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Have you ever heard of the warrior Judah Maccabee? If you’re familiar with the story of Hanukkah, you may know of this biblical hero, who inspired an oratorio by composer George Handel and a drama by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of the beautiful biblical heroine Susanna is also well-known. She was a popular subject for many famous artists, including Tintoretto, Rubens, and Rembrandt.
Yet, surprisingly, their stories – as well as those of other familiar biblical characters – are missing from the English, or Protestant, version of the Bible. Why? Because, they are part of the Apocrypha, a group of fifteen books that were part of the Greek translation of the Bible, but were not accepted by Protestants because they were not part of the original Hebrew Scriptures. To understand the origins of the Apocrypha, we must go back to the Bible’s very beginnings.
It is important to remember that the Bible is not a single book that was composed in one place during a single period of time. Instead, it is a collection of sacred texts – histories, prophecies, prayers, philosophies, moral tales, and proverbs – that was written over many centuries by many different people. These texts were eventually accepted by Jews and, later, by Christians as Holy Scriptures.
The original Jewish Holy Scriptures – the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings such as Psalms and Proverbs – were composed in Hebrew and Aramaic, a closely related language. This is the Bible that Jesus, as a Jew living in the Holy Land, knew and referred to in his teachings.
But long before the time of Jesus, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was made in Alexandria, a city in Egypt established to honor Alexander the Great. This translation – known as the Septuagint – was familiar to the many non-Hebrew-speaking Jews who lived outside their ancestral homeland of Judah. The Septuagint was also the version that, many centuries later, spread the message of Christianity to non-Jews throughout the Roman world.
In the centuries between the original translation of the Septuagint and the rise of Christianity, however, many texts were added to the Septuagint that were never added to the Hebrew Bible. Although Jews studied and respected these additions, only the original books in the Hebrew Bible were finally accepted as sacred to Judaism.
Some time after the death of Jesus, when Christianity became a religion separate from Judaism, leaders of the new Church compiled their own Holy Scriptures. They designated the Septuagint version of the Bible – including the additions – as the Old Testament. The message of Jesus the Savior, consisting of the writings of his followers, became known as the New Testament. Together, these two documents make up today’s Christian Bible.
In the fourth century, a Christian scholar named Jerome was given the task of translating the Bible into Latin. In his translation, called the Vulgate, Jerome included those books of the Old Testament which appeared in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Bible, as well as a few others. He proposed to call these additional books Apocrypha.
Although this title is widely used, it frequently causes misunderstanding. At one time, Apocrypha was a term used to describe books that were “hidden away” because they were considered too esoteric or sacred for the common reader. Later, Apocrypha described heretical Christian works, and came to mean “questionable” or “not trustworthy.” The case of the additional books of the Septuagint is different, however.
The Apocryphal books were an integral and important part of the Vulgate translation, and most remain so today in Roman Catholic Bibles. In the German translation of Martin Luther, however, they were collected into an appendix. This practice was then borrowed by the Church of England. The fact that the Old Testament and Apocrypha were now separated helps to explain why the same biblical characters are called by slightly different names in the two sections of the Bible, for example: Ezra/Esdras and Jeremiah/Jeremy. Most translations of the Old Testament are based on the Hebrew text; the Apocrypha is translated from the Greek.
At first, the Apocrypha was considered an essential part of the English Bible. In fact, of the archbishops associated with the King James Version of 1611 issued an order forbidding the omission of the Apocrypha from Bibles. But within a few decades, many printers began to ignore this warning. By 1827, the British Bible Society had stopped including the Apocrypha in its Bibles, and the American Bible Society soon followed. Finally , the Apocrypha became the “missing” books of the Bible.
Content of the Apocrypha
For a greater understanding of the history of Judaism and Christianity, these books are well worth studying. The Apocrypha illuminates Jewish thought during the years between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. Many concepts that are taken for granted in the New Testament are hardly mentioned in the Old Testament, such as angels and demons, as well as reward and punishment in the afterlife. But Jesus and the apostles could assume their audiences would understand these ideas, because they figure prominently in the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha also fills in the dramatic history of Jewish contact with Greece and Rome. When the Old Testament ends, the Land of Israel is under Persian rule. When the New Testament begins, the Romans are in control. The historical books of the Apocrypha describe some of the events between these two periods, including the Greeks’ attempts to dominate the Holy Land and the arrival of the Romans. In addition, the Apocrypha gives evidence of the gradual infiltration of Greek ideas into biblical religion. The Jewish Torah, for example, became identified during this period with the Greek Wisdom, a divine force that existed even before the creation of the world. This, in turn, suggests what John the Baptist understood as Logos when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word.”
Studying the Apocrypha as a historical document presents real challenges, however. Due to one odd practice, we don’t know exactly when and where the books were written, or who wrote them. Ancient authors frequently attributed their works to famous dead people in order to gain acceptance for their ideas. There is little chance, therefore, that Ezra really wrote Esdras or that Solomon actually had anything to do with writing Wisdom of Solomon.
Scholars have tried to determine the date and place of the Apocrypha’s composition by studying its ideas, language, and possible references to historical events. But scholars’ solutions are often controversial. Their suggested dates of composition may range over hundreds of years. They can only identify places as “probably Alexandria” or “possibly Palestine.” And they may interpret an evil kingdom mentioned in a text as either Babylon, Greece, or Rome. In addition, the books themselves show many signs of insertions and other tampering. A single sentence or word inserted into a passage centuries later can change its entire meaning, and throw off all scholarly calculations. Such may be true for the other books of the Bible as well, but it’s less likely. Because these books were more widely circulated, quoted, and studied, people would probably have quickly noticed changes or errors in a copy.
