Apocrypha 103: Further Thoughts

In the past two posts, I have briefly explained what the Apocrypha is and how it came to be. I have also looked at some of what is in it in very broad strokes. Today I want to finish that overview. For readers who desire to learn more about this neglected portion of our Scriptures, I recommend the introduction found in the Oxford Annotated Study Bible (RSV). It gives a good overview of not only the history of the Apocrypha, but the history of its influence as well.

There are two things that most seem to deter Protestants from the Apocrypha. The first is the vague knowledge that somewhere within its pages lies purgatory. The second is its challenge to some evangelical theories of inspiration.

Purgatory is the Roman Catholic doctrine of an intermediate state between this life and heaven. The main passage given as evidence for this doctrine is found in 2 Maccabees.

On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

2 Maccabees 12:39-45 (RSV)

Clearly, elements of the doctrine can be seen. Prayers are offered for the dead and offerings are made on their behalf. Perhaps this may even give a bit of insight into Paul’s off-handed reference to being baptized on behalf of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29. I don’t intend to explore the entire doctrine of purgatory here, but now you know from which it sprung.

This leads into the second issue. If the Apocrypha contains such things as support for Purgatory, can it be trusted? There is also a lack of prophetic character in the Apocrypha, and the prophetic phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” is not found within it. So how do we place the Apocrypha within our theories of inspiration and authority?

The fundamental question to address in tackling this question is, “Can a writing be useful/edifying/instructive without being inerrant/perfect/literally interpreted?” If your answer is firmly “no” then the Apocrypha is of no consequence and it may be discarded without loss. Unfortunately, such an answer also means that the believer may find instruction in nothing outside of Scripture. If you throw out the Apocrypha, you might as well clean off your bookshelf—no Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, or Lewis—because clearly none of these men wrote with the authority of the prophets and Apostles either.

If your answer is less firmly negative, then the Apocrypha may find a place within your faith and practice. What that place will be depends on how much authority you are willing to give to these books. Catholics see them as part of the canon. Anglicans see them in a sense as stepchildren to the canon, as we saw in a previous post. I think somewhere within this spectrum lies a proper place.

To discard that which was accepted (at least to some degree) for most of the church’s history because we don’t agree with a doctrine that may arise from it is a tenuous position. How is it any different than those who today would excise or ignore passages of Scripture that oppose their desire to normalize homosexuality within the church? Finding a solid and functional position on how we view Scripture is not easy, but the Apocrypha “problem” may help in working toward such a position.†


† For those wishing to dig deeper into this issue, I recommend two books that did much to challenge and shape my thinking on this matter. The challenger is by Christian Smith: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Brazos Press, 2012, 256pp. The shaper is by John Barton: Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon of Early Christianity, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 224pp.

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