Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,
and those who work with me will not sin.
All this is the book of the covenant of the MostHigh God,
the law that Moses commanded us
as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob.
Wisdom of Ben Sira 24:19–23
The first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot famously tells its readers that:
Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets, and prophets handed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly.
After the Men of the Great Assembly—about whom very little is known—came the first rabbis, who thereby inherited Mosaic tradition. It is a story of reception, inscription, and transmission, and it is unilinear—no breaks or branches, only links in an unbroken chain.
Although the standard modern historical narrative is more nuanced and complex than this, it has, at least until relatively recently, shared many of the same traits. However, after the discoveries of the Cairo Geniza and the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars of Judaism slowly began to reconstruct the 400-year period separating the latest parts of the Hebrew Bible from the earliest rabbinic compilations. Not only did the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Geniza materials illuminate this ancient Jewish world, they also helped scholars to contextualize and understand other texts that had been in plain sight all along, such as Jubilees and the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Until then, scholars treated ancient Jewish texts in Greek, which had been largely ignored by the rabbis, as part of the pre-history of Christianity, but not of rabbinic Judaism. Even now, scholars tend to erect arbitrary walls between texts in different languages and from different regions—as if they had not been produced in a world where people spoke more than one language and where manuscripts could travel.
Texts from this Hellenistic (or Second Temple) period, which include the Dead Sea Scrolls, texts from Masada, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible), and many Greek texts from Alexandria and elsewhere, show us a world of creative interpretation, dynamic legal development, and tenacious survival. These works can and should be read alongside biblical and rabbinic texts. Outside the Bible, the massive three-volume anthology of such texts from the Jewish Publication Society, challenges its readers to do just that. It is the fruit of an extraordinary collaboration between the late Louis Feldman, an authority on Josephus; James Kugel, a scholar who has revolutionized our understanding of early biblical interpretation; and leading Dead Sea Scroll expert Lawrence Schiffman. They assembled a distinguished international team of translators, who also provided concise, informative introductions and up-to-date footnotes to this extraordinary collection of texts. These texts demonstrate that the old lines dividing biblical and rabbinic modes of thought, or rabbinic and Hellenistic ones, are at best fuzzy. Instead of reinforcing anachronistic borders, these texts reveal how actual flesh-and-blood Jews in this period understood God, interpreted biblical texts, suffered exile, and ultimately overcame its challenges. In reading these three volumes readers will travel from Alexandria to the Dead Sea; Tiberias to Rome; Elephantine to Sepphoris; Yavne to Jerusalem.
Of course, the texts collected in Outside the Bible will never eclipse those that are “inside” it (a distinction to which I shall return), nor should they. On the contrary, they deepen our understanding of Deuteronomy, Esther, Jeremiah, the Mishnah, early collections of rabbinic midrash, and, indeed, the entire ancient Jewish world. The past is remote and holes in our knowledge remain, even with all of the recently discovered texts and resources, but we know far, far more than we did when the great 20th-century scholars R.H. Charles and James Charlesworth edited collections of apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works decades ago. (Apocrypha, from the Greek word for “hidden,” is the older term for ancient works that were not part of a biblical canon; pseudepigrapha describes those works that were composed by Jewish authors in the Hellenistic period but ascribed to biblical figures.)
Outside the Bible will replace classic earlier anthologies as the premier compendium of primary texts for scholars and teachers of the period. But, it seems to me that one of the great virtues of this collection—as, indeed, of its editors’ distinguished careers—is to precisely show the ways in which these texts, including those that were forgotten, dismissed, or even unknown by rabbinic tradition, are profoundly relevant to the history of Judaism, in part by showing the breaks and branching paths of tradition. One hopes, then, that these volumes will be acquired not only by scholars and research libraries but by synagogues and even the more adventurous batei midrash (houses of study).
One fascinating class of Dead Sea Scroll texts included in Outside the Bible are pesharim and retellings. These texts, such as the Genesis Apocryphon and Pesher Habakkuk, explicitly and even self-consciously engage, cite, apply, and interpolate their own interpretations into the biblical texts themselves. In reading such works, we see how these ancient readers actualized and re-animated biblical texts in ways that anticipated later rabbinic midrash.
Thus, the Genesis Apocryphon worries out loud about its ethical concerns with the Genesis narrative. How, for instance, did Abraham allow his beautiful wife Sarah to be taken to Pharaoh’s house in order to save his life? In the Genesis Apocryphon, this is resolved with a touching marital backstory unknown to the reader of the familiar story in Genesis. Abraham has a disturbing dream in which a cedar tree and a palm tree appear “together from [one] roo[t]. People came, seeking to chop down and to uproot the [ce]dar tree and to spare only the palm tree.” Waking up, Abraham admits to Sarah that he is afraid. It is now up to Sarah to save him.