But these cautions should not stop readers from discovering the superb literature and wisdom of the Apocrypha. It contains wonderful short stories, beautiful poetry, clever satire and riveting history. Several works, for example, bring surprising sensitivity to their explorations of women’s lives – in the stories of Susanna, Esther, and Judith.
A brief summary and discussion of each book of the Apocrypha follows.
THE FIRST BOOK OF ESDRAS
Also called the Greek Ezra and III Esdras, this book has been described as a translation, paraphrase, or retelling of the biblical Book of Ezra. Although it covers much of the same material as the Old Testament work, it contains some important differences.
For example, I Esdras opens with events that occur before the opening of Ezra, starting with the Passover festival celebrated by King Josiah as part of his religious revival. It continues with the vents leading up t the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE – in addition based on II Chronicles – then announces the decree of King Cyrus of Persia, which allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple. This is the point at which the Book of Ezra begins.
A more significant addition is a contest of wits featuring Zorobabel (Zerubbabel of the Book of Ezra) in chapters 3-4. Part Eastern fairy tale, part Platonic dialogue, this story describes the competition among three of Darius’s guards to name the strongest force in the world. The contest takes place before King Cyrus, who will reward the winner with the right to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The first guard says wine is the strongest force, because “it causeth all men to err that drink it: It maketh the mind of the king and the fatherless child to be all one.” The second guard chooses the king, because men rule all creation, but if the king “bid them make war the one against the other, they do it . . . . They slay and are slain, and transgress not the king’s commandment.” The third guard, Zorobabel, proclaims that women are the strongest force in the world, because they rule even the king. Zorobabel had seen the king’s love take his crown and slap his face, “yet for all this the king gaped and gazed upon her with open mouth.” After Zorobabel says this, the king and princes “looked one upon another” – perhaps amazed that Zorobabel would dare to discuss the king’s intimate behavior. But Zorobabel simply adds, “great is the truth, and stronger than all things.” He wins the right to rebuild the Temple.
THE SECOND BOOK OF ESDRAS
Sometimes called the Apocalypse of Ezra, this book belongs to a type of literature that prophecies the end of time. It is not found in the Septuagint, but appears in the Vulgate as IV Esdrae (the Latin form of Esdras). Martin Luther omitted it from his Bible, proclaiming its contents unworthy. The chapters of The Second Book of Ezra are sometimes subdivided: chapters 1-2 become III Esdras, chapters 3-14 become IV Esdras, and chapters 15-16 become V Esdras. This perhaps explains why the book is hard to summarize. It is a series of visions, that often appear to have little connection to each other.
Chapters 1-2 seem to be an independent work that was later added to the main text. After a long recitation of God’s favors and Israel’s lack of gratitude, the basic laws of morality are reviewed: “Do right to the widow, judge for the fatherless, give to the poor, defend the orphan, clothe the naked.” The ultimate message is that because of Israel’s sins, God will find a new chosen people for himself.
In three visions in chapters 3-9, Ezra laments the destruction of Zion and the suffering of the righteous. The angel Uriel tells him that man cannot understand God’s ways. Ezra responds that it would be better not to have been created than to suffer without knowing why. He is told that evil will rule for only a limited time, and then the righteous will enjoy resurrection. Ezra asks when this will happen, for “what is past I know, but what is for to come I know not.” The angel answers that, just as a few drops remain after the rain passes, only a little time remains before the resurrection. Ezra complains that Israel has suffered too much. He is again assured of the resurrection. Now, however, he is saddened by the small number who will be saved. The angel replies that just as a planter sows many seeds but few take root, so too all who are sown in the world are not saved. Then the angel assures Ezra, “Unto you is paradise opened.”
In the next chapters, Ezra sees a woman mourning her dead son. He asks how she can mourn for one child when Jerusalem and some many of its inhabitants have perished, and tells her to accept God’s decree. “Now therefore keep thy sorrow to thyself, and bear with a good courage that which hath befallen thee.” For if she does this, Ezra claims, she will see her son again in due time. The woman becomes a blindingly bright vision and disappears. A large city appears in her place. The angel explains that the woman is Zion, and those who mourn her will see her glory again.
In chapters 11-12, Ezra has a vision of an eagle emerging from the sea; it has twelve wings and three heads and rules the world. Finally, it is driven away by a lion. The angel tells Ezra that the eagle is the fourth kingdom (usually understood to be Rome) predicted by Daniel, and the lion is the Messiah, from the seed of David. In the next chapter, Ezra sees a man, in fact the Messiah, who is attacked from all sides. The man overcomes his attackers with words rather than weapons.
Chapter 14 contains what is called the Ezra Legend. Ezra is commanded to write holy books, to set his house in order, and so forgo the cares of mortality: “For the world has lost his youth, and the times begin to wax old.” Ezra asks how he will know what to write, and is told, “I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.” With the help of five men, Ezra writes ninety-four books. Twenty-four are made public; seventy are hidden. Since the Hebrew Bible contains twenty-four books, this vision is usually interpreted as a defense of the hidden books – the apocryphal writings that are not in the Bible.
The final two chapters foretell the destruction of Babylon, Asia, Egypt, and Syria. This section is different from the preceding visions in both form and content. Most scholars believe that it was originally a separate work.
