The Books of the Apocrypha: A Survey
The contents of the Apocrypha are, as observed earlier, not definitive, and because they did not originate as a group, their own origins are quite diverse.
1 Esdras, entitled Esdras A in the Greek manuscripts and 3 Ezra/Esdras in the Vulgate (where it appears as an appendix to the New Testament), consists of a version of 2 Chronicles 35–6, Ezra 1–10, and Nehemiah 8: 1–13 . It also includes a major addition ( 3: 1–5: 6 ), a story of three courtiers, one of them Zerubbabel, who wins a contest of wits set by King Darius. The origin of this book is obscure; most scholars think it later than the corresponding biblical books, but it is clearly not a translation of the existing Hebrew text and may well represent an alternative recension of material shared by the canonized Ezra-Nehemiah. It can thus be dated anywhere between the fourth century BCE and first century CE.
2 Esdras is now generally better known as 4 Ezra (its Vulgate designation), since the name 2 Esdras in the old Greek Bibles and the Vulgate denotes the book of Nehemiah. 4 Ezra is not represented in any of the ancient Greek manuscripts, and was written towards the end of the first century CE. It is a composite work, of apocalyptic character, and the original Jewish composition, comprising chapters 3–14 , has been expanded by a Christian introduction and epilogue, in which God turns away from Israel and towards the Gentiles. The original Jewish composition is composed of a series of seven visions given to Salathiel (identified with Ezra), reflecting the recent destruction of Jerusalem and the theological problems posed by this catastrophe for the nature of God and the redemption of the people of Israel. There are also some (varied) speculations about the messianic future.
Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon, is one of the two originally Greek compositions in the Apocrypha, and is generally agreed to have been composed by an Alexandrian Jew, probably in the first century BCE. It claims Solomonic authorship (ch. 7 ), personifies Wisdom as an agent of divine activity in Israel's history as well as the creation of the world, extols the Jewish people, condemns idolatry, and reviles Egyptians, dwelling at length on their defeat at the time of the Exodus. It also accepts a doctrine of resurrection. In all, while displaying some influence of Greek philosophy and rhetoric, it expresses the classic tenets of late Second Temple Judaism (and the aspirations of Alexandrian Jews to full citizen status within the city).
Sirach is also known as ben Sira (but never ben Sirach!), and is a Greek translation by his grandson of a work by a Jerusalem scribe early in the second century BCE. In the early twentieth century a Hebrew text was recovered from the Cairo Genizah and more recently still some fragments in Hebrew, dating to about the first century BCE, were found at Masada. The Vulgate title of the books is Ecclesiasticus (‘church book’), and is not to be confused with Ecclesiastes (which is in the Hebrew Bible).
The book is largely a collection of proverbial sayings and passages of moral instruction, mixing some contemporary wisdom of the Hellenistic age with the traditional ethics of Palestinian Judaism. Its most famous section is the historical review ‘in praise of our ancestors’ (chs. 44–9 ). Ben Sira was a book known and respected also among the rabbis, and given by some of them perhaps an almost, but not quite, scriptural status.
The Additions to Esther are the product of differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts of the book, such that Jerome's Latin translation omitted a good deal of what was previously familiar to Christian readers. Jerome gathered the additional material and placed it at the end. This material was not intended to be read as if it were the proper ending of the book; yet this is often the effect of such a rearrangement. The additions alone make no sense without the rest of the book.
There are six additions in the Greek, which occur right at the beginning (numbered in the Vulgate as chs. 11–12 ); after 3: 13 (numbered in the Vulgate 13: 1–7 ); after 4: 17 (in the Vulgate 13: 8–14: 19 and 15); after 8: 12 (in the Vulgate ch. 16 ), and at the end, after 10:3 (in the Vulgate 10: 4–11: 1 ). These additions respectively narrate Mordecai's dream and his service to the king (only alluded to in the Hebrew version); provide the text of the king's decree to exterminate the Jews; contain Mordecai's prayer; expand Esther's confrontation with the king; give the text of the second royal decree; and narrate the fulfilment of Mordecai's dream. Overall, the Greek version enhances divine participation in the story (entirely absent in the Hebrew) and glorifies further the figures of Esther and Mordecai. The content of the Additions to Esther (or some) was known to Josephus in the first century CE and so represents an early version of the book known to many Jews.
