Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Apocrypha (Third Post)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Church History, Culture, Discipleship, Scripture

Say the word “Apocrypha” to a Protestant and you may find a hand reaching down instinctively to find the six-shooter attached to their hip. “Them’s fightin’ words! That’s what those Roman Catholics think is the Bible. That’s where those non-biblical doctrines of purgatory and prayers for the dead come from. To even consider readingYosemite-Sam-warner-brothers-animation-30976315-800-766 those books would be akin to blasphemy. If some Roman Priest reads it, you can count me out.” Of course, that would also have to include books like Genesis or Revelation, since they read those too.

The London Baptist Confession talks about the Apocrypha (the only group of books outside of the Bible that it does talk about). “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon or rule of the Scripture, and, therefore, are of no authority to the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings” (LBC 1.3). True, we do not consider them Scripture, nor is what I just said in any way meant to give the impression that purgatory and prayers for the dead are true or good. But don’t move too quickly in what the Confession just said. Think about the end, “… or made use of than other human writings.” “What, you mean like the writings of Anton LeVey, Nostradamus, or Edward Casey?” Sure. But also the writings of those like John Owen or John Calvin or R. C. Sproul. “Other human writings” include all of these. (Remember from the Introduction that a key here is to think the best, not the worst, of these books. One can do that without thinking they are Holy Scripture).

Though written by Jews (not Roman Catholics) prior to the NT, and translated by Hellenistic (Greek-ized) Israelites who included them in their Greek OT Septuagint (LXX), the Protestant Reformers were pretty much in agreement that the Apocryphal books should not be regarded as Holy Scripture, as they are not included in the Hebrew canon. Nevertheless, they still had fairly high regard for many of these books. In 1530, the Swiss reformer Oecolampadius stated, “We do not despise Judith, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the last two books of Esdras, the three books of Maccabees, the Additions to Daniel; but we do not allow them divine authority with the others.[1] In his introduction to the Apocrypha which he translated into German in his 1534 Bible (he put them as a kind of appendix, but would not include as part of the Bible, a tradition that would be followed in most every Protestant Bible until the late 1800s), Martin Luther wrote, “Apocrypha: these books are not held equal to the Scriptures but are useful and good to read.[2]

Luther’s popularity seems to have brought the term “apocrypha” to the common tongue. So what is the Apocrypha? From a word meaning “hidden” (referring either to their authorship or their not being approved for public religious reading), the Apocrypha refers to a collection of a dozen or so books written in the intertestamental period, between Malachi and Matthew—the so-called “silent years” that were really anything but silent. Rome and Orthodoxy refer to them as “deuterocanonical” (literally “second canon”) as opposed to protocanonical (“first canon”). As their term implies, both consider them Holy Scripture. Protestants do not believe there are levels of authoritative books, so “apocrypha” is a less confusing and better term in this regard.

These books vary in genres. There are wisdom books akin to Proverbs such as Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) or the Wisdom of Solomon; historical fiction such as Tobit or Judith; history books like the Maccabees (there are 4 books of Maccabees, but at least one is usually included as a pseudepigrapha, see next post); expansions on Scripture such as additions to Esther, Jeremiah, and Daniel (including the Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Jews, Suzanna, and the funny and fascinating Bel and the Dragon); prophetic and apocalyptic books like Baruch (Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe in the Bible) or 2 Esdras (Ezra); and songs such as The Prayer of Manasseh.

So why would you want to read the Apocrypha? Here are a few reasons. The first is put in the Preface to the Apocrypha of the 1560 Geneva Bible (which retained the books as an appendix, as did almost every Protestant Bible until the 1800s), the favorite Bible of the Puritans, “… but as books proceeding from godly men were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of the history and for the instruction of godly manners, etc.” So just like you might go to George Washington’s Rules of Civility, so also you might go to Sirach to learn wisdom (remembering that the President was an Anglican and the author of Sirach was quite possibly a believing Jew prior to the coming of Jesus Christ). Or, just as you might read Anne Frank talk about the Holocaust, so also you might read about the fascinating wars of the Maccabees.

Second, any time you can read other material written near the time of the Bible, it helps shed light on the customs, philosophies, and culture of the biblical authors. This in turn helps you to understand and interpret them more accurately. In this case, this is especially true of the NT authors, who were not far removed at all from the world we read about in Apocryphal books.

Third, believe it or not, you might just find the reading of these books both fascinating and even inspiring (do not read “inspired”), just as you would reading any good Christian book worth its salt today. Fact is, the Apocrypha has stood the test of time in terms of great literature. For that reason alone, but for so many more, they are worth diving into.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

Apocrypha

Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

[1] Cited in The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: Augmented Third Edition, ed. Michael D. Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 6. This book is a helpful compilation of the Apocrypha along with brief introductions to each book.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).

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