Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Introduction

Certain Christian denominations have additional books in their version of the Bible. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal churches include the books of the Apocrypha. Since I represent the last 2 denominations but have only read limited passages from them, I am curious about these books. So I propose to read them and then to comment on them in this blog. So let's get started, beginning with an overview. 

The name "Apocrypha" is Greek for "hidden." These books were originally included with the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. This translation was the Bible the apostles used and quoted in the New Testament. But they don't seem to have quoted the books of the Apocrypha. And we have no extant versions of these books in Hebrew or Aramaic, unlike the canonical books of the Old Testament.

Both Jews and Christians recognized that these books were not on the same level as the inspired books of scripture. But they felt they were good for private reading and personal edification. It would be as if you translated the New Testament and included the works of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers as complementary Christian reading.

Why read the Apocrypha if it is not scripture? For one thing, it gives us a window on the state of Jewish thought during the period between the Old and New Testaments. For instance we see a lot of development in the doctrines of angels and the afterlife between the 2 Testaments. We get glimpses of that in the Apocrypha.

Similarly when we finish the Hebrew Bible, Judea is a weak nation with limited autonomy under the Persian Empire that defeated the Babylonians. When we get into the New Testament, Israel is occupied territory under the Roman Empire. What happened in between? Did you know that the Jews were oppressed by the Syrian successors to Alexander the Great and attained independence for about 150 years? Again you learn about that in the Apocrypha.

Just as learning about other books written at the time of the Old and New Testament gives us insights into the issues, ideas and cultures surrounding scripture, reading the Apocrypha gives us information about what led up to and shaped the world of the New Testament. Think of this as background research.

Plus the Jews and early Christians found value and wisdom in reading these works, at least privately. As long as we acknowledge that these are not scripture, we should have an informative time studying books with which the people in Jesus' day were familiar.

The Apocrypha consists of 12 new books plus Greek additions to the Hebrew books of Esther, Daniel, Jeremiah and Chronicles. I will be following the order of books in the Harper Collins Study Bible and reading its notes and consulting The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible for help. I will do a chapter at a time. There are about 200 chapters. Due to my work as priest/pastor to 2 churches and as chaplain at the local jail, I'm not going be able to post every day but I hope to do so at least 4 or 5 times a week.

Next post: Tobit, chapter 1.

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