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The Apocrypha - neglected treasures?

What is contained in the Apocrypha? How did it come about? And what can we gain from reading it?

Read time: 8 minutes, 24 seconds

In common English parlance if a story or a news item is labelled ‘apocryphal’ we understand that it may be unreliable, even false. This usage seems to derive from the fact that some Christians have held ‘the Apocrypha’—that is, those ancient texts that have historically been included in the canon of Scripture as part of the Old Testament, albeit as a sort of ‘second division’—to be deeply suspect. However, other Christians continue to revere these texts as divinely inspired and to use them freely in worship, debate and in private study. So the Apocrypha is, as it were, debatable ground. Is there any way to tread on it lightly and reclaim it as a precious possession of all who follow Jesus?

What texts are we talking about? After all, the word ‘apocryphal’ might be held to include any of the literally hundreds of ‘extra-canonical’ ancient texts produced by Jews, Christians ( and others ) that claim to be authoritative expansions and commentaries on the biblical stories. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, Enoch and Jubilees which expand on Genesis are held by most Christians to be outside the canon although, interestingly, Ethiopian Christians include them. The ‘Gospel of Thomas’ puts several sayings not found in the canonical Gospels into the mouth of Jesus; despite what some have claimed, its overall presentation of the Lord as a second century wisdom teacher casts doubt on their authenticity. These then are, in a loose sense, among the texts that might be called ’apocryphal’, although perhaps a more careful description would, arguably, be ‘pseudepigraphal’ (‘falsely attributed writings’). However, given the sheer number of such texts and the demands of space, we shall restrict our discussion to those texts that, historically, have been included in Roman Catholic and many Protestant Bibles as ‘the Apocrypha’ (‘the hidden ones’) or ‘the Deuterocanon’ (‘second list’ [of sacred writings]). These comprise the books of Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (aka Sirach), Baruch (including the so called letter of Jeremiah), 1 and 2 Maccabees and the additions in the Greek versions to the books of Esther and Daniel. We should not forget however that Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians accord inspired status, in addition, to other material—Esdras and 3 Maccabees, an additional Psalm and the ‘prayer of Mannasseh’.

In common English parlance if a story or a news item is labelled ‘apocryphal’ we understand that it may be unreliable, even false.

We might ask, ‘Who decided which books belonged where?’ Again, space does not permit us to do full justice to the complex process of canonical formation. Suffice it to say that the inspired nature of what we might call the ‘core texts’ in both Testaments—e.g. the ‘Books of Moses’ the Psalms or Isaiah in the Old Testament; the Gospels or Paul’s letters in the New—were never disputed. However, for more ‘marginal’ books—e.g. Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) in the Old, and Revelation in the New—the views of early synods, and even individual church leaders, proved decisive. In the case of the Apocrypha, the opinions of the great scholar and biblical translator, Jerome (died 420 AD) were highly influential, particularly in the Latin west.

Jerome included translations of these books in his Latin version of the scriptures, the Vulgate, but suggested that, while they were useful for edification and instruction, they provided no warrants upon which Christian teaching could be grounded. Jerome’s main ground for making this important distinction may well have been linguistic ones. Given that he had, uniquely for his time, insisted on basing his translations of the Old Testament on the Hebrew text, rather than the Greek of the Septuagint, he was inclined to question the inspiration of texts which he knew only in Greek versions.

Jerome’s judgement informed what we might call the accepted official position of the Western church thereafter. However, in practice, the apocryphal texts, bound in together with the others, and read in worship with them, were, it seems, received in general usage among the faithful as inspired scripture until the Reformation(1). At this point, opinion on the matter begins to divide along party lines. Luther himself may be seen as reaffirming Jerome’s view that these are valuable, inspired texts but ones that, although they may of great devotional use, should not be employed to support doctrine. The Reformed, influenced by Calvin, increasingly regarded these texts as of lesser value although, for the most part, they remained positive to at least some of them. However, at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Romans strongly affirmed their inspired nature, albeit as part of a second, although still canonical, division of Scripture, the ‘Deuterocanon’(2).

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Christianity The Apocrypha - neglected treasures?

As the divisions in western Christianity deepened over the centuries opinions hardened further among Protestants, although, until the early nineteenth century, the Apocrypha continued to be printed as an ‘intertestamental’ section in their Bibles. Catholic use of ‘apocryphal’ material— particularly 2 Maccabees 12.39-45—to warrant belief in purgatory deepened suspicions.

