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by Dan Bergman
One would be misinformed to think that religious Jewish writings consist of only the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the Talmud. There are many other Jewish documents dating from the 4th century B.C. through the late 13th century A.D. An understanding of these documents will further our understanding of the Jewish religious world. For the sake of clarity, our explanation will be limited to five groups of Jewish writings which will be examined in chronological order. It is also important to note that none of the writings discussed within this article are part of the canon of Scripture – meaning that all of these writings are extra-Biblical.
Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha
Between the pages of Malachi and Matthew, around 400 years of Jewish history transpired. It is during this period of time that most of what is known as the Pseudepigrapha and the Apocrypha were written (although some were penned in the first and second century).
It is easy to confuse these two similar terms. Of the two, the term Apocrypha is likely the one you are more familiar with, especially if you have had any exposure to Roman Catholicism, as it is even today included in the Roman Catholic Bible, and is the text from which numerous Catholic doctrines are based.
The word Apocrypha comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden”. The term in its specific sense denotes those writings from within the intertestamental period that were included in some printed editions of the Bible. These books are not accepted as Scripture by mainstream Jews or Christians. Martin Luther included these books in his Bible, in a special section between the Old and New Testaments, labeled – The Apocrypha. Luther used this term to distinguish this group of writings from the canonical books of the Old and New Testament. It was in the same vein that this group books were included in the 1611 King James Bible. The Old Testament Apocrypha includes Judith, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Susannah and the additions to Daniel. Some lists also include the book of Enoch.
The earliest known Jewish work not included in the Bible is the Book of Enoch. It was written after the return from the Babylonian Exile, and before the Maccabean revolt in 172 BC. Copies of the Book of Enoch were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.1 It is within these books that we find the basis for many false doctrines and practices such as the command to use magic,2 forgiveness of sins by almsgiving,3 Purgatory, and offering of money for the sins of the dead.4
On April 8th 1546, the Council of Trent, referring to the 66 books of our Bible and the Apocrypha, decreed that “…if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.”5
The word Pseudepigrapha comes from two Latin words meaning “falsely inscribed”. It is a book written in a biblical style and ascribed to an author who did not write it. In common usage the term is often used to refer to apocryphal (non-canonical) writings that do not appear in printed editions of the Bible.
As can be seen from the titles of the books included within the Apocrypha, many of them can easily overlap into the category known as “Pseudepigrapha” due to the fact that their authorship is falsely ascribed to an earlier Biblical character (such as Enoch and Baruch6). This distinction is what makes a book like 1st Maccabees fall into a different category than say, The Apocalypse of Abraham.
In Judaism, the Midrash (from the Hebrew verb “to search out”) is the written work that exegetes and expounds upon the Tanakh (Old Testament). It seeks to interpret difficult passages, fill in gaps in the narrative of the text, and provide detailed application of general statements and commands given in Scripture. It also includes stories and illustrations from post-Temple era Rabbis to aid in analysis and application.7
There are two main categories of Midrash. One deals with Halakha (from the Hebrew verb “to walk” dealing with legal matters), and the other with Haggadah (from the Hebrew verb “to show forth” dealing with non-legal matters, and concentrating more on the study and interpretation of Scripture stressing devotion and ethics). This word may sound familiar to you if you have ever attended a Passover Seder; the book that is used as a guide for the order of service is called a “Passover Haggadah”. Until the 2nd century A.D. Midrash only existed orally. The earliest collection of Halakhic Midrash written down was in the 2nd century, and the earliest of Haggidic was written down in the 3rd century A.D.
In simple terms, the Responsa are a series of questions and answers within rabbinic literature existing for the express purpose of producing decisions and rulings regarding Jewish law. Responsa literature spans a period of roughly 1,700 years. The questions asked are often practical in nature, and are usually come from adjustments to modern living, for which no application has been given in the codes of law, and the Responsa then become a supplement to the codes.
No Responsa have ever been found that predate the writing of the Mishna (the Oral Law), which transpired around the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. Many Responsa came in the form of correspondence between rabbis in Israel and Babylon. These letters were not at all friendly in nature; most of them dealt with various rabbis in Israel threatening to send letters to those in Babylon (who held opposing views) which would refute and annul their teachings (since the rabbis in Israel were thought to be more authoritative).
The Zohar is the foundational work in Judaism regarding mysticism (known as Kabbalah). A large number of Kabbalists hold the Zohar to have equal authority with that of the Torah and Talmud. The word “Zohar” means “splendor” or “radiance”. According to Jewish tradition the author of the Zohar was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the 2nd Century A.D. Although the teachings of the Zohar center around Yochai and his disciples, scholars believe Moses de León (1250–1305) of Spain is the most likely author.
Within the Zohar there are many references to the Messiah (including one from Isaiah 53), as well as passages that seem to promote the idea of a triune God. According to the Zohar, one day Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was teaching his son Rabbi Eliezer about the mystery of the triune nature of God. He instructed his pupil by saying, “Come and see the mystery of the word יהוה, Jehovah: there are three steps, each existing by itself; nevertheless they are One, and so united that one cannot be separated from the other.”
There were at least two false Messiahs who used the Zohar as a springboard for their teachings and actions, Shabbetai Zvei (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791). Zvei eventually converted to Islam, a shocking blow to his followers. Frank claimed to be the reincarnation of both Zvei and Jacob the patriarch. In modern Judaism, both the Hasidic (Pious) branch of Orthodox Judaism as well as followers of Kabbalah look to this book for instruction and guidance. Mystical Judaism can be seen as far back as the first century; however, the Zohar has greatly impacted and strengthened it.
Given the large amount of religious Jewish writings in existence, one can easily become overwhelmed and confused, and therefore understand the confusion many Jewish people have regarding what is authoritative and not, religiously speaking. When the officers of the Chief priests and Pharisees did not bring Jesus to them as ordered, the officers responded, “Never man spake like this man,” John 7:46. The Pharisees response was “Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?”, John 7:47-48. Jesus spoke with the authority of God. He was clear, direct, and unambiguous, not at all like what had become common in the extra biblical Jewish writings of Jewish religious leaders.