Outside the Bible

Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture


Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture

Edited by Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel and Lawrence H. Schiffman
(Lincoln: university of Nebraska Press and Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2103), 3 vols., 3361 pp., $275 (hardcover)
Reviewed by James H. Charlesworth

By the strangest quirk of fate respecting literature that I know of, large numbers of writings by Jews were completely lost from the transmitted Jewish heritage. These documents stem roughly from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Not only the so-called Pseudepigrapha, but even such important and extensive writings as those by Philo and Josephus have not been part of the Jewish inheritance from its past; these were preserved and transmitted by Christians. It was rather only in the backwash of the Renaissance that Jews began to encounter Philo and Josephus. A 16thcentury Italian rabbi, Azariah de Rossi, in a book called Me-or Enayim (“Light for the Eyes”), inaugurated this rediscovery of the “lost” literature. 1

These words were published in 1983 by my friend Samuel Sandmel of Hebrew Union College. Long ago we worked together for many years to help Christian leaders appreciate Judaism.

The three volumes under review here bring together the “large numbers of writings by Jews” that were “lost from transmitted Jewish heritage.” They are fundamental reading for everyone interested in a fuller perception of the origins of Judaism and Christianity and for reflections on possible avenues into the future.

In many ancient Jewish and Christian communities, these documents were considered sacra scriptura (works containing God’s word). But they were ultimately not included in what became much later a closed canon. Eventually there were only 24 books in the Hebrew Bible (or 39 as collected in the Protestant Old Testament) and 27 in the New Testament.

Early Jewish writings are separated into various collections. Today we have more than a thousand documents from caves near the Dead Sea. More than 65 documents are now included in the so-called “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.” At least 13 are in the “Old Testament Apocrypha.” Early Jewish compositions and prayers are found in the Jewish magical papyri and in the writings of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Many early Jewish inscriptions, scattered in diverse volumes, also disclose Jewish daily life and aspirations before 200 C.E.
In their original contexts, the Apocrypha were not “hidden writings,” and the Pseudepigrapha were not “false writings.” As we seek to understand the world of Second Temple Judaism, we must realize that such concepts and categories as “canonical,” “extra-canonical,” “canon,” “orthodox Judaism” and “Hellenistic Judaism” (as a geographical concept) are anachronistic and misleading. These terms are judiciously avoided by the editors and authors of these volumes.

The numerous Jewish groups and sects are wisely not isolated for discussion in these three volumes. The Samaritans are the one exception. Ancient Jewish authors portrayed the Samaritans as “foolish people” 2 and “wild boars.” 3 In contrast, they are also referred to as “Jews” 4 and “children of Israel.” 5 Too many historians have either excluded the Samaritans in their description of Second Temple Judaism or assumed that all Jews revered Jerusalem as the only place in which to worship. In fact, Jewish temples existed at Casiphia in Babylonia (see Ezra 8:17), at Elephantine 6 and Leontopolis 7 in Egypt, at Lachish 8 and Beersheva in the Land of Israel, 9 at Antioch in Syria 10 and at ‘Araq el-Emir 11 and other locations in Transjordan. It is even conceivable that some Qumranites imagined their Community was a temple; some of them certainly expressed the belief that angels worshiped with them in the Ya?ad (Community).

Some readers may ask why Outside the Bible was chosen as the title of this collection of texts. After all, no Bible existed in antiquity and thus nothing could be “outside” of it. Jews knew documents only in scrolls that contained one or more of the documents eventually “canonized.”
The choice of title can be defended only as long as we stress that there was no closed canon until long after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Before this, some Jewish groups considered some of these so-called “extra-canonical” compositions, like the Temple Scroll, as sacra scriptura. Moreover, among some Jewish groups, works eventually excluded from the canon were honored more than some books later included in the Hebrew Bible.

While most scholars will tend to agree that most Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora “shared a collective religious and cultural identity centered on the Scriptures … which became a unifying force within Judaism” (p. xvi), scholars will debate the claim that prophecy “was superseded.” It certainly was neither superseded within the Essene communities nor within the Palestinian Jesus Movement.

Many experts will wish that some very important compositions had not been excluded from this collection. Readers would have benefited from excerpts of the Sibylline Oracles and the full Amidah, since it is an edited version of a central prayer in the synagogue liturgy to this day but originated before 70 C.E.

Essays worthy of special mention: Louis H. Feldman’s concise and erudite assessment of Josephus’s Tendenzen and James L. Kugel’s stunningly clear and brilliant argument for an original Hebrew version of the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs. Leading specialists on the documents included are usually chosen, and they have focused on pertinent issues to help us all read the compositions with insight. Overall, this publication is a gold mine. The series is beautifully printed and bound. On display are the creative geniuses of Second Temple Judaism who have excited both Jews and Christians. The insights shared in the commentaries are superb. Rabbi Azariah de Rossi, cited at the end of the quotation that opens this review, would be pleased. Unfortunately, these three volumes are both expensive and heavy, which may prevent many from purchasing them.



1. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), pp. xi–xii.

2. Wisdom of Ben Sira 50:26.

3. 1 Enoch 89:72; commentary on pp. 1417, 1426.

4. 2 Maccabees 6:2; commentary on p. 2852.

5. 4 Baruch 1:1; commentary on p. 2664.

6. Bezalel Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-cultural Continuity and Change, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011); see B19 (p. 141), B21 (p. 150), B22 (p. 152).

7. Josephus, The Jewish War 1 and 7 and Antiquities of the Jews 12, 13, 20.

8. Yohanan Aharoni, Investigations at Lachish: The Sanctuary and the Residency (Tel Aviv: Gateway Publishers, 1975).

9. Yohanan Aharoni, Beer-Sheba I: Excavations at Tel Beer-Sheba, 1969–1971 (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, Institute of Archaeology, c. 1973).

10. Josephus, War 7.

11. Nancy L. Lapp, The Excavations at Araq el-Emir (Ann Arbor, MI: American Schools of Oriental Research; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983).

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature in the department of Biblical studies at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project.

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