The Importance of the Septuagint (The Apocrypha) Part II

The Importance of the Septuagint (The Apocrypha) Part II August 2, 2013

In the last post, I talked a bit about the importance and legacy of the LXX. Here I would like to talk about the Apocrypha, which is included within the LXX.

Disclaimer: it is a bit misleading to talk about “the Septuagint.” Someone once wrote that to refer to the Septuagint is like referring to the English Bible. Just as with the English Bible, the Septuagint (as a term) represents a variety of text traditions with a long and winding history. The same goes with the Apocrypha. Which texts make up the Apocrypha? Again, while there are variant collections, there is a central set of texts (Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Epistle of Jeremiah, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, etc…) and peripheral texts that appear in fewer collections (4 Maccabees, Odes, etc…). Still, I think we can refer to the Apocrypha generally for convenience.

The books of the Apocrypha are post-exilic compositions. The Septuagint (as a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Pentateuch) was written to meet the needs of Hellenistic Jews who desired the sacred texts in the common language of the time. But why was the Apocrypha included in the LXX?

To be quite frank, we don’t know. Perhaps it was added, not because Jews considered it on par with the Pentateuch, but because it was instructive. It nurtured Jewish identity and piety. However, there was no official notation of this in the Septuagint. Nevertheless, we do not see Jews of the second temple period appealing to the Apocryphal texts explicitly (as Scripture), though they sometimes show knowledge of it.  Also, Josephus (Ant. 8.159) makes reference to “books of our own country” as a source of reference for his historical material. Perhaps he refers to the Apocrypha (perhaps other Jewish writings).

The situation regarding the status of the Apocrypha is similarly unclear for the earliest Christians. The NT writers do not quote the Apocrypha explicitly, despite the fact that they did treat the Septuagint as Scripture. Did the NT writers allude to or draw from the Apocrypha? There is ample evidence to show that Jesus, Paul, James, and others certainly were acquainted with the Apocrypha and probably positively influenced by texts like Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.

Interestingly, the Patristic theologians seemed to have a high respect for the Apocrypha. 1 Clement quotes Wisdom of Solomon, and so does the Epistle of Barnabas. Tobit was cited by Polycarp, and Hippolytus included discussion of the Apocryphal  “Additions to Daniel” in his commentary on Daniel. According to Martin Goodman, “These citations generally treated the text of the Apocrypha as inspired like the rest of Scripture.” Goodman mentions that the Muratorian Canon includes Wisdom of Solomon (though with a caveat). [see OUP’s The Apocrypha; Goodman wrote the very insightful introduction, pp. 1-12].

So, we know that the Apocrypha commanded great respect in the Church for many centuries. Even Jerome, though he challenged the preeminence of the Septuagint, included these works in the Vulgate. But Daniel Harrington sums up well Jerome’s attitude: “Even though he quoted from them and praised their content, he did not regard them as part of the canon and argued they should not be used in establishing doctrine” (Invitation to the Septuagint, 5). But Jerome’s delineation and demotion of the Apocrypha was not indicative of the attitude of the wider Church. Until the Protestant Reformation.

This is where Sola Scriptura comes in. When Luther and the later Reformers pondered the nature and limits of Scripture, the authority of the Apocrypha was reconsidered. Luther himself did include the Apocrypha in an appendix in his German translation of the Bible. He encouraged its use in worship, but felt that it should not be a basis for the development of doctrine.

In response, the 1546 Council of Trent reaffirmed the Apocrypha. Protestant Reformers fell across the spectrum on their treatment of the Apocrypha. Not long after Trent, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer included readings from the Apocrypha. The Puritans, though, rejected these texts completely. For many Protestant Christians today, especially evangelicals, the Apocrypha are treated as uninspired and uninspiring “rejected” texts. When I tell my students that they are going to learn about the Apocrypha, some express fear (as if it will transfer cooties to them), others excitement (as if I were promising to bring the Iron Curtain down), but most appreciate the opportunity to address their ignorance on the subject.

There is one scholar today who has taken it upon himself to promote interest in the Apocrypha amongst Christians: David deSilva (Ashland Theological Seminary). deSilva does not simply want Christians to read the Apocrypha to learn more about Jewish history and genres (though he mentions these benefits). He encourages interest in the Apocrypha as tools for spiritual growth.

[T]he Apocrypha are rich in devotional insights, ethical admonition, and spiritually formative guidance–to such an extent that the majority of the world’s Christians include them among their inspired Scriptures. The apocryphal books teach about repentance and humility before God; they give insights into the spiritual and practical disciplines required to achieve breakthroughs in personal transformation; they teach about the importance of keeping our focus on the life of eternity with God for the preservation of a life of ethical integrity. Because many of these texts were born from the struggle to discover and nurture the way of faithfulness in the midst of significant challenges, they remain devotional literature of the highest order–devotional literature that has stood the test of time and has been repeatedly affirmed by the reading practices of Catholic and Orthodox communions. Even if Protestants do not turn to these texts as sources for theological reflection, the Apocrypha can be valued as worthy and serious conversation partners in the quest for theological truth, wrestling quite openly as they do with questions of perpetual interest. (The Apocrypha, Abingdon, 2013, xiii).

I am probably not as passionate about this as deSilva, though I too try to cure evangelicals of the fear they have of the Apocrypha. Not only are they not dangerous, they are good for you!

In a wonderful article entitled “Never Without A Witness: The Apocrypha and Spiritual Formation” (Ashland Theological Journal 2006), deSilva argues that, even if we treat the Apocrypha as flawed or imperfect, we should at least afford to them  the same value that we do modern books related to Christian devotion and discipleship. So deSilva cogently and elegantly writes:

There is no doubt that the works of Max Lucado or Rick Warren represent the finest devotional fruit that blossoms on the tree that is the church, and many are nourished and delighted by this fruit. But the authors of the Apocrypha are located deeper down among the roots of that tree. The apostles themselves drew their nourishment from these roots as the tree began to sprout when it was but a young sapling. In the most formative centuries of our faith, Christian teachers mined these books as rich treasure troves on the life lived with God, and the life of responding to God. The whole tree has continued to be nourished by them, even though some of its branches do not seem to know it. (p. 77).

But, and here is the million-dollar question – are they “inspired?” Did God imbue these texts with his own unique authority? That is an extremely onerous question, but I like to share with my students a helpful (though complex) quote from Ross Wagner:

[John] Webster’s appeal to God’s gracious and sovereign superintendence of Holy Scripture ‘from pre-textual tradition to interpretation’ bears close affinities, of course, to the theological justifications offered by Origen and Augustine for the role of the Septuagint as a norm for Christian practice and belief. It is because of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the translation, canonization, and reception of the Christian Bible that we are enabled to hear in the Septuagint, too, ‘the terrifying mercy of God’s address.’ (“The Septuagint and the ‘Search for the Christian Bible'” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, pg. 28)
There is a lot of back-history of discussion packed into this quote from Wagner, but the bottom line is this: would God breathe his Spirit into only the original Hebrew Old Testament, and not to the Septuagint which was widely used and learned from by Jews of the Hellenistic period and beyond? Does God’s Spirit not also work and prompt and “inspire” past the text itself and into the actual interpretation of Scripture (which, undoubtedly includes the Septuagint)? The questions come easy; the answers do not.
The last post in the series will offer some suggestions for further reading on the Septuagint and the Apocrypha.

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