A Best Case Scenario: The Book of Jubilees (1)

(Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 13 February, 1997)

Perhaps it’s debatable whether Jubilees is a best-case scenario when we consider the problems associated with the OT Pseud. One could argue that a Greek text like Joseph and Aseneth is even better. JA is fully preserved in many Greek MSS, as well as in numerous translations, some early. It also shows little or no sign of Christian tampering. Nevertheless, I stand by Jubilees as my paradigmatic example (at least this year!). Jub is a document written originally in Hebrew, but whose Hebrew text was completely lost until recently, and is fully preserved only in a secondary translation. But fragments of the original Hebrew of Jub were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, so Jub (along with parts of 1 Enoch) is actually extant in earlier copies than almost any other book in our corpus. These Hebrew fragments are extremely important, both because they allow us to spot-check the accuracy of the ancient translations, and they give us a real, physical (although, granted, very murky) context for the use of the work in the Second Temple period. The internal evidence of Jub is also useful as a paradigm for how one might isolate an originally Jewish text, even though it was transmitted by Christians. Two particular areas of historical criticism seem to be illuminated by the evidence of Jub.

(1) Textual Criticism (comparison of the preserved MSS of a work to try to reconstruct the wording of the “autograph”–the first copy of the document.)

Jub provides us with a comparative embarrassment of riches in this category. As I said above, the work is completely preserved only the secondary Ethiopic translation of the Greek translation. But some of the Greek translation (from the original Hebrew) survives in quotations and summaries by later writers whose language was Greek. There are also citations of Jub in Syriac literature that may reflect a lost translation from Hebrew. In addition, about 1/3 of a single MS of a Latin translation (of the Greek) survives. This varied range of material in itself is probably enough to allow us to reconstruct the gist of the original and to isolate (e.g., Christian) interpolations and alterations with a reasonable degree of confidence.

But better still, fragments of about 22 copies of Jub in Hebrew were recovered at Qumran. Even though only about 3% of the total text survives, this material is invaluable because it gives us a random sampling that shows that the later translations were careful, literal, and disinclined to tamper with the text. In the realtime lecture I gave some examples of how the Hebrew fragments also solve many small problems in the translations. Space doesn’t permit a discussion here, but you might want to look at my forthcoming review of DJD XIII in the _Journal of Semitic Studies_ for details.

As I said, the indications are that the Christian tradents tended not to alter the text of Jub, but there is one interesting possible exception to this rule. As far as I can tell from the literature, the implications of this passage have never been fully drawn out. The passage in question is Jub 13:25, which correspond to the story of Abram’s rescue of hostages and subsequent meeting with the mysterious priest-king of Jerusalem, Melchizedek, found in Genesis 14. The rescue and the whole Melchizedek episode clearly appeared in Jub (see the loose ends hanging in 13:25-26), but for some reason the material corresponding to Gen 14:14b-20 has been deleted from the Ethiopic text. Alas, none of the Hebrew MSS from Qumran contain the lost text, or even allow us to reconstruct how long it might have been. Some Ethiopic MSS and the Syriac quotation do fill in the hole, but in conflicting ways that look suspiciously like papering over a problem that was already there. It’s possible that we’re dealing with some sort of accidental, perhaps mechanical, omission of a passage, but a look at the history of the exegesis of the Melchizedek story inclines me to think otherwise.

In Second Temple Jewish tradition (11QMelchizedek) and in later Gnostic Christian literature (NHC X,1–the Melchizedek tractate from Nag Hammadi) Melchizedek appears as an angel or divine being (Christ himself in the latter work). A similar notion may underlie the treatment of Melchizedek in the NT epistle to the Hebrews. In addition, 2 (Slavonic) Enoch 71 tells the story of the posthumous virgin birth of Melchizedek and his assumption to paradise. My suspicion (of which I have no real proof) is that some similar treatment of Melchizedek was found in Jubilees 13, which was deliberately suppressed because it offended the Christian sensibilities of the tradents. If this is correct, it would be the only case of tendentious editing of Jubilees that I’ve heard of.

