AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE APOCRYPHA. By W O E Oesterley D D Litt D. © W O E Oesterley 1935. First published S.P.C.K. 1935. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

THE APOCRYPHA AS LITERATURE

HOME

In a collection of writings of such various authorship as the Apocrypha,
and in which the purposes of the writings are so different,
it is natural enough that the standard of literary merit should not be the same in all.
With one exception, we have no knowledge of the personalities of the writers, apart from a few exiguous hints to be gleaned from their books, and therefore as to their claims to be regarded as littirateurs.

The compiler of I Esdras was nothing more than a compiler who shows but little skill in piecing together the fragments that he had collected.
One piece, at least, has distinct literary value.
True, the compiler has somewhat marred the original symmetry,
but he makes up for it by adding a fine piece of his own.
To this we shall return (p.15).

The writer of II Esdras was an apocalyptist who had no faith in humanity,
and his pessimism colours his writing,
but his sympathy for his fallen brethren and his deep piety are beautiful traits.
More than one writer has contributed to the book, but of this later;
taken as a whole it has much that is of value from a literary, as well as from other points of view.

The authors of Tobit and Judith are both fine storytellers.
The latter book, especially, is of high literary excellence.

The author of Wisdom was a cultured man with some knowledge of Greek literature.
The earlier part of his book is superior to the latter from the literary point of view;
it is not by any means certain that both parts belong to one author.
The book has been described as "perhaps the finest work in the whole range of apocryphal literature".
Taking it as a whole, that may be true, but it applies to the former rather than to the latter part.
[Fairweather & Black, The First Book of Maccabees, p.15 (1908).]

The writer of I Maccabees has left to posterity a work of the greatest value.
As his object was to set forth nothing but historical events,
it cannot be said that the simple narrative prose is of great literary worth.
Nevertheless, the writer is sometimes moved to pen some fine rhetorical passages,
and some exciting episodes are realistically portrayed.

Of greatly inferior ability is the writer of II Maccabees.
But he does not profess to do more than give a digest of the historical work of Jason of Cyrene.
He cannot be said to have done his work well, whatever the reasons may be.
He often leaves gaps in the history, and the whole presentation is much wanting in unity.
His own additions, prompted no doubt by the best of motives, are not always in good taste.

Of the Rest of Esther and the Additions to Daniel there is little to be said from the literary point of view.
The three pieces included under the Song of the Three Holy Children all have their points of merit.
That the Prayer of Manasses should have been incorporated in the early Church liturgy can be readily understood.
As a penitential liturgical piece it would be difficult to find its equal.

In Baruch we have, in the later portions (iii.9-v.9), some highly edifying literary pieces of the "Wisdom" type.

We have purposely left to the end the great figure of Ben-Sira and his book.
Of his personality we know more than that of any other writer of the books of the Apocrypha,
and his book is, we believe, by far the most important from most points of view, literary and other, of all those classed under this misleading title.
This grand old Sage gives us in his book (Ecclesiasticus) quite a lot of information about himself -
not purposely, for he is anything but an egotist, but incidentally and by implication.
He was a Wisdom-scribe, learned in the Scriptures, a teacher and public lecturer.
He had travelled, and had experienced much among his fellow-creatures.
He had thus gained a wide knowledge of the world.
A careful observer of human nature,
his insight into the weaknesses of men, as well as of their virtues, was deep.
Gifted with a keen sense of humour,
he could with biting sarcasm penetrate the armour of egotistic self-esteem,
and without malice scourge those who deserved his censure.
But dominating his entire outlook there was a depth of religious conviction to which everything was subordinated.
It will, therefore, readily be understood why his book stands out as the brightest gem of the collection,
and why it has been the most highly treasured by the thoughtful in all ages.
As pure literature it may not reach the standard of the first part of the book of Wisdom,
but it has compensating excellence, which make it of higher value.

We will now offer a few illustrations showing some of the literary characteristics of these writings.

As an example of the art of narration we may mention the "Story of the Three Pages", in I Esdr.iii.1-iv.63.
This tells of how three young men of the bodyguard of Darius I undertook an intellectual contest as to which of them could describe in a single wise sentence the strongest thing in the world.
The king and the three princes of Persia were to be the judges.
Each writes down his sentence, on a piece of papyrus (presumably):
they run:

"Wine is the strongest";
"The king is strongest";
"Women are the strongest."