Judith is explicitly set in the Assyrian period, though many details belong to the Persian era, and Nebuchadnezzar is depicted as the Assyrian king! The story tells how this king wished to rule the world, but the inhabitants of Syria and Palestine would not accept his rule, and were thus invaded by the general Holofernes. Although warned by a non-Jew, Achior, not to besiege the Israelite city of Bethulia, Holofernes does so. Judith, a pious widow resident in the city, appears only halfway through the book. She rescues the situation by taking herself into the enemy camp, engineering a romantic meeting with the general, and beheading him before escaping to her city. Thus the siege is abandoned, Achior converts to the God of Israel, and Judith reverts to her role, releasing her slave into freedom before her death. In its celebration of a female warrior, the story is reminiscent of Judges 4 and 5, and it may well have been written in, or just after, the period of Seleucid persecution in the mid-second century BCE.
Tobit, like Judith, is set in the Assyrian period. The hero, an exceptionally pious Jew, had been punished by the king for burying a corpse in contravention of a royal decree, but was later reinstated. However, after burying yet another corpse, Tobit is blinded by bird-droppings. With the prompting of Raphael, an angel disguised as a human being, Tobit's son Tobias goes to Media to seek money left by Tobit there, and on the way hooks a fish that will later heal his father's blindness. On arrival in Ecbatana, Raphael suggests that Tobias marries Sarah, a relative of Tobias who has already lost seven bridegrooms on her wedding night to Asmodeus, a demon. On their wedding night, Tobias burns the fish's entrails and repels the demon as far as Egypt, where Raphael binds him. After much celebration, the married couple return to Nineveh and Tobias heals his father's blindness with the fish gall. Raphael discloses his identity, explains his mission, and bids Tobias and Tobit to write down the story for the instruction of others. Tobit composes a hymn of thanksgiving in which the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Temple are anticipated. Later, on his deathbed, Tobit remembers the prophecies against Nineveh and tells his son to take his family elsewhere.
The story is a mixture of romance, didactic instruction, and court-tale, inter-twining folk-themes and the vicissitudes of a pious hero with the exile of Israel and its future liberation. It was certainly inspired by an older and very popular tale of Ahiqar, a courtier of Sennacherib, who is mentioned in the book as Tobit's nephew. Tobit exists in a shorter and a longer version; the shorter is preserved in Vaticanus and the longer in Sinaiticus; the King James version reproduces the former and the New English Bible the latter. Jerome translated it into Latin from an Aramaic manuscript that he said he had before him, and fragments of several manuscripts of Tobit (in Hebrew and Aramaic) have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting a time of composition in the third or early second century BCE.
Together with the canonical Lamentations and the apocryphal Epistle of Jeremiah, Baruch comprises an addition, or supplement, to the book of Jeremiah. Baruch contains three psalms or poems, probably originally independent of each other, prefaced by an introduction that claims as their author Baruch, the scribe of Jeremiah. These are dated to five years after the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and are said to have been read out to the king and the people in Babylonia (perhaps an idea inspired by Jer. 36 ). In response, the people fast and send the Temple vessels back to Jerusalem, with money for offerings on the altar.
The first of the three pieces is a psalm of repentance in two parts. It begins by remembering the continual sins of the people and acknowledges their righteous punishment. Its second part asks for forgiveness and restoration. The second psalm is a hymn in praise of divine wisdom and the third is a song of exhortation, calling on the Israelites to endure their exile and be comforted. This last psalm, apparently addressed by Baruch to Jerusalem, is full of scriptural allusions, notably to Isaiah 40–55 .
The dating of this work is extremely difficult; the exilic theme may point to a period of distress, such as the second century BCE or even the first century CE; but such a conclusion is not at all certain.
The Epistle of Jeremiah, often incorporated within Baruch as its last chapter, already recognized by Jerome (in his Commentary on Jeremiah) as a ‘pseudepigraph’, is probably inspired by the letter in Jeremiah 29 to the exiled Judaeans in Babylonia. This later apocryphon represents itself as an earlier letter, written before their departure, and its entire theme is a warning against idolatry. Like Daniel 9 , it also multiplies Jeremiah's prediction of 70 years of exile by anticipating an exile of ‘up to seven generations’, though this is probably no hint for a calculation of when the work was written. The invective against idolatry is such a common theme that it cannot help establish date or provenance, either.
The Additions to Daniel represent additional material in the Greek edition of the book—of which more than one ancient version has been preserved. But both translations contain (a) a prayer and a song performed while the three youths are in the furnace (inserted in ch. 3 ); (b) the story of Susanna, and (c) the story of Bel and the Dragon (or Snake).
