Monday, June 15, 2009

What's the Deal with the Apocrypha?

My dad asked me to explain the Apocrypha the other day, and I couldn't do it. I remembered some details: the Jews rejecting the books in the first century; Jerome putting them aside in the fifth century; the King James translators including them in the seventeenth century. But I had to do some reading to remember the whole story. Here's my spiel:

What's the deal with the Apocrypha?

The Apocrypha is a collection of books written by Jews in the time between the testaments, that is, between Malachi (around 400 B.C.) and Christ (first century A.D.). The Jews at the time of Christ read these books in private, but they were not read aloud in the synagogues like the Old Testament was. Early Christians, like the Jews around them, read these books as well. Like the Jews, they also seem to have read them in private rather than in the church service.

It's important to know that Christians mostly used the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) rather than the original Hebrew. The Apocryphal books and the New Testament were also written in Greek. So the Jews in the first century, who were arguing with Christians over religious doctrines, probably became very suspicious of any scriptures that weren't written in Hebrew. They stopped using the Apocryphal books not long after Christianity emerged.

Christians continued to read the Apocryphal books, however, and when they starting putting all the scriptures together in bound books (instead of collecting them on scrolls), they included the Apocryphal writings mixed in with the Old Testament. When the Bible was translated from Greek to Latin, the Apocryphal books were translated too. But when Jerome (an Italian monk who lived in Bethlehem and learned Hebrew) was asked to revise the Latin translation (in the 400s), he made a distinction between the Old Testament books and the Apocryphal books, which were "not in the canon." The Protestant Reformers felt the same way, but none of them seem to have felt it was appropriate to remove the books from printed Bibles. Luther did pull them out of their places interspersed throughout the Old Testament and set them between the Old and New Testaments. This was what the King James translators did as well. The stance of the reformers could be summarized with these words (from the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican church):

"And the other Books (as Hierome [Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:" . . . and it goes on to list the Apocryphal books.

Catholics responded to this by rising up to defend the Apocryphal books, declaring at the Council of Trent that they were canonical, with the same authority as the Old Testament.

So when did the books drop out of Protestant Bibles? Well, the short answer is that it was easier and cheaper to print Bibles without the Apocrypha. The major driving force in putting Bibles in the hands of people from the 1800s on were the Bible societies. These organizations (think of them as the Gideons of that time) were made up of people from different denominations (Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, even Unitarians in the early days) who all wanted to make the Bible available. They all contributed money to the cause, but to keep everyone happy, they agreed that the money would only go to printing and distributing the straight Bible text—no notes or commentary. The Apocryphal books weren't considered part of the straight Bible text—they might be helpful reading, but they weren't important enough to print in these low-cost evangelistic Bibles.

Eventually, most Protestants lost familiarity with the books. They came to think of them as a Catholic thing, something to be resisted and argued against. But I don't think that's the right attitude to have. These books were, after all, written by Jewish believers, not by heretics or anything. It's probable that Jesus and the apostles had read them; the early church certainly read them; the Reformers read them. I'd argue that it won't damage a Christian's faith to read them. On the contrary, they can help us understand the world in which Jesus and the early church lived. They can probably teach us something about God and his dealings with his people, even if they aren't inspired and authoritative like the Old and New Testaments. There are a lot of books out there written by faithful believers, and we can benefit from them even if they aren't inspired. That's where I'd place the Apocrypha.

Works consulted:

The NIV Study Bible, "The Time between the Testaments" (Zondervan, 1985)
The Book of Common Prayer
Introduction to the History of Christianity (ed. Timothy Dowley, Fortress Press, 2002)

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