Dr. Dean O. Wenthe
Apocrypha: n., ancient books that offer drama, spiritual insight, and a surprisingly “good read.”
Intrigue. Betrayal. Passion. Violence. These words bring to mind much of what we read in the newspapers or view as entertainment. They sound like a tragic but true description of modern society.
It might come as a surprise, then, that these same traits characterize a collection of some very old stories–stories regarded as Holy Scripture by large parts of the ancient church. In fact, they’re still accorded that status by the majority of Christians!
Luther suggests them as “recommended reading” for God’s people. He invites: “These books are not equal to Scripture, but are useful and good to read.”
Perhaps the heirs of Luther’s confession would benefit from his suggestion.
This collection of stories is called the Apocrypha. “Apocrypha” is a Latin word that means “of doubtful origin.” With time, it became a title for those works included in the Septuagint and Vulgate (the Greek and Latin editions of the Old Testament, respectively), but excluded from the Jewish and Protestant canons (the lists of books accepted as inspired Scripture).
Will you have some time this summer for reading?
Perhaps the easiest way to read the Apocrypha is to borrow a Bible from a Catholic or Orthodox Christian. These two parts of the Christian church–numerically, the majority–retain the Apocrypha in their canon.
But why read such old material? First, it is interesting, even captivating. Here are men and women caught in plots that clearly involve their loyalty to and love for God.
Second, the characterization and events provide superlative drama. Luther theorizes that some may have been performed as plays: “It may even be that in those days they dramatized literature like this, just as among us the Passion and other sacred stories are performed.”
Third, the danger, trials, actions, and characters of the Apocrypha instruct and are spiritually edifying. Luther again: “They teach the people and youth to trust God, to be righteous, and to hope in God for all help and comfort, in every need, against all enemies, etc.”
Imagine a pious man who has all his property confiscated. His crime? Burying the bodies of his comrades–Israelites whom Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, had put to death. Risking his own life, this man goes to bury someone under cover of darkness. His mission of mercy brings him into contact with a substance falling from a nearby wall. He is blinded for four years! In his misery, the man falsely accuses his godly wife, Anna, of having stolen a goat.
Oppressed by the king and now opposed by his wife, he is driven to pray that God might simply take his life: “Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress; release me to go to the eternal home, and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me” (Tobit 3:6).
Tobit: A Man of Godly Character
Who is this man? His name is Tobit. He is the chief character in a book that bears his name. Written in the 4th or 3rd century B.C., Tobit is a dramatic story of reversals. Here there are all the dark sides of humanness: violence, hatred, jealousy, intrigue. But there is another side to this story: faith, hope, trust, courage.
It is this blend of tragedy and triumph that surely recommended Tobit and the other books of the Apocrypha to the ancient church. Here the difficulties, duplicities, and doubts do not triumph. God comes to the rescue of the little people who put their trust in Him, even when they are driven to ask that He take them home!
Judith: The Godly Woman vs. an Evil Empire
Tobit is followed in the Apocrypha by another remarkable person: the godly heroine Judith. (Note: Because of their complicated canonical history, and the fact that they don’t always appear in compilations of the Apocrypha, First and Second Esdras, as well as certain other apocryphal works, will not be included in this story.)
Judith is the epitome of the courageous and faithful woman. Even the archenemy of Israel, Holofernes, the Assyrian general of King Nebuchadnezzar’s vast armies, praises Judith: “No other woman from one end of the earth to the other looks so beautiful or speaks so wisely!” (Judith 11:21).
Wise indeed! Judith knew that the general’s aim was to seduce her and destroy her people. With composure and courage, she risks her honor and life by attending the private banquet of Holofernes. Petitioning God to guide events and to guard her, she disarms the monarch with her beauty and apparent compliance with his designs. As the uninhibited banqueting progresses, Holofernes becomes so drunk that he collapses on his canopied bed. The text is quite explicit as it records Judith’s heroism:
“Judith went up to the bedpost near Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said, ‘Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!’ Then she struck his neck twice with all her might and cut off his head. Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag” (Judith 13:6–9).
Hardly a delicate or circumspect description of events!
