22 Sep 2017

Discovery at the Museum: How I Discovered the Apocrypha through Art

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Bobby's World, Church History, Culture

Rembrandt, one of the greatest Protestant artists, frequently depicts scenes from the “Middle Testament.” This is Raphael’s Ascension from Tobit 12. A trip to the museum can open up our world.

I have not always been interested in the Apocrypha. I grew up in a conservative “Church of Christ” family in North Alabama.  We did not read the Old Testament itself much, so the Apocrypha was not something I even knew existed. At some point I became aware that Roman Catholics had “added” some strange books to the Bible in order to support their false teaching.  In college I was doing some extra curricular reading and discovered who the Maccabees were and read bits and pieces of 1 Maccabees.  But I was wholly ignorant of these books both of their content and their history within the Christian church.

For many years in my preaching career the Apocrypha was simply not part of my religious worldview. It was not till I lived in a city with a world class art museum, Milwaukee, that my world began to change.

Rachael, Talya, their mother and I, went to the Milwaukee Art Museum. We had bought a membership to the Museum and loved frequenting that wonderful place. I have always had a soft spot for the old Masters. But I found some paintings with scenes I did not recognize. Much to my surprise they ended up being from the Apocrypha. Like most folks I had never given more than 10 seconds of thought about.

Come to find out a lot of great art comes from the Apocrypha. A lot of music comes from the Apocrypha. I was a prime example of, “just because you never heard of something does not mean its not everywhere.”

I soon discovered that the Apocrypha tied in quite nicely with any interest in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus and the early church. And later I discovered that the Apocrypha (what I now playfully call “the Middle Testament”) makes for great reading on their own terms. These works contain amazing stories of faith, prayers of petition, psalms of praise, confessions of repentance and please for grace and testimonies to the never ending love of God that are breathtaking. They are, I discovered, the world’s best “devotional” literature.  But they do give us some of our best windows on the the early church and the faith of Jesus. I just did not know that.

The picture is by Rembrandt and is “The Ascension of Raphael” from Tobit 12. I will focus on some classic hymns that we grew up singing but perhaps do not as much as we used too. Hymn writers often have artistic encounters with the biblical text as the hymn “Lilly of the Valley” should remind us of this.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul

Charles Wesley, an ordained Anglican was with his brother John Wesley a reformer, wrote thousands of hymns. His devotional reading regularly included portions of the Apocrypha. Themes from Apocryphal books are not rare in his hymns. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” you’ve sung it is based on a paraphrase of Wisdom 11.26 in the King James Version. Evangelical hymnals do not surrender this information but Wesley will tell you. The first time God is ever said to be a lover of our souls is in fact that wonderful text in Wisdom 11. The text in the King James Version reads,

But thou sparest all, for they are thine, O Lord, thou lover of souls.

1549 Apocrypha Title page in Matthew’s Bible

Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee

Bernard of Clairvaux also passed on many wonderful hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Among them is the classic “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” Bernard read the Bible in the Latin Vulgate. He based his hymn on “Ecclesiasticus” or Sirach 24. Sirach 24 is an amazing text that left finger prints on John 1 and other NT texts. But it is 24.19-21 that is the inspiration for Bernard’s praise. The King James Version of Sirach 24.19-21 reads

Come unto me, all ye that be desirous of me,
and fill yourselves with my fruits.
For my memorial is sweeter than honey,
and mine inheritance than the honeycomb.
They that eat me shall yet be hungry,
and they that drink me shall yet be thirsty.

The Latin of Bernard is striking compared to the Vulgate. Most readers today may be sympathetic to Bernard’s belief that this text brings to our minds the “very thought of Jesus.”

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

The wonderful ancient hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is based upon Wisdom of Solomon 8. The second verse of the hymn reads

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.”

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

The Apocrypha helps Evangelicals understand two famous “Christmas” hymns, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’ and “Silent Night.” The Gospels say nothing of the hour of Jesus’s birth. But the angels appear at night in the Gospel of Luke. But the Church Fathers identification of Jesus’ birth with midnight came thru another passage in Wisdom that they believed spoke of Jesus birth.

