Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

The Apocrypha.

In addition to the Book of Daniel there are other writings that throw light on these times; notably the collection known as "The Apocrypha." This is a Greek word meaning hidden or obscure. This title as applied to their use was to indicate that the books were used for private circulation, rather than for reading at public worship. This title as applied to their origin was to indicate that their authority as sacred scripture was not as certain as that of the Bible books—to be included in the Canon of Scripture. This last application has given a rather sinister meaning to the word "apocryphal." But the collection is full of lofty religious sentiment well worthy to be included in our most sacred treasures.

Like the Bible, this collection was not written all at one time, nor in one land. It spreads over the period between 200 B.C.E. and 150 A.C.E., written therefore under Persian, Greek and Roman rule; some in Judea, others in the Diaspora, lands of Jewish dispersion. While the term covers some writings of non-Jewish scribes, the Apocrypha proper includes the Jewish writings only, and only such will be considered here.

These consist of fourteen books grouped in the following order:

  • I and II Esdras,Tobit, Judith
  • Additions to Book of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon
  • Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus
  • Baruch, Song of the Three Holy Children
  • History of Susanna, History of Bel
  • Prayer of Manasses, King of Judah
  • I and II Maccabees

Some are narratives, some books of homilies and maxims, here and there an apocalypse, i.e., prophetic vision. While the narratives are not all histories, they are invaluable as revealing the inner life of the people, their brave struggles, their deep convictions, and their yearnings for better things. One idea seems common to all. Each story is presented as an illustration of the temporal trials of good men and women, like Tobit and Susanna, and the ultimate reward of their fidelity; the edifying purpose throughout tending to foster the faith and courage of the people in time of tribulation. In this respect the apocryphal books resemble the book of Daniel, which might be appropriately included in the collection.

While these books as a whole lack the freshness and originality and the exquisite simplicity of the best Bible books, they show in some respects an advance in thought and survey. There is more mysticism in the apocryphal writings. Wisdom is personified, almost merging into a being. Angels and spirits play a larger part. Immortality is brought to the fore, and Asmodeus, a sort of devil, appears upon the scene. Some of these ideas, such as the personification of wisdom and the existence of a devil, were further fostered in Christianity and developed into distinct doctrines, while the inherent rationalism of Judaism gradually threw them off.

Now to consider briefly the books in detail:

I Esdras.

Esdras is a later version in Greek of the events told in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, but it begins further back in the reign of Josiah and carries the story through the exile down to the re-dedication of the Second Temple. The author breathes into it some later religious ideas of his own time. The following story quoted from it is known as the "Dispute of the Courtiers":

"Now King Darius made a great feast unto all his subjects and unto all that were born in his house, and unto all the princes of Medea and of Persia.

"Then the three young men of the body-guard that kept the King's person, spake one to another: let every one of us say one thing which shall be strongest; and he whose sentences shall seem wiser than the others, unto him shall Darius the King give great gifts and great honors in token of victory. The first wrote, Wine is the strongest. The second wrote, The King is the strongest. The third wrote, Woman is the strongest: but, above all things, Truth beareth away the victory.

"Then began the first, who had spoken of the strength of wine, and said thus: O sirs, how exceeding strong is wine. It causeth all men to err that drink it: it maketh the mind of the king and of the fatherless child to be all one; of the bondman and of the freeman, of the poor man and of the rich; it turneth also every thought into jollity and mirth, so that a man remembereth neither sorrow nor debt: and it makes every heart rich, so that a man remembereth neither king nor satrap: and when they are in their cups, they forget their love both to friends and brethren, and a little after draw their swords: but when they awake from their wine they remember not what they have done. O sirs, is not wine the strongest, seeing that it enforceth to do thus. And when he had so spoken, he held his peace.

"Then the second, that had spoken of the strength of the King, began to say: O sirs, do not men excel in strength, that bear rule over the sea and land and all things in them? But yet is the King stronger: and he is their lord and hath dominion over them; and in whatsoever he commandeth them they obey him. If he bid them make war one against the other, they do it: and if he send them out against the enemies, they go, and overcome mountains, walls and towers. They slay and are slain, and transgress not the King's commandment. If they get the victory they bring all to the King, as well the spoil as all things else. Likewise for those that are no soldiers and have not to do with wars, but use husbandry, when they have reaped again that which they had sown, they bring it to the King, and compel one another to pay tribute unto the king. And he is but one man. If he command to kill, they kill; if he command to spare they spare; if he command to smite, they smite; if he command to make desolate, they make desolate; if he command to build, they build; if he command to cut down, they cut down; if he command to plant, they plant. So all his people and all his armies obey him: furthermore, he lieth down, he eateth and drinketh, and taketh his rest; and these keep watch round about him, neither may any one depart, and do his own business, neither disobey they him in anything. O, sirs, how should not the king be strongest, seeing that in such sort he is obeyed? And he held his peace.