THE BOOK OF TOBIT
Until the nineteenth century, the story of Tobit was among the most popular in Western literature – a timeless tale of love and loyalty, religion and morality, with many charming touches. It was copied and recopied, translated into numerous languages, and explored in paintings by the greatest names in art. Martin Luther said of it, “Is it history? Then it is holy history. Is it fiction? Then it is truly beautiful, wholesome and profitable fiction.”
Tobit is a righteous man, honest in business, compassionate to the poor. Although he lives in exile, he is careful to follow the religious rituals of his homeland: “[W]hen we were carried away captives to Nineveh, all my brethren . . . did eat of the bread of the Gentiles. But I kept myself from eating; because I remembered God with all my heart.” Tobit is particularly dedicated to honoring the many martyrs who have died for their faith. He seeks out their corpses, which have been “cast about the walls” and “cast out in the marketplace,” and in defiance of the government, secretly buries them. On one occasion, he is resting after such a burial and is blinded when bird droppings fall into his eyes. Reduced to poverty, he is taunted by his wife, who asks, “Where are thine alms and thy righteous deeds?” But he prays to God for justice and mercy.
Meanwhile, in Ecbatana, Sarah, the daughter of Tobit’s relative, has just lost her seventh husband to the demon Asmodeus, who has killed each of Sarah’s husbands on their wedding night. Unable to stand the reproach of her neighbors, Sarah asks God to kill her, or at least, “if it please not thee that I should die, command some regard to be had of me, and pity taken of me, that I hear no more reproach.” God sends the angel Raphael in disguise to help Tobit and Sarah.
Tobit remembers that someone in Ragae owes him money, and sends his son Tobias to collect it. Before Tobias leaves, Tobit urges him to live a moral and religious life: “My son, when I am dead, bury me; and despise not your mother, but honor her all the days of thy life . . . . If thou hast abundance, give alms accordingly: if thou have but little, be not afraid to give according to that little.” In an especially important passage, Tobit reminds Tobias of the Golden Rule: “Do that to no man which thou hatest.” Tobias hires a guide – the disguised Raphael – and “they went forth both, and the young man’s dog with them.”
The dog is an unusual touch. Pets are common today, but they are a rarity in the Bible and early religious literature. Tobias’s dog plays no part in the drama of the story – it does not kill the demon or find the missing money. It is present simply as Tobias’s pet.
At the Tigris River, Raphael tells Tobias to catch a certain fish and take its heart, liver, and gall. In Echbatana, Raphael arranges for Tobias to marry his cousin Sarah, because “according to the law of Moses . . . the right of inheritance doth rather appertain to thee.” That is, a childless widow must marry her kinsman, although in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Ruth 3 a woman marries her husband’s kinsman, not her own. In the bridal chamber, Tobias destroys Asmodeus with the heart and liver of the fish. Then Tobias and Sarah pray: “Blessed art though, O God of our fathers . . . Thou madest Adam, and gavest him Eve his wife for an helper and stay. . . . And now, O Lord, I take not this my sister for lust, but uprightly: therefore mercifully ordain that we may become aged together.”
During the two-week wedding feast, Raphael goes to Ragae to collect Tobit’s money. Afterward, Raphael, Tobias, and Sarah start back to Tobit. Tobias carries the gall of the fish, “and the dog went after them.” In Nineveh, Tobias cures Tobit with the gall. Raphael reveals himself as “one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers” and expounds on the merit of good deeds: “It is better to give alms than to lay up gold: For alms doth deliver from death.”
As in the last passage, the book is filled with echoes from other books of the Bible. This suggests the ways in which early biblical law shaped daily life, and the way biblical quotations were already incorporated into private prayer.
THE BOOK OF JUDITH
Like the story of Tobit, the Book of Judith stresses the importance of religious observance. Unlike Tobit, it has the suspenseful plot of a thriller.
Holofernes, commander of the Assyrian army, besieges the Jewish city of Bethulia. An ally tells him, however, that war is futile: “[I]f there be any error in this people, and they sin against their God . . . we shall overcome them. But if there be no iniquity in their nation. Let my lord now pass by, lest their Lord defend them." Holofernes rejects this advice and prepares for war. He cuts off the water supply to the city. In Bethulia, “women and young men fainted for thirst, and fell down in the streets.
At the insistence of the citizens, the elders decide that if God does not save them in five days, they will surrender the city. But Judith, a beautiful young widow, chides them: “Do not bind the counsels of the Lord our God: for God is not as man, that he may be threatened.” Rather, she says, since the whole nation has abandoned idolatry – the cause of earlier punishment – “therefore we trust that he will not despise us.”
Judith devises a plan and prays that she should be the vehicle of her people’s salvation: “Smite by the deceit of my lips the servant with the prince, and the prince with the servant: break down their stateliness by the hand of a woman.” And, in a passage that distinguishes the Judeo-Christian god from all the ancient gods of kings and warriors, she continues: “For . . . thou art a God of the afflicted, an helper of the oppressed, an upholder of the weak, a protector of the forlorn, a savior of them that are without hope.” She then dresses in her finest clothes – “her garments of gladness” – and leaves the city for the Assyrian camp.
When Judith tells the guards that she will show them how to capture the city without a fight, they take her to Holofernes. She advises him that the only way to defeat the Jews is to wait for them to sin against God; being a religious woman, she will know when this happens. All she asks is that each night she be allowed to go outside the camp to pray; God will inform her of the time, and she will inform Holofernes. Everyone marvels at her “beauty of face, and wisdom of words.”
