The Apocrypha

For those of you who are in the habit of saying Morning or Evening Prayer on a regular basis, I want to congratulate you on availing yourself of a very meaningful spiritual practice.  If, in the course of your devotions, you have looked at the readings assigned for the week of the Sunday closest to June 8th, also known as Proper 5, you might have discovered an abbreviation with which you are not familiar.  It looks like this: “Ecclus.”  You think to yourself, “Did they mean the book of Ecclesiastes?  I’ve looked in the table of contents in my Bible, and they don’t have any book that looks like it would fit that abbreviation.”  If you’ve had this experience, then you know what it is like to try to find a book within the Apocrypha.  For most Christians, it is not easy, and for some, it’s impossible.  Please allow me to explain why. 

The Bible, which in Latin means “little books,” was originally transmitted orally, by faithful people whose job it was to pass along the foundation of our faith to succeeding generations.  After the use of paper and ink became more common, the information traditionally handed down orally evolved into a collection of writings that we now identify as the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and the Christian Scriptures, or the New Testament.  For the purposes of understanding the Apocrypha, it is the development of the Hebrew Scriptures that is important.  The development of the Hebrew Scriptures took place over a long period of time, and the priority given to specific books and texts varied, depending upon the person, or people, responsible for passing on Scripture to others. 

Jewish tradition tells us that Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 BC) desired a translated copy of the Hebrew Law (and later all of the Old Testament) for his library in Alexandria, Egypt.  It is said that he asked 72 translators to set about completing the work.  The Septuagint, as it came to be known, was actually the work of a number of translators, working across a broad geographical area (not just Alexandria), over a considerable period of time.  By 132 BC, however, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek was largely complete.  This translation benefitted those Jews living outside of Israel, who only spoke Greek, and not Hebrew.  It meant that they could hear and read the Bible in their own language.  The Septuagint was also the version of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly used by the early Christians, who mostly spoke Greek.

200 years after the Septuagint was created, the official canon of the Hebrew Scripture was fixed by a group of rabbis, creating an official version for use by Jews.  In their version, they omitted several of the books the scholars chose to include in the Septuagint, as well as using the order and length of the books as found in the original Hebrew.

When Latin became the official language of the church, the Septuagint was the version Jerome used to translate the Old Testament from Greek into Latin.  His work was completed in 384 AD, and became known as the Vulgate.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders ignored the traditional acceptance of all the books of the Septuagint, desiring a return to the biblical authority of the early church, and refusing to grant the status of inspired Scripture to those books that were not found in the Hebrew Canon.  Different translators over time have chosen to accept or reject these books based upon their own understanding of their importance.  

As a set, these “extra” texts from the Septuagint eventually became known as the “Apocrypha,” which means “things that are hidden,” because they are a collection of texts that were excluded from some versions of the Bible, while kept by others.  Over the years, Anglicans have had mixed views on these texts, which has often resulted in them being printed as a separate section within the translation of the Bible used in Anglican churches, rather than intermingling them with the books of the Old Testament, as in many versions of the Bible used in the Roman Catholic Church.  Some of these texts are read aloud in churches during worship services, while others have not been included in worship.

The books of the Apocrypha contain several different kinds of writings.  Some are historical, like 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tell the history of the Jewish revolt against foreign domination in the second century BC.  There is an addition to the book of Ezra (1 Esdras).  There are stories, legends and writings with a moral, including Tobit, Judith, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.  It includes books of teaching from the Wisdom tradition, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and our example from earlier, Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach – just to keep us on our toes).  Some books are devotional and some are liturgical.  Some are additions to the prophetic writings.  Given the time in which they were written, many of the writings contain apocalyptic (end-time) elements, during a time when the land was ruled by foreign governments and often overseen by hostile governors. 

Some might wonder at the value of these books if they have been included by some Christian denominations, but excluded by most.  The truth is that these texts have had, and continue to have, an impact on our faith.  There are passages such as those in 1 and 2 Esdras that help us interpret the relationship between God the Father and God the Son (2 Esdras 13:26).  There are passages that give us great comfort in times of grief, such as that from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:1-4), in which we read, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them…they are at peace.”  They also provide important historical context in what has come to be known as the “intertestamental period,” that time between the history recorded within the Old Testament and the history recorded within the New Testament.

