In Many Tongues

In Many Tongues October 3, 2014

Over the past year, I have been making heavy use of a magnificent scholarly resource called Outside the Bible, which presents new translations of apocryphal and non-canonical works related to the Hebrew Bible, with extensive commentaries. The full reference is Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel and Lawrence H. Schiffman, eds., Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013). The whole collection is a massive three volume work, running to 3,200 pages (and it’s actually well worth its $275 price tag).

I assume that I will be mining this book for the rest of my career, but I would make one point here that initially surprised me. The many texts collected here offer an immense wealth of information on Jewish history between roughly 300 BC and 300 AD, and thus on the origins of Christianity. Some of the texts, such as 1 Enoch, exercised a profound influence on those stories. These are Jewish works that shaped Judaism. In a striking number of cases, though, they did not survive in a Jewish context and had to be rediscovered from the Christian world. Usually, that meant taking works originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic and translating them back from the languages of Christian churches, and by no means only Greek and Latin.

Early Rabbinic Judaism was very concerned about Jews wandering off into heterodoxy, and laid down strict rules against using marginal or secular works. One famous rule is found in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10.1, which lists those who have no place in God’s kingdom: he who maintains that resurrection cannot be proved from the Torah, [one who maintains that] the Torah was not divinely revealed, and an Epicurean. R. Akiba says: Also, one who reads in the “outside books.” Jews appear to have been very successful not just in prohibiting those outside books, but in utterly destroying all copies – at least, within their own community.

Usually though, those texts appealed to Christians, who preserved them long after they had been excluded from synagogues. I have for instance described the enduring impact of writings attributed to Enoch. In time, churches themselves became much stricter about the works they tolerated, and they themselves suppressed anything they saw as heterodox. The Christian world, though, was extremely diverse, and no single body had the authority to enforce such edicts for all times and places. What a Pope said in Rome, or a Patriarch in Constantinople, had little impact on what believers read in Armenia or Ethiopia.

Hence, works that no longer existed either in Judaism or in the Christian West continued to be read and even canonized elsewhere, until they were rediscovered by scholars in modern times.

I won’t go into detail about the story of survival, of losing and finding, but I note for instance the recovery of 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees from the Ethiopian Church, which canonized both works. The medieval Slavonic church was an incredibly rich archive for such texts which had ceased to exist in any other culture or language, and which have been rediscovered over the past two centuries.

One of the greatest figures in Jewish intellectual history was Philo of Alexandria. It is startling then to read some of his texts in Outside the Bible, which are translated from the Armenian in which they happen to survive!

For scholars, these lessons are alarming. To reconstruct the world of the Second Temple, Hebrew and Aramaic are essential – but do brush up on your Ethiopian Ge’ez, your Armenian, and your medieval Church Slavonic. Outside the Bible shows us that such polymaths actually do exist.





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