For three days she prays, refusing to eat forbidden food. On the fourth day, Holofernes insists that she dine alone with him n his tent. He confides to a servant, “For, lo, it will be a shame for our person, if we shall let such a woman go, not having had her company; for if we draw her not unto us, she will laugh us to scorn.” Judith accepts, saying to the servant that “whatsoever pleaseth him I will do speedily, and it shall be my joy.”
Holofernes is so excited that he drinks “much more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born.” On cue, all the servants leave. But Holofernes passes out. Judith finds his sword and cuts of his head. She puts it into her bag, tells the guard she is going outside the camp to pray, and returns safely to Bethulia, where she is honored as the savior of her people.
Many modern critics claim offense that this story is part of Holy Scripture. They disapprove of the exultation over the death of Holofernes. Some have even called Judith a murderer. However, this story is typical of the entire Book of Judges and much of Samuel and Kings.
The plot is similar to many popular stories and movies in which the law-abiding hero saves the day with an uncharacteristic act of violence. On a literal level, it shows how a woman’s sexual vulnerability can become a source of strength. Early Church teachers saw Judith as symbolic of the victory of the Virgin over the Devil, or of Chastity over Lust.
THE REST OF THE CHAPTERS OF THE BOOK OF ESTHER
The Septuagint version of the Book of Esther contains several significant additions missing from the Hebrew text. Jerome placed these additions at the end of the Vulgate as separate chapters. In English Bibles, these new chapters are placed in the Apocrypha. They are therefore difficult to follow in their present form. The best way to read them is to insert them back into the Old Testament Esther.
The story of Esther is a carefully crafted drama of plots and counterplots, filled with wit and irony. In a drunken rage, the Persian King (Ahasuerus in Hebrew, Artaxerxes in Greek) banishes his queen, and holds a contest to choose a new favorite. Esther, the orphaned ward of a Jew named Mordecai (Mardochaeus), wins the contest and becomes queen, but keeps her religion a secret. Without revealing his connection to Esther, Mordecai foils a plot to kill the king. Haman, a powerful courtier, takes a dislike to Mordecai. Feeling that it is beneath his dignity to kill only Mordecai, Haman gets permission toe destroy the entire Jewish community. A day is set and a decree is issued to sanction the slaughter. Mordecai tells Esther that divine providence must have put her on the throne: she alone can save the Jews. At dinner with the king and Haman, she reveals her religion and accuses Haman of trying to kill her. Astonished – and perhaps drunk – the king rushes out of the room for air. Haman throws himself across Esther’s seat and begs for mercy. The king returns and accuses Haman of trying to rape Esther. Haman is executed, but it is too late to rescind the decree. The Jews are given permission to defend themselves, and many royal officials help them fight off their attackers.
It is worth noting that the English translation of this story, which in the original uses language so carefully, misleads many readers. The original decree (3:12ff.) allows Haman’s army “to destroy, to kill, and cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women . . . and to take the spoil.” The letter permitting the Jews to defend themselves (8:9ff.) says that “the king granted the Jews . . . to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them, both little ones and women, and to take the spoil.” This has been interpreted to mean that the Jews slaughtered the families of their enemies. But, more likely, it is an ironic echo of the original decree. The ones whom they are permitted to kill are those who tried to assault “them, both little ones and women, and to take the spoil.” This interpretation is supported by the later statement that the Jews did not take spoil but merely stood in self-defense, something they could not have done if the power of the government were still behind Haman’s forces.
Where do the “Rest of the Chapters of Esther” fit into this story?
The first sentence of chapter 11 is the last sentence of the Greek version. It identifies the translator. The rest of the chapter is the prologue in the Greek version. It describes the dream of Mardochaeus, in which two dragons fight and frighten the whole world, a small stream becomes a might river, and the humble are raised up. Mardochaeus awakens and ponders the meaning of the dream.
Chapter 10 is the epilogue, and explains how the story of Mardochaeus, Esther, and Haman was predicted by the dream. The two dragons are Madochaeus and Haman. Esther is the stream that became a river.
Chapter 12 of these additions to the Apocrypha repeats the last scene of chapter 2 of the Old Testament version, with two important differences. First, Esther is not the one who delivers Mardochaeus’s message. Second, Haman vows vengeance on Mardochaeus because of the death of the conspirators.
The first part of Chapter 13 of the Apocrypha belongs after verse 3:13 of the Old Testament Esther. It is the text of the decree ordering the destruction of the Jews. In effect it repeats Haman’s charge that the Jews follow their own laws, and it adds the charge that they are hostile to all other people and disloyal to the king.
The second part of the chapter is the prayer of Mardochaeus after he has urged Esther to intercede with the king. Since the immediate cause of Haman’s anger was Mardochaeus’s refusal to bow down to him, Mardochaeus assures God that this refusal was not because of personal pride because he could not give a man the honor due only to God. This section stands after verse 4:17 of the Old Testament text.
Chapter 14, which immediately followed the previous passage, is Esther’s prayer before she visits the king without a summons – a capital crime. She acknowledges that sin has brought exile and the loss of national sovereignty to the Jews, but argues that her people do not deserve total destruction. She also states that she hates being queen – sharing he bed of a Gentile and facing the temptation of forbidden food and wine. This lament gives force to Mardochaeus’s argument that she should use her position to save the Jews. As she obviously does not enjoy being queen, her position is clearly not her reward for good deeds; it must be part of God’s hidden plan.
