What is the Apocrypha? Rediscovering Israel’s Story Between the Testaments

Imagine Israel before Moses

It is a nation enslaved, or maybe not even a nation yet. It’s more like a group of people, loosely related, now serving as fodder for the dreams of Pharaohs.

Their God, if he is there, is not speaking to them nor acting for them.

The straits are dire, and from all appearances this motley collection of family clans is on their own. They cry out to God, but the heavens are not answering.

Centuries of silence. Centuries of wondering if anything will ever change.

The rule of the foreigners is harsh. The years of relentless suffering are long. Nothing new is happening or showing any sign of happening.

It certainly doesn’t feel like much of a story for those who are stuck in the middle of it.

Now jump ahead about a thousand years

It turns out God finally did show up, calling Moses and the rescuing Israel. The people entered a new land and gained kings and princes and worship and wars. God had come down and made his home right in the midst of his people. Jerusalem—the city of the Great King—was built up and fortified, and right there on the eastern edge was the glorious Temple, God’s own dwelling place.

Then, devastatingly, all this was lost. Israel squandered her freedom, land, purpose, and apparently, even her story. This tribe that had its origins in the ancient story of Babel was now crushed and killed and those who remained were exiled back to Babylon.

In its main features, this situation of Israel in the years after the great Exile is not unlike that of the years of Abraham’s clans before the great Exodus. All that had been gained was now lost. If God is there, he’s stopped talking and stopped acting.

What has happened to their dreams, their divine election, their story? What has happened to their God?

Prophecy has ended. Israel has, at best, second-hand rulers appointed by foreign oppressors. After Babylon came Persia, then a succession of Greek kings, followed by Roman generals. Israel is trying for all she’s worth to keep it together under extreme cultural, political, and military pressure. It’s tenuous.

For their part, the Jews are stubborn. They are hanging on. But doesn’t everyone eventually reach their limit?

What has happened to their dreams, their divine election, their story? What has happened to their God? Once again, centuries of silence. Centuries of wondering if anything will ever change.

It is at this point that many Christ-followers dive into the New Testament Gospels and the arrival of Jesus. It’s understandable – for a lot Christians, that’s exactly what their Bible does. Malachi straight into Matthew.

But wait.

The story of Israel betwixt and between, after the First Testament yet before the New, is crucial for us. If we want to know the context that Messiah Jesus was born into, then we need to know the Apocrypha.

What is the Apocrypha?

This collection of books was written in the centuries immediately preceding Jesus and into the first century A.D. It’s the best place to learn about God’s people in the hard years right before Jesus. Here we find what Israel was thinking about, longing for, and trying desperately to do—the heart and soul of cultural and religious survival against the odds.

The word ‘apocrypha’ comes to us via Latin from the Greek for “to hide away.” And for far too many Christians these books have remained precisely that—hidden away, unknown, and even viewed with suspicion.

I grew up thinking the word Apocrypha simply referred to “weird Catholic books.” Which is ironic, because these are profoundly Jewish books, opening up the door to the world of 2nd Temple Judaism that is so important for understanding the entire New Testament.

The Jews did not include the Apocrypha in their canon of sacred writings, and neither, therefore, did the Protestant Reformers. Generally speaking the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches do accept these books into their Bibles, under the title of deuterocanonical (or “second canon”) books. However, there is no single, firm list of which books are to be included here, with different communions accepting slightly different lists.

There are historical accounts, prayers, fascinating and insightful short stories, wisdom explorations, and apocalypses. Ezekiel’s vision had shown God rising up and leaving his home within the Temple in Jerusalem. Now God had gone silent and there were no contemporary prophets, so what could writers do? Many penned their works and spread them under the good names of the ancients like Ezra and Baruch. Some writings were simply additions to already trusted books like Esther. Some are catching up the narrative of Israel’s more recent history, like in the books of Maccabees.

