Being raised in a Protestant denomination which did not read the books known as The Apocrypha, I didn’t know anything about them until the televised funeral of former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1978, when the Prince of Wales read the lesson from Ecclesiasticus 44 (“Let us now praise famous men …”). My immediate reaction was to think Prince Charles was a real prat because he didn’t know how to correctly pronounce “Ecclesiastes” but then a few verses into the reading I realised he wasn’t reading from Ecclesiastes at all and I was completely unfamiliar with this text with its similar sounding name (I was the prat for thinking HRH was the prat!) Soon after I bought my first copy of the Apocrypha (King James Version). The NRSV with the Apocrypha is now my regular “desk Bible.”
I’ve referred several times in previous posts to writings such as Judith, Susanna, 1 & 2 Maccabees, and Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira (aka Sirach and Ecclesiasticus). These, and others, are generally not found in Protestant Bibles unless they have a section between the Old and New Testaments known as “Apocrypha”. Catholic and Orthodox Bibles do include these books (which they call Deuterocanonical), although they are not separated out into their own section between the Testaments but are placed in their appropriate places (Susanna, for example, is included as an addition to Daniel).
For some Protestants, who have never read the Apocrypha or owned a Bible which includes them, it may seem that the Catholic and Orthodox churches have added them to their Bibles. The reality, however, is that they were always part of Christian Bibles (or the canon) until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century when the reformers removed them or assigned them their own section between the Testaments. The first editions of the King James Bible included these apocryphal texts. So if the reformers decided to remove these books from the canon, why should Protestant Christians read them? Here are my top reasons:
- The writers of the New Testament quoted or alluded to several of the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books, so one’s reading of the New Testament will be better informed if the reader is familiar with these texts. If the writers of the NT regarded them as “Scripture” and were influenced by them, then our understanding of their writings will be enhanced if we are familiar with the literature which influenced them. For example, readers who are not familiar with the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira (“Ecclesiasticus”) would not realise that it is possibly quoted or alluded to more often than any book in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) with the exception of Psalms and Isaiah. Standard commentaries on the NT use of the OT (such as Beale & Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament) will list or index the scores of references in the NT to books in the Apocrypha.
- There were several centuries between the last historical events described in the HB/OT and the events recorded in the NT. Many of the events in these “missing” centuries are described in detail in books such as 1 & 2 Maccabees. They not only provide historical background to the NT, they also form a “bridge” between the two Testaments and help to make sense of the religious, social and political circumstances in the time of Jesus and the first Christians. For example, the New Testament begins in a Jewish country occupied by the Romans, speaking Greek, and ruled by an Idumean king. It speaks about Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priests, as though we should know the difference between these groups. The Apocrypha helps to make sense of all that.
- Some books in the Apocrypha are written in a similar “style” to books in the HB/OT. For example, Judith is very similar in style to Esther, and Wisdom of Ben Sira is similar in style to other “Wisdom” books (such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). By reading ancient Jewish texts which were similar in style to books in the Bible we are familiar with, we might recognise literary features which were common to literature of a particular “genre” and this enables us to make better sense of the more familar books. For example, Daniel and Esther both contain historical inaccuracies. Judith is written in a similar “style” and probably around the same time. Judith also contains historical inaccuracies but these inaccuracies are so obvious that they were clearly deliberate, which suggests that deliberately including historical inaccuracies was almost certainly a literary device used by the writers to let their readers know that while they looked like historical narratives they were, in fact, novellas or historical fiction. Rather than spending an inordinate amount of time trying to resolve the historical inaccuracies in Daniel or Esther, our reading of Judith informs us so that we can read these texts as a different kind of literature, and there is no need to resolve the “problems” because they are actually deliberate and for a specific purpose.
- For centuries, in fact for most of Christian history, the Apocrypha was part of all Christian canons. It was regarded as inspired Scripture by scholars, commentators, writers and artists and therefore influenced their work. By being familar with the Apocrypha we can see its influence on ideas and theology throughout the centuries.
These days it’s easy to get hold of a copy of the Apocrypha. If you’re already using an electronic Bible on your phone or laptop you should be able to access a version which includes the Apocrypha. Many of the “standard” translations such as the NRSV and ESV and even the KJV have editions which include the Apocrypha.