The authors of a different class of Dead Sea Scroll texts knew and drew upon biblical texts, but instead of restricting themselves to interpretation, they created new works, which present themselves as part of the biblical corpus. The editors call them “sectarian texts,” but it is far from clear that the so-called “sectarians” who wrote them understood themselves to be doing anything other than producing works meant to stand alongside those that we now regard as part of the Bible. Similarly, the so-called “non-canonical psalms” collected in the Great Psalms Scroll were very likely regarded by their readers in the same light as the 150 biblical psalms with which we are familiar. After all, David was said to have composed thousands of psalms.
Jubilees presents a somewhat different case. For centuries, it has been known in Ethiopic, Latin, and other languages. However, there was no proof that it had actually been composed by Jews during the Second Temple period. But the discovery of more than one copy in Hebrew amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with what might even be expansions or interpretations of Jubilees, changed all of this. As James Kugel eloquently shows in his introduction and annotation, Jubilees completes, supplements, and transforms Genesis, while at the same time reinforcing its authority. This is the earliest sustained commentary we possess of Genesis 1 through Exodus 15. In reading it, one has a window not only onto how Jews of the 2nd century B.C.E. read the Bible, but what they thought about, among other things, angels, divinity, providence, and the place of prayer, sacrifice, and ritual.
Let us take two of the most famous incidents in Genesis, the binding of Isaac and Jacob’s vision at Bethel, and see how they are transformed in Jubilees. The first verse of Genesis 22 tells us that “God put Abraham to the test,” but it does not tell us why, a question that occurs to virtually every reader. In the retelling of Jubilees, the answer lies in the challenge of an angel named Mastema:
And it came to pass in the seventh week, in its first year, in the first month, in that jubilee, on the twelfth of that month, that words came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the Lord and was faithful in all affliction. And Prince Mastema came and he said before God, “Behold, Abraham loved Isaac, his son. And he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And You will see whether he will do this thing. And You will know whether he is faithful in everything in which You test him.” (Jubilees 17:13–18)
Jubilees answers the question of God’s motivation by blurring the lines between biblical narratives, incorporating a version of Job’s famous test, but it also draws upon prophetic characterizations of Abraham as a “lover of God” (Isaiah 41:8) and as “faithful” (Nehemiah 9:8), with which it expects its readers to be familiar.
Jubilees’s answer to what it was that terrified Jacob when he found himself alone at Bethel in the middle of the night is fascinating. After receiving the patriarchal promise from God, Jacob has a vision:
. . . and behold an angel was descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages. And he showed him everything which was written on the tablets. And he said to him . . . “Do not fear, because just as you have seen and read, thus will everything come to pass. But you write down everything just as you have seen and read (it).” And Jacob said, “My lord, how will I remember everything that I read and saw?” And he said to him, “I will cause you to remember everything.” And he went up from him and he woke up from his sleep and he recalled everything that he had read and seen and he wrote down all of the matters which he had read and seen. (Jubilees 32:16–26)
According to Jubilees, Jacob is afraid that he will not succeed at the task of remembering, preserving, and transmitting the vision that he has been vouchsafed. This is a transparent projection onto the biblical narrative of a fundamental religious anxiety of Second Temple Jewish communities: the fear that they will not be successful in preserving and transmitting their traditions in a time of political upheaval and socio-religious turmoil.
The texts included in Outside the Bible were neither included in the Jewish collection of the Hebrew Bible nor authorized as rabbinic texts. Nonetheless, many of them, like the interpretations of Philo of Alexandria, the works of Josephus, and the scrolls discovered in the caves of Qumran have deep affinities with later, more familiar Jewish interpretations of the Bible.
