The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Monday, January 06, 2014  

Why Your Bible Should Have the Apocrypha

Last Sunday my church (like most Lutheran and many other churches) had the option of reading a passage from the book of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach in place of a more standard Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah. Since the passage was so thematically appropriate, and since I like Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus or ben Sira), I decided to use it. But as it was a book totally unfamiliar to many of our people, and since questions about it started reaching me days before church, I found it necessary to say a little bit about the book and why, despite the fact that it's not in many of the popular Bible editions people own, I wished to have it read in worship.

While I was glad to do this, it's unfortunate that it was necessary. Sirach should be in every edition of the Bible, along with the rest of the Old Testament "Apocrypha" or "Second Canon." My friend Jim Skaggs has been sharing discussions of the Apocrypha on his blog, which taken together cover the question in greater depth (maybe start here and poke around a bit). I'm going to add a very little here by way of practical arguments. I'm not a scholar of the text or history of Scripture; my own view on the matter falls basically in line with Luther, St. Jerome, and the many others who found the Hebrew text of the Old Testament to contain the core of the faith while placing the "second canon" of books found only in the Greek translation in an honored but less central position.* But nothing I say here depends on accepting that particular view. I'm simply offering four reasons your Bible ought to contain these books, and if it doesn't, you should find one that does, and then read them.

1. The case for excluding these books altogether has only rarely (and recently) been made. The first Bible of the Christian Church was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures made in the second century before the time of Christ. The debate between the canon preserved in the Septuagint and the canon of the Hebrew version (preserved in what we call the Masoretic Text, which is actually of later date than the Septuagint) is an interesting one, historically speaking and not without consequence. But in no source I can find were the books found only in the Septuagint considered corrupt, misleading, or erroneous. Unfortunately the terms "apocrypha" and "apocryphal" have come to denote inauthenticity or even fraudulence, which is not their meaning in Greek (that would be closer to "pseudepigrapha," which is another body of ancient literature). Every Bible contained the Apocrypha, whether set apart from the Hebrew canon or not, until quite recently. Evangelical and fundamentalist hostility to the Apocrypha appears to be an effect rather than a cause of the creation of cheap Bible editions in the 19th century that excluded the "second canon" for economic reasons.

2. The distinction between "authoritative" and "beneficial" is not as useful as it once was. Historically, as I understand it, the debate over the Apocrypha hinged on whether the books should be considered as "authoritative" for doctrine or morals, or whether they should be read as "beneficial." You can dress this distinction up in different ways: "authentic," "inerrant," or "inspired" on one side, "useful," "beneficial," etc. on the other. But at this point these terms do not have stable meanings, even within Christian traditions that have a fairly coherent identity such as Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Reformed. In a sense, the more inclined you are to a verbal inspiration or literalist approach to Scripture, the more you stand to gain from reading books that share the worldviews, cadences, and points of reference of Scripture without carrying along the metaphysical baggage of inerrancy.

3. Without it your understanding of Christian thought and literature is inevitably incomplete.
Luther loved to quote Sirach: If you would serve the LORD, my son, prepare yourself for temptation. Kierkegaard, who was arguably the most protestant Protestant of his age, wrote the story of Tobit quite powerfully into the argument of Fear and Trembling. You'll find allusions to the Wisdom of Solomon in the writing of John Donne. As far as I know, every Christian writer, whatever their label, read and knew these books through the first 16 centuries (or more) of Christianity. If we cut ourselves off from those texts, we won't be able to read them as well as they are meant to be read.

4. And without it, your understanding of the world of the Bible is incomplete. Scholars of the Bible, whatever their stripe or religious identity, are accountable for knowing these books. For one thing, there is overlap in time between the composition of the canonical and apocryphal books. For another, the history and thought of the (relatively brief) period between the testaments is interesting in itself and very helpful for understanding the world of the Jewish diaspora through which Christianity at first spread. Sirach contains what I believe is the most complete description of Second-Temple worship we have. Just as we can't understand Christian thought without reading what Christian thinkers read, we can't understand the world of Jesus without reading what his contemporaries wrote.

So if your Bible lacks these books, go and get one that has them. If nothing else, it will be a sign that the editors and translators of your version know what they are doing and are making a genuine effort to provide a set of canonical texts that is properly informed by their literary context and their reception by ancient readers. And there's nothing wrong with being edified.

* Later a Hebrew version of Sirach was discovered, which has raised its status in many eyes.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 4:20 PM
I am pleased to see another Protestant shares my view on the Apocrypha. In fact, I go as far as to say that all ancient writings, even those never considered canonical, should be considered as a way of strengthening faith. I intend to make a similar post in the next week or two; I find your opinions to be very well-wrought and will likely include a positive reference to this post.
Post a Comment