Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (1)

In my mid-teens, I finished Tolkien.

I mean completely finished him: Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, Silmarillion, all done and dusted, multiple times even. And the man was dead. There were no more books coming. Imagine my despair. Then my cousin put me on to Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “perhaps there is a solution.” So I read Sword.

I may never recover. In those early years of his career, Brooks was nothing like Stephen R. Donaldson, who cobbled together Tolkienesque tropes with originality and genius. No, Brooks was a straight-up knock-off J.R.R. wannabe hack. He may have improved since, but I never went back. I have had bigger disappointments, but none at such a tender age.

I feel like that about the Apocrypha.

All the Books?

Recently I was emailed this question from a young Christian: “How can we know for sure that we have all the books of the Bible?” I attempted to answer that here, but in the process rekindled my own long-dormant interest in the dreaded Apocrypha.

For centuries, Christians have debated the canonicity of over a dozen major, well-known ancient bits of religious literature that, at least within Protestantism, have never quite made the final cut. They are just not in our Bibles. And if you have never read them, you may well wonder why.

If you’ve read them … well, I’m guessing you already know.

So consider the twelve posts in this series a little cruise through a tropical ocean of questionable theology, odd tales and morbid curiosities, perhaps best accompanied by some light Caribbean tunes, a pair of sunglasses and a soft drink with a pink umbrella in it.

On a more serious note, you may find the exercise helps us better define what it is about the word of God that distinguishes it from all the other religious writings, folktales, stories and myths with which human history is replete. We know scripture cannot really be imitated, but we don’t always know quite why that is.

Here come a few suggestions.

1. The Book of Tobit

I’m using the New Revised Standard translation, in case anyone’s interested. You can read the Book of Tobit here. Bear in mind it did cost me two hours of my life I’ll never get back …

Wisdom Literature Meets Nora Roberts

While allegedly historical, the Book of Tobit reads more like a cross between an ancient Jewish romance novel and Proverbs Lite. It is presumed to have been originally written in Aramaic a couple of hundred years before the time of Christ. All existing versions had been translated from the Greek prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among which were found Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of Tobit which, when translated, were found to be consistent with the existing Greek text.

This thing actually mattered to someone! It was certainly carefully preserved.

The title character claims to be descended from the tribe of Naphtali, a righteous exiled Israelite living in the city of Nineveh in Assyria (dating the events of the book sometime after 722 B.C.). Despite his righteousness, he is inadvertently blinded by falling sparrow poop (I am SO not making this up) and prays to die (he doesn’t), setting up the events that follow. The first 2-1/2 chapters are written in the first person from Tobit’s perspective, the rest are in the third for ... reasons, I suppose.

Burning Fish Gall and Angry Demons

The book largely concerns Tobit’s son Tobias and his trip from Nineveh to Media to recover a sum of money held in trust for his father, and to marry a relative named Sarah who (here’s where it gets extra-nutty) is plagued by the demon Asmodeus. Tobias becomes Sarah’s eighth husband and the first to survive the ire of her murderous demon bodyguard. His secret? An angel named Raphael tips Tobias that burning a fish’s heart, liver and gall in the marriage chamber will drive Asmodeus away. A fish-gall concoction (from the same unlikely and unfortunate fish) also turns out to be the cure for Tobit’s blindness, and everything ends happily for the reunited family-in-exile.

The ‘Proverbs Lite’ part comes from three soliloquies within the book’s 14 chapters in which various characters (including the angel Raphael) advise others how they should live. They are either restatements of the Law or platitudes that read like Proverbs without quite the same moral authority (“Almsgiving delivers from death” or “Marry a woman from among the descendants of your ancestors; do not marry a foreign woman”, and so on). Presumably these passages are one of the reasons Tobit has managed to survive over two thousand years despite being not much more than a fairly decent fantastical yarn with a little bit of Lost Tribes historical flavor stirred in to up the apparent authenticity; they make it at least sound a little more in keeping with the tone of the Bible’s wisdom literature.

Trying to Make the Sale

Despite all this, I see nowhere in Tobit where anybody makes a real claim to speak for God or to be acting at his direction. Not every book of the Bible does, of course, but an opening line like “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem …” or a cameo appearance from God himself tend to at least establish that the author thought he was writing something that mattered. There’s little indication that the author of Tobit is attempting to do anything more than entertain his audience.

