Friday, March 18, 2011

OT Apocrypha in the Early Church

The post-apostolic church fathers were well aware of the apocrypha.[1] It is difficult to suggest, however, that their use of these books goes much beyond appreciative awareness or theological agreement. Clement of Rome (c. 90-95) alludes to Sirach and Wisdom, but only cites Wisdom (12.12) once and there is no indication that he is citing the text as authoritative so much as he agrees with the description of God found therein (1 Clem. 27.5). He also makes no distinction between the faithful examples of biblical Esther and nonbiblical Judith (1 Clem. 55.4-6), thus indicating his knowledge and appreciation of the story. When apocryphal texts do appear in the Apostolic Fathers, which is rare, they are similar to what is found in 1 Clement. The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 70-132) is unique in citing 4 Ezra as a “prophet” (Barn. 12.1). Overall, use of the apocrypha is quite limited among second century texts and only the Epistle of Barnabas cites these texts as inspired scripture.

There are two interesting and somewhat opposing examples of canon lists among the early church fathers. First, there was Origen (c. 185-254) who is without a doubt the most important biblical scholar in the early church. He differentiated between canonical books read in public worship from apocryphal writings which were not valued as highly (Comm. in Matt. 10.18, 13.57). Still, according to Eusebius (HE 6.25.1-2), Origen included Epistle of Jeremiah and 1-2 Maccabees in his canonical list. For the most part, however, it seems that Origen followed the typical twenty-two book Jewish canon.

The second important figure for canon definition was Augustine (c. 354-430). He is arguably the most important theologian of the post-apostolic early church. He included Job, Tobit, Esther, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, 1-2 Esdras as well as Wisdom and Sirach in his canonical list (On Christian Doctrine, 2.13). He also accepted additions to Daniel and Esther, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah. Interestingly enough, Augustine recognized that Wisdom and Sirach were contested books but vaguely stated, “they have merited being received as authoritative.” His canonical list was far more inclusive, but did not win the day.

What did it mean for a canon list to “win the day”? Sometimes this process is falsely portrayed as the decision of a few bishops imposing their will on the wider church. In reality, “the church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries acknowledged those books that had already obtained prominence form widespread usage among the various Christian churches in their areas.”[2] The councils recognized the books that the churches were already reading in worship as authoritative scripture. They did not invent a canon but recognized it.

It was not until the protestant Reformation that the value of the apocrypha came under dispute. Because of Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura he was forced to clearly define what counted as “scripture.” His measure of evaluation was rather ambiguously defined as, “what promotes Christ.”[3] He opposed the doctrines of purgatory and prayer for the dead, which he saw in 2 Maccabees 12.44-45. In his German translation of the OT Luther placed the apocrypha in a separate section and described them as, “Books which cannot be reckoned with the canonical books and yet are useful and good for reading.”[4] Eventually, Protestant Bibles excluded the books altogether because they added to publisher’s costs.

In response to Luther’s placement of the apocrypha the Roman Catholic Church officially canonized the apocryphal books at the Council of Trent (1546). It was not that these books were never recognized as important and then added willy-nilly. On the contrary, the church always possessed and valued these books as sacred literature. It was not necessary to formally canonize them until the catholic counter-reformation.

[1] This list of books typically includes: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Additiosn to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manesseh, 1-4 Maccabees, Psalm 151.
[2] Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007) 209.
[3] Daniel J. Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Early Church and Today,” The Canon Debate, eds. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002) 205.
[4] David deSilva, “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) 59.

No comments: