What is Jewish Apocrypha?
Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in Judaism
Although Judaism historically insisted on the exclusive canonization of the 24 books in the Tanakh (see Development of the Hebrew Bible canon for details), it also claimed to have an oral law handed down from Moses. Just as apocryphal books sometimes overshadowed canonical scriptures in Christianity, so did the oral laws of Judaism sometimes overtake the written ones.
Certain circles in Judaism, such as the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt, were said to have a “secret” literature (see Dead Sea scrolls). The Pharisees were also familiar with these texts.
A large part of this “secret” literature was the apocalypses. Based on unfulfilled prophecies, these books were not considered scripture, but rather part of a literary form that flourished from 200 BCE to 100 CE. These works usually bore the names of ancient Hebrew worthies to establish their validity among the true writers’ contemporaries. To reconcile the late appearance of the texts with their claims to primitive antiquity, alleged authors are represented as “shutting up and sealing” (Dan. xii. 4, 9) the works until the time of their fulfillment had arrived; as the texts were not meant for their own generations but for far-distant ages (also cited in Assumption of Moses i. 16-17).
This literature was highly treasured by many Jewish enthusiasts, in some cases more so than the canonical scriptures. The book of 4 Ezra reinforces this theory: when Ezra was inspired to dictate the sacred scriptures that were destroyed in the overthrow of Jerusalem, “in forty days they wrote ninety-four books: and it came to pass when the forty days were fulfilled that the Highest spake, saying: the first that thou hast written publish openly that the worthy and unworthy may read it; but keep the seventy last that thou mayst deliver them only to such as be wise among the people; for in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom and the stream of knowledge.” (4 Ezra xiv. 44 sqq.) Such esoteric books are apocryphal, in the original conception of the term.
Whether Judaism had any distinct name for the esoteric works is unknown. Scholars Theodor Zahn, Emil Schürer, among others, stated that these secret books formed a class by themselves and were called “Genuzim” (גנוזים), and that this name and idea passed from Judaism over into the Greek, with αποκρυφα βιβλια as a translation of ספרים גנוזים.
Writings that were wholly apart from scriptural texts, such as the books of heretics or Samaritans, were designated as “Hitsonim” (literally: external) by The Mishnah Sanh. x. I (ספרים חצונים and ספרי המינים) and reading them was forbidden. After the 3rd century CE, Sirach and other apocryphal books were included in this category; until then, Sirach was largely quoted by rabbis in Palestine, indicating some change in this classification throughout the centuries.
In the following centuries, these apocrypha fell out of use in Judaism. Although they are Jewish literature, the apocrypha were actively preserved through the Middle Ages exclusively by Christians.
History of Johannes Hyrcanus
The History of Johannes Hyrcanus is mentioned in 1 Macc. xvi. 23-24, but no trace has been discovered of its existence elsewhere.
Book of Jubilees
The Book of Jubilees was written in Hebrew between the year of the accession of Hyrcanus to the high-priesthood in 135 BC and his breach with the Pharisees some years before his death in 105 BC. Jubilees was translated into Greek and from Greek into Ethiopic and Latin. It is preserved in its entirety only in Ethiopic. Jubilees is the most advanced pre-Christian representative of the midrashic tendency, which was already at work in the Book of Chronicles. This is a rewriting of the book of Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus. His work constitutes an enlarged targum on these books, and its object is to prove the everlasting validity of the law, which, though revealed in time, was superior to time. Writing in the palmiest days of the Maccabean dominion, he looked for the immediate advent of the Messianic kingdom. This kingdom was to be ruled over by a Messiah sprung not from Judah but from Levi, that is, from the reigning Maccabean family. This kingdom was to be gradually realized on earth, the transformation of physical nature going hand in hand with the ethical transformation of man.
