Monday, October 08, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (12)

Throughout this series we’ve been examining ancient books that some non-Protestant Christians feel have been wrongly excluded from our Bibles. I’ve read, summarized and critiqued eleven of the most popular claimants to date, but there are plenty more out there, enough to keep me at it well into the next decade.

Tempting as that may be, I won’t go down that road for several reasons: (1) the further down into the Apocryphal jungle you travel, the feebler and less substantive the contestants become, such that anyone reading them with the least discernment starts to feel like the exercise of critiquing them is something akin to clubbing baby seals on the beach, as opposed to putting up a valiant defence against plausible error; (2) I promised to do a 12-part series, and I plan to keep that pledge; and (3) the reasons for excluding books from the canon begin to repeat themselves.

We wouldn’t want that. After all, figuring out which qualities make the canon the canon is pretty much the point of the exercise, right?

Last kick at the can ...

12. The Prayer of Azariah

Also called “The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children”, these 68 verses are found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles inserted between Daniel 3:23 and 24. You can read them here.

In the Heat of the Moment

Numerous prayers and songs of praise are preserved for us in scripture. Exodus 15, for instance, records the song of Moses and the people of Israel in response to God’s deliverance from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. Psalm 90 gives us the prayer of Moses, and Solomon’s prayer of dedication is recorded in the book of Kings. You can surely think of others; they are almost a genre unto themselves.

This prayer and subsequent song are a little odd in that they purport to have taken place spontaneously right in the middle of the fiery furnace episode in the book of Daniel. Azariah (or Abednego, as he was known by the Babylonians) stops in the midst of the flames to muse on the low spiritual condition of Israel (v14-15) and the unquestionable appropriateness of God’s judgment upon his people (v4-5), and to pray for deliverance (v20), after which all three youths with one voice sing a song of praise to God (v29-68).

While it’s not without scriptural precedent for praise and prayer to arise in the middle of intense persecution, it’s generally something that takes place in the days or moments after God’s response to his servants’ needs has been revealed, when reflection is possible. Launching into minute after minute of thoughtful spiritual reverie mid-crisis seems a little unlikely. Not impossible, but ... unexpected.

Considering the Logistics

Israel sang its song after the waters closed over the Egyptians. It probably took some time to compose. The believers’ prayer for boldness in the book of Acts was offered after Peter and John were released from arrest. This is normal for prayers and praise of any length. Prayers offered mid-crisis, such as Nehemiah’s cry to God mid-audience with King Artaxerxes, are generally a little more perfunctory; that one was not even recorded.

Further, Azariah indicates that in the fire, the three youths sang “with one voice” (v28). That suggests one of three possibilities: (1) the song was one they already all knew; (2) they took the time to compose it first; or (3) they were transported by the Holy Spirit and spontaneously carried along together in unified song. Since verse 66 is both lengthy and speaks of “the fiery furnace”, we can pretty much rule out #1. The second option seems highly unlikely. The third is possible but, so far as I recall, without biblical precedent.

In and of themselves, length and timing do not make the account completely beyond credibility, but it’s notable The Prayer of Azariah reads more like an insertion than part of the natural narrative flow. This ought to make us look more carefully at the text and its history.

Septuagint vs. Masoretic … Again

As with many Apocryphal books, the textual arguments for and against Azariah hinge on differences in content between the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew/Aramaic Masoretic text. For our purposes here, it’s sufficient to say that Azariah was considered valuable enough to be translated into Greek, but was not an accepted part of the Hebrew text tradition. Roman Catholic commentaries generally blame Martin Luther for excising Azariah and the other apocryphal books from the Protestant canon. This is not completely without basis, but overlooks the fact that the debate about the canonicity of various apocryphal books was in full swing, and that church fathers like Jerome and Origen had their say on the matter more than a thousand years before Luther ever weighed in. The inclusivists muddle the issue further by insisting there were other major Hebrew text traditions than the Masoretic, but the evidence provided for this is scant.

For me, the definitive argument against otherwise-plausible claimants to canonicity like The Prayer of Azariah and Baruch is not that they are obviously unhistorical or doctrinally inconsistent with scripture; they are not. The problem is that they are part of a text tradition that lumps them in with books like Tobit and Judith that are either just plain wacky or riddled with serious historical inaccuracies. Any text tradition that excludes the latter books probably had substantive reasons for excluding the former. I tend to think than devout men who lived closer to the events and writings in question likely had a better handle on these issues than spectators from two millennia down the road, but you will, of course, find many commentators who differ with me on that.

Readability: 6/10
Plausibility: 5/10

It may be useful to summarize our study in a final post later this week. I’ll give it some thought.

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