Can we trust apocryphal books like the Book of Enoch?
It depends on what you mean by “trust” and it depends on which book you are talking about. For example, Jude, in the letter he wrote, actually quotes from the book of Enoch, but he doesn’t tell us we should “trust” the book of Enoch. Also, just because a writer quotes something doesn’t mean the entirety of the source material should be accepted as Scripture too. Paul quoted Athenian philosophers and poets, Jesus quoted the teaching of the Pharisees back to them.
This question is really about three sub-questions:
- Do non-canonical (outside the Bible) documents tell us the truth?
- Should other books have been included in the Bible and treated with similar authority?
- How authoritative is our Bible anyway?
First, we need to recognize that people have been writing books about spiritual matters for thousands of years and many things that were written were never included in the Bible. Books that are in the Bible refer to books that are not in the Bible. Jude quotes the Book of Enoch; 1 & 2 Kings refer to other books about the ancient kings of Israel and Judah; the gospels make a few references to the story of the Maccabees, and Paul quotes Greek philosophers. Yes, there are other ancient documents that give interesting and potentially reliable information. Most historians think the books of the Maccabees (part of a collection of books called the Apocrypha and still revered by Catholics to this day) are an accurate historical account of what happened between the time of Malachi and Matthew. However, many of these ancient documents contain inaccurate and sometimes outright false claims. For example, the Book of Enoch doesn’t show up on the scene until around the time of Christ, but the man Enoch died hundreds if not thousands of years before Abraham! The Gospel of Thomas contains a bunch of rambling phrases that may or may not represent things Jesus taught, but it was certainly not written by the real Thomas who was a disciple of Jesus, and it also tells the unlikely story of Jesus raising a bird back to life when he was a child.
I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. There are books outside the Bible that can give us truth, but should they be included in the Bible or should they be given similar authority in our lives? Let’s tackle that.
Second, should non-canonical books be treated with similar authority to the books in the Bible? The short answer is No, but you need to know why. The long answer involves the story of why we treat the books of the Bible with authority in the first place. Once you understand why the Bible has authority, then you understand why these others do not.
Christians treat the Bible with authority for one reason and one reason only. Jesus.
Everything about Christianity revolves around Jesus. It starts with Jesus. Because he rose from the dead, his words and his life have authority. Some of his earliest followers wrote down what he said and did. Some of those followers also wrote down their reflections on the life and significance of Jesus as the church family developed through the first century. Early Christians decided early on that they were going to use a few pieces of criteria to decide which writings should be circulated and preserved. Basically, it came down to these three: (1) Did the author know Jesus directly or have direct access to someone who did? (2) Did the author speak the truth? (3) Did other Christians find the author’s work valuable? Regarding point #2, remember that this is before “the truth” had religious overtones. #2 wasn’t an effort to make sure the different works were consistent with each other. Consider how different Paul’s letter to Galatians feels from James’ letter. Point #2 was a simple evaluation of the trustworthiness of the author. As a result, a small collection of documents started to form and get circulated by the end of the first century, and when John, the last living Apostle, died in the 90s CE, everyone collectively felt that no new documents should be treated with as much importance as the ones they already had.
What about the Old Testament? Well, Jesus was a Jew, and he quoted from the Old Testament. Matthew was a Jew, and in his gospel, he quoted from the Old Testament a lot. In fact, all the first followers of Jesus were Jews, and they were convinced Jesus was the fulfillment of everything God had been doing on earth from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David and beyond. As a result, the first century Christians valued the Hebrew Scriptures just as much if not more than what was being written in their day. Peter compares Paul’s writing to “the other Scriptures” (2Pe 3:16). Paul admonishes Timothy to think of the Scripture as the breath of God (2Ti 3:16). For both Paul and Peter, the only written “Scripture” they had was the Jewish Scripture!
What about the Apocrypha? Apocrypha means two different things. When capitalized, it means the collection of books still retained in Catholic editions of the Bible as a third section between the Old Testament and the New Testament. When not capitalized, it just means “doubtful” or of unknown origin because that’s what the word means. As I said above, there have always been books and documents that existed outside of authoritative scripture, but it’s important to remember that even at the time of Jesus, there was a strong consensus about which books measured and which ones didn’t. For example, no one doubted the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) because they had the authority of Moses. No one doubted the books of history the Jews called “The Former Prophets” from Joshua through 2 Kings, no one doubted the books of wisdom known as “The Writings” going from 1 Chronicles through Song of Solomon and including Lamentations, and no one doubted the prophecies of “The Latter Prophets” from Isaiah through Malachi. At the time of Jesus, these documents were all well established for very specific reasons by the Jewish community, and Jesus reaffirmed all of them in one way or another. However, the ancient scribes who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek also translated some other documents at the same time. Modern Catholics include those extra books in the section they call the Apocrypha. Protestants, however, do not include that section and only concern themselves with the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus and his followers considered authoritative.
What about the other books like the Book of Enoch or the Gospel of Thomas or anything else? These other books are sometimes called pseudepigrapha because their origin is even more doubtful than the books of the Apocrypha. There is a simple way to determine whether these books should be included in our collection of authoritative Scripture. Apply the threefold test: Did they come from someone who knew Jesus or who was close to someone who did? No. For example, the Gospel of Thomas pretends to have been written by Thomas, but it didn’t get written until many years after Thomas was dead, and the book of Enoch doesn’t even claim to know anything about Jesus. Do they tell the truth? No. Both books are dishonest about their authorship, and both books contain claims that fail the truthfulness test. Did the early church consider them helpful and/or authoritative? Jude apparently thought it was worthwhile to quote from the Book of Enoch, and he might actually have thought the book was helpful, but that opinion wasn’t strong enough for him or anyone else to advocate for it’s inclusion in the authoritative texts circulated by Christians.
The bottom line is that these other books have some historical value since they tell us something about the thinking of their day, but they don’t have the same eternal value as the 66 documents we call The Bible.