Monday, December 16, 2013

Reading the Apocrypha

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible
Orthodox priest studying his Bible, which contains the Apocrypha
So take to the streets with your apocalypse strain,
Your devotion has the look of a lunatic's gaze.
—"Apocalypse Song," St. Vincent

 A couple months ago I finished the Hebrew Bible and started work on the Apocrypha, a group of books that form the middle section of my NRSV Bible. The books in this section weigh in at a relatively svelte 350 pages or so in my Bible, compared to the great and honking mass that is the Hebrew Bible at 1300 pages.

The Apocrypha are not a separate section in Catholic or Orthodox Bibles; you will find the books that are gathered under that name in my NRSV scattered throughout a Catholic or Orthodox volume. And a typical Protestant Bible will exclude them altogether: as a Protestant myself, no Bible I ever saw in church growing up had these books, and it wasn't until my parents thoughtfully gave me a New Interpreter's Study Bible* for my college graduation present (yes, I was then and am still a Bible nerd) that I finally came to own a Bible that included them. To understand why this is so, we need to dig into a little history.

A Short History of the Apocrypha:

In the three centuries before Jesus' life on earth, the Jews lived not only in their homeland of Palestine but also in communities scattered around the ancient Near East, especially in Alexandria, Egypt. They were a part of the first Jewish diaspora into the larger ancient world. The language of their daily lives ceased to be Hebrew, in favor of the Greek that their neighbors spoke. (This was especially true of Jews living outside of Palestine. In Palestine, on the other hand, many Jews, including Jesus, came to speak Aramaic as their primary language.**)

The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for the benefit of this diaspora community. (The most popular ancient Greek translation was called the Septuagint, though there were others.) Meanwhile, religious books were still being composed by Jews in these last three centuries BCE; they were sometimes composed in Hebrew, sometimes in Greek, but were usually translated and circulated in Greek if they hadn't been written in it, and most copies of the book in existence at any given time would have been in Greek. The most popular of these books took on as much significance as the older books of the Hebrew Bible for many ancient Jews, and the distinction between these newer books and their older counterparts might not have been as clear as one might think. To quote my Bible's notes on the subject, "For a Greek-speaking Jew living in Egypt, it would have been far from clear that (for example) Proverbs, which he or she would know in its Greek version, was Holy Scripture, whereas the (rather similar) Wisdom of Solomon, which was originally composed in Greek, was not" (Access Bible, pg. 32).

This means that, in Jesus' day, there was a sort of unofficial Jewish canon of scripture that included both the older books that we now know as the Hebrew Bible, and some newer books either written Greek in or primarily known in their Greek translations. When Christianity formed, it inherited this larger canon of Jewish scripture. Later, as modern Judaism began to form under the rabbis who led the Jewish community after the destruction of the Temple, Jews began to consider only the books in Hebrew as canonical.

So, somewhat ironically, Christians ended up preserving quite a number of ancient Jewish writings that would likely have been lost otherwise. There was some dissent about these books among Christians in ancient times, who noticed that the Jews had a smaller canon that only included the older Hebrew works, but for the most part, other Christians paid little attention to this dissent. But all this doesn't quite explain how I, a Protestant, ended up never getting around to reading the Apocrypha until this year. For that, we need to jump forward to the Reformation.

Depiction of St. Jerome, ancient translator who objected to the Apocrypha

In the sixteenth century, a number of religious thinkers and leaders called for changes in the Roman Catholic Church, were denounced and expelled as heretics, and ended up forming their own church movements as a result. This period is called the Protestant Reformation (which has always struck me as slightly odd, since the people who protested and left the Catholic Church did not really succeed in reforming it, though the Catholics eventually got around to making some of the changes the Protestant Reformers suggested anyway, in a movement amusingly titled the Counter-Reformation). One of the most important ideas of the Reformation was something called sola scriptura, which is a doctrine that the Bible contains everything you need to know in order to be saved from sin and hell, and therefore that only ideas that are directly stated in the Bible (or that can be logically derived from statements in the Bible) should be considered doctrines of the church.

In enunciating the rallying cry of sola scriptura, the Reformers began to examine the contents and extent of said scriptura in more detail than was common at the time. They ended up agreeing with the earlier Christian thinkers who had wanted to remove the books from the canon. While early Protestant translations of the Bible, including the still-widely-loved King James Version, kept the books as a separate section between the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha quickly fell out of favor (from what I can tell, many Protestants considered them "too Catholic," but I can also see how it might be annoying and weird to have some books in your Bible that aren't, you know, scripture), and most Protestant Bibles that are produced today, KJVs included, do not include the Apocrypha. Protestants working on new translations have generally not even bothered to translate them.

Title page from a Counter-Reformation Bible

Thankfully, the good folks who created the (somewhat redundant-sounding) New Revised Standard Version did bother to translate the Apocryphal books, and they are included in both of the NRSV volumes that I own. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, most NRSVs used by Protestant churches do not include the Apocrypha. There's also a Catholic NRSV edition that includes the books in the order they appear in in Catholic Bibles.) The NRSV Apocrypha section includes not only the books that appear in Catholic Bibles, but also some that appear only in Orthodox Bibles.

Reading the Apocrypha:

As I've remarked before, I have way more love for Biblical narrative than for other Biblical genres; I'm especially bad at enjoying or understanding Biblical poetry, at least at any length. Unfortunately for me, two of the longest books in the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon and the book of Sirach, are books of poetry. Wisdom was pretty good; it's the shorter of the two, and I enjoyed its message of the importance of pursuing goodness and righteousness, even in the face of opposition. Sirach was a doozy though; not only is it the longest Apocryphal book by far (51 chapters and 87 pages in my Bible, while no other book in the section gets much beyond 50 pages), it's also not very fun or interesting, and it's littered with the most entrenched patriarchy/misogyny I've seen pretty much anywhere in the Bible, which is not the most forward-thinking, when it comes to gender, on a good day. Take this gem, Sirach 42:12: Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace. "The severity of this statement," my Bible commentary notes, "is unparalleled in Biblical literature." Blerg.

Much of the other material in this section is a lot better than this, though, and in fact one book, Judith, is practically a proto-feminist text. The main character of this short novel is Judith, a strong, independent widow who saves her town from an invading army by tricking her way into the general's quarters and beheading him. I love its positive vision of service to God and people, although I suppose its violent resolution is not necessarily my favorite thing in the world. It's quite well written, however, doing a great job of building suspense and creating a sense of danger for the heroine before she completes her grisly mission.

And boy, is it grisly

I once read somewhere that ancient authors thought it was important to avoid creating suspense because it distracted the audience from the point of the story. If this is true, then whoever wrote the book of Tobit must have subscribed to this ancient literary theory. Tobit is a really fun, edifying, and satisfying story, but the funniest moment in it for me is when, about three chapters in, the author steps aside from narrating the story itself to assure the reader that everything is going to turn out okay for the main characters. (Second funniest moment: Tobit 6:3, which says, "Suddenly a large fish leaped up from the water and tried to swallow the young man’s foot, and he cried out." Hee hee.) The book is the story of a man, Tobit, and his son, Tobias. Tobit is a pretty cool guy, but early in the story becomes blind and impoverished, and God sends an angel to help Tobias on a journey to retrieve some money for his dad. Along the way, Tobias saves a woman from a demon that's been keeping her from getting married, and then marries her (the woman, not the demon). The book places a weirdly strong emphasis on the importance of properly burying the dead, and I found it mildly unsettling that the angel in the story feels the need to repeatedly lie to conceal the fact that he's an angel, but these are both things that actually added to the fun for me in discovering this new book. 

Other fun stuff in the Apocrypha included the various books called "Maccabees;" 1 and 2 Maccabees, for example, are actually two different authors' perspectives on the same period in history. I have next to no exposure to said time period, the era when the Jews rebelled against their Greek overlords and set up an independent state of Israel (which lasted for over a century, until it was conquered and incorporated as a Roman province; sigh). "Maccabees" is the nickname for the family that led this rebellion, and of one member, Judas Maccabeus (or "Judah Maccabee"), in particular; the nickname probably has something to do with the Aramaic word for "hammer," though apparently there are other theories.

Judah Maccabee leading his army

Amusingly, neither 3 Maccabees nor 4 Maccabees has anyone from Judah Maccabee's family in it, though they both involve roughly the same period in Jewish history as 1 and 2 Maccabees. 3 Maccabees is delightful mostly for the deliciously weird irony of its premise. At the start of the book, the king of Egypt, Ptolemy, is saved from death by a Jew. To show his gratitude, the king offers a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem; once there, however, he is enraged to discover that he is absolutely forbidden to enter the Holy of Holies, where even the high priest is allowed only once a year, and so the king resolves to kill all the Jews in Egypt out of spite. Much hilarity ensues, including several (failed) attempts to trample the Jews to death with elephants, and the king ends up blaming the idea for the whole episode on his advisers when he finally repents in the face of an angelic intervention. 4 Maccabees is a philosophical treatise that sets out to prove that reason can govern the emotions, but it is taken up in very large part with an unnecessarily detailed account of King Antiochus torturing seven Jewish brothers and their mother to death (an event which 2 Maccabees records with slightly more decorum as part of a general campaign by the King Antiochus to snuff out the Jewish way of life, which eventually led to the Maccabean revolt). Neither 3 nor 4 Maccabees can be found in Catholic Bibles, and 4 Maccabees is scarcely in any Orthodox ones either, but I was certainly happy the NRSV translators included them, especially 3 Maccabees, which is a riot.

