February 3rd, 2008


Fun with Apocrypha

It's Superbowl Sunday, and here I am talking about the Bible. Of course, I also profaned the Lord's day by going to work and not to church, but hey. Anyway, today I'm addressing the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books that were left out of the Tanakh and Protestant Bibles, but included in either the Catholic or Orthodox Bibles (or, in some cases, both).

Tobit - I didn't know anything about this book prior to today, which is described in the annotated Bible I have as being about "the vindication of God's justice." It's also about the angel Raphael (who, from what I've heard, is cool but crude) teaching someone how to drive off the demon Asmodeus using fish innards. I find 4:12, in which Tobit tells his son Tobias to marry another Jew, to be somewhat interesting. Tobit says, "Remember, my son, that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our ancestors of old, all took wives from among their kindred." According to Genesis, Abraham actually married his half-sister, and Isaac and Jacob their cousins. There's no identification of Noah's wife, however (and no, she wasn't Joan of Arc {g}). I wonder if there was a tradition about her identity at the time Tobit was written.

Judith - There's a famous painting by Gustav Klimt of Judith holding the head of Holofernes, which hung on the wall of one of the common rooms of my old dorm. Because both that and another picture in the room included bare nipples, some of my classmates called it the "Nipple Lounge." Perhaps it says something about college students that they took more notice of boobies than of the severed head. Anyway, I remember hearing from someone that Judith and Holofernes came from a Bible story, but I'd never heard of it, probably because it isn't in Protestant Bibles. I'm not sure why, although the historical inaccuracy might have something to do with it. A lot of Biblical books are of doubtful historicity (Genesis, anyone?), but Judith has Nebuchadnezzar ruling Assyria from Nineveh, and planning to attack a post-exile Judea. In modern terms, this would be sort of like, say, a book where Abraham Lincoln is President of the Confederacy during World War I. In light of the misogyny that permeates much of the Bible, however, it's nice to see a book starring a badass woman. Judith is sort of a more proactive version of Jael (who, for those of you who don't feel like looking it up, was the woman who killed a Canaanite general with a tent peg back in the time of the Judges).

Wisdom of Solomon - Nothing much new here. There's more personification of Wisdom as in Proverbs, more bashing of idol worship, and some reiteration of stories from the Torah. There's a little bit about the judgment of the dead, which is mentioned in Daniel, and would become more prominent in Christian belief.

Sirach - Also known as Ecclesiasticus in the Vulgate. rockinlibrarian, is it possible that this was the book you were thinking of when you said that some Bibles don't include the similarly-named Ecclesiastes? I would imagine that Christian Scientists aren't too keen on this book either, since it says that medicine is a good thing. It's a long book, full of advice on everything from humility to proper table manners. It gives the standard instructions about providing for the poor, but also discourages parents from playing with their children, reinforces that a woman's place is in the home, and says there's nothing wrong with beating slaves. And then there's this useful advice from 31:21: "If you are overstuffed with food, get up to vomit, and you will have relief."

Baruch and The Letter of Jeremiah - Associated with the prophet Jeremiah, but probably written much later than the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, there really isn't too much worth noting in these books (which are sometimes combined into one book), aside from a brief mention of cannibalism in Baruch 2:3. When do we get another book with a story? I miss Judith.

Maccabees - Okay, these books were a little more interesting. There are actually four books of the Maccabees, but only two were included in the Vulgate. Just like how Samuel doesn't appear in 2 Samuel, 3 Maccabees does not contain any actual Maccabees. And 4 Maccabees uses the revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes as an example in a philosophical discourse about how reason triumphs over emotion, and religion is compatible with reason. The first two books, however, tell the story of Judea's successful war against the Greek occupation. Sure, the independent kingdom only lasted about a century before it was conquered yet again, and several of the Old Testament prophets seemed pretty sure that the Jews would be left alone after the end of the Babylonian exile, but it's still an impressive story. There are mentions of the Jewish rebels destroying pagan temples, though, which is rather hypocritical considering how indignant they got at the desecration of their own. Religious tolerance isn't a one-way street, you know. The name "Maccabeus" probably translates to "hammer," which means that Judas' nickname would later be shared by a rapper in baggy pants and an exterminator who became Speaker of the House.

Esdras - There are actually two books of Esdras, which are quite different, but neither of which was all that popular with the canonizers. 1 Esdras is basically just a retelling of the canonical story of Ezra ("Esdras" is the Greek form of "Ezra"), while 2 Esdras is a largely Christian work (there are references to the Messiah as the Son of God) with Ezra receiving apocalyptic visions similar to those of Daniel or John of Patmos. It includes a lot of the standard rhetoric about how everything will be mixed up in the end times--the sun will shine at night and the moon during the day, fishes will drown in the sea, hamburgers will eat people, every four will be waltz again, plasticine porters will wear looking-glass ties, etc.--but my favorite bit is in 5:8, in which Ezra learns that "menstruous women shall bring forth monsters." Behemoth and Leviathan also both make appearances, as do some Arabian dragons.

The other items that my HarperCollins Study Bible includes in the Deuterocanonical section are simply additions to canonical books, so I don't think I need to bother commenting on them. I suppose it's on to the New Testament for me now.
  • Current Music
    Laura Cantrell: Khaki And Corduroy
  • Tags