Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah

A Historical and Literary Introduction


by George W.E. Nickelsburg

Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 2nd edition, with CD-ROM (100 images), 445 pp.
$45.00 (hardcover) $29.00 (softcover)

Reviewed by James VanderKam

Although the Hebrew Bible is the best-known text from the Jewish past, Jews wrote far more literature than the books that now constitute the Bible. A significant portion of this additional material has survived. And more has been discovered in the past century or so.

The different categories of ancient Jewish literature outside the Bible are not very satisfactorily named, however, but long scholarly usage has entrenched certain terms. “Apocrypha” is the name given to a group of seven writings today found in the Catholic Bible, but not in the Jewish Bible (whose content is the same as the Protestant Old Testament). The Apocrypha includes such books as the Wisdom of Ben Sira and 1-2 Maccabees. Jerome, the fourth-century translator of the Latin Vulgate, applied the term “apocrypha” to these books, and Protestants continue to use it.

A catchall term for another set of Jewish writings is Pseudepigrapha—a word that originally referred to books written by someone under an assumed or false name (like Enoch or Adam). In more recent usage it has come to designate Jewish texts written in the last centuries B.C.E. and the first century C.E. and not included in other collections like the Apocrypha. The English language version of the Pseudepigrapha edited by James Charlesworth contains more than 50 different texts, including 1–3 Enoch, Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Modern discoveries have added new texts that have enriched our knowledge of ones already known. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most famous example of new texts. They include about 900 fragmentary manuscripts and a few well-preserved ones. The new texts include, for example, works that the Qumran community wrote to regulate its own life and worship. Other Dead Sea Scrolls are partial copies of previously known texts, such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees, but written in their original languages.

In the last 150 years, much scholarship has been devoted to these and other texts. Scholars have produced book-length studies—editions, translations and commentaries—and have packed journals with article-length analyses of more restricted subjects.

George Nickelsburg, one of the finest contributors to the modern study of the Jewish literature outside the Bible, wrote an introduction to this literature and scholarship entitled Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah in 1981 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; a slightly updated paperback version appeared in 1987). Starting at the end of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament period, Nickelsburg arranged his coverage in historical order. For each historical period, he gave an overview and then treated the literature that could be dated to that period. What set the book apart was not only the expertise that Nicklesburg brought to it, but also the comprehensive way in which he covered the ancient literature and so much of the scholarship related to it. The book has served as a standard textbook ever since.

Nickelsburg has now produced a revised version of Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah. In the new edition he cites the “geometric increase in the scholarship” and full publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The new edition, which comes with a CD-ROM, retains the same basic structure as the first. Nickelsburg has modified it by giving “The People at Qumran and Their Predecessors” a chapter of its own and a fuller treatment of Qumran literature.

Nickelsburg has also revised and updated his very helpful introduction The new volume will continue to serve as the main introduction to the literature covered.

James VanderKam is professor of theology and the John A. O’Brien Chair at the University of Notre Dame.


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