Whence the proliferation of late Second Commonwealth Jewish literature?

I haven’t done a word count, but just looking at the size of Charlesworth’s edition of the OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, it seems obvious that, sometime, during the late Second Commonwealth, Jewish culture exploded into a burst of literary activity. I am not even thinking of the Alexandrian Jews, most prominently among them Philo of Alexandria (c 20 BCE to c 40 CE), who lived in multinational royal metropolis and had access to the greatest library ever assembled. (Eat your heart out, Widener.) Alexandria gave us the first Greek translation of Jewish sacred scriptures whose allegorical interpretation paved the way for the dissemination of the Christian way among Greek speaking god-fearers. The world’s most successful persuasive literature, the Christian New Testament, would not have become the bestseller it is without those antecedent scriptures and interpretive traditions.

But that’s not what this post is about. I am thinking of the plethora of writings produced in Hebrew and Aramaic in the Land of Israel, many of which were damaged or lost in the devastations that followed the Jewish rebellions against Roman rule, some of which was hidden away and unearthed later, or preserved in translation and Christian and other sectarian adaptations. Examples include the Book of Jubilees, apocalyptic Enoch literature, the Damascus Document, the Testaments of the Patriarchs, the Apocalypse of Moses (Life of Adam and Eve), and many others. We have long used the term “pseudepigrapha” for many of these writings, a term of classification that files these books (as opposed to biblical literature) as circulating under false authorial ascriptions. Whether or not this is the most helpful classification does not matter to me. It points to a difference between biblical literature and those many other works that begin to appear around the second century BCE. My question is: why then? Here are a few reasons.

  1. One answer is Greek paideia. While we think of priests neglecting their sacrificial duties to run to the Jerusalem gymnasium where they would exercise in the nude, we should also think of other aspects of Greek education, such as literacy. While, until the advent of the Greeks, literacy may have largely been the purview of professional scribes, Hellenism may have given scribal culture a boost. Acquisition of Greek was necessary for administrative reasons. But it may also have boosted “indigenous” or traditional scribal practices. This brings me to the next point.
  2. Resistance to “Hellenism” gives rise to a self-conscious culture of “Judaism.” The term, and its juxtaposition with hellenismos, first appears in Second Maccabees. But what did it signify? Aside from the “household Judaism” (Andrea Berlin) that seems to have taken root under the Hasmoneans, the same age (late 2nd c BCE) also sees the return of Paleo-Hebrew on Hasmonean coinage. Hellenization proceeded here and elsewhere by way of such juxtapositions. The same Ptolemaic and, later, Roman rulers acted as Pharaoh’s toward their Egyptian subjects and as Macedonians or Romans toward their Greek-speaking subjects. In Ioudaia/Yehud this system of government seems to have given rise to a culture of repristination that included bringing back (or manufacturing) ancient Hebrew literature and script; a fostering of non-Hellenistic household practices; a veneration of the ancestral laws, and the like. The Jews were not alone in this new emphasis on antiquity. (See Gardner, Gregg, and Kevin Lee Osterloh. Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.)
  3. The new focus on the ancestral laws and prophetic literature gave rise to different interpretations, criticism of the ruling family whose right to serve as high priests and quasi-kings was questioned on the basis of the sacred literature they fostered, and social movements that turned hostile toward the presence of foreigners and foreign rule. We have an echo of this in the Jewish prayer, al kis’o lo yeshev zar. 
  4. Apocalyptic literature is only one among many genres, some of which thrived and took off, while others eventually withered. We know that some Jewish writers of that age turned the story of Moses into verse drama (Ezekiel the Tragedian).  Others wrote Psalms or rewrote sacred history to fit into fifty-year periods (Jubilees, cf. the genealogy of Joseph in Matthew 1), introduced new characters into the world of Jewish imagination (Mastema in Jubilees), or gave a more prominent role to angels. Some latched on to priestly notions of purity and holiness, others were attracted to preachers of repentance who proclaimed the imminence of divine kingship.

As a result of these and related developments, Jewish writing proliferated. One of the ironies: by way of Greek, Ethiopic, Syriac, and other translations, Jewish literature became popular far beyond the borders (however defined) of the Land of Israel. Pilgrims flooded to Jerusalem. The royal house of Adiabene even built a palace there and supported the Jewish uprising against Rome. Jerusalem turned into a symbolic center onto which people from many nations could project notions of resistance to evil, impurity, and the dominance of Rome. The rest, as they say, is history.


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