Why did Augustine accept the Apocrypha?

By James M. Rochford

Roman Catholic theologians point out that Augustine believed in the inspiration of the Apocrypha. But others do not find this fact strong enough to overturn the other church fathers for several reasons:

First, Augustine did not know Hebrew. The two best scholars of Hebrew in the church were Origen and Jerome, and both these men rejected the Apocrypha.

Second, Augustine based his argument for the Apocrypha on tradition—not historical inquiry or scholarship. Augustine wrote, “Among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority.”[1] However, when scholars then (and now) investigated the sources, they found that the Apocrypha did not belong in the canon.

Third, Augustine urged Jerome to translate the OT from the Septuagint, rather than the Hebrew texts.[2] Since the apostles quoted from the Septuagint, Augustine believed that it must be inspired.[3] Of course, Augustine’s views were simply false.

Fourth, Augustine influenced the Council of Carthage which canonized 3 Esdras. However, at the Council of Trent (AD 1546), the RCC rejected 3 Esdras as canonical. Thus by appealing to Augustine, the RCC finds itself in the midst of a dilemma: either Augustine was right in canonizing 3 Esdras (which was later met with an anathema), or Augustine was wrong in canonizing 3 Esdras (which would make him a spurious source for the canon today).

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book ii, chapter 8.

[2] Augustine, Letter 28.2; Letter 71, in NPNF1, 1: 251; 1: 326– 28. Jerome, Letter 105; Letter 112, in NPNF2, 6: 189, 214.

[3] Augustine, The City of God, 18.43– 44, in NPNF1, 2: 386– 87.