June 2004

deSilva, David A.

Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance

Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002. Pp. 428. Cloth. $29.99. ISBN 080102319X.

This review was published by RBL .2003 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.

Here is a thorough and thoughtful introductory book to the deuterocanonical/apocryphal writings, offered in a winsome style that is certain to engage its designed audience. The author, indeed, signals his ideal reader both by the title of the book (which employs the term "Apocrypha") and by his introductory rhetorical questions, which admit the suspicion of many regarding these writings and proceed to plead "the value of the Apocrypha." In this manner, and throughout this piece, David A. deSilva addresses a Protestant readership and, more specifically, the Christian who both has a "high view" of the Scriptures and a clear idea of canonical boundaries. This is not to say that he is insensitive to those who not cast in this mould, however. He aspires, indeed, "to move readers past seeing the Apocrypha as one more thing that separates one group of Christians from another and toward seeing these books for what they are in and of themselves and to value them on that basis" (15).

His introduction is rightly given over to preliminary but key questions of definition, general historical context, the contents in their variety and breadth, and the importance of the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books for the Christian tradition. With regard to the latter issue, he attempts to be inclusive and so begins with a statement of the books’ role for the Orthodox and Roman Catholic (and, he might have added, Anglo-Catholic) communions. Quickly, however, deSilva emphasizes the concerns of his specific audience, indicating the "usefulness" (17) of these books for rounding out our picture of history, noting that the authors of the New Testament were highly familiar with them, and reminding us that the books form a common heritage Christians ignore at their peril: "Out of respect for … them [Orthodox and Catholics] Protestant Christians would do well to have a least a basic grasp of these texts’ meanings and an appreciation for their content, as one might for any widely read devotional or inspirational literature" (26). 

Here the irenic purposes of the book bow to the author’s doctrinal integrity: the polemic against Oikonomos and deSilva’s construction of an argument against authoritative status dominate here, deflecting the author from his promotion of the corpus. His recommendation thus comes coupled with an expected caveat that bridges the gap between the academic author and his interested Protestant laity. Here deSilva presses into theological service the heuristic categories of his mentor, Vernon Robbins, arguing that the New Testament refers to the Apocrypha only through "recontextualisation, echo and allusion." The strength of his strategy (to quickly clear away the brush so that he can get on with the analysis at hand) is also its weakness, it seems. No one who is not already within his sympathetic readership will be convinced by the author’s avowal that the New Testament never cites deuterocanonical books directly "as Scripture" (21). To insist that the absence of an introductory formula (e.g., "as it says…") counts against a self-conscious treatment of these texts as Scripture is to assume that the New Testament writers had a view of inspiration characterized by verbal precision. Moreover, it implies that they had inherited an already delineated Old Testament canon rather than a fluid group of authoritative texts that they understood as pointing toward the Christ. Many of the examples he quotes, not least the words of Jesus regarding the yoke, go far beyond mere echo or even allusion, though they are certainly recontextualized; of course, similarly recontextualized are most of the explicit citations that the New Testament writers adduce! Though deSilva admits that Jude indeed directly quotes the pseudepigraphal 1 Enoch 1:9 (a citation, not an echo or an allusion), we could add that he employs the quote to establish teaching and introduces it as one might a "scriptural" quotation ("Enoch … prophesied, saying…"). How can one argue for a consistent view of inspiration based on the absence of such formulae from the deuterocanonical citations in the New Testament when one finds in Jude just such a preliminary phrase to a corpus that is even more dubious? The New Testament writings are intransigent, refusing to be squeezed into this mold, because, it seems, their battles about inspiration and canon were not those that we have inherited (as deSilva himself intimates on page 28).

Though his adopted perspective in fact highlights the very division that he seeks to avoid, deSilva’s careful and sympathetic readings of each text go a long way toward helping any reader—general or specialist—to appreciate a collection that has evidently intrigued the author since his youth. That is, in theory deSilva aims to show the utility of these texts, but in practice he is captivated by them—as is the reader, looking through his eyes! His chapter on historical context is well-framed, but the magic begins with the readings. 

Presented in turn, and typified in a subtitled quotation drawn from each text, are Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Ben Sira, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Additions to Daniel, 1–2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 3 Maccabees, 2 Esdras, and 4 Maccabees (that is, all the texts included in the NRSV ecumenical translation).

No one will be surprised to learn that the author’s first degree was in literature. The analyses do not follow a single template, but each section is suited to the character of the particular book: following a well-crafted summary of the text, contextual, rhetorical, theological, sociological, literary, textual, and historical issues are combined as need dictates. This reader found the treatment of Judith ("Judith: ‘Hear Me Also, a Widow’ ") particularly fruitful. We see an expert witness who reports upon the status quaestionis and who presents to his readers a nuanced critique of secondary literature. We observe also an artist who offers, after his concise but not too general statement of the key questions, a fresh reading of the tale. For example, his careful probing of the possible chiastic structure, the ironic voice, the genre, and the probable provenance of Judith is admirable; this is followed by a well-considered placement of the book within the feminist conversations of today. Again, students will be well served by his spirited reading of 4 Maccabees, which includes not only the expected discussion of Jewish piety in interaction with Hellenistic philosophy but also a careful introduction to how one may discern the rhetoric and strategy of such a book and how one understands its message in terms of institutions such as "patronage" that characterized its time but are alien to the non-specialist reader.

In short, Introducing the Apocrypha is in itself a book that is "useful" but goes beyond utility to embrace the imagination of even a general reader, without wearying those with more background. It will be useful especially in a Christian college or seminary setting but will no doubt make its mark beyond these places. In a future incarnation, the book might be enhanced by a glossary; though the writing is typically accessible and the author is painstaking in decoding technical terms, some of the desired audience may be puzzled by undefined reference to, for example, "uncial manuscripts" or "encomiastic reflection."