At the very least, the Bible is a work of literature. The the Chumash and the Prophets must be seen through this lens, though they somehow seem to be too old and too ‘Biblical’ to be grouped with novels and textbooks. The third section of the Bible, the Writings, however, is genuine literature. These are ancient books, some long, some short, some poetry, some prose, some fiction, some fact, and some downright bizarre. They have made it through over 2,000 years of editing, translating, and interpretation, and remain one of the great collections of human thought.
What are the Writings? They are a somewhat miscellaneous collection of texts of both homiletic (ethical) and historical themes. There is deep emotion, rather sensual poetry, and there are almost interminable genealogies. They range from deep examinations into divine justice and human suffering (Job), to a love poem (Song of Songs), to praise of the pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs). Some originated outside of Israel (Esther, Daniel, the first parts of Ezra and Nehemiah); and some are intricately tied to the land (Ruth, Lamentations). Some delve into the futility of worldly pursuits (Ecclesiastes) and others find transcendent beauty in everything (Psalms).
How did these vastly different books that have no common theme make it into the ‘canon’? This is a rather long story that will probably never be fully clarified. As the case with the Chumash, there are two distinct views on the origins of the Writings. The traditional view attributes many of the writings to well known Biblical personalities. For instance, the book of Job is attributed to Moses. David wrote most of the Psalms. Samuel wrote the book of Ruth. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are classically attributed to Solomon, though the Talmud dates them to the time of King Hezekiah (around 700 BCE). Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. Ezra wrote his own text and much of Chronicles.
The opposing view, that of modern scholars, agrees that some of these books were indeed written during the time of Ezra or shortly after, but that others have later origins, specifically during the period of greatest interaction between the Jews and the Greeks. These scholars claim that the so-called ‘Wisdom Literature’, the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, have a decidedly Greek tone to them. They say that the allusions in the texts to Solomon are nothing more than a fanciful look back at the glorious and distant past. They say the same about the Song of Songs, filled as it is with rather graphic sensual allusions that don’t fit in with normally prosaic tone of the rest of scripture. The book of Job, an exploration into the seemingly pointless sufferings of man, some conclude, is not even Jewish in origin. Because of these anomalies, modern scholars place many of the Writings in the middle centuries of the second temple (about 300 BCE to 150 CE).
The actual finalization, or canonization, of the Tanakh didn’t take place until after the second temple was destroyed. The Talmud records debates about the inclusion of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes into the canon. These debates weren’t resolved until the time of the first and second century teacher, Rabbi Akiva. Exactly why the books in the canon were included, and why others (known as the Apocrypha books) weren’t included, is a matter that will probably never be fully resolved.
The uncertainty surrounding the process of canonization of the Tanakh brings us to a rejected (by the Jews) fourth section of the Bible that has a curious and rather sad history. This section is known as the Apocryphal literature, or Apocrypha. We shall examine one of these works in the section dealing with the second temple period. Apocrypha is a Greek word that means ‘hidden’. Originally, the term ‘hidden’ implied something mysterious, like an esoteric form of knowledge. In time it came to imply a more pejorative meaning – hidden away because there was some question about their authenticity.
The Apocryphal books were all written by Jews of the second temple era. They most likely originated in Israel, though some may have been products of the large and somewhat independent Jewish community surrounding the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt. A definitive listing of the Apocryphal books is impossible to determine owing to differences among the various religions as to what is Apocryphal and what isn’t. The Jewish version consists of the following:
Wisdom of Sirach
A long treatise written during the 2nd century BCE in Hebrew, probably in Israel, and translated into Greek by the author’s grandson in Alexandria. It follows the ‘wisdom’ tradition of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Christians know it by its Greeks name Ecclesiasticus.
Wisdom of Solomon
Another work of the wisdom genre, though of uncertain origin. It deals with issues of reward and punishment, good and evil, praise of wisdom, and the conflict between the Jews and other nations and their religious beliefs. It is probably a product of the 2nd century BCE.
First and Second Books of the Maccabees - Histories of the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks during the middle of the 2nd century BCE and the resulting Jewish kingdom that sprang from it. They were probably written in Israel during the early 1st century BCE. Maccabees I was written in Hebrew. Maccabees II is a condensed version of a longer history written by a Jew named Jason that was written in Greek.
Tobit (or Tobias) - A parable of uncertain origin (though likely from around the 3rd century BCE in Israel) and of uncertain language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek). It is a simple story, likely a parable, with a very Biblical message – God rewards those who do His will.
