Ancient Jewish Texts

The books of the Bible, or Tanakh, are the founding texts of the Jewish people. Scholars believe the books of the Bible were written over a long period of time, dating some as early as the period of King David and King Solomon (around 1000 BCE), and others as late as the second century BCE. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, another significant Jewish literary tradition emerged. The Mishnah (redacted around 200 CE) and Talmud (redacted around 500 CE) formed the core of rabbinic literature commenting on and clarifying biblical laws.

jewish ancient textsHowever, between the biblical and rabbinic periods, another series of writings emerged. These include Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Overlapping with some of the late biblical books, these ancient texts capture life at the end of the Second Temple period. Though not preserved as part of the mainstream Jewish literary canon, these texts are important historical witnesses, linking the biblical and rabbinic periods, providing information about the founding of Christianity, and helping clarify the process of Jewish biblical canonization.

Apocrypha, which means “hidden things” in Greek, 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 canon for various branches of Christianity. Examples of this genre include additions to the books of Esther and Daniel, Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon, and the first three books of Maccabees.

The First and Second Books of Maccabees chronicle the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers for the liberation of Judea from foreign domination. Scholars have advanced a number of theories to explain why the earliest references to the Hanukkah story were not included in the Jewish biblical canon.

Some suggest that only books written in Hebrew were considered for inclusion in the Jewish bible; the books of Maccabees were excluded because they were written in Greek. Others argue that the relatively late date of the Maccabean revolt would preclude its inclusion in the Bible. Both these theories are problematic because the book of Daniel, which is part of the Jewish Bible, was written partially in Aramaic and is dated to the same time as the Maccabean revolt. Other scholars suggest that the exclusion of Maccabees was a decision of the proto-rabbinic Pharisees who did not want to canonize a document that praised the priestly class. Another explanation is that Jews living under Roman occupation did not think it was politically wise to promote a text that heralded the successful outcome of a Jewish revolt.

These diverse explanations for the exclusion of Maccabees reflect the generally uncertain stance among scholars regarding the question of why some texts “made it” into the Jewish canon, while others did not. This uncertainty applies not only to the Apocrypha, but also to the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Pseudepigrapha means “false-writing” in Greek. It refers to a collection of texts whose authorship is purposely (mis)ascribed to characters from the Hebrew Bible. Similar to Apocrypha, some works of the Pseudepigrapha have apocalyptic themes. Notable examples of Pseudepigrapha include the Books of Jubilees and Enoch.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in the 20th century, are the most prominent historical record of Jewish life in the Second Temple period. This collection is comprised of more than 900 documents and fragments of documents that were found in caves in and around Qumran, Israel. Scholars believe the texts–which include biblical texts, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, as well as texts unique to Qumran–belonged to a sectarian community that lived in the Judean desert.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have given us a greater understanding of when and how different biblical books were canonized. They also offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of a Second Temple sectarian community which considered itself Jewish–though its practices differ considerably from today.

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