"Then the third, who had spoken of women, and of truth (this was Zorobabel) began to speak: O, sirs, is not the king great, and men are many, and wine is strong; who is it then that ruleth them or hath the lordship over them? Are they not women? Women have borne the king and all the people that bear rule by sea and land. Even of them came they: and they nourished them up that planted the vineyards from whence the wine cometh. These also make garments for men; these bring glory unto men; and without women, cannot men be. Yea, and if men have gathered together gold and silver and every goodly thing, and see a woman which is comely in favor and beauty, they let all those things go, and gape after her, and even with open mouth fix their eyes fast on her; and have all more desire unto her than unto gold or silver or any goodly thing whatsoever. A man leaveth his own father that brought him up, and his own country, and cleaveth unto his wife. And with his wife he endeth his days, and remembereth neither father, nor mother, nor country. By this also ye must know that women have dominion over you. Do ye not labor and toil and bring all to women? Yea, a man taketh his sword, and goeth forth to make outroads, and to rob and to steal, and to sail upon the sea and upon rivers; and looketh upon a lion; and walketh in the darkness.... Yea, many there be that have run out of their wits for women, and become bondmen for their sakes. Many also have perished, have stumbled, and sinned, for women. O sirs, how can it be but women should be strong, seeing they do thus? Then the king and the nobles looked one upon another: so he began to speak concerning truth. O sirs, are not women strong? Great is the earth, high is the heaven, swift is the sun in its course for he compasseth the heavens round about and fetcheth his course again to his own place in one day. Is he not great that maketh these things? Therefore great is truth and stronger than all things. All the earth calleth upon truth, and the heaven blesseth her: all works shake and tremble, but with her is no unrighteous thing; wine is unrighteous, the king is unrighteous, women are unrighteous, all the children of men are unrighteous, and unrighteous are all such their works; and there is no truth in them; in their unrighteousness also shall they perish. But truth abideth, and is strong forever; she liveth and conquereth for evermore. With her there is no accepting of persons or rewards; but she doeth the things that are just and refraineth from all unrighteous and wicked things; and all men do well like of her works. Neither in her judgment is any unrighteousness; and she is the strength, and the kingdom, and the power, and the majesty of all ages. Blessed be the God of truth. And with that he held his tongue. And all the people then shouted and said, Great is truth, and strong above all things."

II Esdras.

II Esdras is an entirely separate work, originally written in Hebrew. It consists of a series of visions of the future of Jerusalem, but it also takes up profound religious questions, as to why man is created to suffer and sin. The answer it offers to these queries is the salvation of the righteous after death. Its view of life is severe and sad. Chapters i and ii and probably xv and xvi are later editions by a Christian hand.


This is the story of the trials of a good man (Tobit—Goodness) in the sad times of the overthrow of Israel by Assyria. He "walked in truth and justice, fed the hungry and clothed the naked" and was a strict observer of every precept of the Jewish Law. A particular duty he took upon himself in those gloomy days of warfare was the giving decent burial to those of his brethren slain in the battle-field—daring the tyrant's edict against it. His property was confiscated, yet he remained undeterred in fulfilling this holy obligation. It was through this very duty, voluntarily undertaken, that he accidentally lost his eyesight. But he never lost his faith in God.

The story now turns from the trials of a good man to those of a good woman—Sara. The spirit of evil, Asmodeus, slew her husband on the very day of her marriage. Again her hand was sought in wedlock and again her husband was snatched from her side. On seven occasions this happened, making her the reproach of her neighbors.

Now kind Providence intervenes to aid its faithful servants. God sends the angel Raphael, who restores the eyesight of Tobit and brings about a marriage between his son Tobias and the much tried Sara. This time the murderous scheme of Asmodeus is happily frustrated. Tobit obtains his lost property and virtue is rewarded.

