The director of the Jewish Publication Society explains how Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture offers a tantalizing glimpse into the tumultuously creative world of the Second Temple era.
The Bible you are reading is an abridged version.
Whether it is the Jewish Bible or the Catholic Bible or the Protestant Bible, in whatever language, the edition is an abbreviated one. I mean no disrespect to any faith’s determination of their sacred canon. I only mean to note that the community of ancient Israel that produced these scriptures created many more texts. Moreover, our forbearers never agreed on precisely what should be included and excluded.
In light of a half-century of archeological and textual discovery, it is time to ponder and appreciate this truth. Doing so helps us in three ways. First, we gain a greater understanding of our history by recognizing the sacred library of ancient Israel in all its richness and diversity. Second, we gain a greater insight into our own Bible, for we cannot fully understand what is in scripture without also knowing what was excluded from it. Finally, we gain a measure of humility in knowing that the perceived record of revelation is more vast than we ever imagined.
After more than a decade of work by 70 scholars from around the globe, Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture (published in three volumes by the Jewish Publication Society in December 2013) offers a tantalizing glimpse into the tumultuously creative world of the Second Temple era. More than 100 texts are included from a 500-year period that extends from the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE — the missing link between the biblical and rabbinic period. How these texts have come to light is itself an incredible tale, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have yielded a breathtaking 900 different manuscripts, to the remarkable Cairo Genizah, to the findings from remote monasteries like Santa Katarina in the Sinai Desert, which preserved originally Jewish scriptures in Aramaic, Greek, Latin and a host of other ancient languages.
What these texts teach us about the philosophy and faith of the unique community that gave us the Bible, and how they shaped both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, is of great scholarly import. Yet, ultimately, these texts touch us because they reveal that our ancestors’ quest is our own —the neverending search for wisdom and the process of sacred interpretation and commentary that began even before the biblical canon was complete.
What are the texts of the unabridged Bible? They have somewhat familiar names like Jubilees, Maccabees, Enoch and Ben Sira, (which, for some, are part of the canonical Apocrypha), and wholly unfamiliar names like The Book of Giants, The Genesis Apocryphon and Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. They include fanciful additions to Esther and Daniel, and bold retellings of biblical stories like Life of Adam and Eve and the novelistic Joseph and Aseneth. The strange sectarian texts of the Dead Sea sect include the Rule of the Community, the Damascus Document and the War Scroll.
Why different views of Scripture? The situation is complicated. The separatists of Qumran rejected the calendar and canon of the Pharisees in Jerusalem. They likely saw Jubilees, Ben Sira and some of their own works as holy writings. The community in Israel disallowed the Greek translation of Scripture (the Septuagint) from the Diaspora, which contains added verses and books as compared to the Hebrew Bible. The sages of the Mishnah prohibited the reading of all non-biblical books save the 24 that are included in what we today call the Tanach. The early Christians not only added a New Testament, but ironically included a variety of Jewish-authored works in their Bible that mainstream Judaism excluded.
In truth, we can never produce an unabridged Bible. The totality of texts considered sacred by the various communities of our ancestors is unknowable, and there was never a time devoid of disagreement on the canon. But today we have remarkable access to a sparkling array of lost scriptures and provocative commentaries. At the very least, it is worth approaching this “expanded” Bible with an open mind.
If nothing else, these ancient writings invite us to become reacquainted with the biblical family we thought we knew. We should have the courage to add these texts to our Bible study and the confidence to state that past prohibitions and exclusions do not strengthen faith, but diminish it. We may find that we have something to learn from the “other.” And in the process, we just may grow not only in knowledge, but in tolerance.l
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is the director of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia. Publication of Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.