Susanna was placed at the beginning of Daniel in the Greek and the Old Latin Old Testament, but Jerome moved it to the end; Bel and the Dragon has always been the very last part. The ‘Prayer of Azariah’ and ‘Song of the Three Youths’ are generally thought to have been translated from Hebrew or Aramaic originals, but were hardly composed for this setting, and must have been taken from elsewhere. The original language of Susanna has always been disputed, even in Jerome's day (as he notes in his Commentary on Daniel). Whether it was originally connected with Daniel is also uncertain. The same is true of the story (or stories) of Bel and the Dragon, which probably featured another hero who has later been identified as Daniel.
The first of these additions comprises two liturgical pieces as well as a narrative framework. A brief opening narrative link, in which the heroes walk about in the fire, precedes the Prayer of Azariah (= Abed-nego), one of the youths. Like Daniel 9 , this is a prayer of confession for the sins of Israel, expressing loyalty and asking for deliverance. It is followed by an account of how the furnace flames are stoked, and consume those nearby, after which an angel comes to join the youths. Then comes a hymn of praise of the three youths, each line beginning with the word ‘bless’ or ‘blessed’, celebrating for the most part the divine acts of creation, though it ends with thanks for the deliverance of the three men from persecution. The motive for the insertion of the prayer and hymn into the story may have been to stress the value of prayer and thanksgiving in times of persecution, possibly to counteract the impression in the book of Daniel that the events of history are determined by God without human intervention.
Both Susanna and Bel and the Dragon have the flavour of detective fiction: Susanna, who lives in Babylon, is a pious young married woman falsely accused of adultery by lewd elders. By revealing discrepancies in each elder's testimony, the young Daniel exposes their falsehood and they are executed.
Bel and the Dragon comprises two stories, both about the stupidity of idolatry. In the first, King Cyrus is induced to worship the god Bel (= Baal) because the god appears to consume food and wine left for him every day. By having ashes strewn over the floor of the temple, Daniel proves to the king that the priests and their families return and eat the food themselves. In the second story, a huge dragon or snake is worshipped as a god, which Daniel kills by stuffing cakes of tar, fat, and hair into its mouth. In the aftermath, Daniel is put into a lions' den. There he is visited by the prophet Habakkuk (transported to him by an angel) and eventually Daniel is released unharmed.
Of the four books of Maccabees, the first two are clearly in the Apocrypha, and in the Roman Catholic Old Testament. The status of the third and fourth is ambiguous. All four are included in Alexandrinus and 1 Maccabees in Sinaiticus (none in Vaticanus), but only the first two were canonized at Trent and 3 and 4 Maccabees are not included in the Protestant Apocrypha. Generally agreed to have been composed in Hebrew, 1 Maccabees is an account of the origins of the proscription of the Jewish religion by Antiochus and an account of the deliverance brought about through a divinely chosen family/dynasty (the work is strongly pro-Hasmonaean). It was clearly an authoritative source in antiquity, and used by Josephus (War and Antiquities). However, 2 Maccabees is clearly a Greek composition, written in Alexandria, assuming the form of a letter written to establish the celebration of Hanukkah, and dwelling on the persecutions of Jewish martyrs, especially an old man called Eleazar and seven brothers, urged on by their mother. The moral of the story is less the salvation of the Jews historically than the resurrection and glorification of the martyr. Probably also written in Alexandria, 3 Maccabees is not about the Maccabees at all, but takes place in Egypt, under King Ptolemy IV, though it borrows themes from 1 and 2 Maccabees: a foiled attempt to enter the Temple, a righteous Jew called Eleazar, elephants, persecution of Jews, and angelic intervention. It ends (as do most chapters of Daniel) with a change of mind by the king. Clearly a development of 2 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees deals at even greater length with the exemplary behaviour of martyrs, though its purpose is also to demonstrate the great virtue that obedience to the Jewish law brings.
The Prayer of Manasses is represented in ancient Greek Bibles only by Alexandrinus, and then as part of an addendum to the psalms. The Council of Trent did not canonize it, and some Protestant Bibles omit it. But in the Vulgate manuscripts it became attached to the end of 2 Chronicles. It is inspired by the account in 2 Chronicles 33 that this wicked king was taken to Babylon and ‘sought the favour of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers’. A prayer of Manasseh is also mentioned in the pseudepigraphical work 2 Baruch (64–5) and a manuscript fragment from Qumran Cave 4 contains a ‘Prayer of Manasseh, king of Judah, when the king of Assyria imprisoned him’. But it is a different text from the Greek prayer. Following the traditional form of such a prayer, it confesses sin, exalts God's power and mercy, asks forgiveness, and praises God in anticipation of a favourable response.