Saturday, March 20, 2010

First century house churches

The canonised writings of the apostle Paul take the form of (traditionally) thirteen epistles. Nine were written to churches with which he had various relations. For example, Galatians (the earliest 49-52AD) was written to a church of Pauline converts he visited twice (Marshall, Millard, Packer, & Wiseman, 1996, pp. 392, 885), first and second Corinthians to a church Paul had spent eighteen months ministering with (Acts 18:1-18), and Romans to a church he had yet to visit (Romans 1:10). These churches were not abstract theological entities formed in a ‘social vacuum’ but complex groups of individuals of varying backgrounds meeting in rooms of people’s homes forming the house churches. Recognising the influences on and characteristics of the people within these churches gives a greater understanding of Paul’s letters to them.

During the time of Paul’s mission, as apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 54), the people of Mediterranean basin were undergoing change. Greco-Roman culture was progressively influential (Meeks, 1983, p. 15) in areas of politics, class status, philosophy, religion, and the household. This change was occurring most prominently within the cities – the focus of Paul’s mission.

A common language and well established trade routes coupled with personal mobility, both physical and social, facilitated the expansion of Christianity during its first 120 years (Meeks, 1983, p. 16). The faith’s landscape shifted from the Jewish rural Palestine to a Gentile urban environment (Tidball, 1993, p. 1). Conservative villages underwent the least change, demonstrated by the persistent use of traditional languages (such as Aramaic used in Galilee) in the face of Koine Greek becoming the dominant language elsewhere (Meeks, 1983, p. 15). After the dispersion of the ‘Hellenists’ until the time of Constantine’s rule the cities became the ‘dominant environment’ of Christianity (Meeks, 1983, p. 11).

By modern standards the cities were small but overcrowded. Cities would contain sizeable ethnic communities (Banks, 1980, p. 8). Rome’s population would have been close to one million (Banks, 1980, p. 7). Antioch held 250,000 people (Tidball, 1993, p. 1) with an incredible 200 per acre (Meeks, 1983, pp. 28-29) (49,400km2) compared with Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs (4,000km2 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004)). The housing density was made tolerable by a large portion (one quarter) dedicated to public facilities. Privacy in such conditions was rare (Meeks, 1983, p. 29). Involvement in early churches would have been noticed by the community.

Households were large inclusive communities consisting of extended family, slaves, friends, tenants, partners and clients involved in common commercial or agricultural enterprise. Housing would be shared by the extended kin often with individual rooms shared by nuclear groups (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 84). The physical layout reflected it’s function with commercial (workshop and shop frontage) and residential areas (Tidball, 1993, pp. 3,8).

Status within community was shaped by ‘achieved status’/‘acquired honour’ (wealth, education, occupation) and ‘accredited status’/‘ascribed honour’ (race, gender, birth, legal status) (Tidball, 1993, p. 11; Spence, 2009, p. 4). Accredited status stratified society similarly to the way today’s society is segmented into economic class (e.g. lower-middle class) (Tidball, 1993, p. 9). A blurring of social distinctions was gradually taking place (Banks, 1994) with increasing ‘status inconsistencies’ (such as an educated slave or wealthy women) (Tidball, 1993, p. 10).

Roman society was pluralistic and polytheistic (Driscoll, 2009). Rome assumed that conquered people had religions and these were to be incorporated as acceptable beliefs (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 285). Iterant philosophers (Tidball, 1993, p. 3) and foreign settlers would gather and set up shrines to their native gods (Meeks, 1983, p. 18), temples or philosophical schools (Banks, 1980, p. 11). Influence and intermingling of religions led ‘people to think of the gods of other nations as similar or identical to those they already knew’ – a process known as syncretism (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 44).

The Christian ‘religion’ started with political friction. New religions required political licence (Tidball, 1993, p. 6); Christians referred to themselves as ekklesia (assembly) which was a Greek political term (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 138). Christians came from various classes and cultures, and were passionately monotheistic both of these characteristics were unusual in their socio-political context.

The house churches were groups of Christians that would gather together in private homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 12:12). These meetings were typically small, limited by the physical size of the premise (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55). Most often the meeting would be based around a meal and occur in the dining room. This practice followed in the tradition of Jewish practices with archaeological excavation demonstrating first century synagogues which were rooms in private homes (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 549).

Several households are mentioned in scripture: Nympha in Laodicea (Col 4:15), Philemon in Colossae (Philemon 2) and Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) hosted gatherings of early Christians in their homes (O'Brien, 1993). The owner of the house would function as host and patron (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55). It is likely that these patrons were wealthy gentile God-fearers who had previously supported the synagogue (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55). Multiple house churches within the same town are implied in scripture (Romans 16:23, 1 Corinthians 14:23) (O'Brien, 1993) and confirmed by archaeological evidence (Tidball, 1993, p. 4).

In many ways these gatherings reflect contemporary Christian ‘services’. They would meet for fellowship (Hebrews 10:25), music (Ephesians 5:19), prayer and public reading of scripture (1 Timothy 4:13), teaching (Colossians 3:16) and conflict resolution (1 Corinthian 5).

The pattern of modern churches being based around a central public building is a clear point of distinction. Designated buildings owned collectively by the church for the purpose of worship were not seen until the middle of the third century (O'Brien, 1993). Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity led to increased legal protection and the start of government sponsored buildings (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 549).

Another distinction is the social dynamic within the church. The church began as a community that ‘held all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). However private property continued to exist (private homes) and unloving class distinctions persisted (1 Corinthian 10). Early churches formed as communitas of anti-hierarchical brotherhoods with loose structure and strong sense of belonging (Tidball, 1993). Within the early decades social status was rejected such that freeman and slaves shared together (Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 55; Banks, 1980, p. 26) – ‘neither Jew nor Greek...slave nor free...male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28). A common faith, rituals (particularly baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and common experience such as external persecution resulted in community identification within group. Contemporary Australian culture is much more individual (at personal and family level) with the tendency to gather at the church building and this disperse.

To accurate read and interpret Paul’s writings we must appreciate that he lived in and preached to a world very different from our own. Failure to recognise differences leads to the ethnocentric tendency to regard our own experiences (Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard, 2004, p. 12) and world view (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 283) as the standard in which to interpret the texts. Conflict with the circumcision group (Galatians 5), the role of women (1 Corinthians 11:5, 1 Timothy 2:12) and food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8) are examples of context bound issues that faced the House Churches. Careful study of the author’s contexts and ‘all conditions that surround the recipient’ provide important information about the author’s intended message and how the recipients would have understood that message (Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard, 2004, pp. 10-11).


Achtemeier, P. J., Green, J. B., & Thompson, M. M. (2001). Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2004, Janurary). Sydney Centre Has The Highest Population Density In Australia. Retrieved November 5, 2009, from Australian Bureau of Statistics:

Banks, R. (1980). Going to Church in the First Century: An Eyewitness Account. Jacksonville: SeedSowers.

Banks, R. (1994). Paul's Idea of Community (Revised Editiion ed.). Hendrickson Publishers.

Barton, S. C. (1993). Social-Scientific approaches to Paul. In G. F. Hawhorne, R. P. Martin, & D. G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Driscoll, M. (2009). Happy Birthday Mars Hill: Special 13th Anniversary Acts 17:16-34. Retrieved November 1st, 2009, from

Klein, W. W., Blomberg, C. L., & Hubbard, R. L. (2004). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Marshall, I. H., Millard, A. R., Packer, J. I., & Wiseman, D. J. (Eds.). (1996). The New Bible Dictionary (3rd Edition ed.). Leicester: IVP.

Meeks, W. A. (1983). The First Urban Christians. Binghamton, NY, USA: Vail-Ballou Press.

O'Brien, P. T. (1993). Chuch. In G. F. Hawhorne, R. P. Martin, & D. G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Spence, S. (2009). Lecture 6: The Cultural World of Jesus. Adelaide: Tabor Adelaide.

