Response to The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha

Today I had the honor and pleasure of presenting a review response to the recently published book The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha, edited by Gerbern S. Oegema (2021), as part of a Virtual Book Review event through the Enoch Seminar. Below are the comments I shared with thoughts about the volume and some avenues for future studies of the deuterocanonical works.


At the outset, I want to echo what others have said already today: The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha is an excellent volume, and I’ve very much enjoyed reading through and thinking with it. I’m glad to see a diverse group of contributors and a wide range of different types of contributions to the book, including chapters that offer helpful overviews of key topics as well as a detailed examination of each work in the Apocrypha. I have no doubt that this volume will become a standard reference for those interested in the subject. It presents chapters relevant for scholars already well versed in the corpus of the deuterocanonical works and those just beginning their forays into these works.

In my comments, I want to use this volume to situate the Apocrypha and apocrypha studies in terms of globality, to think about the deuterocanonical works across diverse communities in the histories of Judaism and Christianity. In other words, I’m interested in the transmission and reception of the Apocrypha—not surprising, since I’m primarily a medievalist.

To start, I’m particularly interested in explicit references to “global” contexts of Judaism and Christianity in scholarship on the Apocrypha. A few of these stood out most prominently to me:

  • Gerbern S. Oegema emphasizes that apocalypticism in the Apocrypha “must… be understood in a much more global context of an ancient apocalyptic mindset that influenced much of Early Judaism and Early Christianity” (7).
  • Lorenzo DiTommaso suggests in a note that scholars need to foster an “appreciation of ‘apocalyptic’ in its global, historical sense” (242 n. 13).
  • Sara Parks emphasizes the benefits to scholarship as “Now the voices of racialized and global scholars are finally beginning to be included in feminist studies of the Apocrypha” (482) and “as a new generation brings to the discussion more explicit theoretical frameworks, as well as more global and intersectional perspectives” to the study of women and gender in the Apocrypha (483).

In addition to these explicit references, the volume contains much that is rich for considering the Apocrypha in their global contexts. A recurring theme, of course, is Jewish diaspora, from the Second Temple period onward; and another is the notion of diversity of the authors, texts, and contexts of the Apocrypha. Some contributions gesture toward the global nature of Christianity and related issues involved with the historical study of the Apocrypha, with discussions of Armenian, Coptic, Hebrew, Slavonic, and Syriac versions of the Apocrypha. For example, Lee Martin McDonald spends a little time offering some thoughts about different versions, and Mika S. Pajunen considers the centrality of the Hebrew and Syriac witnesses for examining Psalms 151–155. These offer gestures toward the multilingual and cross-cultural afterlives of the deuterocanonical works that are worth significant consideration.

In the rest of my comments, I want to dwell on a single question: What might be gained from broadening our scope, to situate the Apocrypha within the global? I’m inspired by recent shifts in scholarship to ask similar questions, like the methodological turn toward concepts like “global late antiquity” and “the global Middle Ages.” Since I was invited to this panel as a reviewer, and I can echo praises of the volume that others have expressed, I also have some critiques—but I want to present my thoughts as starting points for future work and ways to reconsider the Apocrypha, not specifically as negative assessments of this volume, the editor, or individual contributors. Here I want to revisit what John Kampen said in the earlier panel today, about how we limit our scope and understandings as epistemological boundaries for scholarship on the Apocrypha, and what we gain from expanding those boundaries. With that in mind, I want to pose my criticisms as hopeful for the field of apocrypha studies.

Despite the few explicit references to globality that I’ve already highlighted, the global nature of the Apocrypha is not especially centered in The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha: there is no single chapter related to the topic, nor do Oegema or the contributors make claims to that aim, nor is it a common topic in apocrypha studies. Much of the volume tends to highlight the divide between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians on the one hand and Protestant Christians on the other. There are some brief references to other views of the canon, but the majority of the contributions tend to focus on Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant conceptions of the canon, as well as Greek and Latin versions of the Apocrypha. This is not surprising, for a few reasons. One reason is that the Apocrypha—both as a collection and the individual works—are most well-known and best preserved in Greek versions as they circulated in the great Septuagint pandects that were compiled by early Christians. Kristin De Troyer lays this out well in her chapter on the Greek textual witnesses. But another reason for so much framing around Protestant views versus Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views is that the history of scholarship on the Bible and apocrypha has been largely influenced by underlying polemical battles between Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars.

