The Caliph’s Catch-22: Protestant Arguments Against the “Apocrypha”

There’s a story (probably legendary) about the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria:

John the Grammarian, a Coptic priest living in Alexandria at the time of the Arab conquest in 641 AD, came to know ‘Amr, the Muslim general who conquered the city. The men were each other’s intellectual peers, and John became the Emir’s trusted adviser. Soon, John grew bold enough to ask ‘Amr what might be done with the ‘books of wisdom’ held in the ‘royal treasuries’, going on to tell him of the great collections amassed by Ptolemy Philadelphus and his successors. ‘Amr replied that he could not decide the fate of the books without consulting the Caliph, Omar. The Caliph’s answer, quoted here from Alfred Butler’s Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902), is infamous: ‘Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.

Whether or not the story is true, I think that it certainly illustrates how many Protestants approach the Deuterocanon (which they call “the Apocrypha”).

The argument, in a nutshell, is that if the Deuterocanon either contains doctrines not otherwise found in Scripture, or it doesn’t. If it does, it’s heretical and erroneous. If it doesn’t, it’s irrelevant: redundant, merely edifying at best. Sometimes, this catch-22 is presented subtly. So, for example, from Edward C. Unmack’s influential 1929 essay, Why We Reject The Apocrypha, he argues that on the one hand that:

A further survey of the Books of the Apocrypha makes evident the fact that they are really supplementary in character to the Books of the Old Testament. [….] They really belong to a class of Jewish literature called the Haggada, in which historical, biblical, and allegorical types were employed to illustrate the text of the Canonical Scriptures.

So we can reject “the Apocrypha” because they merely illustrate the truths already found in the “Canonical Scriptures.” As the Caliph would say, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required.

But then Unmack criticizes “the Apocrypha” for teaching truths not found in the other Scriptures:

Moreover, in the Apocrypha there occur unscriptural fables, fictions and doctrinal errors. Compare Tobit vi. 1-8; Judith ix. 10; 2 Macc. ii; Bel and Dragon, etc. Alms are represented as having power to earn merit. Compare prayers for the dead in 2 Macc. xii.

As the Caliph would say, if what is written in them disagrees with the Book of God, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.

This is a simple, if stupid, game. Certainly, plenty of critical scholars have played this game with the New Testament: rejecting the authenticity of the Gospel of John because any new details must be concocted, while any old details must have been stolen from the Synoptics or Paul.

Of course, what Unmack, the Caliph, and the critical scholar overlook is a third option: that these other Books, be they the Deuterocanon or the Gospel of John, contain additional information that doesn’t contradict other truths. Assume that you know that Tom lives in Kansas. If I then tell you, “Mary lives in Kansas,” I’m saying something that is neither redundant nor contradictory to what you already know.

So this whole line of argumentation against the Deuterocanon only works for Protestants if they start with the assumptions that (1) they have the full and complete canon of Scripture, and that (2) no theological truths may be found outside of these books. But those assumptions – about the truth of the 66-Book canons and sola Scriptura – are precisely what’s in dispute.


  1. ‘Scripture alone,’ something akin to soul competency in lieu of creedal statements, iconoclasm, psychological obsession with God’s sovereignty–The Golden Age of Islam and the radical reformation have a lot in common.

  2. In all of these types of arguments I think a type of both piety (or attempted piety) and ignorance are involved. Piety in the sense that Christians, and probably Muslims too, try to follow in one way or another the commandment to “Honor thy Father and thy Mother” …insinuating that good hearted people try to honor their historical teachers and tradition. The problem arises when our teachers and/or traditional teachings are either fraudulent or were based on invincible ignorance. Therefore, it is easy to conceive of well meaning theologians, whether Moslem or Christian, defending through any possible means his own tradition and teachers. Thus we get “a simple, if stupid, game” when we witness such theologians trying to “spin” the arguments towards their historical teachers and traditions even though the arguments are twisted and absurd.

    In these cases it is a great act of charity for apologists to try their best to lovingly correct them even as the Lord did when He prayed….”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”.

    Thank you Joe for all that you do in trying to enlighten those who still can’t reason and understand with your clarity and faith. It is a great act of charity on your part, as well as a considerable sacrifice of time and energy, which most other Christians are either not intellectually capable of doing, or not charitable enough to be interested in doing.

    So, I hope you keep up the great work on your blog! All of you posts are highly informational and edifying. I keep directing people to catholicdefense.blogspot as I come across them at various parish and faith orientated events.

    – Awlms

  3. Perhaps because I spend most of my time in Michigan where there is a strong Catholic presence most of the debates I have with Protestants regarding the Deuterocanon are more or less non-starters. They seem to accept that the Catholics have included the “Apocrypha” and they don’t – pretty much end of discussion. When I attempt to engage them on the “correctness” of their denomination’s decision to throw out parts of the Cannon established by the early Church fathers, the attitude seems to be there is nothing they can (or will) do about it. It’s unimportant.

    How does one change that mindset? My approach so far has been to use the Lectionary for Mass which has rich selections from the books contained in the Deuterocanon; drawing out theological issues supported by the Psalms and New Testament texts. Once again the fait accompli seems to be the response.

    Perhaps some eminent scholarly type who reads here can give me some examples of doctrinal importance that I can throw out to start a more meaningful discussion.


    Dcn. Jim Miles
    St. Thomas the Apostle
    Ann Arbor, Michigan
    Diocese of Lansing

    1. Ultimately the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Deuterocanonicals makes little difference. If it did, then Catholics would be Republicans 100% and not liberal Democrats voting for Hitlery Clinton, because of Sirach 12:1-7

      If you do good, know to whom you do it,
      and you will be thanked for your good deeds.
      Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid—
      if not by them, certainly by the Most High.
      No good comes to one who persists in evil
      or to one who does not give alms.
      Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner.
      Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly;
      hold back their bread, and do not give it to them,
      for by means of it they might subdue you;
      then you will receive twice as much evil
      for all the good you have done to them.
      For the Most High also hates sinners
      and will inflict punishment on the ungodly.[a]
      Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner.

      The welfare system that gives to crack-heads and other sinners is rejected by Sirach. If Protestants accepted “The Apocrypha” they might have even more reason to be politically conservative, but since most already are, it wouldn’t make that much of an effect.

  4. I wish this website had a like/approve button so that one doesn’t have to make a post to say that one agrees with the above, and the comments, so far, BTL.

  5. I wish this website had a like/approve button so that one doesn’t have to make a post to say that one agrees with the above, and the comments, so far, BTL.

  6. “A further survey of the Books of the Apocrypha makes evident the fact that they are really supplementary in character to the Books of the Old Testament.”

    Like how they show what the origin of the Sadducees and Pharisees was….because it is a little odd going from the OT where these sects don’t exist to Matthew where all of the sudden they’re everywhere. That right there is a good argument for the inclusion of 1st and 2nd Macabees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *