Methodological Issues for Studying the OT Pseudepigrapha (1997)

(Summary of a lecture by J. Davila on 11 February, 1997)

Some of the issues raised by Bob Kraft in his important article on the Pseudepigrapha in early Christianity should be highlighted here, since he brings out some of the serious methodological problems that have to be faced when one is dealing with the OT Pseud. So I will use ideas in his article (which I assume everyone has read) as a launching point for my own commentary.

(1) First, there is the importance of comparative linguistic analysis. The place scholars have to start is the actual MSS (see no. 2 below) in our possession and the language they use. The language may give us important clues for establishing the dates and geographical origins of the MSS, and eventually even of the documents they contain. So, for example, we must try to locate the Aramaic, Greek, and Ethiopic languages of the MSS of 1 Enoch in the larger context of what we know (if anything) about the contemporary diachronic and synchronic dialectology of each language. Since this class deals only with translations, this point won’t have much impact on our work, but it is good to keep it in mind. There is a great deal of productive research–and a good many dissertations–still to be done in this area.

(2) Then there is the importance of direct study of the original MSS. Serious scholarly work on ancient literature must always keep in mind the actual condition, contents, and nature of individual MSS. Working only with eclectic critical editions (which in themselves are extremely important and useful) leaves out an important dimension of historical analysis. I myself have worked with both photographs and the actual fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and with microfilms of medieval Hebrew MSS and have often found that crucial information resides on the MSS themselves, some of which is only visible with the naked eye. I don’t have space here to give all the examples I gave in the class session, but I’ll mention just one. The reconstruction by Albert Pietersma of the papyrus fragments of the previously lost book of Jannes and Jambres is based not only on the content of the Greek text of the fragments, but also very much on the quality of the papyrus, the codicology of the codex, and other subtle hints that come only from close examination of the photographs and the fragments themselves. No doubt there will be more to say on this when we come to this particular document later in the semester.

(3) Even today there is a general tendency in OT Pseud studies to assume a work was written in a Jewish rather than a Christian context if (A) it doesn’t have obvious Christian elements or even (B) if the Christian elements that are there can be excised without great violence to the text overall. This approach is extremely problematical, because most of the OT Pseud were transmitted by Christians for long periods and are extant only in late Christian MSS. THEREFORE IT IS METHODOLOGICALLY PREFERABLE TO BEGIN WITH THE DEFAULT POSITION THAT A GIVEN TEXT WAS PRODUCED BY CHRISTIANS UNTIL IT IS ESTABLISHED OTHERWISE BY POSITIVE EVIDENCE. This approach may seem draconian, but I agree with Kraft that it is the most defensible one. Even if the Christian elements in a document turn out to be secondary, this way they won’t be given short shrift.

Now all this is not to deny that some documents clearly are entirely Jewish. 3 Enoch is written in Hebrew and was transmitted only in Jewish circles until modern times. The Book of the Watchers was passed on very faithfully in Greek and Ethiopic translations by Christians. (The Aramaic fragments from Qumran establish this.) Other Jewish documents were interpolated or altered slightly in Christian transmission, but their original Jewish form can be recovered with a good deal of confidence. 4 Ezra is a case in point. The original Hebrew and the Greek translation (except for one quotation) are lost and the work survives in Latin, Armenian, and other secondary translations. Christian material has been added to the beginning and end of the work, and details have been added or suppressed by Christian editors, but judicious textual and redactional criticism does allow us to recover what is essentially the original document. On the other hand (as we shall see) the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs have a great deal of Christian material scattered throughout that cannot be disentangled from a putative Jewish substratum with any degree of confidence.

In his article, Kraft shows that early Christians could transmit texts very faithfully. For example the Septuagint (LXX–the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) was altered very little by its Christian copyists. An even better example is the vast corpus of Greek biblical philosophy produced by the first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria. Again, his works were transmitted only in Christian circles, yet there is little evidence that the text was tampered with. On the other hand, some Christian copyists felt free radically to revise and interpolate earlier works. Kraft’s example of the letters of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch in the early second century CE, is a good one. These have come down to us in three recensions, one of which expands the text and even adds spurious letters to the corpus, while another abbreviates the original letters. Only the “middle recension,” like little bear’s porridge, is just right. We could add that the Dead Sea Scrolls show that Jewish copyists could feel just as free to revise: they include expanded and reworked biblical texts (4QpaleoExodm and the Reworked Pentateuch) and different editions of sectarian works such as the Community Rule and the War Rule.

