Why Read the Apocrypha?

February 19th, 2013

The label “Apocrypha” is generally given to a particular collection of Jewish writings composed between 250 BCE and 100 CE. Some of these were originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, some were composed in Greek; all were eventually translated into Greek, the primary language in which the early Christian churches knew these texts. The texts found in the Apocrypha are only a small sampling of Jewish writings from the later Second Temple period, which would include the lengthy works of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus, several dozen parabiblical writings known as the Pseudepigrapha, and the nonbiblical texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What separates the books of the Apocrypha from all these other Jewish writings is, first and foremost, the reading practices of second- and third-century Christians, who found these books, above all other available writings, to be helpful resources alongside the books of the Jewish canon (the Christian “Old Testament”) for articulating their own faith and for determining questions of ethics. The term “Apocrypha” is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “things hidden away,” and was applied to these texts in the course of debates about their status: Should they be read in public worship as Scripture, or should they be “tucked away” for private use only?1

The majority of the world’s Christians, however, would not speak of these texts as “Apocrypha.” Rather, they would speak of them as “deuterocanonical books” (a “second” canon)—or simply as part of the Old Testament. The term “deuterocanonical” does not imply a subordinate status, any more than the second commandment has less authority than the first or than Deuteronomy (the “second [giving of the] Law”) falls short of the authority of the “first” statement of the Law in Exodus. Rather, it acknowledges that these texts were (generally) composed later than the books of the Hebrew Bible, such that they were excluded from the “first canon” inherited by the early church from the synagogue, and that the church only lately made a definitive pronouncement about this body of literature as canonical (at the Council of Trent in 1546), while nevertheless affirming their authority as part of the broader canon of the Catholic Church.

I have enjoyed many opportunities to talk about the Apocrypha with Christians, especially Protestant Christians, who have never read these books but are intrigued by their presence in many modern printed Bibles, including Bibles published for “ecumenical” audiences. Very often, I encounter a certain hesitation in regard to reading the Apocrypha. This hesitation is sometimes based on the presupposition that the church has weighed these books and found them to be without value, and therefore justifiably discarded and forgotten. Sometimes it is based on a prejudice that the writings included in this collection are full of false teachings that will jeopardize a reader’s grasp of sound truth. Sometimes it is based just on the lingering prejudices of Protestants against Catholics—these books are in “their” Bible, and not reading them is one important thing that separates “us” from “them.”

My own experience of the Apocrypha has been quite different. I was brought up in the Episcopal Church, which clearly distinguishes the apocryphal books from the Scriptures of the Old Testament, yet which also includes readings from the Apocrypha on certain Sundays and allows readings from the same for weddings and funerals. From my early teens, at least, I thought of these books as “not Scripture,” but at the same time not “unscriptural”— not a threat, that is, to the scriptural witness to God, God’s dealings with people, or the response from human beings for which God seeks. My experience with these texts is very much aligned with the position that I perceive the Protestant Reformers to have been recommending, and not with the position that many Protestants appear to have taken in regard to the Apocrypha since.

When Martin Luther set about translating the Bible into German, he also translated the books of the Apocrypha. While he took care to separate them out from the books of the Old Testament and to print them in a separate section, thus affirming that they were not on a level equal to that of Scripture, he still recommends them in his preface to the translation as “useful and good for reading.” The degree to which Luther valued these writings is reflected above all in the fact that he took the time and the trouble to produce a German translation of the Apocrypha in the first place. This is not something one does if one’s goal is to get Protestants to stop reading these books. The English Reformers took a very similar position in regard to these texts: while they were not to be held at the same level as the canonical Scriptures, they were to be “read for example of life and instruction of manners” (article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion), the position that John Wesley also espoused as a priest ordained in the Anglican church. Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, leaders of the Reformation in Switzerland, also took pains to provide translations of these books in their printed Bibles and to commend them for containing “much that is true and useful,” though also urging caution in regard to that which “does not tend to simple truth or exact knowledge” in them.2 In sum, then, the Apocrypha probably stand among the most important books that Protestant Christians ought to read after their canon of Scripture, and any cautions the Reformers may have issued about their use would certainly apply to the bulk of devotional literature that Christians tend to read alongside Scripture.

Why, then, should Christians of all denominations, and not just Catholic and Orthodox Christians, be concerned to read the Apocrypha?

First, the books of the Apocrypha provide important windows into the world of Second Temple period Judaism, catching us up, as it were, on a wide range of developments between the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple in 515 BCE and the birth of Jesus and the movement formed in his name. This range of developments extends well beyond the borders of Judea to open windows into the world of Diaspora Judaism as well—the world into which the early Christian mission quickly moved.

