All Scripture Is Inspired by God: Problems in the Apocrypha20 January 2015
Joel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
(II Tim 3:16)
There are passages of the Apocrypha that many Evangelicals find disturbing or problematic. And yet, if we are honest, those passages have counterparts in the Old Testament.
For instance, much has been made of what seems to be an occultic use of animal parts in the book of Tobit. But before rejecting this story, pause for a moment. Think of how Jacob bred his flock (Gen 30:25-43). Doesn’t it seem that Jacob used folk magic and dowsing techniques? If this story had not been included in the canon and we read it for the first time today, wouldn’t we react just as strongly? Don’t Jacob’s actions seem to smack of God-sanctioned occultic practices just as much as Tobit’s do? Possibly our reaction to these kind of stories result from our being raised in a secular culture that scoffs at the miraculous and God working through the physical.
There are unusual things waiting for new readers of the Apocrypha. Yet there is much that is already familiar to us. It is genuinely Christian. Some Evangelicals find that, after reading these books, they return to familiar Scriptures and discover a new depth and authenticity to them. Others begin to realize that the Old Testament canon is not as black and white issue and they were taught.
All Scripture is Not Equal
Such a statement may come as a shock. If anything sounds like an attack on Scripture, this does.
Some background is necessary. In pre-Christian synagogue worship, when Scripture was read, the congregation responded differently to various sections of the Old Testament. The historical books “ranked” lowest, and above that came the Psalter and the Prophets. But when the Law was read, everyone in the synagogue stood. Here, for them, was the core of God’s revelation and, above all other books, the Law of Moses merited full attention.
The same happened in early Christianity after the Apostles died. But instead of the Law, it was the Gospels that compelled the faithful to stand in respect. The words and deeds of Jesus were seen as the pinnacle of the revelation of Scripture. The early Christians’ hermeneutic of the rest of the Bible began and ended with the words of Christ. The Gospels were the core of their canon. St. Paul was understood in the light of Jesus, not vice versa.
Is this ordering of Scripture so strange? We do it ourselves, although we do not readily admit it. If we consider all the sermons we have heard, cataloguing the references used, we will find that some books typically merit more thought and discourse than others. In many Protestant churches Romans and Galatians are focused upon while II Peter, James, and Jude are not. In the Old Testament, the Psalms are read more frequently than Numbers. If any church or tradition really sought to cover Scripture equally they would have to slate four times more sermons on the Old Testament than on the New!