Open minds with the books of the Apocryphal Bible
Many Protestants are unaware that the Bibles used in Catholic churches contain books that cannot be found in Protestant Bibles, namely the books of the Apocrypha. (The word comes from a Greek term meaning “hidden”.)
I don’t want to argue that these books should be considered Scripture for Protestants like the rest of the canon. But my recent experience reading the Book of Judith with a Bible study group that I help lead convinces me that Catholics and Protestants would do well to learn from and from these writings.
One of the questions that arose in our reading of Judith was the description of how the people of Israel did the same sort of punitive and deadly things to enemies that enemies had done to Israel. We questioned the factual and historical basis of this.
To answer this question, I turned to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. entry on Judith on its website. There, the bishops say that “the work is a historical fiction, written to exalt God as the deliverer of Israel from foreign power, not by an army, but by means of a simple widow.” (I would say Judith, as described in the book, was definitely not “straightforward.” But forget it.)
I can see some Protestant Biblical literalists gagging at the conclusion of the fiction. Historical fiction in the infallible word of God? Puh-leeze.
And yet, say the bishops (or whoever writes this text for them), “during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (1: 1; 2: 1) he [the book of Judith] telescope five centuries of historical and geographic information with imaginary detail. “
So the fact that Judith is historical fiction is pretty tight.
Indeed, the reality is that the entire Bible – although it certainly contains a verifiable history as we 21st century readers would understand the term – is filled with myths, metaphors and allegories. This often led a Protestant pastor I know to say of particular passages: “I don’t know if this is factual or historically correct, but I know it is true.
One of the liberating and saving graces of Christianity is that the truth is not a doctrine, a dogma or a belief. On the contrary, the truth is a person, Christ Jesus. So, although many Christians are all caught up in the need to say things in a certain way (for example, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and personal Savior”), it is up to us to remember that all words are metaphors, since they refer to certain reality beyond themselves but are not themselves that reality.
If we read stories like Judith looking for literal historical truths, advice, or morals, we will miss the point. One of Judith’s points is that God is gloriously free and can use “a woman’s hand” to accomplish a divine purpose – in this case, to save Israel from destruction.
Perhaps this could help Cardinal Raymond Burke, who recently complained that the church has become too “feminized” to give the Book of Judith another reading. What he will find is that God himself feminized the means by which Israel would be saved. If Burke, in turn, points out that Judith is historical fiction, I would still ask her why a book with such an outrageous feminized point remains in the Catholic Bible.
Many of my Catholic friends tell me that they feel biblically illiterate and that when they were growing up they were never encouraged to read (or study) the Bible. Such illiteracy also exists in the Protestant world, as well as the folly that the book is historically and in all other respects infallible.
But I think we could together overcome some of these problems by digging through a few of the books in the Apocrypha occasionally, including whether it’s historical fiction or something else.
Who, after all, wouldn’t want to read something in the Bible with the alluring name of “Bel and the Dragon”?
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily “Faith Matters” blog for the Star‘s website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at [email protected]]
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