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.