The Jewish Pseudepigrapha: An introduction to the
literature of the Second Temple period
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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
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.