Apocryphal reading

Anthony Gelston points out that the CofE has allowed misplaced Protestant scruple to constrict our liturgical reading of Scripture

 

All English Bibles contain the books of the Old and New Testaments, while many also contain the books called either Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical. These are books of the Old Testament that did not find a place in the final canon of the Hebrew Bible, though most were contained in the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, which, with the addition of the New Testament, became the Bible of the early Church. Although the Hebrew text of the Old Testament books was the original, it was widely believed in the early Church that the Greek version was the inspired and therefore the authoritative text. No less an authority than Augustine took issue with Jerome’s insistence on the priority of the Hebraica Veritas, and Jerome’s translation of the Psalter according to the Septuagint remained the preferred version in the mediaeval service books of the Western Church, over his translation according to the Hebrew text.

Reformation importance

At the time of the Reformation the distinction between the books of the Hebrew Old Testament and those contained only in the Greek Bible became significant again. The Reformers’ emphasis on the Bible as the supreme authority in matters of belief and doctrine made it important to define precisely which books had authoritative status. The criterion adopted was that of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Article VI of the 39 Articles of Religion lists the books of the Apocrypha, which it describes simply as ‘the other Books,’ and states that ‘the Church doth read [them] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet it doth not apply to them to establish any doctrine.’ This makes perfectly clear their status with respect to belief and doctrine. At the same time it makes it perfectly plain that the reformed Church of England continued to read these books, the strident reformer Thomas Becon, for example, twice quoting Ecclesiasticus in his Potation for Lent.

When we turn to the first two Prayer Books, of 1549 and 1552, we find accordingly that the first reading at the daily services, which mostly follows the order of the books in the Old Testament in English Bibles, reads from the Apocrypha from 5 October till 27 November. By the 1871 lectionary the period was reduced to from 27 October till 18 November, but the principle remained. As recently as the lectionary of 1961 four and a half weeks of Apocryphal readings were provided, and also some on Sundays. In no case were canonical alternatives provided.

Protestant influence

The earliest lectionary I have been able to find where Apocryphal readings are regularly supplied with canonical alternatives is that in The Daily Office of the Joint Liturgical Group (1968), from where they were taken over into the alternative lectionary for weekdays contained in Morning and Evening Prayer, Alternative Services Second Series (Revised) (1970). Since then this practice seems to have been maintained consistently in all lectionaries of the Church of England, including that in Common Worship and the current weekday lectionary published in 2004 (GS 1520A).

It seems that the rationale of the Church of England has changed slightly in recent years. The practice of reading from the Apocryphal books in liturgical services remains approved, but official recognition is given to a conscientious position in which such a practice is disapproved. The proviso in the Articles would seem sufficient safeguard against any use to establish a doctrine contrary to that of the Church of England.

When, it may be asked, is it envisaged that ‘the Church doth read’ these books if they are not read in the course of liturgical services? Private reading by scholars or individual churchmen hardly constitutes formal reading by the Church. Yet, if canonical alternatives are always provided, those who are minded to read the Apocryphal passages may find themselves in the invidious position of being made to feel slightly guilty in appearing to prefer apocryphal above canonical ones.

We are in danger, it seems, of losing the Apocryphal passages from our services altogether.

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