Monday, November 21, 2016

Hidden Books Between the Testaments by James Thompson Bixby, Ph.D.

Hidden Between the Testaments by James Thompson Bixby, Ph.D.

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IN some of the fuller editions of our English Bible the marginal notes state the years in which the various books were believed to have been written. To the prophecies of Malachi, with which our Old Testament usually closes, the date of 397 before Christ has been assigned by the Biblical editors. The next year in which, according to these marginal dates, any inspired penman gave to the world a sacred writing was over four centuries later. For it was about A.D. 52 or 53 that the earliest letters of Paul were composed and made public.

To the thoughtful reader of the Scriptures this interruption of the revelation from on high for over four centuries seems very surprising. Was this gap between the Hebrew and the Christian half of our Bible unbridged by any literature sufficiently valuable to have been reverently bound up with the other books?

Let us see. The Bible-reader, on some fortunate day, turning over an old family Bible or a fine pulpit edition of the Scriptures, finds lurking between the Testaments, in rather fine print, fourteen more books of Scripture in addition to the sixty-six which he had been told were all that made up the Holy Bible. He reads them with avidity, continually stimulated by unexpected encounters with old literary acquaintances. What patriotic sympathies thrill him as he reads the stirring martial narratives of the Maccabean wars! What antique fairy lore, reminding him of Jacob Grimm’s Household Tales, lights up with unconscious humor the Scripture pages! A few pages farther on, what terse, shrewd apothegms and lofty philosophic interpretations of divine things meet the eyes?

It is no wonder that when the grandparents are applied to for further information about these hidden books of the Bible they freely confess that when, in their youthful years, they were shut up on Sunday afternoons with the Bible as the only reading-matter, it was to the small print of the Apocrypha, with its interesting short stories, almost modern in their ingenious fancies, that they promptly turned.

A ministerial friend of mine, now passed beyond the veil, used frankly to acknowledge his fondness for the tale of Bel and the Dragon. He never got tired, on Sunday evenings, hearing his dear mother’s voice as she read over and over the story of how Daniel, by his shrewdness, both exposed the wiles of the idolatrous priests and killed the fierce monster whom they worshiped. The ingenious devices of lumps of pitch, fat, and hair, to choke the adored dragon, and of ashes strewn over the temple floor to disclose the footsteps of the thieving priests, are quite in the line of modern detective tales. One of the old anecdotes about John Bunyan relates how for a long period he was perplexed by his inability to find within the lids of his Bible certain assurances of divine help that had much comforted him. For above a year be searched his Bible for these words and could not discover them. But at last, casting his eyes upon the Apocrypha books, he found them in the tenth verse and second chapter of Ecclesiasticus.

Many another scholar since Bunyan’s day has had similar experiences. He has sought for the Scripture authority for Milton’s description of Raphael as “the affable angel,” or for Shylock in the “Merchant of Venice” exclaiming, “A Daniel come to judgment.” He has wished to quote chapter and verse for certain familiar texts, such as, “Unto you is Paradise opened,” “Wisdom is more moving than any motion,” or. “He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled.” He has been positive that the answers were to be found in certain passages in the Psalms, only, after long search, to find them in the Apocrypha.

The name Apocrypha now attached to these fourteen books means primarily “The Hidden.” Originally the word Apocryphal meant simply the books whose origin was obscure or whose usage and meaning were secret. Neither among Hebrew scholars nor in the early Christian Church did the word imply that these books were either untrustworthy, spurious, or unworthy of religious use and reverence. The first edition of the Bible in which the designation “Apocryphal” is given to these intermediate books dates as late as 1534, and the use of the word in a depreciatory sense was established by Protestants. Before Luther’s time they were included with Job, Daniel, Canticles, Ruth, Ezra, and similar books, among what was called “the other writings.”

