Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.
All in all, the apocrypha are a varied group of texts that have in common little more than
their approximate dates of composition and their preservation in the Septuagint Bible.
There is little of literary or historical significance to distinguish these texts from the
pseudepigrapha except that the latter did not constitute a closed collection. Many of the
pseudepigrapha found their way into the canons of various Eastern churches, usually in
translations (often from earlier Greek texts) into such languages as Ethiopic, Slavonic,
Syriac, and Armenian. A few of the pseudepigrapha are of major significance either for
what they tell us about the period in which they were written or because they exerted
influence on the later history of Judaism.
1 and 2 Enoch are totally separate works. Each, however, takes its cue from the biblical
statement that God “took” Enoch (Gen. 4-24). Enochic literature, texts containing
revelations to or about this enigmatic biblical figure, appeared quite early in the Second
Temple period, certainly by the second century B.C.E. The impact of these traditions on
later Jewish esoteric and mystical literature is significant.
1 Enoch (the Ethiopic Enoch) is an apocalyptic book in which Enoch reports his vision
of how God will punish the evildoers and grant eternal bliss to the righteous. Enoch
describes the angels and the heavenly retinue. He also has visions regarding the Elect, the
Son of Man, and reveals a collection of astronomical data which provide the secrets of
the natural order. Visions of the destruction of the sinners then occur, followed by a
recounting of the history of the world as a series of “weeks.” An account of the birth of
Noah and the flood concludes the book. The work is preserved in extensive manuscripts
from Qumran, covering virtually all of it except chapters 37–71 (there are 105 chapters).
Qumran evidence and the Greek manuscripts for parts of the book indicate that 1 Enoch
is a composite of materials, mostly from the second century B.C.E., the final redaction of
which must be dated after the completion of the Parables section (chaps. 37–71)
sometime in the late first century C.E. Qumran versions included the so-called Book of
the Giants, which is not included in the Ethiopic book.
2 Enoch (the Slavonic Enoch) is to some extent related to 1 Enoch. It is essentially a
description of Enoch’s life and the lives of his descendants up to the flood. Enoch’s
journey to the seven heavens is described, followed by God’s revelation of the history of
the world up to Enoch’s time and the prediction of the flood. Then Enoch returns to earth,
where he instructs his children in matters of belief and behavior, emphasizing the
importance of his books. Finally there is a description of Enoch’s ascension to heaven. It
is impossible to determine whether the book was composed in Hebrew or in Greek, or is
a composite of both. The text must have been complete by the end of the first century
C.E. It was passed down in two separate Slavonic recensions, one longer than the other.
The Book of Jubilees is a prime example of the genre of rewritten Bible in which Second
Temple authors recast and retold biblical stories in order to teach their own lessons.
Jubilees is a reworking of biblical history from the start of Genesis until the
commandment of Passover in Exodus 12. The book purports to represent the revelation of
an angel to Moses on Mount Sinai. Its chronology is based on the counting of years by
sabbatical cycles (seven-year periods) and jubilees (forty-nine-year periods). The author
fixes the dates of the Jewish festivals and gives them special significance by claiming that
they were first observed by the patriarchs in commemoration of events in their lives.
Indeed, the biblical heroes are pictured throughout as observing Jewish law. This work
was mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and fragments of the original Hebrew text were
preserved in the Qumran caves. We should note the links with the Genesis Apocryphon
from Qumran. The book must have been completed in the second century B.C.E. It
clearly springs from a group of Palestinian Jews who influenced the Qumran sect or were
in some way related to it, but no great certainty is possible. The traditions of Jubilees
played an important role in the development of the Judaism of the Falashas of Ethiopia.
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are a pseudepigraphic group of works in which
the twelve sons of Jacob present exhortations to their children, as their father Jacob had
done at the end of his life according to Genesis 49. The Testaments were preserved in
their entirety in Greek and were known to the church fathers. The final text may have
been worked over by a Christian editor, but the Jewish base can be easily uncovered.
Each testament includes an account of the protagonist’s life in which he confesses his
sins and praises his virtues, admonitions to avoid these transgressions, a prediction of the
future of each tribe, including sin, punishment, and exile, and exhortation to follow the
leadership of Judah and Levi. Fragments of the Testament of Levi in Aramaic and the
Testament of Naphtali in Hebrew exist from both Qumran and medieval times. It seems,
therefore, that the author of the Greek text used various Aramaic and Hebrew testaments
(probably composed in the second century B.C.E. in sectarian circles related or
antecedent to the Dead Sea sect) as a basis for his work, sometime between 100 and 63
B.C.E. His Greek text was in turn Christianized during the second century C.E. The
testaments quote Enoch repeatedly and have parallels with Jubilees and the Qumran
The Letter of Aristeas represents the Hellenistic milieu. In reality it is not a letter but a
Hellenistic Jewish wisdom treatise presented in the guise of a report on the translation of
the Torah into Greek. The work purports to have been written by the non-Jew Aristeas,
an official of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–246 B.C.E.). The text is a tribute to Jewish
law and Jewish wisdom. It tells the story of how the high priest in Jerusalem sent
seventy-two scholars to Alexandria to translate the Pentateuch at the king’s request,
describes how they went about their work, and affirms the validity of the translation thus
produced. Much of the account is not historical. A series of embellishments from Greek
philosophical traditions in fact constitutes the bulk of the text. The work is generally
dated to the beginning of the second century B.C.E. It was composed in Greek, probably
by an Alexandrian Jew. The very same legend is related by Philo, Josephus, talmudic
literature, and the church fathers.
4 Maccabees is likewise a product of the Hellenistic Jewish world and proposes a
Judaism anchored in Platonic and Stoic philosophy. The work is a discourse addressed
directly to the reader and intended to encourage a Judaism in which reason ruled over the
passions. Its title derives from the fact that it details the sufferings of the martyrs of the
Maccabean period. In this respect it parallels 2 Maccabees. The author believes in
immortality, that is, an eternal life in heaven for the pious immediately after their death.
The text is probably to be assigned to the mid-first century C.E., but its place of
composition cannot be determined. It was known to the church fathers, some of whom
mistakenly attributed it to Josephus.
This brief survey of a few of the works of the Second Temple period, from both
Palestine and the Diaspora, opens a window on the various approaches to Judaism in this
important period and demonstrates the highly variegated texture of its literature. Many of
these texts, and a whole host of others, were found in the Qumran caves. It is to these
works that our attention now turns.