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Of yokes and burdens

“ My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

These are Jesus’ words to the crowds from our lectionary reading for this Sunday. I’ve always been intrigued by this and will work with it in the message on Sunday. Here is a bit of information which you may find interesting or even helpful.

The last section where Jesus talks about yokes and burdens (vss 28-30) seems to draw on this passage from Ecclesiasticus 6:23-31 aka Sirach 6:23-31 and now named by Biblical scholars, Ben Sira.

The book of Ben Sira is one in the collection of ‘Wisdom’ writings in the Hebrew Scripture.            

“Wisdom Literature included in the following order: the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and, in the Greek Septuagint, the Books of Wisdom and Sirach. “

(cited from http://biblescripture.net/Sirach.html)

If you look at the table of contents in your Bible, you may not find the section entitled “Apocrypha” unless yours is a Roman Catholic version or one that includes this section. 

At the time of the Protestant Reformation the invention of the printing press made, for the first time in history, the written text of the Bible available to the masses of people. Of course, it was not all the masses, that would come in subsequent centuries as universal literacy became the norm in the European countries and their colonies.  For those who could read, printed Bibles became more and more available. Along with printing presses, there were many scholars working at translating the Scriptures from the original languages into the common tongue.

In the West up until the Reformation, the predominant version of the Bible in use was that proscribed by the Roman Catholic Church. This was the ‘Vulgate’. It was in Latin so anyone who could speak or read it could understand the Biblical message. By the time of the Reformation, Latin had become the sacred language of the Church (spoken and read by the priests and the rest of the church hierarchy) as well as the scholars in the Universities. Very few common people had persona and individual access to the Bible. Hearing the word depended on someone who could read and translate from the Latin into the common tongue.

The books contained in the ‘Apocrypha’ were included in the Latin Vulgate. Much of the Old Testament text of the Vulgate was translated into Latin from the Septuagint. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew texts by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt three centuries before Christ. By the time of Jesus and the early Church it was in wide use around the known world by Jewish and Christian communities which did not have access to the texts in Biblical Hebrew. For many in the dispersed communities of Judaism, Hebrew was no longer a language commonly spoken by the majority of people. The translators in Alexandria had access to Hebrew texts of Ben Sira and other Wisdom books and so included them in the Septuagint.

An aspect of the Protestant Reformation was a deep distrust of all things controlled by the Roman Catholic Hierarchy, including the Bible. Scholars and Protestant leaders committed themselves to searching out and using the Biblical texts in their original languages. Leaping back to sources in use before the Vulgate. For New Testament, this meant working from the Greek, Aramaic and Syriac texts surviving in the monasteries, university libraries and collections of the ruling and merchant classes. For the Old Testament, this meant working from the Hebrew texts -- both those found in the same sources listed above but more importantly (especially for John Calvin) directly from the Hebrew texts and scrolls used by the Jewish communities in Europe. This community used the Masoretic Hebrew text of Galilee that was formalized and adopted between the 8th and 10th centuries by the leading rabbinical school. This included these books. The Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy. The Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, The Twelve (Minor Prophets), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & Daniel. The Writings: Psalms Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Chronicles & Ezra-Nehemiah. The Masoretic Hebrew text did not include any of the Apocrypha.

Martin Luther and John Calvin acknowledged the usefulness of the books in the Apocrypha and the Deuterocanonical (another grouping of books) for ‘good for reading’ but not inspired. Their traditions used an Old Testament based on the Masoretic Hebrew text.  So until the 20th century most Biblical translations used by Protestants did not include the Apocrypha or if it did, it was as an appendix at the back.

Two major archeological discoveries in the first half of the 20th century have changed the landscape just a bit. The first was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Here is a quote from the Roman Catholic site biblescripture.net I’ve used in this column.

“ The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes, a conservative religious sect that emerged circa 200 BC, has shed new light on Hebrew Scripture. Every book of the Old Testament was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls except for the Book of Esther! It is important to note that the Dead Sea Scrolls included 3 books written in Hebrew which had been considered part of the Apocrypha - Tobit (or Tobias), Sirach, and the Letter of Jeremiah, as well as Psalm 151 of David. Among the diverse scrolls, several copies of the Books of Enoch and Jubilees were discovered as well, both of which are also found in the Old Testament of the Oriental Orthodox Church of Ethiopia. While the Dead Sea Scrolls raise questions about the traditional canon, they confirm much of our knowledge about Hebrew Scripture. An intact scroll of Isaiah was found, completely identical to our present Book in the Bible, and is roughly 1000 years older than any previous manuscript!”

The second was the discovery of the Gnostic writings at Nag Hamadi in Egypt in 1945. These 12 volumes, once translated, presented Gnostic Christianity in an entirely different light.  Gnosticism had been treated as a heresy and erased from the Western church in the 4th century. No original documents had been preserved by the Western church and what was known was from the point of view of those leaders who declared it unorthodox and heretical. This is a story for another day, though!

Here is the passage from Ben Sira that many scholars believe Jesus based his words on:

For discipline is like her name, she is not accessible to many.

Listen, my son, and heed my advice; refuse not my counsel.

Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck under her yoke.

Stoop your shoulders and carry her and be not irked at her bonds.

 With all your soul draw close to her; with all your strength keep her ways.

Search her out, discover her; seek her and you will find her.

Then when you have her, do not let her go;

Thus will you afterward find rest in her, and she will become your joy.

Her fetters will be your throne of majesty; her bonds, your purple cord.

You will wear her as your robe of glory, bear her as your splendid crown.

Ed. K.

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