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Core Biblical Studies
By David A. deSilva
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
What's in the Apocrypha?
A person who is familiar with the writings of the Hebrew Bible (the Protestant "Old Testament") and who embarks upon reading the Apocrypha for the first time will not find the world of these texts all that strange. There will be fresh content, to be sure, but there will also be much that is familiar. First, the deuterocanonical books are written in genres and styles that, for the most part, imitate the literature of the Hebrew Bible—the Scriptures treasured by the writers of the apocryphal books. The books that relate the history of the period are either reworked versions of canonical history books (1 Esdras) or are written in a style that closely resembles the historical books of Samuel and Kings (1 and 2 Maccabees). The Apocrypha contain collections of wisdom teachings (Sirach; the Wisdom of Solomon) that resemble the older book of Proverbs and grow organically from the broader wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible. The canonical book of Psalms, together with the prayers and psalms scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, provides the model for the prayers and psalms found among the Apocrypha, whether these are independent texts (Prayer of Manasseh; Psalm 151) or embedded in longer books (Prayer of Azariah and Hymn of the Three Young Men in the Greek version of Daniel; Judith's hymn [Jdt 16]; Tobit's hymn [Tob 13]).
Second, and perhaps more important, the authors of the apocryphal books are more closely indebted to the Hebrew Bible for the content of what they write than any other source. The teachings and language of the Hebrew Bible are echoed and developed throughout this collection. The law of Moses and the covenant formed between God and the people of Israel on the basis of the Law are the constant reference points throughout these texts. The explanation of the national fortunes of Israel as the history of the consequences of Israel's collective loyalty to or disloyalty against the covenant, begun in the Deuteronomistic History of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings, is accepted and adapted to the continuing history of Israel throughout the apocryphal books. The specific promises of the Old Testament prophets remain the basis for the hopes articulated by a Tobit or a Baruch; the advice of Proverbs informs the advice of Ben Sira, to the extent that later rabbis might forget what maxim comes from which source; the poetic expressions about Wisdom in the wisdom psalms and Proverbs inspire the reflections on Wisdom in Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. When we read the Apocrypha, we are reading the literature of pious Jews trying to make sense of their changing circumstances in light of the unchanging revelation of their sacred texts.
In what follows, I will provide a brief text-by-text overview of the books included in the standard, expanded collection of Apocrypha as found in the New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and Common English Bible translations. Unlike the books of Genesis through Nehemiah, the books of the Apocrypha are not arranged in anything like chronological order. They are also not grouped according to genre, like the books of both the Old and the New Testaments. In the survey that follows, therefore, be prepared to jump rather nimbly between Judea and the Diaspora; between the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods; and between history and fiction. The chronological, geographical, and cultural frameworks within which these books must be set will be the topic of chapter 2.
The story of Tobit has made a significant impact on culture in the West. One can hardly find an art museum with a collection of any decent size without finding depictions of scenes from this charming story that has captivated readers for millennia. The tale was originally written in Aramaic at some point before 100 BCE, and quite probably before 200 BCE. It may have been written either in Palestine or in the eastern Diaspora (e.g., Babylon), though errors in regard to Assyrian and Babylonian geography favor Palestine, where its earliest manuscripts have also been discovered.
Tobit tells of the lives of two interrelated families living in Nineveh and Ecbatana after the exile of the northern tribes in 721 BCE. Its historical errors announce it as a work of fiction rather than an attempt at history. Tobit is a pious, charitable Jew taken into exile from Naphtali. After burying the body of a murdered fellow Jew, he takes a nap in his courtyard by the wall. The droppings of sparrows fall into his eyes and blind him, bringing him and his family into poverty. At the same time, a cousin of Tobit's is also in distress. Sarah has been married to seven men, but a jealous demon kills her husbands in the marriage chamber before they can consummate the union. God resolves to answer the prayers of both Tobit and Sarah, sending his angel Raphael to see to them.
