The Old Testament Apocrypha: An Introduction by Otto Kaiser

The Old Testament Apocrypha: An Introduction by Otto Kaiser (Edinburgh: Alban Books / Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2004)


The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion tell us that the Apocrypha “are read by the church for examples of life and instruction in behaviour, but the church does not use them to establish any doctrine” (Article 6, from An English Prayer Book).  Luther too said that these books, such as Tobit, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, and Maccabees, were “profitable and good to read.”  Of all Protestant denominations only Anglicans tend to make much use of the Apocrypha today, although amongst many evangelicals it is probably rare to find anyone who has even heard of them let alone read them for ‘instruction in behaviour’!  In some ways this is a good thing, since we do not want to succumb to the temptation that other traditions have fallen for of elevating these books to the status of Scripture (the Council of Trent gave them unqualified canonical status and anathematised those who would not do likewise).

However, it would be useful for those who consider themselves well-read, and for all clergy, to at least be familiar with these ancient writings which, although they form no part of God’s word written, do give us insight into the history and thinking of God’s people in the inter-testamental period.  The New Testament contains several allusions to verses in the apocryphal books (e.g. Romans 1:18-32 = Wisdom of Solomon 12-14; Hebrews 11 = Ecclesiasticus 44), and no-one who reads 2 Maccabees 7 can fail to be inspired, and also enlightened as to the ferocity of attachment the Jews of Jesus’ day had to the food laws.  Baruch 3:38 has interest in debates about pre-incarnate appearances of Christ, and 2 Maccabees 12 is the favourite passage of the Catholic Catechism to ‘prove’ purgatory and prayers for the dead.

Given that reading the apocrypha is a profitable exercise, the question is whether this book is a profitable introduction to read alongside the texts themselves.  I do not think it is.  For specialists and scholars wanting an introduction to the historical-critical analysis of the sources, compositional histories, and dating problems associated with these works it may be of use.  To those wanting a survey of the material and its usefulness and some theological reflection, it is not so obliging.  From page 1 it is unhelpful, claiming that the Church recognised the apocrypha “as canonical” as early as the 4th Century, which clearly is a distorted picture of a more complex historical and theological reality, and a definite overstatement.  Kaiser’s liberal attitude to the Bible itself also surfaces occasionally.

The most difficult thing for the reader to acclimatise to is, however, the heavily Germanic sentence structure.  Consider for example, “The poetry of the Wisdom of Solomon employs the parallelismus membrorum typical of Semitic poety, which as a rule is bipartite and occasionally tripartite, and which is apparent in the antithetically, synonymously, or in its analytical form, synthetically balanced cola or lines” (page 107).  Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister would be proud of such otiose prolix verbosity, and the distinguished Dr. Kaiser writes thus as a matter of course, excelling in the art of saying simple things in particularly complicated ways.  (He means, incidentally, that Wisdom of Solomon uses parallelism like the Old Testament, with ideas being either contrasted, repeated, or developed within 2 or 3 lines).

There are some useful insights still to be gleaned here for those unfamiliar with the Apocrypha.  It is just quite tiresome wading through everything else to find them.  So for a basic introduction to these useful works, I would recommend B. M. Metzger’s, An Introduction to The Apocrypha and leave Kaiser’s work on the shelf for that very rare occasion when someone asks me a complicated question about inter-testamental Judaism or I need a useful chart like that on page 24 which elaborates “the Divergent Enumeration and Transmission of the Books of Ezra in the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the NRSV”.

This review was also published in Churchman 120/1 (2006).

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