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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Jewish Attitudes to the Books of the Apocrypha.

1.

The late Second Temple period, when the apocrypha were written, was a time of intense literary activity among Jews (see below, G.16). The basis of that activity was the books now found in the HB, but it is unclear when and how precisely Jews came to agree on the limits of a canon of inspired Scripture. Thus it is entirely possible that soon after their composition the writings now found in the Apocrypha were treated by Jews as similar in nature and authority to the books in their Bible. On the other hand the statement by Josephus (Ag. Ap. 1.43) that ‘there are not with us myriads of books, discordant and discrepant, but only twenty-two, comprising the history of all time, which are justly accredited’ almost certainly refers to the biblical books and shows that, even if a fixed canon was not yet generally agreed, the idea that there might be such a canon was familiar. The discovery among the Dead Sea scrolls of fragments of Ecclesiasticus (also found at Masada), the Letter of Jeremiah (in Greek), and Tobit shows that these books were read by some Palestinian Jews before 70 CE, and the lack of the other apocryphal books among the finds may be accidental, although it is worth noting in contrast the discovery at Qumran of parts of every book of the HB except Esther. Josephus used 1 Esdras, 1 Maccabees, and the additions to Esther, but his failure to refer to the other books of the Apocrypha may in some cases be only because they were not sufficiently historical to be of use to him. It should be noted that, if Josephus really meant to insist that Jews used a fixed number of historical texts (see above) but himself follows the version of Jewish history in 1 Esdras, either he did not possess the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah or he believed 1 Esdras to be canonical and the biblical books to be lacking in authority.

2.

Early rabbinic literature shows no awareness of any of the books of the Apocrypha apart from Sirach. This is unsurprising for those books that existed only in Greek, but more surprising for Tobit and Judith, which certainly existed in Aramaic and perhaps in Hebrew, and 1 Maccabees, which was probably originally composed in Hebrew; at any rate a Hebrew version was known to Origen and to Jerome (see below, F.6). Citations of Sirach (under the name ‘Ben Sirah’) in early rabbinic texts are quite frequent and are sometimes preceded by the same introductory formula (‘as it is written’) which was used to introduce passages from the Writings, the third part of the OT (cf. b. B. Qam. 92b). It is clear from this that Sirach was highly regarded, but not that the rabbis treated this text as equal in status to those in the biblical corpus; the rabbinic discussions over which texts ‘render the hands unclean’ reveal doubts about the status of a number of books that are included in the biblical corpus (e.g. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes), but not about Sirach. The rabbis may not have used most of the apocryphal texts but they were aware of some of the traditions referred to in those texts. Most important was the festival of Hanukkah, which celebrated the events described in 1 and 2 Maccabees, but there are also occasional rabbinic references to the martyrdom story of Hannah and her sons found in 2 Maccabees (cf. b. Git. 57b) and to the stories found in the Additions to Daniel.

3.

The contents of some of the books of the Apocrypha came back to the attention of Jews in the Middle Ages through the wide dissemination of Hebrew versions of some of the stories. The narratives of Tobit and Judith were popular, as was Megillat Antiochus, which repeated in outline some of the material found in the books of Maccabees. Ecclesiasticus, known to the rabbis as Ben Sira, was presumably still known to some Jews in the original Hebrew even in the high Middle Ages, since large portions of the text were found in the Cairo Genizah in 1896, but the uniqueness of this manuscript find, and the scarcity of references to the work in rabbinic literature after antiquity, suggests that the book was not widely read, although the composition in the medieval period of a new work, the Alfabet of Ben Sira, demonstrates the continuing prestige thought to attach to the work of Ben Sira himself. The real revival of Jewish interest in the apocrypha came in the Renaissance, when scholarly Jews became aware of the existence of a large Jewish literature in Greek, and a translation of the apocrypha into Hebrew was published in the early sixteenth century. Since then Jewish scholars have made much use of these books in the study of Jewish literature and history, but these writings have never reverted to their original status as sources of religious edification.

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