Stambaugh, J. E., & Balch, D. L. (1986). The New Testament in Its Social Environment. (W. A. Meeks, Ed.) Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Theissen, G. (1978). The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Tidball, D. J. (1993). Social Setting of Mission Churches. In G. F. Hawhorne, R. P. Martin, & D. G. Reid, Dictionry of Paul and his Letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots

During the centuries either side of Jesus, Judaism formed several distinct factions. The most famous of these are Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. Similar to modern day denominations, there are distinctions and areas of overlap (Wood et al., 1996, p. 914). Many Jews did not identify with any group (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 35). The distinctions between the groups are seen in four domains: human geography, political involvement, characteristic theology and sphere of influence.

While the Sadducees were found in Jerusalem maintaining the temple cult the Pharisees lived in villages and towns (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34). The Essenes withdraw into isolated monastic communities (Shelley, 1995, p. 6), in many cities (Bealle, 2000, p. 2), the largest being in Qumran (Wood et al., 1996, p. 340). The Zealots formed late in the first century (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 9) as a more turbulent group with various leaders, divisions and locations (Wood et al., 1996, p. 1263).

The Pharisees were committed to understanding Israel’s Law (Westerholm, 1992, p. 3) and had a general ambivalence towards Greco-Roman Society (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34). The centre of the Sadducees’ world was the Temple in a Roman city which, combined with generations of prestige and privilege associated with the priesthood and control of the Sanhedrin, meant that life involved the urban elite and associated politics (Shelley, 1995, p. 5). The Essenes and Zealots took opposite approaches. The Essenes were separatists and avoided the political stage while the Zealots were ‘bent on armed resistance’ (Shelley, 1995, p. 5). The latter opposed the impurity of Roman interference (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 9; Wood et al., 1996, p. 1263) and fought a class war of Jewish aristocracy (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 9).

The Pharisees observed and taught strict observance to the Law (Shelley, 1995, p. 5). They taught immortality of the soul, resurrection of the righteous, and particular attention to ritual purity and tithing (Westerholm, 1992, pp. 1,3). They are criticized in the New Testament for holding ancestral traditions as binding (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34; Westerholm, 1992, p. 1). The Sadducees differed in understanding of purity laws, human freedom over fate, and did not believe in the immorality of the soul (Wood et al., 1996, pp. 1044-1045; Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 33; Porton, 2000, p. 1). The Essenes believed in predestination (Wood et al., 1996, p. 915), apocalyptic eschatology (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 35), separation from Gentiles and Gentile influence (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 35), common property, clothing and food, and celibacy (Bealle, 2000, p. 2).

Despite lacking economic or professional influence (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34) the Pharisees were popular and powerful (Wood et al., 1996, p. 915), much more so than the Sadducees (Porton, 2000, p. 1) . They were the core of the rabbinic movement, supplanting the Priests (Mason, 2000, p. 1) because they interpreted the Torah (Wood et al., 1996, p. 915). The Sadducees controlled the temple but only had a small support base of the wealthy (Porton, 2000, p. 1). The Zealots’ guerrilla tactics had influence most notable for preventing ‘the nobilities plan to negotiate a settlement with the Romans’ (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 10).

[removed - comment on modern day pharisees]


[removed subjective Information]

You may or may not believe it, but below is a true story.

In 2003 I attended [removed identifying information]

One evening the Minister spoke on Luke 18 – The Pharisee and The Tax Collector.

‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’ (Luke 18:11)

From memory he was well prepared and spoke well. However, what will always stand out was how he concluded.

‘We thank you God that we are not like this Pharisee.’


Achtemeier, P. J., Green, J. B., & Thompson, M. M. (2001). Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Basser, H. W. (2000). Priests and Priesthood, Jewish. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Bealle, T. (2000). Essenes. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervaristy Press.

Heard, W. J., & Evans, C. A. (2000). Revolutionary Movements, Jewish. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Mason, S. (2000). Pharisees. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Porton, G. G. (2000). Sadducees. In Dictionary of the New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Shelley, B. L. (1995). Churst History in Plain Language. (U. 2nd, Ed.) Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Westerholm, S. (1992). Pharisees. In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Intervarsity Press.

