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How We Got the Bible (Part 4): Tobit and Judith and Maccabees…Oh My!

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(Parts  1 – 3 can be found in Nov. & Dec. in 2021 and January in 2022)

            It’s a rite of passage familiar to most children raised in our fellowship: memorizing the books of the Bible. I remember sitting in Pauline Lawyer’s Sunday school class as she taught us to sing the New Testament books. “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Acts and the Letter to the Romans….” Even though I’m a minister who’s pushing 50, I still hum that tune when I’m hunting for certain books!

            Unfortunately, I don’t recall learning a song for the Old Testament books. That’s understandable. The Minor Prophets don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Another complicating factor is the sheer bulk of the Old Testament, weighing in at a hefty 39 volumes.

At least that’s how many books there are in the Old Testament familiar to most of us. Our Catholic and Orthodox friends, however, recognize additional books in their Old Testaments—books with names like Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and Maccabees. I don’t remember any of these names when I was memorizing the books of the Bible, do you? Where did these other books come from, and why don’t Protestants recognize them as Scripture?

In last month’s article, we observed that Jewish factions in Jesus’ day disagreed about which books ought to be regarded as Scripture. Even among the Pharisees, whose views carried the day, questions about certain books persisted into the late first century and beyond.

It was during this same period that the church emerged and separated from the main body of Judaism. The separation was messy and at times bitter. Because of their faith in Messiah Jesus, the early Christians—the majority of whom were Jewish—were forced out of most synagogues. Needless to say, they probably weren’t allowed to take the sacred scrolls with them as lovely parting gifts! Christians had to acquire or produce their own copies of the Scriptures and other important Jewish works—works like Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and all those Maccabees. While Jewish scholars, such as Josephus, valued these writings, they did not regard them as Scripture. They were seen as products of a later period when the prophetic Spirit had diminished in Israel. Whether Christians shared this opinion is a different matter.

The New Testament offers us some clues as to which writings the early church accepted as sacred and authoritative. New Testament writers draw frequently from the Scriptures in their Greek form (the Septuagint), often quoting them verbatim. Isaiah and Psalms are the books they most often cite. (These two books are also the ones most represented among the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

By my count, the New Testament cites or makes clear allusions to every book included in the Hebrew Bible except for Esther, Song of Songs, and Lamentations. This doesn’t mean that the inspired writers rejected these works. Perhaps they didn’t lend themselves as readily to the authors’ purposes. I mean, when was the last time you heard a sermon series on Song of Songs? (A woefully underappreciated book, by the way.)

But what about those other Jewish writings I mentioned? Did Jesus and the apostles regard them as Scripture too?

This may come as a surprise, but the New Testament does allude to some of these books. Here’s a quick sampling. Hebrews 11:35b refers to the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs and their firm belief in the resurrection from the dead (see 2 Macc. 6-7). Hebrews 1:3 also alludes to Wisdom of Solomon 7:25-26, another popular Jewish writing from the century or two before Christ. Romans 1:18-32 tracks closely with this same work and its strong critique of paganism (see Wisdom 13-14). According to John’s Gospel, Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah (John 10:22), a festival whose origins are recounted in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees (1 Macc. 4:36-59; 2 Macc. 10:1-8). Jesus’ yoke (Matthew 11:28-30) resembles wisdom’s yoke as it’s depicted in the writings of Yeshua ben Sirach, a Jewish sage active in the 2nd century B.C. (cf. Sirach 51:23,26-27). Other possible allusions could be added to this list.

Clearly, the earliest Christians knew and made use of these books. But did they regard them as Scripture? Interestingly, at no point do any of the New Testament writers ever appeal to these writings with the familiar formula “as it is written…” or as “the prophet says….” In other words, while these works may have influenced the New Testament writers, they never explicitly cite them as Scripture.

There is one possible exception: Jude. The tiny epistle quotes a prophecy ascribed to Enoch (Jude 14-15). You will not find this prophecy anywhere in our Old Testament, nor will you find it in the Catholic Old Testament. It comes from 1 Enoch, an apocalyptic writing popular among the Essenes at Qumran and included in the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox (Tewahedo) Church. Complicating matters further is the fact that Jude also refers to a dispute between the archangel Michael and Satan that’s found in the Assumption of Moses, another Jewish writing from this period (Jude 9).

Should we infer, then, that Jude recognized these books as Scripture? Not necessarily. He could have cited them simply to illustrate his theme. Paul, for example, sometimes quoted pagan authors (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) and Jewish lore (2 Timothy 3:8) to get a point across. On the other hand, Jude does cite the passage from 1 Enoch as a prophecy. He isn’t just quoting it the way some preachers (ahem!) do the “The Lord of the Rings.”

If only the Lord had handed the church a copy of the Old Testament complete with table of contents! As it happened, the early Christians inherited from Judaism a body of sacred literature whose core was well-defined (Law, Prophets, etc.), but whose borders were still a bit fuzzy (Sirach, 1 & 2 Maccabees, etc.). Some finetuning remained.

Next month, we’ll examine how Christian leaders after the time of the apostles handled these extra books (sometimes called the Apocrypha) and why they remain a source of contention among Christians today. In the meantime, you’re welcome to sample these books for yourselves. If you don’t own a copy of a Catholic Bible, you can find them online at biblegateway.com. Just look for the New Revised Standard Catholic Edition. Shalom!

 

Darren Johnson preaches for Central Church of Christ, Cedar Rapids, Iowa  




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