"Parabiblical Literature" in Early Judaism and Early Christianity

Religious Studies 525 (Spring 2006) Robert A. Kraft, University of Pennsylvania

[Much of the following material was created for RelSt 735 and the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins in 2002-2003; see also PSCO 2003-2004]


Some QuickLinks


One of the ways in which students of Judaism in the Greco-Roman period have attempted to identify and describe its contours (varieties, continuities and discontinuities) is through examining the mass of literature that has been preserved, often through Christian transmission, or through archaeological good fortune (Dead Sea Scrolls), or in Jewish circles.  In this seminar we will focus on the “parabiblical” texts (sometimes called “pseudepigrapha,” among other terms) – that is, writings that are similar to what became “Bible” for mainstream Judaism and Christianity, but were not included in that collection (e.g. Enochic writings, Jubilees, Testaments of the Patriarchs, War Scroll, TempleScroll, Sibylline Oracles).  The texts will be studied in English translations, many of which are available online..

The problem in a (large) nutshell: our terminology assumes certain historical developments and related perceptions regarding "biblical" literature, while the materials that have given rise to the need for clearer labels sometimes appear to be in some senses accepted by some author or group as "authoritative," but unrelated to, or in other ways not dependant on what came to be accepted as the "biblical" categories or even on a concept of a special closed collection of authoritative writings. How can we avoid or overcome "the tyrrany of canonical assumptions" in attempting to identify and study these materials, as well as the other materials that seem more clearly to depend on (often being derivitive of) "biblical" works or genres?

Some major collections of relevant material

In search of definitions and/or alternate terminology

    Some examples of current labels

    "Parabiblical" currently seems to me to be the least unsatisfactory designation (including my own proposed: "scripture/scriptural vestiges" -- vestiges of scripture): "para" as alongside of, developing in parallel (not necessarily subsequent to; sometimes possibly even prior to and/or extending beyond), with "biblical" as the anachronistic terminological point of departure (see especially Talmon and Reeves). Even more useful would be a general term to identify both "biblical" and "parabiblical" materials as related phenomena arising in Jewish (and Christian) antiquity prior to the firming up of "canonical" anthologies ("bible"), enabling us to look at such developments as Deuteronomy, Jubilees, and the Temple Scroll through the same scholarly spectacles, without making assumptions about priority or presumed authority.

Related aspects of the problem:

Ancient claims of possible interest (secondary references):

1. References to "lost" or suppressed writings associated with respected persons or groups 2. Other References to more or less known and authoritative materials

Formula quotations from non-canonical works treated as authoritative (see especially Resch):

Specific writings for closer consideration (primary sources):

Special problems relating to Rabbinic Jewish Literature:

1. "Oral Torah" as a "parabiblical" category?
       Indicators of authority -- persons, schools, "bat kol"
2. Written forms of "Oral Torah" -- recording and development
       Mishna as authoritative extension of scripture concept, and base for further development
       Tannaitic variations and alternatives? Tosefta, Baraita ("paraMishnaic"?)
3. Authoritative "Completions" from Babylon and Palestine -- the Talmudim
4. Uses of the various stages of authoritative "oral law" now written and supplemented
       E.g. Responsa literature? Impact on community worship/liturgy?

[updated 08 May 2003, RAK]

Addendum: PSCO 40.1 Discussion (10 October 2002)

In connection with Annette Reed's presentation --
  -Are there ancient discussions of situations such as Chronicles as rewritten bible within the bible? (see also the synoptic gospels!) At what point does any of it become recognized as "scriptural"? Is it helpful to attempt to plot a continuum along which various fixed items can be identified, from "pre-scriptural" material through various formulations and reformulations to "post-scriptural" iterations (e.g. with Genesis-like material)?
  -Connection with liturgical usage seems important to some witnesses (e.g. Athanasius), less so to others (e.g. Jerome); this underlines the importance of community context in the discussions; the "liturgical perspectives" regarding this subject are complex, since not everything considered "scriptural" seems to have been used liturgically (e.g. Ezra-Nehemiah or Chronicles in Judaism; Revelation in Christianity), and liturgical use can even serve to isolate works in some situations (e.g. Esther at Purim) -- "authoritative" can have a range of meanings and functions in the life of communities (see further below), where exposure to "texts" is often a matter of hearing rather than reading, and what is heard is often determined by considerations other than what is considered "scriptural."
  -Do the rabbis ever discuss issues of authorship as important for scriptural authority? Nothing obvious.
  -Does Sid Leiman's distinction between "inspired" and "canonical" help clarify things? Can items move from "canonical to "inspired" as well as vice versa?
  -The presence of various idiosyncratic approaches to these questions in antiquity is apparent!

