Chapter V, The Literature of the Jews

When one meditates on the troublous times we have briefly gone over in the foregoing pages, it is surprising what an amount of literature has come down to our times from a people so harassed and distressed.

We have already seen that the canon of Scripture was closed very shortly after the days of Nehemiah. The voice of inspiration had ceased, nor was it again heard till the “dayspring from on high” had visited His people (Luke 1:78), and God then spake to us in His Son. All later books than that of Malachi, the last of the prophets, have therefore no place in the Old Testament. But every book found in it has been authenticated by our Lord Himself when He declared “the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms” to be in very truth the word of God, and all included in “the Scripture which cannot be broken.” The three divisions referred to above comprise all the books we call the Old Testament. They were held sacred and divinely inspired by the Jews, and no others were by them ever added. It was the Roman Catholic Council of Trent that first had the temerity to include the Apocrypha among the books reputed to be God-breathed. What the nature of this collection is we shall notice shortly.

It is necessary to be clear and positive as to the inspiration of the Old Testament, for efforts are not wanting in this unbelieving generation to shake the faith of the simple in books like Esther, Daniel, Jonah and others. But all of these were written ere the voice of prophecy was suspended; all the books now in our Bibles, and none other, were in the Bible loved, quoted and honored by the apostles, and endorsed as divinely-given by the Lord Jesus. He expressly refers to “Daniel the prophet,” and “the sign of the prophet Jonah,” in language that admits of no doubt as to the high plane on which He placed their writings.

But in the Maccabean age and later there were other books of instructive character, making no claim of inspiration, which the Jews have always valued, and which the early Christians sometimes read in their meetings for the sake of the lessons they contained, though with no thought of putting them on a level with the Hebrew Scriptures or the Greek New Testament.

These are the books collected by no one knows whom, and for convenience’s sake designated Apocrypha—that is, “Hidden.” Some of them are of finest literary quality; others are very inferior. Some, like 1 Maccabees, have distinct historical value; others are thoroughly unreliable and contradictory of known facts. All were written in Greek in the days of the great literary awakening which took place when Grecian culture was almost idolized by many of the Jews. The first book of the Apocrypha is known as:

      I. Esdras, which is the Greek form of Ezra. This is largely a copy of the book of that name in our Bibles, with considerable added matter of very doubtful quality. The book was evidently produced in order to impress the educated Gentiles with God’s care over the despised Jew.

      II. Esdras is of an altogether different character, and undoubtedly by a different hand. It is a book of strongly apocalyptic style, consisting chiefly of a series of rapt visions with more or less spirituality interwoven. The writer evidently took Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah as his models, and was one whose soul was inflamed by their glorious promises of blessing coming upon Israel, and fearful denunciations of judgment upon the foes of the chosen people. On the other hand, it abounds with inaccuracies and statements contradictory to the word of God.

The book of Tobit professes to be a record of the strange experiences of an Israelite of that name, who belonged to the tribe of Naphtali, and was among those carried away by the Assyrians. It is thoroughly unreliable; a religious romance, full of absurdities, and yet teaching lessons of morality and true piety. It is in this book that we find an angel called Raphael. The only two angels actually named in Scripture are Michael and Gabriel. The incantations and thaumaturgic wonders of Tobit make it unworthy of the least credit, but add to its interest as an entertaining literary work. It, no doubt, often took the place in a Jewish home of many of the nursery tales of our own day, inculcating strict, moral and religious principles, with enough admix- ture of the marvellous to hold the attention of youth.

Judith is the story of the deliverance of Israel in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, by a Jewish matron, who goes alone into the camp of the enemy, gives herself into the power of the heathen general, Holofernes, for his destruction. When he becomes completely enamored of her wisdom and beauty, she takes him at an advantage and, while he sleeps, with his own sword she smites off his head. Whether there be any truth in the story or not, it is now impossible to say; but Judith has ever since been regarded as a national heroine, and her conduct viewed as on a very exalted level. Yet she deceives Holofernes, and does not hesitate to do evil that good may come; though preserving her own body inviolate.

With the exception of 1 Maccabees, the book of Judith is the finest narrative-work of the Apocrypha.

The omission of the name of God in the canonical book of Esther, caused it long to be questioned by the devout, who did not understand the divine reason for this. Hence we have in

“The rest of the chapters of the book of Esther, which are found neither in the Hebrew nor in the Chaldee,” an effort to correct this. But it is a blundering attempt by a blundering scribe to improve God’s perfect work. One only needs to read the inspired book of Esther, and then this marred human document, to observe the difference between God-breathed Scriptures and this human imitation.5 The next two books in the Apocrypha are to be classed in an altogether different category. They are among the finest specimens of uninspired wisdom literature, and are worthy of being ranked with the Discourses of Epictetus, the Morals of Marcus? Aurelius, and the Essays of Bacon, though they are greatly inferior to the inspired book of Proverbs.

The Wisdom of Solomon is an anonymous work to which the great king’s name is attached in the title. It is not of quite so high an order as the book that follows it, but is nevertheless of great value. The companion record is called:

“The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus.” It is generally conceded that this choice collection of proverbs and wise sayings is, as it professes to be, the production of Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua) the son of Sirach, who lived in the land “almost after all the prophets,” and who has here embodied the sound instruction he received as a youth from his grandfather Jesus, who wrote in Hebrew, and died, “leaving this book almost perfected.” The grandson translated, edited, and arranged it, making no claim to inspiration; he sent it forth hoping thereby to edify his nation, confessing his liability to error, but craving an unbiased reading of the work he had prepared in Greek from the Hebrew records left by the elder Jesus. The date given is in the years of Ptolemy Euergetes; and the praise of Simon the Just, in chapter 50, shows that the writer lived during his pontificate.