History of the Captivity in Babylon
This work supposedly provides omitted details concerning the prophet Jeremiah. It is preserved in Coptic, Arabic, and Garshuni manuscripts, though it was most likely originally written in Greek sometime between 70 to 132 CE by a Jewish author. In the Coptic version it is entitled Paralipomena Jeremiae and was most likely used or reworked by the author of the more widely known Greek work by that name.
Paralipomena Jeremiae, or the Rest of the Words of Baruch
This book has been preserved in Greek, Ethiopic, Armenian and Slavonic. The Greek was first printed at Venice in 1609, and next by Antonio Maria Ceriani in 1868 under the title Paralipomena Jeremiae. It bears the same name in the Armenian, but in Ethiopic it is known by the second title.
Martyrdom of Isaiah
This Jewish work has been in part preserved in the Ascension of Isaiah. To it belong i. 1, 2a, 6b-13a; ii. 1-8, 10-iii. 12; v. 1c-14 of that book. It is of Jewish origin, and recounts the martyrdom of Isaiah at the hands of Manasseh.
Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum
Though the Latin version of this book was thrice printed in the 16th century (in 1527, 1550 and 1599), it was practically unknown to modern scholars until it was recognized by F. C. Conybeare and discussed by Cohn in the Jewish Quarterly Review, 1898, pp. 279–332. It is an Haggadic revision of the Biblical history from Adam to the death of Saul. Its chronology agrees frequently with the LXX, against that of the Massoretic text, though conversely in a few cases. The Latin is undoubtedly translated from the Greek. Greek words are frequently transliterated. While the LXX. is occasionally followed in its translation of Biblical passages, in others the Massoretic is followed against the LXX., and in one or two passages the text presupposes a text different from both. On many grounds Cohn infers a Hebrew original. The eschatology is similar to that taught in the similitude of the Book of Enoch. In fact, Eth. En. li. 1 is reproduced in this connexion. Prayers of the departed are said to be valueless. The book was written after A.D. 70; for, as Cohn has shown, the exact date of the fall of Herod’s temple is stated.
Jannes and Jambres
These two men are referred to in 2 Tim. iii. 8 as the Egyptian magicians who withstood Moses. The book that treats of them is mentioned by Origen, and in the Gelasian Decree as the Paenitentia Jamnis et Mambre. The names in Greek are generally Ιαννησ και Ιαμβρης (=יניס וימבריס) as in the Targ.-Jon. on Exod. i. 15; vii. ii. In the Talmud they appear as יוחני וממרא. Since the western text of 2 Tim. iii. 8 has Μαμβρης, Westcott and Hort infer that this form was derived from a Palestinian source. These names were known not only to Jewish but also to heathen writers, such as Pliny and Apuleius. The book, therefore, may go back to pre-Christian times.
Joseph and Aseneth
The Bible states (Gen. xli. 45, 50) that Joseph married the daughter of Potiphar, a priest of On. According to rabbinic literature, Asenath was really the daughter of Shechem and Dinah, and only the foster-daughter of Potiphar. This work has an alternative edition of the story, where Asenath was indeed the biological daughter of Potiphar. Origen also was acquainted with some form of this legend. The Christian legend, which is no doubt in the main based on the Jewish, is found in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic and Medieval Latin. Since it is not earlier than the 3rd or 4th century, it is sufficient to refer to Smith’s Dict. of Christ. Biog. i. 176-177; James, M. R. (1898). “Asenath”. In James Hastings (ed.). A Dictionary of the Bible. I. pp. 162–163.; Schürer, iii. 289-291.
- ad Matt. xxiii. 37 and xxvii. 9 [Jannes et Mambres Liber]
- See Schürer iii. 292-294; Encyclopaedia Biblica, ii. 2327-2329.
- Targ.-Jon. on Gen. xli. 45; Tractat. Sopherim, xxi. 9; Jalkut Shimoni, c. 134. See Oppenheim, Fabula Josephi et Asenethae, 1886, pp. 2-4).
- Selecta in Genesin, ad Gen. xli. 45, ed. Lommatzsch, viii. 89-90.
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