This morning a friend emailed me a thoughtful question in response to reading my post last night about the contest between King Darius’ three bodyguards.
I just read your post on 1 Esdras. Very enjoyable to read! I don’t think I have ever read much of the Apocrypha before, but this has piqued my curiosity. Are there any redeeming reasons for reading it? If there are, I would like to know them so I can be aware of them as I read.
Yes, I think that there are redeeming reasons for reading the Apocrypha. Even though Protestants reject its canonical status, the Apocrypha continued to be included between the covers of most English Bibles as late as the nineteenth century, and even the King James Version of 1611 included it. Although many English translations printed a small disclaimer that the Apocrypha was not on par with the Old and New Testaments, it was nonetheless between the same covers with sacred Scripture. The 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible was the first English Bible printed without the Apocrypha. So what was the Apocrypha doing in all those English Bible? Christians believed that it possesses spiritual value. How so? I’d suggest at least three ways that the Apocrypha is valuable:
1. Exegetical value
The Apocrypha is valuable because it sheds light on the history of Second Temple Judaism. Understanding this period is especially important to discern the religious, political, social, and literary context of the New Testament.
2. Cultural value
The Apocrypha has had a pervasive influence on Western literature and music. Knowledge of the Apocrypha’s content is useful for interpreting works it has inspired spanning from William Shakespeare’s plays to Charles Wesley’s hymn compositions. Dozens of Wesley’s hymns including “Now Thank We All Our God,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” incorporate ideas, phrases, and even whole sections from the Apocrypha (cf. Bruce M. Metzger, “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979], 1:174).
3. Devotional value
Christians recognize that it is possible for non-inspired sources to possess devotional value (e.g., books, hymn lyrics, the words of a preacher). The Apocrypha has devotional value in the sense that a generally useful devotional book does. (And it is certainly not completely free from error!)
The life of John Bunyan is a classic example. At a crucial point in his life, Bunyan questioned whether or not he was one of God’s elect, and after a great mental struggle, God used a verse from the Apocrypha to comfort him. Bunyan could not find the reference to what he thought was a Bible verse, and he tried in vain to find it. He wrote in his autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:
I continued my search for more than a year, but I could not find this text. Then at last, having cast an eye over the Apocryphal books, I found it in Ecclesiasticus 2:10. At first this somewhat daunted me, but because by this time I had more experience of the love and kindness of God, it troubled me less, especially when I considered that though it was not in those texts which we call holy and canonical, it did contain the sum and substance of many of the promises and it was, therefore, my duty to take comfort from it. I bless God for that word; it was for my good. That word still often shines before my face (1966; update, Auburn, MA: Evangelical Press, 2000, p. 45).
The Apocrypha is an assortment of all sorts of genres, and some parts are significantly more interesting than others. (That’s a polite way of saying that some of it is relatively boring!) If you’re interested primarily in reading fascinating stories, then I’d start with the following: