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The Apocrypha

Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The apocrypha, as mentioned earlier, consists of a body of texts that form part of the standardized corpus of the Septuagint and other Greek Bibles. Our presentation here will discuss the various genres and books included in it.

The desire to supplement Scripture was part of a general tendency in the Greco-Roman period toward “rewritten Bible.” In such works the authors, out of reverence for the Bible, sought to extend the biblical tradition and often applied it to the issues of their own day. One of the books of this type is 1 Esdras (3 Esdras in Latin and Roman Catholic Bibles). It begins with a description of the great Passover held by Josiah, king of Judah, in Jerusalem in 621 B.C.E. according to 2 Chronicles. It then reproduces an alternative version of the whole of Ezra and parts of Nehemiah, ending in the middle of the account of Ezra’s reforms. The author wanted to emphasize the contributions of Josiah, Zerubbabel, and Ezra to the reform of Israel’s worship. From the confused chronology, it is clear that the author did not have access to superior historical texts. He sought to “correct” the canonical text based on his own analysis, a process in which he was not successful to judge from the remaining inconsistencies. The work appears to have been adapted in Greek from the more literal version in the Septuagint, although some argue for composition in late biblical Hebrew. It is most probable that the book is to be dated to the second half of the second century B.C.E. and assigned to a Hellenistic provenance. Josephus relied heavily on this book.

Tobit is a short didactic story. It is set in Nineveh in Assyria after the exile of 722 B.C.E. Tobit son of Tobiel, a righteous man who has become blind, sends his son Tobias to Media to seek some money belonging to him. Tobias is guided by the angel Raphael. In Media, with the angel’s help, he weds Sarah, whose previous seven husbands had died on their wedding nights at the hand of the demon Asmodeus. The couple returns home to , where, again with the angel’s help, Tobias cures his father’s blindness. As the names show (tov = “good”), the book points out the rewards for ritual and ethical righteousness, emphasizing that a life of piety is possible even in the Mesopotamian Diaspora. Most likely, the book is to be dated to the third century B.C.E., when it was composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Fragments of four manuscripts of Tobit from the Qumran caves are in Aramaic and one is written in Hebrew. It appears that Aramaic was the original language of Tobit and that the Hebrew texts are translations. The full text, however, was preserved only in the Greek translation.

Similar in style is the Book of Judith. This tale is set in the last years of the First Temple period, although names and details are drawn from the Persian period as well. In reality the book addresses the Maccabean era. It tells how the Jews of the Judean fortress of Bethulia (probably an imaginary name) were saved when Judith, a pious and observant Jewish woman, captivated the enemy general Holophernes with her beauty and killed him, thus redeeming her people. The book emphasizes that it was the heroine’s piety that led to her success. Judith is assumed to have been composed in Hebrew and survives in Greek and in secondary translations from the Greek. The various Aramaic and Hebrew versions of the story which circulated in the Middle Ages are either retranslations, probably from Latin, or derive from Jewish folklore and tradition.

The Septuagint’s versions of several biblical books include supplementary passages that are not found in the Hebrew originals of these texts. The Greek Esther, for instance, has six additions of this kind which fill in details presumably deemed necessary for the Hellenistic reader, whether for dramatic or religious reasons. The additions tell how Mordecai saved the king’s life and how Esther appealed to the king. The text of the king’s order to massacre the Jews is provided as well as his second letter calling on his people to support and defend the Jews. Most importantly, the prayers uttered by Mordecai and Esther are included, thus filling what some readers must have seen as an obvious spiritual lacuna in the canonical version of the book. Some of these additions were no doubt introduced by Lysimachus, an Alexandrian Jew living in Jerusalem, who translated Esther around 114 B.C.E., according to the book’s colophon.

There are similar additions to the Book of Daniel. Jewish tradition saw the book as authored by Daniel, who lived in the last years of the Babylonian Empire in the seventh century B.C.E. Modern scholars have argued that the first half of the book, dealing with the experiences of Daniel at the Babylonian court, dates to the third century B.C.E., while the remainder, describing the Maccabean period and its aftermath in apocalyptic terms, dates to the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 167–163 B.C.E. The book survives in the original Hebrew and Aramaic and is preserved in an number of Qumran manuscripts.

Greek texts of Daniel as found in the Septuagint include three additions- (1) The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men in the Furnace provide the otherwise missing prayers in Daniel 3. (2) The story of Susanna is a beautiful didactic tale in which the pious Susanna resists the desires of two old men only to be accused by them of adultery. When his wisdom proves her innocent, Daniel’s greatness is first recognized. This tale is intended not only to teach the virtue and reward of piety and the sinfulness of adultery, but also to explain how Daniel’s wisdom came to be recognized while he was but a youth. (3) The tales of Bel and the dragon picture Daniel as proving  theemptiness of these false gods and their worship. Similar compositions, related to the Book of Daniel, are known from Qumran manuscripts, especially the Prayer of Nabonidus and Pseudo-Daniel materials. Clearly composed by the time Daniel was translated into Greek around 100 B.C.E., since otherwise they would not have been included, the original language of these additions and their provenance cannot be determined.

