Thursday, May 4, 2017

The History & Value of the Apocrypha By Bernard Joseph Snell 1905

The History & Value of the Apocrypha By Bernard Joseph Snell 1905

In the Septuagint the Apocryphal books were arranged alongside the Canonical books, and they were used and cited just as the other books were used and cited. Yet, for the sake of critical accuracy, let it be remarked that there is not a solitary instance in which any New Testament writer can be unequivocally said to have quoted from an "Apocryphal" book; though [there are] remarkable parallelisms. Many of the Greek fathers, such as Origen, Cyprian, and Clement of Alexandria, refer to the Apocryphal books as "Divine Scriptures" precisely in the same way in which they refer to the Canonical books. Though, be it also added, they seem to have been cognisant of the distinction between those books which the Hebrews recognised as belonging to their stricter Canon and those books which owed their circulation to the Greek version only.

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This condition of things obtained right down to the Reformation, and the omission of the Apocrypha from our Bible is one of the strangest results accruing from the Reformation. The Roman Church, then as now, treated the Apocrypha as on the level of the Old Testament. Luther, although his Bible of 1534 included the Apocrypha, was led to disparage it through the fact of his opponents adducing it as an authority for the doctrine of purgatory and for the efficacy of prayers and masses for the dead. On the other hand, the majority at the Council of Trent in 1547 took more interest in the polemical discussions of their own day than in learned research, and may be supposed to have been moved to assign high authority to the Apocrypha because of the controversial use of a few texts favouring the intercession of angels (Tobit 12, 12—15), the intercession of departed saints (2 Macc. 15, 12—14; Baruch 4, 4), prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12, 44— 45), and the merit of almsgiving (Tobit 3, 10; 4, 7: Ecclus. 3,30). This Council of Roman Catholics anathematised any who refused to receive as sacred and canonical these Apocryphal books, as they had been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old Latin Vulgate version. The Council called itself (Ecumenical, but no country was adequately represented thereat except Italy. The scholarship of its members was ludicrously inefficient; "none knew Hebrew, only a few knew Greek— there were even some whose knowledge of Latin was held but in low repute . . . not one had eminence as a learned divine"(cf. Speaker's Commentary,xxxiv.). It amazed people then, and it amazes people now, that so small a Council, representing so small a section of Christendom, should undertake to decide so grave a question and to settle finally for the Catholic Church by an infallible decree a question which for fifteen centuries had perplexed Christendom. 

It is not at all strange, therefore, that the Reformed Churches adopted as their own the Palestinian Canon of the Old Testament, discarding the wider Alexandrian Canon. And from that time in English and German Bibles the Apocryphal books have been distinctly separated from the other books, which together with them had formed the Old Testament according to the larger Canon. Moreover, there was much controversy as to the continuance even of this practice, many favouring the entire elision of these doubtful books. In a sermon before the House of Commons in 1648 the preacher complained of the custom of putting the Apocrypha between the Old and the New Testaments:—"Thus sweetly and nearly should the two Testaments join together, and thus divinely would they kiss each other, but that the wretched Apocrypha doth thrust in between."

The Church of England, true to its character of moderation, shrank from severing the Apocryphal books from the Bible, and continued the old practice of drawing its lessons alike from the Canonical and the Apocryphal portions of the Old Testament. By the Prayer Book of 1549, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus and Baruch were ordered to be read in public. According to the Articles, these Apocryphal books "the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet doth it not apply them to teach any doctrine."

The Westminster Confession roundly declares that the Apocryphal books "are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings." The Puritans, with their severe theories of inspiration, feared lest, by the reading in public worship of Canonical and Apocryphal books indiscriminately, the people might be led to confuse the two; and none will gainsay the validity of such an apprehension on their part. An Anglican pamphlet of 1689 argues, "Is it for greater edification to astonish our people with reading all the hard names in the Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, instead of the Books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus? If the Canticles are omitted, because interpreters of that mysterious song are not so easily to be found as readers, we have the practice of the synagogue and the ancient Church to justify us."