The early Church fathers quote from the Apocrypha as from “Holy Scripture.” St. Augustine called them “canonical,” as also did the Councils of Hippo in AD. 393 and of Carthage in 397. The Council of Trent pronounced eleven of them to be canonical. That is, it accepted all but two books of Esdras and The Prayer of Manasses. They have been printed, therefore, as part of Holy Scripture in the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and most Roman Catholic Bibles up to the present time. In the Lutheran, Reformed, and English Bibles for nearly three centuries after Luther’s break with Home they were printed, and they have been read in Protestant pulpits during the same period as useful and good for edification, although not authoritative in proof of Christian doctrine. The Homilies of the Anglican Church are still full of citations from the Apocrypha on an equal level with the canonical Old Testament. It was not till the year 1826 that the British and American Bible societies banished them as uninspired from the company of the other Biblical writings with which for eighteen centuries they had been contributing to the moral instruction and spiritual nurture of Christendom.

Have these ancient books between the Testaments deserved this sentence of banishment from Christian knowledge and service? The customary reason given for this ecclesiastical boycott has been that they were “uncanonical.”

Many Christian scholars, however, doubt both the wisdom and the justice of this sentence. For with the rise of modern Biblical criticism the reasons on which theologians had leaned, such as
that they were written in Greek, not in holy Hebrew, that ancient rabbis and scholars, like Jerome, had doubted their canonicity, and Protestant councils questioned their inspiration, have one by one lost their former force. Modern scholars think that the Divine Spirit was quite as likely to dictate religious revelation in Greek as in Hebrew, and that, in respect to scholarly knowledge and judgment of what is spiritual truth, modern critics and theologians are as competent to decide as ancient rabbis or the Doctors of Divinity of one or two hundred years ago.

It does not need any lengthy examination to see that the general character of the Apocryphal writings is about the same as that of the later Old Testament writings. There is a similar mixture of fact and fiction, of the weak and the sublime, of wisdom and fanaticism, of worldly counsels and of high spiritual insight and inspiration.

There is one merit which it is generally admitted that the Apocryphal books possess. For sacred books they are unusually interesting. I know that by some they have been condemned as sanguinary, fantastic, worldly, and too similar to profane literature. It may be that it is these very qualities that have made them so attractive to dramatists, musicians, and artists such as Raphael and Allston. Not improbably it was these very traits that led so many painters to employ their skill in portraying Susanna at the Bath, Judith slaying Holofernes, Jeremiah prophesying in the presence of Baruch; and that incited Handel to select the career of Judea’s greatest warrior, Judas Maccabeus, as the theme of one of his most glorious oratorios. There are no parts of the Apocrypha more pointedly secular than are certain parts of the canonical Old Testament, such as the books of Esther, Canticles, and the older portions of Ecclesiastes. Indeed, the fictitious additions to Esther, made by an unknown Jew of formal piety, seem directed to correct what he thought the godless omission of the name of God from the canonical book of Esther.

The books of the Maccabees are indeed full of vindictive fighting and harrowing details of terrible persecutions. But they are no more bloody than the books of Joshua and Kings; and are ethically superior in that the military struggles described are not for purposes of conquest, but for honorable defense of homes and of the God-given right to worship Jehovah rather than be compelled to sacrifice to pagan idols and to embrace a polytheistic cult. There is no historical book in the Old Testament that is characterized by a more pure and earnest patriotism and a nobler ethical inspiration than the First Book of the Maccabees, in which is recounted in so direct and self-restrained a style the heroic struggle for political and religious independence which was made by the Jewish people under their famous leader, Judas the Hammer, as he was called, in the second century before Christ.

In the story of Judith and the grim exploit by which she routs the pagan invader who with his ruthless army menaced her native city, we have another fiery exhibition of that same intense patriotism that has always so characterized the Jewish spirit. The ethics of the romance are, of course, far from being in harmony with the Beatitudes. But they are quite as much so as the similar exploit of Jael, or Deborah’s exultant paean over the death of Sisera. Well has Judith been called “a woman Brutus, a Hebrew Charlotte Corday.”

