Which is the true continuation of the ancient Israelite religion—the Christian church, or the Jewish synagogue? To simple believers on each side, the answer has always seemed obvious, and the opposite answer absurd. To Christians, it has seemed plain that since Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, the Christian church was entitled to the designation “Israel,” which no longer belonged to the renegade Jews. To Jews, an unbroken chain of tradition, from Moses to Hillel and onward, combined with a continuity of kinship and attachment to the Holy Land, has made it unthinkable that they were anything other than the true House of Israel.
More sophisticated Christians have used more sophisticated arguments. In these, a prominent role has been played by non-canonical books which were alleged to show a continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In Judaism, according to one such Christian argument, there was a breakdown of inspiration after the last prophets of the Old Testament; from there to the Mishnah, the body of law codified in the 2nd century C.E., there was only a desert, and the Mishnah itself was but the barren culmination of five centuries of legalism. In this scheme the non-canonical books represent an underground current of religious inspiration which finally broke out into the full stream of Christianity. For in them we find concepts—visions of God, of the heavens, and of the Last Days—that stand in contrast to the regulation of a humdrum life by rules which is what Judaism after the Old Testment is alleged to have become.
This at any rate is the view that governed the labors of R.H. Charles, the general editor of the great work in two volumes, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1913), which has held the field until now. The works which he collected comprised not only the well-known books of the Apocrypha (literally, “hidden books”), preserved as semi-canonical by the Christian church—including such familiar titles as the Book of Judith, the Book of Tobit, and First and Second Maccabees—but also much more recondite works, some of which had to be translated from Ethiopic or Slavonic, since their originals, whether in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, had long been lost. To these latter works he gave the general title of Pseudepigrapha, since nearly all of them professed to be written by great figures from the biblical past, like Enoch, Solomon, or Ezra. The term, however, is somewhat misleading; some of the books included in the canon of the Bible are themselves pseudepigraphical (like the Book of Daniel), and Charles in his collection included works which were not pseudepigraphical (like the Ethics of the Fathers). Nevertheless, the term has stuck, meaning simply books connected with figures of the Old Testament and not included in the collection known as the Apocrypha.
Now we have the first volume of a new collection of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth.1 The unifying theme of this first volume is apocalypticism; that is to say, the works collected here mostly contain visions of the Last Days—though they also contain much else. A second volume, not yet published, will include non-apocalyptic material, ranging from expansions of Old Testament legends, such as Eldad and Modad or the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, to the surviving fragments of a play in Greek verse on the theme of the Exodus written by an Alexandrian Jewish playwright named Ezekiel. It is clear from the high standard of scholarship of the first volume that, when completed, Charlesworth’s will be accepted as the standard collection of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha or “para-biblical” writings, to use a term he himself suggests.
If the governing standpoint of Charles was that the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha provide continuity between the Old and New Testaments (leaving rabbinic Judaism on the sidelines), what is the governing standpoint of Charlesworth? There has certainly been a tremendous change, involving in the first instance a new and much more respectful assessment of rabbinic Judaism. It is no longer thought that there was a rigid, official, “normative Judaism,” centered in Jerusalem, with a tiny fringe of rebel souls keeping alive the flame of inspiration and preparing for the advent of Christianity by writing a few heterodox books. Instead, we have the view that there was no “normative Judaism” but an explosion of heterogeneous sects, producing a wealth of creative literature.
When Charles made his compilation, he had little idea of the extensiveness of this literature; the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, had not yet been discovered. It is now thought that the books that have survived are only a fraction of those produced. As Charlesworth points out, hardly a single work in his compilation of the Pseudepigrapha can be assigned with any certainty to a known named sect. This contrasts with Charles, who was certain that there were four and only four Jewish sects—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots—and fairly confident which books were to be assigned to which sects.
Thus, Charles’s picture of a desert of legalism containing only small pockets of creativity has been smashed. Nor can his characterization of the Pharisees as dry and formalistic be sustained, for quite apart from the evidence of Pharisee liturgy and other sources, there is proof of Pharisee involvement in mysticism and apocalypticism, concerns which Charles thought alien to them. Included in the present volume is an example of such mysticism, the so-called Third Book of Enoch (more authentically called Sefer Hekhalot), written in the name of Rabbi Ishmael, the 2nd-century contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, and describing his ascent to the heavens where he conversed with the angel Metatron, who on earth had been Enoch. For Charles to have included this book among his Pseudepigrapha would have wrecked his whole conceptual scheme. If he knew the work, he probably thought of it as very late. It is indeed no earlier than the 5th century, but it is an example of a genre that goes back to the pre-Christian era and formed an element in Pharisee religion. And the Pharisees themselves, according to the new wisdom, are not to be singled out from other sects, or to be regarded as forming a dominant orthodoxy, or thought to have a narrower scope than others in their religious interests.