Wood, D. R., Marshall, I. H., Millard, A. R., Packer, J. I., & Wiseman, D. J. (Eds.). (1996). New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Apocrypha

deSilva’s Introducing the Apocrypha describes the opposed approaches of varying traditions to the Apocryphal texts. Catholic or Orthodox Old Testament’s based on the Septuagint will include the Apocryphal texts (referring to them as “deuterocanonical” (deSilva, 2007, p. 15)) whereas Protestant Old Testament’s based on ‘early rabbinic Judaism’ (deSilva, 2007, p. 17) do not include the texts with some believing them to be ‘heretical books scrupulously to be avoided’ (deSilva, 2007, p. 16). deSilva argues that regardless to canonicity the ‘books bear witness to what it meant to remain faithful to the God of Israel during a tumultuous period of History’ (deSilva, 2007, p. 16) and provide historical context of ‘Judaism of 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E’ (deSilva, 2007, p. 20) and thus context for the New Testament. Additionally, the authors of the New Testament show a ‘high degree of familiarity with this literature’ (deSilva, 2007, p. 21). The texts tell the story of how God’s people remained ‘Jewish’ in less than idyllic circumstances adding ‘fuel the fire in the soul’ (deSilva, 2007, pp. 16, 41). deSilva concludes with reflection of purpose; ‘not to reconsider the question of canonicity, but to get deeper into the world of Judaism at the turn of the era and into the matrix of early Christianity’ (deSilva, 2007, p. 40).

The First Book of Esdras is a historical narrative containing material from 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. It covers the time of Josiah (1:23-31), Nebuchadnezzar sacking the Temple (1:5, 40), the return from exile (5:41) and the teaching and reform (8-9) of Ezra the ‘priest, doctor of the Law’ (8:1).

Several elements of Jewish religious practice continued into the time of Jesus. The opening chapters describe Passover in Jerusalem revealing practices of sacrifice, preparation and ceremonial cleaning (1). Temple worship and organisation is described (5). One distinction is that Jews of Jesus’ day worshiped in the second temple as the first temple was destroyed (1:55). Ezra teaches from the ‘book of the law’ (9:45) a practice continued in synagogues contemporary to Jesus (although the form of open air to 50,000 plus people was unusual). Social dynamics of the day are also reflected in the identification of persons by tribes and clans. The authority of the kings within their land is a theme that continues into the New Testament with Herod.

The nature of God as explored in this book is relevant to the present day particularly the sovereignty of God as King of Kings (2:2, 8:25). Trust in God’s plan is the only thing those in exile would have to hold on to. Taken into the New Testament context we long for the return of Christ and God’s ultimate plan regardless of how hopeless the world may appear.

The Second Book of Esdras takes a different form as an apocalyptic text describing seven visions of Ezra - ‘The Lord’ speaking to Ezra about the sin of the people and His faithfulness in history (1-2). Within the recurring pattern of prayer, vision and explanation there is a distinct progression in the bringer of the vision. The first four visions are explained by the angel Uriel (4:1) and speak of suffering, creation of people (5:48), creation of the world (6), and the barrenness of Israel (10). The fifth introduces the Messiah as a lion (12:32) overtaking the three headed eagle with eight wings. The sixth vision is the ‘The Most High’ (13:25) to who melts man ‘as wax at the touch of fire’. In the final vision God speaks directly and he commissions Ezra ‘“Go”’ (14:23.)

Both the content and of the form of this passage has much to teach us about the worldview of its author(s) generalised to the Jewish populace. The letter written in exile speaks of mourning, the restoration of Jerusalem while waiting for the Messiah and the resurrection from the dead. Additionally, we see the importance the Jews placed on past events with constant reference to Israel’s history. The apocalyptic form reminiscent of Daniel and Revelation uses specific symbolism to convey meaning. The form and the symbolism would have carried more meaning with its original readers.

