The Bible - the Director's Cut

This was originally published for the Anglican journal Forward in Christ

The Bible - The Director’s Cut
          There are a group of books of the Bible with an image problem.  It is as if some budget conscious movie editor kept cutting for the right length and content, leaving the scraps on the cutting room floor.  Then along comes the offended director, collecting each scrap together, compiling them for the curious, calling it the “director’s cut” for rabid fans.  These extra books are commonly known as the Apocrypha, and while not considered canonical by many Christians they are profitable and should not be ignored.  

            Many Bibles today do not have these books, and the ones that do have placed them in an appendix between the Testaments.  The English Bible Tradition originally contained these books, and from 1549 onwards the lectionary attached to the Book of Common Prayer contained lessons from them.  Also, the 1611 King James Bible contained the books, and only later due to Bible demand and publishing costs were the books left in the editor’s office.  

            Not only do historical events cause us to ignore these books, the name of the books themselves create an air of mysterious, arcane, and forbidden knowledge.  They are Apocrypha--the hidden book--the portion of a past swept under the rug.  You have to be a bit of a rebel to enter these pages, and what self-respecting well-scrubed Bible believer wants that brand.  Not only is Apocrypha an odd label, their other label, Deutero-canonical, is a mouthful and sounds so academic it might require a PhD and the knowledge of multiple ancient near-eastern languages to decipher the contents.  The Greeks have coined another term that is more tongue-numbing, anagignoskomena, but the English translation “the readables” sounds much more agreeable, inviting the common Christian to enter these texts with an expectation of profit.  

            Profit is the stand we should take towards these texts, and we would be in good company.  St. Athanasius recommended the reading of these books to catechumens and the newly illumined, for the reading encouraged a life of Christian heroism, a life of virtues in the face of sacrifice.  This is my argument and exhortation, beyond the question of canonicity, these books are profitable, profitable because they are practical, they are entertaining, they deepen our reading of the New Testament, and ultimately they reveal Christ.  

            Practicality can be a dangerous yardstick, and is often an excuse given by those who do not read Scripture.  By practical, I mean writing that can be readily applied to life without penetrating layers of interpretation.  Much of the New Testament fits this bill and within the Old Testament Proverbs is perfect example.  This is not to suggest that the Pentateuch or the Prophets lack application, they don’t, but it takes work on the part of the reader.  The Wisdom of Sirach, or Ecclesiaticus, is immensely practical, perhaps more than Proverbs due to its length.  Sirach is a collection of classroom notes from a famed Jewish Rabbi in the 2nd Century BC.  Like other Wisdom literature, it is the practical application of the Torah into daily life.  Much of the text feels contemporary, and the timelessness of its wisdom forces us to re-examine our own behavior.  For example, Sirach 2:1-6 teaches: 

“My son, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for temptation. 2 Set your heart aright and constantly endure and make not haste in time of trouble. 3 Cleave to him and depart not away, that you may be increased at your last end. 4 Whatsoever is brought upon you take cheerfully and be patient when you are changed to a low estate. 5 For gold is tried in the fire and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity. 6 Believe in him, He will help you; order your way aright and trust in him.”

This is great advice for all who choose to carry the cross of Christ, and a great antidote to the health and wealth materialism infecting the American Christian landscape.  This is but a sample, within this book alone there is advice on leadership, marital life, finances, work, friendship, and parenting. 

            Tobit, another book, but in a different genre, tells the story of a father and son seeking to live out their faith through tremendous strife.  Application is not far removed from this story.  The father gives constant admonitions and the three integral virtues, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, appear again and again in Tobit’s exhortations and life.

            Entertainment was another element of profitability I mentioned, and this may seem strange.  Yet engaging stories have the ability to help us transcend ourselves into the lives of others, experiencing their own struggles, and hopefully imbibing their virtue.  The stories of the various Maccabean books are such stories.  Early Christians embraced these books readily as reading material, because of the examples of faithful self-sacrifice which they were endured at the hands of the Roman state.  Reading of old men rising up in faith against oppression, of a widow suffering through the martyrdom of her children, of virtuous believers crying out to God for salvation in the face of certain doom is as compelling as any action-packed bestseller.  

