The Apocrypha — Missing in Action in the Lutheran Church
In the past several decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in the so-called “missing books” of the Bible. The work of persons such as Elaine Pagels has made a career of trying to popularize the Gnostic Gospels and other Gnostic literature. The most dramatic discovery of Gnostic texts occurred in the upper Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi. The Gospel of Thomas was found as a complete text. These Gnostic texts are often referred to in populist works and the major media as the “missing books of the Bible.” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. They were never regarded as being part of Christian Scripture. Gnosticism, in its variety of forms, was a mixture of pagan philosophy and Christian stories.
A whole cottage industry has developed around these “missing books,” pumping out volumes of misleading books and information, leading people to believe that somehow there has been a grand conspiracy to cover up and hide the “real facts” about Christ and Christianity. All one has to do to quickly demonstrate the difference between canonical Scripture and these false Gnostic Gospels is read them. Frankly, the Gnostic Gospels sound like something produced by a person writing under the influence of LSD or other such hallucinogens. So, set the Gnostic literature aside and let’s talk about some books that have always been in our Bibles, until the Lutheran Church moved into the English language.
There are, in fact, “missing books” of Scripture: the Apocrypha. For too many years Lutherans, like Protestant denominations everywhere, have thought that these books are only part of the “Roman Catholic Bible.” Let’s sort out the facts here, and conclude these brief remarks with an excellent introduction to the Apocryphal books by Pastor Richard Sawyer, which I’ll provide below.
But let’s first talk about how, when and why the Apocryphal books became relatively unknown to English speaking Lutherans.
When the first complete edition of the Bible by the Wittenberg Reformers was published, in 1534, Luther and his colleagues included the Apocryphal books, though distinguished from the more universally accepted books, by setting them apart in their own appendix to the Old Testament. Luther’s Bible was the first major edition to have a separate
section called Apocrypha. Books and portions of books not found in the Hebrew Old Testament were moved out of the body of the Old Testament to this section. The books of 1 and 2 Esdras were omitted entirely. Luther placed these books between the. For this reason, these works are sometimes known as inter-testamental books. The point is that Apocryphal books were never rejected by orthodox Lutherans, but always included in every edition of the Luther Bible and in many German editions of the Bible as well, for instance all German Bibles published by Concordia Publishing House as long as German bibles were publishedl. The Roman Catholic, at the Council of Trent, did something never before done in the history of the church: it put the Apocryphal books on the same level of authority as the rest of the books of the Bible. Why? Because it is in the Apocryphal books that Rome claims to find justification for several of its false doctrines: chiefly, the doctrine of purgatory. But this fact never dissuaded Lutheran Christians from using these books or including them in their Bibles.
In the early years of the 20th century, as Lutherans in the USA began replacing German with English in their churches, and in their Bible translations, the Apocryphal books simply went missing, indeed “missing in action” is pretty much what happened to them.
In recent years, interest is increasing in these books, as Lutherans look to reclaim more of their heritage. There is no reason to allow Rome to claim these books as their own, for indeed, they are not the sole possession of Rome, or Eastern Orthodoxy. It will take a lot of careful pastoral instruction to help the members of English speaking Lutheran congregations distinguish the Apocryphal books from the Gnostic non-Biblical books, and to help explain what the Apocryphal books are, and what their traditional place in the Bible has always been in the Lutheran Church. For that matter, the Apocryphal books are featured throughout Western European culture.
Perhaps the best way to help Lutherans who are unfamiliar with these books understand their place in the Lutheran Church’s own culture and hymnody is to point them to a well-known hymn from the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy: Now Thank We All Our God, written by Martin Rinkart circa 1636 when the devastating Thirty Years War was nearing its end. It depends very much on Luther’s translation of the Apocryphal book of Sirach, Chapter 50.
My own personal experience with the Apocryphal books is typical of most other Lutherans in English speaking churches. I was raised to understand that the Roman Catholics had their own Bible, and that their Bible had more books than “our” Bible. I learned that the doctrine of purgatory was drawn chiefly from one of the Apocryphal books, and therefore those books were bad. But then I as I learned more about the historic teachers of the Lutheran Church, I began to see that the Apocryphal books were freely cited and used by them, never on the same level of authority as the other books of the Old Testament or the New Testament, but nonetheless, there was no hesitancy to use these books by Martin Luther, Martin Chemnitz, Johann Gerhard and others. Perhaps the most amusing and enlightening example of the extent to which there is little awareness of the Apocrypha in our Lutheran Church’s history, even in The LCMS’s history, was when we produced a book of Walther’s devotions, based on his sermons. There are several references in C.F.W. Walther’s sermons to Apocryphal books, but not realizing that, our editors cited the Song of Songs, when in fact the reference was to the Wisdom of Solomon. And in the case of the Concordia Edition of the Book of Concord, we found a series of woodcut illustrations of the Small Catechism, published toward the end of Luther’s lifetime in Leipzig. And what do you know, the illustration provided for the 8th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness” is from the Apocrypha: the story of Susanna. The same image was used in the first illustrated edition of the Small Catechism, already in 1531.
It was interesting simply to include it in the Book of Concord and watch to see how many people noticed it. There were quite a few questions about it, leading to some good opportunities to explain the Apocrypha. Simply put, the Apocrypha is every bit as much “Lutheran” than it is “Roman Catholic.” It is the common possession of the Christian Church.