The following is a part of Tobit's prayer of thanksgiving:

"And Tobit wrote a prayer for rejoicing, and said,
Blessed is God that liveth for ever,
And blessed is His kingdom.
For he scourgeth, and sheweth mercy:
He leadeth down to the grave, and bringeth up again:
And there is none that shall escape his hand.
Give thanks unto Him before the Gentiles, ye children of Israel.
For he hath scattered us among them.
There declare His greatness,
And extol Him before all the living:
Because He is our Lord,
And God is our Father for ever.
And he will scourge us for our iniquities, and will again shew mercy.
And will gather us out of all the nations among whom we are scattered.
If ye turn to him with your whole heart, and with your whole soul,
To do truth before him,
Then will He turn unto you,
And will not hide His face from you,
And see what He will do with you.
And give him thanks with your whole mouth
And bless the Lord of righteousness.
And exalt the Everlasting King.
I, in the land of my captivity, give Him thanks
And shew his strength and majesty to a nation of sinners.
Turn, ye sinners, and do righteousness before him:
Who can tell if he will accept you and have mercy on you? .....
Rejoice and be exceeding glad for the sons of the righteous:
For they shall be gathered together and shall bless the Lord of the righteous.
O blessed are they that love thee;
They shall rejoice for Thy peace;
Blessed are all they that sorrowed for all thy scourges:
Because they shall rejoice for thee,
When they have seen all Thy glory:
And they shall me made glad forever.
Let my soul bless God the great King.
For Jerusalem shall be builded with sapphires and emeralds and precious stones;
Thy walls and towers and battlements with pure gold.
And the streets of Jerusalem shall be paved with beryl and carbuncle and stones of Ophir.
And all her streets shall say, Hallelujah, and give praise,
Saying, blessed is God, which hath exalted thee for ever."


This is the story of a good and beautiful woman, who, like Esther, saved Israel from a tyrant by stratagem and bravery. Like Tobit, it lays stress on obedience to the Law, of which deeds of kindness form a part. Hence both belong to that period, whence so much emphasis was placed on law enacted. Both Judith and Tobit might be called historical romances.

Additions to the Book of Esther.

These additions introduce the religious note lacking in the biblical Esther, which does not even mention God. A beautiful prayer is ascribed to Esther, in which she, as a devout Jewess, opens her heart to the Lord.

Wisdom Literature.

If Syrian paganism showed the influence of the Greek at his worst on Jewish morals, Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon are indications of the influence of Greek thought at its best on Jewish thinkers. Together with the Bible books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, they form a group called "Wisdom Literature." A large part of both books is devoted to the value of wisdom, but it is that wisdom the beginning of which is the fear of the Lord.


The Wisdom of Jesus (Greek for Joshua), Ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus is a commentary on the times. It was written about B.C.E. 180, in Judea, before the persecution began under Antiochus, the Syrian who was so little Greek and so largely pagan. It urges obedience to the Law and Commandments and gives copious rules of conduct in every relation of life.

Ben Sirach was a Jewish scribe. Some of his sayings are edited and some are original. Here are a few quotations:—

  • Woe to the sinner that goeth two ways.
  • Wine and music rejoice the heart, and the love of wisdom is above both.
  • The knowledge of wickedness is not wisdom and the prudence of sinners is not counsel.
  • They (the laboring class) maintain the fabric of the world; and in the handiwork of their craft is their prayer.
  • He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is made a mockery.
  • As one that slayeth his neighbor is he that taketh away his living.
  • As God's mercy is great, so is His correction also.
  • Before man is life and death, and whatsoever he liketh shall be given to him.
  • There is a shame that bringeth sin, and there is a shame that is glory and grace.
  • A slip on the pavement is better than a slip with the tongue.
  • Depart from wrong and it shall turn aside from thee.
  • He that keepeth the law bringeth offerings enough.
  • He that requiteth a good turn offereth fine flour.
  • If thou come to serve the Lord prepare for adversity.
  • Let not reverence of any man cause thee to fall.
  • Hide not thy wisdom in its beauty.
  • Rejoice not over the death of thy greatest enemy but remember that we die all.
  • Forsake not an old friend, for the new is not comparable to him.
  • Unto the slave that is wise shall they that are free do service.
  • The bee is little among such as fly; but her fruit is the chief of sweet things.
  • Judge none blessed before his death.
  • The rich man hath done wrong yet he threateneth withal. The poor man is wronged and he must entreat also.
  • Blessed is he whose conscience has not condemned him.
  • He that despiseth small things by small things shall he fall.
  • Wisdom that is hid and treasure that is hoarded, what profit is there in both?
  • He that setteth a trap shall be taken therein.
  • He that revengeth shall find vengeance from the Lord.
  • The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh, but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.

Wisdom of Solomon.

