Apocryphal Wisdom

I remember when I was studying biblical literature as an undergraduate in Chicago. The professor at my Protestant, dispensationalist school said that the books of the Apocrypha were good for reading but not suitable to belong in the canon of the Bible. He compared them to a good piece of religious writing we might pick up from the campus bookstore. I remember my classmates giving each other sanctified nods. Yes, this was a proper attitude toward those Apocryphal books that some OTHER churches (Catholic, Orthodox) included in their Bible.

Well, I’m sure my professor meant it. He was no mean scholar of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism (Dr. Marvin Pate, who has published some significant works). But how many of us students really meant it when we nodded our heads. I know I was a hypocrite. I have only started learning what’s actually in the Apocrypha recently (I’m ashamed to say). I’m finding that I should have been reading these books a long time ago instead of just reading about them.

If you want to understand the New Testament better, go and get yourself a Bible that includes the Apocrypha (many NRSV Bibles have it).
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For the uninitiated, let me explain a little about the Apocrypha before I get to my musing for the day. This is a group of writings generally written later than the Hebrew scriptures and before the New Testament. In a Catholic Bible, you will find them integrated with the rest of the Bible text. In other Bibles, like my NRSV plus Apocrypha, they are separated out into their own section.

The books of the Apocrypha are great examples of Second Temple Jewish literature (as are the books of the Bible written during that time, including all of the New Testament). The Apocrypha is only a small part of Second Temple Jewish literature, however. There are a large number of books that no religious group today includes in their canon of scripture. These have all been lumped together into a third category: Pseudepigrapha.

So, to make that simple, we have sort of three levels of Second Temple Jewish writings: the Biblical canon, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha.

My musing for today will be about the Wisdom of Solomon. This is a text that was not written by Solomon, but was written much later, perhaps around 100 B.C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt (where a massive Jewish community once resided). Of all the books of the Apocrypha, this one book had the most influence on the developing church. When you read it, you can see why. This may sound strange, but the Wisdom of Solomon is primarily a book about God’s judgment and what righteous living really means. That may not sound like a topic you’d rush to read about, but the book really is quite interesting.

Here’s how it begins in the NRSV translation:

Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth,
think of the Lord in goodness
and seek him with sincerity of heart;
because he is found by those who do not put him to the test,
and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him.

The author says some interesting things in the first few chapters of this nineteen chapter work. I like what Wisdom 1:7-8 tell us:

Because the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world,
and that which holds all things together knows what is said,
therefore those who utter unrighteous things will not escape notice,
and justice, when it punishes, will not pass them by.

In other words, God fills this world with his Spirit. He sees all and hears all (the rabbis add that he writes all in a book!). Therefore, don’t think you can escape judgment for your wicked words.

What reason would someone have to think they could escape the notice of God’s judgment? Wisdom goes on to explain how the wicked “reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life . . . our name will be forgotten in time, and no on will remember our works” (2:1, 4). In other words, we are all insignificant creatures and our deeds largely go unnoticed. This is the view of God that he is far away and unconcerned with the little things we do and say. Many people believe that. Few realize how totally involved in creation and the lives of people God really is. As Yeshua said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6).

So what sort of sins is God judging people for, according to Wisdom? That is the part I really like about this piece of fabulous Second Temple Jewish literature.

When people imagine God judging them, they tend to think of the wrong things as arousing God’s indignation. Sometimes people worry that the sins of the appetite and false pleasure are the main things God is angry about. People think that every mental indiscretion or sexual weakness is going to bring the flames of hell. Or people imagine slackness in religious duty will be God’s primary grievance. If only we’d been to the congregation more to pray with the minyan or to church more to listen to the sermon, people think.

No, according the biblical prophets, the wisdom sages of the Bible, and to the Wisdom of Solomon, God’s greatest grievance is entirely in another area: justice and mercy toward one another. The wicked in Wisdom of Solomon are excellently represented as indulging the sins of injustice, cruelty, heartlessness, and lovelessness:

Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare his widow or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
Let is lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions . . . (2:10-12)

And Wisdom 0f Solomon does a great job of expressing the hope of the righteous. I’m still quite early in my reading of Wisdom, so I hope I don’t have this wrong, but it seems to me that this Apocryphal book expresses more fully than the Hebrew scriptures did the great hope of the Life to Come:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died . . .
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality . . .
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect. (3:1-2, 4, 9).

Wisdom of Solomon makes the topic of final judgment something worth reading about. His thoughts are profound and permeated with the Hebrew scriptures. They also show us how belief in the afterlife progressed between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.

Coming soon: More about Wisdom of Solomon. What sort of theology did this Second Temple Jewish writer hold to? Is it compatible with the New Testament?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Judaism, Life to Come, Messianic Jewish, Second Temple Lit., Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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