Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Five Reasons Protestants Should Read the Apocrypha

(Note: This is a replay of an article originally posted in 2011.)

If you are a Catholic or Orthodox follower of Jesus you already have all the reasons you need to read the Apocrypha -- they are an essential part of your Bibles. But what about the rest of  us? The Apocrypha don't appear in most Protestant Bibles because they're felt to be uninspired. So what would move you to read a translation that does contain these books in some editions, such as the New Revised Standard Version or the Good News Bible? 

The Apocrypha is a motley collection; all sorts of writings are included. In case you are not up on your deuterocanonical literature, here is a list of the books involved:  Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), Additions to Daniel (Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), 1st Maccabees, and 2nd Maccabees. To these the Orthodox churches add:  3rd Maccabees, 1st Esdras, Psalm 151, Prayer of Manasseh, 4th Maccabees, and 2nd Esdras.

You don't have to believe they're inspired to take an interest in these books, though. Personally, even though I'm not Orthodox or Catholic I try to buy Bibles with the Apocrypha whenever I find one. 

Here are 5 reasons why.


1.) It gives you an idea of what was happening between Malachi and Matthew

About 400 years elapsed between the last book of the Old Testament and the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth. The Hebrew Scriptures give a pretty continuous account from the time of Moses all the way to the last prophet (probably Malachi), and then -- nothing!  Even the later Jewish historian Josephus thought it was strange:
"It is true that our history since King Artaxerxes has been transcribed quite precisely, but this has not been considered to have the same authority as the earlier books of our ancestors, since there has not been a continuous line of prophets since that time," (Josephus, Against Apion 1.8)
Haven't you ever wondered what was going on during that time? The Apocryphal books -- some of them the very ones Josephus was referring to -- will let you peer into that mysterious time period.

2.) It was St. Paul's bedtime reading

Everyone knows that Paul quoted Greek writers liberally to make his points (see Acts of the Apostles chapter 17, verse 28 and Letter to Titus chapter 1, verse 12  for examples), but many scholars believe that he refers to some of the apocryphal books in his letters as well. Really, why shouldn't he? If he used Greek writers what would stop him from reading Jewish writers as well? 

For instance, compare these 2 verses:
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?
(Letter to the Romans chapter 9, verse 21, New Revised Standard Version).

A potter kneads the soft earth
and laboriously molds each vessel for our service,
fashioning out of the same clay
both the vessels that serve clean uses
and those for contrary uses, making all alike;
but which shall be the use of each of themthe worker in clay decides,
(Wisdom of Solomon chapter 15, verse 7, NRSV).

Not convinced? How about these two:

Who has known the Lord’s mind?   Or who has been his mentor? 
(Letter to the Romans chapter 11, verse 34, NRSV).

For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills? 
(Wisdom of Solomon chapter 9, verse 13, NRSV).

And Paul may not be the only New Testament author with wide reading tastes. Check these out sometime:

Matthew 6.7 / Sirach 7.14
Matthew 27.43 / Wisdom 2.15-18
Luke 6.31 / Tobit 4.15
John 10.22 / 1st Maccabees 4.59
2nd Corinthians 9.7 / Sirach 35.10-12
Hebrews 1.3 / Wisdom 7.24-26
Hebrews 11.35 / 2nd Maccabees 7.7-9

Tobit and the angel Raphael
3.) There's some good stuff in there.

Do this for me: Curl up with a good, modern translation (the Good News Bible is good and available on the BibleGateway) of the Book of Tobit some evening and give it a read. It's a dandy little story, isn't it?  Now try Judith. A total whopper, but hard to put down, particularly if you like stories about heroic women in patriarchal cultures who save their nation singlehanded.  

Like history? First Maccabees (and then follow it up with its more colorful cousin Second Maccabees). Need some good practical advice? Try Sirach. It's like a longer, more detailed Book of Proverbs

4.) It was in most everybody's Bible until the early 1800's.

"In 1666 appeared the first edition of the Authorized Version from which the Apocrypha was omitted... In 1826 the British and Foreign Bible Society, which has been one of the principal agents in the circulation of the Scriptures throughout the world, decided never in the future to print or circulate copies containing the Apocrypha; and this decision has been carried into effect ever since," (Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, Article "Versions, English").  

5.) Martin Luther, John Bunyan, the Geneva Bible, and the Anglican Articles of Religion speak highly of them.

Luther: "These Books Are Not Held Equal to the Scriptures, but Are Useful and Good to Read" (Superscription in Luther's 1534 edition of the German Bible).

Bunyan (the author of Pilgrim's Progress): "I presently went to my Bible, to see if I could find that saying, not doubting but to find it presently... Thus I continued above a year, and could not find the place; but at last, casting my eye upon the Apocrypha books, I found it in Ecclesiasticus, chap. ii. 10. This, at the first, did somewhat daunt me; because it was not in those texts that we call holy and canonical; yet, as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it; and I bless God for that word, for it was of good to me. That word doth still ofttimes shine before my face," (Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

Geneva Bible: "As bokes proceding from godlie men, [they] were received to be red for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of the historie, and for the instruction of godlie maners," (Preface to the Apocrypha, Geneva Bible).

Anglican Articles of Religion: "And the other books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine," (Book of Common Prayer, Articles of Religion, Article 6) .

6.) Your spiritual siblings have it in their Bibles.

Most of us Protestants, liberal and conservative alike, now realize that we are not enemies; we are comrades in arms. We all hold the same core beliefs, with or without the Apocrypha. We are unanimous on the New Testament books. 

Jesus prayed we would be one: "I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me," (Gospel of John chapter 17, verses 22 - 23, CEB). That oneness is the way people will know we're part of his movement. 

Perhaps it would be good if we got a little familiar with the books our brothers and sisters value so highly.

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