A work known as 4 Ezra (also called 2 Esdras) is one such tradition, produced by Jews in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple and ascribed to the biblical Ezra, the leader who reintroduced the Torah in Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple and the return from the Babylonian exile. This work was ultimately preserved by Christians in both Latin and Syriac, but to read this text, as many earlier scholars have done, as Christian is to fundamentally misrepresent its origins. This is not to say that it should instead be regarded as a rabbinic text. Rather, 4 Ezra was written before the divide between Judaism and Christianity. Here is a particularly repercussive passage about the origins and purpose of Jewish prayer:
I answered and said, “How then do we find that first Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, and Moses for our ancestors who sinned in the desert, and Joshua after him for Israel in the days of Achan, and Samuel in the days of Saul, and David for the plague, and Solomon for those at the dedication, and Elijah for those who received the rain, and for the one who was dead, that he might live, and Hezekiah for the people in the days of Sennacherib, and many others prayed for many? So if now, when corruption has increased and unrighteousness has multiplied, the righteous have prayed for the ungodly, why will it not be so then as well?”(4 Ezra 7:106–111)
As Daniel Boyarin noted years ago, this passage resonates strongly with the mishnah from Ta’anit, 2:4, which was, of course, written in the same period. This mishnah is the basis for part of the penitential selichot liturgy. Boyarin argued that key elements of that liturgy are also to be found in 4 Ezra. Thus, Ezra pleads for the people in what resembles the rabbinic formula for confession and appeals to divine attributes: “For we and our ancestors have passed our lives in ways that bring death; but it is because of us sinners that you are called merciful.” (4 Ezra 8:31) In fact, Boyarin argued that this passage alluded to a form of prayer that was already current in the author of 4 Ezra’s day.
In the spectacular final vision of 4 Ezra, 70 esoteric books are revealed in addition to the 24 books of the Written Torah. This vision is clearly a repetition of Sinai, with Ezra as a second Moses.
And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom and the river of knowledge.” (4 Ezra 14:45–47)
J. N. Epstein, a great 20th-century Israeli scholar of rabbinic literature, was right to argue that this vision in 4 Ezra symbolized the beginnings of the Oral Torah and the rabbinic collection and inscription of its traditions, in response to a destroyed temple and yet another exile.
Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars assumed that there was some kind of closing of the canon in the Maccabean period or even slightly later, in the 1st century C.E. References to the 24, or 22, books or occasional allusions to the end of the prophecy line were often cited to justify this hypothesis. Of course, this presupposed that there was already something like a canon, a set of texts that approximated our present day Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, and that other ancient Jewish texts stood outside of this collection. What the biblical manuscripts discovered at Qumran definitively showed was that the canon didn’t close in the Second Temple period, indeed that it is anachronistic to think in these terms. Texts such as Jubilees show that new works were being written that continue to make comparable claims to Deuteronomy and Chronicles, while others, such as Philo’s Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus, interpret and develop already established authoritative biblical works. This demonstrates both that biblical books were being authorized and stabilized on the one hand and that there was ongoing and continuous writing of texts that can only be described as biblical on the other. Revelation did not end with the advent of interpretation.
The schematic understanding of the history of Judaism as occurring in two phases—first Bible and then the rabbinic interpretation of the Bible—is, in short, deeply mistaken. Outside the Bible advances the scholarly project of rewriting the story of the Jewish scriptural past, drawing upon an incredibly rich and complex array of texts. But it also does something more, or at least has the potential to do so, if we take up the challenge: It provides resources for a renewed Jewish creativity in the present day.
We generally tell the story of Judaism by looking backward. We look from a later point of development, whether medieval or modern (or even postmodern), and we trace our origins back and make sense of our past through the prism of our present. We imagine a time and a context superimposed on an earlier set of texts. In doing so, we tell a story that presupposes the changes that have been implemented and integrated into the world of Judaism that developed and transformed, and yet the story of the texts in these three volumes provides the materials for a different kind of story. What if we told the story moving forward from vibrant communities of late antiquity and the traditions, customs, and laws that inspired them and transformed this period in Jewish history?
This leads me to my one criticism of these elegant, important volumes. Does it still make sense to characterize the texts collected here as “outside” the Bible? So many of them were composed during the same period as the latest biblical books, such as Daniel, and many present themselves as continuous with the biblical materials. The late–Second Temple period was a period of remarkable creativity and ongoing inspiration, in which new compositions were produced in a variety of Jewish communities. Even if some biblical works were treated as uniquely authoritative by most Jewish communities at this time, their texts were not completely fixed, and there was apparently no obstacle to the production of others that also claimed scriptural authority. One of the main contributions of Outside the Bible is—ironically—to demonstrate that there was no sharp border in antiquity between the interior and the exterior of the Bible.
Louis Feldman (who passed away this spring at the age of 90), James Kugel, and Lawrence Schiffman are among the leading scholars in our time of what the Rabbis, whose texts they have also illuminated and cherished, called “outside books.” Nevertheless, their work has integrated these non-canonical texts into the traditions of Judaism and helped us to contextualize the rabbinic tradition in ways with which scholars are still coming to grips. Their own achievement has prepared us philologically, theologically, and conceptually for a new
narrative concerning the origins of Judaism.
There is more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, but today instead of words we offer images.
Baram’s characters are righteously indignant at the system and determined to bring it down.
I mug at myself in the mirror and recite the old Monty Python gag.
Tuvia Reubner has said he has no homeland except perhaps his poetry. A new book expands that homeland's borders.