What is the Apocrypha?

A learned response in a letter from The Rev’d Michael F. C. Taylor of this benefice

19th April 2010

Dear D

I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out “

The verse you have been looking at comes from one of the more obscure parts of the [ Old Testament ] Apocrypha – these are the books which are not universally recognised as canonical. They were usually written in Greek, some fragments in Aramaic, not Hebrew like most of the rest of the Old Testament, but were known and frequently quoted by early Christians. They are accepted as canonical in the Orthodox Churches of the East; The RC Church accepts some or parts of some of them, but not all; most of the Protestant Churches followed the !6th Century Reformers, who in turn followed the Jewish Reformers – after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 67-70 and the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine by the Romans, the Jews followed a reformation of their own and rejected all Gentile influence on their understanding of their religion, at which point they rejected the Greek versions of the Scriptures which had been widely used by Jews of the “Diaspora” – those living outside Palestine in the largely Greek-speaking world of the Mediterranean and the near East beyond the Roman Empire. This Greek version of what Christians call the Old Testament – the Septuagint – was the body of the Scriptures used by the Early Church and included the books we call Apocrypha. The Church of England adopted a subtly different approach as expressed in the 6th of the 39 Articles of Religion printed in the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, and still cited in the canonical declarations made by office holders such as the Clergy, which says of the Apocrypha, “And the other books (as Hierome [ i.e. Jerome, the translator from the Greek and Hebrew versions into the Latin of the Vulgate version ] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; . . .”

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (King Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, who drew up the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, who we remember as one of the martyrs of the Reformation after he was burned at the stake as a heretic in Queen Mary’s time) set lots of readings from the Apocrypha in his lectionaries, and they are still used in modern lectionaries. Nevertheless in spite of Article 6 latter-day Anglican Evangelicals (or at least) the more Protestant ones among them) are still so sensitive about using the Apocrypha, that our modern lectionaries (since the end of the 19th Century) always provide alternatives from the universally canonical books for any of the preferred readings set from the apocryphal books.

Because the division of the Bible into Chapters and verses is quite late, the references are also confusing: the conventional divisions follow the Latin Vulgate. But this particular verse and its neighbours are not found in the Vulgate – they are only in the Slavonic and other versions (neither Greek nor Latin). In the Slavonic Bible it is 2 Esdras, but in the Vulgate which includes only part of it in an appendix, it is cited as “4 Esdras”. I have followed the citation in the “New Revised Standard Version” – the modern American revision which is widely used in all traditions as a reliable standard English translation for both study and liturgical use.

So-called “Catholic” Bibles in English versions are labelled thus by the publishers who sought recognised authorisation by RC authorities because in the 18th Century when English-speaking Christians founded Bible Societies to produce Bibles for missionary outreach, they followed the 16th Century Reformers in trying to get behind medieval corruptions to a more primitive and therefore supposedly more authentic version of the texts (as they saw it) by choosing to exclude the Old Testament Apocrypha. The irony is that quotations from the Old Testament used by the Apostles and the early Church which found their way into our New Testament are predominantly from the “Septuagint” – the Greek translation of the Old Testament including the Apocryphal books which the Jews had anathematized after the destruction of Jerusalem, but the legacy is that many English editions sold in our modern bookshops as “Bibles” do not include the Apocryphal books, though you can usually order editions which do, or just the Apocryphal books themselves in a separate volume.

This rather haphazard story of the way Christians used the Old Testament is affected by another historical accident – books in the days before printing were rare, expensive, and cumbersome to distribute. Copies of books became prized possessions, but sometimes, as a result of mistakes arising from the fatigue of a hard working scribe, or of damage through violence or accident, the same book might not include exactly the same text from place to place, and sometimes were copied with variations to establish a particular view or a claim to historic authority, or simply by the chances of idiomatic nuances in the process of translation from one language into another. From around the 6th Century onwards scholars made their own attempts to get back to the original text, an approach which has been going on ever since. Modern archaeoloogy has discovered a huge number of ancient manuscripts, or at least fragments of them which have survived in the favourable climates of Egypt and other dry regions, as for example the famous Qumran manuscripts.

I think it is fair to claim that most of the evidence from newly discovered manuscripts usually reinforces the integrity with which these texts have been handled down the ages, and encourages us to accept the verdict of the Early Fathers who settled the Canon of Scripture by the 5th Century, on the whole accepting the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha, which date from the years between the Jews’ Return from the Exile in Babylon to the time of the Maccabees, a century or so before the birth of Jesus; but rejecting the New Testament Apocrypha, which include alternative Gospels which are dated for the most part after the Canonical Gospels and contain much material which borders on legend, though some is of great interest in fragments which appear genuinely authentic and may enlarge our knowledge of Christ’s teaching..

Esdras in the Old Testament Apocrypha belongs to the post-exilic period before the birth of Christ – it is the continuation of the story of Ezra (Esdras is a corruption of that name) looking forward to the dawn of a Messianic Age when God’s people would triumph over their pagan enemies. It has a similar flavour to the Book of Daniel – what the scholars refer to as “Apocalyptic”, and chunks of it are reminiscent of the imagery we see in the New Testament Apocalypse of John – the book we usually call “Revelation”.

In the latter part of 2 Esdras the writer (claiming to be Ezra) asserted that he was receiving visions of Angels (particularly the Archangel Uriel) who gave him instructions about secluding himself with five scribes, who are to record the huge revelation which Uriel promises to give to Ezra.

This is the context of your verse:

23 He [ Uriel ] answered me and said, “Go and gather the people, and tell them not to seek you for forty days. 24 But prepare for yourself many writing tablets, and take with you Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ethanus, and Asiel – these five, who are trained to write rapidly; 25 and you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished. 26 And when you have finished, some things you shall make public, and some you shall deliver in secret to the wise; tomorrow at this hour you shall begin to write.” 27 Then I went as he commanded me, and I gathered all the people together, and said, 28 “Hear these words, O Israel. 29 At first our ancestors lived as aliens in Egypt, and they were liberated from there 30 and received the law of life, which they did not keep, which you also have transgressed after them. . . . .

I shall light a lamp of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.

Although your use of this passage seems some way from the original meaning, this way of using scriptural quotations which are inherently apt for your purpose is hallowed by long custom. For example the Christmas reading from Isaiah had nothing to do with a prophecy of a Virgin Birth, but their aptness was irresistible to early Christians and still is to us.

I hope “Y” likes it as much as I do.

Best wishes,


%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close