Atonement and the Apocrypha: Some Questions Concerning the Deutero-Canonical Books

In this post, I will highlight some of the reasons why I have a difficulty accepting the Jewish apocrypha writings as sacred Scripture. My purpose is not to offend the Christians who do view these books as God-breathed revelations. Rather, my intention is to showcase some of the problems I see in these writings that hinder me from accepting them as Scripture.

It is no secret that both Judaism and Protestantism do not accept the Old Testament apocrypha, also referred to as the deutero-canonical writings, which certain branches of Christianity such as Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church etc., accepts as divinely inspired, and therefore as part of the Hebrew OT.

In the case of the Roman Catholicism, their Bible contains the Greek additions to the books of Esther, Jeremiah and Daniel, as well as Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and the Prayer of Manasseh. They also include the following writings: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus/Wisdom of ben Sirach, Baruch, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees. These writings were primarily composed in the period between the Old and New Testament books recognized by the Protestants.

The fact is that, not only do some of these writings deny having been written by inspiration,

“all this, which has been set forth by Jason of Cyrene in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book. For considering the flood of numbers involved and the difficulty there is for those who wish to enter upon the narratives of history because of the mass of material, we have aimed to please those who wish to read, to make it easy for those who are inclined to memorize, and to profit all readers. For us who have undertaken the toil of abbreviating, it is no light matter but calls for sweat and loss of sleep, just as it is not easy for one who prepares a banquet and seeks the benefit of others. However, to secure the gratitude of many we will gladly endure the uncomfortable toil, leaving the responsibility for exact details to the compiler, while devoting our effort to arriving at the outlines of the condensation. For as the master builder of a new house must be concerned with the whole construction, while the one who undertakes its painting and decoration has to consider only what is suitable for its adornment, such in my judgment is the case with us. It is the duty of the original historian to occupy the ground and to discuss matters from every side and to take trouble with details, but the one who recasts the narrative should be allowed to strive for brevity of expression and to forego exhaustive treatment. At this point therefore let us begin our narrative, adding only so much to what has already been said; for it is foolish to lengthen the preface while cutting short the history itself.” 2 Maccabees 2:23-32

“This, then, is how matters turned out with Nicanor. And from that time the city has been in the possession of the Hebrews. So I too will here end my story. IF IT IS WELL TOLD and to the point, that is what I myself desired; IF IT IS POORLY DONE AND MEDIOCRE, that was the best I could do. For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end.” 2 Maccabees 15:37-39

And notice again what Sirach had to say concerning his own writing:

You therefore are now invited to read it in a spirit of attentive good will, with indulgence for any apparent failure on our part, despite earnest efforts, in the interpretation of particular passages. For words spoken originally in Hebrew are not as effective when they are translated into another language. That is true not only of this book but of the law itself, the prophets and the rest of the books, which differ no little when they are read in the original. Introduction to Sirach, (New American Bible http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/__PM2.HTM; bold emphasis ours)

They also make assertions which directly contradict the books which both Protestants and Roman Catholics hold in common.

For instance, the Greek additions to the canonical book of Daniel claim that almsgiving or giving charity is an atonement for sins:

“Therefore, O king, let my counsel please thee, and atone for thy sins by alms, and [thine] iniquities by compassion on the poor: it may be God will be long-suffering to thy trespasses.” Daniel 4:24 (Greek original according to the text used by the Church of Greece, English translation by L.C.L. Brenton)

This is a point repeated elsewhere in the apocryphal literature:

“Water will quench a flaming fire; and alms maketh an atonement for sins.” Sirach 3:30

“Give alms of thy substance; and when thou givest alms, let not thine eye be envious, neither turn thy face from any poor, and the face of God shall not be turned away from thee. If thou hast abundance give alms accordingly: if thou have but a little, be not afraid to give according to that little: For thou layest up a good treasure for thyself against the day of necessity. Because that alms do deliver from death, and suffereth not to come into darkness. For alms is a good gift unto all that give it in the sight of the most High.” Tobit 4:7-11

“Prayer is good with fasting and alms and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with unrighteousness. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold: For alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin. Those that exercise alms and righteousness shall be filled with life:” Tobit 12:8-9

Thus, according to the Apocrypha almsgiving delivers from death by purging away sins, and is therefore a means of obtaining salvation or everlasting life.

However, this stands in direct conflict with the books that both Protestants and Catholics accept as inspired and infallible. According to these writings, it is the sacrificial blood prescribed by God that makes atonement for sin, not almsgiving:

“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near to the Lord and died. The Lord said to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother so that he does not come at any time into the Holy Place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is on the ark, so that he will not die, for I will appear in the cloud on the mercy seat. Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and he shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and shall be girded with a linen sash, and shall be wearing the linen turban. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water and then put them on. He shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer his bull for the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting.  Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat on which the lot of the Lord falls and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot falls to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement with it, that it may be sent away as a scapegoat into the wilderness. Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall KILL the bull of the sin offering for himself. And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. And he shall take of THE BLOOD of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the eastern side, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle from the blood with his finger seven times. Then he shall KILL the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, and bring its BLOOD within the veil, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it over and in front of the mercy seat. And he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel and because of their transgressions in all their sins, and so he shall do for the tent of meeting that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out and has made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and he shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the BLOOD of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. He shall sprinkle from the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. When he has made an end of atonement for the Holy Place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, then he shall bring the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear on it all their iniquities to a desolate land, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the Holy Place, and shall leave them there. And he shall wash his body with water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come out, and offer his burnt offering, and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. The fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. He who releases the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp. The bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. They shall burn in the fire their hides, their flesh, and their refuse. He who burns them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp. This shall be a perpetual statute for you so that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble yourselves, and do no work of any kind, whether it is the native citizen or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you to cleanse you, so that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath, a solemn rest for you, and you shall humble yourselves. It is a perpetual statute. The priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as a priest in the place of his father, shall make atonement, and shall put on the linen garments, the holy garments. And he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, for the tent of meeting, and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation. This shall be A PERPETUAL STATUTE for you to make atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year. And Moses did as the Lord commanded him.” Leviticus 16:1-34

