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Righteous Revolt: Theron Mathis Interview
Discussing the ongoing relevance of the Apocrypha in church and devotional life
Today we’re interrupting our ongoing survey of 1 Maccabees with an expert interview. Theron Mathis is a graduate of Liberty University with a BS in Religion and of Southern Seminary with an MDiv. He participated as a translator on the Old Testament of the Orthodox Study Bible as well as contributing study notes to the project.
Mathis is a member of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where he has been involved in parish education for the last two decades. He’s also the author of The Rest of the Bible, an excellent introduction to the “bad” books of the Bible we mentioned a few episodes ago.
Listen to the Theron Mathis interview here or wherever you get your podcasts. Below you’ll find some choice excerpts, edited for readability.
On the term readables for the Apocrypha
I was trying to avoid using the term “Apocrypha” because of problems with that term, and Deuterocanonical is a mouthful to say that all the time. And that term has some problems as well, because it makes it sound like an addition to the canon or it’s secondary. So I found St. Athanasius has a passage in one of his festal letters where he recommends the reading of these books, especially to catechumens and people who are new to the faith. And he refers to it by a Greek term I won't try to pronounce or you’ll definitely get calls from listeners. But basically, it means books that are worthy to be read—or the books should be read on a regular basis. And so the best way to kind of make that English was the word readable.
By the way, here’s a thorough discussion about all the teams used to describe the so-called Apocrypha.
Usefulness of the ‘bad’ books
They’re surprisingly practical. You get the Wisdom of Sirach, which is amazing: It tells you basically how to live. I mean, it’s step-by-step directions. But then also you have a lot of heroic tales. Especially at that time, they're still in danger of martyrdom—right during Athanasius’s time. And so there are multiple stories of martyrs, especially like we’ll talk about with 1 Maccabees. Those are even lauded today in the church as examples of martyrdom. And I think that’s why it was so important for the early Christians. When they read these books, they realized they had kind of a common heritage with people for centuries. And then you’ve got other themes that are really important to Orthodoxy. Fasting, almsgiving, and regular prayer show up a lot in these books. So it becomes a very, very practical part of the Old Testament.
Difficulty in reading the Old Testament
There are times you might get bored. You know, especially if you try reading through it beginning to end. Genesis, Exodus—pretty exciting. You get to Leviticus, and you’re probably going to get bogged down. And it’s okay. It’s okay to skim a genealogy. It’s okay to even skim parts that you don't understand. . . . Sometimes just the discipline of reading is important. Yeah, we want to understand. But sometimes you just need to be disciplined to do it. And it may take time. It takes a while sometimes for the whole picture to come together.
The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament)
After the exile, a ton of the Jews left and went to Egypt. And they kind of forgot Hebrew. But they needed to be able to continue their faith and read the scriptures. So some scholars said, “We need to translate this into Greek, so that our people can understand and read it.” And thankfully, they did it—because Greek beame basically the English of the ancient world. It was the one language that pretty much guaranteed everybody knew enough to communicate with each other. And it really allowed the apostles to actually spread the Christian faith, because they could take that Greek Old Testament with them anywhere.
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Why give the ‘bad’ books a try?
I’ve taken two approaches: No. 1, I go the historical route, depending on the person. If it’s somebody that loves that kind of information, I will recommend the Maccabees. “Hey, this will fill in a lot of gaps for you, you know, even if you don't consider it Scripture, right? You will have better understanding of the New Testament.” So it definitely helps put pieces together.
But then, again . . . it’s immensely practical, probably more than I think people would expect. Because it’s narratives and wisdom literature. Sometimes it’s easier even to read than some of the prophets. The prophets can be tough because there’s so much strong imagery and a lot of poetic language. This is definitely more straightforward. And easier to digest.
Favorite story from 1 Maccabees
So my favorite story is probably out of chapter six. It’s about one of the soldiers, Eleazar. There was a new battle with Antiochus V, and he brought elephants with him into the battle. They intoxicated these elephants with wine ahead of time to get them more frenzied for battle. Well, Eleazar sees one of these elephants in his armor, and he assumes the king’s riding on it. (It may be like this because I’ve seen too many action movies.) He goes running after the elephant and then slides underneath it, slices the belly of the elephant, and kills it. Unfortunately, the elephant collapses on him and he dies. But you know what they say about him—that he was buried in his own triumph.
Key takeaways from 1 Maccabees
The biggest theme I get from it is righteous heroism—the idea that, as a Christian, there are going to be times in your life that you realize: I've got to stand for truth no matter what it may cost me. And you can see, while we talked earlier about how the church fathers, in the early centuries recommended these books, just because of the potential for martyrdom. It was a great encouragement to those people that, hey, you can do it too.
The other thing that’s important for me personally is, especially in our culture today there are so few great hero stories. As a man, I think it’s so important to just be reading on a regular basis stories of great men and heroes, just kind of putting those into your soul. It seems to change you. There’s something about story in general. I think you start identifying with those. And you probably can’t even put your finger on a say, “I learned this.” But just by reading these stories, you take some of that heroic element into yourself.
And just in the face of temptation—it doesn’t even have to be persecution by people. We’re persecuted by ourselves in our own challenges and the temptations we all struggle with. And there is an element by saying no, you’re kind of crucifying yourself. It is kind of like a mini martyrdom, right? When you say, say no to a passion that you want to give into. It’s a daily martyrdom that we all kind of have to participate in.
Listen to the rest of the interview here or wherever you get your podcasts. And come back next week when we resume our journey through 1 Maccabees.
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