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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.

Immerse at Bethesda Community Church

When you walk into Bethesda Community Church (Forth Worth, TX) it feels a little bit like walking into the United Nations.

On Sunday mornings, five worship services for five different language groups happen simultaneously throughout the church in English, Spanish, Swahili, French, and Kinyarwandan.

When Bethesda heard about Immerse, they jumped at the chance to go “all in” and read the Word together. They did a masterful job of including their Children’s Ministry, Spanish congregation, families, and other groups within the church to truly make it a church-wide experience.

“(Immerse) offered us the opportunity to fulfill a longing within our fellowship,” said Senior Pastor J. Daniel Smith. “This was an opportunity to have a broad spectrum of our congregation go on a journey with us through the New Testament as we started with Messiah.”

The good folks at Bethesda welcomed us into their church to capture their story. And there was so much good stuff, we had to make 3 videos! Check them out below.

To order copies of Immerse: The Reading Bible in English or Spanish, click here.

Immerse at Bethesda Community Church

Biblia Inmersión – Immerse within the Spanish Congregation

A Special Message for Pastors

Video Story: Immerse at Southern Wesleyan University

Located just outside of Clemson, SC, Southern Wesleyan University is the first university to use Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience for their course curriculum. Professor Andrea Summers’ New Testament Survey class read through the New Testament together in one semester using Immerse, gathering once a week in Immerse book clubs to discuss what they were reading.

Typically, New Testament Survey courses emphasize learning about the New Testament: history, geography, book-level themes, and other elements that provide the backdrop for reading the Scriptures well. Rarely, however, is much time spent in the text itself.

Summers wasn’t going to let that happen. She told her class at the beginning of the semester that they were going to read through the whole New Testament. Faces dropped, shoulders sagged. “You could just see by their faces, ‘Uh, there’s no way I could do that,'” she said.

“I’m setting a goal for them, and then I’m saying, ‘Guess what, you can do it. And also, here is the tool to help you get there.”

Their experience is inspiring. For almost all of the students, it was their first time reading through the entire New Testament. They got to step back and see the big picture, taking in the grandeur of the story. Some of them were able to draw close to God in ways they’d always hoped for but never experienced.

We’re so excited to share their story with you. Check it out below.

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.