The Significance of Outside the Bible

Apocrypha (Esther)

Esther Presented to Ahasuerus, Rembrandt (1606-1669), courtesy of

Outside the Bible will be published this fall and and can be preordered from University of Nebraska Press. In honor of the upcoming publication, a bit about the significance of the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Hellenistic Jewish literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls:

One of the most significant characteristics of Second Temple Judaism is the wide variety of texts that circulated among different groups of Jews.  We are accustomed to treating these documents in classes, based more on their transmission than their literary and theological characteristics.  So we speak of Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls, designating in the first and last instance specific groups of texts collected in some way in Antiquity.  Pseudepigrapha is a catch-all term which has been used increasingly loosely in recent years.  Taken together, we gain from all these texts a picture of a Jewish community, both in and outside of the Land of Israel, producing all kinds of literary works and involved in vigorous debate about all kinds of religious questions. Outside the Bible presents a wide variety of these texts classified by their content and literary character, not by the ancient collections in which these writings have reached us.

For later Rabbinic Judaism, already in the Mishnah Sanhedrin, the reading of the Apocrypha and other non-biblical works was prohibited, and it was understood to lead to loss of one’s portion in the world to come.  This blanket prohibition may have referred only to public reading of such non-scriptural books, since the Talmud itself quoted the apocryphal book of Ben Sira.  The interpretation of this Mishnah text in the Jerusalem Talmud explicitly refers to Ben Sira which is included in the Apocrypha, those works canonized in the Greek Bible which served as the basis for the Septuagint.  Only the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible were to be considered canonical.

Outside the Bible includes all of the Apocrypha, with new introductions and commentary.  In order to illustrate the nature of the material in the Apocrypha, we present several examples.  Tobit is set in the Assyrian period but clearly refers to the Seleucid era.  The text demonstrates  the nature of the religious teachings and the piety that the author attributed to its heroes.  Similar is the case of the beautiful tale of Judith, a story about a Jewish heroine who helped to deliver her people in the days of the Maccabees, which has been the theme of so much European art.

The additions to Esther preserved only in the Septuagint Greek version illustrate the manner in which the expanded Greek version of this text tried to introduce religious piety into the story of Esther, although in the Hebrew version preserved in the Massoretic Bible no such notions are explicit.  In this case, virtually all later Jewish traditions followed this same model, introducing God and religious issues and prayers into the book of Esther, while not modifying the actual text.  Similar additions are found in the Greek Daniel.  Non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts also preserve some alternative versions of elements of Daniel but these do not parallel the material added in the Greek versions.   Among the Greek additions is the Song of the Three Young Men–Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah—that provides the prayer lacking in the canonical text of Daniel.  Another addition to Daniel, the story of Susanna is of an entirely different character.  It is intended in context to explain how Daniel was recognized for his wisdom even as a youth, but it is truly the story of a righteous young woman whose virtue is vindicated by God’s justice.

Apocryphal literature focused also on more minor biblical characters, and this is the case with Baruch the scribe of Jeremiah, who was also the focus of some pseudepigraphal texts.  The book of Baruch was clearly written after the destruction of the Second Temple.  In portraying Baruch’s reaction to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. it tries to deal with the theological ramifications of the destruction of the second in 70 C.E.

Among the most important of these works is Ben Sira. This book, composed originally in Hebrew c. 180 B.C.E., carries on many older wisdom traditions but is clearly a work of Second Temple times.  It gives a sense of how by this time wisdom and Torah had been totally melded.  Similar is the Wisdom of Solomon, except that it was probably composed in Greek and is therefore somewhat more Hellenized in it content.  Both these works represent the common Jewish piety that must have been characteristic of most Jews of the Second Temple period, especially of those not involved in apocalyptic movements or part of particular sectarian circles.

