Monday, September 24, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (10)

In this series, we have been examining ancient books which Protestants almost universally exclude from our Old Testament canon.

So far, our Apocryphal entries have self-disqualified for five or six different reasons, including but not limited to historical inaccuracy and theological inconsistency (God is not a son of man, that he should change his mind). After all, if the Bible is God’s word, it seems obvious that documents for which inspiration is claimed must show some fundamental consistency with the accepted canon of scripture.

But today’s entry is neither historically dodgy nor theologically at odds with the rest of the Bible. It is one of our more credible contestants to date.

10. 1 Esdras

You can read the New Revised Standard text of 1 Esdras here. While mostly redundant, it is not a complete waste of time.

1 Esdras is thought to be somewhat older than the other candidates for canonicity I’ve reviewed, venerable enough to appear in the Greek Septuagint translation (3rd-2nd century B.C.). It is nine chapters long, seven of which contain alternate versions of sections of text found in our Bibles in 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.

Text of 1 Esdras and the Old Testament Compared

The book breaks down this way:
1 Esdras Old Testament
1 Esdras 1 2 Chronicles 35:1-36:21
1 Esdras 2:1-15 Ezra 1
1 Esdras 2:16-30 Ezra 4:6-24
1 Esdras 3-4 **New material**
1 Esdras 5 Ezra 2:1-4:5
1 Esdras 6:1-9:36 Ezra 5-10
1 Esdras 9:37-55 Nehemiah 8:1-12
As you can see, only chapters 3 and 4 of 1 Esdras contain material found nowhere in our Bibles, though some of the alternate text contains the odd sentence or even paragraph for which I cannot locate a Masoretic equivalent (for example, 1 Esdras 1:23-24 and 38).

Differences and Similarities

Other than that, the differences between the two text traditions primarily have to do with the renderings of certain words (“bulls” instead of “calves”), numbers (“700” instead of “500”), different spellings of names, and minor statements of fact (1 Esdras attributes the warning of Josiah’s death to Jeremiah, while 2 Chronicles attributes it to Pharaoh Neco, but both writers acknowledge God as the ultimate source of the information).

The number of differences, particularly numerical, may initially seem on the high side. But for two sets of texts quite possibly written in different original languages within a century of one another, there are an impressive number of exact numerical matches. The texts agree significantly more than they disagree, and the disagreements are not material. If for some reason Ezra had been lost, 1 Esdras would serve as a more than adequate substitute.

In fact, the texts are so startlingly similar it seems to me beyond dispute that one is an edited version of the other. No other explanation will serve. The question, of course, is who copied whom; and under what authority they changed the things they changed.

Source Material and Authority

Neither the author of 1 Esdras nor Ezra makes internal claims of a supernatural origin for what he wrote — at least not in the sense of having received heavenly dictation, as occurred in parts of Jeremiah and the other prophets. But our confidence in the validity of the Hebrew and Greek Old Testaments is not based on their own claims but on the claims the Lord Jesus and the apostles made for them, and on the final authority they ascribed to them.

Since we must choose between the versions, my own conviction is that the names, numbers and details in 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are the correct ones. It seems highly likely to me that the seven chapters of common material were borrowed from the inspired text of 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah and cobbled together by the writer of 1 Esdras as pre- and post-scripts to his two chapters of original material (which, as you can see from the chart above, and as critics of 1 Esdras have pointed out, form the core of his narrative) in hope of investing his story with historical gravitas or spiritual authority.

The alternative — that an existing, inspired book was disassembled so that its text could find its way into three completely different places in the OT canon while its central two chapters were summarily binned — seems quite preposterous.

Canonicity Considered

Another clue to its non-canonicity lies in that same original material of 1 Esdras 3-4.

Don’t get me wrong: the story, variously referred to as the “Darius Contest”, the “Story of the Youths” or the “Tale of the Three Guardsmen”, is a fascinating account rendered in a consistent voice that makes a number of shrewd observations about the relative significance of wine, political clout, women and truth in shaping history. The third guardsman, a Jew named Zerubbabel, obtains permission from King Darius to rebuild Jerusalem by giving the best answer of the three.

It’s not even outside the realm of possibility that the story of the Three Guardsman is quasi-historical, but the fact that something may have really happened does not of necessity make the account of it either God-given or scriptural. As with many of the other failed candidates for canonicity, the problem with this section of 1 Esdras is not its literary value. That literary quality (and perhaps the fear of losing something important by dismissing it) is probably the strongest reason 1 Esdras has been so faithfully preserved over the centuries.

While there are references to 1 Esdras in the early Church Fathers, there are also references to plenty of other non-canonical books. I find it highly unlikely that any of these second and third century text critics was in a better position to make a determination about canonicity than the devout Jews of the centuries just prior to Christ who established the Old Testament canon. These rejected 1 Esdras from their Tanakh, including the “Tale of the Three Guardsmen”. It is not included in the Masoretic text.

This being the case, the other seven chapters of mostly redundant material found in 1 Esdras may be rejected by association.

Readability: 8/10
Plausibility: 5/10

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