And:

“Whoever from the house of Israel, or from the strangers who sojourn among you, who eats any manner of blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. Whoever from the children of Israel, or from the foreigners who sojourn among you, who hunts and catches any wild animal or fowl that may be eaten, he shall even pour out the blood and cover it with dirt. For the life of every creature is its blood; in its blood is its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.” Leviticus 17:10-14

In fact, the book of Hebrews emphatically teaches that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood:

“And according to the law almost everything must be cleansed with blood; without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Hebrews 9:22

Hebrews goes even beyond this point by asserting that the OT animal sacrifices were incapable of removing or cleansing people from their sins, since all they did was to provide a temporary covering for them. This explains why these OT sacrifices had to be repeatedly offered:

“For the law is a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of those things. It could never by the same sacrifices, which they offer continually year after year, perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshippers, once purified, would no longer be conscious of sins? But in those sacrifices there is an annual reminder of sins. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:1-4

These sacrifices were meant to foreshadow the Lord Jesus’ vicarious death since the Christian Scriptures are clear in proclaiming that it is only Christ’s sacrifice which completely removes the sin and guilt of everyone who believes in him. They are equally adamant that only the death of Christ is able to truly perfect all those who turn to God through him:

“And the former priests were numerous because they were hindered from serving because of death. But He, because He lives forever, has an everlasting priesthood. Therefore He is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, because He at all times lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, for He is holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and is higher than the heavens. Unlike those high priests, He does not need to offer daily sacrifices—first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for He did this ONCE FOR ALL when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints men who are weak as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints a Son who is made perfect forever.” Hebrews 7:23-28

“But Christ, when He came as a High Priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation, neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, He entered the Most Holy Place ONCE FOR ALL, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats, and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies so that the flesh is purified, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the Mediator of a new covenant, since a death has occurred for the redemption of the sins that were committed under the first covenant, so that those who are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” Hebrews 9:11-15

“It was therefore necessary that the replicas of heavenly things be cleansed with these sacrifices, but that the heavenly things themselves be cleansed with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter holy places made with hands, which are patterned after the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us. Nor did He enter to offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. For then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the world was created, but now He has appeared ONCE at the end of the ages TO PUT AWAY SIN BY SACRIFICING HIMSELF. As it is appointed for men to die once, but after this comes the judgment, so Christ was offered ONCE to bear the sins of many, and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to save those who eagerly wait for Him.” Hebrews 9:23-28

By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ ONCE FOR ALL. But every priest stands daily ministering and repetitively offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time He has been waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool. For by one offering He has FOREVER PERFECTED those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also witnesses to us about this. For after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,’ then He adds, ‘Their sins and lawless deeds will I remember no more.’ Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.” Hebrews 10:10-18

Thus, it is only the blood of Christ which actually makes atonement for sinners, thereby guaranteeing the complete forgiveness of all their transgressions,

“As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take and eat. This is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and after He gave thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” Matthew 26:26-28 – cf. Mark 14:22-24

“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels to suffer death, crowned with glory and honor, so that He, by the grace of God, should experience death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Author of their salvation perfect through suffering. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all of One. For this reason He is not ashamed to call them brothers… So then, as the children share in flesh and blood, He likewise took part in these, so that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver those who through fear of death were throughout their lives subject to bondage. For surely He does not help the angels, but He helps the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things it was necessary for Him to be made like His brothers, so that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in the things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since He Himself suffered while being tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” Hebrews 2:9-11, 14-18

And which actually ransoms or redeems them from their bondage to sin,

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 – cf. Matthew 20:28

“There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all. This was the testimony given at the proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6

“For you know that you were not redeemed from your vain way of life inherited from your fathers with perishable things, like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” 1 Peter 1:18-19

Christ’s atoning death also propitiates or removes God’s wrath,

“whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith, in His blood, for a demonstration of His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins previously committed, to prove His righteousness at this present time so that He might be just and be the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:25-26

“My little children, I am writing these things to you, so that you do not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2

“In this is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:10

And thoroughly purges all believers from the stain and effects of their sins:

“He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of Himself, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had by Himself purged our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Hebrews 1:3

“But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7

To, therefore, suggest that giving alms atones for sins is to cheapen what Christ did, devalue his precious blood, and insult the infinite holiness and righteousness of God Almighty. Such a teaching is nothing short of blasphemy and must be rejected by all those who love, honor and worship the Triune God of Holy Scripture.

In the next section, I will seek to respond to some objections, which certain Catholic apologists raise to refute the notion that these statements from the apocrypha contradict the books that all the major branches of the Christian faith recognize as inspired Scripture.

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