            Judith, Tobit, and the Maccabees may be page-turners, but they lift the heart to new heights.  These men and women face such tribulation yet they rise above it all through faith in God.  Their testimony enlivens the heart, forcing us to our knees in confession of our own weakened Christianity, a Christianity that knows little of sacrifice beyond the segments of expendable time we offer most weekends.  What is disguised as entertainment has the ability to inspire our life into new territory, and sacrificial living.  

            As absorbing as many of the books can be, their nearness in chronology to the New Testament helps us understand the world where Jesus lived.  The political climate comes into greater clarity after understanding the Maccabean story, a story of a remnant of God’s people throwing off the oppression of the Greek empire, creating for a period of time a restored dynasty, recalling the glory days of King David and Solomon.  No doubt these days of glory were highly expected under the Roman yoke as well, and Jesus fit the profile of a man who could rise up and bring down the pagan kingdom for the establishment of a new, and perhaps, eternal, Jewish empire.  On His entry into Jerusalem, the people waved palm branches,  a symbol of patriotism coming from the Maccabees.  The palms expressed victory and freedom, and an expectation of deliverance, but this is lost on us if we have skipped the stories in our study of the Bible. 

Thoughts and hopes of resurrection were also commonplace among Jews during the time of the Apocrypha.  It was this teaching that helped many Pharisees and commoner embrace the teachings of Jesus, and prepared them for His own Resurrection from the dead, becoming the first fruit of a new humanity, giving hope for all.  In the book of 2 Maccabees, an elderly widowed mother watches her sons become martyrs, enduring each death as a stake to her own heart; yet she cries out to them in encouragement and with the hope of resurrection: “Therefore the Creator of the world, who formed man in the beginning and devised the origin of all things, will give both breath and life back to you again in His mercy…Don not fear this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, that in God’s mercy I may receive you back again with your brothers (2 Mac 7:23,29).” 

Much of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount can be found in the Apocrypha, helping us realize the Jews listening to the words of Christ were familiar with these teachings, the difference was He appeared as the personification of the tradition of the Wisdom of the Torah.  St. Paul and St. James seem to be affected by the Apocrypha as well and within the school of teaching coming from these books.  This should be no surprise to us given Paul’s Pharisaical background, with their belief in the Resurrection is common to all of the “Readables”. 

Understanding the life and times of Jesus and the apostles is important, but the revelation of Christ Himself in these pages is their supreme accomplishment and profit.   In the small book of Baruch, there is a prophecy of God becoming man and walking among his people:  “This is our God; no other shall be compared to Him.  He found the whole way of knowledge and gave it to Jacob…afterwards, He was seen upon the earth and lived among men (Baruch 3:36).”  In the middle of 1 Ezra, a contest erupts over the what is greatest upon the earth, emerging from the king’s court is the Jew Zerubbabel, who wins the contest by proclaiming Truth is supreme.  This is not intellectual Truth, but Truth personified, Truth Zerubbabel identifies with the person of God, for whom we know as the God-man Jesus Christ. 

These passages above are more apparent pictures of Christ, but images abound in the characters of these stories:  Judith sacrifices herself for her village, her sacrifice allows her to behead the enemy; Tobias enters the death-filled bridal chamber, defeating a demon, coming forth the next morning to the joy of the bride’s family;  Susanna is falsely accused of scandal, condemned to death, only to be resurrected by the wisdom of young Daniel.  The types reveal Christ, and the drama of His life, death, and resurrection play out again and again, reminding us this is a cycle of grace, a play sancitifying the actors courageous enough to embrace such a role. 
           Today, book stores dedicate their shelves to inspirational retelling of Christian tales, practical steps designed to apply Biblical teaching, theological tomes designed to deepen our knowledge of Christ, yet this has been done for us in these under-used texts called Apocrypha.  When the urge to gather inspiration from the newest Christian biography strikes pick up Tobit; if steps to the successful Christian life is desired delve into Sirach; and when escape into a thrilling adventure is needed curl up with Judith or the Maccabees.  Beyond these concerns, our Savior, the Alpha and Omega, the Logos, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world is present on the pages of the Apocrypha proclaimed in prophecy, clarified in proverb, and wrapped in images, like grave clothes ready to burst with resurrected glory. 

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