Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

External texts from the Second Temple period.

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What do they contain?

Both Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha were written--scholars believe--during the same general period of time, and it is not inconceivable to imagine the discovery of future texts that (along with the Qumran library and other assorted scrolls) might continue to inform our knowledge of the world from which they emerged. 

Some of the texts in both the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha (as well as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelations from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, respectively) can be referred to as apocalyptic. This term refers to works, often dealing with the nature of the end of days, the eschaton, and the geography, population, and climate of the world of divine creatures or human souls. Apocalyptic literature appears to be a popular genre of this period, and the messianism associated with it is likely part of the worldview that helped give birth to Christianity in the mid-first century CE.

The Apocrypha as a whole is a motley group of texts, each related in their own way to the Bible. 1 Maccabees is famously written in a Greek that appears to be translated in a way that preserves the classical biblical style of the Deuteronomic historian. Other works, such as Esdras 1, additions to Esther and Daniel, Baruch, and the Letter of Jeremiah, appear intent on either rewriting parts of the Bible or filling in gaps in its narrative as perceived by their authors.

Scholars believe that many of these works were written during the second century BCE in the wake of the Maccabean revolt, or in the latter decades of the first century CE after the destruction of the Second Temple. They served as a response to the political and religious challenges of the day, and were placed in their mostly ancient literary contexts so as to be more authoritative to their readers. The historical theories derived from these texts also helps to better understand the original biblical writings.

The works of the Pseudepigrapha continue to build on the themes of the Apocrypha--demonstrating a pre-rabbinic impulse to close gaps and respond to textual difficulties in the text, which would later be enhanced into the rabbinic genre of midrash. Additionally, we see from these texts two important elements. While the authors used biblical stories as their framework, Pseudepigrapha usually differs substantially from the plain-meaning of the original text. The writers used the Bible as an allegorical vehicle to promote their own goals and viewpoints.

Perhaps more significant, this time period centers around the relatively new struggle between the worlds of the West (Greece, Rome, "the Western World") and the East (the Middle East, the culture that produced the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, rabbinic Judaism, and Pauline Christianity). There existed a need for individuals (e.g., the authors of the Letter of Aristeas and 4 Maccabees) to begin reconciling the differences and crafting a philosophy of that somehow allows the two systems of belief, or the authoritative texts from the two traditions, to speak to and through each other, perhaps even with one voice.

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Jacob Cytryn

Jacob Cytryn is a doctoral candidate in Jewish Studies and Education at Brandeis University. A Wexner Graduate Fellow, Jacob has a B.A. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also serves as the year-round Program Director for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.