(4) Another very important point raised by Kraft and worth belaboring is that texts produced by Christians can sound entirely Jewish. Not everything has to be in every text and a Christian writer may leave out mention of specifically Christian doctrines either because the writer is intentionally composing a work as if it were written in the Old Testament period, or even because has other concerns at the moment that pertain to ethical or other issues relevant to both Judaism and Christianity. An oft cited example of this sort of thing is the Epistle of James in the NT. With two simple emendations (which are nothing compared to the violent surgery some texts have been subjected to) we can produce a purely Jewish document. First, remove the phrase “and of the Lord Jesus Christ” in 1:1. This is an obvious gloss, since the next sentence addresses the homily to the twelve tribes in the diaspora. Second, delete all or part of 2:1 to get rid of the only other reference to Jesus. Voila! A Jewish homily.

Now I don’t seriously believe that an original substrate to the Epistle of James can really be recovered this way. In fact, a more sensitive reading of the text makes that conclusion all but impossible, since the writer seems to be familiar with a version of the Sermon on the Mount. My point (and Kraft’s too, I think) is just that the facile use of emendation can lead us to specious conclusions all too easily. So there is every possibility that works like (to take an example we’ll be covering later in the term) the Testament of Job could well have been written by a Christian and we must discount this possibility only after the most careful scrutiny.

(5) Finally, an important and often neglected question is the role of a given work in early Christian thought. Why was this work composed? Or if its non-Christian origin is not in doubt, why did Christians select it for their libraries while Jews rejected it? What was it about Philo, Josephus, or 1 Enoch that was so attractive? What variety of Christianity would have liked a particular document? Or contrawise, why did the Ethiopic, Coptic, Syrian, etc. Church choose to transmit a particular work while other Christian groups ignored it or lost interest in it? There is a potential goldmine of information to be gathered about the history of Christianity in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages by careful attention to this sort of question.

I also want to say just a little about literary approaches to the OT Pseud. My major influence here is Professor James Kugel, whose book on the history of exegesis of the Joseph story (_In Potiphar’s House_) has been noted in the course bibliography (section 0.3) and is recommended reading for this course (especially the last chapter with its nine methodological principles). It deals with how the biblical texts were interpreted in rabbinic literature and other ancient works. I also worked with Kugel as a teaching fellow for his undergraduate course “The Bible and It’s Intepreters” when I was a graduate student in the mid-80s. The main literary interest in my course has to do with understanding how the writers of the OT Pseud interpreted the Hebrew Bible for their own purposes, and Kugel’s approach serves as something of an inspiration for what I want to do. I find the first of his nine principles particularly useful: that ancient expansions and interpretations of the Bible often have a point of departure in some peculiarity of the biblical text itself. More on this later. I use many of Kugel’s ideas a methodological guide to my own exegesis and will cite him sometimes, but he is NOT to be held responsible for any of my interpretations.

In the bibliography I also note Professor Steven Fraade’s book _Enosh and His Generation_, an excellent survey of the interpretation of the brief biblical mention of Enosh (Gen 4:26) in subsequent Jewish and Christian literature. There are many other literary studies available–I have picked these two in particular because I’ve found them especially helpful in my own work.

The third item in section 0.3 of the bibliography is _The Legends of the Jews_ by Louis Ginzberg. This is a massive and comprehensive compilation of exegeses of the biblical narrative in rabbinic literature and other ancient Jewish and quasi-Jewish texts, including much of the OT Pseud known in Ginzberg’s time. It is the first place to look when exploring the ancient exegesis of the biblical text.

This lecture concludes the introductory portion of DI3216. For the next two weeks (four sessions/lectures) I will lecture on two specific texts–Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs–in order to flesh out some of the principles and issues that I’ve raised thus far. After that we will continue with discussion of other documents supported by abstracts of student essays and input from the class on points raised in the realtime seminar.

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

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