Review of Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture
by Shaye J.D. Cohen
Shaye J. D. Cohen is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University.
This is his first contribution to the Seforim blog.
Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture.
Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture. Edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, and Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. xxviii+3361.
These three hefty volumes, comprising three thousand three hundred and sixty one pages, have been a long time coming. Planning began in 1994. We can only admire the editors’ persistence and the publisher’s patience. The volumes show us what the rabbis of antiquity did not want us to read. The Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrash jump back to the Bible directly, skipping over the intervening centuries. The rich and manifold literature of the late second temple period, whether in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, whether from the land of Israel or the diaspora, no matter the genre, and no matter the social setting – all these works were resolutely ignored by the rabbinic sages of Israel and Babylonia. Aside from a few scattered citations of Ben Sira and a few references to the Greek version of the Torah (the Septuagint), the rabbinic literature of antiquity does not mention, refer to, or cite any the texts included in these volumes. The rabbis did not read these texts and, we may assume, did not want us to read them either.
Why not? Perhaps because some of these texts emanated from circles that were at odds with the progenitors of the rabbinic sages. Or perhaps because some of these texts were composed in Greek, and the rabbis’ pervasive disdain for Greek literature extended even to Greco-Jewish literature. Or perhaps because some of these texts say amazing, unexpected things. Two texts (Jubilees, the Temple Scroll) seem not to accept the canonicity of the Torah. Any number of texts tell stories about the mysterious giants of Genesis 6:1-4, a race brought into being through the miscegenation of (fallen) angels with mortal women (Book of Enoch, Genesis Apocryphon). Two texts tell stories about Moses’ military campaign in Ethiopia (Artapanus, Josephus), one text tells of the military campaign of Qenaz, father of Othniel (Book of Biblical Antiquities), others tell of the military campaign of the sons of Jacob against the sons of Esau (Jubilees, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs). Needless to say, Scripture knows nothing about any of these campaigns. One text attributes to Joseph the institution of Egyptian polytheism and theriolatry (Artapanus). Medieval rabbinic culture was more tolerant of such free invention than was ancient rabbinic culture.
The editors of these volumes are keenly aware of the relative neglect from which these texts have suffered across the millennia. The editors see their task as reclamation, to reclaim these texts for Jewish culture and, dare I say it, for Judaism. Most of these texts were preserved by Christians for Christians, and Christian scholars have studied these texts for much longer, and valued these texts much more highly, than have Jews. Witness the Jewish reception to Wilhelm Bousset’s classic The Religion of Judaism in the Late Hellenistic Period (published in German, first edition 1903). Bousset based his portrait of second temple Judaism on the Jewish texts of the period that had been preserved by Christians, in other words, on the texts presented in Outside the Bible. Bousset more or less ignored rabbinic texts. Jewish scholars were scandalized. Rabbinic texts were written after the second temple period, replied Bousset, and cannot claim to be anything other than the work of a lettered elite, whereas these texts are of “popular” origin. Jewish scholars retorted: these texts are not “Judaism,” because we Jews have abandoned them long since. Nowadays most modern Jews have a more capacious definition of Judaism than did Bousset’s opponents, and it is for them that these volumes are intended. Between the Bible and the Mishnah – the subtitle Ancient Jewish Writings means “pre-rabbinic Jewish writings” – is a rich and fascinating storehouse of Jewish literature.
The collection is called Outside the Bible, that is, outside the Hebrew Bible. The canon of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanak) is a relatively narrow one; all the books it contains were composed and preserved in Hebrew (or Aramaic, a cousin language to Hebrew), and none explicitly acknowledges that it was composed later than the Persian period (5th century BCE). Modern scholars believe that any number of biblical books were either composed after the Persian period (for example, Daniel), or contain sections composed after the Persian period (for example the Psalms), but the key point is that the Hebrew Bible itself does not acknowledge such a late date of composition. Certainly the rabbis of antiquity, and after them traditionalist Jews of our own time, had no doubt that all the biblical books were composed not later than the fifth century BCE. Greek-speaking Jews apparently had no such scruples. Their canon, which forms the basis of the Christian Old Testament, contains many works that do not hide the fact that they were composed after the Persian period (for example, the books of Maccabees) or in Greek (for example, the Greek translation of Ben Sira, or the second book of Maccabees). These books, which are to be found in the Christian Old Testament but which are absent from the Hebrew Bible, are called “deuterocanonical” by Catholics and “apocryphal” by Protestants. Outside the Bible includes them all for the simple reason that these books are outside the Hebrew Bible.