Baruch (1 Baruch) is a hortatory work which was treated as a supplement to Jeremiah. It is a pseudepigraphon, purporting to have been written by Baruch, the scribe of Jeremiah. In the book, the Jews confess their transgressions, particularly that of rebelling against the Babylonians, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple. The book further asserts that all wisdom is from God, and that He will eventually return His people to their land. Baruch seems to be a composite of two or more parts and was probably written in Aramaic or Hebrew. Palestine is the most likely place of composition. The first part had to have been written by the onset of the first century B.C.E., but the date of the second half cannot be established. It may postdate the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., in which case the finished book would address the tragedy of the destruction. The book was read by some Hellenistic Jews on the Ninth of Av, the commemoration of the destruction of both Temples.

The Letter of Jeremiah claims to be a letter written by the prophet to the exiles from Judah who were taken to Babylonia in 597 B.C.E. A condemnation of idolatry, it was probably composed in Greek in the second century B.C.E., and a first-century B.C.E. Greek fragment was found at Qumran. The Prayer of Manasseh supplements 2 Chronicles, providing the words Manasseh, king of Judah (698-643 B.C.E.), supposedly uttered in asking God’s forgiveness for his sins.

Two wisdom texts are the books of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon. Ben Sira is a wisdom anthology, much in the style of the biblical Proverbs. It provides practical advice on interpersonal relations, especially with family, the conduct of business, and a variety of ethical teachings. This wisdom comes from God, the Creator and Ruler of all, who rewards and punishes. Ben Sira identifies God’s wisdom with the Torah, the observance of which he demands, and clearly opposes the rising tide of Hellenism. He praises all of Israel’s biblical heroes, concluding with the stately high priest Simeon the Just. The author, Joshua (or according to some manuscripts Simeon) ben Sira (or Sirach in the Greek texts), wrote in Hebrew around 180 B.C.E., and his grandson translated the work into Greek around 130 B.C.E. Some parts of the book have been preserved in the Qumran and Masada scrolls, and large parts survive in medieval manuscripts descended from the original Hebrew text.

The Wisdom of Solomon draws its inspiration from biblical sapiential texts (a technical term for wisdom materials) and their ancient Near Eastern setting as well as from Hellenistic ideas and motifs and Greek philosophical notions. This work is entirely an argument for the foolishness of ungodliness and idolatry. Although Solomon is never named in the book, its message is placed in his mouth. The message is applied first to the individual, then to the king, and finally to the entire people of Israel. Wisdom is pictured here as an emanation from God, a great light, a concept similar to the logos (divine wisdom) of Philo. At the same time the imagery used to describe wisdom is that of Proverbs. The Wisdom of Solomon was probably written in Alexandria in the Roman period, although we cannot be at all certain.

2 Esdras, also known as 4 Ezra, is the only truly apocalyptic book in the apocrypha. The angel Uriel reveals to Ezra the secrets of the approaching end of days in which the messiah will destroy all evildoers in a cataclysm. Most probably the work dates to 81–96 C.E. Originally writtenin Hebrew or Aramaic, a no longer extant Greek text served as the basis for the later translations which survive. This text reflects the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the land in the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E. The apocalyptic, cataclysmic messianism of this work contrasts sharply with the messianism of mishnaic literature.

Finally, the apocrypha provides us with two of the most important historical sources for the Second Temple period, 1 and 2 Maccabees. 1 Maccabees is an account of the history of Judea from 175 to 134 B.C.E. It describes the background of the Maccabean revolt, the revolt itself, the exploits of Judah the Maccabee, and the efforts of his brothers Jonathan and Simon to permanently reestablish Jewish national independence and religious practice. The author paints the Hasmoneans as loyal Jews fighting against extremist Hellenizing Jews and their Seleucid supporters. 1 Maccabees was written in Hebrew in the early decades of the first century B.C.E. It survives only in the Greek text, which served as a major source for the first-century C. E. historian Josephus.

2 Maccabees is an abridgement of a lost five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene. Jason’s work and the abridgement were both composed in rhetorical Greek. 2 Maccabees details the events which led up to the Maccabean revolt and the career of Judah, concluding with his death in 160 B.C.E. As it stands now, the purpose of the book is to encourage the observance of the holiday of Hanukkah. Jason wrote not long after 160 B.C.E., and the abridger probably did his work before 124 B.C.E. Josephus did not have access to this book. To a great extent it serves as a complement to 1 Maccabees, since the two books emphasize different aspects of the revolt and the events surrounding it. On the other hand, there are many chronological and historical inconsistencies between the two works.

3 Maccabees (considered by some to be part of the apocrypha) is an unhistorical account of the deliverance of the Jews of Egypt from religious persecution, including the demand that they abandon their religion. The book draws on motifs from the biblical Book of Esther, 2 Maccabees, and other sources, and attempts to explain the existence in Hellenistic Egypt of a festival similar to Purim but celebrated in the summer.

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