Here, however, an element is brought in which quite obviously does not belong to the original story,
but which is interjected for the special purpose that the compiler of I Esdras had in view.
After the sentence, "Women are strongest", the entirely irrelevant words are added:

"But above all things Truth beareth away the victory."

That however is by the way.
The story goes on to narrate how the king and his courtiers assembled to hear the young men read out their sentences, and to set forth the reasons whereby each was justified.
This done, the king and his nobles take counsel.
It is unanimously decided that the champion of women has won the day,
and the king pronounces the verdict in the words:

"O sirs, are not women strong?"

Now, in the original story it is highly probable that the virtues of woman were lauded.
But here, be the reason what it may, the writer goes off on to a panegyric on Truth.
The king suitably rewards the winner.
There is no doubt that as a piece of popular literature the story is told with great skill, for the reader's interest, gripped at the start, is arrested all through.
With the origin of the story we are not here concerned, but the compiler has made good use of it.
His own addition on the praise of Truth is, from the literary point of view, the best part of the story as it now stands, and is worth quoting:

"Great is the earth, high is the heaven, swift is the sun in his course,
for he compasseth the heavens round about, and fetcheth his course again to his own place in one day.
Is he not great that maketh these things?
Therefore great is Truth, and stronger than all things.
All the earth calleth upon Truth, and the heaven blesseth her.
All works shake and tremble, but with her is no unrighteous thing.
Wine is unrighteous,
the king is unrighteous,
women are unrighteous,
all the children of men are unrighteous,
and unrighteous are all their works - all suchlike.
And there is no truth in them.
In their unrighteousness also they shall perish.
But Truth abideth, and is strong forever,
she liveth and conquereth for evermore.
With her there is no accepting of persons or partiality.
But she doeth the things that are just,
away from all unrighteous and wicked things,
and all men have pleasure in her works.
And neither in her judgement is taught unrighteous,
and hers is the strength, and dominion, and power, and majesty, of all ages.
Blessed be the, God of Truth. And he ceased speaking.

Then all the people shouted and said:
"Great is Truth and of exceeding power!" "

(iv.34-41).
[Μεγάλη ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ περισχύει = Magna est veritas et praevalet
(there is no good manuscript authority for praevalibit).]

To illustrate the literary style of Ben-Sira is a little difficult because the choice is so great.
His book is much longer than any other in the collection.
As he writes throughout in parallels, or their development, it will be best to give the quotations in this form.

A beautiful piece is the poem on the Fear of the Lord:
[From the Greek; the Hebrew is not extant.]

"The fear of the Lord is glory and exultation,
And gladness and a crown of joy.
The fear of the Lord delighteth the heart,
And giveth gladness, and joy, and length of days.
For him that feareth the Lord it shall be well at the last,
And in the day of his death he shall find grace.
The beginning of wisdom is to fear God,
And with the faithful she was created in the womb;
With men of truth - she is established for ever,
And with their seed her love abideth.
Satiety of wisdom is the fear of the Lord,"

[On the basis of the Syriac; the Greek text is corrupt.]
"And she intoxicateth with her fruits.
She filleth all her house with desirable things,
And her garners with her produce.
A crown of wisdom is the fear of the Lord,
Making peace to flourish and healthful healing.
A strong staff is she and a glorious stay,
And everlasting honour for those who take hold of her."

[From the Syriac; the Greek is corrupt.]
"The fear of the Lord is the root of wisdom,
And her branches are length of days."

(Ecclus.i.11-20.)
[The Syriac adds twelve distichs in continuance of the same theme which, in all probability, represent the original Hebrew; see Smend, Die Weisheit des Jesus Sirach, pp.13 f. (1906).]

Our next illustration is translated from the Hebrew.
The English translation from the Greek is familiar to many,
but it will be seen that the Hebrew differs from this in many particulars.
The illustration is taken from the famous "Praise of the Fathers of old"-
that is the title given in the Hebrew.
[The Greek Version has the title: "Hymn of the Fathers."]
- (Ecclus.xliv.1-15):
[In a few cases, the rendering is somewhat free in order to bring out the sense of the Hebrew.]