In connection with Robert Kraft's presentation (see above), and overall --
  -Note such interesting situations as the Diatessaron, where Tatian must have recognized the gospels as scriptural before he wove them together, and what he produced in turn became scriptural for the users.
  -"Parabiblical" in the sense of "alongside" the biblical materials seems adequate for at least a large portion of the problematic material; but can it serve for the material which has little or no "biblical" connection?
  -Is precision of terminology and its general applicability really possible in such a complex body of materials? Perhaps not, but at least attempts at consistent and circumspect treatment should be encouraged, with close attention to the perspectives of the historical participants taking precedence over our inadequacies of expression.

(RAK notes, 10 October 2002)


PSCO 40.4 Minutes (13 March 2003 [Princeton]; RAK notes)

1. Bill Adler paper (get copy; see PSCO web material)

2. Ben Wright summary of article on Sirach in Sanhedrin 100
-note magnet effect of the name "ben Sira," picking up other unidentifiable materials, as well as loss of precise attribution in some identifiable quotations!
-complications are rampant at both the textual level (the book of Sirach itself) and with reference to things attributed to "ben Sira"
-explanations appealing to "faulty memory" or "careless citation" do not satisfy

3. Martha Himmelfarb response
-rich and interesting presentations of detailed evidence and probabilities
(RAK on "historians shouldn't shave with Ockham's razor" quite applicable here)
-"canon consciousness" first establishes what is acceptable, which opens the door to reintroduction of other things that can shed light on the canonical
-Rabbinical approach to scriptural situation may be less complicated in that it does not need to take NT into account
-How one acquires and attributes information -- e.g. as a child, hearing stories of Abraham and the idols as though biblical -- is quite complex
-role of anthologies is not always recognized, where biblical can be mixed with all sorts of other stuff, especially as time goes on
-despite striking differences between Jubilees and Sirach, similar issues of transmission, anthologization, are also striking!
-how do we imagine our sources encountering such materials? Probably monastic libraries in some Christian circles, but what about in Judaism?

4. Discussion:
-Sirach MS C (Cairo Geniza, 9-11th c) organizes excerpts from Sirach topically (Wright)
-collections of various sorts appear to have been widespread
-"chronicles" are sometimes composed of bare excerpts, and even get called by such names as "scholia," "eklogia," "synopsis," "epitome," "catenae," etc. (Adler)
-the desire to invent "filler" to give coherence to excerpts, especially where problems of various sorts are recognized, is noteworthy
-also the tendency to "sloppiness" in making ascriptions (e.g. Jubilees materials get called "Genesis" as well as "Little Genesis," often vague formulae occur such as "the same source says," where the name of the source is lost; Adler)
-would "liturgical" use of biblical and other material provide some sort of control over usage? But audiences often don't pay that close attention, on the one hand, although the producers and performers might be more selfconscious
-knowing the overall context of the transmission of learning in the various circles (e.g. Rabbinic, Chronographic) would be very important
-the recently published Catena material is especially revealing on several fronts (Adler)
-at the level of complete texts (not excerpts), Sirach well illustrates the close relationship of "textual" and "authoritative" (scriptural) as well as the problem of "which text?" (Hebrew versions 1 and 2, Greek 1 and 2, etc.; Wright)
-terminologically, does "recension" really work for such materials -- does it imply more systematization than is apparent? (Wright)
-some uses of Jubilees material are dictated by warnings (don't use this material or information, which is false or unauthoritative -- see especially Glycas in 12th century representing a very circumspect stance with regard to non biblical things), but more positively we find attention to chronology and to problems in the narratives often call forth use of the "extrabiblical" information (Adler)
-it would be interesting and valuable to note what was going on in Muslim circles at the same time (collections of sources, etc.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY of Recent Discussions

Esther G. Chazon, et al., eds., Pseudepigraphic Perspectives: The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Proceedings of the [Second] International Symposium of the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature, 12-14 January 1997.

Esther G. Chazon, Devorah Dimant & Ruth A. Clements, eds. Reworking the Bible: Apocryphal and Related Texts at Qumran: Proceedings of a Joint Symposium by the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature and the Hebrew University Institute for Advanced Studies Research Group on Qumran, 15-17 January, 2002 . Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 58. Leiden : Brill, 2005.

Brooke, George J. 2000 "Rewritten Bible," in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam, 777-81 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Joshua Levinson, "Dialogical Reading in the Rabbinic Exegetical Narrative"  Poetics Today 2004 25(3):497-528 (with extensive bibliography)

Steven D. Fraade, "Rewritten Bible and Rabbinic Midrash as Commentary," 59-78 in Current Trends in the Study of Midrash, ed Carol Bakhos (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 106; Brill 2006).

Moshe J. Bernstein, "'Rewritten Bible': A Generic Category Which Has Outlived its Usefulness?" Textus 22 (2005) 169-196.