Monday, September 03, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (7)

Even if you have grown up with email rather than snail mail as your primary means of personal communication, you are probably aware some bits of correspondence have more value than others.

The criteria change depending on your current needs. When you are feeling lonely, a love letter from your spouse probably means more to you than an old “Honey-Do” list. On a cold February night at 3 a.m., instructions about how to restart your silent furnace mean more than a list of upcoming summer concerts.

All these bits of correspondence may be equally factual. Accuracy is not the issue. The question is whether or not they contain something that really matters, and that matters to you.

7. The Book of Baruch

The prayer and exhortation of a Jewish scribe purportedly written at the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. You can read it in the New Revised Standard version right here.

Some Deep Background

Baruch the son of Neriah is a character straight out of the canon. (I’ve always wanted to say that.) He is first introduced in chapter 32 of Jeremiah as a witness to the prophet’s purchase of a piece of land from his cousin. Later, in chapter 36, Baruch is called to serve as Jeremiah’s scribe. Because the prophet was banned from the temple in Jerusalem, the diligent recorder was given the less-than-desirable task of reading the words of the Lord from the scroll he had written to the hostile citizens of Jerusalem.

This landed him in all sorts of trouble with the officials of the city. After seizing and reading the scroll, the king burned it, and immediately sent men to arrest both Jeremiah and Baruch, who was now fully implicated in the prophet’s unpopular mission.

Back to the Drawing Board

Meanwhile, Jeremiah and Baruch had been hidden by God from their pursuers. God then had Jeremiah dictate the contents of the entire scroll a second time to Baruch, who faithfully rewrote everything the king had burned, and then some.

If you have ever accidentally deleted a Word file after hours and hours of work, you might have the slightest inkling how Baruch probably felt about all this.

By chapter 43, when Jeremiah began to speak on his own behalf once again, Baruch was viewed as an enemy of the state to such an extent that the rebellious Israelite remnant accused Jeremiah of being Baruch’s puppet. He and Jeremiah were taken by force to Egypt, where God gave Baruch a message through Jeremiah that he would enjoy a measure of ongoing divine protection as a result of his faithful service.

That’s the sum total of what the Bible says about Baruch. But the Apocrypha has a full five chapters more to add.

Book Summary

The first chapter is an introduction, written in the third person, establishing the book’s historical context. Chapters 2-5 are said to be the words of Baruch written in Babylon about the time the Chaldeans burned Jerusalem, which we are told Baruch read to the exiled king of Judah, the nobles, princes and elders and all the people of Judah who lived near the River Sud. Baruch’s scroll was sent, along with money and some of the vessels taken from the temple, to the remaining priests and people of Jerusalem in hope that they would offer burnt offerings, sin offerings and a grain offering on behalf of the exiles and, by proxy, the king of Babylon. The latter part of chapter 1 is a written confession intended to be read aloud at festivals until the exiles returned to Israel.

The last four chapters of the book are written in the first person. Chapters 2 and 3 record Baruch’s confession and prayer on behalf of his people (which is essentially a lament along the lines of Jeremiah’s Lamentations), including certain legitimate quotations from the book of Jeremiah (“serve the king of Babylon” (2:21)). In the middle of chapter 3, the prayer becomes a paean to wisdom much like some of the book of Proverbs, but with a heavy emphasis on the Law of Moses as the source of wisdom. A few verses into chapter 4, the paean to wisdom segues into an appeal to Israel to repent and cry out to God.

Divine Authorship?

Reginald Fuller writes that the Book of Baruch is thought to have been written around or slightly after the time of the Maccabees, over 200 years after the date its author claims for it (1:2). If so, that makes its human authorship a fabrication, eliminating any possibility of divine inspiration. At the same time, there may be reasons to question the dates ascribed to ancient texts when the variance between the date recorded in the book itself and the date claimed for it by scholars is comparatively small, as it is in this instance.

In any case, no claim to divine authorship is made by the writer anywhere in the book. Normally this absence would not be 100% determinative (see Esther, for example), but in this particular case it is absolutely dispositive. Why? Because at Jeremiah’s dictation, Baruch wrote the phrases “the word of the Lord” or “the word of the Lord came to me” a little over seventy times, “Thus says the Lord” twice as often as that, and “declares the Lord” a mind-boggling 173 different times, sometimes twice in a single verse and an average of eight times a chapter, for the 52 chapters of the longest book in the Bible. Those are just the most obvious places the book of Jeremiah insists on its heavenly authorship; there are likely many others. Baruch knew better than anyone in history how to claim the authority of God for his writings if he had wished to do so. Yet there is not even a hint of this sort of thing in the Book of Baruch. 

So even if we ignore the scholars and assume the book was really written by Baruch, it is abundantly clear the scribe saw his own writing on a completely different level from the prophecies he had transcribed for Jeremiah. Canonical Baruch was never once the direct recipient of divine revelation. Even God’s personal message to Baruch came through Jeremiah. So why on earth would anyone insist on ascribing a lasting spiritual significance to a man’s writings when the man himself plainly does not?

What Constitutes “Scripture”?

The Catholic/Protestant debate about what is required in order for a book to be considered part of scripture rages on, and you can read both sides of it online if you’re interested.

But as I take the time to actually work my way through the apocryphal literature from the late OT period and go through the exercise of comparing it with canonical prophecy, I find myself asking a few questions which help me confirm in my own mind whether a book was intended by God to be part of his revelation to mankind or whether it is something less significant.

Currently, these are:
  1. Does the writer of the book claim to speak for God? (Of course a claim is not proof: a book in which such a claim is made may disqualify itself on other grounds. But a book that does not claim divine authorship internally needs persuasive evidence on its behalf from elsewhere, such as being quoted as spiritually authoritative in the New Testament; otherwise we need not concern ourselves that it is a legitimate candidate for canonicity.)
  2. Can any of the writer’s statements of fact be proved false beyond reasonable doubt? (One definite lie will do it, but two or three is better.)
  3. Does the writer contradict any major doctrines or truth claims in the canon? (That one should be an obvious disqualifier: God does not lie and he also does not change his mind.)
  4. Does the book contribute anything significant to the Bible’s salvation narrative that we do not find in the canon? (Solomon said, “Of the making of books there is no end,” and the candidates for canonicity are numerous. Absent a convincing claim to inspiration, there is no compelling reason to clutter the canon with historical works that duplicate the message of existing scripture or add nothing of importance to the record.)
The Book of Baruch, while intriguing and maybe even quite historical, fails on numbers 1 and 4, and possibly 2 as well. Canonicity requires, or ought to require, more than being spiritually helpful and consistent with scripture.

All kinds of books are both accurate and interesting. Neither quality necessarily demonstrates them to be divinely inspired or part of God’s revelation.

Readability: 8/10
Plausibility: 8/10

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