Friday, April 19, 2013

The Apocrypha and the Church: What books was the church reading?

In 2011 Ashland Seminary hosted a series of events celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Part of that celebration included setting up a museum in which we displayed various manuscripts and Bibles dating back over 2,000 years. Included among the items on display was a page from a 1611 King James Bible. But the page was not from an Old or New Testament book, but was from 1 Maccabees, one of the books contained in the apocrypha. When people touring the museum saw this they were usually quite surprised. The didn't realize that the apocrypha was part of that Bible. 

Today, most protestant Bibles do not include the apocrypha and few have ever read the apocrypha. But history reveals that the apocrypha has been a part of what we call the "Bible" longer than it has not. For example, the earliest most complete Bible discovered at the monastery on Mount Sinai (Codex Sinaiticus) contained the apocrypha as well as a number of other books that were and are, in general, not considered canonical. The evidence of the 1611 King James shows that while the Bible has expanded and shrunk over history, what we commonly call the apocrypha was usually a part of the Bible.

Over at the blog The Anxious Bench there is a a informative post about how well the apocrypha was known by English and Irish Christians. Here is some of what they say.

A century ago, M. R. James remarked that “the Anglo-Saxon and Irish scholars seem to have been in possession of a good deal of rather rare apocryphal literature,” mainly in Latin but occasionally even in Greek. The content of that library has attracted much scholarly interest in modern times, in books like Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England (2003), edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, and Frederick M. Biggs’ Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture: The Apocrypha (2007). 
With that material in mind, what can we say about the English Christian bookshelf? It certainly included all the canonical books of the Bible, as well as such deuterocanonical works as Judith, Tobias, Wisdom, and Sirach. But English clergy also knew and read a sizable body of Old Testament pseudepigrapha, including 1 and 2 Enoch, Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, as well as Psalm 151. They also used the bizarre Irish text De Plasmatione Adam, which was added to the older Life of Adam and Eve. 
Among New Testament apocrypha, few doubted the authenticity of Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans or the Gospel of Nicodemus, with its account of the harrowing of Hell. Apocryphal Lives of the Apostles were especially popular. Partly due to the English church’s curious connections with the East Mediterranean, the Syrian saint Thomas was a beloved figure. Hexham’s eighth century bishop Acca built up a very full and distinguished collection (amplissimam ac nobilissimam bibliothecam) of the lives and Passions of the apostles and martyrs, among many other ecclesiastical books.

The post is very informative and well worth reading. I recommend it for those who are interested in the history of English Bible and the apocrypha. 

No comments:

Post a Comment