Forgotten riches: Jewish world literature from classical antiquity

9 januari 2023


Daniel De Waele is a born teacher and storyteller, where the Bible is concerned. He is also an inspired writer. Full of fire and devotion, he tells how the “book of books” came into being, was read and interpreted, and gradually became surrounded by a range of similar writings. Without pretending to be a scholarly innovator, he summarizes for the reader what has been found and described in leading Bible research. The fact that in the meantime the research continues and constantly produces new insights does not take away from the fact that the interested general reader has an interest in an entertaining and responsible overview. This book provides such an overview.

A not insignificant portion of the biblical writings De Waele discusses not here but, as he writes in his introduction, in his earlier book, The Discovery of the New Testament. There are so many issues associated with the relationship between the New and Old Testaments with related writings that it would be impossible to fit it all into this one book, which is voluminous enough anyway. Still, to understand the author, one would have to take out his other book as well, because for him it is about one world, in which the words of Jesus resonate with those of Moses, Isaiah, Ezra and Hillel, to name but a few.

This is evident, for example, in Chapter 1, which provides a historical overview of the world in which the books of the Bible and related writings originated. Whereas general readers and scholars often think in terms of “the world of the Old Testament” separate from that of the New, De Waele outlines one world. Very important is the attention he gives to the Persian period. Not only did the Old Testament largely originate there, but Judaism took on the basic form it has to this day: a people’s community around service to the Eternal and His Law. The Hellenistic period that followed added Greek language and culture, but did not substantially change that basic form of Judaism. The third main period is dominated by the Romans. With their supreme army, they ruled the world of the Bible and determined the atmosphere during the first centuries of the era, which is particularly noticeable in the New Testament. Finally, the more eastern empires are discussed, the Parthian and Middle and Late Persian empires and their influence on the Jews and Christians who lived there. The Babylonian Talmud in particular bears witness to this.

In the chapters that follow, the author gets to what can be considered the core of his book: the origin of the various parts of the Old Testament and the gradual formation of the canon. All sorts of tables and overviews show that this is where he is most at home as a scholar. Even with the detail involved, however, his narrative tone remains engaging and uncluttered. The same is true of the further chapters, in which he introduces the reader to the translations and versions of the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigraphies, or para-biblical Jewish writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature and Greek-language Jewish literature. It is a lively introduction to the multicolored world of the Bible that deserves many devoted readers.

Peter J. Tomson
guest professor Catholic University of Leuven
former professor Faculty of Protestant Theology Brussels
joint general editor Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum


“And finally, my son, this further warning: there is no end to the number of books that are written, and much reading dulls the body,” so Ecclesiastes warns his readers. Actually, as he writes elsewhere, simply all things in life were inexpressibly tiring, but book-making and reading were not the least of them. On the other hand, it did not stop him from writing a little book himself anyway; it was even included in the Bible. But from the looks of it, other Jews never took much notice of Preacher’s heartfelt advice. It is amazing the enormous amount of religious literature a small nation like Israel has written together, in ancient times alone. The whole world can feast on it. The purpose of this book, added to many others despite Preacher’s warning, is to chart that religious literature of ancient Judaism.

However, writing one book on ancient Jewish religious literature means choosing from the abundant wealth of writings. What to cover and what not to cover? Now Jewish religious life in the first centuries around the beginning of our era was incredibly diverse, much more diverse than contemporary Judaism. I have tried to make this pluralism visible through a well-considered choice of books. Thus the reader not only gets an impression of what kind of books were written, but also of the many different interpretations of the Torah offered by all kinds of Jewish groups at that time. For the Torah or by extension the Tanakh – for Christians the Old Testament – as divine revelation naturally formed the heart, the center, of all later translations, commentaries, retellings and all kinds of digressions. I have highlighted one or a few representative works from the most important various Jewish movements each time. This gives the reader a nice overview of what was offered on the religious market at that time in terms of books and beliefs. One group of Jewish writings is missing here: those of the New Testament. Indeed, those books too were written by Jews (and an occasional proselyte). But because of the separate paths taken by Jews and Christians, they are not usually presented as “Jewish” writings. I have discussed them in another book. Nor is what is covered here the ‘New Testament apocrypha’ such as Gnostic gospels or apocryphal Acts and epistles. These are not Jewish or Judeo-Christian, but rather Pagan Christian works, and are commentaries on or versions of New Testament writings.

This book begins with an overview of the history of the Jewish people. It covers the time from the exile in 600 B.C. to the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 A.D. Tracing this long path of the Jewish people is a fascinating adventure in itself, but here the intention is to situate the various books discussed later in that history. After all, all these writings did not come into existence in a vacuum; they are repeatedly a response to events. Throughout history, believers have searched for what Torah and Tanakh had to say in their own times. To this end, they were interpreted, retold, supplemented. In this first chapter we look at which books came into being where and when, and in response to what. We also mention here, by the way, some pagan Greek and Latin writers who are important for reconstructing history.

A second, short chapter deals with the more technical aspects of writing. We deal with the languages used: the different types of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, the scripts used (paleo-Hebrew, Assyrian script) and the way people wrote (with or without spaces, the use of punctuation). The manufacture of papyrus and parchment, scroll and codex are also discussed. Then the importance of the scribes is explained, they were the learned “scribes” who committed sacred texts to papyrus or parchment. Finally, something is said about how those sacred books were created, grown and edited.