Suffice it to say, the Puritans were quite unnecessarily vehement in their disparagement of the Apocrypha and in their opposition to its inclusion in Scripture. They were in the midst of a violent reaction against everything that directly or indirectly savoured of "the scarlet woman," and they went to extremes which no calm and dispassionate critic would now attempt to justify. When Christian men thrust even the Lord's Prayer into the background and regarded its public use with suspicion, it is not surprising that they protested against the public use of the Apocrypha, as a "menace to the Protestant conceptions of the Bible." Rome exalted the Apocrypha to the level of the Canon, therefore all good Protestants were called upon to disdain and detest it! Happily we have reached an age in which it is possible, without fear of ostracism, to suppose that books that are signalised by such sublime thoughts and made glorious by such stirring stories of splendid heroism and saintliness, are fitly ascribed to Him from Whom cometh every good gift. It is impossible not to regret the peremptory tones with which these books have been dismissed by many Protestants. Surely it is not unreasonable to claim that critics who express their opinions so summarily should be conversant with the laws of literary criticism and the methods of historical enquiry, to say nothing of the intrinsic importance of the contents of the books and their place in the development of religious thought. Books that have meant so much in the history of Christendom deserve more than a casual derogatory dismissal at the hands of men who desire to be regarded as fair-minded in judgment and catholic in sympathy.

The Apocryphal books were an integral part of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611, and were included in the Revised Version of 1895. And though the Bible Society prints its Bibles consisting only of the Old and New Testaments, the reasons which originally induced them to decide on that course have long since become obsolete. Bishop Wordsworth pleaded strongly for the retention of the Apocrypha on grounds that have not become less important since: "If you carry a Bible without the Apocryphal books into Greece, Asia and Palestine— that is, into those very countries whence the Gospel derived its origin and language — you would be told that you have not the Bible, but only a mutilated copy of it. The Greek Church would renounce you as guilty of sectarian error, if you presented her with a Bible not containing the Apocryphal books. If you pass over to Italy and France, or to Spain and Portugal, and endeavour to circulate such Bibles among persons who, as we all assert, are in great need of the Scriptures, they will immediately say to you, 'This may be an English Bible, but it is not the Bible of Christendom. It excludes books which the Eastern and Western Churches have never ceased to read from the earliest times to this hour.'" It is a fact that the Bible of the historic churches does include these books. Doubtless there is something anomalous in the hybrid character of the volume; but this anomaly, like most anomalies, is the result of a long historical development.

There is great inequality of merit and of importance in these fourteen books. There is a great gulf between Wisdom on the one hand, with its union of Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion, and the purely Jewish thoughts of Ecclesiasticus on the other, between the vivid historicity of 1 Maccabees and the edifying romanticism of Tobit. But there is as great difference among the Canonical books. And I am incapable of recognising an intelligible principle of literary or religious criticism in the determination to reverence Solomon's Song and Esther, and to disregard Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and 1 Maccabees. It is most true that they date from the decadent period of Israel's national life, and that in freshness and vigour they are far surpassed by the greatest books of the Old Testament, while their spiritual force is incomparably less to us who have nourished our souls on psalms and prophets until their sanctity is enriched and deepened by the religious experiences of a life-time. But I do not hesitate to claim that Ecclesiastes is not the equal of Wisdom, and to assert that amid the heroic chapters of the world's history there are few that can compare for pure patriotism and religious fervour with the story of the Maccabaean struggle as set forth in these neglected books.

George Eliot tells us that Adam Bede was very fond of "the keen-edged words" of Ecclesiasticus, and that he had an added joy in feeling that it might be permitted him to differ, if occasion of difference arose, from one who was but an Apocryphal writer. There is in this incident a hint of a very useful function to be fulfilled by the Apocrypha.

John Bunyan, in his spiritual autobiography, "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners", relates that he was for a long time at once comforted and perplexed by finding great relief from words, for which he vainly sought in the Bible—"Look at the generations of old and see: did ever any trust in the Lord and was confounded?" For more than a year he was unable to find the place of this text, "but at last casting my eyes upon the Apocryphal books I found it in the tenth verse of the second chapter of Ecclesiasticus. This at the first did somewhat daunt me, because it was not in those texts which we call holy or canonical. Yet as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it, and I bless God for the word, for it was good to me. That word doth still oft-times shine before my face."

Finally, and with characteristic discrimination, does Dean Stanley write of these books, "which though denied a place in the Canonical Scriptures, yet shade away from the outskirts of those Scriptures into the Grecian philosophy and poetry, and have been acknowledged by grave theologians and by Protestant churches to be inspired by the same Divine Spirit that breathed, though in fuller tones, through Isaiah or through David." It was in the first age of our religion that it was written, "Every Scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness."

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