Chapter 15 provides an introduction to chapter 5 of the Hebrew Book of Esther. Esther adorns herself and goes to the throne-room. Overcome with fear, she faints. The king is moved to pity and assures her that she is safe.
Chapter 16 contains the text of the edict permitting the Jews to defend themselves. The edict declares that, far from being disloyal and hostile, the Jews are moral, peace-loving people. As for the previous decree, the edict explains that it was the work of people who misuse their office and take advantage of the king’s goodwill. Significantly, this passage calls Haman, a Macedonian and explains that the destruction of the Jews was part of a larger plot to weaken Persia so that the Greeks could conquer her. Scholars use this passage as proof that the additions were written during a period of resistance to Hellenism (adopting Greek beliefs), either under the Hasmoneans or later.
In general, the visions and prayers of the Apocrypha chapters give this version of Esther an explicit religious message, in contrast to the Hebrew text, where the hand of God, if present at all, is hidden in human actions.
THE WISDOM OF SOLOMON
This is a major philosophical work, in which a traditional Jew confronts an adapts Helenistic thought.
The book falls into three parts: The first is a discussion of “last things,” such as the afterlife; the second a hymn to Wisdom; and the third an explanation of the Exodus in terms of “measure for measure.”
The Wisdom of Solomon contains, among many other important ideas, a major statement supporting the immortality of the soul: “God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity” (2:23).
This book also contains this description of reward and punishment in the afterlife: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of god, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die and their departure is taken for misery. And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace” (3:1-3).
The work is composed in poetically balanced lines; the argument is clear and flows with a logical, compelling force. For example, chapter 2 explains that evil, or sin, results from a belief that consciousness ends with death of the body. Projecting himself into the minds of evildoers, the author lets us experience their reasoning, which begins with the idea that a person should seize the day and enjoy life.
“For the ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright. Our life is short and tedious, and in the death of a man there is no remedy. . . . our body shall be turned into ashes, and our spirit shall vanish as the soft air. . . . Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good thing that are present. . . .” (2:1-6).
This reasoning soon leads to ignoring right and wrong: “Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness . . . for this is our portion, and our lot is this. Let us oppress the poor righteous man, let us not spare the widow; nor reverence the ancient gray hairs of the aged” (2:9-10). Such thoughts inevitably justify blasphemy and gratuitous evil:
“Let us see if his words be true: and let us prove what shall happen in the end of him. For if the just man be the son of God, he will help him, an deliver him from the hand of his enemies. Let us examine him with despitefulness and torture, that we may know his meekness, and prove his patience” (2:17-19).
The author returns to his own voice, and comments: “Such things they did imagine, and were deceived: for their own wickedness hath blinded them” (2:21).
The hymn to Wisdom identifies her as “the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). And, apparently borrowing from Greek thought, it credits Wisdom with being the source of “temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude” (8:7). So, too, it connects a biblical idea, that humans cannot fathom God, to the Platonic explanation (later used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54 and II Corinthians 5:1) that “the corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle weigheth down the mind.” (9:15).
The final section, in its review of Jewish history, includes a satire on idolatry similar to one found in the Apocryphal Epistle of Jeremy: “For health [the idolater] calleth upon that which is weak: for life prayeth to that which is dead” (13:18). But here the author also adds that this idolatry is performed with deliberate disregard for pride and logic: “Now a carpenter . . . taking the very refuse among those which served to no use . . . when he had nothing else to do . . . fashioned it to the image of man . . . and is not ashamed to speak to that which hath no life” (13:11-17). It must follow, the author concludes, that such a people will naturally turn to antisocial behavior: “They kept neither lives nor marriages any longer undefiled. . . . For the worshiping of idols not to be named is the beginning, the cause, and the end, of all evil” (14:24-27).
THE WISDOM OF JESUS THE SON OF SIRACH
Also called The Wisdom of Ben Sira (Hebrew for son of Sira), this was perhaps the most widely regarded book of the Apocrypha. Its extensive use in church liturgy gave rise to its alternative name, Eclesiaticus, not to be confused with the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.
The author, a Palestinian Jew, is called Yeshua (Joshua) Ben Sira in Hebrew, rendered in Greek as Jesus, the son of Sirach. Since evidence in the text suggests that he was a younger contemporary of the High Priest Simon, son of Onias, who died in 196 BCE, Yehsua probably wrote between 190-180 BCE. The Greek translation was made by his grandson some fifty years later.
Like the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, most of this book is a collection of maxims, usually grouped by topic, about public morality and private behavior. Chapters 44-50, which begin, “Let us now praise famous men,” honor Israel’s heroes. Chapter 51 contains a prayer of thanksgiving and hymn to wisdom.
Unlike most ancient collections of proverbs, this book is addressed not to rulers, but to the average head of a family. He is counseled on dealings with his wife and children and the treatment of friends, as well as on other practical matters. The three things that make a person “beautiful before God and men” are “the unity of brethren, the love of neighbors, a man and a wife that agree together” (25:1).
Notably, the author of The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach does not claim divine guidance for his work. He says merely that he has studied and wants to share what he has learned: “I awaked up last of all, as one that gathereth after the grape gatherers . . . and filled my winepress like a gather of grapes” (33:16). In addition, he explicitly rejects the notion of an afterlife: “Thanksgiving perisheth from the dead, as from one that is not: . . . the son of man is not immortal” (17:28-30).
