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The formation of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) as we know it was not a foregone historical conclusion. The contents of today’s Tanakh are the results of a process of selection and codification that took place over the course of some centuries around 2,000 years ago. By acknowledging that the structure of the canon was the result of an historical process, we must also recognize that there were other Jewish texts that did not make it past this selection.
What are the works?
This lead us to a discussion of two different sets of ancient texts that are not included in the Hebrew Bible, but whose existence speaks to the richness, creativity, diversity, and complexity of the emerging Judeo-Christian community of Palestine and its surroundings during roughly 200 BCE to 70 CE. One such set is called “Apocrypha” (meaning hidden things in Greek) and refers to a set of works deemed canonical by the Egyptian Jewish community, based in Alexandria, but not included in the smaller canon of the Palestinian Jewish community which became the present-day Tanakh. The early Church preserved these works, in the Latin (Vulgate) and Greek (Septuagint) versions of the Old Testament, and they remain a part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons. Examples of this genre include additions to the books of Esther and Daniel, the Wisdom literature of Solomon and Ben Sira, and the first two books of Maccabees.
The other set is called “Pseudepigrapha,” a collection of texts whose authorship is unknown and ascribed to characters from the Hebrew Bible, thus the name pseudepigrapha, meaning “false-writing” in Greek. The term also includes some texts from the same period, whose extant manuscripts exist in Greek, Ethiopic, Syriac, and Slavonic, and have been preserved by the Eastern branches of the Christian Church, primarily the Ethiopian one.
Why are they important?
There is great scholarly merit in studying these texts as well as their historical neighbors–the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered throughout the Judean desert, most notably at Qumran. Foremost, it sheds light on the political, ideological, and historical reality of the authors and their audience’s time period. These texts not only divulge religious belief and practice, but also give insight into the mundane, yet retrospectively intriguing, daily activities. These ancient texts also elucidate the possible ideological debates surrounding the canonization of Tanakh and the various sectarian forces at play.
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