Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Reading the Maccabean Literature by the Light of the Stake: Anabaptist Appropriations in the Reformation Period

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Reading the Maccabean Literature by the Light of the Stake: Anabaptist Appropriations in the Reformation Period

Article excerpt

Abstract: Considered authoritative and useful by the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, 1 and 2 Maccabees played an important role in scripting the performance of defenseless resistance to their Protestant and Catholic persecutors. In particular, the defenseless resistance of Eleazar and of the woman and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees 6 and 7 provided encouragement to sustain Anabaptists who were being tortured and executed in the name of Christ. (1) The Anabaptist hymnody and martyrologies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries confirm the power they drew from the performative reenactrnent of 1 and 2 Maccabees.


Although the Anabaptists are often considered Protestants as representatives of the radical wing of the Reformation, their use and valuation of the Apocrypha had more in common with the mother church than it did with other Protestants. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists varied little in. their positive assessment of the Apocrypha. (2) Most of the writings of Anabaptists throughout Europe quoted the Apocrypha positively and appreciatively in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, treating it as authoritative.

Modern Anabaptist scholarship has expressed a varying amount of embarrassment about how much the sixteenth-century Anabaptists seemed to depend on the Apocrypha, or, depending on one's perspective, how little discernment they showed in distinguishing its authority from that of the rest of the Bible. For instance, John C. Wenger betrays embarrassment when he says, "Not all Anabaptists ... may have been entirely clear on the noncanonicity of the Apocryphal books." (3) In his introduction to The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Wenger says, "Menno himself was of course not infallible." To illustrate this point, he adds, "He sometimes quoted from the Apocryphal books as if they were inspired." (4) In his treatment of "the Bible" in Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Walter Klaassen says simply,

  One final note. Anabaptists seem to have leaned to the Catholic
  definition of the biblical canon, for they quoted frequently from
  the Apocrypha without distinguishing them from the rest of the
  Scripture as Luther did. (5)

One would think that the Anabaptists' use of the Apocrypha might warrant further discussion in a consideration of the Anabaptists' use of the Bible. Klaassen's short "final note" suggests either his perplexity or his embarrassment about this matter. (6)

To be fair, the record is mixed. In his groundbreaking article on the Anabaptists and the Apocrypha, Jonathan Seiling admits of one exception to the broad Anabaptist acceptance of the Apocrypha, known in the trial of Jacques D'Auchy in 1558. Confronted with arguments about Purgatory, based in part on 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, D'Auchy denied that the authority of 2 Maccabees was equal to that of the rest of the Bible on the grounds that it was an apocryphal text. Seiling notes, however, that D'Auchy himself had just previously quoted the Wisdom of Solomon as scripturally authoritative. D'Auchy cites the Wisdom of Solomon elsewhere as well, along with Judith and Sirach. (7) Seiling suggests that D'Auchy rejected the Apocrypha only when it was being used "as a basis for a rule or ordinance--the practice of saying prayers to the dead." (8) D'Auchy himself "did not explicitly reject them as a basis for 'Christian teaching.'" (9) Seiling probably goes too far when he says that "D'Auchy is the sole exception in the written sources of an Anabaptist who denigrates the Apocrypha," (10) since Adam Pastor represents another exception. But Seiling rightly criticizes the article in The Mennonite Encyclopedia on the Apocrypha, written by Harold S. Bender and Nanne van der Zijpp, for citing D'Auchy's comments as illustrative of the Anabaptists' rejection of the equal authority of the Apocrypha, since the preponderance of evidence clearly shows otherwise.

That arguments for the existence of Purgatory often drew on 2 Maccabees 12:38-46 did prove problematic for some Anabaptists--not because the Anabaptists were drawn into debates with Catholics on this point, but because they were drawn into debates with Protestants who objected to their valuing of the Apocrypha. …

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