Nevertheless, he views religion as the basis of a meaningful life: “To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:14). “All wisdom cometh from the Lord” (1:1), but man is limited, “for more things are showed unto thee than men understand. For many are deceived by their own vain opinion” (3:23-24). Therefore, a man should honor and help his parents, be humble and honest in business, “defraud not the poor of his living. . . . Add not more trouble to an heart that is vexed. . . . Reject not the supplication of the afflicted” (4:1-4). In contrast, “The beginning of pride is when one departeth from God. . . . For pride is the beginning of sin” (10:12-13).
Many quotable lines are found in this work:
- A faithful friend is a strong defense, and he that hath found such an one hath found a treasure (6:14).
- Rejoice not over thy greatest enemy being dead, but remember that we die all (8:7).
- Open not thine heart to every man (8:19).
- The heart of fools is in their mouth: but the mouth of the wise is in their heart (21:26).
THE BOOK OF BARUCH
Baruch is the scribe who recorded the prophet Jeremiah’s speeches. For this reason, several early Church Fathers quoted passages from this book as the words of Jeremiah. They considered verse 3:37 especially significant because it could be taken as a foretelling of Jesus: “Afterwards did he show himself upon earth, and conversed with men.”
The book falls into three sections. The first part, in prose, includes a historical setting like the one found in Daniel 9, as well as a similar confession and prayer: suffering is punishment for sin, but God is just and merciful; may God look down from heaven and save us.
Most of chapter 3 is a poem in praise of Wisdom, here equated with the Torah, or Law. Wisdom is not the possession of the rich and powerful, nor that of Canaan and the children of the East. Only God is all-knowing, and he has given this gift of wisdom to Israel, as a way of life. Rather than seeking knowledge elsewhere, the children of Israel should return to the source of their glory.
The last section offers two poetic laments. In most of chapter 4, a personified Jerusalem consoles Israel, as a mother cares for her children. In the remainder of the book, the poet consoles Jerusalem with assurances of redemption.
THE EPISTLE OF JEREMY
Sometimes appended to the Book of Baruch as chapter 6, this short work is a satire on idolatry similar to the one found in Wisdom of Solomon. The author tells the exiled Jews that they should neither fear nor worship the gods of their conquerors, for idols have no more power than “a scarecrow in a garden of cucumbers.” Each section ends with a variation of the refrain “They are not Gods.”
The Epistle of Jeremy seems to be an elaboration of Jeremiah 10:2-5:
“Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.”
In the same vein, the Epistle says that heathens ask their idols for help, but the idols cannot even help themselves. Sometimes their priests steal their gold and silver ornaments. If they fail, they cannot get up. If there is fire, someone must carry them to safety. Their temples must be locked so that they are not stolen. Birds perch on their heads, and insects eat their clothes. How can anyone fear such gods?
The author also notes that idol worship is immoral. It does not lead to pity for the widow or orphan, nor aid to the needy. Rather, it fosters temple prostitution and jealousy. It brings only disgrace to its followers.
THE PRAYER OF AZARIAH
This short text is not a separate book, but an addition to the Book of Daniel.
Azariah is the Hebrew name of Abednego, the friend of Daniel, who, along with Shadrach and Meshach (Hananiah and Mishael in Hebrew), was thrown into the fiery furnace. This prayer and the accompanying Song of the Three Children are an insertion between verses 3:23 and 24 of Daniel.
The Prayer praises God, acknowledges Israel’s sin and God’s justice, and pleads for mercy and deliverance. The last line (verse 22) is notable: it is a wish that all the nations of the world will recognize the one God.
The Song is a call for all creation – heavenly bodies, forces of nature, living creatures – to worship the one true God. It is similar to, and perhaps modeled on, Psalms 136 and 148.
The content echoes Psalm 148, which begins:
Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
The choral structure is similar to that of Psalm 136:
O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.
O give thanks unto the God of God: for his mercy endureth forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth forever.
If we imagine the Psalms as they were sung during public worship, in the Temple in Jerusalem, for example, we can readily picture a choir responding to a leader, or pilgrims repeating a refrain after each verse chanted by the choir. We might speculate that the Song of the Three Children is a similar type of psalm.
THE HISTORY OF SUSANNA
This short tale describes how a chaste woman, falsely accused of adultery and condemned to death, is saved at the last moment by a clever youth. Two corrupt elders see Susanna, a beautiful married woman, bathing in her garden, and are filled with lust. When she rejects their advances, they publicly testify that they caught her in an adulterous affair. As she is led away to be executed, Daniel asks permission to cross-examine the witnesses and catches them in a contradiction. Susanna is saved and Daniel is hailed for his brilliance.
Though it now stands alone, this story seems to have been originally intended as a prologue to the Book of Daniel, since it introduces Daniel as a youth who shows intellectual promise. Shakespeare referred to this aspect of the story in his use of the phrase “a Daniel come to judgment.” Because the Old Testament Daniel is not a judge, Shakespeare must have learned the story of Susanna from the Apocrypha.
Medieval Christian commentators interpreted the focus on sexuality in the book either as an allegory with Susanna as the persecuted church and her husband as Christ, or as a moral tale that demonstrated the triumph of virtue. Interestingly, the bathing scene was very popular among Bible illustrators and humanist painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, perhaps because it offered an excuse to paint a beautiful naked woman.
