Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (4)

This week, our journey through ancient Hebrew and Greek literature produces what looks like a first among our candidates for Old Testament canonicity: a letter.

The New Testament is full of letters. Acts and Luke are early candidates, and once we hit Romans, almost everything else is too. The Old Testament preserves a few missives to or from various dignitaries in its books of history, but to the best of my knowledge the book-length letter is a New Testament phenomenon.

4. 2 Maccabees

2 Maccabees is a letter from the Jews of Judea to their fellow Jews living in Egypt and unfamiliar with historical specifics of the Judean situation, especially the exploits of Judas Maccabeus, circa second century B.C. You can read it in the New Revised Standard version here.


The anonymous author attempts to condense a five-volume history written by Jason of Cyrene into a single missive, about which he says the following:
“We have aimed to please those who wish to read, to make it easy for those who are inclined to memorize, and to profit all readers.”
The letter-writer essentially re-tells parts of the first seven chapters of 1 Maccabees, terminating his account prior to the death of Judas, but adding considerable detail to the material he covers.

Where the miraculous is notably absent in 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees revels in it. Battles ostensibly won in the former account through determination and shrewdness acquire a supernatural component in this retelling.

The Supernatural Component

“When the battle became fierce, there appeared to the enemy from heaven five resplendent men on horses with golden bridles, and they were leading the Jews. Two of them took Maccabeus between them, and shielding him with their own armor and weapons, they kept him from being wounded. They showered arrows and thunderbolts on the enemy, so that, confused and blinded, they were thrown into disorder and cut to pieces. Twenty thousand five hundred were slaughtered, besides six hundred cavalry.”
A few “resplendent men” are always useful to have around when you’re going up against a much larger force, especially when they throw thunderbolts. Though the writer stops short of using the word “angels”, it is evident that’s what he has in mind.

The more austere 1 Maccabees account of the battle with Timothy and his army of mercenaries contains no such divine intervention. But in this retelling, Judas is not merely a devout human deliverer for the Jews, he is explicitly aided by heaven and personally protected. There is also the unlikely account in chapter 3 of an angelic beating delivered when Heliodorus attempted to plunder the savings of widows and orphans deposited in the temple treasury, and a second miraculous battlefield deliverance.

Doctrinal Problems

Unlike the first volume, 2 Maccabees is thought to have been written in Greek, probably in Alexandria in the late second century B.C. There is no evidence, internal or archeological, of an earlier Hebrew version. Like 1 Maccabees, it is excluded from the Hebrew Masoretic text but present in the Greek Septuagint.

Much has been made, however, of the alleged “doctrinal problems” in 2 Maccabees, particularly prayer for the dead:
“And they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.”
Here is it evident that the writer believes “making atonement for the dead” is a pious act, as did Judas, his example. But it’s hard to miss the fact that he’s engaging in a bit of spiritual freelancing. His explanation comes so close to being an apology that it’s obvious he’s offering his opinion, not dogmatizing. He explains how Judas rationalizes his act (“taking account of the resurrection”), and why he also thinks it was a good idea, but at no point does he make reference to the law of God or any special revelation. He makes no claim that he is speaking for God. People who are confident of divine authority behind their statements rarely feel compelled to rationalize them for us.

What the passage does show is that Judas believed explicitly in resurrection, which is no small thing when we consider that even godly OT saints like Hezekiah seemed to have a lack of clarity on that issue.

Reasons for Rejection

To sum it up, there are a few reasons to reject 2 Maccabees as canonical:
  1. The writer gives no indication he is doing anything particularly spiritual, or anything more important than condensing an existing historical account for friends in a pleasing way. In fact, he says his mission is to “delight the ears of those who read the work” (15:39).
  2. What “doctrinal” matter does exist is offered in the most tentative possible fashion, unlike in the rest of scripture.
  3. Both 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees give us the story of Judas, but the latter repeatedly introduces the supernatural. Both versions cannot be simultaneously true.
  4. As with other Apocryphal literature, there is no evidence the Jews ever considered it “scripture”.
A Little Less Editorializing, Please

But if I had to point to a single thing about the book that makes it fail to ring true for me, it’s got to be the ever-present editorializing in which the writer can’t resist engaging. Almost everybody is either horrible or wonderful. The objectivity and dispassion with which the historians in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles tell their stories, acknowledging significant moral failings in the best of men with minimal rhetoric and drama, is tossed out the window in favor of a far more subjective, partisan approach.

Thus we get references to “the vile Jason” (4:19); to a mother who was “especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory” (7:20), who “filled with a noble spirit, reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage” (7:21); to Gorgias, “the accursed man” (12:35); to “thrice-accursed” wretches (15:3) (on multiple occasions); to Alcimus and his “mad purpose” (14:5); to the “gray hair and dignity” and “marvelous majesty and authority” of Onias (15:13), and so on.

It seems to me that when God has men write about men for spiritual purposes, they do it with just a little less obvious gusto and transparently patriotic glee. They have higher issues in view.

Readability: 7/10
Plausibility: 3/10

No comments :

Post a Comment