The new view also compels a changed assessment of the position of Christianity itself in the spectrum of post-biblical religion. Christianity now appears not as a startling new departure, or even as the end-product of a thin trickle of inspiration, but simply as one more Jewish sect, fully explicable in the light of the contemporary Jewish scene. When the Pseudepigrapha and Dead Sea Scrolls are taken into account, it is now said, Christianity can be seen to have drawn its entire content from Jewish sources. For example, the dualism of the Gospel of John, with its cosmic conflict between Light and Darkness, is paralleled in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in such pseudepigraphical writings as I Enoch. The idea of a divine or semidivine messiah can also be found in the Pseudepigrapha, and thus cannot be considered Hellenistic rather than Jewish. Indeed the distinction between Judaism and Hellenism, like other distinctions cherished in the past, is under attack, for evidence is being adduced to show that even Pharisaic Judaism in Palestine was fundamentally influenced by Hellenistic modes of thought.
Thus, in borrowing or developing ideas that may once have appeared quintessentially Hellenistic, Christianity did not have to go further than Judaism itself, which had already assimilated these ideas from the Hellenistic environment.
The wholesale breaking down of barriers and distinctions that is signaled in the new edition of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha is in some ways a healthy phenomenon. Scholarship has now discarded the idea that Jesus was a unique visitant from heaven, bringing mint-new truths to the benighted Jews; the evidence shows conclusively that Jesus was, rather, a Jew rooted in his time. Moreover, instead of reading Jewish literature of the period solely for the purpose of “throwing light on the New Testament,” scholars are now viewing the New Testament as one aspect of that literature, and are just as liable to read the Gospels for the light they throw on the Mishnah as the other way around.
All this is to be welcomed. But there are some essential distinctions that must be preserved. The New Testament differs fundamentally in certain respects from all Jewish literature, including the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic works. The present edition of the Pseudepigrapha, despite its editor’s intention, only serves to highlight this unbridgeable gap. I am referring in particular to the doctrine of salvation expressed in New Testament writings and stemming from the teaching of Paul. Nothing even remotely like this can be found in Jewish literature.
The New Testament tells us about the death of a god who was resurrected on the third day. Unless the death of a divine figure marks the end of an outworn religious cult, like the death of Pan, it can be given meaning only in terms of a scheme of salvation: and this is how the New Testament interprets it. The death of Jesus atones for the sins of mankind, who can escape damnation only by sharing in his death and resurrection.
Where in Jewish literature is the concept of the death of God to be found? The answer is simple: nowhere. Such a concept, associated everywhere in the ancient world with the renewal of nature in the spring, was banished forever from Judaism by its theology of a God superior to nature. “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). This marks the end of sacrificial ceremonies designed to renew the universe.
In the Hellenistic world, the concept of the death and resurrection of a god, originally agricultural, was spiritualized to signify the salvation of individual souls. The cults of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Mithras, and Dionysus provided a vocabulary and ideology that found their way into Christianity. But as for the Jews, however much they were influenced by Hellenism, this was one influence they utterly refused, since it would mean the negation of their whole history and theology. It would mean the negation, too, of their ethics, for it substituted an irreversible rebirth into innocence for the continual moral struggle, guided by the Torah, which for Jews gave life its significance.
This is not to deny that Christianity, in its origins, was a Jewish sect. Jesus’ immediate followers, who after his death set up the Jerusalem church, were Jews of Pharisaic outlook who differed from their fellow-Jews only in believing that the messiah-claimant had not died but would soon come back to resume his mission of liberation from Roman rule. But when Paul interpreted Jesus’ death and resurrection as a mystery, a sacrifice that made for salvation—and in so doing made Jesus’ death not an interruption of his mission but its whole point—a sect of Christians arose that had taken a decisive step away from Judaism. It was this sect which eventually became the official Christian church and which edited the Gospels in their present form.
The gulf that separates Pauline Christianity from every form of Judaism has been documented in E.P. Sanders’s indispensable work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), which stands opposed to the scholarly trend summed up in Charles-worth’s compilation of the Pseudepigrapha. Sanders opposes this trend in two ways. Not only does he characterize Pauline thinking as un-Jewish, but he also, concomitantly, demonstrates that there is such a thing as “normative Judaism”—not in the sense of a dominant orthodoxy but in the sense of a substratum of essential belief (what Sanders labels “covenantal nomism”) held in common by all Jewish sects.