Universal themes such as having hope during suffering as you look forward to the coming age are as relevant to the original readers as they are to us - ‘Why have you not turned your mind from the present to the future’ (7:16).

Overall, personally I found this book less helpful than the others. The authenticity felt questionable; the mention of ‘hell’ (2:29), a ‘ the end of the world...everlasting rest’ for the Gentiles, ‘The Son of God’ (2:47), ‘souls are separated from their body’ (7:100) are not themes carried in other parts of the Old Testament and Uriel offering conditional explanation (4:4) seems unusual.

The Book of Tobit is an entertaining narrative of Tobit, his son Tobias (4-5), daughter-in-law Sarah (3), the angel Raphael (5), and a series of calamities. The first calamity to fall upon Tobit is four years of blindness after bird droppings fall in his eyes (2:10.) The second is the plight of Sarah who has been married seven times but each time her husband dies before consummation (3). Raphael has a main role as travelling companion for Tobias, provides cure for both calamites, acts as cupid (6) and chases the daemon to upper Egypt (8:3), only revealing himself in chapter 12.

Tobias’ advice and life tells us what was considered righteous living in his context. He maintains the Law, travelling to Jerusalem with ‘first fruits’ (1:6), refusing to eat Gentile food (1:11) and tells of the importance of family, the law, charity, and purity of marriage.

Angels make several appearances in the Apocrypha from which we can assume they and their interaction with God’s people were normal part of Jewish theology. We are told two unique things: Raphael is ‘one of the seven angles’ (12:14) and he ‘ate no food’ 12:19.

Whereas The Second Book of Esdras speaks of the suffering of Israel (2 Esdras 10), The Book of Tobit speaks of the suffering of individuals. Sarah, daughter of Raguel, after tragedy (the loss of seven husbands) and public ridicule plans to hang herself. She is stopped because of the impact this would have on her family (3:10). Her overcoming and faith offers hope for those undergoing their own trials. The answer to suffering both of nation and individual is a trust in God - ‘In deep distress I groaned and wept aloud, and as I groaned I prayed: “O Lord, you are just and all your acts are just in all your ways you are merciful and true; you are the Judge of the World”’ (3:1-2).

The book of Judith is a narrative in the tradition of Judges. It opens with King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria marching against many nations and destroying sacred sites so that ‘[he] alone should be worshipped by every nation’ (3:8). His general Holophernes encircles Jerusalem (7:19) but Judith with good looks and wisdom manages to infiltrate the enemy camp and returns with Holophernes’ head (9-13).

The text shows the importance placed on God’s commandments to ‘have no other gods’ (Exodus 20:3) as Israel strongly rejects worship of Nebuchadnezzar. Their preparations show dependence on God: ‘for many days the entire population... fasted before the temple of the Lord almighty’ (4:13) and prepared defences (5). Achior, councillor to Holophrenes, shows good insight into Jewish history stating that ‘if [they] have not violated their law... the God they serve should defend and protect them’ (5:21).

There is much to learn from Judith’s attitude to prayer. We should remember in thanks past blessings and promises and present out requests for the present (9). However, we should not assume a formulaic ‘if I pray A God will do B’ - ‘It is not for you to impose conditions on the Lord out God, because God will neither yield to threats nor be bargained with like a mere mortal’ (8:16).

The book of Esther is included in the canon despite never mentioning God. The Rest of the Chapters of the Book of Esther, a Greek addition to the Hebrew book, incorporates the religious and cosmic elements missing in Esther. Esther is the foster child of the Jew Mardochaeus, and is chosen to replace Queen Astin after the queen publically disrespects the King Artaxerxes. The King’s Councellor Hamas is given special powers and angered Mardochaeus orders the extermination of the Jewish race.

Several customs within the text are also seen in the New Testament. Mourning with sackcloth and ash (13, 14; Matthew 11:21) (though foreign to the Australian protected emotional expression). Artaxerxes’ offer of half the Kingdom is reminiscent of Herod’s offer (Mark 6:23). Turbulence of kingdom boundaries (9) and war were also common to Jesus’ time of Roman occupation. Royal practices of ancient Israel (but not necessarily the world of Jesus) are describes including feasts (2), law making (2, 3, 13), selection of a Queen (1), and the royal train and throne (4).