"Let me now sing the praises of pious men,
the fathers in their generations.
Great glory did the Most High allot them,
and great were they from the days of old.
They held dominion on earth in their royalty,
Renowned for their mighty deeds,
Counsellors with discernment,
Seers all by prophecy.
Rulers of the Gentiles through their craft,
and leaders through their insight.
Wise in speech through scribal learning,
Uttering the sayings of tradition;
Composers of psalms according to rule,
And authors of written proverbs;
Men of ability, possessing wealth,
And living at ease in their homes.
All these were honoured in their generation,
and in their day had honour.
Some of them have left a name,
That men might tell their praise;
And some of them have no memorial,
And they rested, even as they rested;
They were as though they had not been,
Even as their children after them;
Yet were they men of piety,
Good fortune abode with them.
With their seed their goods remained secure,
and their inheritance to their children's children.
Their posterity held fast to the covenant,
So, too, their children for their sakes;
Their memory abideth for ever,
Their righteousness shall never be forgotten;
Their bodies were buried in peace,
But their name liveth unto all generations.
The assembly recount their wisdom,
and the congregation declare their praise."

In the story of Tobit there is a pathetic episode when Tobit misjudges his wife,
in consequence of which she taunts him with being lacking in charity.
Not content with this,
she wounds him to the quick by telling him that all his pious acts and almsgiving are nothing but hypocrisy,
and that the entire world knows it.
This grieves Tobit to such an extent that he pours out his soul in bitterness to God, and prays that he may die.
Our next illustration shall be Tobit's prayer,
expressing as it does with such poignancy the bitterness of a sensitive soul.
Especially noteworthy also is his conviction that he is suffering for the sins of his fathers:

"O Lord, thou art righteous,
and all thy works are mercy and truth,
and thou judgest true and righteous judgement forever.
Remember me, and look on me.
Take not vengeance on me for my sins and mine ignorances,
and the sins of my fathers, which sinned before thee;
for they disobeyed thy commandments;
and thou gavest us for a spoil,
and for captivity, and for death,
and for a proverb of reproach to all the nations among whom we are dispersed.
And now, many are thy judgements, true are they.
That thou shouldest deal with me according to my sins and the sins of my fathers;
because we did not keep thy commandments,
for we walked not in truth before thee.
And now deal with me according to that which is pleasing in thy sight,
command my spirit to be taken from me,
that I may be released, and become earth.
For it is profitable for me to die rather than to live,
because I have heard false reproaches,
and there is much sorrow in me.
Command that I be now released from my distress,
and go to the everlasting place.
Turn not thy face away from me."

(Tob.iii.2-6).

An illustration from the book of Judith might have been given,
but that it would involve a somewhat lengthy quotation,
the narrative form of the book would demand this.
As an instance, however, of the arresting literary style we may refer, for example, to x.10-23,
describing Judith's daring entry through the hostile camp into the tent of Holofernes.
This, like many another passage in the book, reveals a remarkably high standard in the art of storytelling.
No detail is without point.
The course of the narrative is here and there held up with the purpose of whetting the reader's appetite,
arousing the feeling of the need to go on in order to see what happens.
And the denouement does not disappoint.
The climax in the story is terribly dramatic,
one might say tragic, were it not that the heroine wins the day (xvi.1-17)

In I Maccabees, owing to the subject matter, passages of artistic literary excellence are hardly to be looked for.
Yet there are some realistic battle descriptions that rivet the attention.
In vi.39-46, for example, we have a stirring account of an act of individual heroism during a battle in which the Syrians had brought up thirty-two elephants trained for warfare:

"Now when the sun shone upon the shields of gold and brass,
the mountains shone therewith, and blazed like torches of fire.
And a part of the king's army was spread upon the high mountains, and some on the low ground,
and they went on firmly and in order.
And all that heard the noise of their multitude, and the marching of the multitude,
and the rattling of the arms, did quake;
for the army was exceeding great and strong.
And Judas and his army drew near for battle;
and there fell of the king's army six hundred men.
And Eleazar, who was called Avaran, saw one of the beasts armed with royal breastplates,
and he was higher than all the beasts, and the king seemed to be upon it.
And he gave himself to deliver his people, and to get him an everlasting name.
And he ran upon him courageously into the midst of the phalanx,
and slew on the right hand and on the left,
and they parted asunder from him on this side and on that.
And he crept under the elephant, and thrust him from beneath, and slew him;
and the elephant fell to the earth upon him,
and he died there."

