Old Testament Legends by M. R. James

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Page 1

Then why, if apocryphal means fabulous or spurious, or both, are
these books, some of which are true and genuine, lumped all together
and called "Apocrypha"? I am sorry to disappoint you, but I cannot go
through the whole history. It is long, it is difficult, and though it
interests me, I am inclined to think it would not interest you unless
I spread it over a great many pages, and filled it out with stories;
and for this I have no time. Let me tell you what strikes me as being
the important thing to bear in mind. Nearly all of these books have
been at some time or another read in church and treated as Scripture.
Nearly all of them are now treated as Scripture by the Roman Church,
but not by most of the Protestant, or Reformed, Churches. They are on
the borderland of the Bible. From having been so long kept together
in a group by themselves, they have come to be thought of as being
all of one uniform kind. But they are not so; they are of very
different sorts and merits.

Let us keep the old name for them and call them "the Apocrypha." It
will be convenient to do so, because I have now to speak of other
apocryphal books, which have never been bound up in our Bibles, but
in older times, before Bibles were printed, were (some of them at
least) read in churches and thought to be sacred books. There are a
great many of these: perhaps, if they were all put together, they
would make up a volume as large as the Old Testament itself; but at
present there is no book in which they are all printed together. Some
are stories, others are visions like those in the Revelation of St.
John, others are psalms and prophecies. But all of them, I think, may
fairly be called either fabulous or spurious, or both.

I can give you an example from the Bible itself to show that there
were such books as long ago as the times of the Apostles, and that
they were read and valued. In the 9th verse of the Epistle of Jude,
you read something very curious about Satan contending with Michael
about the body of Moses. Ancient writers whom we may trust tell us
that this is taken from a book called The Assumption of Moses (that
is, the story of Moses being taken up out of this world at the end of
his life).

We have pieces of this book still, but we have not got the whole
story of the dispute between Satan and Michael. However, we know that
it was represented as having taken place when Michael and the other
angels were burying the body of Moses among the mountains in a place
which was kept secret from all men, and that Satan said that though
the soul of Moses might belong to God, the body belonged to him; and,
moreover, that Moses was a murderer, because, long before, he had
killed an Egyptian (as we read in Exodus ii. 12); whereupon Michael
answered Satan in the words, "The Lord rebuke thee," and Satan fled.
That is one example. Another is in the 14th verse of the same
Epistle, where it is said that Enoch, the seventh from Adam,
prophesied of the coming of the Lord to judge sinners. This verse is
taken out of a long book of prophecies and visions called The Book of
Enoch, which still exists, and we may read the very words in it.

In this present book, I am only concerned with the apocryphal
stories; with the prophecies and visions and psalms I have nothing to
do. Now, how and why did the stories come to be written?

It is likely enough that after reading some history in the Bible you
may have wondered whether there was anything more to be known about
the people of whom it told you. You would have liked to find out what
happened to Adam, or Joseph, or David, besides the things which are
written in the Bible. It was just so in ancient times --the times
when our Lord was on earth, and even long before that. The Jews
naturally thought a great deal about the people who are mentioned in
the Old Testament; and just as there are a great many stories about
the heroes of English history--such as that of King Alfred and the
cakes--which, we are told now, are not true, so stories grew up about
the great men of the Bible. Perhaps they were invented, some of them,
in answer to questions which had been asked. Some of them were
certainly made up in order to explain parts of the Bible which were
difficult to understand. I will give an example of this. In the Book
of Genesis (iv. 23, 24) you are told how the patriarch Lamech spoke
to his wives and said, "I have slain a man to my wounding, and a
young man to my hurt." Nothing is said in explanation of this; we are
not told whom Lamech had killed. So a story was made up--no one knows
when--which gives this explanation: Lamech was blind, and he used to
amuse himself by shooting birds and beasts with bow and arrow. When
he went out shooting, he used to take with him his young nephew
Tubal; and Tubal used to spy the game for him and guide his hands
that he might aim his arrow right. One day, when they were out
together, Tubal saw, as he thought, a beast moving in the thicket;
and he told Lamech, and made him aim at it, and Lamech's arrow smote
the beast and killed it. But when Tubal ran to see what kind of beast
it was, he found that it was not a wild beast at all. It was his
ancestor Gain. For after Gain had killed Abel, and God had pronounced
a curse upon him, he wandered about the earth, never able to remain
in one place; and a great horn grew out of his head, and his body was
covered with hair; so that Tubal, seeing him in the distance among
the trunks of the trees and the brushwood, was deceived, and mistook
him for a beast of chase. But when Tubal saw what had happened, he
was terrified, and ran back to Lamech, crying out, "You have slain
our forefather Cain!" And Lamech also was struck with horror, and
raised his hands and smote them together with a mighty blow. And in
so doing he struck the head of Tubal with his full strength, and
Tubal fell down dead. Then Lamech returned to his house, and spoke to
his wives the words that are written in the Book of Genesis. This
story, a very ancient one, as I said, was invented by the Jews to
explain the difficult passage in Genesis; and the early Christian
writers learnt it from the Jews, and it passed into many commentaries
which were written in later times; so that you may still see
representations of it carved in stone in churches, both in England
and elsewhere. In England it may be seen on the inside of the stone
roof of Norwich Cathedral, and on the west front of Wells Cathedral;
but you have to look carefully before you can find it.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 5th Jun 2020, 22:23