Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the Apocrypha.
WHY READ THE APOCRYPHA?
I think one of the great shortcomings of the Modern Reformation is an undervaluing of external sources which ought to inform our understanding of the New Testament. The characters we read about in the New Testament lived and breathed the same air in which the Jewish apocryphal books were written. Some of the New Testament writers – Jude and Hebrews for example – quote or allude to some of this literature and, in fact, it is near impossible to understand some of the things Jesus said and did without at least some knowledge of the events recorded in the apocrypha (one thinks of the palm branches laid before Jesus as he enters Jerusalem in his last days).
Furthermore, these books – still in progress in the first century – were esteemed highly by the New Testament writers and on into the early centuries of the Church. Not only do they provide context for the New Testament literature and theology, but they are also of devotional value. Even those who did not see the apocrypha as canonical – such as Jerome and Luther – still believed they had devotional value for the Church (example: Prayer of Manasseh).
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE APOCRYPHA
The history of the apocrypha is neither neat nor tidy. In the next paragraph or two or three I’ll attempt to summarize what I consider to be key points to highlight about the development and history of the apocrypha.
According to legend, the Jewish scriptures were for the most part compiled together by Ezra (yes, that Ezra) around 400 BCE, which, again, according to legend and tradition (Josephus et al.) included the book of Daniel. Some time between the second and third century BCE the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek (it was a process that began with the Torah). This translation (the Septuagint) came to include other Jewish texts that were written between 200 BCE and 100 CE (the apocrypha). It also became the main scriptures for the early Christian believers.
Near the end of the first century CE, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the Christians, the Jewish leaders (rabbis) came together – according to tradition to a place called Jamnia – and defined what they believed were their most authoritative texts. They chose to keep as canonical those ancient texts that were written in Hebrew (but they included Daniel, Ezra and Jeremiah even though parts of those books were written in Aramaic), and eschewed the Greek translation and its extra books.
In the early Christian tradition the apocryphal books were for the most part – especially by lay Christians – considered part and parcel of the whole canon. This is most evident in what followed Jerome’s translation. In the fourth century CE while Jerome was translating the scriptures into his Latin Vulgate, he travelled to Jerusalem where he discovered that the Palestinian Jews did not recognize the apocryphal books. So Jerome, who began to translate some of those books, abandoned them and kept for the Old Testament just those books for the most part that are in the Protestant Bible today. However, the reaction of the Christian community in the Western world was quite strong and gradually over the text few hundred years those apocryphal books were slowly put back in.
Note: the Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha, which is my primary source material for this series, is wrong in joining in the unreflective and mistaken assumption that Jerome included the apocrypha in his Vulgate. In Christopher De Hamel’s detailed study of the history of the Bible he shows quite decisively that this is not so (The Book: A History of the Bible, p.20 ff.).
During the Reformation the apocryphal books were not discarded altogether by some, but they were downgraded in a similar fashion as Jerome had done, and set apart from the Old Testament as non-canonical, but valuable. Even the original King James Version contained the apocrypha. Though it is true that many parts of the Reformed tradition did omit the apocrypha altogether and most Protestant Bibles do not contain them at all. In response the Roman Church at Trent denounced anyone who did not include those books in the canon (ironically, the Roman Church still omitted some of those works). The Greek Orthodox Church has a larger body of canonical books than both the Protestant and Catholic Churches.
MY SOURCE MATERIAL FOR THIS SERIES
As primary source material I’ve decided to use the Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha. There are several reasons for this. 1) This book contains just the apocrypha apart from the Old and New Testaments, allowing me to focus sharply on this series. 2) Being annotated helps to fill in much of the gap for me as an apocryphal-newbie. And 3) this book contains what it deems to be the “Standard Version” of the apocrypha including the books omitted from the Catholic Bible but found within the Orthodox one.
But I suspect curiosity will prevent the Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha from being my only source material. I have many other resources available to me, not least, the internet (which is not always reliable, but helpful none the less – kind of like the apocrypha).
WHO IS THIS SERIES FOR
Ultimately this series is for my own benefit. But it will also benefit anybody who has never read the apocrypha, or who has read it but paid little attention to its importance or message, or anyone who has been curious about it. And, of course, if you are affluent in this set of literature, I welcome your insight. So I’d like to invite you to get yourself a copy of the apocrypha (either on its own, or in a Bible or you can read it online) and join me. Each week I’ll be reading one of the apocryphal books and blogging about it.