QUESTION: I notice some Bibles include a number of books called the Apocrypha. Why is that?
By Angel Manuel Rodríguez
The word “Apocrypha” is Greek for “hidden things.” No one knows for certain why some Jewish books were designated by that title. Perhaps they were originally thought to contain a kind of secret knowledge, available only to a particular group. The books of the Apocrypha were produced between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D. The list of books or materials generally included in the Apocrypha are: 1, 2 Esdras; 1, 2 Maccabees; Tobit; Judith; additions to Esther and Daniel; Prayer of Manasseh, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah; Psalm 151; Sirach (Ecclesiasticus); and the Wisdom of Solomon. Most of those books were incorporated into the Old Testament canon of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
1. The Apocrypha and the Greek Version of the Old Testament: It is usually argued that the Apocrypha was originally included in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and from there it came into the Christian Bible. But that is far from certain. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), began in the first half of the third century B.C. At that time it was almost certainly a translation of only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch or Torah). Little is known about the process that led to the translation of the rest of the Old Testament into Greek, particularly to the translation or incorporation of the books we call the Apocrypha. We do not know the exact books included in the Septuagint during the time of the apostles. Neither do we know whether there ever was an official list of apocryphal books. We do know that Jews never considered those books to be part of the Hebrew canon. But we also know the Jews esteemed them and read them. Manuscripts or fragments of some of the books have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls.
2. The Apocrypha and the Christian Church: It used to be believed that Christians took as their Bible the larger Jewish Alexandrian canon that included the Apocrypha. That idea has been totally discredited. In the early centuries of the Christian era there was some debate among Christians concerning those books. The most-well-known case is that of Jerome (A.D. 345-420). He decided to translate the Old Testament into Latin using the Septuagint, which then already included most of the apocryphal books. But he decided to base his translation on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Although he included the Apocrypha in his translation, he made it clear that those books should not be considered part of the inspired canon and should not be used to establish Christian beliefs. His canon was the short Hebrew canon. Nevertheless, he considered the Apocrypha worth reading.
Augustine argued that a Latin translation of the Bible should be based on the Septuagint so as to contribute to the unity of the church in both the east, where Greek was used, and in the west, where Latin was used. He argued for regarding the Apocrypha as inspired, and his views prevailed. The Latin Bible (the Vulgate) became the official Bible of the Christian church.
3. The Apocrypha and the Reformation: The Reformers revisited the questions of the Apocrypha. In his translation of the Bible into German, Martin Luther included the apocryphal books, but, like Jerome, did not consider them equal in authority to the Scripture, and established they should not be used to define Christian doctrine. Reformed tradition totally excluded the Apocrypha from the canon, accepting instead the shorter Hebrew canon.
One of the reasons for the rejection of the Apocrypha was that the books supported some erroneous views, contrary to those promoted by the church as Christian dogmas. For instance, they support the idea that human works contribute to salvation (Tob. 4:7-11), that saints can intercede for others (2 Macc. 15:13-14), and that atonement can be made on behalf of the sins of the dead (2 Macc. 12:39-45).
Today many Bible versions and translations include the apocryphal books. Although not considered inspired by God, they contain information that contributes to a better understanding of the development of Jewish thought during the period between the Old and New Testaments and provide useful cultural, historical, and religious backgrounds for the study of the New Testament.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute.
QUESTION: In Ezekiel 20:25 God said to the Israelites, “I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live” (KJV). Could you identify those statues and laws?
This may be one of the most difficult passages in the book of Ezekiel, if not the Old Testament. Bible commentaries contain different attempts to explain it, but unfortunately none of those interpretations has been widely accepted. That diversity of views indicates the complexity of the passage. In interpreting a biblical text, it is good to be aware of the problems faced as we try to provide a biblically based understanding of it.
1. The Problem of the Text: If Ezekiel is saying God gave the Israelites statutes that “were not good and laws they could not live by,” He would be contradicting Himself. That is the basic problem we face. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is any divine statute or law described as “not good.” Elsewhere the Lord said to the Israelites: “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (Lev. 18:5); “Follow them so that you may live” (Deut. 4:1). It is even more surprising to find the same ideas expressed in Ezekiel 20 itself: “I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (verse 11). The same idea is found in verses 13 and 21: “The man who obeys them will live by them.” Can such contradictory statements be harmonized?
