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Atmospheric clues

30 January 2015

James Carleton Paget  on the value of little-known Jewish texts

The Jewish Pseudepigrapha: An introduction to the literature of the Second Temple period
Susan Docherty
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THE Pseudepigrapha consist of a set of non-biblical Jewish texts, often attributed pseudonymously (hence the name) to a distinguished figure in Israel's past (Adam, Enoch, Moses, Ezra, etc.), but sometimes appearing without any stated author. Most of these texts were written between the fifth century BC and the second century AD, though dating them and giving them an assured geographic provenance are often difficult.

Susan Docherty has chosen to introduce her reader to this much studied, but not widely known, group of texts through five thematically based chapters (excluding introductory and concluding ones). We start with a discussion of texts that are categorised as rewritten Bible, such as Jubilees or the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, which retell sets of biblical stories in an often free way through substantial additions and omissions. We move to a discussion of para-biblical texts whose contents are broadly based on tales or characters in the Jewish scriptures (e.g. the exile or Joseph).

Discussion then follows of what is termed non-narrative literature (works in the form of poems, prayers, and hymns); so-called testamentary literature (works that purport to be the last words of those who are about to die - here one might think of the Testament of Moses or of Abraham); and, finally, apocalyptic literature, in which biblical characters, by various means, are introduced to heavenly truths (the cycle of books attributed to Enoch is notable here).

Docherty's discussion of these texts is always lucid and sure-footed, and she is good at outlining why they are important. Not only do they tell us a great deal about Jewish theology in the so-called Second Temple period: they also highlight interesting themes, such as attitudes to the biblical text (often looser than we might expect), and to Gentiles and the wider diaspora world in which so many Jews in antiquity lived - attitudes that were diverse, if not chaotically so.

They also serve to inform us of the type of religious atmosphere out of which Christianity arose, illuminating, among other subjects, the Christian concern with a messianically orientated future hope. As Docherty makes clear, both at the beginning and the end of a book that reflects wide learning accessibly presented, it was Christians, by and large, who preserved these sources, and it is often difficult to tell whether a pseudepigraphon should be ascribed to a Jewish or Christian origin, especially where apparently distinctive aspects of the identity of either body are omitted (e. g. the Mosaic Law or Christ).

Certainly, Christians added to these texts in various ways (notoriously in the case of The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs). The fact that the Pseudepigrapha were mainly preserved by Christians raises questions about how comprehensively they represent the character of the Judaism of the relevant period; but similarities with other Jewish sources, not least the documents associated with Qumran, where some of these texts were read, and where their ideas and concerns are reflected, mean that we should not underestimate their value as guides to the Judaism out of which Christianity was to emerge. 

Dr James Carleton Paget is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, and he is a Fellow and Tutor of Peterhouse.

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