Even the “good” angel who appears is kind of freelancing, off on a helpful mission of his own choosing. (Anybody remember Touched By An Angel? Tobit reads like the script for a long-lost pilot episode.) Any moral authority found in the book comes from the closeness of its approximation to existing proverbial wisdom and Mosaic instruction (which varies, depending on the advice given). Any appearance of historical authenticity comes from parroting the material in Kings and Chronicles. On the bright side, it’s certainly well-researched.

A Stage Too Well Set

Then there is the stage-setting. Real books of Bible history don’t do this. They drop you right into the middle of the action with only a line or two of setup, maybe even to a fault. For this reason, modern readers debate the age of the Book of Job and some of the minor prophets, poring over their verses for clues. An opening sentence like this, on the other hand:
“This book tells the story of Tobit son of Tobiel son of Hananiel son of Aduel son of Gabael son of Raphael son of Raguel of the descendants of Asiel, of the tribe of Naphtali, who in the days of King Shalmaneser of the Assyrians was taken into captivity from Thisbe, which is to the south of Kedesh Naphtali in Upper Galilee, above Asher toward the west, and north of Phogor,”
while it initially appears more historical in tone, is actually trying WAY too hard.

There’s a good reason for the frequent paucity of extraneous information in real Bible accounts, and that is that very often the original audiences for the written word already knew those stories. Many had been orally transmitted for decades or centuries. To read a written version of a familiar historical account out loud was merely to invite a critique of one’s prose and one’s faithfulness to the received versions already extant in the hearts of the audience. It is the modern reader, distanced from these events and cultural tropes by millennia, who struggles to put events like the Dispersion in their historical context or understand precise geographical references in the Middle East.

Hebrew-Splaining

Then there are the bits of history you’d never have to tell at any time in the thousand years before Christ, whether you were actually writing the story for exiles or for a Jewish audience in second century B.C.:
“This city [Jerusalem] had been chosen from among all the tribes of Israel, where all the tribes of Israel should offer sacrifice and where the temple, the dwelling of God, had been consecrated and established for all generations forever.”
Any Israelite audience already knows this. It is ridiculously well-established. The fact that the writer of Tobit feels compelled to trot out this tidbit suggests he may have been writing for foreigners, not Jews at all. In fact, the fussiness of tone and detail suggests an Assyrian, Babylonian or Persian parody of (or maybe a homage to) the writings of this strange group of exiles in the midst of a foreign empire.

The same excessive granularity extends to the story itself. When Raphael finally reveals he is an angel, he has to establish his bona fides by appealing to conventional wisdom about spirit beings:
“Although you were watching me, I really did not eat or drink anything — but what you saw was a vision.”
Hrm. Sounds more like a novelist clearing up a dangling plot point to me.

The Villain of the Piece

Finally, there is the Asmodeus subplot. I’m just not buying a demon that kills men for having sex with a girl he likes. Oh, I’m quite sure demons are powerful enough to kill human beings if they wished, but we have no evidence from scripture that they do. Perhaps they are not allowed. Even Satan himself required permission from God to torment Job, and a certain level of protection of God’s people today is assumed from the fact that Paul speaks of believers delivering “this man to Satan”, as if Satan could not go get him without some kind of special dispensation.

Further, for the writer of Tobit to go out of his way to explain the angel Raphael’s appearing to eat while not even bothering to comment on the fact that his villain is dispatching humans with unprecedented and extra-biblical efficiency seems odd indeed.

What Would We Lose Without It?

This is the $64,000 question. Take away the Book of Tobit and what does the faith lose? Can Christians manage without the information contained therein?

I would say we absolutely can. Hey, it’s an engaging read, but Tobit just doesn’t pass the sniff test. There is no new moral instruction or revelation about God here that a Christian (or even a devout Jew) should wish to preserve. The historical aspect is of interest, of course. We know a little about life for exiled Jews and Israelites in Babylon and Persia from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Esther, but almost nothing about life under Assyrian rule for the relocated Ten Tribes. The nastiness of the Assyrian overlords described in Tobit, if true, also sheds real light on Jonah’s intense antipathy toward Nineveh. These glimpses of history are not without some value, and may help explain why Jews have preserved Tobit with the same sort of diligence they have accorded the word of God.

The problem is that given the apparent flights of fancy and theological inconsistencies with the rest of the Bible, I’m not even convinced it’s genuinely historical, let alone worthy of canonicity.

Readability: 7/10
Plausibility: 2/10

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