2. Contextual Considerations: Ezekiel 20:25 belongs to a passage in which the Lord recounts His mighty acts of redemption on behalf of Israel during their departure from Egypt and their sojourns in the wilderness. But the main interest of the text is to reveal the constant spirit of rebellion manifested by God’s people in acts of idolatry. Only because of His love and His concern for His honor did He not destroy them. Within that review of what He did for Israel the Lord says, “I gave to them statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by.” Therefore, He is referring to something He Himself did at a particular moment. However, the context also indicates that the laws God gave to His people were good and they were expected to live by them. Whatever Ezekiel 20:25 may mean, it is clear that Ezekiel himself, as well as the rest of the Old Testament, considered God’s laws to be good.
3. Toward a Solution: Perhaps a solution is found in the next verse (Eze. 20:26), where a specific law is mentioned. The passage refers to the law of the firstborn. Every firstborn child belonged to the Lord, but since the Lord rejected child sacrifice, the Israelites were to redeem their children. Unfortunately, they sometimes chose to sacrifice their children to the pagan deity, Moloch, a practice explicitly mentioned in verse 31. This was certainly a bad law, not from the Lord. So the context informs us what was meant by a law that was “not good.” If that is the case, we have to ask why the Lord would say He gave them statutes that were not good. We should look at the text a little closer.
Most Bible versions render the first verb in Ezekiel 20:25, “I gave them…” That is a good translation, but there are other possibilities. For instance, we also find, “I even imposed on them …” (NEB), and “I also gave them over to statutes …” (NIV). Those translations are based on the fact that when the Hebrew verb nathan (“to give”) is followed by the preposition le (“to”) it could mean “to deliver someone to.” In that case the text would be saying that since the Israelites determined to follow bad laws from their neighbors, the Lord confirmed their willing rebellion against Him by handing them over to obey laws that were not good.
The idea that God confirms disobedience by handing people over to it is attested in other places in the Bible (e.g., Isa. 6:9, 10; 63:17; 2 Thess. 2:11, 12). According to Ezekiel 20:26, even then the Lord seeks to impress us with the magnitude of our sin, hoping to lead us to repentance.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.
QUESTION: How did Adventists arrive at the identification of the kingdoms represented by the symbols in the books of Daniel and Revelation?
In some cases this has not been difficult; but in others, much more so. It is important to be aware of the limitations and risks involved in interpreting those symbols. We must begin by establishing a proper method of interpretation, then discuss how to use it.
1. Proper Method: Christians have used different methods to interpret the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Adventists have adhered to what is called a historicist system of interpretation. Acc-ording to this understanding, prophecies cover a broad outline of the history of God’s people from the time of the prophet to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. This is the methodology provided to Daniel by an angel sent to interpret the vision of Daniel 7. The prophecy had to do with events that covered the historical period from the Babylon Empire to the time of the end (Dan. 7:38, 44). This approach was confirmed by Jesus, who indicated that the last part of the prophecy of Daniel 9 was going to be fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:15). Paul also understood the coming of the antichrist as a future event (2 Thess. 2:7-9). We have simply followed the biblical system of interpretation.
2. Kingdoms Clearly Identified: The book of Daniel provides the historical application of the symbols. The angel interpreter told Daniel that four kingdoms were to rise on earth and the fifth one was going to be the kingdom of God. The angel identified by name three of the historical kingdoms: Babylon (Dan. 2:38), Medo-Persia (5:28; 8:20), and Greece (8:21). The fourth kingdom is not identified, but a detailed description of its nature and actions is provided (7:19-26). Jesus implied that it was Rome (Matt. 24:15, 16; Luke 21:20, 21). As long as we follow the biblical materials we are on safe ground. But many other symbols were not interpreted by the angel (e.g., the 10 horns, the little horn, two other beasts in Revelation 13, Babylon, etc.). How do we identify the prophetic fulfillment of those symbols?
3. Kingdoms Not Clearly Identified: What controls should we use to identify the broad outline of history found in the visions? We have to move from what is clearly revealed in the prophecies themselves to what is left historically undefined.
