The Apocrypha and Why I Read It
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the books of the Apocrypha, I’ll start with a smattering of information.
The Apocrypha are books that are included in Catholic Bibles, but are not included in Protestant Bibles. For non-Catholics, the books are considered useful for “examples of life and instruction of manners, but not for doctrine.”
Swiss reformers declared in 1530, “We do not despise Judith, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the last two books of Esdras, the three books of Maccabees, and the Additions to Daniel; but we do not allow them divine authority with the others.”
The Catholic church included the books at the Council of Trent in 1546. Protestant leaders had their doubts. Even Martin Luther did not see them as canonical, but then, he had doubts about four books in the New Testament as well: Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. After his death, those books were kept in Protestant Bibles, but the Apocryphal books were not.
There are 17 books in the Apocrypha. Some are found in ancient Greek Bibles (called the Septuagint), the Latin Vulgate Bibles, the Douay English Version, some Russian Bibles, and some verses are included in the King James Version.
You may be familiar with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The tradition of lighting the candles for eight days comes from the books of the Maccabees, which are found in the Apocrypha. In this miracle, God has allowed the oil to light the holy lamps to burn for eight days when it should only have lasted one day.
In addition many passages with which you are already familiar are either echoed in the Apocrypha or seem to have been written by the same hand.
“I will sing to my God a new song:
O Lord, you are great and glorious,
wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let all your creatures serve you,
for you spoke, and they were made.
You sent forth your spirit, and it formed them;
there is none that can resist your voice.”
And see how these verses from the Old Testament, The Apocrypha, and the New Testament flow seamlessly into each other:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostril the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
“But now, O Lord,
You are our Father;
We are the clay, and You our potter;
And all we are the work of Your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)
“A potter kneads the soft earth
and laboriously molds each vessel for our service,
fashioning out of the same clay
both vessels that serve clean uses
and those for contrary uses,
making all alike;
but which shall be the use of each of them
the worker in clay decides.” (The Wisdom of Solomon 15:7)
“Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and for another dishonor?” (Romans 9:21)
Many of our Christian hymns draw upon passages in the Apocrypha to bring belief to life. For example, the hymn you may know as “Now thank we all our God,” and was written by Pastor Martin Rinkart about 1636, and is dependent upon Luther’s translation of Sirach 50:22-24.
Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices…”
Some of our most common expressions and proverbs have come from the Apocrypha. “A good name endures forever,” and “You can’t touch pitch without being defiled” are derived from Sirach 41:13 and 13:1. And “To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Sirach 1:14)
So, why bother? If these books are not “authorized,” nor considered canonical, why do I read them? I read them because I find them to be rich in poetry, in valuable life lessons, and in history. They broaden my understanding of the Bible and the times in which they were written. Where sometimes I find the Bible itself to be a hard read, I find the Apocrypha an easier path to my understanding.
Many of the tales in the Apocrypha are simply entertaining, but with moral messages attached. Some might well have been included in Ecclesiastes, or with the Psalms. I am particularly fond of the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach). The stories of Esther and Judith in the Bible are continued in the Apocrypha with additional information. The Prayer of Azariah is an addition to the Book of Daniel, and Christians will recognize the cadence in “Bless the Lord…sing praises to Him and highly exalt Him forever.”
And the refrain of “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever,” is continued at the end of Sirach.
“Give thanks to the God of praises,
for his mercy endures forever.
Give thanks to the guardian of Israel
for his mercy endures forever.
Give thanks to him who formed all things,
for his mercy endures forever…”
Speaking of Daniel, the story of Susanna appears as Chapter 13 of the Greek version of Daniel. It tells the tale of a comely young woman who is beset upon by wicked elders who threaten her with disgrace should she not do their bidding. Daniel, of course, is the hero who saves her and unmasks the elder’s evil intent.
Later, in Chapter 14, called Bel and the Dragon, Daniel exposes the fraud of the priests of Bel, and find Daniel in the lion’s den, but this time for six days. The author here was ridiculing the Babylonian myth of creation, and revealing the God of Daniel as “the living God who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all living creatures.” (Daniel 14:5)
Psalm 151 was “discovered” as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1956, and is included here, as it was in the Greek Septuagint manuscripts.
The political wrangling over which books to include and which not, it seems to me, have deprived us of a rich and absorbing adjunct to the Bible we already know and love.
To quote from the Prayer of Azariah:
Bless the Lord, all people on earth;
Sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever!”