On another level, the story is strikingly modern, as it illustrates the plight of a woman in a male-dominated world. If Susanna submits to the elders, she will be committing a capital offense. But if she resists, the elders will accuse her of adultery. She understands that their word will be accepted over hers: “I am straitened on every side: for if I do this thing, it is death unto me: and if I do it not, I cannot escape your hands.” As she predicts, the community believes the false testimony. Even her vindication does not come about because the judges believe her. She is saved only when they agree to hear a young man, Daniel, who finds a flaw in the elders’ testimony.
THE HISTORY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BEL AND THE DRAGON
These two vignettes were also added to the Book of Daniel, and, like the story of Susanna, they illustrate Daniel’s cleverness.
Both stories reveal the foolishness of idolatry. In the first, Daniel proves to the Persian king that the idol Bel does not eat the food left for him. After offerings to Bel are placed in the temple and everyone else has left, Daniel sprinkles ashes on the floor. In the morning, he shows the king the footprints of the priests who crept in during the night to take the food.
In the second episode, Daniel kills a sacred snake by feeding it pitch, fat, and hair. The Babylonians are furious, and Daniel is thrown into the lion-pit. Hundreds of miles away in Judea, the prophet Habakkuk is making a stew. An angel grabs him by the hair and flies him to Babylon to feed Daniel. The king is very impressed, and praises Daniel’s God above all others.
THE PRAYER OF MANASSES
According to II Kings 21, Manasseh “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord” throughout his long reign: he built altars to Baal, worshiped the host of heaven, desecrated the Temple, and “shed innocent blood very much.” But II Chronicles 33:11-25 says that he repented, prayed for forgiveness, and tried to undo the damage he had caused. Moreover, “his prayer unto his God . . . [is] written in the book of the kings of Israel . . . [a d] among the sayings of the seers.” This brief poem in the Apocrypha is believed to be that prayer.
The two central themes of the poem are that God’s mercy is boundless and that god accepts true repentance. The poem even contains the bold assertion (verses 7-8) that God created repentance for the sake of the wicked, because the righteous did not need it.
THE FIRST BOOK OF MACCABBEES
This book is a fairly objective account of the Jewish war of liberation against the overlords of Israel (also called Judah) in 175-135 BCE. It incorporates what seem to be official documents from several royal archives. The title of the book comes from its central character, Judah Maccabee (Judas Maccabeus), who gave his name to the army he led. His surname is usually taken to mean “hammer,” referring to his military prowess.
The book begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great and the division of his kingdom among his generals. The land of Israel falls to Antiochus of Syria, who bans Jewish rituals and festivals. Thereafter, many of the Jews find Greek culture attractive and gladly accept assimilation. But the priest Mattathias cries out, “Whosoever is zealous of the law . . . let him follow me.” He and his five sons lead a rebellion. Judah emerges as a mighty warrior and guerrilla strategist. His army captures the Temple in Jerusalem and besieges the remaining Greek garrison. The Temple is rededicated and the festival of Hanukkah is established. The Jews are granted religious liberty, but the war against the Greeks and those who conformed to Greek beliefs continues. Judah and two of his brothers fall in battle. Jonathan assumes leadership, expands the area controlled by the Maccabees, and negotiates with various foreign powers. But he is treacherously murdered. Simon, the last surviving brother, finally wins independence. He is named High Priest and Governor. Upon his assassination, his son John becomes High Priest, and later King.
The major source of knowledge about this period of Jewish history, the First Book of Maccabees also offers a number of insights into religious practices of the time. For example, loyalty to the Sabbath was so great that a thousand Jews chose to die rather than fight their attackers on that day. Mattathias decrees, “Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him” (2:34-35). Also, in accordance with Deuteronomy 20, Judah exempts from battle all those soldiers who have recently married, built new homes, or are afraid (3:56). Finally, the author avoids using the Tetragrammaton (God’s name in Hebrew), preferring euphemisms like “heaven.”
THE SECOND BOOK OF MACCABEES
Despite the title, the Second Book of Maccabees is not a continuation of The First Book of Maccabees. It is a partial summary of a much longer work, covering only the first fifteen years of I Maccabees. Rather than a factual history, it more closely resembles a morality tale, where angels interact with humans, and many scenes of martyrdom are portrayed.
One of its most moving stories is that of Eleazar (chapter 6), an aged scribe, who is forced to eat swine’s flesh in public. When he refuses, his tormentors tell him he can eat whatever he wishes, as long as he appears to be eating the forbidden food. Again he refuses, because “through mine hypocrisy, and desire to live a little time and a moment longer,” people will be misled. With his dying breath he proclaims that God knows “I might have been delivered from death . . . but in soul am well content to suffer these things, because I fear him.”
Another story of martyrdom (chapter 7) describes a woman who sees six of her seven children tortured and killed for refusing to eat swine. When the seventh is to be killed, the king asks the mother to save her child by persuading him to submit. Instead, she says, “O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb. . . . Fear not this tormentor, but, being worth of thy brethren, take thy death.”
The sayings and anecdotes presented below are all fragments, which, over the course of the transmission and production of early gospel manuscripts, were introduced by various scribes into particular known copies of the canonical gospels. Their poor attestation in the broader manuscript tradition indicates that they do not belong to the original text of the gospels in which they are found in the odd manuscript. They are often found in only one or two manuscripts, or are missing from the earliest or best witnesses. For this reason, most scholars disregard them in the study of the canonical gospels, and they have been excluded from most modern editions and translations. The exceptions would be the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, and the traditional Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20), which, for traditional or sentimental reasons, are often retained.