At their heart, these writings reveal the struggles of Israel to confront its national life after the Exile. Things had gone so terribly wrong. What could Israel do to make sure a calamity like this would never happen again? How can Israel even be Israel under the constant pressure of foreign cultures—whether alluring or hostile? When and how will God’s presence return to them? Temple, land, victory, and God’s ruling over them as King. Will the full realities of these divine gifts ever be theirs again?

The answers found in the Apocrypha teach us much about the Judaism of Jesus’ time: the radical commitment to Torah observance, the doubling down on Jewish cultural distinctives, and the call to take up arms and fight, to give these beaten down people at least a little breathing room.

Here’s the thing: to know Jesus truly is to know the Judaism that is the context of his life. Jesus lived, worked, died, and rose again precisely within a first-century Jewish story. The only route to real comprehension of his accomplishment is to know that story. And this is exactly why the Apocrypha is of such great help to us. It catches us up on Israel’s story, and we see the Messiah so much more clearly because of it.

It’s time to reconsider our previous willingness to keep these books hidden away. If we bring them out into the light to read and learn them, more light in turn will shine on us.

In their Preface to the Apocrypha in the 16th c. Geneva Bible, the strongly Protestant editors urge readers to a significantly positive view: “as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners.”

A greater understanding of this Jewish history and piety provides real insight into the Messiah who came and brought life and light back to a Jewish story that had been in grave danger of sinking into the darkness.

What We’re Reading: May 2019

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work.

Have you come across any great Bible-related content lately? Leave a link in the comments below!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply 100% agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

More on Reading the Bible by RJS, Patheos Blog

Patheos blogger RJS comments on John Polkinghorne’s exploration of ambiguity found throughout the Bible. It’s a good reminder that Scripture is not an answer book bound by simple terms of good guys/bad guys, and black/white, but rather shows us that God’s work in the world most often takes place in the midst of “many shades of grey.”


The Old Testament and the Church – Part 1 and Part 2 from the Essential Church Podcast

It’s no secret that the Old (or First) Testament is diminishing in the life of the church. One scholar has even written a book titled The Old Testament is Dying. This podcast, hosted by a group of pastors from New Life Church in Colorado, explores the massive importance of the First Testament both as a prelude to Christ and as a window into God’s character and mission from the beginning.


Moving through the Maze: Understanding Bible Translation by Brian Russell

NIV, NLT, KJV, ESV. The number of translations available to us in English can be a bit dizzying, and many of us simply end up using what our friends are using. Asbury Seminary prof. Brian Russell gives a brief and basic introduction to how Bible translations work. Among other things he discusses the difference between paraphrases and translations, formal equivalence (sometimes called word-for-word) vs. dynamic equivalence (or meaning-for-meaning) translations, and how “literal” is not a good word for describing a translation.


Theology of the Future by N. T. Wright, Christianity Today Magazine

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright wants us to break down the silos. As academic specialization increases, Wright observes that the philosophers, theologians, and Biblical studies experts of our time all operate in isolation from one another rather than in shared conversation. “Each of these three disciplines has a vital role to play in the vocation of Christian thought,” Wright argues, and faithfully addressing the challenges of our day calls for more cooperation and collaboration across these disciplines.

Holy Week: How to Stop Shrinking the Jesus Narrative

The focus and work of years was seemingly coming to its climax. The bold announcement at the beginning, the gathering of his co-workers, the teaching and the mighty works, and then the growing tension and hard confrontations—all of the lines were coming together to reach their single goal.

Holy Week.

The work of Jesus was coming down to this, his last few days. What would his final act look like? What would he do? Would he meet the expectations of the crowds? Of his own closest followers? He had set his countenance and his feet straight for Jerusalem—so what did he have in mind?

Whatever the central meaning of his life and ministry, it would have to show itself right now. This was Jesus’s moment, if he was going to have one. And it was not a simple one. From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story. There are rich layers of significance that precede this week. Will all those promises of meaning be kept?

From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story.

For too many of us, these Holy Days have been reduced to one day—Good Friday—and to a single assigned meaning of that day.

“Jesus died for my sins.”

A personal substitutionary atonement.