A third chapter discusses the books that are central to all Jewish literature and make up Tanakh. An entire book could easily be written about this, but it has been done many times before, so I can refer to that. Only a somewhat brief overview of Tanakh is given here. Indeed, it is not the actual subject of this book, which deals with later Jewish literature. But of course something must also be said about that on which that later literature builds. Therefore we give due attention to Tanakh, to its different types of books and forms of literature, sometimes comparing it with other ancient Eastern literature. Finally, we devote a few paragraphs to the canonization of Tanakh.

Various translations and versions arose from that Tanakh. Now translation always means interpretation. Sometimes this interpretation is limited, as in the Septuagint, the Greek translation, sometimes interpretations are more radical, as in the Targums , Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible text. There are several Targoems, and some follow the Bible text more or less faithfully, others paraphrase rather freely. We will look at some examples. Remarkably, the Septuagint contains more books than the Hebrew Bible: the so-called apocryphal or deuterocanonical books (Protestant and Catholic designation). These are books that were not included in the Protestant and Jewish canon, but were included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. We look at not all, but some of these books that are representative of the various literary genres therein. But besides translations, there are also different “versions” of the Hebrew Bible text itself. For example, there is the Samaritan Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), which is the version of the Torah that the Samaritans used and which differs in many ways from the text known to us. The latter is called the Masoretic text – it was provided by Masoretes, Jewish scholars, and is the basis of our modern translations. By the way, the Septuagint is a translation of yet another Hebrew text type that itself differs from the Masoretic and Samaritan versions. Each time I give some concrete examples of those differences so that the reader can see for himself exactly where the differences exist and how important or unimportant they are.

The fifth chapter deals with a number of pseudepigraphic works; as many as seven out of more than sixty. These are religious books that were often published under a pseudonym; one thus gave them the authority of earlier patriarchs such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses and others. Again, an attempt is made to give a type example of each genre. Those genres are: retellings of the Bible, additions to the Bible, Wisdom Proverbs, a philosophical treatise, an example of the genre of the Testaments, an Apocalypse and a mystical writing. Especially here a huge range of views, beliefs, conceptions and insights unfolds. Here and there we find a link to New Testament writings.

The great discovery of the 20e century was undoubtedly that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We look at what was found there. These are first of all Bible manuscripts (again, we come across the different versions), then a number of apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, with also some completely new pseudepigraphic writings. But above all: a lot of books were found written by the religious community itself to whom all those books belonged. That religious community we should probably identify with the Essenes, and so we get to know these rather sectarian believers better through their writings. That is what we will pay most attention to. We will look at an example of a pesher (Bible interpretation), two order lines (how did cultists behave, what did they believe), and some hymns in which we get a taste of their personal devotion.

Rabbinic literature is discussed in the seventh chapter. We first explain what the “lore of the fathers” means. This was later recorded in the Mishna and Tosefta, and even later was provided with seas of commentaries in the Talmud (Palestinian and Babylonian); it is a very voluminous literature. Some midrashim – that is, all kinds of stories as well as rules of law – are also given due attention. Rabbinic literature is not easy. Often they are precipitations of (fictitious) conversations between rabbis, but they are rather compressed and somewhat difficult for outsiders to understand. Nevertheless, we will give a few examples and explain how that works: rabbis discussing with each other. Now the rabbinic literature is of somewhat later date than the other books discussed in this book. Nevertheless, I wanted to give them a place, simply because they are important, although I do not go beyond 600 A.D. In the Middle Ages, the production of books and commentaries continued, but that takes us too far. On the other hand, it is also true that certainly the Mishna, and some of the older text units included in the Talmud (baraita), go back to sources from the 1e and 2e centuries A.D. In that sense, then, they do fit into this book.

A final chapter deals with some Greek-language Jewish works. However, unlike the previous books discussed, they are not religious works; they are not works that claim divine authority. A first book is a text for a stage performance. It is a poetic adaptation of the Exodus story, and the only work that has survived of all (including pagan) Hellenistic dramas – in part, that is. The works of two other authors are much more important: those of Philo of Alexandria and of Flavius Josephus, both from the 1e century A.D. They are works in which the later rabbis had no interest, but which were preserved by Christians. And there are many of them: of Philo no less than 35 works were preserved, of Josephus about four, but one of them again consists of twenty books. The works of Philo are mainly exegetical works: they explain the Torah in an allegorical way – church fathers were fond of that. Josephus is important for reconstructing the history of Judaism. In his largest, twenty-volume work, he wrote history from Adam to his own time. About half of his book is a retelling of biblical material, but for Roman ears – somewhat censored, in other words. In the second half, he describes later history.

This book, the book you have in your hands, is intended for the interested layman, but also for those embarking on theological studies this book forms a handy introduction to the subject. Prior knowledge is hardly required, and difficult things are explained in a clear manner. A lot of examples make the treated matter concrete. The goal is for the reader to gain insight into the many religious books of the Jewish people, as well as the great religious diversity that existed within Judaism in the centuries around the beginning of our era. In addition, it also provides a nice background against which the books of the New Testament, which actually also belong to Jewish literature, will be better understood.

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