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

The Apocrypha as Independent Compositions.


Most of the books in the Apocrypha are self-standing compositions and can be appreciated without reference to the Bible; this includes even those stories, like that of Susanna, which survive only through incorporation into a Greek translation of a biblical book. These works thus reflect many of the literary developments attested in Jewish society in the late Second Temple period (see G.19–20), although it is worth noting that many of the religious concerns expressed in other Jewish texts of this time (an interest in purity, temple ritual, asceticism, life after death, and so on, see G.16–18) are not as prominent in the Apocrypha as might be expected.

2. Wisdom Literature

Sirach can be assigned to the same wider genre of wisdom literature to which the biblical book of Proverbs belongs, but although it is close both in form and in content to the biblical model, it includes also much that is novel. Like other Jewish wisdom texts, Sirach deals with practical advice and religious problems, but this work is the earliest extant writing of its kind explicitly to identify divine wisdom with the Torah ( 24:8–29 ) and to provide a historical perspective by alluding to the laudable deeds of previous generations in Israel (chs. 44–9 ).

3. Philosophy

On the surface, the Wisdom of Solomon appears to be another offshoot of the biblical genre of wisdom literature, but it often diverges from that genre into philosophical rhetoric, using sophisticated Hellenistic rhetorical devices in order to present both a general attack on godlessness and a novel picture of Wisdom as an independent hypostasis alongside God. In the process of describing the nature of this hypostasis and in his picture of the nature of mankind the author makes use of concepts borrowed from Stoicism and perhaps Middle Platonism. The result is a work of philosophy, albeit on a level rather unsophisticated in comparison to, for example, the writings of Philo.

4. Historical Works

1 Maccabees is a straightforward narrative history, and in that sense it is similar to and undoubtedly deliberately imitates biblical historiography, but in contrast to the biblical books the author of this work emphasizes the competence and wisdom of the human figures in the study, especially those of the Maccabean dynasty, rather than the effects of divine intervention. 2 Maccabees is a work firmly within the Greek tradition of ‘pathetic’ history in which dramatic events were written up in an attempt to induce the reader to empathize with the characters, although this work too is specifically Jewish in the moral and religious lessons explicitly derived by the author from his story; how many of these characteristics were the work of Jason of Cyrene and how much the work of the epitomator who produced the current text of 2 Maccabees is unknown.


Didactic Stories The Apocrypha includes a number of stories which, despite their historical setting, seem to have been intended not for instruction about the past so much as to give ethical and religious guidance, and to instil in readers an awareness of the power of divine providence, despite the problems faced by even the most pious. Among such stories are the book of Judith (which deals with the delivery of Jerusalem from the Assyrian Holophernes through the intrigues of the beautiful and good eponymous heroine) and the book of Tobit, which deals with the trials and tribulations of the charitable and pious hero and his son Tobias.


Of the Additions to Daniel, the story of Susanna and the story of Bel and the Dragon have similar qualities as edifying fictions. Neither tale is particularly well integrated into the biblical text of Daniel, and these writings thus served a very different purpose to the additions found in the Greek Esther (see 1.3.). The story of Susanna illustrates the wisdom of Daniel, who saves her from the wicked lechery of the elders who accused her of adultery, and the correctness of her decision to trust God even when she appeared doomed. The narrative of Bel and the Dragon reveals the foolishness of idolatry; in this case the story may have originated not just in the imagination of its pious author but also in midrashic extrapolation from verses in Jeremiah or Isaiah. The third Addition to Daniel, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, is a rather different writing from the other two. It consists of two poetic compositions, both of which probably existed as separate works before their insertion into the Daniel corpus.


Apocalyptic 2 Esdras is the sole example in the Apocrypha of a literary genre whose popularity in this period has been confirmed by the discovery of fragments of apocalyptic texts among the Dead Sea scrolls (see G.19–20). The original Jewish part of the extant text (2 Esd 3–14 ) is divided into three dialogues and four visions, all described by Ezra himself. Ezra is taught by an angel a divine theodicy for the world which makes sense of the disaster of the destruction of the temple by reassuring him of the coming judgement and the beginning of a new age.

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