Several books of the Hebrew Bible appeared in expanded form when translated into Greek; these Greek additions are listed among the Apocrypha, but are mostly too short to give much attention to on their own, though one addition to Daniel, Bel and the Dragon, is kind of cool because it has a dragon. The Letter of Jeremiah is an addition to the Hebrew Bible book of Jeremiah, and it's pretty much dedicated entirely to the questionable Biblical argument that idols should not be worshiped because they are man-made. This made it a lovely example when I needed to wrap up a post about idolatry a few weeks ago.

My favorite book in the Apocrypha was 2 Esdras, which only appears in the Slavonic Bible (one of the Bibles of the Orthodox churches), and Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate (where it appears as an appendix). The Wikipedia entry on 2 Esdras calls it "one of the gems of Jewish apocalyptic literature," which I think sums it up rather nicely. The book is a collection of several authors' viewpoints on the chaotic and troubling goings-on of the early centuries CE, but my favorite is the middle section, which depicts a dialog between the main character, Ezra, and the angel Uriel, who God sends to comfort Ezra in his distress and answer his questions about the end of the world and the life to come. In particular, I identify with Ezra's questions about the nature of the afterlife, especially his outraged inquiry, repeated throughout the book: why is it that most people who live will not go to heaven, but will suffer in the afterlife? Ezra several times rejects the angel Uriel's too-pat answers to this very important question, and while Ezra eventually comes round to Uriel's way of thinking, a number of unanswered questions remain, which is how I like my Biblical books. 2 Esdras reminds me of nothing else in the Bible so much as Abraham's argument with God, in which he attempts to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the few righteous people who live there. This argument between God and Abraham is one of the pivotal moments in the book of Genesis and in Jewish thought on the nature of God, and 2 Esdras expands on it and plays with it and many other Biblical scenes and tropes, to good effect. I'm glad I have a Bible with this book in it, and the others I've talked about; I hope to revisit them again sometime soon.

*The NISB is a great book, and I've been using it to supplement my reading, especially when I'm reading at home in the evenings. It's not very portable, though; thankfully, as I mention briefly in the first post in this series, my father was kind enough to get me a copy of the more obscure but quite good Access Bible, which has provided enough commentary to keep me engaged and make sure I'm understanding what's going on in some of the more obscure places. It has significantly less commentary than the NISB, though, and it's a paperback to boot, so I can take it with me from place to place without totally hulking out and frightening passersby with my unbridled physical prowess.
**Aramaic is a language related to Hebrew; it was the language of the Babylonians, who destroyed the ancient nation of Judah and carried many Jews into exile in Babylon. This is roughly how it replaced Hebrew for the Jews in Palestine: not only would the Jews in exile have used Aramaic in their daily lives, and would have brought it with them when they returned to their ancestral home a generation later, but also the people who stayed behind in Palestine became part of the Babylonian Empire, an Aramaic-speaking empire, and would have needed Aramaic for administrative and other purposes.
†These included St. Jerome, who learned enough Hebrew from his Jewish friends to translate the Bible into Latin (in what became known as the Vulgate, which is still in use by the Catholic Church). In doing so, he found out that they had a smaller canon and objected to the inclusion of the books that the Jews had not included in their Bibles into his Old Testament, even going so far as to get into a debate with St. Augustine on the subject. He ended up translating them in spite of his objections.
‡The Reformers had varying views of the works in the Apocrypha; Luther thought that, though they were not to be considered scripture, the Apocryphal books were still good and valuable, and he said wanted them to be read and taught by Christians. Calvin had a much more pessimistic view, though even he was not entirely consistent on the matter. From what I can tell, the Anabaptist Reformers generally thought of these books quite positively and may even have thought of them as authoritative scripture, though like other Protestant movements, modern Anabaptist churches have generally excluded them from their Bibles.

Photo sources:,_Tek_Teklay,_Ethiopia_%288070187014%29.jpg,_the_elder_-_Saint_Jerome_in_His_Study_-_Walters_37256.jpg

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