Monday, June 21, 2010

The Question Of The Apocrypha

I thought that it might be interesting if I took on a more controversial topic this week. I don’t normally like controversy – it seems to leave a bad taste in the spirit, if you know what I mean – but in light of last week’s subject matter, it seems mildly justifiable.

The Apocrypha. In certain circles, the mere mention of this phrase can send emotions sky-high. Indeed, it is a subject so controversial, that even the phrase itself is hotly debated: Supporters often insist that it be referred to as The Deuterocanonical Books.

To be sure, the words carry different connotations. “Apocrypha” comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden.” It is most often used to refer to the Apocrypha proper, included in many Bibles, but can also refer to any number of other early Jewish or Christian writings found outside the Bible. “Deuterocanonical,” also Greek in origin, means “second canon,” and is much more specific in referring only to the disputed books.

So what exactly is the Apocrypha? It all goes back to the ancient translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This Greek translation of the Scriptures, created during the second and third centuries, contained several additional books not found in the traditional Hebrew Scriptures. Because the early church was largely Greek-speaking, the Septuagint became its de-facto Old Testament, and many came to regard the additional books as Scripture, while others saw them as sub-par to the traditional books. Today, this debate continues.

It might be beneficial to get a feel for what this collection actually includes:

• Tobit – a rather quirky narrative about a pious Jew named Tobias, son of Tobit.

• Judith – a narrative about a beautiful Jewish girl who rescues her people, often compared to Esther.

• Additions to Esther – an heavily expanded version of the Book of Esther.

• Wisdom – a philosophical book.

• Sirach – a book of sayings, sometimes compared to Proverbs.

• Baruch – a rather short book, claiming to be written by Jeremiah’s scribe.

• The Letter of Jeremiah – a warning against idolatry.

• Additions to Daniel – a collection of appendices to the Book of Daniel, including The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.

• First and Second Maccabees – narratives dealing with the Maccabean Revolt.

There are, in my opinion, a good number of reasons to exclude these books from the biblical canon. Among them:

1. They never were, and never have been accepted into the Jewish canon. This seems rather significant in light of the fact that they are, after all, Jewish books.

2. With very little exception, we don’t have the original Hebrew text of these books – only the later Greek translation found in the Septuagint. Not only does this leave us relying on a translation of a translation, but it also reveals that these books weren’t considered worthy of preservation in their original languages in their early history.

3. These books are never explicitly quoted in the New Testament, while nearly every book of the Hebrew canon is. There may be a few places – notably in Hebrews 11 – where the Apocrypha is alluded to, but even there it isn’t addressed as Scripture in the normal fashion (“it is written”). In any event, the New Testament also quotes the non-canonical Book of Enoch and Assumption of Moses, as well as the Greek poets Epimenides, Aratus, Cleanthes, and Menander.

4. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin in the fourth and fifth centuries, explicitly rejected these books as non-canonical, stating that they “are not in the canon” and that the church “has not received them among the canonical scriptures.”

5. One of the arguments usually given in favor of the Apocrypha is its inclusion in the Septuagint, the standard Greek Old Testament of the early church. However, there is some considerable inconsistency in this argument, as the Septuagint also includes a number of other books which are rejected by nearly everyone. The Prayer of Manasseh, Third and Fourth Maccabees, and Psalm 151 are good examples.

6. These books are not universally accepted by the church. Of course, what constitutes “the church” is open to its own set of debates, but that may be beside the point!

I doubt that this article will do much in the way of settling this age-old dispute. Perhaps this is a debate none of us are likely to resolve – a debate that must be ultimately settled by the Author of Scripture himself. Until then, our best course of action will be to remain civil, and explore this – and other controversial topics – with a good dose of level-headedness and Christian charity.

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