James of Edessa on the Old Testament apocrypha

Ca. 700, the Syriac writer James of Edessa had this to say in response to a question:

Let’s look at the second question: Why are these books not counted among the canonical books of the Church? I speak of the great Wisdom and of Jesus son of Sirach, and of many others which are rejected, like Tobit and those of the  women Esther and Judith, and the three (books) on the Maccabees.

I will answer again, that the truth is exactly known to the prophetic, apostolic and learned Spirit. I also would like to tell you the opinion of my feeble intelligence: it is that they are not entirely composed of words revealed by the (Holy) Spirit or of prophecies from God, but that they contain either words of human wisdom written by pious men, or stories about holy and pious men themselves, which is why  they were separated from the number of the canonical books of the Church, and were placed for special reading outside of the (books) for regular use in the correction and correcting of morals, actions and deeds, for those who are of a very teachable spirit, and want to hear some useful and loving advice for word and deed and for the knowledge of good conduct.

I hope to place the whole of this letter online soon.


11 thoughts on “James of Edessa on the Old Testament apocrypha

  1. Well, he was a Monophysite guy, and the Peshitta version of the Old Testament he was using was apparently translated by 2nd century AD Palestinian Jews, post-Jamnia (at least if you believe Wikipedia), and thus left out those books. So of course he’d have different ideas about the Canon than Bob from Constantinople or whoever.

  2. Perhaps so. But I’m not sure this is a monophysite thing. It might well be a Syriac thing. Here my deep ignorance of the history of the OT canon lets me down!

  3. Thanks for posting this excerpt, and I look forward to reading the whole letter. I’d be very interested to know whether he actually uses the word “apocrypha” in connection with these particular books (Wisdom, Sirach, etc.). That would distinguish him from people like Athanasius and Rufinus of Aquileia, who used the term “apocrypha” for the heretical books rejected by the Church, whereas Jerome seems to be the first, as far as I can tell, who explicitly calls the “deuterocanonical” books “apocrypha”.

  4. Well, I am even more surprised! I had always heard that the term “deuterocanonical” was coined by Sixtus of Siena in 1566.

  5. Yes, it is a Roman Catholic term. Sixtus of Siena, I believe, was defending the decisions made a Trent. But whereas Trent did not use the term “deuterocanonical” in its decision on the canon of scripture, Sixtus did when he explained the decision. A Google search for “Sixtus of Siena” should reveal this much information. But I’m not sure what to make of this much earlier use of the term by Jacob of Edessa in Syriac.

  6. A similar attitude is found in St Athanasius the Great’s famous 39th Festal Letter in which he describes some of those very books as outside the canon proper, but useful for reading. The general Eastern term for the books is seen in the standard Greek Orthodox term for them: anaginoskomena, “(books) to be read”. In that all the eastern lists (and the earliest western ones) included a larger or smaller number of these books even while various writers in the same areas described them as outside the canon proper in one way or another (there is likewise no automatically assumed link between “inspired” and “canonical”, and such is seldom mentioned), it would seem that Jacob describes what was a common approach to these books in the formation of the eastern biblical canons. Very interesting! Thank you, Roger!

  7. Thank you Kevin for this very helpful note. I’m sure you’re right, and James is expressing the same understanding as the Greek Orthodox of the period.

    I think my statement above that James used the term “deuterocanonical” was wrong. I got this from the headings of the (Catholic) editor in the translation, but it is not in the text.

  8. Well spotted. But of course I merely translated Nau’s French. One would have to look at the Syriac to see if this was Nau’s idea or found in the Syriac itself. I have no view on this myself.

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