The expansion of Esther has all the elements of a great entertaining narrative. It tells of a rise from poverty to royalty, a plot with suspense and surprises, schemes of evil men and the triumph of good. Beyond entertainment there is a more serious element. The book points to the sovereignty of God. It opens with God providing dreams which earn favour which avert disaster. It shows reliance on prayer with Ester praying 3 days (15:1) prior to embarking on her plan.

The Wisdom of Solomon, is a wisdom text most likely written in the first century before Christ under the pseudonym of Solomon. The book is a general appeal for wisdom with a specific call to leaders (1:1, 6:1). The text stresses that life and death are universal. Birth is messy but ‘no king begins life in any other way’ (7:4). Death is inevitable and followed by God’s judgement. The book reminds its readers that just as they ‘have sovereignty over [God’s] creation’ (9:2) God has sovereignty over them and we should live in light of that.

The author reveals several elements of their world view. The early chapters show a clear belief in the afterlife and the judgement to follow it. The middle chapters reflect on wisdom in Israel’s history, a common Jewish practice of looking to the past for teaching and instruction for the future. The later chapters teach the futility of idols including a mockery of carved idols in chapter 13.

The text draws upon Jewish literature and speaks of wisdom applicable to both the first century Jew and today’s Christian. These themes include final justice (1:8, 15) and the ‘fleeting shadow’ (2:4) of futile life without eternity. The idea of final judgement is no stranger to the Christian - ‘Man is destined to die once and after that face judgement’ (Hebrew 9:27). The prayer for wisdom in chapter 7 parallels James 1:5. There are some differences canonical teaching. Chapters 2-3 strongly associate behaviour with outcome for the soul (‘Children of adultery are like fruit that never ripens’ 3:16). This lacks the grace which allows new beginnings seen in the New Testament.

Ecclesiasticus is a text ‘of learning and wisdom’ (Preface). Jesus son of Sirach (50:27) compiled its contents from ‘a legacy of great value [that] has come down to us through the law, the prophets, and the writers who followed’. Much of the text is reminiscent of Proverbs, for example the form of short statements of advice thematically linked and repeated (25:2-12 and Proverbs 6:16-19), and the personification of wisdom (1 & 4 and Proverbs 8.)

The idea that a Godly life brings good things - ‘the fear of the Lord brings honour and pride’ (Ecclesiasticus 1:11) is shared with the previous text.

We see again Jews looking to the past for encouragement now (2:10). ‘Famous men’ such as Noah and Jacob remembered in chapters 44-50 show the importance of genealogy, the respect for ancestors, and the need to tell their story.

Advise on relationship including child-rearing differs from cultural norms today – ‘Marry off your daughters, and you will have done well’ (7:25) and physical punishment for children ‘beat him soundly while he is still a child’ (30:12). Similarly, warning against money lending and comments on legal issues differ from our norms (8:12-14).

The modern reader benefits by the promotion of obtaining wisdom (‘a sensible person will take proverb to heart’ (3:29)), snippets of specific advice (‘Never remain silent when a word might put things right’ (4:23), ‘Never sit down with another man’s wife’ (9:8), ‘Have you heard a rumour? Let it die with you. Never fear, it will not make you burst!’ (19:10)), and points to God ‘He who lives forever is the Creator of the whole universe; the Lord alone will be proved supreme’ (18:1-2).

The majority of the text appears consistent with biblical thought and beneficial to read. There are problems most noticeable where the author’s opinion (‘I have still more thoughts to express’ (39:12) or ‘whose mind became a fountain of wisdom’ (50:27)) is included with wisdom from God (even though this is warned against in chapter 38). Prayer for the destruction of the ‘heathen’ nations and elevation of Israel (36:1-17), although seen in Psalms, reveals difference to the New Testament understanding of God’s nation. Although Exodus 20:12 speaks of long days in the land, Ecclesiasticus 3:3 moves into unscriptural territory - ‘respect for a father atones for sins’ (3:3). ‘If you do a good turn, make sure to whom you are doing it’ (12:1) differs to Jesus ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’ (Matthew 6:3).

