This is part 15 of 16 in the series, “the Bible Is…“
One of the greatest blessings about the Bible’s contents is that it provides us with multiple accounts and perspectives on a large portion of the major events, stories, and people within. There are four Gospel books, each telling the story of Jesus in a different way. Echoes of several events recorded in the book of Acts can be found throughout the New Testament Epistles. And in the Old Testament there are a number of books that overlap with one another in their historical coverage. Sometimes this can be seen as a problem, for there are a number of instances that don’t seem to match. The exact sequence of events at the last supper, at Paul’s life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and the lifespans and reigns of several Israelite kings are difficult to reconstruct with the conflicting information found in different accounts throughout the Bible. Many, if not most, of these issues can be harmonized with more careful study of the text, and an attentive eye to the writing style and emphasis of the particular authors. But even as some of these challenges remain, it is a source of blessing for us. It keeps us honest about the human element in the authorship of the Sacred Scriptures; it reminds us that the Bible exists to communicate Christ, and not to quibble over minor and inconsequential details like how long a particular Old Testament king lived in Jerusalem.
Many of the books that offer alternative perspectives to each other have already been addressed. At this point we shall examine some of the latest Old Testament writings: the books of Chronicles, the books of Ezra, of Esther, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees.
The books 1 & 2 Chronicles are really one single book divided in half, and primarily overlap with 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings. The main difference is that Chronicles was clearly written after the Jewish exile in Babylon, and keeps a periodic eye on that eventual state of affairs. It was traditionally assumed to have been written by Ezra, though we have little evidence one way or the other. Unlike the books of Samuel and Kings, Chronicles does not dwell very long on the failings of the kings of Israel and Judah. Chronicles is more single-minded in its focus, omitting most of the stories of the prophets, and emphasizing the good done by various kings, especially concerning the ordering of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some might say this book is like a work of propaganda: highlighting the good and ignoring the bad. But its purpose was to teach those who had returned from exile the importance of remaining faithful to God’s covenant, of rebuilding the Temple, and to emulate the faith and good deeds of their forebears.
The books of Ezra are complicated to count and identify. In the Hebrew Old Testament there are two, entitled in English by their main characters: Ezra and Nehemiah. In the Greek Old Testament there are up to four books bearing Ezra’s name; in addition to the Hebrew two, there is a prologue book stuck in before Ezra, and an epilogue book taking place after Nehemiah. The former book is accounted as part of the biblical canon only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In the Latin Bible, both the additional Ezra books are placed as an appendix to the Old Testament just like how Anglican Bibles place the ecclesiastical books (the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon) as an appendix to the Old Testament. In the English system, the extra Ezra books are called 1 & 2 Esdras (Ezra’s name in Latin).
1 Esdras is a short book which repeats the end of 2 Chronicles and parts of Ezra and Nehemiah, and adds one story about a group of Jewish exiles in Persia before they return to Jerusalem. The majority of the book is nearly word-for-word copies from other books; only about two chapters contain original material, and is a fascinating philosophical exploration of what is “the strongest” thing in the world. The winner of the debate is Zerubbabel (a major character in the book of Ezra) who successfully argued that truth is the greatest force in the world.
The book of Ezra covers a couple decades of Jewish history, telling of two waves of Jewish immigrants returning home to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Ezra himself is in the second generation that returns, and he is instrumental in finishing what the first re-settlers started. A number of setbacks and threats have to be overcome, and the leaders have their work cut out for them. The central importance of faithfulness to God’s covenant (both his faithfulness and ours) and of worship is the heart of this book. Nehemiah continues the story, following the character of Nehemiah who is sent from Persia with another round of money and resources primarily to rebuild Jerusalem’s city walls. He, too, with Ezra and others, faces a great deal of threat and opposition, and much can be gleaned about the importance of steadfast faith and obedience to God in the face of the fear of man.
The book of 2 Esdras is vastly different. It details some very lengthy visions attributed to Ezra, later in his life. Much of it is apocalyptic, even referencing some of the prophecies of Daniel and noting their advancement in the past few decades. Many scholars today assert that parts of this book are so new that they were actually written by Christians. Whatever the case, the weaving together of Old Testament apocalyptic prophetic writing with some very Christ-centered imagery makes it a unique offering among the Ecclesiastical Books. Both this book and 1 Esdras, however, suffer from a number of hiccups in their historical accuracy and chronology, betraying the immense likelihood that neither were written by same Ezra, but more likely just in his name. The additional perspectives they offer are fascinating and insightful, but not of the same surety as the Hebrew Old Testament books.