The influence of Greek ideas on Ben Sirach is slight, in Wisdom of Solomon it is pronounced. Indeed, this latter book was written in Greek, in Alexandria, the centre of Hellenist government. Its date is about 100 B.C.E. Like most of the books of this collection, it is ascribed to one of the great men of the Bible. Here King Solomon exhorts the rulers of the earth to seek wisdom and to shun idolatry. He expatiates on the influence of divine wisdom on life as exemplified in the noble souls of Israel's great past. Here are some extracts:—

Beware of murmuring which is unprofitable: and refrain your tongue from back-biting: for there is no word so secret that shall go for nought.

Honorable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years.

If riches be a possession to be desired in this life, what is richer than wisdom that worketh all things.

Fear is nothing else but a betraying of the succours which reason offereth.

For these men (idolators) there is but small blame, if they peradventure do but go astray while they are seeking God and desiring Him.

Even if we sin, we are Thine. But we shall not sin, knowing that we have been accounted Thine; for to be acquainted with Thee is perfect righteousness.

Court not death in the error of thy life. God made not death, nor delighteth He when the living perish, for He created all things that they might have being.

Wisdom is the effulgence from everlasting light, and the unspotted mirror of the working of God and the image of His goodness.

Surely vain are all men by nature who are ignorant of God, And could not out of the good things that are seen know Him that is: But deemed either fire or wind or the swift air, Or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the light of heaven, To be the gods which govern the world.... For, if astonished at their power let them understand Through them how much mightier is He that made them.... To know God is perfect righteousness, Yea, to know thy powers is the root of immortality.


This is a general collection of four different writings.

  1. A Prayer of Israel in Exile (i-iii, 8.)
  2. The fount of Wisdom (iii, 9-iv, 4.)
  3. Consolation to Zion's Children (iv, 5-v, 9.)
  4. The Epistle of Jeremiah.
  5. The folly of idolatry (vi.)

Baruch was the secretary of Jeremiah. See Jer., chaps. xxxii, xxxvi, xliii.

Song of the Three Holy Children:

These "children" are none other than the three young men, who with Daniel dared the fiery furnace in testimony of their faith. The song is presumed to have been sung in the furnace. The book, then, is an amplification of the Bible book of "Daniel." This amplification of Scripture became more and more a favorite custom of the rabbinic age. It is called Agada, i.e., story. To quote:—

"At this time there is neither prince, prophet nor leader, burnt offering or place of sacrifice. Nevertheless, in a contrite heart and a humble spirit let us be accepted. Like as burnt offerings of bullocks and thousands of fat lambs may our sacrifice be in thy sight this day, and grant that we may wholly go after thee. For they shall not be confounded who put their trust in thee."

History of Susanna.

This is the story of a chaste woman whom wicked men tried to betray. In the end both her purity and their sin are discovered.

Bel and the Dragon.

Like "The Song of the Three Holy Children" this also is an addition to the story of Daniel. It is an expose of the hypocrisy of the priests of the Babylonian idol Bel.

Prayer of Manasses.

This is the Greek spelling of Manasseh, one of the last Kings of Judah. It is a prayer ascribed to him in Babylonian exile. This prayer might be introduced in the confessions of the Day of Atonement.

I and II Maccabees.

The Books of the Maccabees are the classic authority on the Maccabean uprising. The first Book gives a graphic picture of the struggle and the events that led up to it. It is also our source for the subsequent events which will be related in due course, carrying the narrative down to 135 B.C.E. It is written from the strict standpoint of the Chassidim. These, it will be remembered, were the extremely pious party. It is couched in sober historic style. Its value as authentic Jewish history cannot be over-estimated. Written originally in Hebrew (or Aramaic), it has come down to us unfortunately only in a Greek translation.

The second Book of Maccabees was written in Greek and is a condensation of a larger work. It confines itself to the series of events between 175 and 160. Though written in more ornate style, it is less reliable; but it contains some interesting stories, such as the martyrdom of Eleazer, Hannah and her seven sons. Like Daniel, it is written to edify and inspire.


Apocrypha:—In most of the Apocryphal Books, the writers have but a vague knowledge of the location of places, or the sequence of historical events. Books are loosely assigned to ancient authors without sufficient consideration of the historic possibility. But then the exact science of history is late.

Ecclesiasticus:—The discovery of fragments of the original Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus was made by Prof. Schechter and further additions by Messrs. Neubauer and Cowley. See a number of articles in vols. x and xii of the Jewish Quarterly Review. (Macmillan, London.)

Wisdom Literature:—Montefiore, Bible for Home Reading, Pt. ii, Section i, chaps. i-v.

Read "A Glimpse of the Social Life of the Jews in the Time of Jesus, the son of Sirach." Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 2d series, J. P. S. A.

Theme for discussion:—Compare the treatment of wisdom in Proverbs (viii) and in Ecclesiasticus.