These stray fragments fall into the category of agrapha, that is, isolated sayings and stories of Jesus not written in the canonical tradition. Many known agrapha have survived antiquity. Most are found in the early church Fathers as brief quotations, sometimes taken from a gospel now lost, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews or the Gospel of the Nazoreans, sometimes given without reference to any source at all. Occasionally one finds an agraphon tucked into a later rabbinic story, there placed on the lips of a hapless Christian interlocutor engaged in debate with the rabbis. What follows is not a complete list of the agrapha, but a selective sample. The texts associated with lost Jewish Christian gospels are available elsewhere in this volume. As for the anonymous agrapha, their provenance is too uncertain to warrant inclusion here. They might just as well derive from an apocryphal acts tradition (Acts 20:35) or a lost epistolary tradition (Thess 4:15-17) as from the early Christian gospel tradition. In any event, a complete catalogue of all the known agrapha could easily occupy an entire volume in its own right. The small collection in this volume is limited to those agrapha which are found within the gospel tradition itself, and thus supply an episode to the overall history of the gospel tradition and contribute to its understanding.
The agrapha must be considered secondary with respect to the larger texts in which they are found and nothing certain is known about their age, provenance or authorship. Nonetheless, they deserve consideration in the study of the gospel tradition. Their chief value lies in the tale they can tell of the later transmission history of the gospels. They remind us how fluid the situation was with these texts well into the second and third centuries, a point often washed over in the quest for a single canonical text to which one might confidently appeal as authoritative. The problem of the New Testament canon involves not just the question of which books belong, but also in what form certain books were considered to bear authority for the early church. the fact that the ancient record is so “messy” suggests that interest in such a quest belongs more to the modern period than to the ancient.
But apart from what these vagabond sayings and stories tell us of the later transmission history of the gospels, we should not rule out the possibility that they might eventually tell us something about the earlier period as well, the early Jesus movement, perhaps even Jesus himself. Their origins, after all, are unknown, shrouded deeply in the folds of early Christian tradition. These sayings and stories are introduced here without judgments abut where they might ultimately fit into the history of the gospel tradition.
The Gospel of the Nazoreans (GNaz) is a narrative gospel closely related to the Gospel of Matthew. Like the other Jewish-Christian gospels, it is preserved only in a few quotations and citations in the writings of early Christian authors. All the quoted passages show interesting differences between Nazoreans and Matthew. It seems that early Christian authors quote from Nazoreans only when they want to draw attention to passages in which this gospel is peculiar in some way or another. This characteristic of the quotations is an important clue to the overall character of this gospel, because it makes it likely that the rest of Nazoreans (the lost, unquoted material) was basically the same as Matthew. this is the reasoning that leads scholars to the conclusion that its contents were more or less identical to those of Matthew. Nazoreans seems to have diverged from Matthew only in minor ways, usually by slightly expanding Matthew’s version and clarifying a few of its details.
For example, GNaz 3 explains the meaning of a difficult word in the Lord’s prayer, a word whose exact meaning still eludes us; GNaz 7 corrects a reference to a figure in the Hebrew Bible that Matthew seems to have gotten wrong; and GNaz 4 fills out the story of Jesus’ healing of the man with the crippled hand by making it clear that the man’s condition prevented him from making a living.
Nazoreans can be aptly characterized as a slightly reworked version of Matthew. The existing fragments show no familiarity with any other gospel, nor any contact with the gospel traditions prior to Matthew. Nazoreans does in a modest way to Matthew what Matthew had done in a more sweeping way to Mark and Q. Nazoreans is evidence that the process of clarifying, correcting, and expanding the written accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus continued beyond the writing of the canonical gospels. Since Nazoreans is a rewriting of a gospel rather than a new gospel altogether, it shows us that at least one community of Christians considered Matthew to be authoritative, but not beyond correction or alteration.
The Christian authors who are our sources for Nazoreans (Hegesippus, Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Jerome) report that it was written in the Hebrew alphabet (GNaz 8, 10) and that it was known as the “Gospel of the Hebrews” (a title Christian authors apparently gave to any gospel they thought had been written in a Semitic language). Scholars are convinced that the original language of Nazoreans was Aramaic (which uses the same alphabet as Hebrew).
Because Nazoreans is based on Matthew and was written in Aramaic, some scholars have speculated that an Aramaic version of Matthew must have once been in circulation. This theory parallels a widespread rumor among early Christian writers that Matthew had originally been composed in Aramaic. However, close analysis of the quoted fragments of Nazoreans shows that this gospel is based on the Greek text of Matthew. Hence, Nazoreans is an Aramaic “translation” of Matthew, though of course not a literal or even necessarily an accurate translation.
The chain of translation between Nazoreans and the modern reader is a complex one. Early Christian authors translated its Aramaic (which was based on Matthew’s Greek) into their own language. GNaz 8 is preserved in Greek, GNaz 11 in Syriac, and the rest of the fragments in Latin. These excerpts are the basis for the Scholars Version of Nazoreans. Since every translation loses some of the original meaning, our English version of these fragments may in some places only approximate the original sense of this gospel.
Date and Place of Origin
Nazoreans had to have been written after Matthew and before the Christian writer Hegesippus first referred to it in 180. This means that it was probably written in the first half of the second century. In the fourth century, Jerome informs us that the Nazorean community was living in Beroea, a city in Syria. The gospel must have been composed there.