Books like 1 and 2 Maccabees introduce us to pivotal events in Jewish consciousness and experience, events still remembered annually in the celebration of Hanukkah. Tobit, Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Sirach), and 4 Maccabees bear witness to developments in Jewish ethical thinking and its storehouse of practical guidance. Greek Esther, Letter of Jeremiah, 3 Maccabees, and other books introduce us to the challenges of living as Jews in the Diaspora, as well as to the often strained relationships between Jews and non-Jews throughout this period and the causes thereof.

The collection as a whole allows us to peer into the ways pious Jews responded to the challenge of continuing to make traditional resources meaningful in new circumstances. Thus the apocryphal books invite us into the arena of how their authors selected, shaped, and interpreted the Jewish Scriptures—and thus contributed to the tradition of interpretation inherited by Jesus and the early church. These books give us access to theological developments that laid important foundations for early Christian theology; for example, the idea that one righteous person’s death can positively influence God’s relationship with others, ideas about immortality and resurrection, and ideas about the “person” of Wisdom as a being bearing God’s perfect image. The Apocrypha also fill in the gaps between the worldview of the Hebrew Bible and the worldview of the New Testament, for example as witnesses to the developments in beliefs about angels and demons and their interaction with human beings.

Reading the Apocrypha is essential, then, for a more accurate picture of the faith, practices, hopes, and challenges of Jews living in the period prior to and during the ministry of Jesus and the expansion of the Christian movement (understanding “Christian” here as an alternative at the level of “Pharisaic,” “Sadducean,” and “Essene,” not as an alternative at the level of “Jewish”).

Second, many of the books of the Apocrypha contain resources available to, and used by, Jesus and his earliest disciples and apostles. The teachings of Ben Sira probably permeated the synagogues of Judea and Galilee; the story of Tobit and the teachings of its title character were similarly available throughout the land. The story of the triumph of the Maccabean heroes (both the pious martyrs and the armies of Judas) was the basis of an annual festival that Jesus, his family, and his disciples celebrated. The correspondences between Wisdom of Solomon and the writings of Paul and other members of his team are so close as to necessitate knowledge of the former on the part of the latter.

The correspondences between the teachings of Jesus and Jewish sages like Ben Sira or the author of Tobit bear witness to the greater connection between Jesus (and his followers) and the faith and practice of Judaism in the first century than is appreciated by people who “freeze” Judaism’s development in the early postexilic period, such as is likely to happen for people who read only the books of the Protestant Old Testament. It would be difficult for the person who stopped studying church history before the Reformation to understand (and fairly assess) the message and mission of a John Wesley. It would be difficult for the person who stopped studying American history at the settlement of Jamestown to understand the ministry of a Martin Luther King, Jr. If we content ourselves with seeking no further information than the blank page between Malachi and Matthew, understanding Jesus in relation to the Judaism of his day will be similarly challenging.

It is true that Jesus, Paul, and the other voices speaking in the New Testament never recite a deuterocanonical text as Scripture, explicitly introducing a string of words as a quotation from Ben Sira as they do when introducing quotation from the canonical Old Testament (“as Scripture says,” “as the Holy Spirit says,” “as it is written in the prophet”). This fact is probably significant for deciding what status they ascribed to the books of the Apocrypha. Nevertheless, the imprint of the teachings of these books on Jesus and the early Christian movement is undeniable. Readers who are familiar with the deuterocanonical books, then, will understand just how fully embedded Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian teachers were in the Judaism of their time, and will have a better understanding of the larger conversations to which Jesus and his followers were contributing.

Several books of the Apocrypha are also formative for early Christian theology from the earliest reflections on the preincarnate activity and existence of the Son (e.g., Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4) through the formulations of the Trinity in the post-Nicene period. While the Reformers sought to curtail the use of these texts to establish new doctrines, they nevertheless had already made a significant impact upon a number of central Christian doctrines. Familiarity with at least some of the Apocrypha (especially the Wisdom of Solomon) is prerequisite to understanding the development of our own theology.

Third, the Apocrypha are rich in devotional insights, ethical admonition, and spiritually formative guidance—to such an extent that the majority of the world’s Christians include them among their inspired Scriptures. The apocryphal books teach about repentance and humility before God; they give insights into the spiritual and practical disciplines required to achieve breakthroughs in personal transformation; they teach about the importance of keeping our focus on the life of eternity with God for the preservation of a life of ethical integrity. Because many of these texts were born from the struggle to discover and nurture the way of faithfulness in the midst of significant challenges, they remain devotional literature of the highest order— devotional literature that has stood the test of time and has been repeatedly affirmed by the reading practices of Catholic and Orthodox communions. Even if Protestants do not turn to these texts as sources for theological reflection, the Apocrypha can be valued as worthy and serious conversation part- ners in the quest for theological truth, wrestling quite openly as they do with questions of perpetual interest.

excerpted from: The Apocrypha by David A. deSilva ©2012 Abingdon Press. Used with permission. Order information below.

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