Now the death of Jesus on a Roman cross is certainly not less than this. But it is also so much more. There is a profound loss when we minimize the meaning of the crucifixion to my salvation, especially when I conceive of this saving merely as an escape to heaven when I die. In such a reduction we shortchange the gospel and shrink the impact and import of all that Jesus has accomplished.

How do we avoid this? As with so many things in the Christian life, a healthy recovery can be found when we return to the Scriptures. The fullness of Holy Week is found in the fullness of the Bible’s telling of the story. A renewed commitment to understanding the narrative as it unfolds in the Gospels will pay multiple dividends in appreciating the depth of the Passion drama.

The Gospels, like other books in the Bible’s library, should be read whole. Their telling of the end is embedded in the context of what they’ve been saying along the way. The Evangelists build their stories of Jesus intentionally, so each Gospel gives us a unique angle on the life and meaning of Jesus. We could appropriately pick any of the four Gospels to help us in this restoration, for they each lead us up to this momentous last week in their own way.

But as an example, we’ll take Mark’s story of Jesus, since he is the most intentional about tracking each of the days. So I invite you to read Mark’s whole telling of the week’s story. Without trying to impossibly unpack everything here in this short space, we will instead simply raise questions that point us to deeper significance:

“As they approached Jerusalem . . .”

Light breaks on the first day of the last week. Jesus has spent his entire ministry focusing on the kingdom of God. It is the theme par excellence of all his previous efforts. Now Jesus clearly calls up echoes from Israel’s royal history (from Saul to Solomon to Judas Maccabeus) to boldly embody the coming of the King himself into David’s city. Jesus’ prophetic announcement of God’s return here transforms into an explicitly messianic claim. So the stage for the week is set: Jesus is Israel’s king. But what kind of king is he?

“The next day as they were leaving Bethany . . .”

Jesus has entered the city, but now his focus turns exclusively to the Temple. Why is the Temple at the center of Mark’s story here? Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? What is he looking for? Why does he immediately enact a parable of the Temple’s destruction? What is the point of his quote from the prophet Jeremiah?

“In the morning . . .”

Mark now spends more space describing the events of Tuesday than any other day of this week. What’s happening? Jesus is clearly and strongly confronting those who govern the affairs of the Temple and make up Israel’s supreme ruling body. The rulers, for their part, directly challenge Jesus’ authority. The clash that’s been long brewing in the ministry of Jesus is now coming to a head. Then the parables and provocations of the day culminate in a troubling prediction of the physical dismantling of the Temple within a generation. (It’s important to pay attention to literary form here, recognizing prophetic metaphors and apocalyptic language.) Israel’s story has reached a major turning point, and it is centered on Jesus.

“It was two days before the Passover . . .”

There are two contrasting responses to Jesus here, an act of adoration surrounded by two references to betrayal. Jesus forces choices even as he is preparing for his own death.

“On the first day of the Festival . . .”

So Jesus has chosen Passover, Israel’s great liberation event, as the backdrop to provide the meaning of his next action. Jesus claims to be bringing an Exodus, a new freedom movement. What were the elements of the first Passover and the original Exodus? Are all those elements to be found here as well?

“Very early in the morning . . .”

Jesus has now fully entered into the trial—the time of great tribulation and testing that the Jews knew would precede their full redemption. He is convicted twice, by both Jewish and Roman tribunals. Of what specifically? What do the differing charges tell us about Jesus and his work? So Jesus is condemned to death, precisely as the King of the Jews. What have the week’s events, all of them carefully chosen by Jesus himself, told us about what Jesus thought his death meant? Is his death more than a sacrifice? How can it possibly be a victory?

“The Sabbath”

As Jesus journeyed through the week, he was surrounded by symbols and echoes of Israel’s story. His recapitulation of them was not a mere repetition, but rather filled them with new and surprising meaning. Now, on the seventh day, he rests in death. What has been accomplished?

“Very early on the first day . . .”

If Israel’s story was always all about the world’s story, what does the resurrection of Israel’s Messiah mean for the rest of us? What does an echo of the creation story imply?

