Friday, September 27, 2013

"Light such a candle...as...shall never be put out"

At the wonderfully named blog, The Anxious Bench, Philip Jenkins has been posting a fascinating series about the evolving content of the Biblical canon. Today [in a post that also relates to my recent reading about the origins of the Book of Common Prayer] he writes about a famous moment in the English Reformation that references a book that has disappeared from Protestant Bibles:
Martyrs' Cross, outside Balliol College, Oxford
In October, 1555, the regime of Mary Tudor burned two former English bishops for their stubborn Protestant convictions. As they went to the flames, one of the martyrs, Hugh Latimer, addressed his comrade, Nicholas Ridley, in stirring terms that have inspired successive Protestant generations. He urged him, “Be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.” (Note: Cranmer was also burned at the stake in Oxford about five months later.)

The words are celebrated, their source less so. As virtually nobody remembers today, Latimer was quoting the Biblical text which in the King James version would become “I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out, till the things be performed which thou shalt begin to write.” 2 Esdras/Fourth Ezra, 14.25, a book that is no longer included in Protestant Bibles. The disappearance of that text offers a surprising commentary on changing concepts of the Biblical canon. ....

From the sixteenth century, 2 Esdras was generally demoted to apocryphal status, but that did not mean that it disappeared from Christian usage, or from Bibles. It was for instance included in the Zurich Bible of 1529. In Protestant England, although it was printed in the section clearly labeled as “Apocrypha,” it was still clearly read as a Biblical text, with the same font, the same format of chapter and verse style. That was true both of the Geneva Bible and the later King James. Placing this section between Old and New Testament had the unforeseen consequence of suggesting that they represented a bridge between the two portions of the Bible. ....

Like other apocryphal books, 2 Esdras continued to appear in English Protestant Bibles into the nineteenth century. At that point though, publishers began excluding the apocrypha. The key date was 1826, when the British and Foreign Bible Society declared that it would not fund future printings of the Bible that included the Apocrypha. Subsequently, these books largely dropped out of the Protestant consciousness. Modern Protestant Bibles make not the slightest nod to the apocrypha that would have been so familiar to (say) Shakespeare and Milton. .... [more]