part of all my produce I would give to the sons of Levi, who officiated at Jerusalem...
...all my brothers and relatives ate the food of the heathen, but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart...
In the times of Shalmaneser I used to do many acts of charity for my brothers.  I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothes to the naked, and if I saw one of my people dead and thrown outside the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him.  (Tobit 1:3-17)

The Second Book of Esdras teaches false doctrine about Father Adam, blaming him for the consequences of the Fall.  In doing so, the writer demonstrates his poor understanding of the Plan of Salvation-truly "interpolations by the hands of men":

For the first Adam, burdened with a wicked heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. 
So weakness became permanent, and the Law was in the heart of the people with the evil root; and what was good departed, and what was evil remained. (2 Esdras 3:21-22)

It would have been better for the earth not to have produced Adam, or when it had produced him compelled him not to sin. 
For what good is it to all men to live in sorrow and expect punishment after death?
O Adam, what have you done? For although it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but also ours for we are descended from you. (2 Esdras 7:46-48)

The apocalyptic tone of II Esdras is impressive and appealing.  Not all of the content, however, is trustworthy.  It tries to describe some very questionable signs of the Second Coming as follows:

...infants a year old shall talk, and women with child will bring forth untimely infants at three or four months, and they will live and dance...
...[in that day] wild animals will go outside their [dens], and women in their uncleanness will bear monsters. (2 Esdras 6:21; 5:8)

DC 91:4-5 whoso readeth it... [who] is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom

"Robert J. Matthews spoke in favor of a tolerant approach toward [apocryphal writings]. 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.' ("News of the Church," Ensign, Dec. 1983, 70)

"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.  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.) (Stephen E. Robinson, "Background for the Testaments," Ensign, Dec. 1982, 26)

DC 91:6 whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited

"When compared with the scriptures, the Apocrypha is 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 Bible and the other standard works than they will by reading the Apocrypha."  (Stephen E. Robinson, H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2001] 3:169)