The Apocrypha: Reading Between the Testament an OverviewAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Exegesis, Jewish Backgrounds
I. What is the Apocrypha?
For many the Apocrypha is a collection of books that have been added to the Bible because (it is assumed) these books support some sort of false doctrine. Such a perspective, however is not balanced. Far from being a threat to our faith, the Apocrypha is a witness to the faith of God’s People living in the third and second centuries before Jesus. The works called “Apocrypha” come from Palestine or Egypt. The language of the Apocrypha is Hebrew with some being written in Greek and some possibly in Aramaic. A list of the Apocrypha and a one line “snap shot” of their theme follows:
1) Tobit: Better is Almsgiving with Justice
2) Judith: God saves Israel through an unlikely way – a Widow
3) Additions to Esther: The Aid of the All-Seeing God and Savior
4) Wisdom of Solomon: The Righteous will live Forever
5) Sirach/Ben Sira: All Wisdom come from Doing the Word of God
6) Baruch: Return with Tenfold Zeal to the Lord
7) Letter of Jeremiah: They are Idols, not Gods, Do not Fear Them
8) Additions to Daniel: Let Them Know That You Alone are God
9) 1 Maccabees: The Family through Which Deliverance Was Given
10) 2 Maccabees: There is Some Power of God about this Place
11) 1 Esdras: Leave to us a Root and a Name
12) Prayer of Manasseh: The God of those who Repent, The God of Mercy
13) Psalm 151: He Made Me Shepherd of His Flock
14) 3 Maccabees: Blessed Be the Deliverer of Israel
15) 2 Esdras: The Mighty One Has Not Forgotten Us
16) 4 Maccabees: Noble is the Contest
II. Value in Studying the Apocrypha
Whether we accept the Apocrypha as canonical Scripture is almost to miss the point in the value of this body of literature. Of course millions of Christians around the world, and down through the ages, certainly regard these texts as holy Scripture. This is simply a fact of history. Others (after the Protestant Reformation, 1517-1560) have rejected the Scriptural status of these books but remained unwilling to cast them aside as “ordinary” or “mundane” or “useless.” Rather many of these texts remained part of the devotional life of Protestant Christians and even part of worship. What follow are four “good” reasons for reading the Apocrypha as a Christian.
The first reason that motivates us to study these books is that they shed considerable light on the faith of God’s People “Between the Testaments.” This was a period of intense growth intellectually and spiritually for God’s People and it was also a time of intense hardship. Lots of questions, lots of thinking, lots of theology was fashioned during this time that has a direct impact on our understanding of Jesus and the early Church. The exaltation of the Torah was in many ways a result of persecution and 1 and 2 Maccabees floods the Gospels (as well as Galatians) with light. The development of notions about demons, angels, afterlife (both heaven and hell) is seen in the Apocrypha. The personification of Wisdom (which provides John and the early Church with language to talk about the Son’s relationship to the Father) is greatly developed in this literature. Much more could be said here.
A second compelling reason for studying the Apocrypha is that the authors of the NT are themselves familiar with these texts and thus our knowledge of them enhances our understanding of the NT. This will come as a shock to some however. But the NT authors refer to these writings in a variety of ways just like they do the Hebrew Bible. They make allusions through themes and stories. They borrow words and phrases and at times they directly quote these materials. An example of the latter would be Jude verse 14 quoting the Apocryphal writing 1 Enoch 1.10.
A third reason (valued more by some than others) for studying these writings is that they were formative for early Christian theologians, preachers and ordinary folk. They constitute the shared “heritage” of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Slovonic and Coptic branches of Christianity. The only exposure some of these Christians had to stories like Daniel or Esther were from the Septuagint (for centuries). Some of the “formative” influence I speak of can be demonstrated with Hebrews and the Wisdom of Solomon. Hebrews uses concepts drawn from Wisdom to elaborate on the identity of Jesus and his relationship to God the Father. The italicized words show the correspondence:
“In these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir
of all things, through whom he also created the worlds, He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1.2-3).
Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me . . .
[Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of
the almighty . . .
She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of God, and an image of his
Goodness . . .
She is an initiate in the knowledge of God
and an associate in his works.” (Wisdom 7.22, 25-26; 8.4)
The Hebrew Writer has “paraphrased” and reworded the description of Wisdom so it now describes the nature and work of the Son, not only as he was experienced in the flesh but also before the Incarnation. To close this section I will quote from David deSilva’s work on the Apocrypha on the value of reading these works:
“I would also emphasize at this point, however, that the value of the Old Testament Apocrypha is not merely historical. These texts have not only informed people of faith but also have inspired them throughout the millennia. . . . these texts add fuel to the fire in the soul sparked by God in the face of adversity, the commitment to choose obedience to God over succumbing to the passions or weaknesses of the flesh, the experience of God’s forgiveness and expectation of God’s deliverance – all these are strengthened by these texts, which one could approach with confidence at least as the best devotional literature to have withstood the test of time.” (Introducing the Apocrypha, pp. 40-41).
III. The Apocrypha in the History of the English Bible
In this section we can hardly trace the history of the English Bible with any satisfaction; but we would be remiss to overlook this material all together. The Apocrypha has been a part of almost every major English Bible since the first one in 1384. Here is a list of the translations and their date:
1) John Wycliff (1384). The first English Bible (based on Latin Vulgate)
2) Myles Coverdale. First complete printed Bible. Based largely on William Tyndale’s work and published in 1535.
3) John Rogers Bible known as “Matthew’s Bible” of 1537.
4) The Great Bible of 1539. This was the first “authorized” version.
5) The Geneva Bible of 1560. This is the Bible of Shakespeare and the “Pilgrims.” The Geneva Bible places “The Prayer of Manasseh” after Chronicles. Rarely in the history of English has there been an “anti-Catholic” work like the Geneva Bible, yet it contains these words about the Apocrypha:
“These books that follow in order after the Prophets unto the New Testament, are called Apocrypha; that is books, which were not received by common consent to be read and expounded in the Church, neither served to prove any point of Christian religion . . . but as books proceeding from godly men, were received to be read for advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of the history, and for the instruction of godly manners: which books declare that at all times God had an especial care of his Church and left them not utterly destitute of teachers and means to confirm them in the hope of the promised Messiah, and also witness that those calamities that God sent to his Church, were according to his providence . . .” (Preface to Apocrypha, quoted in Bruce M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, p. 187).
6) The Bishops Bible of 1568.
7) The King James Version of 1611. The KJV directs readers of the NT to the pages of the Apocrypha eleven times in its marginal notes:
Matt. 6.7 . . . . . . . . . . . . Sirach 7.16
Matt. 23.37 . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Esdras 1.30
Matt. 27.43 . . . . . . . . . . . .Wisdom 2.15, 16
Luke 6.31 . . . . . . . . . . . . .Tobit 4.16
Luke 14.13 . . . . . . . . . . . . Tobit 4.7
John 10.22 . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Maccabees 4.59
Romans 9.21 . . . . . . . . . . . .Wisdom 15.7
Romans 11.34 . . . . . . . . . . . Wisdom 9.13
2 Cor. 9.7 . . . . . . . . . . . . Sirach 35.9
Hebrews 1.3 . . . . . . . . . . . .Wisdom 7.26
Hebrews 11.35 . . . . . . . . . . 2 Maccabees 7.7
8) Revised Version/American Standard Version of 1881/1901
9) Revised Standard Version of 1946.
10) New Revised Standard Version of 1989.
The Apocrypha is available today in the following modern English versions: New American Bible, Jerusalem Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, Today’s English Version, Revised English Bible, God’s Word, English Standard Version, as well as the classic King James Version