Fierce as is the spirit of the tragic tale, there is a justifying purpose behind it—that of stirring the too-compliant people to terminate at any cost the insults and outrages of their Syrian oppressors. The dramatic pictures which the artists have painted of the liberty-loving' woman, standing in her splendid beauty and enticing apparel before the luxuriously furnished tent, holding up in vengeful triumph the dissevered head of the foreign invader—these are no more heart-agitating than the vivid power with which this masterpiece of Hebrew literature has portrayed the consummate daring and devotion of the heroine who, by her siren charms and feigned compliance with the kindled passion of the hostile general, had stolen away his senses, and then with his own sword ended his life and so saved her people from destruction.

The clever detective tale of Bel and the Dragon, already alluded to, and the History of Susanna, in which the shrewd Daniel again appears to rescue an innocent woman from two pious elders who had plotted her ruin, are no more biting satires upon narrow and sanctimonious hypocrites and no more plainly literary creations than is the story of Jonah.

The Song of the Three Holy Children. who out of the very midst of the furnace flames successively call on the heavens, sun and moon, water, wind, fire, hail, and all the works of the Lord to bless their Creator—this is as noble a hymn as can be found between Genesis and the clean of the Revelation of John, and by its varied and melodious repetitions subtly suggests the sublime music of nature‘s universal chorus of praise. It offers us inspiring lessons, closely similar to those of Elijah in the cave on Mt. Horeb and Daniel in the lions’ den, and thus has well deserved the place given to it in the Anglican Service-book as “the Benedicite” par excellence.

One of the famous apologues in the canonical Old Testament is the tale which Jotham once told about the “trees choosing a king.” An equally plain parable, no less inferior either in wisdom or in literary skill, is the narrative in the first book of Esdras of the three young men who debated before King Darius at a royal feast. What is “the strongest thing in the world"? was the topic. One disputant eulogized “wine”; a second lauded the claims of the king; a third praised “woman." But the verdict was finally and unanimously given that “Great is truth and mighty above all things.” The Apochphal parable was plainly no more an invention of the human mind than that in the book of Judges, and its magnificent conclusion, “As for the truth, it endureth and is always strong; it liveth and conquereth forever.” is a saying worthy of standing beside the noblest utterances of Holy Scripture.

By certain prim critics of the Apocrypha much ridicule has been heaped upon Tobit and his dog, especially the dog. It is indeed a romance that seems almost as fantastic as a dream-tale from the Arabian Nights. Angels with their providential presence and succor and a grotesque demon with his malicious mischief freely interpose with supernatural feats in the daily life of the characters. The story is liberally interlarded with the most naive and magical features, such as the incarnation of the angel Raphael as a traveling companion of the hero, the demon’s fascination by a maiden’s charm, and the amusing pranks and discomfitures of Asmodeus.

Nevertheless, the main current of the tale is that of a charming pastoral of the most ingenious and childlike style. It is an idyllic picture of domestic piety in a devout Hebrew family, the son of which has been obliged by misfortune to undertake a long journey to distant Media. On the way Tobias finds relatives, falls in love with the beautiful widow Sara, and marries her, although her seven former husbands had successively been killed on the bridal night by a jealous demon. Through the wise counsel of the disguised angel and the device of a fish’s burning liver he drives Asmodeus away to the remotest part of Egypt. After the matrimonial festivities are happily concluded, Tobias takes his bride home with him, the faithful dog running on before and wagging his tail joyfully as he recognizes his old master and mistress. With the help of the gall of the magic fish, the son anoints his father’s eyes and restores his sight and the two live on in peace and prosperity, long beyond the limit of a centenarian’s existence. It is the delightful portrayal of the devout life of a group of true Israelites without guile or distrust, faithfully observing all the commandments—a sweet family picture that has without exaggeration been likened to the tender delineation of the home circle of the Cohens in George Eliot’s noted novel of Daniel Deronda.

Throughout the canonical Old Testament there is hardly a vestige of any clear and positive affirmation of the immediate survival of the soul after death in heavenly blessedness, by virtue of its spiritual essence or its righteous character. The general Hebrew conception was that the good received the wages of righteousness and piety in the forms of a long life, prosperity, and divine care upon earth.

