The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Tag apocrypha

SBL's Online Critical Pseudepigrapha

The SBL publishes the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha - an online critical edition of various "old testament" pseudepigrapha. It includes the Greek text of nearly thirty works, and there is a critical apparatus for four of them.

The website has been live for quite some time, but apparently inactive for a time (the latest blog post is from 2009). Still, this provides an excellent opportunity to get one's feet wet with this collection.

Do not be ashamed, Sirach

By turns Sirach is a outstanding read full of great wisdom and hopelessly backwards. Consider 40:20:

Wine and music gladden the heart, but the love of friends is better than either.

A whole section is full of these great sayings. But then we turn to the list of things about which to not be ashamed (42:5c):

[Do not be ashamed] of drawing blood from the back of a wicked slave.

Pilate must have just read this verse prior to having Jesus flogged. And then there is this bit of loveliness concerning the sexes (42:14):

Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace.

It is amazing how strongly I can share and repudiate the values of this ancient wisdom.

Drunk on wisdom

I've moved into Sirach/Ecclesiasticus. It is standard wisdom literature in form, but some of the expressions feel new. This one in particular caught my eye:

Wisdom’s fullness is to fear the Lord, and she inebriates [people] with her fruits.

That's the NETS rendering, and the NRSV makes the same word choice of "inebriates." The Greek word being correctly translated here is μεθύσκω, and the combination with "fruits" makes the sense of this figure fairly clear. Brenton's translationshies away from this a bit and renders it merely "fills," leaving it up to the imagination of the English reader.

Solomon and quantum mechanics

Wisdom of Solomon 7:17:

For it is [God] who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;

The hubris of this passage was amusing to me. It shows that in a pre-scientific society, the king really could boast that he knew everything.

(The author goes on to unpack what this knowledge consists of in the subsequent verses: namely solar cycles, constellations, animal behavior, "the powers of spirits", psychology, and botany.)

The Wisdom of Solomon has been a fairly good read at the opening. I'll share a couple more gems, starting with 1:11:

Beware then of useless grumbling, and keep your tongue from slander; because no secret word is without result, and a lying mouth destroys the soul.

And the author makes space for godly childlessness in 3:13 and following:

For blessed is the barren woman who is undefiled . . . she will have fruit when God examines souls. Blessed also is the eunuch whose hands have done no lawless deed . . .

. . .

Better than this is childlessness with virtue, for in the memory of virtue is immortality, because it is known both by God and by mortals.

It is good to be back in the regimen of reading through the apocrypha after a lot of disruption.

Esther and the cycles of history

The apocrypha includes not only whole books, but also Greek additions to books in the Hebrew canon. In the case of Esther, the Septuagint version includes a lot of additional detail (as well as making the religious subtext of the book explicit). One of the details which gets filled in is the text of Ahasuerus' proclamation for the destruction of the Jews:

Now when I asked my counselors how this (peace) might be brought to pass, Haman . . . declared to us that in all nations throughout the world there was scattered a certain malicious people, who had laws contrary to all nations and continually despised the commandments of kings, so that the uniting of our kingdoms, honorably intended by us, cannot go forward. Seeing this, we understand that this people alone is continually in opposition unto all men, differing in the strange ways of their laws and bringing about evil to our state, working all the mischief they can, so that our kingdom may not be firmly established: Therefore have we commanded that all those who are signified in writing to you by Haman . . . shall all, with their wives and children, be utterly destroyed by the sword of their enemies, without all mercy and pity . . .

Sadly the Jews were taking the blame for societal problems long before the rise of the Third Reich.

When in the world was Judith?

The apocryphal book of Judith opens with geopolitical circumstances which I cannot locate in history. Assyria is lead from Nineveh by a king Nebuchadnezzar and conquers Media, most of Mesopotamia, Tyre and Sidon, and parts of Palestine. For those of us familiar with the ancient near east and biblical history, Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king who threw off Assyrian domination and destroyed Nineveh.

In the fifth chapter things get more confusing. Nebuchadnezzar's general inquires of the history of the Jewish people, and an Ammonite recites the story of Israel. The history he recounts goes from Abraham clear through the return from the Babylonian exile. That return of course occurred after the time of Assyrian power and Nebuchadnezzar's reign.

So the setting of Judith seems ahistorical. I am by no means an expert on ancient near east history, so I could be wrong. If there is an alternative explanation (e.g. this is simply a case of mistaken identity and Assyria was indeed powerful during the intertestamental period), please comment or email me. Until then, I'll look for significance in this book outside of its depiction of geopolitics and history.

Almsgiving as the theme of Tobit

Tobit died in peace when he was one hundred and twelve years old, and was buried with great honour in Nineveh. He was sixty-two years old when he lost his eyesight, and after regaining it he lived in prosperity, giving alms and continually blessing God and acknowledging God’s majesty.

Opening the final chapter of Tobit is yet another reminder of the importance of alms-giving for righteous living. Indeed, if pressed to summarize Tobit, I would say "God favors those who give alms." It seems to be the thread running throughout the book which explains why God's fortune came to Tobit through all the misery.

I'll wind up my experience reading Tobit with a couple more observations:

  • The author of Tobit uses a literary form where he tells the result of the story in brief and then returns to fill in the detail. For example at the end of chapter 3 it reveals how Raphael is sent to restore vision to Tobit and to free Sarah from the demon. I have not observed this technique elsewhere in the scriptures.
  • At the end of the story, Tobit references Nahum's prophesied destruction of Nineveh. That is somewhat remarkable since there is not much cross-reference among the Hebrew prophets.

Tobit, man of sorrows

Tobit has a wrenching story, and I'm only five chapters in. Living after the division of the Kingdom of Israel, Tobit, though being of the tribe of Naphtali in the North, continues to worship in Jerusalem. Then being carried off into exile in Assyria he at first finds favor in the foreign administration. But when the new king Sennacherib arises, Tobit finds himself on the run, being hunted down for surreptitiously burying the bodies of fellow Jews executed by the tyrant. All of this eventually leads to Tobit losing his eyesight when sparrows defecate into his eyes while he sleeps beneath a wall. A rough life, to be sure!

Yet the major message thus far in the book is that Tobit remained righteous throughout it all. He is determined to pass on this lifestyle of charity and piety to his son Tobias.

In chapter 4 Tobit is preparing for his death and so gives some ultimate instructions to his son before sending him on a risky journey to retrieve some money. First Tobit commends the care of his wife to his son. Then he implores his son to walk with God. A significant portion of that is expressed through charity:

Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.

Tobit then turns to some instructions with which I as a Christian am not comfortable. Tobias should only choose a wife from among his Jewish kinsmen. He must also apparently "give [no bread] to sinners." The latter is clearly contradicted by Jesus' ministry, and the imperative to marry only within ethnic groups is arguably countermanded by Paul's declaration that "there is neither Jew nor Greek."

Nonetheless I feel quite comfortable reading Tobit thus far. He seems to have been a fairly positive example of righteous and charitable living in a world fallen to pieces.