♦♦♦

We have seen the birth of a new kind of king and a new kind of Temple. And I hope we are waking up to the possibilities of a new kind of kingdom and the renewal of worship. The powers who ran Israel’s first-century world—both Jewish and Roman—knew and followed only one model for ruling. Jesus came into the city having staked his life and his chance at victory on a completely different vision, one centered on the power of self-giving love.

Yes, Jesus died for me.

But my place is found only in a much bigger and better story than my own small tale. You, me, and all of us are called to take up our place in God’s transforming work. And the only place we learn the ins and outs of God’s holy work is in God’s holy book.

The way to avoid shrinking reductions of biblical truth is nothing other than a rediscovery of the fullness of the Bible own tellings. Read big. Read in context. Make connections.

None of the Bible Was Written to You…And That’s a Good Thing.

Every single bit of the Bible was written to people from another time and place.

Therefore, exactly 0% of the Bible was originally addressed directly to you or to me.

The Bible is not a guidebook that blandly tells us what to do, no questions asked. The Bible is not an instruction manual for looking up the right answers to all our questions. It’s not even “a love letter” from God, or if it is, it’s the strangest love letter ever written. (That is not to say, however, that it’s not a love story, which is something else entirely.)

The fact is that many of the shorthand descriptions we commonly hear about the Bible just don’t accurately capture what the Bible is and how it actually works. And that’s too bad, because the way the Bible was built to help us remains undiscovered. The common descriptions often lead to confusion, distortion, and misreading, while the real benefits of these sacred writings remain undeciphered.

The key to finding the Bible’s purpose for us is first and foremost to be honest about the nature of the Bible itself. Grasping a handful of basic points will put us well on the way to a healthy and beneficial interaction with the Bible.

1. The Bible is Rooted in Ancient History and Culture

We begin with a full acknowledgment that the Bible is rooted in an ancient world. It is speaking directly to people in that world, not our world. Now it’s true that some things stay the same over the course of history, like the basics of the human condition. So the Bible will always be relevant in that sense. But it’s also true that a lot of things change, like the cultural frameworks that shape how people see their world and make sense of it.

The Bible is not trying to be modern (or postmodern). It’s simply trying to be what it is—an account of the beginning of God’s interactions with a family-turned-nation that is crucial to accomplishing his intentions for the whole world. So we must begin our Bible reading by doing all we can to understand what it is saying to those people first of all. What were the assumptions of Israel’s ancient world? How does the Bible both reflect and challenge those assumptions?

Another way of saying this is to affirm that while the Bible is certainly for us, it was not written to us. (We are definitely involved, but our part comes later, as we’ll see.)

2. The Bible is a Library

The next step is to realize that the Bible is not really a single book. It’s a collection of very different kinds of writing that were spoken, sung, written, and edited over a long period of time. A critical element of good Bible reading and interpretation is to ask: What kind of book is this? and What are the rules for understanding this kind of writing? The ancient Hebrews used lots of kinds of literature, and there are regular rules of engagement that go with each one. A failure to attend to them can easily lead to misreadings of lyrical poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, letters, and even historical accounts (which functioned with ancient standards of history writing, not modern ones).

3. The Bible Is a Story

But the Bible is not a random collection of ancient Hebrew writings. The Holy Scriptures are a library whose contents come together to tell a single, connected story. There are narrative threads that tie the books together, progressively revealing more and more of God’s slow and patient plan to reclaim his creation. That is, there is redemptive movement through the books over time. This movement is not always smooth and easy, effortlessly gliding toward God’s final intentions. Rather, the story moves in fits and starts, with huge setbacks and failures that lead to real questions about how God’s big plan is working.

Later this month I’ll be speaking at a seminar taking a deep dive into how the story of the Bible works. The seminar is free – click here to learn more and register.

One of the burning questions for first-century Jews was precisely this issue of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and the fate of his chosen people. For centuries the story had appeared to be stuck. Is this story even true? But the New Testament claim is that the utterly surprising story of Jesus reveals God’s remarkable work to save the story and rescue the world. The Bible itself claims the story has a beginning, a long meandering middle, and an ending that will embody God’s longtime intentions.