(2) The question of Jewish or Christian origins. What of our default position that a text like Jub should be regarded as a basically Christian composition in the absence of positive evidence to the contrary? In this case quite a lot of positive evidence–both internal and external–does exist.

The book shows a good deal of interest in an inner-Jewish conflict over which calendar was divinely ordained. Jub (along with 1 Enoch and the Qumran sectarian texts) uses a solar calendar (with a 364 day year based on the [pre-Copernican belief in] the annual orbit of the sun around the earth) and argues for the validity of this calendar (e.g 4:16-19). Other Jewish groups seem to have used a lunar calendar based on the monthly orbit of the moon around the earth (as does the modern Jewish calendar). Other issues in Judaism are also prominent. The importance of circumcision is emphasized (even angels are circumcised–ch. 15). There is strong interest in Sabbath laws (ch. 50). The patriarchs observe Mosaic laws and festivals even before they were revealed to Moses. Overall the group that produced Jub seems to be defining itself as a smaller sect against both gentiles and other Jews. (It would a very interesting and potentially useful exercise to evaluate the worldview of Jub in terms of anthropological sectarian theory–see bibliographical notes below.) Conceivably one could insist that Jub was composed by a Jewish-Christian group, but it would be very strange that in such a polemical work no explicitly Christian issues were to be raised. In any case, on the basis of historical allusions and other factors, James VanderKam and others have argued that Jub was composed sometime in the second century BCE.

The Qumran fragments are extremely important, since they illustrate the importance of working with actual MSS. (I should note here, since I don’t want to get sidetracked with scholarly “sectarian” debates, that the field of Qumran scholarship is in considerable flux at the moment and many elements of the old consensus about the DSS [such as the identification of the sectaries with the Essenes] are now being debated anew. I will try here to stick to assertions that could still be regarded as part of a rough consensus, but I acknowledge that scarcely anything I will say about the Scrolls in this whole course would be accepted by everyone.)

The Hebrew fragments of Jub are part of a Jewish library with strong ties to a sectarian position similar in many ways to Jub. The paleography (analysis of the chronological development of the shapes of the letters) of the Scrolls in general, even if interpreted very broadly, indicates that at least some of the Jub MSS are pre-Christian in date. Jub is also cited in the Qumran Damascus Document, another pre-Christian text. So the context in which the earliest framents of the work were found supports the internal evidence, and the sum total of our data makes it quite certain that Jub is a Jewish rather than Christian document.

Finally, here are some other interesting questions that mostly don’t have clear or easy answers. I hope the listmembers will have some ideas to contribute about them.

1. Why was Jubilees rejected from the later (post 70 CE) Jewish canon? It is probably as old as at least one biblical book (Daniel) and is even written entirely in Hebrew, unlike Daniel. Granted it paraphrases Genesis (some wouldn’t grant this), but 1-2 Chronicles made it into the canon even though it paraphrases 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. Perhaps the rabbis couldn’t stand the blatant sectarian agenda of the work, but Daniel has a sectarian edge to it too and Qohelet/Ecclesiastes must have given at least as much offense as Jub.

2. Why was Jubilees preserved by Christians? The interests of the work seem to revolve around Jewish sectarian issues and conflicting interpretations of the Mosaic law. What did Christians get out of it that made them translate and transmit it?

3. In particular (and a definitive answer to this would require some extremely specialized knowledge), why was Jubilees accepted into the canon of the Ethiopic Church alone? What was the special appeal of this work (along with 1 Enoch) that made it so important for the Ethiopic tradition at the same time the rest of Christendom was losing interest in the work?

I’ll close with a few bibliographical comments.

Those interested in the Melchizedek tradition might want to look at an article I wrote on Melchizedek.