Nonetheless, we might gain quite a lot from considering the Apocrypha with a shift in focus outward to other Jewish and Christian communities across geographies, cultures, and periods. None of the contributors to The Oxford Handbook mention Ethiopian Jews, who identify with the title Beta Israel, and little is said about Oriental Orthodox or Church of the East Christianity, such as Orthodox Tewahedo and Assyrian Christians. At the start of her chapter, De Troyer notes that the Apocrypha “are considered by many Christians and virtually all Jews to be non-canonical” (14). Yet Beta Israel Jews in particular pose a fascinating case, because (like Orthodox Tewahedo Christians) they do consider the deuterocanonical works to be canonical, along with several other writings considered to be apocryphal to other Jews and Christians—like Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and 4 Baruch. In fact, such a robust biblical canon recently prompted the editors of The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha to include Jubilees in their volume.[1] In that collection, Annette Yoshiko Reed reminds us of “the local diversity of long-standing lived traditions of liturgy, teaching, and textuality”; and Eva Mroczek discusses how the rhetoric of a fixed canon is a construction in the histories of Judaism and Christianity.[2]

 Geʽez versions of deuterocanonical and apocryphal works from medieval Ethiopia have recently gained increased attention from scholars, and more is warranted, since both Beta Israel and Orthodox Tewahedo communities provide important contributions to the histories of Judaism and Christianity beyond the usual suspects of European traditions. According to recent demographic data, there are around 172,000 Beta Israel Jews around the world—most prominently in Israel (~160,500) and Ethiopia (~12,000), but also in the USA (~1,000) and in diaspora elsewhere.[3] To take Beta Israel Judaism as just one example, by looking beyond familiar religious communities, we might gain a much more nuanced and complex idea about how diverse even Judaism is in its approach to concepts of “canon,” “scriptures,” and how the Apocrypha remain part of Jewish and Christian lived religious experiences even today. A few relevant research question remain to be explored. How do Beta Israel Jews incorporate the Apocrypha into their beliefs and practices today? Are there other Jews who engage with the Apocrypha today in their own lived religious experiences?

In fact, the idea of lived religious experiences opens up other possibilities for considering the role of the Apocrypha in Jewish and Christian communities around the world from their inception to the present. In his chapter on “The Apocrypha in the Context of Early Judaism” (3–13), Oegema claims about the Apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls that “unlike the Jewish or Christian Bible, none of these writings have a present-day faith community to represent them” (13). I was puzzled by this, however, because surely there are many Jews and Christians who continue to practice their faiths with the help of the Apocrypha even today. After all, the Apocrypha are considered to be part of the canonical Bible for the majority of Christians around the world: of the estimated 2.3 billion Christians worldwide, only about 35 to 40% are Protestant, while Roman Catholics make up about 50% (~1.1 billion), and Orthodox Christians make up about 12% (~260 million).[4] Even some Protestants, like Anglicans (~3.7% of Christians, ~85 million worldwide), continue to use the Apocrypha, at least for reading and edification, if not doctrine; and, as Matthew J. Korpman demonstrates in his chapter (“The Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha,” 74–93), many Protestants were historically “pro-Apocrypha” (84) even up into the nineteenth century.

In the same vein of thinking about lived religion up to the present, there are other avenues left to explore with the role of the Apocrypha. Some questions emerge, such as: What was the influence of the Apocrypha, for example, on liturgy, literature, and art in the Middle Ages, not only in Latin and Greek Christianity but also more globally, such as in Ethiopian Judaism and Christianity? Considering the expansion of Christianity with modern imperialism, how did the Apocrypha play a role in colonialism across the world in the early modern period? Closer to our own time, how do Jews and Christians worldwide incorporate the Apocrypha into religious beliefs and practices, such as collective worship or private devotion today? What do the Apocrypha have to do with Christians from the Global South, such as in liberation theology? (I’m reminded of “the voices of racialized and global scholars” that Parks mentions in her chapter.) Finally, even more broadly, how do the Apocrypha play a role in global cultures more generally, such as in literature, art, and other media in the twenty-first century?

These are just some of the questions that I began to wonder about as I thought through the possibilities for future study of the Apocrypha. Once again, I return to hope for future scholarship, for the type of generative studies that are made even more possible because of volumes like The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha.


Notes

[1] The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, ed. Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), with The Book of Jubilees at 1–50.

[2] See Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Canon,” in Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, ed. Klawans and Wills, 570–75; and Eva Mroczek, “The Incredible Expanding Bible: From the Dead Sea Scrolls to Heile Selassie,” in Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, ed. Klawans and Wills, 614–20.

[3] “The Ethiopian Community in Israel,” Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, November 11, 2020, https://www.cbs.gov.il/he/mediarelease/DocLib/2020/358/11_20_358e.docx.

[4] Data gleaned from the Pew Research Center, e.g., “Christian Traditions” December 19, 2011, https://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-traditions/; Conrad Hackett and David McClendon, “Christians remain world’s largest religious group, but they are declining in Europe,” April 5, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/; and “Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project,” http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org/.

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