The prevalent view in the Old Testament is that when the body died, the man’s soul went with it, either to perish as a beast perisheth, or else to sleep in the grave until the final Judgment and resurrection of the body. In other passages the current conception is that the human soul at death descended into Sheol—the gloomy realm of shades that received all mortals, whether good or bad. In this sad underworld of darkness, stillness, and torpidity, the feeble and insentient ghost waited until the Resurrection Day to be reunited, by a stupendous miracle, with the body, and thus regain consciousness and full life and receive its moral deserts. In the lack therefore of any unequivocal assertion in the Old Testament of the prompt attainment of immortality and heavenly blessedness by the righteous soul by virtue of its spiritual constitution, devout Hebrews (as we see in manifold Scripture passages) were involved in most trying perplexities and despondence as to the divine goodness. If they were able at all to maintain their faith in the care and justice of Jehovah, it was by hiding (as the author of Job did) behind the inscrutable mystery of God’s ways, which are so far beyond the possible probing of the human intellect that it is presumptuous in any man to try to understand them.

But though the Hebrew mind might acknowledge its impotence, the Hebrew heart was not satisfied. It hungered for a clearer hope, a warmer faith. What could it set against the subtle arguments of skeptic and materialist? In the Apocrypha the Alexandrian seer solved the enigma by replying boldly, with a trustful wisdom far greater than the original Solomon ever possessed:

“God made not death, nor hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living. All His productions are healthful.” . . . “Righteousness is in essence everlasting life.” Death, he declared, was only the work of God’s enemy, Satan. “The ungodly call it to themselves just because they are worthy of it.” . . . “It is the corruptible body that presseth down the soul.” But they, he declared, who commune with the Spirit of Wisdom and practise truth and righteousness become one with the Divine Reason that penetrates them and so become heirs and partners of the Eternal.

And so the Alexandrian poet sang his triumphal hymn of eternal hope:

God created man to be immortal,
And made him to be an image of his eternal self.

For the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,
And there shall no torment touch them.
And having been a little while chastised, they shall receive grand benefit.

Commonplace as these thoughts may seem to modern Christians, yet to the Hebrews of that century they were as novel as they were inspiring. From the day when any perplexed mind or bereaved heart read these golden sentences, a glorious star-beam of higher truth shone with comforting ray upon his life.

It was an unprecedented positive affirmation of the soul’s natural immortality that, spreading from Alexandria into Judea, developed later into the atmosphere of heavenly hope which we find in the New Testament and the great Christian seers.

Another epoch-making forerunner of notable Christian doctrines that is recognized by scholars as an evident “missing link” between the earlier and later writings of the Bible is found in the Apocryphal book of Esdras.

In the New Testament we find as the center of religious thought and the potent factor in shaping the destinies of Israel, the expectation of the advent of a personal Messiah who shall rescue and exalt the Israelitish nation. For this faith we find in the canonical Old Testament no adequate textual authority. But when we turn to the revelation which forms the main part of Second Esdras, the message rings out like a martial trumpet before a mighty battle, have here a thrilling picture of the Messiah coming forth as a lion to deliver Israel and execute judgment on his enemies, or we see him as a Divine Man, the Son of God, rising out of the sea, consuming his enemies with his breath, and reigning for four hundred years, until all mankind appear before the judgment seat of God, the sinners to enter into unending torment and the godly into everlasting rest.

It was chiefly from these Apocryphal books, such as Second Esdras, Second Maccabees, certain passages in Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, and those powerful contemporaneous prophecies of Enoch and the Sibylline verses so closely allied to them, that the expectations of a coming Messiah, a vindicating day of judgment, and a bodily resurrection “shone forth with a glowing, almost fierce brightness,” and fired the hearts of the many just and devout Hebrews who, like Simeon, were in that epoch “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” And it was these prophetic pictures and the emotional incitements of these Apocryphal writings and their epoch that secured for Jesus and Paul such popular welcome for the glad tidings that they brought.

