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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"Introducing the Apocrypha" (David A. deSilva)

TITLE: Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance
AUTHOR: David A. deSilva
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, (Second Edition) 2018, (528 pages).

Roman Catholics and Protestants have slightly different Bibles. The difference lies in the additional books that the former have. Depending on how you classify or call them, they are considered "apocryphal" (hidden) texts by some, deuterocanonical (second canon) or "pseudepigrapha" (authors using pseudonyms) by others. They lie between normal texts and sacred texts. They are too good to be excluded but don't fit under the canonization criteria. Arguments can be made for both. Why then do we need to study them? This book gives us several reasons.
  • They are a primer for understanding what the Apocrypha is.
  • Gives us a fuller picture of Judaism from 200-100 BCE, to close the gap between the OT and NT.
  • NT authors are familiar with these texts and consider them highly.
  • Formative in the early years of Christian Theology, central to Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians.
  • They help us appreciate the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls as a key document.
  • It underscores the ancient obsession with theodicy, fairness, and retributive justice.
  • It gives readers a deeper understanding of the Jewish culture during the times of Jesus.
  • Addressing basic questions about those unfamiliar with the historical development of the additional books.
  • Learning to see these books as a value in themselves and not what others tell us.
  • The word 'hidden' is not to be interpreted in a pejorative manner, but to be seen as a vital witness of the faith by early believers. 
  • Understanding why these books are not in the Biblical canon.
  • Address some of the fears among Protestants about studying (or not studying) them.

This second edition updates with ongoing research and new evidence that "nuanced or supplemented" the earlier work.  There is also a larger bibliography organized by topic and text. The Apocrypha as used in this book are as follows:
  1. Tobit: about Jewish piety, almsgiving and justice
  2. Judith: story of a female military hero
  3. Greek Esther: gives additional theological and religious contexts to the original Esther
  4. Wisdom of Solomon: arguably the most important of all the books in terms of impact on Christian Theology
  5. Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Ecclesiasticus): on the practice of the Torah in a Hellenistic age
  6. Baruch: summary statements of Hebrew Scriptural traditions
  7. Letter of Jeremiah: explains the folly of Gentile religion and idolatry
  8. Additions to Daniel (includes Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Azariah, and Song the the Three): two court tales; supplements Daniel's first six chapters, etc
  9. One Maccabees: how it shaped Israel nationalism
  10. Two Maccabees: a prequel rather than sequel; introduces us to the Jewish martyrs
  11. One Esdras: greater focus on the temple and forging of Jewish identity
  12. Prayer of Manasseh: demonstrates the boundless forgiveness of God.
  13. Psalm 151: reflection of God's choice of David over his other brothers
  14. Three Maccabees: story of a trial of Jews in Alexandra under Gentile rule
  15. Two Esdras: supplements Revelation to make sense of the destruction of Jerusalem
  16. Four Maccabees: about nine Jewish martyrs around 167 BCE
deSilva gives a good overview about the Apocrypha, distinguishing the apocryphal books from pseudepigrapha; differences of the wisdom books from Proverbs. Greek additions to Esther and Daniel described some content not found elsewhere. Even the prayer of Manasseh is included. This may seem strange because Manasseh is considered one of the worst kings of Israel. deSilva asserts that this is to demonstrate the boundless forgiveness of God. The key thing is that what is not canonized is not necessarily unprofitable for learning about the Bible. In fact, these books of the Apocrypha makes us appreciate the present 66 books of the Bible even more. We learn about the history in between the two testaments. This so-called period of silent 400 years need not be too silent after all. The Apocrypha partially fills in some contexts and history. We learn about Persian domination and how the Jews remained faithful. We learn about the cultural influences of the Hellenistic era on Judaism. We read about the Maccabean revolt, the Roman rule and its impact on Jews, as well as the exiles.

The author applies a consistent framework to comment on each apocryphal book. There is a preface; a general structure; contents; original language; textual transmission; author, date, setting; genre and purpose; formative influences; a cultural, theological, and other unique influences. If there is any one book that needs to be required reading for students of the inter-testament period, this book would be one of them. Note that the number of books in the Apocrypha can be quite confusing. There is no fixed standard in the number of books. If we read the KJVA edition, the Apocrypha comprises 11 books [Tobit, Judith, Esther Additions, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, The Three Holy Children, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, 1 and 2 Maccabees]. If we refer to the official Roman Catholic Bible, there are 7 booklets [Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch]. If one is confused, this is understandable. The non-canonized nature of the books have led to different names and various combinations of books under different titles. Perhaps, for our purpose, let's simply accept that there are different versions of classifications.

My Thoughts
First, it is important for Protestants and evangelicals to at least know what the history and purpose of these books are. It is always wise to know what we are excluding. It helps us to understand the canonization process and the strict criteria to ensure the texts are preserved for future generations to come. My teachers in the past always told me that these books even though are not included in the Bible, they are good to know, not essential but helpful. They have never gone into the details. Neither did I ask. As a result, I become like many believers who take a generally dim view of the Apocrypha. Coupled with the differences Protestants have with the Roman Catholics, I too treat the Apocrypha with disdain or ignorance, with the latter more often the case. This book helps me understand why my teachers had said they were "good to know." Indeed, they partly fill in the inter-testament gaps. They help us appreciate the struggles of the Jewish believers. By knowing the history and the purpose of these books, we are better able to receive with openness the Apocrypha without the need to compromise our Protestant beliefs.

Second, it equips us to guide others toward a better appreciation of the texts. The biggest problem among protestant and evangelical circles is the lack of understanding about the place of Apocrypha. Unfortunately, the word apocrypha when translated as "hidden" can be disconcerting. Are the apocryphal something mysterious and not meant for us to read? Why are they hidden? This is the tricky part. While we don't discourage people from reading the apocrypha, our lack of teaching and understanding can become a barrier to anyone wanting to read them in the first place. A fresh understanding of what the books of the apocrypha are would help nudge Christians toward becoming more open to reading and appreciating the helpful contexts the apocryphal books supply. We can say that the apocrypha helps us appreciate the present Bible we have even more, especially the parts about the struggles of the Jewish diaspora. In our modern world, we are increasingly under pressure from secular and atheists, leading to an increasing marginalization of religious beliefs. The apocryphal texts tell us that we are not alone. With understanding, we know more about the reasons why the apocrypha are treated the way they were and how we can read them.

Third, on a practical front, we can treat them like how we treat our general commentaries. The Roman Catholics may consider them as canonical. Protestants do not have to do the same. We can still respectfully use them the way we use our modern commentaries, which is to shed light on the canonized texts. The "Additions to Daniel" give us greater insight into the book of Daniel. The books of the Maccabees detail the Jewish revolts and martyrs of the faith. They also come forth as penitential prayer, just like Prayer of Manasseh, which reveals to us God's great heart of forgiveness. Students of the Bible would love to hear what other books say about the Bible. If so, the Apocrypha is one such avenue. Let this book guide us in understanding and appreciating the Apocrypha for what they are. If we want to ignore them, at least understand the reasons why we ignore them in the first place. This book brings clarity we all need.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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