Literature Commentary: The Apocrypha

24 Nov

I was perhaps seven or eight years old when I first learned that Catholics and Protestants do not use the same Bible. Whereas the intertestamental period is, in the Protestant Bible, left unaddressed, the Catholic Bible contains approximately 500 pages of additional material collectively known as the “Apocrypha.” These works were not included in the later canon due to uncertain authorship. Curious as to their content, I checked out the Apocrypha from our church library, and recently finished reading it.

The Apocrypha is comprised of fifteen books, each of which deserves its own brief summary:

“The First Book of Esdras”: A retelling of the Old Testament story of Ezra. (Note: some of the names in the Apocrypha reference familiar biblical figures, but utilize different spellings)

“The Second Book of Esdras”: An apocalyptic warning of impending judgement – very reminiscent of the Minor Prophets.

“The Book of Tobit”: The story of Tobias, who heals his blind father and banishes the demon Asmodeus with a little help from the angel Raphael.

“The Book of Judith”: A dramatic tale of the war between the Israelites and the evil general Holofernes, culminating in a violent confrontation between warrior-maiden Judith and the wicked Holofernes.

“The Rest of the Chapters of the Book of Esther”: A short epilogue to the Book of Esther, summarizing Mordecai’s victory over Haman.

“The Wisdom of Solomon”: A collection of verses in praise of wisdom.

“The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach”: A book of wise proverbs and sayings that makes for fascinating reading. Contains some slightly questionable theology, such as the implication that alms-giving atones for sin.

“The Book of Baruch”: Another warning of coming judgement.

“The Epistle of Jeremy”: A warning against worshiping lifeless idols.

“The Prayer of Azariah”: A poem of praise and thankfulness to God.

“The History of Susanna”: The story of a Jewish woman falsely accused of adultery. Short, but redemptive.

“The History of the Destruction of Bel and the Dragon”: Additional chapters of the Book of Daniel. Daniel demonstrates the futility of worshiping the false god Bel. He also kills a sacred fire-breathing serpent by feeding it lumps of pitch, fat, and hair.

“The Prayer of Manasses”: A dramatic, beautifully written prayer for the forgiveness of sins.

“The First Book of Maccabees”: The epic historical drama of Judah Maccabeus and his battle against the evil Syrian king Antiochus. Well worth reading.

“The Second Book of Maccabees”: A more detailed look at the early portions of the First Book of Maccabees. Contains moving depictions of martyrdom.

Moving on to the overall commentary…

In both style and theology, the Apocrypha is extremely similar to much of the Old Testament. There are some slight deviations from the commonly recognized Judeo-Christian outlook (such as the aforementioned emphasis on alms-giving as a substitutionary atonement for sins), but these can be explained (i.e. before the coming of Christ, temporal sacrifices were of much greater importance).

Another concern is what appears to be the apparent mythologizing throughout the Apocrypha. There may indeed be some historical basis to legends of fire-breathing dragons, but these and other elements still appear questionable.

Case in point: In the Book of Tobit, Tobias burns the liver and gall of a fish, producing an unpleasant smoke that drives away the marauding demon Asmodeus. Is this Biblical, or merely an extension of pre-Christian mysticism? There are certainly elements of Jewish mysticism (such as the Kabbalah and the angelological/demonological hierarchies) that have little to no scriptural support. It is unclear whether certain scenes in the Apocrypha are meant to be interpreted literally or figuratively.

The intertestamental period is an area of history that I know very little about. The story of the Maccabees and their wars (spanning the entire Mediterranean world, from Rome to Persia) makes for interesting, compelling reading. And while the historicity of “Tobit” and “Bel and the Dragon” may be dubious, they’re still good stories. As Martin Luther said of the Book of Tobit: “Is it history? Then it is holy history. Is it fiction? Then it is truly beautiful, wholesome, and profitable fiction.”

Overall, the Apocrypha is a body of literature that all Christians – Catholic or Protestant – would do well to read. It’s a unique collection of prophecy, history, literature, philosophy, theology, and allegory…just like the Bible itself.

Is it divinely inspired, and thus inerrant? Unknown. But is it still worth reading? Absolutely.

(Note: The Apocrypha is written in occasionally difficult King James-style English, but this should not deter most readers.)

VERDICT: 7.5/10
A complex, multifaceted portrait of intertestamental history and theology. Worth reading.


Posted by on November 24, 2009 in Classic


3 responses to “Literature Commentary: The Apocrypha

  1. Matt Shafer

    November 25, 2009 at 10:28 am

    “These works were not included in the later canon due to uncertain authorship.”

    This doesn’t seem quite right, as much of the protestant canon is of uncertain or disputed authorship, too (consider the Pentateuch, the book of Hebrews, the pseudo-Pauline letters, etc etc etc). My understanding was that the Protestant canon reflects not authorship but rather the desire, more or less, to have the Old Testament match up with the accepted canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.

  2. literaryanalysis

    November 25, 2009 at 10:38 am

    I think you’re probably right in that the Protestants wanted the canon to match up with the Hebrew Scriptures. Interestingly, the Apocrypha was included in the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some critics actually believe that the books were “ghostwritten” by other individuals who then signed the names of other historical figures.

    I recognize there are schools of thought that contend that the Pentateuch was really authored by other sources, but there is a wide body of scholarship that has addressed this theory and affirmed Mosaic authorship (for more on this subject, I would recommend the discussion of higher criticism in Josh McDowell’s “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict”).

    The book of Hebrews, while its authorship is uncertain, conforms very closely to the accepted Biblical tradition (the test of apostolic authorship and consistency). The Apocrypha does, however, deviate somewhat from the canon…and, as you pointed out, it was not included in the Hebrew scriptures.

  3. Matt Shafer

    November 25, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Hm. I would disagree about the Pentateuch — almost all biblical scholars, both conservative and liberal, have for many decades now argued that it’s not the product of Moses (and indeed, nowhere in the texts does the Pentateuch itself claim to be written by him). And why does it matter either way?


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