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An Introduction to the Apocrypha-Part Ten



. . . ``APOCRYPHA''?


(Part One)


by Jared L. Olar

This series began four years ago with the story of how I was introduced to the books and chapters of the Apocrypha, and of how very strange I thought it was that Catholics included the Apocrypha in their Bibles. Now that we have finished our survey of those books and chapters, we cannot conclude this series without exploring the vexed question of why Christians disagree about whether or not the Apocrypha belong in the Bible. Of course, a proper study would require an exhaustive, book-length treatment of the subject. Starting with this installment, we will touch on the important highlights of the issues related to this controversy. As we shall see, this question is much more complicated than may appear at first.

How Many Canons?

At first glance, the issue of the proper extent of the Old Testament canon seems to be a difference of opinion between Protestant Christians and non-Christian Jews on the one hand and Catholic and Orthodox Christians on the other. But upon closer inspection, we find that there are more than just two opposing camps. For instance, even though the Catholics and Orthodox have much more in common with each other on this issue than they have with Protestants and Jews, nevertheless Catholics and Orthodox do not exactly agree with each other about the Old Testament canon.

There is also something similar on the part of the Protestant/Jewish camp. While Protestants do not admit the Apocrypha into their Old Testament canon of inspired scripture, some Protestants think these books should still be included in their Bibles, while most Protestants think they don't belong in the Bible at all. As for the Hebrew Scriptures, Orthodox Judaism hasn't debated which books ``defile the hands'' (i.e., which books belong in the Bible) since the 300s A.D., but prior to that there was a degree of uncertainty among the Jews about which books were inspired and which were not. Many Jews accepted a canon basically the same as the canon later approved by the rabbis, while others accepted a longer canon that was closer to the Catholic/Orthodox position. Still other Jews apparently accepted a canon even longer than that-one like that which is accepted by Ethiopian Christians. On the opposite extreme, there are the half-Jewish Samaritans, who have always had the shortest biblical canon of all-they accept as canonical only their recension of the Pentateuch.

Just as the Jews anciently had doubts about the proper limits of their canon, the ancient Christians in those days also were uncertain about the extent of the Old Testament canon. Thus, while ancient Christian Bibles normally included some or all of the Apocrypha, it's important to remember that a book's inclusion in a biblical codex didn't necessarily mean it was held to be divinely inspired. Again, many ancient Christian Bibles included several books or chapters that have never been universally accepted as inspired by Christians. As will become evident, the modern disagreements of Christians regarding the Old Testament Apocrypha trace back to those ancient centuries when those kinds of uncertainties and questions were rife in the Church.

Just what do you mean . . . ``Apocrypha''?

Obviously, if different groups of Christians and Jews disagree on the Old Testament canon, they will also disagree on which books should be classified as ``Apocrypha.'' The term apocrypha refers to ancient writings that are ``extra-canonical,'' even though they closely resemble canonical books of the Bible and were often very popular among ancient Jews or Christians. The trouble is, what is canonical to one Christian might be apocryphal to another.

All Christians agree with the Jews in accepting the 22 scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures as canonical-but Protestants draw the line at those 22 scrolls, whereas most Christians accept several more books into their Old Testament canon. Thus, the books of Judith or Tobit, for example, are apocryphal to Protestant Christians, but canonical to Catholic or Orthodox Christians. However, Protestants and Catholics agree that, say, the Prayer of Manasses or Greek Ezra or III Maccabees or Psalm 151 are apocryphal, while the Orthodox Churches accept those writings as canonical. Protestants, Catholics, and most Orthodox agree that the books of Jubilees and Enoch are apocryphal, but the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes those books to be canonical.

In part because of the disputes between Catholics and Protestants about which books belong in the Old Testament, in time a negative connotation came to be associated with the term apocrypha, so that it came to imply that a writing is spurious or inauthentic-an illegitimate book, even a deliberate forgery. Due to that negative connotation, in the 1500s two alternative, neutral terms for ``canonical'' and ``apocryphal'' were invented: ``protocanonical'' and ``deuterocanonical.'' A protocanonical book is one that appears in the Jewish canon of 22 scrolls, whereas a deuterocanonical book is a writing accepted by a Christian group as canonical, but whose canonicity was uncertain in ancient times and continues to be disputed in some circles even today. Thus, in this series we have studied books and chapters which Protestants call ``the Apocrypha,'' but which Catholics and Orthodox call ``deuterocanonical scripture.'' To understand why Christians disagree on something as important as the proper extent of the sacred canon of writings, let us trace the outline of the history of the development of the Old Testament canon.

Formation of the Hebrew Canon:

The Hebrew canon of Scripture consists of three divisions. The first is the Pentateuch or Torah, the five books of Moses which form the foundation of the Old Testament canon. Then, starting in the days of Moses' successor Joshua around 1400 B.C., works of history and prophecy began to be written and collected. These books are called the Prophets or Nebi'im, the latest of which was Malachi, written around 400 B.C. The third division is known as the Kethubim, that is, the Writings or Hagiographa, which includes books of psalms, poetry, proverbs, didactic tales, and prophetic visions, composed and compiled at various times in Israel's history. From the initial letters of the Hebrew names for these three divisions, the Jews refer to their Scriptures as the ``Tanakh.''

By ancient Jewish tradition, the Hebrew Bible consists of 22 scrolls- the five books of Moses, the six scrolls of the Prophets, and the eleven scrolls of the Writings. In that numbering, Joshua and Judges are counted as a single book, as are Ezra and Nehemiah, but an alternate numbering of the scrolls counts those four writings as separate scrolls. Thus, in the alternate system, there are 24 scrolls-five books of Moses, seven scrolls of the Prophets, and twelve scrolls of the Writings. The 22 (or 24) scrolls of the Tanakh answer to the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament.

