I’ve been following the somewhat acrimonious debate over the extent of the biblical canon and the place of the Apocrypha in it that has been taking place between some Reformed (James White, William Webster, and James Swan) and Catholic folk (Gary Michuta and Steven K. Ray) on their respective blogs. (See here , here , and by way of Reformed Catholicism here for the Protestant side, and here , here , and here for the Catholic.)
The Prots have the better historical argument on this one (but, being a Prot, I would say that), following St. Jerome, who is cited, for example, in the Thirty-nine Articles in an aside precisely about the apocryphal books:
And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:
The Third Book of Esdras
The Fourth Book of Esdras
The Book of Tobias
The Book of Judith
The rest of the Book of Esther
The Book of Wisdom
Jesus the Son of Sirach
Baruch the Prophet
The Song of the Three Children
The Story of Susanna
Of Bel and the Dragon
The Prayer of Manasses
The First Book of Maccabees
The Second Book of Maccabees
Nevertheless, in reading through a chapter of N.T. Wright’s New Testament People of God , I was taken by a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon that Wright quotes for the purpose of situating his readers in the prophetical/eschatological mindset of first-century Jews. Wisdom 2:12-20 is worth reproducing at length:
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
I am ashamed to say that this past Saturday is the first time I can remember ever encountering these stunning verses. It seems to me that “Protestant Bibles” that do not have the apocryphal books are missing rich material that most certainly would have informed to some degree the Apostles’ own thinking about the relation of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection to the suffering of Israel and the promises of God to redeem that suffering and liberate them from oppression. Certainly there are echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon in Paul. This does not, ipso facto, make the apocryphal books canonical ; there is also a cryptic allusion to the Assumption of Moses in Jude, and no Christian church includes the pseudepigrapha in its lectionary. (Though see this interesting interpretation of the passage in question by Jonathan Edwards that, if tenable, makes the issue moot.) Paul also cites approvingly the works of a Greek playwright, which doesn’t mean that, if the complete works of Menander were to be unearthed in a clay pot somewhere, our New Testament would expand to accommodate them, with Sunday school classes adding paper mache skene buildings to their Christmas pageants.
But is it time to revive the Reformation practice of including the Apocrypha in Bibles published for Protestant churches as a deuterocanon (which is most probably how these books functioned throughout much of church history, however you parse the vote or scholarship at Trent).
Lutheran Pastor Paul McCain asked this question a couple of months back on his Cyberbrethren blog :
How is it that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod did in fact have the Apocryphal books in its Bibles right up to the very time when they moved to English? One can see that every German Bible printed by Concordia Publishing House [and very beautifully printed I might add!] had the Apocryphal books, but one is hard pressed to find any English Bible sold by CPH starting in the early 20th century that contains the Apocrypha.
And so is it time we Reformation Christians repair to our roots and thicken our Bibles for the sake of enriching our understanding of first-century Jewish theo-thought, and, by extension, that of the biblical authors themselves?
I’d say yes.