“Melchizedek, Michael, and War in Heaven” in the _Society of Biblical Literature 1996 Seminar Papers_ (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1996) 259-72

I have another article on Melchizedek in press:

Melchizedek: King, Priest, and God,” in _The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth: Challenge or Response_, ed. S. Daniel Breslauer (Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming)

An important work on sectarian theory is:

Bryan R. Wilson, _Magic and the Millenium_ (St Albans: Paladin, 1975)

The use of sectarian theory in the study of the DSS is illustrated by:

Philip F. Esler, “Introverted Sectarianism at Qumran and in the Johannine Community,” in _The First Christians in their Social Worlds: Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation_ (London/New York: Routledge, 1994) 70-91

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

The Book of Jubilees (2)

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 18 February, 1997)

I want to spend a little time in these early lectures looking at literary issues, especially the exegetical trajectories arising from biblical stories that contributed to narratives in the OT Pseud. This lecture looks at a few examples of how the text of Genesis is explained and expanded in Jubilees. Exegetical developments seem frequently to have arisen out of linguistic, narrative, or moral difficulties in the biblical texts and I offer here a summary analysis of three such difficult passages based mostly on earlier scholarly literature on Jubilees. The more detailed analyses can be found in the works by Endres, Kugel, and VanderKam listed at the end of this summary. I will pick up this thread again next week and look at the use of the same three Genesis passages in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.


This narrative appears in Genesis 34 along with commentary and a curse on Simeon and Levi in the blessing of Jacob in 49:5-7. The traditional scholarly interpretation is that it is an old legend about early interactions between the tribes of Israel and the indigenous Canaanites and the fact that Simeon has disappeared as a tribe and Levi has been scattered through the country as individual priests. I sometimes wonder if the story doesn’t have more to do with hostility toward the Samaritans (another despised circumcised group at Shechem) but much depends on when one dates the Genesis narrative. Whatever its original function, the story raises a number of questions for the pious and literal-minded exegete, including:

(1) How could the Israelites make the Shechemites into circumcised brethren and then deceive and kill them?
(2) How could Levi perpetrate such a treacherous act and still found the priestly tribe of the people of God?

Jubilees 30 takes on these questions and answers them as follows:

(1) The first problem is especially embarrassing for Jub, with its emphasis on the importance and sanctity of circumcision (e.g. 16:11-14, 25-27, 33-34–as noted before, even the angels are circumcised.) The solution is forthright, if perhaps less than admirable. The writer simply does his (?) best to suppress all mention of the covenant of circumcision made with the Shechemites in Genesis 34. Hints of the original story remain: the Shechemites were killed “painfully” and Gen 34:14 is quoted grossly out of context in Jub 30:12. But essentially the writer looks the other way and avoids the problem altogether.

(2) The problem of Levi’s treachery is lessened through this strategy, but not really eliminated. The writer of Jub tries to balance things, first by emphasizing the heinousness of the crime. Dinah was only twelve years old when Shechem raped her, barely past her minority according to later Mishnaic law. The story also generates a sermon on the importance of genetic purity for Israel (Jub 30:7-17). The law that priests could not marry gentiles (Lev 21:9) is applied in Jub to all of Israel (30:7) on the basis of Gen 34:14 (Jub 30:12). Finally, the writer makes a virtue of necessity. The bloodthirsty zeal of Levi is commended and rewarded and results in him being chosen for the priesthood (Jub 30:18-20). This passage echoes Num 25:13, which tells how the Aaronid Phineas killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were violating the tent of meeting (evidently by having ritual sex there) and who was also rewarded with a perpetual priesthood.


This telegraphic story of scandal is found in Genesis 35:22 (and note that the LXX adds the variant at the end of the verse “And it appeared evil before him.”) The blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 adds a brief commentary on the deed, complete with a curse on the line of Reuben (vv. 3-4). The original function of the story in Genesis is debatable. Generally it’s argued that it is an explanation of why, although Reuben was listed as firstborn of the sons of Judah, his tribe disappeared without a trace early on. Instead, the tribe of Judah was by far the most important and powerful. This narrative raises disturbing questions too:

(1) What led Reuben to do this vile deed?
(2) Why did Bilhah go along with it?
(3) How did Jacob find out?
(4) According to Lev 22:11 and Deut 22:30, 27:20 anyone who has sex with his father’s wife is cursed (cf. Gen 49) and both parties are to be executed. Why wasn’t the penalty carried out in the case of Reuben and Bilhah? Worse yet, could this story be used to set an example today? Might people guilty of the same sin argue that they should get a break, since one of the partriarchs didn’t receive the full punishment?

This story is retold in Jub 33:1-20 and the writer attempts to make sense of the narrative in Genesis from his own perspective. The four questions are answered as follows:

(1) Reuben spied on Bilhah while she was bathing in private. (The scenario is similar in some ways to the David and Bathsheba story in 2 Samuel 11:2 and one wonders if Jub doesn’t echo the latter passage. On the other hand, the motif of a man getting into or causing trouble as a result of spying on a woman bathing is quite common. Consider, e.g., the story of Actaeon and Diana in Ovid’s _Metamorphoses_ book 3.) Reuben then sneaked into her room at night and raped her while she slept.

(2) Bilhah was entirely innocent. She was bathing *privately* not for show, and when she woke up and realized it was Reuben and not her husband in bed with her she screamed. Evidently she felt herself to be defiled for life thereafter.

(3) Jacob found out when later on he came to sleep with Bilhah and she told him what had happened.

(4) The author of Jubilees was well aware of the Pentateuchal laws (he cited Lev 20:11 and Deut 22:10) but he had something of an out in that they had not been revealed to Moses yet, even though they were of course engraved on the heavenly tablets. Reuben and Bilhah escaped execution because the law was not revealed in their time (even though Bilhah and Jacob appear to know of it!). But from the time of Moses on the law is revealed and there are no excuses anymore–the full penalty is to be applied (33:15-17)!

These two stories are good examples of how the author worked his own agenda and tendenz into the Genesis narrative. The unpunished immoral acts of the patriarchs, such as that of Reuben, are no excuse for the same acts today after the revelation of the Torah. The apparently immoral act of Levi and Simeon was actually virtuous. The author emphasized the significance of circumcision as a sign of the covenant of God with Israel, so he was forced to suppress the fact that the Shechemites were circumcised in the Genesis narrative (although allusions in 30:4, 12 show the he knew the tradition.)


I want to close with a last exegetical trajectory, this one pointed out and explored by Kugel. Its reflex in Jubilees looks relatively trivial, but the motif builds momentum and interest as time goes on and it develops internally and absorbs other legends.

In Gen 50:24-26 Joseph, on his deathbed in Egypt, adjured his brothers to bring his bones back to the promised land when God “visits” them, presumably at the Exodus. This little episode generated an exegetical problem: earlier in the very same chapter Joseph had received permission from Pharaoh to bury his father Jacob in Canaan and Joseph had gone and done so. There seemed to be no problem. Why then, does Joseph imply that his brothers must wait until the Exodus to bury him there?

Jubilees attempts an answer. The writer reports that at the time of Joseph’s death there had been war between Egypt and Canaan and the border had been sealed off, so Joseph knew his burial in sacred ground would have to wait (Jub 46:5-8). So far, so good, but this solution immediately created another problem: why is it that only Joseph’s bones were brought out of Egypt during the Exodus (according to Exod 13:19)? If the border had been sealed off then, what about the bones of the other sons of Jacob? The writer had an answer for this too. Some years after Joseph’s death the border was reopened and the bones of his brothers were taken across and buried in the Cave of Machpelah (the tomb of the patriarchs–Gen 49:29-32) (Jub 46:9-10). But, presumably because of Joseph’s explicit orders, his bones had to wait for the Exodus.

Now it has to be admitted that the treatment of this problem in Jubilees is pretty lame. But the writer is the earliest exegete we have who identified the problem itself and other, later interpreters will exercise great ingenuity in formulating ever more creative and entertaining solutions.

Most of the analysis in this lecture is dependent on three earlier discussions. The story of Dinah is covered in Endres’s book _Biblical Interpretation in the Book of Jubilees_, esp. ch. V. The story of Reuben and Bilhah is treated by Endres (esp. pp. 169-70) and VanderKam in his article “Biblical Interpretation in 1 Enoch and Jubilees,” esp. p.124. Kugel’s discussion of the story of Joseph’s bones is found in ch. 5 of _In Potiphar’s House_. Full bibliographical information for these works can be found in the annotated basic bibliography for DI3216.

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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