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Some Snippets of Astonishing

Influence of the Apocrypha


The following delightful snippets of information have been sourced from the introduction pages of an old Oxford Annotated Apocrypha.  Some of these bits are somewhat astonishing, but they give us an idea of the surprising extent to which the Apocrypha has influenced the western world.  Enjoy . . .


‘On the third day thou didst command the waters to be gathered together in the seventh part of the earth; six parts thou didst dry up and keep so that some of them might be planted and cultivated and be of service before thee.’ 

(2 Esdras 6:42)


The above passage is taken from the Apocrypha (2 Esdras 6:42) and the words are supposed to be the words of Ezra.  However these words were written much later, and are an inaccurate comment on the Genesis story of creation.  But in an ironic twist, this erroneous passage came to play two vital roles in the enterprise that resulted in Christopher Columbus discovering America.  Along with many others at that time, Columbus assumed that the words formed part of the canon of Scripture, and the passage led him to reason that, if only one seventh of the earth’s surface is covered with water, the ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia could be no great width, and might be navigated in a few days with a fair wind.  As well as providing the personal encouragement Columbus needed, this quote also played a significant part in the decision by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to provide the necessary financial support for the voyage.


And some more . . .


Over the years, there has been much discussion about how well Shakespeare was acquainted with the Bible.  It is interesting to note that two of his daughters bore the names of two of the most well-known heroines of the Apocrypha, Susanna and Judith.  But what is of greater significance, is that contained in Shakespeare’s plays, are about eighty passages alluded to from eleven books of the Apocrypha.


Many hymn writers have drawn inspiration from the Apocrypha, and in some cases, lines are quoted, verbatim.  For example, the hymn ‘Now Thank We All Our God’, translated from the German by Catherine Winkworth, show the extent of borrowing – printed in italics:


    Now thank we all our God                 O may this bounteous God

    With heart and hands and voices,          Through all our life be near us,

    Who wondrous things hath done,      With ever joyful hearts

    In whom His world rejoices;                  And blessed peace to cheer us;

    Who, from our mother’s arms,          And keep us in His grace,

    Hath blessed us on our way              And guide us when perplexed,

    With countless gifts of love,                  And free us from all ills

    And still is ours today.                         In this world and the next.


And an extraordinary one about how we now view Christmas . . .


More surprisingly still, ideas included in the Christmas hymn ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ have been traced to the Apocrypha.  The New Testament accounts of the Nativity say nothing about the exact time of the birth of Christ, and in this hymn the concept of midnight has come from a passage (below) found in the Wisdom of Solomon:


For while gentle silence enveloped all things,

and night in its swift course was now half gone,

thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,

into the midst of the land that was doomed . . .      (Wis 18:14-15)


What makes this utterly astonishing is that the verses have been taken completely out of context.  The passage actually refers, not to the Word of God becoming flesh, but to the death of all the first-born Egyptians at the time of the Exodus!  Another incredible and ironic twist.


Over the years, many anthems, cantatas, oratorios and operas have been inspired by writings contained in the Apocrypha, probably the most well-known today are Handel’s oratorios ‘Susanna’ and ‘Judas Maccabaeus’, and in the early days of operatic history, the stirring story of Judith lent itself well to many dramatic presentations.  In the nineteenth century, Russian pianist and composer, Anton Rubenstein, published an opera of monumental proportions called ‘The Maccabees’.


Our well known hymn ‘Thine be the Glory’ borrows its tune from part of Handel’s oratorio ‘Judas Maccabaeus’.


During the Renaissance and later, many painters chose subjects from the books of the Apocrypha.  Almost every large gallery in Europe and America has one or more works of the old masters depicting Judith, Tobit, or Susanna, who were the three most popular subjects from the Apocrypha.  Besides paintings, down through the ages, artists in almost every other medium have chosen themes from the Apocrypha.  Mediums such as mosaics, frescoes, gems, ivories, sarcophagi, enamelled plaques, terra cottas, stained glass, manuscript illumination, sculpture, and tapestries.


Thus we glimpse a little of the influence the Apocrypha has had on the western world over the years.  Although not part of the original Hebrew Scriptures, the Apocrypha has certainly made its mark in history!




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