Sometimes the writer bursts forth into a poetic strain (e.g. iii.1-9, 45; vi.10-13), showing that the war-chronicler could also express himself in poetry.
[Assuming, that is, that such passages are from the hand of the writer himself, which is not certain.
See below, p.302.]

In the last three chapters of the book of Baruch we have a collection of poems, among which are several addressed to Jerusalem personified.
The last three speak of comfort to the bereaved "mother", for her children are coming back to her.
One of these runs thus:

"O Jerusalem, raise thine eyes to the cast,
And behold the joy that cometh to thee from God.
Lo, thy children are coming,
whom perforce thou didst send away, they are coming,
Gathered from the cast to the west,
[The words; "at the word of the Holy One" are a later addition.]
Rejoicing in the glory of God.
Put off, O Jerusalem, the garment of thy mourning, [The words: "& affliction" are a later addition.]
And put on the ornament of the glory of God.
[The words: "for ever" are a later addition.]
Cast about thee the robe of the righteousness of God,
Set a diadem on thine head of the glory of the Everlasting.
For God will show thy brightness to all the earth under heaven,
For thy name shall be called by God:
"The peace of righteousness" and "The glory of godliness." "

(Bar.iv.36-v.4.)

If we had the Hebrew original of this beautiful little poem, we should doubtless find the unevenness that occurs here and there smoothed away.

One of the most striking pieces of its kind,
and probably unparalleled elsewhere,
is the heart-searching confession of sin in the Prayer of Manasses;
and one can fully understand and appreciate the reason for its having been put to liturgical use in the Church.
It is too long to quote in full but part of it may find a place here:

" ... For thou art the Lord Most High,
of great compassion, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy,
and dost grieve
(Lit. "dost repent of.") at the evils of men.
Thou, O Lord,
according to thy great goodness,
hast promised repentance and forgiveness
to them that have sinned against thee;
and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners,
that they may be saved.
Thou, therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just,
hast not appointed repentance to the just,
to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob,
which have not sinned against thee;
but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner.
For I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea.
My transgressions are multiplied, O Lord,
my transgressions are multiplied,
and I am not worthy to behold
and see the height of heaven
for the multitude of mine iniquities.
I am bowed down with many iron bands,
that I cannot lift up my head by reason of my sins,
neither have I any respite,
for I have provoked thy wrath,
and done that which is evil before thee.
I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments. ...
Now, therefore, I bow the knee of my heart,
beseeching thee of grace.
I have sinned, O Lord,
I have sinned,
and I acknowledge mine iniquities;
but I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord,
forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquities."

Many other illustrations could be given to show the manifold richness of this literature.
One last one we cannot refrain from giving,
even though it is probably the best known passage in the whole of the Apocrypha;
it is from Wisd.iii.1-9:

"But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
And, in truth, no torment shall touch them.
[Added to express the emphatic negative of the Greek.]
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
And their departure was accounted a misfortune,
And their going from us their destruction;
But they are in peace.
For even if in the sight of men they suffered punishment,
Yet was their hope full of immortality;
And having been chastened a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
For God tried them,
And found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace did he prove them,
And as a whole burnt offering he accepted them.
And in the time of their visitation they shall shine forth,
[i.e. the Day of Judgement.]
And as sparks among stubble shall they run to and fro.
[Cp. Enoch civ.2: "Ye shall shine as the lights of heaven, ye shall shine, & ye shall be seen."]
They shall judge nations, and have dominion over peoples,
And the Lord shall reign over them for ever.
They that trust in him shall understand truth,
And the faithful shall abide in him in love;
For grace and mercy are for his elect,
And he will graciously visit his sanctified ones."

These few illustrations will, it may be hoped, give some idea of the literary value of the books of the Apocrypha.
top