What separates this action from the sordid plots of nightly TV is that it is understood as divinely providential deliverance. God “saves” His people through the faith and courage of Judith.
Additions to Esther: The Godly Woman as Deliverer
The Book of Judith is followed by a collection called The Additions to Esther. Again, the protection and deliverance of God’s people are linked to a godly woman.
Supplementing the Book of Esther, these Additions include Mordecai’s dream, more detail on Artaxerxes’ banquet, and extended prayers and narratives.
The nobility of Esther’s faith again emerges as central to the story and key to the future of Israel. A sample of her prayer provides a window on her profound godliness. She prays:
“Remember, O Lord, make Yourself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O king of the gods and Master of all dominion! Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion and turn his heart to hate the man who is fighting against us, so that there may be an end of him and those who agree with him. But save us by Your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but You, O Lord” (13:12–14).
Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach
Ben Sirach was a teacher in Jerusalem around 200 B.C. At the time, the city was at the center of a power struggle between the Seleucid rulers in Syria and the Ptolemies of Egypt. As the Seleucids slowly won control from their opponents, two challenges arose for the Jewish community: the presence of a foreign king and the vigorous advance of Hellenism (Greek-influenced humanistic culture).
Over against the pagan practices all around them, Ben Sirach holds up the life of Torah study as the way of fidelity to God. His extensive use of proverbs and practical advice shows real pastoral concern.
Baruch: Encouragement from One in Exile
This book purports to be a letter from Baruch, the secretary of Jeremiah, to the people of Jerusalem. It was written between 200 and 60 B.C., much later than when the biblical Baruch lived. Yet, it is another example of how the Jewish community was called to faithfulness.
In this work, a prayer, a wisdom poem, and a section of consolation are combined to appeal for perseverance. Not unlike some of the texts from Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), Baruch sees a time when the marvelous prophecies of Isaiah will be fulfilled: “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of His glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from Him” (Baruch 5:9; cf. Is. 60:1–3).
The Letter of Jeremiah: Encouragement for the Exiles
This letter reverses the direction of Baruch’s letter. Here, Jeremiah writes from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon. In a word, the prophet offers pastoral advice on how to remain faithful to the God of Israel. Particularly prominent are his warnings about idolatry. Surrounded by idols and their faithful worshipers, the Israelites were not to bow their heads or bend their knees. They were to worship only the true God. It is not hard to understand how its author appealed to Jeremiah’s name as a warning to his contemporaries, who faced an attractive and compelling alternative in Hellenistic idolatry. Jeremiah had called the people away from the worship of Baal. The probable date of composition is between 300 B.C. and 100 B.C.
The Wisdom of Solomon: Fidelity vs. Conformity
The Wisdom of Solomon provides a striking analysis of the tension between religious conviction and a culture’s pressures toward conformity.
A good many Jews in the centuries before Christ had been wooed and won by the Greek culture. In athletic contests, in economic dealings, and in social commerce, the Greek gods played a major role. It was a sophisticated and attractive alternative to the “old ways.”
Writing between 250 and 50 B.C., the author admonishes that real wisdom is to be found in the God of Israel. The clear message is that true wisdom will, in the end, be rewarded. The foolishness of the Greeks and their idolatry will bring disaster (chap. 13).
The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Men
This prayer and hymn–probably added to Daniel 3 in the 2nd or 1st century B.C.–are spoken by men who have been thrown into the fiery furnace in Babylon. Their crime? Failure to bow before the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had made (Dan. 3:16–18). The Prayer is quite moving: “Do not withdraw Your mercy from us for the sake of Abraham Your beloved” (v. 12). When God miraculously delivers the men, the lesson is clear: Worship only the God of Abraham!
Susanna: The Godly Woman vs. Corrupt Elders
This touching story again shows the high regard in which godly women were held during this period (300–100 B.C.). They could be held up even higher than certain elders in Israel!
The plot is all too modern. Several leaders in Israel are struck with Susanna’s beauty. They make it very clear to her that she must surrender her virtue to their wills or face the false accusation of promiscuity from them. Since the penalty for promiscuity was death, everything was at stake.