The basic elements of the traditional Jewish arrangement of their sacred books are very ancient. As we saw in the first installment of this series, by 180 B.C. the Jews had already begun to classify their sacred writings into three groups-Law, Prophets, and Everything Else. Also, by that time the custom had developed of placing all 12 books of the Minor Prophets in a single scroll, although the order of books varied from manuscript to manuscript. The New Testament often refers to the Old Testament writings as ``the Law and the Prophets,'' but in Luke 24:44 we may have a reference to the Jewish tripartite classification of their scriptures: Law of Moses, Prophets, and Psalms. In Jewish tradition, the Book of Psalms is the first of the Kethubim, so it is possible that Jesus referred to all the books of the Kethubim by the name of the first book in that grouping.

However, even while the tripartite division of the Hebrew Scriptures was used in ancient times, doubt remained about which books should be accepted into the canon, not to mention what order certain of the books should have. It isn't until the 90s A.D. that we first come across a reference to the tradition of limiting the Tanakh to 22 scrolls: in Against Apion, Josephus not only mentions the tripartite division, but says also that the Jews believe only 22 books to be divine-the five books of Moses, the thirteen books of the Prophets, and four books of hymns and precepts. Evidently Josephus classified as Nebi'im several books that later came to be regarded as Kethubim. Josephus claims that only books written up to the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus-i.e., before 400 B.C.-are accepted as sacred by the Jews.

Both Orthodox Jews and most Protestant Christians accept Josephus' cut-off point of 400 B.C. as a rule for determining canonicity. According to an old Jewish tradition, in the 400s B.C. Ezra the Scribe organised an assembly of scribes, elders, and prophets known as the Great Synagogue, which compiled and edited the Jewish scriptures. For Christians who follow this tradition, the Old Testament canon was closed around four centuries before the birth of Christ. But as we shall see, whatever role Ezra and the Great Synagogue played in the development of the biblical text and canon, Jewish authorities did not finally settle all of their canonical disputes until the 200s or 300s A.D., a fact irreconcilable with the hypothesis that the Hebrew canon was closed by 400 B.C.

Others claim that the Jews actually didn't close their canon until circa 80 or 90 A.D., at the so-called Council of Jamnia. In fact, that ``council'' was a rabbinical academy or school that debated and made rulings on various topics. Rabbis at Jamnia (Yavneh) debated and discussed the canonicity of books like Esther, Daniel, the Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. However, whatever rulings on canonicity may have been made at Jamnia, they did not finally settle anything at that time, because it is known that even as late as the 300s A.D, many if not most Jewish authorities still didn't accept Esther as canonical.

The problem with both the ``Great Synagogue'' and ``Jamnia'' theories is that ample historical evidence exists to show that doubts about the precise extent of the canon persisted in Judaism until the 200s A.D., around which time the Hebrew canon seems to have been settled for most Jews. For example, one ancient rabbinical scholar from Babylon actually quoted from the original Hebrew text of the Wisdom of Ben-Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) as sacred scripture, classifying it as Kethubim, and in the 100s A.D. rabbis still saw a need to deny Ben-Sirach's canonicity and to forbid Jews from reading it. Rabbinic opinions about which books ``defiled the hands'' (i.e. were canonical) continued to vary until the 200s A.D., and as we saw in our study of Baruch, Jews in Syria continued to regard Baruch as scripture until the second half of the 300s A.D. Thus, the Jewish canon could not have been definitively closed either by 400 B.C. or by 90 A.D.

Besides the ``Great Synagogue'' and ``Jamnia'' theories, many Christians have opted for a theory that there were in ancient times two basic Jewish canons: an extended ``Alexandrian'' canon in Greek translation (i.e. the Septuagint), and a shorter ``Palestinian'' canon in Hebrew and Aramaic (i.e. the proto-Masoretic text). The Septuagint text not only includes several books and chapters not found in the Hebrew Masoretic, but often shows signs of having been based on a markedly different Hebrew/Aramaic text than we find in the Masoretic text. As we saw in Issue 15's article, ``The Second Cainan,'' the Septuagint's genealogy of Abraham contains a generation not found in the Masoretic. Again, the Septuagint's recension of Jeremiah is an earlier edition of the book-it is much shorter than Masoretic Jeremiah and has chapters in a very different order. The Septuagint's text of Samuel-Kings is also generally superior to Masoretic Samuel-Kings, which frequently shows signs of textual corruption and scribal error.

Another distinction between the Septuagint and the Masoretic is that the Septuagint does not follow the traditional tripartite division of Law, Prophets, and Writings. Instead, the Septuagint books are grouped into four divisions based on topic or type of literature: Law, History, Poetry, and Prophecy. The books that appear among the Writings in the Hebrew canon are scattered among the books of History, Poetry, and Prophecy in the Septuagint. Because most of early Christianity adopted the Septuagint as the basis of its Old Testament canon, the Christian Old Testament follows the Septuagint's method of classification rather than the traditional tripartite division found in the Masoretic.

In any event, according to this theory, the Alexandrian canon was supposedly the basis for the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Old Testament canons, whereas the Palestinian canon was the basis for the Jewish/Protestant canon. However, all extant manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint are of Christian origin, and these manuscripts often do not all contain the same books. That would indicate that there was no closed ``Alexandrian'' canon at the time of Christ, just as the facts mentioned above indicate that there was no closed ``Palestinian'' canon at the time of Christ. Rather, the evidence shows that by the time Christ founded the Church, although certain textual variations within books remained, the Law and the Prophets had substantially reached their final form and were closed collections, while the extent of the Writings had not yet been completely settled.

Next time: The Formation of the Christian Old Testament Canon.

Apocrypha Series

Issue 17


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