I’m encouraged by this growing, and renewed, interest in the Apocrypha and am pleased to note that next year Oxford University Press will be releasing an edition of the English Standard Version of the Bible that contains the Apocrypha.
We wrestled with the question of whether or not to include the Apocryphal books in The Lutheran Study Bible. For three reasons, we finally decided not to. First, the Apocypha is so little known among Lutherans today that simply to include it in TLSB would have caused a ruckus and consternation among most of our fellow English speaking Lutherans who know nothing at all about the Apocrypha. We felt we would be putting something in front of people who have had little, to no, opportunity to learn and understand what these books are, from their pastors. It woudl cause potentially very serious offense and confusion, at this point in time. Second, there was no published translation of the Apocrypha available in English, in the ESV translation when we had to make a decision about this. Unfortunately, the Oxford edition comes too late for our Bible. Third, there are next to no resource materials available on the Apocryphal books from which we can draw notes and commentary. Simply put, English speaking Lutheran pastors, professors and theologians have not done any work on these books. So, for these three reasons they will not be in TLSB. But perhaps a future edition will be able to include them.
Here is Pastor Sawyer’s article:
The Apocrypha is a collection of books, generally dated before the first advent of Christ, and included in the bibles of many Christians. They are not included in the Hebrew collection of Old Testament Scripture, but they are included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament Bible, called the Septuagint. It is uncertain exactly when the Apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint, but since the Septuagint is clearly the translation from which many of the New Testament’s quotations of the Old Testament are taken, we can consider the Septuagint the Bible used by the Holy Evangelists and Apostles. It’s not unlike saying that the King James Version was the translation prevalently used by Christians until only recently. If you read an old book or watch an old movie, chances are, if Holy Scripture is quoted, you’ll find the citation taken from the King James Version. Well, read the New Testament, and chances are, you’ll find that when the Old Testament is quoted, the translation used is the Septuagint.
That makes the Septuagint’s inclusion of the Apocrypha a fairly compelling argument for seriously considering these books. It is true that they are not found among the Hebrew texts. That was a distinction not missed by St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. It was also a distinction noted by Martin Luther when he made his translation of the Bible into German. In fact, it’s simply historical fact that the Church has noted that there are certain books that were universally recognized as belonging to the canon of Holy Scripture, and then there were others that lacked that universal recognition. While some books lacked universal acceptance, they were still often read – even within the services of the Church – and while not as sure a basis for forming doctrine as the Canonical Scriptures, they were considered pious, laudable writings, useful for encouraging and training Christians in their walk of Faith.
Luther certainly held that opinion regarding the Apocrypha. He wasn’t the first to distinguish them from those books universally accepted as the Word of God, but in doing so, neither was he alone in recognizing their benefit and recommending their usage by Christians. Luther not only translated the books of the Apocrypha into German, he also included them in his German Bible. He included them in an appendix so that they were distinguished from those books universally attested as the Word of God but not removed from the piety and faith of Christians. Luther has very favorable things to say about the Apocrypha. The fact that German Christians in his day could open their Bible and read the Apocrypha is testimony to that. The Lutheran Confessions cite the Apocrypha, as do Luther, Melancthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard, and other fathers in our Lutheran tradition.
Many Christians in America will be surprised to hear that the King James Version, that most beloved of English translations, also included the Apocrypha. As Luther had, the King James Version distinguished the Apocrypha from the universally attested canonical texts by including it in an appendix. Over time, especially after copyright restrictions were broken by the American Revolution, publishers ceased to include the Apocrypha in editions of the KJV. Still, like the Septuagint, the first translation of the Bible into Greek, and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, and Luther’s German Bible, the Apocrypha was included in the original King James Version.
The Apocrypha is a collection of sacred texts for Christians to rediscover. How much better that Christians – who regularly make use of devotional material, visit Christian bookstores, listen to Christian music, watch movies with Christian themes – how much better that Christians today familiarize themselves with the devout and pious writings which are part of our heritage, which Luther and so many others recommend for our edification!
It is safe to say that Christians – up until the past few hundred years – have been quite familiar with the Apocrypha. The Apocryphal texts have influenced religious art and music, hymnody and even names. The name Judy derives from the name of a Hebrew heroine in the Apocryphal book, Judith. Toby derives from the Apocryphal book, Tobit. Susan is derived from the Apocryphal book, Susanna.
It is said that the account of 2 Esdras 6:42 gave Columbus the necessary “evidence” that the waters of the Atlantic were not so wide that the East Indies couldn’t be reached by sailing west. If it weren’t for the Apocrypha, would Columbus have made his voyage?
Wisdom 18:14-15 provide the testimony on which Christians understood Christ’s birth to have occurred when night was “half-spent,” thus giving us the carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
Lutherans are familiar with the hymn, “Now, Thank We All Our God,” which is based on Luther’s translation of Sirach 50:22-24.
And any Lutheran who has attended the Easter Vigil and sung the Benedicte, Omnia Opera, that is, “All You Works of the Lord” (LSB # 931; LW # 9;TLH p. 120) will note that it is the Song of the Three Young Men (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) who were thrown into the fiery furnace and kept safe by the pre-incarnate Christ. However, that song is not in the Hebrew text of Daniel, and so is not known to most Christians, since their English translations are taken from the Hebrew. It is, however, included in the Apocryphal additions that have come to us through the Septuagint. Thus, this beautiful and laudable song of praise has graced the lips of many Lutherans, without their realizing that they are singing a Biblical canticle from the Apocrypha.