In the many attempts that have been made to bridge the gap between Judaism and Christianity and thus to substantiate the current picture of Christianity as just another Jewish sect, the Pseudepigrapha play an important part; and in particular, I Enoch is often adduced to show that the idea of a divine messiah was not alien to Judaism. In this extraordinary book, which has been only slightly tampered with by Christian editors, a picture is given of a powerful angel called the Elect One who will have a special role in the Last Days as judge of the nations. He is not called “the messiah”—indeed, the messiah is mentioned elsewhere in the same book as a human personage quite distinct from the Elect One. Nor does he enjoy divine status; in I Enoch, the Elect One is carefully subordinated to God. Nor, finally, is there any suggestion that the angel is destined to undergo death as an atoning figure.
There is thus a world of difference between the figure of the Elect One and that of the dying-and-resurrected divine messiah of Christianity. Yet it is wonderful to see how a Christian scholar like W.D. Davies (in his book Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) goes about trying to narrow this gap. First, Davies tries to find similarities between the description of the Elect One and that of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. This done, he grafts onto the non-suffering Elect One the sufferings of the human servant. It is then only a step to a fully divine Sufferer. By such inch-by-inch projections it is hoped that a bridge can be constructed between the Christian salvation myth and a respectable Jewish background, without recourse to Hellenistic mystery-cults.
A similar process can be seen at work in a strange disagreement between Charlesworth and the individual editor of I Enoch, E. Isaac. Charles-worth carefully differentiates between the messiah and the angel, but Isaac simply identifies the two without discussion, calling the amalgamated figure “the heavenly messiah.” This is cavalier treatment. The welding together of the angel of the Last Days with the hitherto human figure of the messiah was entirely the work of Christianity, which further elevated this compound figure to divinity as one of the persons of the Trinity.
There are, to be sure, certain undoubted similarities between the atmosphere of the Pseudepigrapha and that of the Gospels. But precisely for that reason it is important to characterize accurately what it is that separates both of them from rabbinic literature, and where exactly the dividing line falls between Jewish and non-Jewish sects and works. The basic point of difference has to do with the attitude adopted toward this life and this world.
In the Hebrew Bible this world, having been created by God, is regarded as good, and as the scene of the human drama, where all things will eventually find a solution. At the opposite extreme is the literature of the gnostic sects that flourished around the time of the emergence of Christianity; in its view this world is evil, the creation of ad evil Power.
Some of the pre-Christian gnostic sects were Jewish in origin, in the sense that they parasitically drew on the Bible for their mythic content. But they were profoundly un-Jewish in the way they used this content. They took the view that this world was indeed created by the Jewish God, but he was an evil God. He had indeed given the Torah, but it was an evil Torah. They went through the Bible systematically reversing its meanings, making its heroes into villains and its villains (Cain, for example) into heroes. Their chief heroes, however, were certain non-Jewish biblical figures, like Seth, Enoch, or Melchizedek, who were considered to transcend the evil or limited values of the Torah and to be in touch with the High God beyond the skies who was the genuine good power of the universe. By means of the “knowledge” (gnosis) transmitted by the non-Jewish extra-biblical tradition, chosen souls (with the help of a descended “Son of God”) could hope to escape from this evil world and attain the realm of the High God.
Some would argue that the gnostics were actually Jewish, since their material was taken from the Jewish Bible, just as later there were Christian gnostics basing themselves on the New Testament and related writings. It seems truer to say that the gnostics were the first anti-Semites, who, like later anti-Semites, were fascinated by the materials of Judaism and fashioned their world view out of a love-hate relationship with Judaism. Included in the present edition of the Pseudepigrapha is a gnostic work, the Apocalypse of Adam, from the library of gnostic texts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946. This is certainly a fascinating work, most probably an example of pre-Christian gnosticism—a genre often declared to be nonexistent by scholars who refuse to accept that Pauline Christianity was influenced by gnosticism. But whether it belongs in a compilation of Jewish Pseudepigrapha is very questionable. The Apocalypse of Adam, despite its biblical material, is profoundly anti-Bible, regarding the Jews as the chosen people of an evil God. Including it here is like including the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in an anthology of modern Jewish literature.
The Pseudepigrapha proper hardly go so far toward the gnostic pole. They are Jewish works, based on belief in the Jewish God and the Torah. But they are permeated by a despair that is alien to the Hebrew Bible. They believe that this earth is the scene of man’s destiny, but they think that it has gone so badly wrong that only a cataclysmic event can put it right. They thus place all their hopes in apocalypse. Their attitude is passive, in that they await a destined, inevitable outcome, written on God’s heavenly curtain with its timetable of future events. They have lost the active spirit of biblical prophecy, which concerns itself with contemporary politics and exhorts men to immediate commitment.
Pauline Christianity has gone still further into despair, so much further that it is lost to Judaism. It believes that the world has gone so wrong that the Torah has become irrelevant and inadequate; even in doubt is whether this world is the scene of man’s destiny. Like gnosticism, Christianity has a descending Son of God, come to rescue humanity, but here Christianity, unlike gnosticism, introduces ideas taken from the mystery-cults: the Son of God has come not to impart gnosis but to die a sacrificial death. Only participation in this mystery can save.