For while gentle silence enveloped all things
and night in swift course was now half gone {midnight},
your all-powerful word {Greek is “Logos” as in John 1.1}
leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed …
(Wisdom 18.14-15)

The Church Fathers interpreted this text as a prophecy of the Incarnation – it is the Logos after all! Thus the traditions that Jesus was born at midnight (i.e the night was half gone) and that it was silent (meaning that war had ceased – and Luke says that he proclaimed “peace”) were not simply made up but were for centuries believed to be “biblical.” Thus this beautiful text in Wisdom has entered our religious and cultural heritage while contemporary Evangelical have been completely unaware.

Silent Night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace

Milwaukee Art Museum is itself a work of art

Negative Discovery

Daniel J. Boorstin, the famous Librarian of Congress, coined the term “negative discovery.”  Negative discovery refers to the discovery of not just a few isolated facts but whole realms of ignorance in areas we never even knew existed. We are ignorant of our ignorance. For many of us it can be put like this, just because we have never read “something” does not mean that “something” has not impacted our life. Sometimes significantly.

Just because we have never even heard of something does not mean that something has not exercised influence unconsciously in our life. Ignorance is not bliss, nor is it a Spiritual gift. Because, for centuries, the works of the Apocrypha were simply “part of the Bible” in Christian circles, themes from those works appear everywhere. Every Judy we have ever met has her name because of a woman most thought was heroic Bible character (Judith). Every Suzy is in the same boat (Susanna). We find the Apocrypha all through western literature in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Handal, Tolstoy, etc.  Most any classical artist has dealt with themes from the Apocrypha. Even the “silver screen” has artistically spread the Apocrypha.  One of the first, and considered by many one of the greatest, films of silent era is D. W. Griffith’s, Judith of Bethulia which is the based on the book of Judith (click on the link and watch the whole movie on YouTube). And even the songs that we sing, and the phrases we use (“lover of our soul”), often have forgotten origins for Evangelical types.

Sometimes we are surprised how pervasive gravity is when we suddenly become aware of it. The history of Christianity influences us down to the very DNA of our being and that influence includes the Apocrypha … even for people who have never read, sadly, a page of it. Just like me at the Milwaukee Art Museum … I discovered I had eyes but was never actually seeing.

I was blissfully unaware of the extent of my own ignorance. The fact that I was unaware did not change the fact of my ignorance. My ignorance is still beyond my own knowing but now when I look at Michelangelo … I know when he painting Susannah, Maccabees, Judith … or when I sing “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” I know what Wesley was doing … I believed the paintings were “pretty” previously but now I know they have meaning.

For all these reasons I now read from the Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Prayer of Manasseh, etc on a regular basis and trips to the museum are much more meaningful.

Shalom & Blessings

Articles of Related Interest

Spiritual Treasures of the Old Testament Apocrypha

The Worship of God: Insight from the Apocrypha 

The Wisdom of Solomon, The Apocrypha, and Reading Books Outside the Bible, and Spiritual Wisdom


4 Responses to “Discovery at the Museum: How I Discovered the Apocrypha through Art”

  1. Philip Says:

    Thank you for educating me on this. Like you I grew up in a conservative church family and we didn’t ever bother with such.

  2. Swango Says:

    I’m so glad you often post about the Middle Testament. I had heard that it “has many mistakes, doctrinal and historical.” After reading the Middle Testament, I have found that I have been lied to.

    Bobby said, “Because, for centuries, the works of the Apocrypha were simply “part of the Bible” in Christian circles.” Now that I love history, I have found that the Middle Testament was ALWAYS included in Christian Bibles until Martin Luther took it out. It sometimes makes me feel queasy how much of what we have believed so strongly is just a product of man-manipulated history.

  3. Warren Baldwin Says:

    Very interesting! I had no idea and would like to read more on this.

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      @Warren thanks for reading. I agree that it is indeed interesting. There is quite a bit more trivia of how forgotten “portions of the Bible” have shaped Christianity.

      One of the first pieces of “the Bible” in the English language comes from the Apocrypha and is known as the “Sweet Pistle of Susan.” Which is a paraphrase of Susanna from the Vulgate version of Daniel.

      I will see how I can possibly work up another blog 🙂 Thanks for reading.

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