Getting outside of the Canon

Today “Observing Points of Convergence” takes a somewhat different turn, away from old aspects of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament study that are moving toward areas of consensus and toward a new and blossoming field.  It seems as if almost everyone has figured out that in order to understand the canons of Judaism and Christianity better we need to study the literature that did not get into them more closely.  The amount of attention currently being given to the Second Temple Jewish literature in the collections commonly called the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha is astounding.  These books may not have made it into the Jewish canon and only made it into some Christian canons, but they were written at about the time those canons were being formed, so they can tell us a great deal about the Bible we have.

Let me say a little bit about three books I think may be the most important.  The book known as Sirach or the Wisdom of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus is in the Old Testament canons of Catholicism and the various Orthodox traditions, and is included in Bibles that contain the Apocrypha.  So, it has received attention in the past, but usually as an extension of the canonical wisdom literature, read against the backdrop of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.  Newer readers of Sirach now give more attention to its relation to other Second Temple literature from outside the canon, such as the books called I Enoch and Jubilees.  These two books are part of the canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is the only reason we have complete manuscripts of them.  They were both likely written in about the same time period as Sirach, 200 B.C.E. give or take a few decades.

Jubilees and I Enoch both do something rather unusual.  They both go back to the early events in the book of Genesis and retell the story in a quite different way.  Perhaps the issue they are most concerned with is the origin and persistence of human sin.  I Enoch omits the Garden of Eden story entirely and Jubilees removes any reference to God planting the “Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil” in the garden or giving it that name.  Both books connect human sin to the Watchers of Genesis 6:1-4, rebellious angels that God allows to rule over the earth temporarily.  Sirach is also concerned with this question but does not make use of the rebellious angel tradition, placing more responsibility on human choices.  There are other important issues in these books, such as conflicts within the priesthood of the Second Temple.  Such concerns about why there is evil in the world and how we ought to govern ourselves make these books sound quite modern.  They reveal that for at least some Jews in this period the books of the Tanak were just a beginning point of such discussions, which sometimes required re-writing them.

The fruits of almost two decades of greatly increased attention to these kinds of texts are now becoming apparent.  There is now an Enoch Seminar ( that meets for a week every other year so that dozens of specialists in this area can share and critique their work with each other.  The results of such study is beginning to make its way into the general study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and shed new light on old questions.


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