The Pseudepigrapha remain within the bounds of Judaism because they cling to the Torah and the Covenant. It is only in their unbiblical despair that they edge toward gnosticism, from which, however, they remain utterly separated. In his review-essay on Charlesworth in the New York Review of Books, Harold Bloom—despite some welcome new insights which appear to remove his own ideas from the gnostic camp to that of rabbinic Judaism—makes too easy an identification of the Pseudepigrapha with gnosticism, and thus endorses Charles’s old estimation of the degree of continuity between the Pseudepigrapha and Christianity (though without Charles’s approval of this connection or his placing of the Hebrew prophets in the same line of development).
Rabbinic Judaism lacks the pseudepigraphic note of despair. Though it is not free of apocalyptic yearnings, it does not depend on them for its stability. This is partly because rabbinic Judaism, unlike the Pseudepigrapha, has come to terms with the ending of prophetic inspiration. Contrary to what Charles thought, the Pseudepigrapha themselves testify to the end of prophecy; otherwise why should they adopt the name of prophets of the past rather than prophesying in the names of their true authors? And why adopt such a mechanical mode of prophecy, one in which the future appears as a rigidly tabulated scheme rather than as a free-flowing scenario affected by human decisions? In the Bible, the Book of Jonah teaches us that a prophet’s warnings are always provisional; he should hope to be made a fool of. In the Pseudepigrapha, the “prophet” is not really prophesying at all, but reading off the results of a heavenly computer.
Rabbinic Judaism acknowledges that prophecy has ended, but does not regard this as wholly a loss. Now begins the age of the rabbi—in his way as considerable a figure as the prophet. The rabbi works not by individual inspiration but by close collaboration with his fellows (very like scientists today). The project is a rationalist one: exegesis, systematization, and the application of insight to everyday life. The tone is hopeful and activist. For such a project, prophetic methods are actually outdated; when Rabbi Eliezer tried to decide a halakhic matter by appeal to a voice from Heaven, he was sharply declared out of order, as was Rabbi Johanan ben Dahabai when he attempted to introduce legal rulings heard from ministering angels “behind the Curtain.”
Not that prophecy will never return; it will be, the rabbis say, the precursor and accompaniment of the age of the messiah. But the present age has its own pattern and validation which precludes despair and is continuous with the this-worldly orientation of the Bible. Paradoxically, the rabbis preserved a greater continuity with the Bible by giving up prophecy than the Pseudepigrapha did by their vain effort to prolong it. And like the prophets of the Bible, the rabbis did their work in their own names.
Thus there was good reason for the rabbis to omit the Pseudepigrapha from their canon of the Bible. This kind of desperate gambling on catastrophe was alien to the spirit of the true prophets. (The only apocalyptic work the rabbis did include was Daniel, which, however, they did not classify as prophetic in the full sense; it was placed among the Writings.) As for the apocalyptic writings of the rabbis themselves, these occupied no central position in the religious repertoire, being the concern of peripheral mystical groups, respected but by no means held up as norms or exemplars.
On these grounds, one may raise a question about the inclusion in Charlesworth’s collection of the so-called Third Book of Enoch, one of the rabbinic mystical tracts. True, it features the biblical figure Enoch (though not as the pseudepigraphic author of the book), and contains an apocalyptic section. But unlike the Pseudepigrapha in general it does not focus the main religious hopes of the sect from which it stems; on the contrary, it represents a kind of peripheral luxury, considered suitable for a few specially-endowed members of the community but unnecessary and even dangerous for the rest.
A compilation of Pseudepigrapha which can include, at one end of the spectrum, a gnostic work and, at the other, a rabbinical work may seem commendably catholic. But just as Charles had his axe to grind, so has Charlesworth. We must be grateful to him for the wealth of material offered to us in new scholarly editions by leading experts, yet we must be wary of a point of view that seeks to abolish essential boundaries. Both gnosticism and Christianity are radically dualistic systems, seeing this world as captured by the power of Darkness in the course of its war against the power of Light. In this cosmic war, both gnosticism and Christianity identified the Jews as the earthly representatives of the power of Darkness.
The Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls, both of which envisage a war between good angels and bad angels, and which may be thought of as a first step away from the unified, humanistic outlook of both the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic Judaism, nevertheless represent a milder form of dualism than that in either gnosticism or Christianity; a despair still controlled by loyalty to Torah and Covenant cannot be equated with a despair that has entered the abyss, and depends so heavily on salvation from on high. When Christianity adopted the standpoint of gnosticism and the mystery-cults, it made a decisive break with Judaism. We cannot hope to smooth away the Jewish-Christian conflict by reducing it to a family quarrel between groups that are basically akin.
1 The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, Doubleday, 995 pp., $35.00.