“Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” by James R. Davila

James R. Davila is professor of early Jewish studies at the University of St. Andrews and coeditor, with Richard Bauckham and Alexander Panayotov, of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume 1.

James Davila
James Davila

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Although specialists have known about them for a very long time, it was only in the 1980s that the wonderful two-volume collection of Old Testament pseudepigrapha edited by James Charlesworth made the general reader aware of the existence of many ancient scriptural books not found in the Bible of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. These other scriptures often retell biblical stories with a new slant or claim (fictionally) to be written by biblical characters.  Although not generally classified as Holy Scripture, many of these books were well known to — and respected by — early Jews and Christians. The book of 1 Enoch, for example, is quoted as authoritative prophecy in the New Testament letter of Jude, vv. 14–15, and is still accepted as scripture in the Ethiopic Bible today.

Charlesworth collected most of the Old Testament pseudepigrapha known at the time, but many more have come to the attention of pseudepigrapha specialists since then. In addition, our knowledge of a few of the ones he published has advanced to the point that republication is desirable.

The new collection, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, is being published by Eerdmans to fill this gap, and the first of the two volumes is now available. It contains new translations of nearly fifty complete or fragmentary texts, most of which have not been published in any of the earlier pseudepigrapha collections and some of which have never before been translated into English. They are translated by experts from many languages, including Aramaic, Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, and Syriac. The reader of this volume will learn that other nonstandard ancient scriptures are quoted in the Bible. For example, the New Testament letter of James 4:5 may quote a Book of Eldad and Modad (cf. Numbers 11:26–29).  Moreover, the Old Testament itself quotes many lost books, including the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the Book of Jashar, and the Book of the Acts of Solomon.

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha
Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

Apart from these books quoted in the Old Testament, only one text translated in the new volume was composed during the Old Testament period. The Balaam Text from Tell Deir ʻAllā, which was found inscribed on a plaster wall in a building excavated in Jordan, has been dated by archaeologists to 700 B.C.E. It tells an alternate, non-Israelite version of the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers 22–24).

The rest of the texts represented in this collection were written long after this time. Such later books purport to tell the true histories of Joseph, Melchizedek, and Abraham; they give us songs and magical treatises attributed to Moses, David and Solomon; they offer visions and prophecies in the names of Daniel, Zerubbabel, and Ezra; and one even claims to reveal the hiding places of Temple treasures secured in advance of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Besides such complete books, we have included many quotations of now lost Old Testament pseudepigrapha found in the works of ancient authors as well as bits of pseudepigrapha now preserved only in very fragmentary manuscripts. These include books attributed to or about Adam, Seth, Noah, Eber, Abraham, Job, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. This volume also includes some slightly later thematic books such as The Cave of Treasures, Palaea Historia, and Hebrew Visions of Hell and Paradise, which are closely related to earlier pseudepigrapha.

All these and more are published in this new volume in idiomatic but accurate English translations with introductions accessible to both specialists and general readers.

We can look forward to even more treasures in the second volume, which is now in preparation, including an account of giants born from the unnatural mating of angels with mortal women; additional legends about the patriarch Enoch; stories about other biblical characters such as Manasseh and Jeremiah; and apocalypses and oracles attributed to Elijah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

As we have seen above, very few of the pseudepigraphic books and fragments give us ancient traditions contemporary with what we find in the Old Testament. Most are creative retellings of biblical stories or post-biblical oracles inspired by and written in the names of much earlier biblical worthies. These do not add to our knowledge of the Old Testament period (and none of the editors has come into sudden wealth from the recovery of any lost Temple treasures!), but they give us precious knowledge of ancient interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures by Jews, Christians, and even pagans. These interpretations are not infrequently different from the traditional ones better known from the roughly contemporary Church Fathers and Rabbinic literature, even though they come to us in books that have been lost, ignored, or sometimes even suppressed for a very long time.

We hope you enjoy them.

Click to order Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume 1, edited by Richard Bauckham, James R. Davila, and Alexander Panayotov.