When we enter the world of the Pseudepigrapha, for the most part we encounter books which represent particular approaches to Judaism, often stemming from apocalyptic circles.  This is certainly the case with  Enoch, also known as Ethiopic Enoch.  The antiquity of most of this work is certain since parts of it were preserved in the Qumran manuscripts.  The Book of Watchers recorded a variety of traditions about the angels and their marriage with women.  Further, here we encounter an early version of the vision of the divine throne, a motif that would continue to be prominent in the long history of Jewish mystical thought.  This text also demonstrates the apocalyptic nature of this material as it involves the revelation of heavenly secrets, including those pertaining to the end of days, the heavenly bodies and the calendar.

Extremely significant is the book of Jubilees. It was preserved at Qumran in a number of manuscripts and was explicitly quoted in the sectarian literature and by the Talmudic rabbis.  It may have been considered canonical by the sectarians.  Whatever the case, its influence in aspects of Jewish law and biblical interpretation, what the Rabbis called halakhah and aggadah, was tremendous.  It emphasizes the importance of Moses as a vehicle for God’s revelation, as well as the need to strictly observe the laws of the Torah which are said to have already been observed by the Patriarchs–Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Further, it is structured on a chronological system of Jubilee years. Like Enoch, Jubilees calls for the observance of a calendar of solar months and years, in contrast to the lunar months of the Pharisaic-Rabbinic calendar, which, despite some views to the contrary, was actually the ancient Israelite calendar.

The literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls is so extensive that it would be impossible to provide even a small part of it.  Yet certain texts have been important in the ongoing debates over the nature of the scrolls and their significance and we have endeavored to include some of them, such as the fundamental texts of the Rule of the Community and the Zadokite Fragments (Damascus Document).

The pesher literature, consisting of contemporizing biblical commentaries that understand the biblical prophets as referring to events taking place in the author’s own day are an important source for the distinctive ideas of the Qumran sect itself as well as for some details of the history of the group.  Most significant of these is the Habakkuk Pesher.  Here we see the persecution of the sect’s leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, by his opponents as well as the expectation that the Romans were soon to attack Judea.  The extent to which the interpretations depart from the plain sense of Scripture should be apparent.  The Thanksgiving Scroll (also termed Hodayot Scroll) contains beautiful poetry which expresses the theological beliefs of the sectarians, such as predestination, as well as the sense of persecution they felt at the hands of their opponents.

Extremely important for its relevance to biblical studies, Jewish law and even the history of architecture is the Temple Scroll, which presents a plan for a new Temple and its sacrifices, as well as for the polity of Israel.  The text includes the king, which is effectively a polemic against the Hasmonean order of government which was in effect when the scroll was compiled for the most part from earlier sources.

The recently published Miqsat Ma`ase ha-Torah, otherwise known as the “Halakhic Letter”, provides much evidence about the legal polemics about sacrifice and purity that led to the formation of the Dead Sea sect. This text has shown us that many of its own halakhic views are Sadducean in character and it has confirmed that many legal rulings and interpretations in the Temple Scroll are in origin Sadducean.  This, in turn, raised the question of the probability of Sadducean origins for the Dead Sea sect.

Much discussion has centered around the possible connection of the scrolls with early Christianity.  The so-called “Son of God” Text, the Aramaic Apocalypse, provides evidence that some Jews referred to a redeemer figure as “son of God” in the third century B.C.E.

Philo Judaeus, the Hellenistic Jewish thinker and Bible commentator, and Josephus, the Jewish historian, provide evidence about how the Jews of the Hellenistic world interpreted the Bible.  Outside the Bible has emphasized this part of their work as it relates colosely to the many biblically oriented texts that we present top readers.

All in all, we now have an expanded notion of the nature of the literature of Second Temple Jews, most of which was already in circulation in the Hasmonean period.  This literature has provided a much deeper understanding of the nature of the various approaches to Judaism in this period.  Based on this wider picture, we are better able to reconstruct the influence of this literature on the later development of Judaism. Outside the Bible contributes greatly to this effort by providing readers with authoritative introductions and commentaries to these works showing thei intimate connection to the ongoing Jewish tradition.


One Response to The Significance of Outside the Bible

  • peter long says:

    the international pseudepigrapha study network has published its precis-database just sign in and interact on articles on ot pseudepigrapha,apocrypha-deutero-canonicals and dead sea scrolls!

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