Saturday, January 21, 2017

The “Apocrypha” and the Liturgy

At yesterday’s presidential inauguration, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, read as a prayer a selection of verses from the ninth chapter of the Book of Wisdom. In the original, this passage is a prayer delivered as if from the mouth of King Solomon, and all of the first person plurals spoken by His Eminence (“God of our ancestors…”) are in the singular in the Biblical text. (Accommodations of this sort in the context of prayer are a well-established tradition of the Church.) I say “as if” because it is well-known, of course, that the Book of Wisdom was written hundreds of years after Solomon’s lifetime, and its attribution to him (which is strongly implied, but not explicitly stated, within the book itself) was known at the time it was written to be a literary device.


A writer on the website of Christianity Today, Daniel de Silva, published an article explaining to their (I assume mostly non-Catholic) readership why a Biblical reading at the ceremony “Isn’t in Your Bible,” namely, because it is from the group of books which Protestants generally call “the Apocrypha,” and Catholics the “Deuterocanonical books.” Both of these terms are really rather unfortunate, but we are now stuck with them after centuries of use. “Apocrypha” is a Greek word for “hidden”, and would be better reserved for things like the Gnostic so-called Gospels, rather than a group of works whose canonicity was almost undisputed in the Church for 15 centuries. (I say “almost” advisedly, as I will explain shortly.)

The term “deuterocanonical” was coined in 1566 by a scholar called Sixtus of Siena, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, at a point when the Protestant reformation had been going on for almost half a century, and the “disputed” nature of the books had become a fixed feature of Catholic-Protestant debate. I consider it unfortunate because it seems to imply (though this was certainly not Sixtus’ intention) either that there are degrees of canonicity within Scripture, which is heretical, or, as one Biblical commentary states, that their canonicity was recognized later, which is historically false. The Catholic Encyclopedia rightly states, in its article on the Canon of the Old Testament, that “The terms protocanonical and deuterocanonical … require a word of caution. They are not felicitous, and it would be wrong to infer from them that the Church successively possessed two distinct Biblical Canons.”

At a public debate held at Leipzig in 1519, Johann Eck, a very prominent theologian of the era, objected to Luther’s rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory, and therefore of praying for the dead, by citing a well-known passage from Second Maccabees (12, 46), which has been read at Masses for the Dead from time immemorial: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” To this Luther replied that Second Maccabees was not a part of Scripture, and hence constituted no valid proof; the Catholic Encyclopedia is equally right to term this, in the article cited above, “a radical departure.” Certain other passages, such Tobit 4, 11, “For alms deliver from all sin, and from death, and will not suffer the soul to go into darkness,” became focal points of the controversy as well.

Subsequently, the debate over the place of the “Deuterocanonicals” in the Church has been very largely framed in terms of what the Fathers have to say about them in their writings. St Jerome is a crucial figure in this regard, because he is the only one who ever rejected them on the same grounds as the Protestants, namely, their absence from the Hebrew Bible; he is cited to this effect in the sixth “Article of Religion” of the Church of England. And thus de Silva writes “Jerome …was the loudest voice in this regard.”

St Jerome in His Study, by Joos van Cleve, 1521
Three things call for note here. One is that not even Jerome was consistent on this point; he included Tobit, Judith, and the Deuterocanonical additions to both Esther and Daniel in his great project of Biblical translations, and in some of his later writings, cites some of them without distinction from the rest of Scripture. (The versions of Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and the two books of the Maccabees included in the Vulgate are not his.) The second is that the other Church Fathers are similarly inconsistent; St Athanasius, for example, in an epistle of the year 367, includes Baruch in the canonical list, and omits Esther. The third is that citations in the New Testament cannot serve as a definitive yardstick for canonicity, since it contains none from certain books whose canonicity was disputed even among the Jews (Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs), two from the book of Wisdom (2, 13 in Matthew 27, 43 and 7, 26 in Hebrews 1, 3), and an explicit citation from the indisputably apocryphal Book of Enoch. (Jude, 14-15)

The opinion of the vast majority of the Fathers is best explained by referring to the great Biblical scholar Origen. (ca. 185-255). A friend of his named Africanus, one of his sponsors in the decades-long production of a massive corpus of Biblical exegesis, claimed that the Greek puns in the story of Susanna proved that it could not be part of the original text of the book of Daniel. Origen’s defense of the story, and of the other deuterocanonical books, repeatedly refers to the “use” of the book in the churches, i.e., in the liturgy. He also cites in its defense a saying of the book of Proverbs, “Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set,” (22:28), a passage long understood by Jewish commentators as a command to preserve the ancient traditions of religious practice. This opinion is confirmed by St Augustine, and several early synods whose acts have come down to us.

As I have written before, the story of Susanna occupies a particularly prominent place in the liturgy of Lent in the West, and in the art of the primitive Church. Readings from almost all of the other Deuterocanonical books are attributed in the ancient Roman lectionaries, most of which carry through right into the Missal of St Pius V. The books of Wisdom and Sirach are particularly prominent, most notably on the feasts of Confessors; this is especially significant precisely because St Jerome did not produce either a revised or freshly translated version of either of them. The canticle known from its first word as the Benedicite, Daniel 3, 57-88 and 56, was sung in the Roman Divine Office on every single Sunday and feast until 1913. (It is still, of course, said very often in both Forms of the Office to this day.)

One might cite innumerable examples from other ancient rites of the Church, but I will here confine myself to a few particularly interesting ones. The 7th century Lectionary of Luxeuil, the most ancient lectionary of the Gallican Rite, prescribes that the entire book of Tobias be read on Rogation Monday after None, that of Judith on Tuesday, and that of Esther (with the additions) on Wednesday. (It is no wonder that the clergy of Gaul enthusiastically embraced Charlemagne’s forced transition to the Roman Rite.) The Ambrosian Liturgy makes the same use of the Benedicite as the Roman, and places Susanna in an even more prominent position, on Holy Thursday. A passage from Baruch 3 is read on the Third Sunday of October, the feast of Milan cathedral’s dedication; a longer excerpt from the same chapter was read at the Roman vigils of Easter and Pentecost until 1954.

Folio 165v of the Lectionary of Luxeuil, with the rubric for Rogation Monday, “Liber Tobith usque ad finem, postea Evangelium - the Book of Tobit, until the end, and afterwards the Gospel.” (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9427) 
In the Byzantine Rite, a prayer said every single day at Vespers cites the Song of the Three Children, which also figures among the group of canticles at Orthros called the Odes. The entire third chapter of Daniel, including the additions, is read at the Easter Vigil, with the choir singing “Sing to the Lord and exalt him above all forever” as a refrain. (Video below; Exodus 13, 20 - 15, 19 is also read in a similar fashion.) Many of the more important feasts have three Scriptural readings at Vespers; among those assigned to the feasts of Confessors, there are two which are titled liturgically as “from the Wisdom of Solomon”, but are actually very complicated centos, composite readings from more than one book, mixing the words of the protocanonical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes quite indiscriminately with those of Wisdom and Sirach. (You can read them at the following link, where they are the first two readings on the feast of St Nicholas: http://www.antiochianladiocese.org/files/service_texts/patronal_feasts/nicholas/Dec-05-VESP.pdf)


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