Apocryphal Literature


Wisdom of Ben Sira

Wisdom of Ben Sira

Apocryphal compositions are essentially rewritten Biblical passages which either retell or supplement the biblical text. These compositions are represented as independent works and not as commentaries to the Bible. As similar material was found at Masada, whose inhabitants seem to have practiced Pharisaic law, these types of texts are assumed to have been popular amongst Second Temple Jewry in general.

The apocryphal literature discovered at Qumran is important for several reasons. Firstly, since the apocryphal literature was part of the wider literature of the period, it provides valuable information about the Hellenistic reform and the events which led up to the Maccabean Revolt. Secondly, as these texts influenced sectarian thinking, they are invaluable in researching the theology of the Qumran sect. Thirdly, some of this literature influenced powerful trends in Judaism—most notably, mysticism and apocalypticism (revelation of heavenly mysteries and secrets of the End of Days). Study of these scrolls gives insight into these trends in their later forms. Finally, Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of these works were known in translation, either from antiquity or from the Middle Ages. Discovery of these scrolls allows for comparison to the original text, which—it turns out—demonstrates that the translations were fairly accurate.


The apocryphal books of Enoch are based on the biblical character that is mentioned briefly in the book of Genesis as one of Adam’s descendants. The Bible provides us with the information that he “was no more, for God took him” (Genesis 5-24).

The books of Enoch exist in Aramaic fragments found at Qumran, Greek fragments discovered in Egypt, and an Ethiopic translation of I Enoch which was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century. The Qumran fragments are the most ancient of the three and demonstrate that the original language of the work was Aramaic. The sectarians composed all of their works in Hebrew, and the Aramaic texts were authored before the rise of the sect and collected by them because of their importance.

The books of Enoch revolve around three major themes- the fall of the watchers (angels) and the violent deeds of their sons, the giants; revelations of heavenly secrets to the human race by the watchers; and Enoch’s ascent to heaven where he became a prophet and a scribe.

The discovery of the books of Enoch at Qumran has demonstrated that the parts of this book were originally separate collections.


The Book of Jubilees was found in twelve manuscripts at Qumran. It is also quoted in the Zadokite Fragments (Damascus Document), which is dated to approximately 100–75 BCE. The Qumran copies are judged to be at least as old as the first century BCE. Since Jubilees seems to refer to the Hellenistic reforms, it must have been composed by 168 BCE. The Hebrew dialect used in the Qumran manuscript is not sectarian, so the scroll was apparently not copied at Qumran, and, indeed, appears to pre-date the sect.

The Book of Jubilees is an extensive rewriting of the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus (until Chapter 14). The additions made to the biblical text include- attributing observance of Jewish laws to the patriarchs, placing certain teachings of law and ethics in the mouths of the patriarchs, and explanations of events in the biblical text.

The theology and halakhah of the Book of Jubilees, while sharing some aspects with the Qumran sect, diverge from it in many places. It is not possible to identify the author of Jubilees with any of the sects of the Second Temple period. This text served as a forerunner to later rabbinic Aggadah, which also expanded the biblical text in order to teach ethical, moral, and religious lessons.

Genesis Apocryphon

The Genesis Apocryphon is another retelling of Genesis. Those portions of the text which have been preserved cover the period from Lamech to Abraham. Unfortunately, a large part of the text has deteriorated and cannot be read. This text was written in Aramaic, indicating that it was not composed by the sectarians. It does not parallel the theology of the sect. The scroll contains parallels to the Book of Jubilees, the Targumim (Jewish Aramaic translations of the Bible), and the Midrashim.


The Book of Tobit was discovered at Qumran in four fragmentary manuscripts of the Aramaic original and one Hebrew adaptation. Tobit is part of the Apocrypha, and as such has been preserved in the Septuagint Greek Bible. It seems that the book was composed before the Maccabean Revolt and the building of the Herodian Temple, which places it in the third century BCE. As the book takes place in the Diaspora, some scholars have maintained that it was also composed there.

The Book of Tobit contains the story of a character named Tobit, who sent his son Tobias to recover some money in Media. There Tobias met and wed a Jewish woman whose seven husbands had all been killed by a demon on their wedding night. Tobias was able to ward off the demon and then returned to his father, whom he was able to cure of blindness. The themes of this book are that adherence to the law will be rewarded; that the righteous suffer; and that God orchestrates human affairs and the affairs of the people of Israel, who will ultimately be restored to a rebuilt Jerusalem.


A popular genre in Second Temple literature is the testament literature. These works are purported to record the last words of a famous personage, usually including revelations about the future of the Jewish people.