So the way to read the Bible is to feast on whole books, understood as the literature they are and speaking to the Bible’s first audience, while staying aware of the place the various books take within the developing narrative.

4. The Bible Is a Festooned Story

Sometimes it is objected that the “Bible as story” approach is overdone since not all the Bible’s books are narrative in form themselves. But this objection misunderstands how the books fit together. Of course it’s true that many contributions within the Bible are something other than narrative—there are song books, proverbs and longer wisdom reflections, apostolic letters, law codes, collections of prophetic oracles, etc. But the point remains that all of these other kinds of writing adorn the Bible’s narrative by adding depth and color, allowing us to see and feel more deeply what it was like to live within this story of God and his people.

The non-narrative books of the Bible offer crucial ways for us to enter more deeply into the story and understand it from the inside out, in greater detail and texture. These books open up what it was like for ancient Israelites or early Christian believers to live out God’s story in the real world. The “festoon” books allows the Bible to show and not merely tell what this great drama is all about.

How the Bible Actually Helps Us Today

So, putting it all together, the good news is that we don’t have to pretend that we’re supposed to read the Bible and simply do everything it says. God has never wanted us to be robots. Instead, God gave us the wonderful gift of the Bible so that we can see what he’s done throughout history and absorb the story deep in our bones. And he’s trusted us to faithfully carry the story forward today.

How do we do that well? First, we have to ask what any particular part of the Bible meant to its first audiences. We explore how it contributes to the ongoing story: What new thing is happening? or What’s going wrong here in terms of where God wants the story to go?

Then, once we’ve done our due diligence on what the Bible meant, we can proceed to what it means—for us, now. We do this by reflecting on that original meaning and looking for connections to our life now. What perennial human tendencies, weaknesses, temptations are addressed? What signs do we see of God’s ultimate redemptive intentions? What do we learn about how God works?

And finally, preeminently, we watch explicitly for how Messiah Jesus is at the center of the story. It is in his life and ministry that we see what the world looks like when God rules. Not everything that God will accomplish in the end was completed during Jesus’ life, but in him we do see most clearly who God is, what he wants, and what the central trajectory of the story is.

And it’s in that redemptive, restorative trajectory of new creation that we live. Our job is to read the Bible thoroughly and well so we know what God has done and what God is doing. Our work is to labor alongside God himself, making our own contribution to his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. And the only way we can know and do such things with competence and clarity is by reading and living the Bible well.

Want to learn more about the story of the Bible and how we can live it today? Register for our free seminar later this month. If you live in the Colorado Springs area, join us at the live event. If not, you can still register and receive a video recording.

What We’re Reading: December 2018

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work. Enjoy!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply 100% agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

Tiny Books Fit in One Hand. Will They Change The Way We Read? by Alexandra Alter, NY Times

Research proves time and time again that most people prefer reading print books, but the convenience and portability of cell phones has led lots of people to start reading books on their device. This fun article outlines how one publisher is still tinkering with print design to meet modern needs of portability while pushing for the best possible reading experience.


Fiction Writers and The Church by Jason Link, Multiply Magazine

Living in the Age of Information tempts us to reduce the Bible to a trove of information that must be parsed and analyzed. In this interview with Joel Green, Dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary, Green shares how reading fiction like The Lord of the Rings shapes how he reads the Bible. There’s a lack of imagination within the evangelical church, he says, and it’s been replaced with logic and propositions and syllogisms. Reading fiction and fantasy opens up a different part of our brains and unlocks our imaginations to experience wonder and emotionally respond to what we read. All of which are valuable skills for reading the Bible.


Ask N. T. Wright Anything Podcast hosted by Justin Brierley of Premier Christian Radio

In this brand-new podcast, renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright fields questions from listeners on a variety of topics from the atonement to the historical Jesus to the reliability of the gospel accounts. Wright is able to explain complex theological concepts at a very accessible and non-technical level, and takes listeners into the world of ancient Judaism and the first-century church. Here’s a small sample, and you can view a few more video samples of the podcast here.