Monday, March 03, 2014

How We Got the Bible: The Apocryphal Books

In Chapter 15 of the book, Lightfoot identifies the apocryphal  books of the Old and New Testament, briefly describes their contents, and explains why they have been rejected as noncanonical. The word apocrypha essentially means “hidden.” Very early it was used in the sense of “secretive” or “concealed” and also used to refer to a book whose origin was uncertain or unknown. Eventually it came to mean “noncanonical.”

Apocryphal Books of the Old Testament

The title “the Apocrypha” is the typical Protestant designation of the extra books in the Catholic Old Testament. Roman Catholics refer to the extra books as “deuterocanonical” or secondary canonical.  However, Lightfoot identifies the following books as the Old Testament Apocrypha: 

1. The First Book of Esdras (also known as Third Esdras)
2. The Second Book of Esdras (also known as Fourth Esdras)
3. Tobit
4. Judith
5. The Additions to the Book of Esther
6. The Wisdom of Solomon
7. Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach
8. Baruch
9. The Letter of Jeremiah (Sometimes incorporated as the last chapter of Baruch resulting in fourteen books instead of fifteen)
10. The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men
11. Susanna
12. Bel and the Dragon
13. The Prayer of Manasseh
14. The First Book of Maccabees
15. The Second Book of Maccabees

1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh are noncanonical to the Roman Catholic Church and the remaining twelve are dispersed throughout or attached to the thirty-nine known canonical Old Testament books. These books are classified as historical, legendary, prophetic, or ethical/devotional.  Here is a brief content description of each classification:

Historical – First Esdras is an un-orderly collection of much of what is found in canonical Ezra (Esdras is a Greek form of Ezra) and contains legendary accounts not supported by 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. First Maccabees is named after Maccabeus the nickname of Judas who led a Jewish revolt against Syrian oppression. It was written around the close of the second century and is a source of information on Jewish history during this time period. Second Maccabees is from the same time period but not as historically reliable.

Legendary – Tobit was written about 200 B.C. and is the fictitious story of a religious Israelite named Tobit taken captive by Assyrians. Judith is the fictitious tale of Judith, a Jewish widow, who delivers her people from destruction by charming and killing the leader of an enemy army. It was perhaps written during the Maccabean revolt. The Additions to Esther are exactly that and were most likely handed down through oral tradition.  The Additions to Daniel consist of tales and legends originating probably no earlier than 100 B.C.

Prophetic – Baruch claims to come from a friend of Jeremiah by that name. However, its contents suggest that it comes from about the time period of the beginning of Christianity. The Letter of Jeremiah dates to as early as 300 B.C. and tells of the vanities of idolatry. Second Esdras is supposedly a revelation given to Ezra through a series of visions. It is dated to about A.D. 100.

Ethical/Devotional – Ecclesiasticus is written in similar style to Proverbs and by a Palestinian Jew around 200 B.C. The Wisdom of Solomon contains ancient Jewish philosophy and originates from Alexandria and the second century B.C. The Prayer of Manasseh is a prayer put in the mouth of King Manasseh after he is taken captive in Babylon. It was possibly written in the second century B.C. as well.

The following are the reasons why these books are not recognized as part of the canon:

1. They were never included in the Hebrew Old Testament. As noted in the previous chapter, Josephus set the Hebrew canon at twenty-two books, the same thirty-nine books of our Old Testament. Further, there is no evidence that any Jewish community ever accepted the Apocrypha.

2. They were never accepted as canonical by Jesus and his apostles. Again from the previous chapter , the Old Testament that Jesus knew is our Old Testament. Additionally, the New Testament writers quoted from almost all of the Old Testament books and yet no where do they quote from, or make reference to characters or incidents of, the Apocrypha.

3. They were not accepted by early Jewish and Christian writers such as Philo, Josephus, Origin, and Jerome. Nor were they accepted as Scripture by the Jewish council at Jamnia around A.D. 90.

4. They do not evidence intrinsic qualities of inspiration. Lightfoot writes:  Great portions of these books are obviously legendary and fictitious. Often they contain historical, chronological, and geographical errors…But the trouble with so many books of the Apocrypha is that they abound with exaggerated exploits, fanciful stories, and just plain fiction. Sometimes they are self-contradictory, and sometimes they contradict the canonical Scriptures.

5. They have been shrouded with continual uncertainty. Unable to receive recognition from the Jews, they received recognition from some segments of the Greek-speaking church which eventually led to their incorporation into the Greek and Latin Bibles. However, there is no evidence that the Septuagint was ever a fixed canon of books.

6. They cannot be maintained on a compromise basis. The Church of England gives the Apocrypha a semicanonical status. They can be read in public worship but not to set doctrine. This stance assumes that the books will either add to or conflict with canonical Scripture. Readings during public worship tend to be authoritative, so this is a strange stance to take to show the Apocrypha’s lower rank in recognition.

7. Objections to them cannot be overruled by a dictatorial authority. The Old Testament Apocrypha (except 1 and 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh) was declared authoritative and canonical Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546 regardless of objections to it within its own history. Lightfoot rightly states though that, “Rome, which in such matters claims infallibility, cannot make the fallible Apocrypha infallible.”

Apocryphal Books of the New Testament

Lightfoot concludes the chapter with the following:

The New Testament Apocrypha superficially tires to imitate the kinds of books in the New Testament and thus includes a variety of literary types:  Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses. Dating from the second century and later; these books were written under assumed names:  the Gospel of Peter; the Protevangelium (meaning “first gospel”) of James, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Infancy Story of Thomas, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul-on and on it goes. Such works, to say the least, present highly fanciful stories of Jesus during his early years or while he was in the tomb or after his resurrection; imaginative tales about the missionary activities of the apostles; letters supposedly written by the apostles; and apocalypses of Peter and others that pretend to reveal the future.

Anyone who has doubts about the New Testament canon should take the time to read some of the New Testament Apocrypha. Here are a few examples of what one may find:  (1) Infancy Story of Thomas. When a child bumps his shoulder, Jesus strikes him dead. (2) Gospel of Peter. Three men come out of Jesus’ tomb, with a cross following them; the head of two of them reaches to heaven, the head of the other overpasses the heavens. (3) Protevangelium of James. Mary is brought up in the temple, dedicated as a virgin from the age of three. (4) Acts of John. John, on finding bedbugs in his bed at an inn, commands the bugs to leave and behave themselves. (5) Acts of Paul. Paul baptizes a lion, who later spares him from death in the amphitheater at Ephesus.

After reading such tales, many of us will want to hurry back to our New Testaments and once again appreciate them both for what they say and what they do not say. At the same time we should be grateful that the early church did distinguish between these apocryphal books and those that comprise the New Testament.

Stand firm in Christ,

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