Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Paul and the Apocrypha

Some time ago, I was visiting the chapel of a young pastor in Detroit. On the wall of his sanctuary was a framed tractate that caught my attention, since it said something to the effect that the New Testament appealed only to the canon of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), but never to any of the works in the so-called Apocrypha. The point of this display was to underscore the legitimacy of the Protestant canon as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon of Old Testament Scriptures, both the latter of which recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture. While I am neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, it seems to me that this tractate said either too much or too little, too much if it intended that the New Testament writers never used the Apocrypha at all or too little if they did not take the trouble to even investigate the possibility. Now, I will frankly concede that there are no uncontested quotations from the Apocrypha in the New Testament, but it should at least be admitted that Paul (and others) on occasion appealed to ideas that were first expressed in the Apocrypha. A good example is Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20-29, where he states that a rudimentary knowledge of God is available from the created universe, and while not in itself redemptive, it is sufficient to render humans as without excuse when they rebel against it. 
Paul here seems to be drawing upon traditional Jewish theology, especially the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (13:5, 8-9, RSV). His language is too strikingly similar to this ancient text to be coincidental.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. 
Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?
Later, in 9:20, Paul again probably alludes to the Wisdom of Solomon (12:12), when he says, “One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’”
             For who will say, ‘What hast thou done? Or who will resist thy judgment?
He goes on in 9:21, using the analogy of the potter, where God makes vessels for different reasons, some for noble purposes and some for common use. This analogy, also, has its parallel in the Wisdom of Solomon (15:7).
For when a potter kneads the soft earth and laboriously molds each vessel for our service, he fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve clean uses and those for contrary use, making all in like manner; but which shall be the use of each, of these the worker in clay decides.
In 2 Corinthians 5:1, 4, Paul uses the unusual metaphor describing the human body as a perishable tent, once again, echoing language from the Wisdom of Solomon (9:15).
…for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
None of these allusions demonstrate beyond argument that Paul regarded the Wisdom of Solomon as Scripture, but at the same time, his usage of this intertestamental work does suggest that he valued it and thought it worth referencing. At the very least, no one makes allusions to literary works he hasn’t been reading!


  1. I think we do serious injustice when we fail to see the New Testament as one of many literary expressions of Second Temple Judaism. The world of first century Palestinian Judaism - that of Jesus, James, and Peter - as well as the world of first century diaspora Judaism - that of the Christian mission, Pauline and otherwise - were both thoroughly conversant with the history and religious thought of the Jewish experience in the years spanning the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman political domination.

    The question of the canonical status of the writings of the Hebrew Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha is not really the correct question when thinking about the impact of these writings on the NT authors. The intertestamental Jewish literature was varied in its genre, audience, and range of influence. Any sweeping generalizations about this body of literature are, of necessity, false.

    That being said, it is extremely clear that some of this literature was well-known to the Christian authors of the NT. The brief letter of Jude - who I understand to be the brother of the Lord - contains direct quotations from pseudepigraphical writings. But more importantly than direct quotations, many NT writings show knowledge of the development of older Jewish ideas that were honed and refined in the intertestamental period - a period which is probably much shorter than the traditional "400 years of silence between Malachi and Matthew." [The apocalyptic visions of Daniel certainly reflect the Greek-Maccabean struggles of the 160s BCE. The Chronicler certainly wrote late in the Persian or perhaps in the Greek period. Much of the wisdom literature - especially Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) - reflects the interaction of Jewish and Greek thought. The Pentateuch itself - the heart of the Hebrew faith - probably reached its final literary form in the Persian period.]

    Perhaps the best example of the impact of intertestamental thought on NT theology is the personification of Wisdom and its impact on the earliest Christological formulations of the primitive Christian community. There would have been no "logos" Christology in the hymn of John 1 had it not been for the intertestamental theological development of the wisdom language of Proverbs 8.

    Similarly, Jewish midrash on the creation stories and the character of Adam contributed to Paul's "first/last Adam" Christology. Equally probable is the impact of this developing Adam theology on the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, the cornerstone of later thinking about the person and work of Christ.

    While a lot more could be said, consider these two books when looking at the impact of intertestamental writings on the NT:

    The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (David A. deSilva, 2012)

    Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (Edited by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrick, and Jason Maston, 2015)

  2. Having argued that the NT writers were deeply influenced by the religious thought world behind the intertestamental Jewish writings (and in some cases, by these writings themselves), there is one area of influence that I must question.

    Daniel 7 introduces the figure of “one like the son of man” in the vision of the fall of the four empires and the establishment (or restoration) of Israel in God’s kingdom. This phrase was embraced by the writers of the synoptic Gospels as the main title used to describe Jesus. (Personally, I think this self-descriptive phrase goes back to actual speech patterns of Jesus of Nazareth himself.)

    But much of contemporary scholarship of the “son of man” language in the Gospels derives not just from Daniel 7, but also from the exposition and expansion of this concept in the various components of the Enoch literature of the first century.

    While I feel that influence of intertestamental literature must be taken seriously when assessing the various NT writings, I think the best evidence shows that the synoptic Gospels preceded or were contemporary with the writing/compilation of the Enoch literature. Certainly, the oral Jesus tradition from which the Gospels take their core content antedated the Enoch literature by several decades.

    While this might sound like a small issue, the Enoch reinterpretation of the “son of man” language makes a huge difference on the way NT scholars understand this phrase when uttered by Jesus of Nazareth. I think an understanding of the “son of man” rooted in Daniel 7 without the later influence of the Enoch writings best explains the meaning of this title in the synoptic Gospels.

    Perhaps, I will write a full blog post about Daniel 7 and Jesus as the “son of man” in the near future.