Tobit tells his only son, Tobias, to recover a large sum of silver Tobit had deposited with a relative in faraway Media, and elicits the aid of another Jew, Azariah, to accompany him. On the way, a fish attacks Tobias while he is washing his feet, and Azariah tells him to grab it, since its inner organs can be used for healing the blind and driving away demons. Azariah leads Tobias to the home of Sarah and her parents, and arranges for their marriage, since Tobias is her relative. Tobias burns the fish's liver and heart to drive away the demon, and Sarah's family is overjoyed. Azariah proceeds to Media to collect the silver while the couple celebrates the wedding feast, then returns with Tobias and Sarah to Nineveh, where Tobias smears the fish's gall on Tobit's eyes and heals them. Azariah reveals to Tobit and Tobias that he is an archangel of God, sent to heal them on account of Tobit's many acts of charity. Tobit concludes with a hymn and, finally, his deathbed instructions to his son.
This book is a vital witness to the ethics of Diaspora Jews, especially emphasizing almsgiving and other works of charity, the importance of marrying within the Jewish family, and the value of kinship relations. It also bears witness to the theological developments of the period, including angelology and demonology, the affirmation of Deuteronomy's interpretation of national prosperity and misfortune (extending this to individuals), the explanation of individual suffering as a test of faithfulness (as in Job), and the eschatological restoration and exaltation of Jerusalem.
Judith is another work of historical fiction without pretensions to representing a "true" history. For example, Judith 5:18-19 relates the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple as past history even though, in the world of the story, Nebuchadnezzar was only now threatening to do this very thing. The story reflects some of the dynamics of the Maccabean Revolution, and may well have been written in Judea at some point during the Hasmonean dynasty, the brief window of independence enjoyed by Judea after the revolution (142–63 BCE).
After his western allies refuse to obey Nebuchadnezzar's summons to aid him in a war, he vows to avenge his honor by subjugating the disobedient lands one by one and destroying their sacred shrines. His general, Holofernes, finally makes his way to Judea where he besieges Bethulia as a fortress town positioned for the strategic defense of Jerusalem. Their stores and water nearly depleted, the elders of Bethulia promise to hand over the city in five days if God has not by then delivered them. Judith, a beautiful and pious widow, now emerges as the heroine who promises to liberate her city. She goes to Holofernes's camp, pretending to flee the coming destruction of her city. She claims that they have violated God's Law by planning to eat the foods set apart for the tithe, and that God will show her when this transgression transpires so that Holofernes can attack them with no fear of divine intervention. She is welcomed into the camp and praised for her wisdom in defecting. She leaves the camp nightly, ostensibly to pray for this revelation. On the fourth night, she allows Holofernes to believe that she is succumbing to his advances and encourages him to drink too much. Once alone with him in his tent, she cuts off the stupefied Holofernes's head with his own sword and escapes from the camp, having established her routine of nightly prayer.
Although featuring a female heroine and thus the potential and value of a "good woman," the book also bears witness to the persistence of traditional values concerning women; that is, to be killed by the hand of a woman, the weakest enemy, is the greatest disgrace. There is no virtue for women when their chastity has been compromised. Even though Judith can emerge as a heroine in a time of crisis, her proper place remains outside the male sphere of governance. The book of Judith remains a rich witness to the theology and ethics of the period, as well as the surprising (and disturbing) use of deceit as a laudable means to defeat an enemy of one's people.
The book of Esther had some difficulty gaining canonical status both in the synagogue (its status was apparently still being disputed in the late first century CE) and in the early church. In part, this may have been due to the fact that, in its original Hebrew form, it is hardly a religious text. To the extent that God appears, God is at work well behind the scenes—an assumed agent and not a leading player. The situation is quite different with the version of Esther as it existed in Greek translations at the turn of the era. This version contains six substantial additions (in older English translations, these are often separated out as the "Additions to Esther") as well as many minor changes throughout the text. These changes and additions introduce a strongly theological element that was strangely lacking in the Hebrew version.