Susanna courageously responds to the elders’ invitation: “I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands. I choose not to do it; I will fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord” (22–23).
True to their threat, the elders accuse Susanna of having relations with a young man. Daniel is asked to judge the case. By interviewing the two elders separately, he unmasks their plot. The story concludes with the whole assembly “raising a great shout and blessing God, who saves those who hope in Him” (v. 60).
The two elders, in a just reversal, meet the fate that they had sought for Susanna by being “put to death in accordance with the law of Moses” (v. 62).
Bel and the Dragon: The Godly Prophet vs. an Idolatrous King
The prophet Daniel is caught in a contest with the priests of Bel, an idol. King Cyrus is enticed to worship Bel because the latter daily devours food that the priests prepare. Daniel, faithful to the true God, reveals a secret passageway to the king. The priests had been secretly retrieving, under cover of darkness, the gourmet meal that they had earlier presented to Bel.
The prophet next faces off with the “dragon,” which was being worshiped as a god. When the king gives Daniel permission to test the dragon’s divinity, Daniel prepares some cakes and feeds them to the dragon. The dragon dies most ungraciously by bursting open. Daniel points to the unappealing result as hardly the composition of a god. The critique of idolatry could hardly be more picturesquely put.
But the plot has one more twist. The power of Bel’s constituency is so great that they offer the king an alternative: Either let us kill Daniel, or we’ll kill you and your family.
As might be expected, the king decides for his own life. Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den (cf. Dan. 6). The prophet Habakkuk is alerted to Daniel’s distress and is carried by the angel of the Lord to his side. There he gives Daniel food. After a week, a sad king opens the den to mourn Daniel, but finds him alive among the lions. Again there is a reversal. Those who sought to have Daniel eaten by the lions are themselves devoured!
First and Second Maccabees: Heroism vs. Idolatry
The Apocrypha concludes with an epic narrative of heroism for the sake of God and His holy house–the Jerusalem temple. The Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons lead a revolt against the profanation of the temple. (Many in the economic and priestly upper classes had capitulated to the Hellenizing tendencies of the Seleucid rulers.)
When one of these rulers, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, orders that the people worship idols, eat pork, and abandon the “ways of the Lord,” a small band begins physical resistance (chap. 2). A terrible struggle follows in which the tide slowly shifts in favor of the rebelling forces. Again, faith sees farther than the eye. God grants the pious rebels victory over far greater forces. Second Maccabees offers additional details on the people and events in the period between 200 and 100 B.C.
The Benefits of Stories
What can we say of these “apocryphal” stories? Are they useful to the modern Christian?
In a time when Christians from a variety of traditions feel the weight of an increasingly pagan culture, the answer is surely “Yes!” We need to recover a sense of identity that is rooted in Christ–His prophets and His apostles–rather than float freely along with the surveys and statistical inferences of our day.
Esther. Susanna. Judith. Daniel. Tobit. Mattathias. They appeared terribly out of step with the majority. Yet, these texts extol their faith. More than that, they invite a courageous attitude of integrity. God is quite capable of taking care of us! Whether it be as Christ’s church or as individuals, we find in these stories a different criterion by which to plan and order our lives. Publicly and privately, they call us to trust in the One who sustained Israel through the centuries.
Also, we benefit from stories. Doctrinal statements can be very abstract and rather remote from life. The narrative and story form, on the other hand, is very practical. We don’t have to ask what the godly person looks like or how they act. The specifics of character are portrayed for us in vivid and engaging detail. Jesus used parables to teach. These stories teach us.
Finally, these documents are firsthand evidence of the attitudes of many Jewish people in the era just prior to the birth of Christ. Their beliefs concerning God, the Messiah, the world to come, angels, and a host of other assumptions are described. In a word, they permit us to open a window on the world of Jesus. His life and teaching are often illumined by the viewpoints expressed here.
Luther, you were right! The Apocrypha are a “good read”!
Dr. Dean O. Wenthe is president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. Reprinted from the June 1994 Lutheran Witness. LCMS congregations may reprint for parish use. All other rights reserved. Text copyright © 1994 by Dean O. Wenthe.