The book of Baruch bears the name of Jeremiah’s close friend and secretary. After an introductory account of Baruch reading the ‘book’ to the people he turns to a series of prayers and laments.

In the introduction we see the public reading of scripture as a religious practice of the day as Baruch ‘opens the book’ with resulting ‘tears and fasting’, ‘prayers’, ‘money... for offering(s)’ and confession of specific deeds (1). The people are reminded of important historical moments including Israel’s failure to recall and live out the deuteronomical law (2:3) and the Exodus (2:11).

The benefit to 21st century Christian reader is reflection on the unchanging nature of God (his justice, mercy, and right to command) and the unchanging nature of the human condition (our inability to obey and need for mercy) – ‘You are enthroned for ever; we are forever passing away’ (3:3). Baruch 2:34-35 links the historical Jewish promises with a future covenant which we know to be fulfilled in Jesus.

Written under pseudonym a Letter of Jeremiah is addressed to those exiled in Babylon. It warns of greater temptations in a foreign land of many enticing gods. The majority of the text is rhetoric mocking the powerless idols ‘These gods, sitting in their temples, are of no more use than a broken pot’ (6:12), ‘products of the carpenter and the goldsmith’ (6:45).

The text show the author’s attitude towards futile idolatry. Additionally, it is impossible for a true god to have ‘women who serve them food’ (6:29.) We can infer that it was considered only proper for males to serve God in temple.

Contemporary Australian idols, for most, take a very different form to that in the letter. Statues of carefully crafted wood and gold have been replaced with idols of success, money, pride and most importantly self. Although the form is different we can take from this passage the danger and seriousness of idolatry and the need to be free of them. ‘Better, then, to be upright and have no idols’ (6:75).

The Prayer of Azariah and The Song of the Three tells of Daniel and his friends in the fiery oven. It is the first of three apocryphal books expanding on Daniel. Azariah praises God for his justice and confesses his sin. The second half is dedicated to a song of praise to God for saving them

Azariah beliefs are revealed as he prays; ‘in all we did sinned’ (7), ‘your judgements have been just’ (8), trust in patriarchal promises (13), ‘contrite heart and humbled spirit’ (16) is acceptable offering (17). The second half records content of their spontaneous praise including repetition, praise for who God is, and invocation for all creation to praise him.

Much about prayer can be learnt from the first half of the book. There is a humble acceptance of their trial, a confession of sin, a trust in God’s promises and a request for freedom of their current situation. The second half reveals the joy of the three to his blessing which questions how thankful we are in our moments of blessing.

Daniel and Susanna is the story of the devout and beautiful Susanna unrightfully condemned for adultery after rejecting the advances of two corrupt Judges.

Aspects of the legal system are revealed with the two antagonists being ‘judges appointed...two of the community’s elders’ who would meet at ‘Joakim’s (the man of greatest distinction) house’ (5-6). The vulnerably of women and the seriousness of adultery is in contrast to the post-feminist and no-fault divorce world of today.

This tale will appeal to all who have endured trial for their moral commitment and people’s deep seated desire for justice. Its readers encouraged to ‘“Better to be at your mercy (her unfair accusers) then to sin against the Lord!”’ (22).

Daniel, Bel, and the Snake tells two stories of Daniel, companion of the King Cyrus. First, by using ash Daniel discovers the footprints of the priests taking the offerings allegedly consumed by lifeless idol Bel. Secondly, he destroys a ‘huge snake’, a living idol. The people revolt and Daniel is sent to the lion pit, only to be rescued by Habakkuk and an angel.

The story reveals the surrounding nations’ desire for idols. The story of the Habbakuk and the Angel reveals a belief in the supernatural workings of God.

