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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Description of the Books of the Apocrypha.

1. Size

The corpus of the Apocrypha is about one-fifth of the length of the OT and over two-thirds that of the NT. The books are of very unequal length. Sirach is the longest, almost as long as Exodus. The Prayer of Manasseh consists of one brief chapter.

2. Genres

The books included in the Apocrypha show no generic uniformity. 1 Esdras, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees are, or purport to be, historical works. Tobit, Judith, and the Additions to Daniel are essentially moralizing romances. Sirach is a work of wisdom literature similar to Proverbs; Wisdom of Solomon is a more high-flown and philosophical instance of the same genre. 2 Esdras is apocalyptic. The Prayer of Manasseh is an example of devotional literature.

3. Dates of Composition

The only book in the Apocrypha whose date of composition can be ascertained fairly precisely is Sirach, since the grandson of the author, who translated the book into Greek, stated in the prologue to the translation that he had arrived in Egypt ‘in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Euergetes’, i.e. in 132 BCE; his grandfather must therefore have composed the original Hebrew in the first half of the second century BCE. For some of the other writings (1 Esdras, the Additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees) a final terminus ante quem is the end of the first century CE because Josephus knew and used them; the date of the translation of the Hebrew book of Esther into Greek is given by a colophon which probably fixes it to 114 BCE, but it is possible that the Additions that are found only in the Greek text (and hence are now found in the Apocrypha) were composed separately after the completion of the main translation and were only later inserted into the narrative. Composition before c.100 CE is also likely for the bulk of 2 Esdras since the book was early cited by Christians. It is in any case unlikely that any Jewish writing would have been adopted by Christians with the enthusiasm accorded to the Apocrypha if it had been composed much after that date.


The earliest date that most of these books could have been written is in most cases less easy to state. 1 and 2 Maccabees cannot have been composed before the events they describe; the author of 1 Maccabees thus wrote after 134 BCE, the author of 2 Maccabees after 163 BCE. In theory all the other books may have originated much earlier, in the Persian period; this is entirely possible, for instance, of Tobit. Arguments for a later date, after c.300 BCE, are commonly advanced, but they rely upon the general nature of these writings, and especially alleged reflections of political events, rather than any specific temporal indication in the texts, and they are thus only hypothetical.

5. Places of Composition

There is no reason to assume that all these books were either written or (in some cases) translated in the same place; only the translation of Sirach can be confidently located in Alexandria in the Egyptian delta. Those writings originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic (see c.5) may have been written either in the Land of Israel or in Babylonia or Syria or even in Egypt (e.g. Tobit). Those written in or translated into Greek may originate from any part of the Eastern Mediterranean world, including quite possibly Judea, since some knowledge of Greek can be presumed among educated circles in Jerusalem from at least the third century BCE (see below, G.15).

6. Original Languages

Because of the process of transmission of this corpus of texts (see B.1, 3–4), all of them have been preserved in Greek, but this does not mean that all were therefore originally composed in Greek. The Hebrew or Aramaic origin of the book of Tobit is now certain because of the discovery of five Tobit MSS, four in Aramaic and one in Hebrew, among the Dead Sea scrolls. In contrast the original Semitic version of Judith and of 1 Maccabees can only be hypothesized from the nature of the Greek text, although an Aramaic version of Judith was known to Jerome in the early fifth century and a Hebrew text of 1 Maccabees was known to Origen in the third century. There is no reason to doubt that both 2 Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon were originally written in Greek, but for the rest of the Apocrypha the original language is uncertain. In the third century CE Julius Africanus argued that the play on words in the Greek text of Susanna shows that this narrative was originally composed in Greek, but it is also possible that this was the work of an ingenious translator.

7. Authors

Most of the authors of the apocryphal books are anonymous or pseudonymous and their identities can only be surmised from the contents of their writings. The exceptions are Jesus ben Sira, author of Ecclesiasticus, who identified himself in the text ( 50:27 ) as a Jerusalemite, and his grandson, who translated his work and, according to his statement in the prologue, wrote in Egypt. 2 Maccabees is an abridgement of a larger work in five volumes by a certain Jason of Cyrene (2 Macc 2:23 ), but beyond the facts that his name indicates that he came from Cyrenaica (modern Libya) and that the details in the narrative suggest (if they derive from Jason) that he had spent some time in Judea, nothing else can be said about him. Despite the preservation of the Apocrypha eventually through Christian rather than Jewish copyists since the end of the first century CE (see B.2), there is no reason to doubt that most of what is found in these books was written by Jews except for 2 Esd 1–2; 15–16 ; these passages, which are found in the Latin Vulgate, are missing in the oriental translations and appear to be additions by a Christian author. Christian interpolations into the texts of other books of the Apocrypha are possible but seem to have been rare, presumably because these texts were from early on treated as Scripture.

8. Readership

So far as is known, everything in the Apocrypha, apart from the Christian interpolations (see C.6), was written originally primarily for a Jewish readership. Only in the case of the Wisdom of Solomon is it reasonable to speculate that the author may in part have had in mind also Gentile readers: the address to the ‘judges and kings of the earth’ (Wis 1:1; 6:1 ) is a literary fiction, but the attack on the foolishness of idolatry (chs. 13–15 ) may have been genuinely aimed at Gentile pagans, although its prime intention may more plausibly have been to guide Jews away from any temptation to indulge in such worship, and the book as a whole contains so many veiled allusions to biblical history that only Jewish readers could have appreciated it fully. In any case, and whatever the aims of the authors, there is no evidence that any ancient pagan in fact read any of these works.

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