Opening minds with the Bible's books of the apocrypha

Many Protestants are unaware that the Bible used in Catholic churches contains books not found in Protestant Bibles -- namely, the books of the apocrypha. (The word comes from a Greek term that means "hidden.")

I don't want to argue that these books should be considered Scripture for Protestants on the same footing as the rest of the canon. But my recent experience of reading the Book of Judith with a Bible study group that I help lead convinces me that Catholics and Protestants alike might do well to learn of and from these writings.

One of the questions that came up in our reading of Judith was the description there of how the people of Israel did the same kind of punitive and deadly things to enemies that enemies had done to Israel. We wondered about the factual, historical basis for that.

To get at that question, I turned to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' entry on Judith on its website. There, the bishops say that "the work is historical fiction, written to exalt God as Israel's deliverer from foreign might, not by an army, but by means of a simple widow." (I would argue that Judith, as described in the book, was certainly not "simple." But let it go.)

I can see certain Protestant biblical literalists gagging at the fiction conclusion. Historical fiction in the inerrant word of God? Puh-leeze.

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And yet, say the bishops (or whoever writes this stuff for them), "within the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (1:1; 2:1), it [the book of Judith] telescopes five centuries of historical and geographical information with imaginary details."

So the case for Judith being historical fiction is pretty air tight.

Indeed, the reality is that the whole of the Bible -- though it certainly contains some verifiable history as we 21st-century readers would understand that term -- is replete with myth, metaphor and allegory. This often has caused a Protestant pastor I know to say about particular passages, "I don't know if that's factual or historically accurate, but I know it's true."

One of the liberating and saving graces of Christianity is that truth is not a doctrine, dogma or creed. Rather, truth is a person, Christ Jesus. So although many Christians get all caught up in the need to says things in certain ways (for example: "Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior"), it behooves us to remember that all words are metaphors, given that they point to some reality beyond themselves but are not themselves that reality.

If we read stories like Judith looking for literal historical truths or advice or morals, we'll miss the point. One of the points of Judith is that God is gloriously free and can use "the hand of a woman" to accomplish a divine purpose -- in this case, to save Israel from destruction.

Perhaps it might help Cardinal Raymond Burke, who recently complained that the church has become too "feminized," to give the Book of Judith another read. What he will find is that God's own self feminized the means by which Israel would be rescued. If Burke, in turn, points out that Judith is historical fiction, I still would ask him why a book with such a scandalous feminized point remains in the Catholic Bible.

Many of my Catholic friends tell me they feel biblically illiterate and that when they were growing up, they were never encouraged to read (or study) the Bible. Such illiteracy exists in the Protestant world, too, along with the foolishness about the book being historically and in all other ways inerrant.

But I'm thinking we together might overcome some of this by occasionally delving into a few of the books of the apocrypha, including getting a sense of whether they're historical fiction or something else.

Who, after all, wouldn't want to read something in the Bible with the fetching 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 wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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