I had the great honor of asking renowned Bible-scholar David deSilva a few questions regarding Christians and their relationship to the Apocrypha, as well as if we should in fact read this body of texts.
Why do so many Christians exhibit fear when it comes to reading the Apocrypha? It seems to be avoided like the plague and many eyebrows are raised when it’s mentioned. Why is this, and have Christians always held such an attitude?
David: There is indeed a great deal of prejudice against the Apocrypha, born in part from longstanding tension and distrust between Catholic and Protestant Christians. For many Protestants for a long time, the Apocrypha was what “those Catholics” read. Their absence from the Protestant Bible, many Protestants assume, is due to their dangerous or heretical teaching. A handful of passages in the Apocryphal books did admittedly support a number of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church with which the Reformers took issue, but what book of the New Testament would fail to be condemned if judged by its misapplication in the hands of Christians?
It almost always surprises my own students to learn that classical reformers like Martin Luther thought highly enough of the Apocrypha to translate these books in his German Bible and to recommend them as “useful and good for reading,” even if not on a par with the canonical books, placing them in a separate section between the testaments (where, for the most part, they belong chronologically). It surprises them to learn that the 1611 King James Bible likewise included a translation of the Apocryphal books, similarly placed in their own section between the testaments, and that no King James Bible was printed without one for the first twenty years of its existence.
The Christian Church has from the beginning been divided concerning the value of these books, that is, whether to regard them as on an equal level with the other Scriptures or to relegate them to a second tier. The Protestant Reformers followed the opinion of Jerome; the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the opinion of Augustine. The idea that Christians shouldn’t read them and value them at some level, however, is a relatively modern innovation – and departure from the universal Christian practice.
What, if anything, do Protestant Christians miss out on when they avoid this collection of books?
David: They miss, first of all, some essential history – the crisis that befell Jerusalem in 175-166 BC, leading to the outbreak of the Maccabean Revolt and the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty (and Judea’s first taste of political independence, however short lived, after four hundred years of Gentile domination). These stories are told in 1 and 2 Maccabees and provide essential background to the tensions within Judaism over what degrees and kinds of acculturation are acceptable, the identification of “zeal for the law” both with violent resistance and with internal policing of fellow Jews, and the particular shape of political messianism that Jesus’ own disciples couldn’t get past till after the ascension.
They also miss out on seeing the many and varied ways in which Judaism developed in the centuries between the testaments, with the result that they approach the New Testament with an anachronistic idea of the Judaism within which the early Christian movement was born and took shape. It would be like studying modern Christianity if one’s knowledge of church history stopped with the Reformation.
They miss out on what could best be described as the most important “devotional” or “inspirational literature” available in the first century. These were stories that shaped first-century Jewish and Christian spirituality, ethics, theology, and world view. Outside of the Old Testament itself, the Apocrypha is probably the most important (in terms of influential) literature to read as background to first-century Judaism and Christianity.
In a broader sense, they miss out on the literature that has, next to the Hebrew Bible or Protestant Old Testament, been most influential and formational in the history of the Church universal. If we value writers like Charles Swindoll, Max Lucado, or Adam Hamilton, how much more ought we to value texts like Wisdom of Solomon or 2 Maccabees, that have been “inspirational literature” in the Christian Church since the first century.
Isn’t the Christian Bible already long enough and hard enough to understand? In other words, why add more weight to our “burden?”
David: If the Christian Bible is a “burden,” you’ve got bigger problems to solve than the question of whether to read the Apocrypha! In my experience, however, immersing myself in the books of the Apocrypha has made the New Testament easier to understand – and the trajectory from the Old Testament writings to those of the New Testament easier to trace out.
For example, when the author of Hebrews holds up the example of those “who were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection” (Heb 11:35b), the reader of 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42 knows what the author of Hebrews is referring to and can mentally plumb the depths of this example for the author’s portrait of faith-in-action. The reader of Wisdom of Solomon 7-8 can see how early Christians were developing their understanding of the Son’s activity before the incarnation from the raw material of Jewish speculation about the figure of Wisdom, God’s agent in creation. The reader of many of the books of the Apocrypha learns why covenant obedience on the part of the whole Jewish nation is regarded by some Jews as a matter of “national security,” explaining why a Paul would take it upon himself to put such pressure on “deviant” Jews (before being converted to faith in Jesus himself).
For those whose interests are piqued concerning the study of the Apocrypha but don’t know where to start, what pointers would you give them? Any recommended resources?
David: First off, I’d suggest simply reading these books, perhaps in an annotated edition like the New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha (4th edition) or the Common English Study Bible with Apocrypha. Such an edition would provide just enough introduction to locate each book in the life of the Jewish community and in the Second Temple Period and enough guidance along the way to process these texts and make connections with the Old and New Testaments. There are a number of shorter introductions to this corpus, including Daniel Harrington’s Invitation to the Apocrypha (Eerdmans, 1999), and my volume in the Core Biblical Studies series, The Apocrypha (Abingdon, 2012). For those looking for an in-depth introduction, there is my Introducing the Apocrypha: Context, Message, and Significance (Baker, 2002), a second edition of which is in preparation for early 2018.
Have you always held a high regard for the Apocrypha in your Christian walk, or did you have a journey of sorts? How, if at all, has the Apocrypha enhanced your reading of Scripture as well as your faith?
David: I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and we would occasionally hear readings from some of the Apocrypha, like a prayer from Tobit at weddings, a passage about the immortality of the righteous from Wisdom of Solomon at funerals, and a passage from Baruch during Holy Week. I’ve loved Scripture from an early age and hearing these piqued my curiosity enough to check out a copy of the Apocrypha from the church’s library when I was fourteen and start familiarizing myself with these books. I suppose I’ve always held them in the way that Martin Luther did – useful and good to read – and wanted to help my fellow Protestants come to a similar judgment.
Thank you for your time!
David A. deSilva (Ph.D., Emory University) is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary, Ohio. He is the author of over twenty-five books, including The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude (Oxford, 2012), Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (WJKP, 2009), and Day of Atonement: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Kregel, 2015).