When, then, any broad-minded man reflects on these far-reaching services and intrinsic merits of the Apocrypha, does not its exclusion from the modern Bible and the customary reading of Christen— dom to-day seem to be a mistake? Do not these books still possess the power of interesting, enlightening, and edifying our generation?

As all Biblical scholars know, the Apocrypha was the bridge by which much of the best and potent thought of Judaism and Greece passed over into Christianity. He who would understand the emergence in the Gospels and Epistles of such beliefs and forces as the expectations of the Messiah, the Johannine doctrine of the Word of God, or the Christian doctrine of immortality as the natural heritage of the spirit’s essence, ought to familiarize himself with the Apocrypha. Only by a due knowledge of it are Old and New Testament seen to be integral parts of one natural religious evolution.

And when Bible readers have found so much that was morally improving and spiritually quickening in these uncanonical books, they have been emboldened to go further in these religious studies and to familiarize themselves next with the noble spiritual truths found in the non-Christian Scriptures, such as that first Apostolic Epistle of peace and forgiving love, the Chinese “Tao-Teh-King”; the Persian revelation of spiritual retributions in the Zend-Avesta; and the Hindu Gospel of self-sacrifice and renunciation embodied in the Bhagavad-Gita.

It is not, however, in any of the kinds of books that we have yet mentioned that the highest level of the Apocrypha was reached. It is in those two notable books whose merits all scholars have gladly acknowledged, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon.

The book of Ecclesiasticus, as its name suggests, was a code of maxims for moral and religious improvement, portraying the life and character at which a devout worshiper in the synagogue should aim, and by which true blessedness might be obtained. It has been recognized by eminent teachers as the most complete and practical “manual of ethical culture” produced by ancient Israel.

Written originally by the learned scholar Jesus the Son of Sirach, in Jerusalem, about 200 B.C., it was enlarged and translated into Greek by the grandson, who introduced it into the circle of Jewish and Greek scholars who gave such prestige to Alexandrian culture. It is a composition partly in prose and partly in verse, and in many respects seems like a Jewish counterpart of Poor Richard’s Almanac, so full is it of shrewd epigrams and homely details as to the smallest matters of daily behavior. Its stock of wise saws and practical observations, sometimes keen and cynical, at other times exhibiting deep insight or fine and delicate criticism, is admirably versatile and remarkably comprehensive. The reflections are those of a wise, broad-minded veteran who from the calm height of a long life in many lands and posts looks back on his career and sums up its lessons.

How terse and biting are some of these proverbs:

Coddle thy child and he shall make thee afraid.

Be not as a lion in thy house and as a crazy man among thy servants.

A fool travaileth with a secret, as the mother in labor with a child.

If thou hast heard something, let it die with thee. Be not alarmed, it will not burst thee.

What pregnant wisdom in homely counsels such as these:

Health and a good constitution are above all gold.

Delicacies poured out before a closed mouth are as messes of food set upon a grave. . . . Afflict not thyself with sad reflections. Gladness of heart is the life of a man and prolongeth his days.

What regard for justice and respect for human dignity is shown in the admonitions of which these are samples:

To the slave that is wise shall they that are free do service.

The Lord will not accept any personage, however important, and will always hear the prayer of him who is wronged.

He that defraudeth the workman of his hire is a blood-shedder. He that taketh away his neighbor’s living slayeth him.

Hardly any one, I think, has satirized the follies of men and women more unsparingly than the Son of Sirach. Nevertheless, he is a persistent optimist, seeing the good in life and humanity, and beholding all the experiences of life illuminated by the sunshine of divine goodwill and religious trust. While the author indulges too much in bitterness against personal and national fees and in cruel gibes on weak women, his faith is liberal and humane. What rational views of the essence of religion, far ahead of his age, are expressed in such an apothegm as this:

Sacrificing what is wrongfully gotten is an offering of mockery, and the mockeries of transgressors are not accepted by Jehovah.

The object of man’s supreme endeavor, as presented in Ecclesiasticus, is “truth,” and the surest means of obtaining divine rewards is righteousness and helpfulness to one’s fellows. Witness such sayings as these:

If thou hast a servant, treat him as yourself.