Judith (Yehudit) - A history of the heroism of a Jewish woman (Judith) who stood out among her fellow Jews by beheading the Syrian general who was oppressing them. The story is likely fiction based on fact, written originally in Hebrew, possibly from around the middle of the 4th century BCE in Israel.
Book of Baruch - A book written in the prophetic tradition and associated with Baruch ben Neriah who was a disciple of Jeremiah. It was probably written around 100 BCE.
Letter of Jeremiah - A text of mysterious origin dealing with the problems of idol worship and immersion into foreign culture. The title was taken from a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jews as they were being led into exile.
Additions to the Books of Daniel and Esther - Additional chapters or chapter extensions to these two late books of the Bible. The Esther additions simply elaborate details of the original story. The Daniel additions consist of three parts: the story of Susannah, the Song of the Three Youths, and Bel and the Dragon.
There was also an alternative version of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, called in Greek Esdras, and a short elaboration on a verse in Chronicles called the Prayer of Manasseh. In addition to these works, there were other second temple era products such as the books of Enoch, Jubilees, two additional books of the Maccabees (though not dealing with the Hasmonean revolt), and several more. All of those listed above were included in the highly influential translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint, produced for the Alexandrian community during the 3rd century BCE. Although it is now believed that this was not the first translation of the Bible, it was the version that was universally accepted by the Greek-speaking Jews and later by the early Christians.
The Septuagint remained the most popular translation for the Greek-speaking Jews at least until the time the temple was destroyed. It lost its superior status only when the blossoming Christian communities adopted it as the basis for their Old Testament canon. The growing rift between the Jews and the Christians was probably the main reason the Jews dropped the Septuagint. In the eyes of the beleaguered Jews it was a Christian book, and thus invalid. New translations were made, both in Greek and Aramaic, which completely replaced the Septuagint. For unknown reasons, these new translations did not include the Apocrypha.
Eventually most Jews forgot about the Septuagint entirely and the Apocrypha that were included in it. Today, an informal survey in a local synagogue of any denomination about the significance of the Septuagint would probably draw blank stares. Most Jews, even the learned, have never heard of it. The same goes for the entire corpus of the Apocrypha, with the possible exception of Maccabees I and II. Many Catholics and Orthodox Christians are familiar with the Apocrypha, but even among them it ranks nowhere near the authority of the Old or New Testament. Protestants do not consider any of the Apocrypha to be part of the canon.
To the Jews (and the Protestants), the Apocrypha are nothing more than interesting historical relics from a bygone age – the field of academic scholars who engage in arcane studies. Hardly anybody today actually studies these works as a means to gain wisdom, inspiration, or spiritual insight. Such is the unfortunate fate of the Apocrypha – the primary intellectual products of a glorious age of Judaism and the greatest window into the spiritual state of the Jews at that pivotal time – hidden away, cast aside, for the sole crime of being adopted and appreciated by religious rivals.
The odd history of the Apocrypha brings up a fascinating and, in some ways, disturbing question: what is the inherent ‘holiness’ of the books of the Bible? If a book is declared ‘holy’ merely by virtue of some historical quirk then what is really ‘holier’ about the canonized books than the Apocrypha? The traditional answer to this question is that the canonized books were written with divine inspiration while everything else was not. But this just begs the question, what exactly determines if a book was written with divine inspiration? Is there something inherent in the content or the style that reveals the holiness of a book’s source? Again, the traditional answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Although there is no absolute scale for determining divine inspiration, there is a substitute parameter for making the determination. That parameter is based on when the book was written.
Jewish tradition makes the surprising claim that the various forms of prophecy ceased with Ezra around a century after the Babylonian exile ended. Anything after that point could not have been written with prophetic spirit. The Apocrypha all came after that time. Of course, academic scholars claim that several of books of the Writings were also written decades or even centuries after Ezra. The traditionalists ignore these claims, insisting that the books of the Tanakh speak for themselves.
Others, however, see no more inspiration in the canonized books than in the Apocrypha. Either they consider the Apocrypha to be equally inspired (the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox position), or they consider the entire corpus to be equally uninspired (the secular position). The Jewish position is right smack in the middle, firmly holding onto the idea of divine inspiration guiding the thoughts of select writings, but rejecting it in others, with the sole criteria for distinguishing one from the other being when the book was written. It’s a little strange and a little sad that things worked out like this. It’s strange because the logic of the decision, if it really was a decision, is not all that compelling. It's sad because these Apocryphal works, these magnificent products of second temple Judaism, have been cast aside from Jewish history like unwanted orphans entrusted to the guardianship of others.
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