The book of Esther is a story of romping good fun. Told in comedic hyperbole, with exaggerated numbers and gratuitous melodrama, it is clear that this book is not a straight-laced historical document. It exists to teach and celebrate and entertain. It is the story of a Jewish woman named Esther who wins a beauty contest to be married to the Persian King. Her uncle, Mordechai, becomes a friend of the King but an enemy of a royal advisor who seeks to exterminate the Jewish throughout the world. The cunning plots to prevent this disaster play out through the course of the book. The unique perspective of this book is looking at exiles who did not return to Jerusalem, and telling their story in an unusually fancy way. There is also the challenge that the Hebrew and Greek versions of this book are notably different, and ancient manuscript study has not clearly confirmed which version is the more original.
The book of Baruch, with appended Epistle of Jeremiah, is an offering of further perspective to the ministry and book of Jeremiah. The prophet Baruch is mentioned throughout the book of Jeremiah as his scribe and assistant. For the most part this book serves as an answer to some of Jeremiah’s instructions to those who were going to Babylon in exile. Chapters 1 and 2 in particular match up with Jeremiah 29, suggesting that some of the exiles were indeed beginning to live in faith and penitence, respecting their new masters in their temporary exile home. The Epistle of Jeremiah, sometimes treated as chapter 6 of Baruch, is a further treatise against idolatry.
The story of Tobias and Tobit is of a family of faithful Israelite exiles trying live according to the Old Covenant Law and struggling to get by. It is a morality tale, through and through, extolling the virtues of faithfulness, burying the dead, and honoring life and marriage. Tobit introduces us to another angel who helps heal a blind man and drive away a demon, something that later Jewish literature would go on to do much more extensively. Some accuse this book of promoting “witchcraft,” but the strange methods taught by the angel to heal and to exorcise are no stranger than any of the other odd things done by the Prophets and by Jesus himself in the course of their ministries.
The book of Judith centers around the titular heroine who saves her city, and thereby Jerusalem itself, from invaders. Her character and story can be seen as a combination of Hagar’s cunning, Deborah’s wisdom, Esther’s right-woman-in-the-right-place, Proverbs 31’s “wife of noble character”, and Jael (who killed an enemy general with a tent peg). Judith is the very paragon of Jewish virtue and uses her beauty, cunning, wisdom, and faithfulness to deliver Israel from disaster. Historically, this story is impossible to justify: it is riddled with anachronistic references to the Temple, the return from exile, and the Babylonian Empire; it is as if the latter half of Old Testament history has been jumbled together to set the scene and all the Old Testament heroines have been jumbled together to create the character of Judith. Despite this, or even because of this, it is a valuable book. It faithfully and creatively absorbs many lessons and features of the Hebrew Old Testament and presents a whole new story with which teach morality and faithfulness, not unlike the parables of Jesus himself.
Then there are the books of the Maccabees. In the Roman Old Testament and English Ecclesiastical Books there are two of these books. The Eastern Orthodox have a third in their canon, and there is also a fourth offered as an appendix to the Greek Old Testament. 1 & 2 Maccabees tell the story of the people of Judea in the 2nd century B.C. under Greek rule. Although the Jews today do not account these books as canonical, these are the writings from which they derive the holidays of Hanukkah. 1 Maccabees has a longer historical coverage, taking the reader through the Maccabean family and the succession of brothers who led the Jews in successful revolt against the Greeks and made treaties with other Mediterranean powers such as the Roman Republic. 2 Maccabees is more narrow in its coverage, spending more time with Judas Maccabeus, the theological implications of their revolt, and the sufferings of various Jewish martyrs at the hands of Greeks and Hellenized Jews. These books set the scene, more than any other, for the situation in Judea and Palestine in the Gospel books. And again, the historical focus of the first book lined up with the theological focus of the second book make them analogous to Kings and Chronicles.
Lastly, it should be clarified that the books of 1 & 2 Esdras, Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah, Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees, and the Greek version of Esther are not found in modern Protestant Bibles. They are among the Ecclesiastical Books (or Apocrypha or Deuterocanon), originally printed in Protestant Bibles between the Old and New Testaments, but omitted starting in the 1700’s to save money on mass printing. These books are accorded a secondary canonical status, used to teach “example of life and instruction of manners” and not “to establish any doctrine.” That is why most of them are included in this penultimate section, offering additional perspectives within the Bible’s many writings.