Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Apocrypha

Sometime ago I had an odd dream, which stuck in my head the way very few dreams do.  I can't remember anything about the context, but I was looking for something in my Bible and noticed a whole lot of books at the end of the Old Testament that I hadn't previously seen.  They had odd names that seemed vaguely ancient and Jewish, none of which I can now remember.  I was a little surprised but mostly just fascinated, eager to read this new stuff and find out what it was all about.

Recently I've been repeating this experience in real life, and thereby hangs a tale.

In the bibles we have as Protestants, the last book of the Old Testament is the prophetic book of Malachi, and the last historical period addressed is the immediate post-Exilic time covered in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther.  There is then a break of over 400 years until the New Testament begins with the birth of Jesus.

What was God doing in the intervening 400 years?  Well, it seems he was silent.  HA Ironside, the famous Canadian Brethren preacher, even wrote a book called The Silent Years which told the history of the Jewish people and the surrounding nations during this time, filling his readers in on such events as the invasion of Alexander, the oppressions of the Seleucid kingdom, the Maccabean revolt and subsequent reign of the Hasmoneans, and finally the subjection of the Jewish kingdom to Roman overlordship under Herod the Great.

I was taught about this "silent" period in all the Protestant churches I attended in my youth - Anglican, Uniting, Brethren, Church of Christ.  Hence it came as a slight surprise to me when I started reading more widely and learned that this was both a minority view in the Christian church, and a relatively recent innovation.

All pre-reformation editions of the Bible included, in one way or another, a series of ancient Jewish writings which are of a later date than our Protestant Old Testament but precede the New, both in their date of composition and in the stories they tell.  Although St Jerome in the late fourth century regarded these books as of lesser authority than the Hebrew Old Testament, they were included as part of his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, which for over a thousand years was the standard Catholic bible.  They were also included in the Greek and Slavonic translations used by the Orthodox church.  There were some differences between editions as to precisely what was "in" or "out", but overall the "silent years" were not silent at all. 

The following books were pretty much universally included in one way or another as part of the Old Testament.
  • 1 Esdras (an alternate version of the Hebrew Ezra)
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Wisdom (or "The Wisdom of Solomon")
  • Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach)
  • Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah (sometimes seperated)
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees
  • Some additions to the books of Daniel ("The Prayer of Azariah", the story of Susanna and "Bel and the Dragon"), Esther and 2 Chronicles (the "Prayer of Manasseh")
Some editions also include various combinations of other books including 2 Esdras, 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151.

With the reformation came a slight difference of opinion about these Greek books, but not a major one.  The Catholic and Orthodox traditions continued to regard them as scriptural and include them in their Old Testament canons.  Both Luther in his German translation and the English translators commissioned by King James regarded them as of lesser authority but still of great value.  Hence, both the Luther Bible published in 1534 and the King James published in 1611 included these scriptures in a seperate collection of books called the Apocrypha (a plural word from the Greek for "hidden") printed between the Old and New Testaments.  The sixth article of the Church of England - "On the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation" neatly expressed the Protestant view.

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine....

Up to 1666 all editions of the King James Bible included the Apocrypha, Christians were encouraged to read them and passages from them were included in the lectionary.  However, the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, the most influential English non-conformist confession and the creed of most of Cromwell's supporters, explicitly excluded them, and subsequent editions of the King James Bible from non-conformist churches left them out.

The British and Foreign Bible Society dealt the death-blow in 1826 by refusing to fund the publication of the Apocrypha.  From then on, no English Protestant edition of the Bible included any of these books.  Ironside had undoubtedly read them but did not encourage his readers to follow suit.  Practicing Protestants these days tend to have several bibles in their house but none including the Apocrypha, and most have never read them.  The very word has come to mean something not genuine, perhaps even fraudulent.

Hence it's taken me until my 52nd year, and 37th as a practicing Christian, to get my hands on a decent modern translation of the Apocrypha and read them from start to finish.  It's a fascinating collection of books, and I'm planning to blog on some of the things I've read there over the next few months.  However, by way of a taster, here's some overall thoughts.  I realise this is a kind of pop philosophy, and intellectual history is a lot more complex than this, but how's this for an outline?

The canon of scripture is not as immutable as we like to think.  This doesn't matter so much to Catholic and Orthodox churches, because they see scripture as part of a living tradition which includes the subsequent teachings of the church (especially the church councils) the writings of the saints and church fathers, and the authority embodied in the church institution down to the present day.  However, an uncertain canon is a much more serious challenge for Protestants because we have downgraded the authority of church and tradition. 

I suspect it's no accident that this view of the immutable, timeless scriptures and suspicion of church tradition grew up during the modern period.  Modernist philosophy emphasised the ultimate knowability of the universe, and the existence of a set of immutable natural laws which governed all matter.  Religion was viewed in a similar way - God was also an immutable factor in the universe, his law unchangeable and ultimately knowable.  Hence the development of a clear-cut, defined canon, the meaning of which was held to be clear and consistent and which could not (and need not) be changed or added to.  Conservative authorities, on the other hand, were an impediment to the discovery of this ultimate truth, defending outmoded ideas in the name of tradition.

The result was a clear and simple, but slightly simplistic, idea of the scriptures as a mine of God's truth, which could be dug by any literate believer.  Of course the traditions were still valuable to help us understand these scriptures, but were not definitive.  The truth was out there, and it was everyone's duty to search for it. 

This view was, however, gradually chipped away by the very scholarship it inspired.  From the late 19th century up until today scholars have used their freedom to question the authorship of the various biblical books and their dating, to examine the multiple sources and points of view represented there, to compare scriptural with non-scriptural writings, to present alternative interpretations and emphases.  We have ended up with something a little like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, with each looking at the same thing yet coming to radically different conclusions.

This leaves us with three choices.  The first is the fundamentalist choice - we can reject the whole process of scholarship and hold on tight to the original view of a clear, immutable scripture.  At the opposite extreme, we can reject the whole thing as a bunch of fables and give up on it, becoming atheist or agnostic. 

Both are reasonable responses, and I don't blame anyone who opts for them.  For myself, though, I prefer to steer a course between these two, follow where the scholarship and the ideas lead, read the scriptures and the traditions with an open mind, and allow my faith to develop wherever that might lead it.  We are still part of a living tradition and if we do not deliberately kill it, it is unlikely to die of its own accord.


Alex Smith said...

Thankfully I think there's renewed interest in the Apocrypha (& LXX which faced similar distain in some circles), for example:

The English Standard Version Bible captures as far as possible the precise wording of the original biblical text and the personal style of each Bible writer, while taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. The ESV thus provides an accurate rendering of the original texts that is in readable, high quality English prose and poetry. This Bible has been growing in popularity among students in biblical studies, mainline Christian scholars and clergy, and Evangelical Christians of all denominations.

Along with that growth comes the need for the books of the Apocrypha to be included in ESV Bibles, both for denominations that use those books in liturgical readings and for students who need them for historical purposes. More Evangelicals are also beginning to be interested in the Apocrypha, even though they don't consider it God's Word. The English Standard Version Bible with the Apocrypha, for which the Apocrypha has been commissioned by Oxford University Press, employs the same methods and guidelines used by the original translators of the ESV, to produce for the first time an ESV Apocrypha. This will be the only ESV with Apocrypha available anywhere, and it includes all of the books and parts of books in the Protestant Apocrypha, the Catholic Old Testament, and the Old Testament as used in Orthodox Christian churches.

Brad McCoy said...

This is a great summary for dummies like me. Thanks Jon. Look forward to reading more about your findings. It's a hard life trying to steer between fundamentalism and rejection.