The debate about the Scriptural significance of these books, and others like them such as the Gospel of Thomas, that did not make it into the widely-accepted canon of the Old and New Testaments will continue well beyond our lifetimes.  Regardless of their official status, however, wisdom and insight can be found, resulting in a positive impact on our relationship with Jesus Christ and with others.  They are worth reading, if for no other reason, then to have a greater understanding of why they were important to so many people over the course of history.

I encourage you to find a translation of the Bible that includes the Apocrypha, and read these texts.  Discuss them in Bible study with other Christians, and come to your own understanding of their importance.  It will be well-worth your time.

Where do we find what Christians believe about Christ?

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Clearly we can know things certain things about Jesus of Nazareth in a historical sense, as no serious historian will tell you such a man never walked the earth; indeed the many TV specials that seem to crop up every other year or so claiming to portray the ‘real’ Jesus of history testify to the popularity of the man and the question of who he was. Yet such treatments usually don’t get us very close to what Christians believe about him. For as St. Paul says, these things are “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). No, we’re better off looking to the answer that emerges when Christ himself asks the question. At one particularly poignant moment in their time together, Jesus asked his disciples this very question: “‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘blessed are you, Simon son of John! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” (Mt 16:15-17).

When looking for what Christians believe about Jesus Christ, there is of course no better place to begin than the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, where we have Jesus proclaimed not just as a young community organizer or revolutionary rabbi from an obscure place called Galilee, but as the Anointed One (Christ/Messiah), the Son of the living God. As I understand it, the Gospel stories mostly tell us who Jesus was (and has been and ever will be), and the Epistles are especially good at telling us how Jesus relates to our lives. The Bible believes both views are required – both the “who” and the “so what” of Jesus – because “the demons also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). The demons might ‘believe’ in a sense, but they don’t really know Jesus. Indeed, only by exploring the ‘so what’ of Jesus so we come to know him; and to know him is to trust and love him.

We can learn quite a bit about Jesus by looking to the testimony of generations past who loved and knew the risen Christ. Probably the most concise summaries are found in the ancient creeds of the Church, especially the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, the roots of which go back to the earliest days of the Church’s life. Fuller fundamental reflections on the identity and ‘so what’ of Christ are found in the writings of best of the ancient church, most especially in the writings of ancient saints such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, and perhaps best of all in the great work by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation

But we need not look only to the past to find what we believe, for as these ancient Christians knew themselves, Christ is the God of the living, not of the dead (Mk 12:27). For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the same Holy Spirit that guided them into deeper love and knowledge of Jesus is the very same one that leads us to the know him today (John 16:13). To know what Christians believe about Jesus, and to love and know him for oneself, one simply has to pay attention on Sunday, where the ancient creeds and prayers of the Church are still said today by Christians of all colors and ages and shapes and sizes; where we not only remember and savor what we believe about Christ, but where we also meet the living Christ for ourselves in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and most of all within ourselves when we abide in his love: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:20-21; see also Jn 15:1-11 and 1 Cor 3:16).

So the best way to learn what Christians believe about Christ is to meet him for oneself, to meet him and come to love him, whereby we come to know him as he is. And when we begin to grow in this loving knowledge, our eyes are opened and we begin to see and learn about Jesus in yet other ways, most notably in the poor, the afflicted, and the suffering; we learn much about our Lord by serving ‘the least of these’ (Mt 25:31f). And there’s also nothing quite like meeting Christ in a fellow Christian, a brother or sister who has applied themselves to the identity of Christ and joins us both in seeking Christ within and in the ‘least of these’, together becoming one in the Holy Spirit, “as he and the Father are one” (Jn 17:20-26).

Coming to know Christ not just as Jesus of Nazareth but as the Church knows him, as Christ, the Son of the living God, is a wonderful thing; but we only come to such knowledge of Jesus by the grace of God, that is, as a gift from God. As Christ taught the crowds, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). And our hearts are only made pure through the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5; Ps 51:1-12). So let us all hear the words of Paul, praying on our behalf, and learn to pray this apostolic prayer for both ourselves and others:

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19).

Amen.

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