The mercy of a man is toward his neighbor. But the mercy of the Lord is toward all flesh. He reproveth and disciplineth and teacheth, and then he bringeth them back home as a shepherd his flock.

Be as a father unto the fatherless and in the place of a husband to the orphan’s mother; and thou shalt be as a son of the Most High, and he will love thee more than thy mother did.

When we read such noble verses, does it not seem as if from some long-buried gospel we were reading recovered words from the lips of the Galilean Master himself?

With the closing chapters devoted to describing the glories of Creation and cataloguing the long line of Hebrew heroes and seers (a section well entitled “The Hymn of the Forefathers”), the book reaches a splendid climax, giving voice to the instincts of reverence for the mighty dead and gratitude for their gifts to humanity, of which the later eulogies in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, of the worthies who lived by faith, is an evident imitation and hardly an improvement.

If, since the bodies of these famous men were buried in peace, their names live forevermore, and their historic lives have been singing so gloriously and undyingly in the “choir invisible” of our human benefactors, it is in great degree because of the eloquence with which the Son of Sirach early embalmed their memories and made such pious thanksgivings a customary part of our great national and religious festivals.

In the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, we have the code of maxims elaborated by a Jerusalem sage whose Alexandrian learning had liberalized his ancestral faith.

In the Wisdom of Solomon we have Jewish history and theology, as interpreted and partly transmuted by Platonic philosophy and Greek Alexandrian culture. The ascription of its authorship to Solomon is simply a literary device. Its thought moves in a sphere immeasurably above that of the luxurious and worldly monarch of a thousand years previous. It was written, by the testimony of its internal evidence, in Alexandria some time in the century just preceding the Christian era. Its author was plainly neither priest nor scribe, but one of the broad and independent Hebrew “Humanists” of that transitional period, and his book is a priceless relic of the fertile age in which the seeds of the great truths of Christianity were germinating, under combined Jewish and Greek influences, to blossom in the faith and thought of the New Testament and the fathers of the early Church. It is, however, deeply to be regretted that there is neither a historical scrap nor probable tradition as to either the name or the life-story of this spiritual genius who not only gave to the Apocrypha its noblest book, but enriched Hebrew literature with a writing which in literary excellence and moral and philosophic elevation is to me the equal of any book in the Old Testament, not excepting Job or the “second” Isaiah. The larger part of the book is devoted to a moral interpretation of Hebrew history and human experience and to an exhibition of the folly of idolatry and ungodliness and their sure punishment. From these national and personal admonitions the writer rises into lofty philosophic expositions and an eloquent personification of the Divine Wisdom that determined the primal order of visible things and all the diverse phenomena of nature and humanity. To this Eternal Wisdom is due whatever in the universe has power or goodness. Man’s reason and conscience are but reflections of this rational spirit in God, and from this the imaginative personification of Wisdom ascends to the sublime conception of the all-pervading, all-knowing, and inspiring Reason that is the “worker of all things.”

Well may the philosophic poet, therefore, apostrophize Wisdom as the adorable manifestation of the Unsearchable Eternal:

For in her is a Spirit, rational, holy,
One only, yet manifold, subtil,
Active, penetrating, undefiled,
Irrepressible, ready to do good, kind to
Steadfast, having all power, overseeing all
For Wisdom is more mobile than any
She goeth and passeth through all things
by reason of her pureness.
For she is the breath of the power of God.
And a pure emanation from the glory of
the Almighty.
For she is the brightness of the Ever-
lasting Light,
The unspotted mirror of the working of
And the image of His goodness.
And being but one, she can do all things,
And remaining in herself she maketh all
things new;
And in all ages entering into holy souls
She maketh them friends of God and
Prophets. . . . . . . .
And sweetly doth she order all things,

To find in religious literature any passage equal to this in philosophic subtlety and lofty poetic beauty we must come down to the days of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" or Tennyson's "In Memoriam."

For a list of all of my digital books on disk click here

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