First, we have to realize that in Daniel 2 and 7 we have the most important outline of apocalyptic prophecy in both Daniel and Revelation. This prophetic backbone provides the indispensable historical outline to be used in fitting other apocalyptic prophecies and their fulfillments within history. We know that the fourth kingdom is Rome, according to the prophecy, that it would be divided, and that one of the small kingdoms—a political-religious power—would dominate the others. By about A.D. 200 Hippolytus interpreted the fourth beast as the Romans and the little horn as the antichrist. Christian interpreters early in the Christian era continued to use the system of interpretation used by the angel interpreter to identify the historical fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecies.
Second, we pay attention to the chronology of events located in the prophecy itself. For instance, Revelation 12 moves from an attack against the Child (Christ), to an attack against the woman (His church), and finally against the remnant (those alive when Jesus returns). Notice the historical progression.
Third, we examine historical events, taking into consideration the prophetic line of thought. History indicates that Satan attempted to destroy Jesus and persecuted the church. The remnant is located between Satan’s failure to destroy the woman after 1,260 years and the end-time attack against it. The eschatological role of the beast from the sea and the other from the earth (Rev. 13) takes place during the time of the remnant.
Finally, we should consider that history tends to reveal a self-correcting process that reaches its climax when the prophecies find their historical fulfillment.
Moving from the known to the unknown could easily take us into the dangerous zone of human speculation. We should use the same procedure employed by the angel interpreter, keeping in mind that prophecy only provides a general outline of what will take place as we approach the final days of earth’s history.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute.
QUESTION: A friend of mine tells me that all the benefits of Christ’s death were given to the human race when He died. This doesn’t seem biblical. Is it?
Such an idea, called by its proponents “legal universal justification,” is not biblical. Some Adventists find it attractive and embrace it without critical analysis, but this is a dangerous approach. Truth should not be determined by what seems to make sense, or by what makes us feel good, but by what we find in the Bible. The following points may help you in evaluating that teaching.
1. The Totality of Scripture: We must submit any claim of truth to the teachings of Scripture. The fact that a few texts seem to support such teachings is not enough to demonstrate the correctness of their claims. These claims have to be examined within the context of the totality of Scripture in order to clarify how the texts ought to be interpreted. Some people come up with what appears to be an original idea and proceed to look for biblical texts to support it. They bring to the text those ideas and read them into it. Their interpretation may appear to be logical and persuasive, but they are, in fact, imposing their ideas into the text. In evaluating those ideas we need to examine the biblical teaching in full, not just a few texts.
2. Impact on Other Clear Biblical Teachings: These views may appear to be innocuous, but we should examine their impact on other teachings of the Bible. If the implications of a new teaching undermine other biblical teachings, there is something wrong with its claims, despite the fact that biblical texts are used to support it. That means the texts being used should be interpreted in a different way.
3. A Case in Point: The Mediation of Christ: One example may be enough to illustrate this last point. Since universal legal justification teaches that before the Lord all the sins of the human race have already been forgiven and the human race has been saved, as a practical matter it leaves no room for the biblical teaching of Christ’s high priestly mediation before the Father. According to Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ make possible the mediation of Christ before the Father (Rom. 8:34). Mediation means that human sin and guilt are still relevant before the Lord in heaven and that it is only through Christ’s work for us in the presence of the Father that we receive the benefits of His sacrificial death. The fullness of those benefits is granted only to those who believe. Guilt and sin continue to be part of the human experience in the sight of God!
If the implications of a new teaching undermine other biblical teachings, there is something wrong with its claims, despite the fact that biblical texts are used to support it.
The role of our Mediator before the Father is an indispensable element in the plan of salvation (Heb. 7:25; 9:14). So we must ask, if it is true that in the sight of God the sin of the human race has been forgiven and humanity has already received the totality of the benefits of His death, why would John write, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1, NIV; cf. Acts 2:38)? John went on to suggest that the forgiveness of sin through the effectiveness of the mediation of Christ before the Father is assured because “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV).
Christ is the mediator for anyone who wants to approach the Father to receive through Him forgiveness, justification, redemption, reconciliation, etc. The views you mentioned tend to interpret the mediation of Christ in terms of the cleansing of the human heart from sin. But the doctrine also deals with the work of Christ in heaven and the application of the benefits of His sacrifice to repentant sinners. Proponents of legal universal justification do not seem to be fully aware of its serious doctrinal and theological problems. In some cases they tend to redefine the doctrine of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary.
–Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute.