Like many American boys, I learned about Jesus' birth while wearing a bathrobe. Each Advent season I got a part in the Christmas pageant, generally as either a shepherd or a wise man. At the appropriate moment, I shuffled into place and said my line—usually only one, occasionally two.
We worked from original scripts, the accounts in Luke and Matthew, portraying the Incarnation as a real event involving real people. The idea was to show Jesus' birth as history, just as Scripture does. The effort at historical authenticity never went too far. An unusually faithful reproduction would include live sheep.
To the best of my memory, Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents was never included. But among the cuddly images of Christmas come these barbed historical details. For many adults, it is hard to understand the violence at the beginning and the end of Jesus' earthly story. Why did Herod murder all the boy-children? For that matter, why did Pilate have Jesus executed, and in such grisly fashion?
A recent writing assignment for the Catholic edition of The Student Bible required my studying books of the pre-Christian Apocrypha (from the Greek for "hidden" or "obscure"), which Catholics include in their Bible. As a Protestant I grew up only marginally aware of these books. They made me a little nervous, to tell the truth. Somewhat to my surprise, I found they helped me understand the kind of world Jesus was born into.
Imprint of the Era
I happily affirm the Reformers' decision to leave these books of the Apocrypha out of the canon of the Holy Scripture. These writings don't rise to the level of divine inspiration.
Nevertheless, as popular Jewish literature of the two centuries before Christ's birth, they are the closest thing we have to a rack of paperback books preserved from the streets of Jerusalem. They remind me of those calcified mummies from Pompeii, which seem to capture the expressions on people's faces the moment Mount Vesuvius erupted. From these books, we learn a lot about Jewish minds in Jesus' day.
Historians and biblical scholars estimate these books were written 160 to 220 years before the birth of Jesus. Undoubtedly, much changed in the intervening period. Still, a lot stayed the same, especially Israel's political and religious environment.
It was a world suffering from great political and religious stress, a world more like modern Afghanistan or Iraq—or Israel—than anything I picked up in my Sunday school lessons. For nearly six centuries, ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews had been a scattered people, and a series of powerful foreign empires ruled Israel. The godless were no longer somewhere over the border. They lived inside the Holy Land, and cheek-by-jowl with Jews throughout the Diaspora. God's people had to cope with the world's might and mindset every day, without refuge.
The threat to Israel's faith can be read all through these writings. It came as a two-headed dragon. One head was personal and individual: the seductive, numbing force of a polytheistic culture. Greek (Seleucid) masters—and later Roman masters—assumed intellectual and cultural superiority. And with some reason: Greek art, philosophy and literature stand out as marvels even today. How could Jews believe themselves to be God's chosen when other people had more knowledge, wealth, and power? Why should Jews maintain their separation from a culture that offered so much? Jews were clearly tempted to assimilate, to fit in to the Empire.
The dragon's second head was more violent, coercive rather than seductive. Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes determined to unite his vast realm religiously and culturally. He acted in much the way that religious regimes sometimes do in the East today (and did once in Europe, as well). Believing that political unity required religious uniformity, he offered Israel the choice of assimilation or death.
The Threat of Seduction
Think of any small, proud civilization swept over by a military colossus. Consider, for example, Native Americans trying to keep their heritage alive today. The elders maintain ancient stories and ceremonies, but it is a constant battle against the power of television, Wal-Mart, and alcohol. Even the proudest elder must sometimes doubt whether the traditions can survive.
Such is the backdrop for most of the Apocrypha. Sometimes with serene confidence, sometimes with anxious triumphalism, these books instruct Israel on how to maintain its faith in the face of polytheistic, syncretistic temptation. In Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Tobit, and several stories added to the end of Daniel, pagan society seduces and worries even though it does not directly threaten.
There are few signs of overt persecution but plenty of suggestion that the distinctive faith of Israel needs stiffening. The books respond with several repeated themes. One is an abhorrence of idolatry—a frequent Old Testament theme that forcefully contradicts Greek religion. Another theme is Torah-keeping, which addressed God's moral purposes and also, through ceremonial requirements, erected tremendous social barriers between Greek and Jew.
Some books emphasize the high priest and Temple—two elements of Jewish life not open to Gentiles. A frequent emphasis on God's wisdom seems to say, "You think Greek philosophy has something to say? Nothing like the wisdom that comes from God himself!"
Overall, these books respond to a seductive world by insisting that the Jews stick to their separate identity. Anything Greek society has, Jews have it better. God cares for his people, whereas idols—staples of Greek religion—are witless fakes that can offer nothing. God's wisdom outdoes pagan philosophy. Maintenance of Jewish identity through Torah and Temple is the only true security in a difficult world.
The Violence of Antiochus
The tone changes dramatically in First and Second Maccabees. These books tell how Antiochus Epiphanes sought to unify his empire by imposing Greek religion. Seduction is not in question. Violence is.
Antiochus desecrated the Temple, slaughtering a pig on its altar before turning it into a temple of Zeus. He executed people for practicing circumcision or for keeping food purity laws. In reaction, the priest Mattathias and his sons led a bloody guerrilla uprising against Antiochus and his successors. They mainly succeeded, winning a modicum of independence for the Jewish state. The festival of Hanukkah began with their liberation and purification of the Temple.
Just as in the rest of the Apocrypha, 1 and 2 Maccabees assume that Israel has the only true religion, and that idolatry is the final treachery. True Israel defends the land and the Temple, clinging to the laws of ritual purity and of kosher diet. The most famous martyr passage in the Apocrypha, in 2 Maccabees 7, tells of a mother and her seven sons whom Antiochus tortures to death for refusing to eat pork. Their heroic bravery, refusing to compromise their faith in the smallest degree, is inspiring.
Another kind of martyr, however, dominates 1 and 2 Maccabees: the soldier who falls in battle, fighting for Jerusalem and its Temple. On the eve of battle, the Maccabean troops pray to God for victory. They fast; they read the Law. They are pious, devoted Jews. They are also courageous and ferocious Jews whose bravery ultimately defeats their enemies. The greatest hero is Judas Maccabeus, an outstanding general who led his outnumbered army to victory upon victory.
An oddly anticlimactic note occasionally sounds in 1 Maccabees, such as when the author laments that Israel no longer has a prophet who can speak for God. In the meantime, however, the war-like, pious courage of Judas Maccabeus forms an image of Israelite heroism—something like the ideal of a Christian knight in the Middle Ages.
Most of these same themes also emerge in the book of Judith, a fictional tale of a woman warrior who cuts off the head of a general threatening Jerusalem. She is a female counterpart to Judas Maccabeus, a heroic figure of war. No doubt many young Israelites grew up admiring these two and believing that Israel's hope lay with those who followed their example.
In Jesus' day, 200 years later, the political situation remained strikingly similar. Romans dominated Israel, just as had the Seleucids. Jews were scattered throughout the Empire, but Jerusalem remained their emotional and religious center.
Romans tolerated the Jews' cultural and religious exceptionalism to a point. They were frequently tempted to go over the point, becoming more like Antiochus than not. Some of the Jews, similarly, were on the edge of imitating Judas Maccabeus. Occasional armed uprisings and brutal repression made everybody edgy.
We know of several different Jewish responses to Roman hegemony. The Zealots aspired to imitate the Maccabeans through violent resistance. Sadducees chose a more diplomatic course, adapting to Rome and seeking to maintain the peace, especially around the Temple, which they controlled. Pharisees emphasized personal fidelity to Torah as the means of preserving Israel. The Essenes, considering Jewish establishments impure, created their own communities in the desert to await God's redemption.
Quite probably other responses existed, too. All, though, had to define themselves through their answers to crucial questions: "What do we do about Rome?" and the related question, "What kind of people should we be?" These are the same questions asked today by Kurds facing Iraq, by Palestinians facing Israel, by Basques facing Spain. They are, by their nature, highly emotive questions, and they frequently lead to violence.
Given the reiterated expectation in 1 Maccabees that a prophet would someday appear to interpret God's will for Israel, it is easy to see why John the Baptist and then Jesus attracted vast crowds. Might this be the prophet? Might this be another liberating Judas?
Almost immediately, however, Jesus did and said things to put off almost everybody. Jesus was anti-Maccabean. When someone strikes you, he said, turn the other cheek. When someone forces you to carry a load for a mile, give him another mile. Love your enemies.
Imagine, if you will, Jesus meeting the great hero Judas Maccabeus. Does Jesus insinuate himself as a peer and a comrade to this great leader and general? Certainly not. Judas Maccabeus could not have followed Jesus without forsaking his way of dealing with enemy occupation. He would have had to give up the way of revolt and take up his cross—for a cross is surely the fate of a guerrilla general who turns the other cheek and seeks to love his enemy.
Jesus rejected the way of the Essenes by mixing with and ministering to society. He horrified the Pharisees in his apparent disregard of ceremonial purity. Nor, evidently, were Jerusalem and its Temple central to his vision of true Judaism, as they were to the Sadducees.
In short, he set his own ministry apart from and above the qualities of Judaism that set Jews apart from the seductive culture of Rome and Athens. Rather, he emphasized demands that were equally challenging to both Gentile and Jew, and every faction of Jews: the obligation to love with your whole heart, and with the same quality that you love yourself.
Thus against the backdrop of the Apocrypha, we see Jesus changing the terms of Israel's faith within an alien and idolatrous empire. The natural tendency is to accentuate our differences with our enemies, to draw clear lines and to assault the foe head on. Those are the tendencies that show throughout the Apocrypha. Jesus, however, won't heed the lines. He finds the principal enemy within his own camp, even within his fellow Jews' most pious behavior. Jesus suggests that the truly evil empire is not headquartered in Rome. Rather, evil may be found in the dry, spiritual heat of Satan's heart, with outposts in all of ours.
Though our day is very different, U.S. Christians find ourselves cheek-by-jowl with a powerful and seductive paganism. Usually the conflict is a quiet one, for this cultural empire tolerates our distinctive faith. Occasionally there is serious talk of "culture wars," but the seduction is still profound.
Somewhat like Jews in the intertestamental period, our natural tendency is to accentuate our differences—to clarify who among us remains true, and to attack the enemy. Understanding Jesus and his world ought to make us pause. He gives no encouragement to those who believe that evil is mainly "out there," somewhere in the camp of paganism. Rather, he locates evil in every heart. He shows a new way of salvation when he says, "Follow me."
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today.
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A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Sacred-texts.com has the books of the Apocrypha posted online.
Other Christianity Today articles by Tim Stafford include:
A Regular Purpose-Driven GuyRick Warren's genius is in helping pastors see the obvious. (November 8, 2002)
How to Build Homes Without Putting Up WallsHabitat for Humanity strives to keep its Christian identity—a tricky task, when everybody wants to join. (May 31, 2002)
Whatever Happened to Christian History?Evangelical historians have finally earned the respect of the secular academy. A few critics say they've lost their Christian vision. Hardly. (March 22, 2001)
The First Black Liberation Movement | The untold story of the freed slaves who brought Christ—and liberty— to West Africa. An interview with Lamin Sanneh (July 14, 2000)
Taking Back FresnoWorking together, churches are breathing new life into a decaying California city. By Tim Stafford (Mar. 10, 2000)
CT Classic: Ron Sider's Unsettling Crusade | Why does this man irritate so many people? (originally published Apr. 27, 1992; posted online Mar. 13, 2000)
How God Won When Politics FailedLearning from the abolitionists during a time of political discouragement. (Jan. 28, 2000)
CT Classic: Bethlehem on a BudgetPlanning a church budget and the Christmas story share surprising similarities (originally published Dec. 15, 1989; posted online Dec. 23, 1999)
The Business of the KingdomManagement guru Peter Drucker thinks the future of America is in the hands of churches (Nov. 8, 1999)
Anatomy of a GiverAmerican Christians are the nation's most generous givers, but we aren't exactly sacrificing. (May 19, 1997)
God's Green Acres | How DeWitt is helping Dunn, Wisconsin, reflect the glory of God's good creation. (June 15, 1998)
God Is in the BlueprintsOur deepest beliefs are reflected in the ways we construct our houses of worship. (Sept. 7, 1998)
The New TheologiansThese top scholars are believers who want to speak to the church (Feb. 8, 1999)
The Criminologist Who Discovered ChurchesPolitical scientist John DiIulio followed the data to see what would save America's urban youth. (June 14, 1999)
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