Monday, April 27, 2015

The Old Testament Apocrypha

“Apocrypha” is a word taken from the Greek word ”krypto”, meaning “secret” or “hidden”. Words like cryptography (the study of of codes) are also based on this word. Although it can have several different meanings, ”Apocrypha” typically refers to a group of 15 books, 12 of which are included in the Roman Catholic Old Testament, but none of which appears in non-Catholic Bibles. The Apocryphal books were written between about 350 BC and 80 AD — in those years between the Old and New Testaments. Non-Catholics have never accepted them because they do not consider them inspired of God. Catholics didn’t accept them either, at least not officially, until the 1500’s.
The Old Testament as we know it is a collection of books originally written in Hebrew. Jewish scribes have painstakingly preserved these writings for thousands of years. But none of the Apocryphal books has ever been included in Jewish scripture. That’s because most of them were not written in Hebrew but in Greek. This easily differentiates them from Old Testament scriptures, and that’s a big reason why you won’t find the Apocrypha in any Jewish Bible. There are plenty of other reasons, but before we look at them, let’s see just what these books contain.
What are the Apocryphal books about?
Here is a summary of each book to give an idea of what it is about. Please note: If you are interested in reading any of these books for yourself, each contains a link to the full text; most of them are rather short.
  • First Esdras (sometimes called Third Esdras):  Esdras is Greek for the Hebrew name Ezra. This book attempts to revise the Bible book of Ezra with supplemental material from II Chronicles and Nehemiah. It also contains a story of three young men who debate the question, “What is the strongest thing in the world?” in front of the King of Persia, who promises to give the winner a prize. This is one of the few Apocryphal books that is not part of the Roman Catholic Bible.
  • Second Esdras (sometimes called the Ezra Apocalypse or Fourth Esdras):  This book mostly contains conversations between Ezra and some angels sent to answer his theological questions. It also contains a fantastic story of how all the Hebrew Scriptures were lost during the Jew’s Babylonian exile, but were perfectly restored when Ezra, under God’s inspiration, dictated them word-for-word to 5 scribes. But he didn’t stop there. While he was at it, he dictated an additional 70 “secret books” that were only to be read by those who were wise. (Second Esdras is supposed to be one of those secret books.)
  • Tobit:  This book could possibly have been written in Aramaic before being translated into Greek. It is a story about a blind man named Tobit who sends his son to collect a debt for him. He is led on his journey by an angel who takes him to the house of a virgin who has been married 7 times. (Each of her husbands was slain by a demon on their wedding night.) Tobit’s son marries the virgin and manages to drive away the demon by burning the heart of a fish in their bedroom on their wedding night. He then goes and collects his father’s debt, and returns to Tobit with the money, his new bride and the remains of the fish. When he gets home he heals his father’s blindness using some bile extracted from the fish.
  • Judith:  This is one of the few Apocryphal books that really did start out in Hebrew. It is the story of a beautiful widow who saves her city from a military siege. When the city is surrounded, and all appears lost, she sneaks out to the enemy commander’s camp, endears herself to the general, gets him drunk, chops off his head, and brings it back to her city. When she shows her people the enemy commander’s head, they take heart, go out and rout their foes.
  • Additions to the Book of Esther:  Here are 6 paragraphs designed to be inserted at various places in the Bible book of Esther. Their main purpose is to give the book a more Jewish and religious tone. You may be aware that the word “God” does not appear in the actual book of Esther. Perhaps the apocryphal writer sought to “correct” that.
  • Wisdom of Solomon (also called simply Wisdom): It contains devotional and theological essays written so that they appear to have come from King Solomon. It compares Jewish religion with Greek philosophy, and it attempts to prove that the highest form of wisdom is faith. This is one of the few Apocryphal books that was used and respected by some early Christian writers, though it was not seen as inspired Scripture.
  • Ecclesiasticus (also called The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, or just Sirach):  This book contains discourses, proverbs and wise sayings from a teacher named Joshua Ben Sirach. Originally written in Hebrew, it was translated into Greek by Ben Sirach’s grandson. It is the most highly respected of all the Apocryphal books, and in early times was read in some church services. Again, it was not considered inspired Scripture.
  • Baruch:  Baruch was the prophet Jeremiah’s secretary — ”Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of The Lord” (Jer 36:4). This is a rather disjointed book, and it includes exhortations against idolatry, promises to faithful Jews, and affirmations that the Law of God is real wisdom. It is written as if by Baruch during the Babylonian exile.
  • Letter of Jeremiah:  This is a letter that purports to be from Jeremiah to the Jews in exile in Babylon. Often, because it is only one chapter long, rather than being a separate book, it is included as part of the book of Baruch.
  • Song of the Three Holy Children (sometimes the Prayer of Azariah):  This book was written as an addition to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It contains prayers and hymns alleged to be offered to God while the three were in the fiery furnace. It is typically added to the book of Daniel after Dan 3:23.
  • Susanna:  This is also an addition to the book of Daniel. It is the story of two men who try to seduce a pious, young wife. When she refuses their advances, the men publicly accuse her of adultery. Susanna is condemned to death in a trial where the men testify falsely against her. But Daniel comes to the rescue, exposing the lies of the two men during a second trial. The men are put to death, and Susanna regains her status as a virtuous woman.
  • Bel and the Dragon (sometimes called Bel and the Snake):  Here we have two different stories that were expected to be included in the book of Daniel. In the first, Bel is a Babylonian idol that supposedly ate food left for him (although really it was eaten by priests who sneaked in through a secret entrance). When Daniel refuses to give Bel an offering, he is challenged by the King. Daniel tells the King that the idol does not really eat anything. As a test, food is left at night for the idol — but without the priests’ knowledge, fine ashes are spread over the floor. In the morning the food is gone, but the King can see lots of footprints in the ashes. Score one for Daniel. In the second story, the people are worshipping a living dragon (actually a big snake.) Daniel kills it by feeding it a mixture of pitch, fat and hair, which causes it to burst open.
  • Prayer of Manasseh: This is a short psalm of repentance, purportedly by King Manasseh of Judah, as he was being carried off captive to Babylon. This is one of the few Apocryphal books that has also been rejected by the Catholic Church.
  • First Maccabees: Here is contained an honest and stirring account of Jewish history between 175 BC and 135 BC when the Jews gained their national independence from their Syrian oppressors. Historians consider this book an accurate account of events at that time. As an historical account, it is valued — but not as Hebrew Scripture.
  • Second Maccabees: This book relates many of the same events as I Maccabees, but in an attempt to add a religious flavor, it includes many legendary and fanciful additions. Some of the statements in this book are thought to support the Roman Catholic teachings on Purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the intercessory work of deceased saints.
Holy Scripture and the Apocrypha
The Jews have never felt that any of the Apocryphal books should be considered as the Word of God. Thus none of the books were ever included in Jewish scripture. They have been out-and-out rejected by Jewish religious teachers ever since the time they were written. So how can anyone now think that the Apocrypha should be part of the Bible?
The Old Testament has always been a Jewish book. It is written in Hebrew, explained in Hebrew and expounded in Hebrew. However by the 3rd Century BC, because of various exiles, there were Jewish people all over the Middle East, and many of them no longer spoke Hebrew. So sometime before the time of Christ, a Greek translation was made of the Jewish Bible for these non-Hebrew-speaking Jews. This translation was called the Septuagint. Even though the translators knew that no Jew considered the Apocryphal Books as inspired, nonetheless, for the sake of completeness, they translated and included the Apocrypha with the rest of the Old Testament. Big mistake. As time went on, the Septuagint became the official Jewish Bible in Greek. And so by default the Apocryphal books seemed to be canonized.
Now to the Jews this was never a problem. Their Bible contained the Law, the Prophets and the Writings — the complete Non-Catholic Old Testament. It never contained the Apocrypha. However when the Christian Church came on the scene and started compiling its own set of Holy Scriptures, the Apocryphal books were there in the Septuagint, just to confuse the issue. And the fight as to whether to include them or not went on for centuries. 
Why do non-Catholics reject the Apocrypha?
When the early Church began to gather together the various writings that were to become part of its Bible, the Apocryphal books were conspicuously missing.
  • As mentioned above, they were never part of any Jewish Bible, and since Christianity had spring up from Judaism, it just seemed logical to accept their scriptures without making changes.
  • Even though the Apocryphal books existed in the 1st Century AD, they were never quoted. The New Testament includes quotes from 34 different Old Testament books; Jesus himself quoted from 24 of them. Yet none of these quotations come from the Apocrypha. These books were simply not part of Jewish Scripture or Jewish life.
  • Just a quick reading of most Apocryphal books reveals that they do not have the basic qualities of inspiration that the rest of the Bible does. Large portions contain historical and chronological errors. In the book of Judith, Holofernes is described as a general for Nebuchadnezzar, and Nebuchadnezzar is named as ruler of the Assyrians in Nineveh. In actuality, Holofernes was a Persian general, and King Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonians from Babylon. In I and II Maccabees, Antiochus Epiphanes ends up dying 3 times in 3 different locations. Problems like these are hard to rectify.
  • The Apocryphal books are often in direct conflict with canonical Scripture. Just as a single example, the book of Baruch talks of God hearing the prayers of those who are already dead — a concept quite foreign to accepted Scripture.
  • Finally, some of these books, quite obviously, contain just fanciful legends. In Bel and the Dragon, after Daniel kills the snake, he is thrown into the lions’ den — again — this time for 7 days. There Daniel is fed by the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk who brings him food, having been transported by an angel to the lion’s den. Or, see the description above for the book of Tobit. This bears no resemblance to anything in canonical Scripture. It is obviously just a legend.
So when the Christian Bible was compiled into a single volume, excluding the Apocryphal books was a foregone conclusion. The early church rejected these books outright, and this remains the position of almost all non-Catholic groups today.
Now it is true than many early non-Catholic English Bibles included the Apocrypha. But these books were segregated into a separate section of the Bible, all by themselves (usually between the Old and New Testaments), and almost always included a notation that they were not on par with Holy Scripture. They just about disappeared from all non-Catholic Bibles by the mid 1600’s.
Why do Catholics accept the Apocrypha?
The Catholic Church claims full authority to specify what is Scripture and what is not. Up until the 16th Century, the Apocryphal books were sort of a gray area. They were included in the Latin Vulgate Bible (the official Catholic Bible), but the church had never officially canonized them.
The non-Catholic Reformation changed all that. As common folks gained access to Bibles that were not written in Latin, but in their native tongue, the Catholic Church was being called to task for many of its beliefs and practices that did not appear to be founded in scripture — including the doctrine of Purgatory, prayers for those who are dead, and the selling of indulgences. Several of the Apocryphal books seem to support these beliefs, so it behooved the Catholic Church to declare these books as scripture. 
So on April 8, 1546, the (Catholic) Council of Trent removed all doubt as to the status of the Apocrypha. These books officially became part of the Roman Catholic Old Testament. And they meant business. Said the Catholic Church: ”If anyone receive not as sacred and canonical the said books entire, with all their parts, as they have by custom been read in the Catholic Church, let him be accursed.”  So all the Apocryphal books noted above, with the exception of I and II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh, remain as part of the Roman Catholic Old Testament.

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