Composition of the Intertestamental Jewish Apocrypha Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Noncanonical Jewish religious writings composed in the three centuries before the emergence of the New Testament provided early Christians with a sense of continuity between Judaism and Christianity.

Summary of Event

Between 200 b.c.e. and 100 c.e., many Jewish religious writings appeared in Palestine that were destined not only to remain outside the canon but also to be completely ignored by normative Judaism by the end of the first century in the common era. When the Synod of Jamnia closed the canon, Jewish religious thought preferred to find expression in the development of oral tradition and in rabbinical literature, rather than in the expansion of Scripture per se. To a Judaism already demoralized by the fall of Jerusalem, a closed canon precluded any adulteration of the word of God by contemporary books of dubious message and provenance, especially those of Christian origin clamoring for recognition. The decision that “no one should read” in more than the twenty-four recognized books led, it appears, to the deliberate destruction of the Aramaic and Hebrew manuscripts of extracanonical writings.

These noncanonical compositions have been conventionally divided into two categories: the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. The former, so-called outside books, always enjoyed a privileged position. Although they failed to achieve canonicity among Palestinian Jews, they were accepted by the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria. The long-term preservation of these Greek manuscripts, however, is due to Christians who found in the apocryphal literature, without need of any adulterating interpolations on their part, a ready-made bridge between the Old and New Testaments. These writings provided in Christian eyes the evidence for continuity of doctrinal development in the intertestamental period, making the transition to Christianity gradual and logical.

The Apocrypha is made up of Tobit, Judith, parts of Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), 1 Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, three additions to Daniel (the prayer of Azariah and the Song of the three children; Susanna; and Bel and the Dragon), 1 and 2 Maccabees, 1 and 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasses. It represents a variety of literary composition: history, poetry, apocalyptic writing, wisdom literature, and simple narrative.

There seem to be allusions to the apocryphal literature by authors of the New Testament: by Paul to the Wisdom of Solomon and possibly by James to the proverbs of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. However, these books as a group came to be recognized by the Church in the West only gradually. The Muratorian Canon of Rome (c. 180 c.e.), for instance, accepts the Wisdom of Solomon as canonical. Early synods, such as those of Hippo (393 c.e.) and Carthage (397 c.e.), and Athanasius’s Festal Letter (365 c.e.), held the Apocrypha as a privileged set of books, but Saint Augustine (354-430 c.e.), who considered the Greek Alexandrian canon a divine improvement over the Hebrew list of books and, therefore, quoted the Apocrypha probably more than any other Church Father, practically guaranteed its incorporation in the Vulgate. When the Council of Trent (1546), confirmed by Vatican I (1870), declared the Apocrypha canonical (with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses), it attempted to determine the canon finally in the face of Reformation criticism. Probably the most important book for the Roman Church was 2 Maccabees with its strong note of angelology, prayers for the dead, intercession of saints, resurrection of the bodies of the righteous, and justification of the miraculous in general.

The second set of extracanonical writings is the corpus of the so-called Pseudepigrapha, books whose authorship was deliberately but falsely ascribed to ancient authorities. Once the idea of the inspired law came to dominate the religious scene in post-Exilic Judaism, it was no longer necessary for a prophet or a representative of God to appear, except possibly as an occasional judge choosing between different factions. Writers who preferred to avoid repeating old shibboleths, or who hoped to challenge orthodoxy by suggesting new ideas or by advancing the mystic at the expense of the legal, or who wished to offer hope to oppressed Jews with new stirring apocalypses, chose to write anonymously after 200 b.c.e. and to ascribe their messages to great patriarchs of the past.

Among the many books of the Pseudepigrapha, a few deserve mention because of their importance for Christianity. The Book of Jubilees, while reflecting a strong note of legalism, emphasizes the immediate advent of the Messianic kingdom from Judaea heralded by a great ethical and physical transformation when people will live for a thousand years and find eventual immortality in the spiritual world. The famous Book of Enoch, a composite work in time and authorship, by airing conflicting views of the Messiah, the kingdom, sin, final judgment, resurrection, future life, and angelology, faithfully records the ferment of Jewish thought on these matters in the intertestamental period. Both Jude and 2 Peter seem to know Enoch well. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs exercised a great influence on the writers of the New Testament in the area of ethics. The Assumption of Moses, which Origen says the author of Jude used, was contemporaneous with Jesus; it stressed opposition to any alliance of religion and politics. The Apocalypse of Baruch (2) finds many parallels in the New Testament, concerned as it is with the relationship of the fall and free will, works and justification, the Messianic kingdom, and resurrection of the dead. There are still others (the Jewish Sybilline Oracles, the Psalms of Solomon, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse of Elijah), which 1 Corinthians especially seems to use.

Significance

Without knowledge of these extracanonical books, the transition from Judaism to Christianity is largely unintelligible. After Saint Augustine more or less assured the acceptance of canonical status for these books, they rested secure until the fourteenth century, when the Latin canon was again compared to the shorter old Hebrew Bible. Martin Luther (2483-1546) was led by his studies to isolate the Apocrypha at the end of the Bible; it was to be read by those interested in a “knowledge of history” and in instruction in godly manners but not for the purpose of eliciting any systematic theology. Although all the Reformers again put these books on a secondary list as generally superfluous, Luther considered a few of them to be superior to some regularly accepted sections of the Latin Bible as, for example, the Epistle of James. His grouping was accepted into the English Bible of 1535 and in succeeding revisions including the King James Version of 1611.

However, when opposition to these books even as a secondary corpus began to mount in England, thanks to the Puritans, the Archbishop of Canterbury felt obliged to impose a one-year prison sentence on any publisher who printed the Bible without the Apocrypha. Although an edition did appear without the addition in 1629, opposition increased after the turn of the century, the result in large part of the work of the famous English scholar John Lightfoot (1602-1675), who helped Brian Walton (1600-1661) produce the Polyglot Bible in 1657. The Puritans brought their objections to America, and by 1827 both British and American Bible societies, dependent on funds supplied by churches and individuals hostile to the Apocrypha, stopped including the corpus in their editions. The reputation of the disputed books declined still further until J. Goodspeed and others finally rescued the Apocrypha in the 1930’s from neglect by issuing excellent translations and interpretations.

The position of the Greek Orthodox Church was never made clear by any authoritative decision, although it tends to follow Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373 c.e.) and the Council of Trent (1545). Roman Catholics accept twelve of the fifteen books, while Jews and Protestants reject them all. The Apocrypha nonetheless had a long and pervasive influence on literature and art. Explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was encouraged to undertake his voyage by a passage in 2 Esdras; English writer John Bunyan (1628-1688) found new life through a passage in Ecclesiasticus; diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was inspired by Tobit; and such great writers as Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) were significantly influenced by the apocryphal writings.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983. A collection of sixty-five Pseudepigraphic texts, translated by an international team of scholars, along with commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Desilva, David Arthur. Introducing Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2002. A review of current scholarship and theory on the Apocrypha, written in accessible language for the nonspecialist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and Truth in the Early Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Presents an overview of the proliferation of religious texts, Christian and Jewish, that were created in the first centuries c.e. Well researched and lucid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrman, Bart D., ed. Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Become the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press. A companion to Lost Christianities provides the translated texts of the apocryphal scriptures discussed in that book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nickelsburg, George. Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah. 1981. Reprint. Fortress Press, 2003. A thorough introduction to the Jewish intertestamental literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, and R. M. Wilson, eds. New Testament Apocrypha. Rev. ed. 2 vols. 1991. Reprint. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 2003. A translation, with commentary, of the Apocrypha.
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