It will be remembered by Bible students that Jeremiah had a servant named Baruch. He it is who is presumed to be the author of the book of Baruch, the next in order. But there is no evidence that such was really the case. It is a work of little worth. The last chapter (6) professes to be “The Epistle of Jeremiah,” written to the captives who were about to be led away to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. It is of a much less elevated order than the authentic writings of “the Weeping Prophet.”

There are three tales which were added to the book of Daniel, and are given in order in the next section of the Apocrypha. The first is entitled:

“The Song of the Three Holy Children,”

and was added after the 23rd verse of Daniel, chap. 3. It pretends to give the song that the three Hebrew young men sang as they walked unhurt in the fiery furnace, and is of value as preserving the character of Jewish piety in the days we have been considering.

The History of Susanna was published as a preface to the canonical prophecy of Daniel. Shylock’s exclamation, “A Daniel come to judgment!” upon listening to Portia’s wisdom, finds its explanation here. It tells the story of the attempt of two lecherous elders, first to rob a young Jewish wife of her virtue, and upon being repulsed successfully, to blackmail the object of their vile but defeated purpose. Daniel, a mere youth, appears upon the scene, and by examining each of the villains separately, causes them to contradict one another in such a way as to establish both the innocence of Susanna and their own wickedness.

The third tale was added at the end of Daniel, and is called, “The History of the Destruction of Bel and the Dragon.” It is a wonder-tale, akin to that of Tobit, telling of a test made by Daniel and the Babylonians as to the power of the god Bel, and a great dragon who was overcome by Daniel through a mixture of pitch, fat and hair, which he thrust into the creature’s mouth. One cannot fail to see in the whole foolish story the influence of Chaldean superstition as to charms and magical preparations on the mind of the writer. The miracles of the Bible are always of a serious, sober character, serving an important or useful purpose. They are never mere works of power, startling and bewildering with no moral motive. It is otherwise with the counterfeited signs of Satan’s emissaries and with the wonder-works told in uninspired legends, such as that related in this un-historic history of “Bel and the Dragon.”

The Prayer of Manasses purports to be the contrite supplication of Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, upon his repentance. It is wholly fanciful, but interesting as giving an insight into Jewish piety.

      I. Maccabees is a historical record of the wars of the Jews from the death of Alexander the Great to the pontificate of Simon the brother of Judas Maccabeus. It is from this book that our knowledge of the Jewish wars of independence has been mostly drawn. The style is vigorous and intensely dramatic, carrying the reader from scene to scene with unabated interest. As a testimony to the unfailing care of Jehovah for His people even when under His hand because of their sins, and His ready grace meeting them the moment they confess their iniquities and seek His face, the book is of great value. Yet the history makes no claim to divine inspiration. Who the author is, it is now impossible to say; but he was evidently a sincere lover of Israel and Israel’s God.

      II. Maccabees is much less reliable, though of great interest. It is a strange commingling of sober history and untrustworthy legend. The book is valued by the Roman church because of its apparent endorsement of the unscriptural custom of offering prayers for the dead. In chap. 12:43-45, Judas Maccabeus is said to have offered a sin-offering for the dead, and made thereby a reconciliation for them that they might be delivered from sin. Whatever may have been in the mind of Judas, his act has no Scriptural sanction.

There are two other books known as 3rd and 4th Maccabees, which were not included in the received Apocrypha by the Council of Trent, though it is declared by some that they were omitted by mistake. The first is fragmentary and legendary; the second, a lengthy, religious novel.

Other literary remains there are which were long valued by the Jews, but are now seldom read, and some completely lost; as, for instance, the Book of Enoch; the Secrets of Enoch; the Book of Jubilees; Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; Psalms of Solomon; Sibylline Oracles; Assumption of Moses; the Apocalypse of Elijah; the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and some others, of which early Christian Fathers make mention, but which are no longer extant, so far as is now known. Some of these were begun during the days of the Asmoneans, and only completed in the Christian era; thus partaking of a mixed Jewish and Christian coloring. The Sibylline Oracles and the Book of Enoch are of this character. It is a significant fact that in all the long years of the four silent centuries we have had before us, not so much as a psalm or any other literary product has come down to us that is worthy to be compared with the precious treasures of the Old Testament. Some, it is true, have attempted to assign Maccabean dates to some of the books of the Prophets and to several of the more recent psalms, but their guess-work theories are of no real value, and there can be little doubt that all were written when the last line of Malachi had been penned. The canon of the Jewish Scriptures was then complete. No desultory fragments were to be added in after years. When again the prophetic voice should be heard, it would be to announce the coming of Him who was the object and theme of “all the Scriptures,” and whose advent in grace would be the occasion for the production of a New Testament completing the written revelation of God to man. The two volumes are the work of the one Spirit whose delight it was to “take of the things of Christ and show them unto us.”

It is interesting and, from an educational standpoint, profitable, to familiarize oneself with these strange and ancient volumes; but all are as darkness itself when contrasted with the clear light that shines from the Sacred Oracles, the Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God for the furnishing of the man of God unto all good works; of which it is written,

“Forever, O Lord, Thy Word is settled in heaven.”

5 I have a little book called “Notes on Esther,” which might help any who have never noticed the reasons for the omission of the divine name.