People’s desire for idols (lifeless and living) is as universal now as it is then. The reader is encouraged that ‘“The living God who created heaven and earth and is sovereign over all mankind’” (5). The demand to send Daniel to the lion’s pit is reminiscent of the crowds sending Jesus to the cross.

At the end of an evil reign King Manasseh partially reforms. 2 Chronicles 33:8 mentions his unrecorded prayer. The Prayer of Manasseh opens in a standard fashion with an acknowledgement of God’s past faithfulness and repentance of sins.

The prayer is a snapshot of Manasseh’s spiritual life. A man that had sinned and now is broken – ‘I grieve over my sins and find no relief’ (10). His place of submission and brokenness is not unlike the person recognising their need for Christ.

The First Book of Maccabees opens with spread of Greek power from Alexander to Antiochus IV. During this period; by choice (1:14) and force (1:47) Israel becomes increasingly Hellenistic. Pagan sacrifices are made on the altar, Mattathias is appalled by the ‘desecrat[ion]’ (2:12) in ‘fury of righteous anger, he rushed forward and cut him [offering the sacrifice] down on the very altar’ (2:24). In reply the Israelites are ‘massacred’ (2:38) but ‘Mattathias and his friends...[demolish] the pagan alters and forcibly circumcise’ (2:45-46). Maccabaeus (Judas) takes leadership of this restorative rebellion (3:1), war is declared on the ‘descendents of Esau’ (5:3) and the temple restored. War is replaced with politics as Jonathan (Maccabaeus’ successor , 9:3) meets with Alexander and Ptolemy king of Egypt (10:49). The next generation of leaders Simon will Fight Trypho the Spartan (13).

Maccabeus tells us of the political turmoil in the 150 years preceding Christ. It links the blight of the Jews into the Greco-Roman world with direct references to Alexander the Great (1:1), the violation of the temple by Antiochus (1:47), and Cleopatra (10:57.) It sets the stage for the political environment of the New Testament and will become an inspiration to the Zealots.

We can take encouragement of hearing stories of both earthly success and martyrdom of those who remained faithful to God through terrible persecution. ‘Victory does not depend on numbers; strength is from Heaven alone’ (3:19).

The Second Book of Maccabees parallels the first as an abbreviated version of Jason of Cyrene’s historical account (2:19). Chapters 1-2 form a letter from the Jews in Jerusalem and Judaea to the Jews in Egypt detailing the events and upcoming purification. Heliodorus is met by God (3:24) for attempting to take the treasury. Wicked Jason (4:13) is made priest to settle dispute between Simon and Onias and results in the priests being discouraged and stopping sacrifices. ‘Guided by Menelaus’ (5:15), the proud (5:17) Antiochus entered into the Holy of Holies. A second desecration occurs as King Antiochus commands the temple to be ‘dedicate[d] to Zeus God of Hospitality’ (6:2), ‘things the law forbade (6:4), and ‘forc[ing the priests to] eat pork’ (6:18). Maccabaeus gathers men and appears to the Gentles ‘invincible’ (8:5.) They ‘recovered the temple and the city of Jerusalem’ (10:1). The battles continued ‘after this prayer’ (10:27). The Jews try to return to normal and ‘busied themselves on their farms’ (12:1) but an attempted genocide ensues (12). Maccabeus takes the offensive (13:13).

The text demonstrates how inter-testamental Jews used Old Testament writings in how the abbreviator explains the purification ritual (2), and in prayers of invocation and Jewish emotional expression (3). We see a prelude to New Testament teaching; ‘Lord made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27) – ‘But the lord did not choose the nation for the sake of the sanctuary; he chose the sanctuary for the sake of the nation’ (5:19). We know that these Jews believed in an afterlife (7:9). The book opens with a letter of encouragement in many ways a forerunner to the epistles and partnership in Philippians 1.


deSilva, D. A. (2007). Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context and Significance. Baker Academic.

Suggs, M. J., Sakenfeld, K. D., & Mueller, J. R. (Eds.). (1992). The Oxford Study Bible - Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press.