Moreover, in an age of increasing ‘rationalism', the thoroughgoing supernaturalism of much of the Apocrypha was seen as problematic; such episodes as the angel Raphael accompanying Tobias on his journey in Tobit and the miraculous transportation of the prophet Habakkuk to Babylon in the addition to the Greek version of Daniel (aka Bel and the Dragon) did not endear these texts to skeptical readers.

Of course, what we might call the ‘primary canon’ of the Old Testament is also full of the supernatural and the miraculous—and provoked similar suspicious reactions! Indeed, the findings of much recent biblical research suggest that any neat division between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ canons is difficult to sustain, particularly if we bring the New Testament into the discussion. It has become increasingly clear that while the authors of the Gospels and the Letters looked primarily to Moses and the Prophets as they sought to understand the astonishing impact of Jesus of Nazareth on the world, they were also familiar with, and valued, at least some of the apocryphal (and indeed, pseudepigraphal) texts.

So, for instance, when Matthew witnesses that Jesus invited ‘the weary’ to ‘take upon themselves his easy yoke’ (Matthew 11.29-30) , the charming fancy that this is a reference to the Lord’s carpentry skills becomes implausible when we realise that the Gospel is pointing us to Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Twice in Sirach, Wisdom, personified as in the Book of Proverbs, urges readers to take her yoke upon them (Sirach 6.30, 51.30). Furthermore, Sirach makes a bold theological move in identifying this divine Wisdom—which in Proverbs seems to have little to do with Israel’s cultic and ritual observances—and the Torah delivered to God’s people (Sirach 24.1-12, 23-29). Accordingly, when Matthew 11, a passage full of references to wisdom, picks up this language from Sirach, the Gospel is making an even bolder claim; namely, that, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the divine, cosmic wisdom that found a home in Israel has come amongst us in the flesh!

if we are looking for insights into the worldview of the sort of devout Jews who were the first followers of Jesus, then we should not neglect the Apocrypha.

Again, we should not forget that the Christian claim that Jesus’ violent, seemingly shameful death was not a sign of his rejection by God, but honourable, indeed redemptive, seemed to contradict much in Scripture; Deuteronomy 21.23 seemed particularly difficult in this regard. Christians could indeed point to passages such as Isaiah 53 to warrant such a contentious claim. However, the positive depiction in 2 Maccabees 7 of the faithful deaths of the seven brothers and their mother for the sake of God’s law may, as theologian Tom Wright has argued(3), also have helped some to make sense of this, in Jewish eyes, counterintuitive assertion.

In short, if we are looking for insights into the worldview of the sort of devout Jews who were the first followers of Jesus, then we should not neglect the Apocrypha. Did Jesus and his disciples deplore idolatry and look for God’s mighty actions to redeem his people? Then such attitudes and expectations were vividly expressed in Judith, Baruch, Maccabees and even in ‘Bel and the Dragon’. Did they believe in angelic powers and in the resurrection into a new creation where God’s rule would be unchallenged? So did the authors of Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon and 2 Maccabees.

Given that these writings were known and respected by Christians from the earliest days why should those who follow Jesus today regard them with suspicion? Of course, we should read them with an awareness of their limitations. Sirach, for instance, has a lofty view of Israel’s inheritance of divine Wisdom but his strictures on the disadvantages of having a daughter (Sirach 42.9-14) are examples of misogyny unparalleled in the ‘primary canon’. On the other hand Judith’s portrayal of a strong, valiant woman—the saviour, under God, of her people—redresses that balance; however, the historical value of the book’s portrayal of the period in which it is, supposedly, set, (the seventh century BC) is very limited.

So, to conclude, the ‘health warning’ attached to the Apocrypha in the eyes of some is inappropriate and these texts are of great value to Christians. Yes, to tear a few verses from them, out of context, to serve as proof texts is illegitimate, just as it is to do the same with verses from the primary canon. However, taken together and read with understanding (commentaries and Study Bibles will help us here) they can both edify and instruct us.

References

1. See Floyd Medford, ‘The Apocrypha in the Sixteenth Century: A Summary and Survey’ Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 52, no 4 Dec 1983, pp. 343-354 for a discussion of the relationship between scholarly and popular reception of the Apocrypha in the medieval period.

2. See Matthew Korpman’s chapter ‘The Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha’ in Gebern Oegema Ed The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)

3. N T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of the Jesus’ Crucifixion (London: SPCK, 2017)