Greek Esther opens with a report of a dream vision that Mordecai experiences, the meaning of which becomes clear at the end of the book (giving the whole book a religious frame). Another lengthy addition presents the prayers offered by Mordecai and by Esther prior to the latter's entrance before the king to set in motion her people's deliverance. In her prayer, "Esther" explains her crossing of unacceptable boundaries (e.g., marrying the Gentile king, eating with Gentiles, and possibly participating in the worship of the king's gods), affirming that she has never eaten forbidden food, participated in idol worship, or enjoyed sharing a bed with an uncircumcised male. God intervenes directly in another addition, turning the king's anger into compassion and concern for Esther. Two further additions expand the texts of the edict against Jews and the edict rescinding the former action, providing windows into ancient anti-Judaism. Throughout Greek Esther, the boundary between Jew and Gentile is dramatically reaffirmed in God's providential care for the former, but not for the latter.
Wisdom of Solomon
Solomon was the quintessential sage in Israelite tradition, and so it is not surprising to find anonymous sages continuing to attribute their writings to the patron saint of Jewish wisdom. The so-called Wisdom of Solomon was composed in Greek, judging from the author's use of the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures and from his use of compositional techniques that are native to Greek writing, during the early Roman imperial period. It is also likely that he wrote in Egypt, perhaps from the major Jewish Diaspora community of Alexandria, given the special animosity toward Egyptians reflected in the book and the special interest in criticizing the worship of animals, a common feature of Egyptian religion.
Unlike Proverbs, essentially a collection of two-line maxims with little or no relationship to one another, Wisdom of Solomon offers well-developed reflections on just a few key topics. The author offers an essay on how living only for the life of this world perverts human ethics and relationships, but how God will vindicate beyond death those who remain committed to live righteously before God and do not relinquish their hope in God. Writing unmistakably in the persona of Solomon, he then writes about the nature of Wisdom and her role in creation and in the life of the pious. The final third of the book is essentially a sermon on the plagues of Exodus, stressing God's providential care for God's people and punishment of their enemies, and including a lengthy examination of the folly of Gentile religion (including the ruler cult).
Together with Sirach, this was no doubt one of the most influential and important of the apocryphal books in the early church and in the formation of Christian doctrine.
Wisdom of Ben Sira (Sirach)
Yeshua ben Sira was a scribe and a sage who directed a school in Jerusalem in the first quarter of the second century BCE, presumably for the education of the youth of the elite, both priestly and lay, for a variety of careers. The book bearing his name preserves a compendium of his instructions across a broad spectrum of topics. Ben Sira wrote in Hebrew, and about one-third of his original has been recovered. We are, in the main, dependent upon the Greek translation undertaken by his grandson, who sought to make his grandfather's wisdom available to Jews living in Hellenistic Egypt.
Ben Sira lived during a period in which Jerusalem and its elite were being drawn toward adapting to the essentially Greek culture of the ruling powers (both in Egypt and in Syria) for the sake of greater acceptance by and closer involvement with the dominant culture. Ben Sira himself benefits in many ways from the spread of Hellenistic culture, not least in what he has learned from Egyptian sages in regard to wisdom in politics and from Greek sages in regard to practical advice in areas such as choosing confidants, conducting oneself properly toward friends, and guarding one's speech. However, he taught his students to resist the tendencies toward assimilation to the Greek culture wherever this threatened diligent observance of the Torah, which for him remained the irreplaceable source of personal honor and national security, seen especially in his praise of Jewish heroes and censure of those who led Israel away from covenant loyalty. Far from being a burden or a manifestation of legalism, Torah was celebrated as God's special gift to Israel, God's gracing of Israel, a view that reverberates throughout the Apocrypha.
Alongside this general concern running throughout his work, Ben Sira left behind a valuable body of reflections on providence and free will, prayer, temptation, forgiveness, and almsgiving, as well as the practical advice on how to succeed in "society" that his students expected. He thus provides important windows into social practices and relationships, such as the expectations of friends and patrons, management of the ancient household, proper behavior at symposia (drinking parties), and the dangers that must be navigated by the player in politics. One area in which Ben Sira is justly criticized is his view of women as essentially a liability to a man's honor and peace of mind, in which he tends to go even beyond the norms of his culture. Much of his material concerning women, however, does bear witness to the broader elevation of silence, submissiveness, and chastity as primary values to be nurtured by women in his world.
Excerpted from The Apocrypha by David A. deSilva. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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