The collection of texts that most nearly approximates Outside the Bible is the two volume set edited by James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1985). The collections resemble each other but also differ from each other. The editors of Outside the Bible have wisely chosen not to perpetuate the title “Pseudepigrapha,” which is a perfectly fine description for literary works that bear a false attribution (from the Greek pseud+epigraph) but which is a misleading and useless catch-all heading for ancient Jewish literature. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha is arranged by genre, more or less (Testaments, Apocalypses, Rewritten Bible, etc.), while Outside the Bible is arranged by relationship with Scripture. First comes the Greek translation of the Bible, then commentaries on the Bible, then paraphrases and retellings of the Bible (notably the works of Philo and Josephus), then testaments, prayers and psalms, wisdom writings, and philosophical treatises of Philo. By this point the biblical connection has become rather tenuous. The volumes conclude with stories set in biblical times, stories set in post-biblical times, and sectarian texts (from Qumran). Outside the Bible thus includes works omitted by Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (notably excerpts from the Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus, and various texts from Qumran), and omits works included by Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (works that are Byzantine in date and Christian in origin, or that bear scant relationship with the Bible, e.g. the Sibylline Oracles). For the most part the terminus ad quem for Outside the Bible is the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, but a few late-comers are allowed to join the party: the Fourth Book of Ezra and the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, two works lamenting the destruction of the temple, and Greek synagogal prayers, which admittedly are not directly related to Scripture but which are full of biblical idioms and in any case are of great interest.
As a rule the editors of Outside the Bible did not commission new translations; they were content to incorporate and revise translations that had already appeared in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha or elsewhere. For these texts the novelty of Outside the Bible is the annotation that it provides, which is far more detailed and far more sustained than what can be found in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. For some texts, though, the translations are new; among them are the sermons On Jonah and and On Samson, falsely attributed to Philo, now translated into English for the first time, two unique specimens of Hellenistic Jewish preaching; Philo’s Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus, newly translated from the Armenian (the Greek original being mostly lost); the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran; the Temple Scroll from Qumran. Aside from the new translations and the extensive introductions and annotations, there are no novelties in these volumes. No heretofore undiscovered texts. No long lost documents. No secret scrolls. (Contrast Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1, edited by Richard Bauckham, James R. Davila and Alexander Panayotov  which is full of newly-translated and long-neglected texts, mostly of Byzantine origin.)
The canonization of the Hebrew Bible was an enormous goad to Jewish creativity. Across genres, styles, and languages, the Jews of the second temple period reacted to, interacted with, interpreted and re-interpreted, the words of the Bible, especially the Torah, in an extraordinary variety of ways with an extraordinary variety of results. The words of the Bible, especially the Torah, seem to have consumed the Jews to such an extent that they produced little literature that did not somehow engage the Bible and its concerns. Outside the Bible is a good entry point for the study not just of ancient Bible interpretation but also of ancient Judaism as a whole.
Who will read Outside the Bible? From cover to cover, probably no one. As a work of reference, as an anthology of ancient Jewish Bible interpretation, no doubt scholars will consult it and be grateful for the breadth of its scope and the erudition of its annotations. But who else will read it, and, what is more important for the publisher, who will want to purchase it? I am not sure that there is an audience for this act of cultural reclamation. Traditionalist Jews, beholden to the rabbinic suspicion of all “external” literature, who purchase ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications by the carload, will probably not be interested in these books. Will secular Jews be interested? I hope so, but that seems unlikely. So who is left? Christians interested in Jewish bible interpretation and in the “Jewish background” to the New Testament, and liberal Jews whose intellectual horizons extend beyond the rabbinic corpora. Will these two groups be persuaded to part with two hundred dollars plus for these three weighty tomes? That remains to be seen.