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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Place and Significance of the Apocrypha

M. Jack Suggs

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld

James R. Mueller

The place of the Apocrypha in the biblical canon has been disputed since the first centuries of the Common Era, but the significance of the various writings for an understanding of Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods and Early Christianity is no longer challenged.

Written between 250 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. by Jewish authors, the books classified in this volume as “Apocrypha” represent those works which are not included in the Hebrew canon, but which are found for the most part in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, commonly referred to as the Septuagint. These include:

  • The First Book of Esdras

  • The Second Book of Esdras

  • Tobit

  • Judith

  • The Rest of the Chapters of the Book of Esther

  • The Wisdom of Solomon

  • Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach

  • Baruch

  • A Letter of Jeremiah

  • The Prayer of Azariah and The Song of the Three

  • Daniel and Susanna

  • Daniel, Bel, and the Snake

  • The Prayer of Manasseh

  • The First Book of the Maccabees

  • The Second Book of the Maccabees

Despite the rather simple definition given above, and the listing provided, it should be noted that there is no universal agreement as to the extent of the Old Testament canon, and therefore no agreement on the extent, or even the existence, of a separate category of books known as “Apocrypha.” In Eastern Orthodox circles, for example, the canon encompasses all the books listed above, but also the Third and Fourth Books of the Maccabees and Psalm 151.

Although initially preserved within the Jewish community, the Septuagint emerged as the Scripture of the early church. As Judaism and Christianity defined themselves in the first several centuries C.E. (often with an eye toward each other), the Jewish community denied canonical status to the “extra” books. As a response to the Christian appropriation of the Septuagint, certain Jewish communities even commissioned alternate Greek translations which excluded the apocryphal books and gave a more literal rendering of the Hebrew text than the Septuagint. The early Christians generally accepted the apocryphal books as part of their collection of authoritative writings. Augustine, for example, clearly held these books on a par with the rest of the “Old Testament.” Almost exclusively from this point forward, it was the early church that preserved the material.

The issue of the canonical status of the books for Christians came to the fore when Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin in the late fourth century. Having learned Hebrew, Jerome compared the Septuagint text with the Hebrew, noted the differences between the two collections, and recorded in his prefaces to the “extra” books that they were not considered canonical by the Jewish communities. Despite certain misgivings about the canonicity of books not found in the Hebrew Bible, Jerome included the apocryphal books in his translation (the Vulgate). It was this translation that became the standard for nearly all of western Christendom throughout the Middle Ages.

The next great challenge to the canonical status of the apocryphal books came during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Protestant religious leaders, attempting both to ground their groups' religious identities in Scripture (and only Scripture) and to define themselves over against the Catholic church, rejected the apocryphal books. Their decision was based not only on the supposition that the shorter Hebrew canon was the older, and therefore more authoritative or “purer,” form of the Old Testament, but also on the Catholic church's reliance on apocryphal books such as 2 Maccabees for their scriptural defense of the doctrines of purgatory and the saying of masses for the dead, both of which were major areas of dispute between the Protestants and Catholics. In response, the Catholic church at the Council of Trent in 1546 declared that all the books found in the Vulgate were canonical, and were to be received “with equal devotion and reverence.” The exceptions to this affirmation were 1 and 2 Esdras and The Prayer of Manasseh, which were collected and, in editions published after the Council, printed together in an appendix which followed the New Testament. At a later time, the Catholic church did come to make a distinction between the “deuterocanonical” books (those accepted into the canon at a later date, but no less authoritative—the Apocrypha) and the “protocanonical” books (those found in the Hebrew canon), but the former books were interspersed with the latter, never grouped separately as they are in this edition.

Although Protestants do not accept the apocryphal books as canonical, several recent editions of the Christian Bible include, as this edition does, these “extra” books. Modern readers have come to understand that these works shed valuable light on the world out of which the latest books of the Old Testament and the entirety of the New Testament came. They reflect especially the thought worlds of the several types of Judaism that flourished at the turn of the eras. They also inform the reading of the rest of the biblical text; in fact, nearly all the literary forms found in the protocanonical books also appear in the deuterocanonicals.

History and historical fiction make up a substantial portion of the Apocrypha. While the history may be quite tendentious, or lapse occasionally into a propagandistic recounting of events, the First and Second Books of the Maccabees relay much valuable information about the Has-monean revolts of the second century B.C.E. However, more prominent are those works of historical fiction such as Tobit, Judith, Daniel and Susanna, and Daniel, Bel, and the Snake. These works, which have their setting in the exilic period, purport to be descriptions of actual events, but are quite clearly fictional stories intended to encourage the reader to emulate the behavior of the characters in the story.

Examples of cultic poetry are The Prayer of Manasseh, allegedly the prayer of repentance offered by the wicked king (see 2 Chr. 33.11–13 ), and The Prayer of Azariah and The Song of the Three, additions to the Book of Daniel which claim to relate the words of Daniel's three friends as they stand in the furnace (see Dan. 3.23 ).

Two significant wisdom treatises, the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), are also part of the Apocrypha. Both clearly owe a great deal to the protocanonical wisdom texts, but they are just as clearly attempts to bring the Yahwistic wisdom reflected in the earlier texts into the cosmopolitan, overtly syncretistic Hellenistic age.

The Letter of Jeremiah demonstrates that the epistle was an acceptable form for the promulgation of a particular religious view in the last centuries B.C.E., long before Paul wrote his letters.

The Second Book of Esdras, especially chapters 3–14 , is a Jewish apocalypse which addresses both the question of theodicy (primarily in the dialogues between Esdras and God) and the imminent end of the created order. Chapters 1–2 and 15–16 appear to have been added later, perhaps by Christians, but they also reflect the persistent hope for the renewal of creation found not only in the rest of the book, but also in nearly every apocalypse, including Daniel and Revelation.

Because a consensus has not been achieved concerning the canonical status of the Apocrypha, there is a sense in which its significance remains a disputed issue. But for all who are generally interested in the contexts of both the Old and New Testaments, these books are, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the other noncanonical Jewish literature, invaluable resources. The books of the Apocrypha have something in common with what came before them and with what followed them; they therefore act as a link between the Old and New Testaments and so help us to understand both.

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