The main collection of these works is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Only those of Levi and Naphtali have been discovered at Qumran. The discovery of these scrolls has proven that the Testaments (at least of Levi and Naphtali) were originally a Jewish work, and that the Greek version previously known is a Christianized version of a Jewish work.

The Testaments are most likely dated to the Hasmonean period or even earlier. They contain ideas popular in Second Temple Jewish thought as well as ideas found in sectarian literature, such as predestination and the concept of two messiahs—one descended from Aaron and one from Israel.

A Testament of Kohath, son of Levi, was also found at Qumran. Carbon-14 dating places it in the early Hellenistic period (fourth or third century BCE). This text seeks to establish the legitimacy and authority of the Levitical priesthood. It speaks of the dualism of light and darkness (as does the Testament of Levi), a theological idea shared by the Qumran sect.

Wisdom Literature

Wisdom literature was a popular genre in Near Eastern culture. The wisdom literature of ancient Israel differs from the general wisdom literature in its Jewish tone. The Bible contains some books of wisdom- Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and certain Psalms. This trend continued into Second Temple times, with the Book of Ben Sira and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Sapiential Works and Mysteries.

The Book of Ben Sira

The Book of Ben Sira was included in the Apocrypha and was therefore preserved in Greek. When Hebrew manuscripts of the book were discovered in the Cairo genizah (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), scholarly debate centered on whether the Hebrew was the original or a translation from the Greek. When fragments of Ben Sira were found at Qumran and more substantial parts of it were discovered at Masada, it became clear that medieval texts from the genizah were descended from these manuscripts.

The Book of Ben Sira is a wisdom anthology, much of which is written in the style of the Book of Proverbs. The prologue to the Greek translation states that the author, Joshua (or Simeon) Ben Sira, wrote the book around 180 BCE and that it was translated into Greek in about 130 BCE. Scholars have accepted these dates as accurate. This places the author in pre-Maccabean Jerusalem, where he taught in a wisdom school.

The author of Ben Sira warns against the trends of Hellenism and praises Israel’s biblical heroes and the contemporary priest Simeon II. He preaches that an individual must stand up for principles and practice honesty and integrity. According to the author of the book, the Torah—the earliest source of wisdom—was created prior to the creation of the world and is eternal.

Although the Book of Ben Sira was found among the Qumran documents, it is nowhere mentioned or alluded to in sectarian literature, and apparently did not exert any influence on sectarian thought.

The Sapiential Texts

Unlike the Book of Ben Sira, the Sapiential Works, found only at Qumran, influenced both sectarian thought and sectarian vocabulary. These manuscripts are scrolls discovered which remained unpublished and unreleased until recently. When they were released, they opened a window into the development of wisdom literature and thought.

Some of the ideas presented in these texts are- the need to investigate the past in order to understand human actions and their consequences; the idea that wisdom is built into the order of creation and engraved on heavenly tablets; predestination; and the importance of the commandment to honor one’s parents.

The Book of Mysteries

The Book of Mysteries was found in three manuscripts at Qumran. It has some similarities to the Sapiential Works in genre, content, and terms, but the text is entirely different, and so it must be viewed as a separate work. It shows parallels to the poetry of early Jewish mystical literature.

The “mysteries” (raz) referred to in the Mysteries and the Sapiential Works refer to the mysteries of creation or the natural order of things. Since the source of these mysteries is divine wisdom, all natural phenomena and historical events are part of the divine wisdom.

The largest single unit of text in the Book of Mysteries is a long poem which describes humans ignoring the evidence that the End of Days was imminent and doing nothing to prepare for it. The poem illustrates the relationship between God and humanity, including the doctrine of predestination.

The Mysteries and Sapiential Works represent a different genre of wisdom literature from the biblical wisdom books. Where the biblical books are based on commonsense, these texts are based on a combination of wisdom and prophecy and are of a highly religious nature.

Secondary Sources

  1. Genesis Apocryphon, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  2. Jubilees, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  3. Testaments, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  4. The Book of Ben Sira, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  5. Tobit, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  6. Enoch, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  7. Wisdom and the Mysteries of Creation, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  8. The Sapiential Texts, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
  9. Ben Sira and the Qumran Literature, Manfred Lehmann, Revue de Qumran 3(1961), p.103-116.
  10. Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lawrence Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991, p.120-138.
  11. Genesis Apocryphon in the Light of the Targumim and Midrashim, Manfred Lehmann, Revue de Qumran 1, p.249-264.
  12. Jubilees, Book of, James VanderKam, Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. David Noel Freedman), Doubleday, New York 1992.
  13. Remarks on the Testament of Kohath from Qumran Cave 4, Edward Cook, Journal of Jewish Studies 44, p.205-219.

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