Pseudo-Prophets and Real Kings

Pseudo-Prophets and Real Kings July 3, 2015

The independent Jewish kingdom of the second and first centuries BC – the Hasmonean state – had a turbulent and bloody history. That story is extensively commemorated in various pseudo-scriptures, although we can’t be exactly sure about the correspondence between historical events and literary representation. But some of these texts exercised enormous power over later generations of both Jews and Christians.

One very lively field of research these days is the so-called Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, about which I have posted on multiple occasions. Between roughly 200 BC and 200 AD, Jewish and Christian writers created a substantial body of texts that were attributed to Old Testament figures, including Enoch, Ezra, Baruch, Isaiah, and many others. The “pseudo” refers to the fact that these works are falsely titled or attributed, rather than necessarily false. We now have some fine editions and translations of these works. (The website Early Jewish Writings is also a great resource).

Commonly, such works depicted common events in the guise of prophecies by an ancient sage. In the canonical Bible, this is the approach used in the Book of Daniel, which describes the events of the 160s BC in the form of a retroactive prophecy from centuries beforehand. Later generations, though, took the “prophecies” as authentic predictions of future times, and these books did much to shape expectations about messianic and apocalyptic times. Among the most influential of such texts, we find for instance 1 Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Psalms of Solomon.

Sometimes, we can link such works quite precisely to specific named events and individuals. The Psalms of Solomon, for instance, are clearly directed against the Hasmonean dynasty of the first century BC, and they specifically refer to the Roman capture of Jerusalem in 63 BC:

When the sinner waxed proud, with a battering-ram he cast down fortified walls,

And Thou didst not restrain (him).

Alien nations ascended Thine altar,

They trampled (it) proudly with their sandals.

Although this is debated, some scholars attribute another Psalm , 17, to the later capture of the city by Herod and his Roman allies, in 37 BC. That would fit the denunciations of the alien king (Herod was an Idumean). That psalm matters so much historically because it so clearly expresses the belief in a coming Davidic messiah:

Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David,

At the time in which Thou seest, O God, that he may reign over Israel Thy servant

And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers,

And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample (her) down to destruction.

Wisely, righteously he shall thrust out sinners from (the) inheritance,

He shall destroy the pride of the sinner as a potter’s vessel.

With a rod of iron he shall break in pieces all their substance,

He shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth;

At his rebuke nations shall flee before him,

And he shall reprove sinners for the thoughts of their heart.

When the Jerusalem Temple fell in 70 AD, the event was recorded in multiple pseudo-prophecies, including 2 Baruch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Apocalypse of Ezra.

It would be very useful indeed if we could understand all the works in this way, but scholars differ widely on the exact dating of many of these allusive writings, and of the people cited in such cryptic form. Suppose that a given work describes an evil and oppressive high priest who pollutes the Temple. So is this one priest in the 140s BC, or another in the 70s BC? Or might it refer to a completely different story a century after that? Scholars being what they are, we can find any number of candidates for particular characters in these prophecies. Making matters worse, most of these texts have gone through multiple rewritings at different stages in time.

The Hasmonean state that existed from the 160s through the 60s BC was a fertile breeding ground for pseudo-scriptures. Internal conflicts raged throughout its history, sometimes rising to the level of civil wars and insurrections, ands the Hasmoneans brutally suppressed their opponents. The pathological violence associated with that dynasty, especially under Alexander Jannaeus, was at least comparable to anything under Herod or the Romans. Moreover, through most of their rule, the rulers combined the offices of prince/king with that of high priest, so their acts were inevitably framed in a religious context. When the priest-king Alexander massacred thousands of participants at the Feast of Tabernacles, and within the Temple precincts, it was difficult not to present his acts in religious and even cosmic terms.

In the next post, I’ll suggest some of the ways in which the surviving scriptural literature preserves open or veiled allusions to the kings, lords and priests of the time.


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