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Apocalypse Then


The Jews returned from Babylon in the year 539 before the Common Era, or rather they began to do so then, since many remained in Babylon, and those who came back to Jerusalem and Judea did not arrive all at once. But they flourished, their numbers grew, and they were not much disturbed at first by the Hellenistic kingdoms that were established all around them after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Their upper classes were Hellenized, yet for more than a century most of them held fast to their traditions. From 200 BCE on, they were ruled by a Hellenized Syria, which sought total control over them. In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, declaring that he was the manifestation of Zeus, set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem. Confronted by this “abomination that desolates” (as it is called in the Book of Daniel), the Jews inevitably rebelled.

From 167 BCE onward, Judas Maccabeus and his brothers fought the series of wars that were to make the Jews independent again until the Romans under Pompey invaded them in 63 BCE. Until the year 66 of the Common Era, the Jews uneasily tolerated Roman dominance, but the inevitable and catastrophic rebellion then broke forth, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The ultimate catastrophe came with the last Jewish war against Rome, led by Simeon bar Kochba, who perhaps was proclaimed as the Messiah by the aged Rabbi Akiba, the greatest spiritual leader in the long history of Judaism. With the second fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 135 CE, the Jews became stateless again, and were not to repossess the site of the Temple until 1967, nearly two decades after the rebirth of Israel.

I sketch this familiar history as a prelude to reviewing the new edition of the Pseudepigrapha, or those Jewish writings (circa 200 BCE to 200 CE) falsely, but as a matter of convention, attributed by their authors to crucial personages in the Hebrew Bible. Necessarily, I choose to void the long but bad tradition that speaks of the “Old Testament,” since truly it was and is the “Original Testament,” while the “New Testament” more accurately was and is, shall we not say, the “Belated Testament.” But that condition of belatedness, of an anxious sense that one lacks originality, is as much the peculiar mark of nearly all the Pseudepigrapha as it is of the supposedly New Testament. The four centuries of torment, first under Syria and then under Rome, with the troubled reigns of the Maccabeans in between, brought forth both the Pseudepigrapha and the Christian Testament, each scored by the political and religious disasters suffered by the Jews in that age.

This welcome new edition of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, ably edited by James H. Charlesworth but abominably printed by Doubleday (try reading the footnotes without incurring eyestrain and headache), reopens endless questions about the precise relations between Judaism and the origins of Christianity. I shall evade those questions here in favor of analyzing two of the most important Pseudepigrapha, so as to venture some judgment about their spiritual and literary value (if any) in comparison with the Hebrew Bible and even with rabbinic writing, and also to speculate upon why they were rejected by the tradition that (following the Harvard scholar G.F. Moore) we have learned to call “normative Judaism,” by which we mean religion prescribing for all Jews an ethical way of life based on sacred texts as they are interpreted by rabbinical authorities.

Normative Judaism is still the religion of the Jews, and presumably it always will be, but it came into existence quite late in Jewish history, though it always has proclaimed itself as the religion of the patriarchs, and of Moses, and of David the King, and of Ezra the Scribe who helped lead the Return, and of his followers down to the death of the High Priest Simeon the Just around 270 BCE. The actual origins of normative Judaism cannot be traced precisely, but there was an undoubtable movement from priest to rabbi long before the Maccabees rose against the Hellenizers. Before the Temple was defiled, let alone destroyed, the center of Judaism had been moved from priestly worship to the study of the Bible. While the Temple could never have prevailed against Hellenism, Torah hardly could fail to win out, whether one wishes to give the credit to God or to the absolute devotion of the normatively religious. Perhaps the credit should be given to Ezra, the sixth-century BCE scribe or interpreter, whom nowadays we would call a critic rather than a historical scholar. Ezra’s followers—the scribes, called “the men of the Great Synagogue” and “the men of the Book”—were the teachers who developed his mode of interpretation, midrash, and who strengthened the tradition so as to fight off Hellenism, an achievement made possible by a later, ironic conversion to Jewish purposes of the Platonic idea that a people could be made holy through organized study.

For nearly a century after 270 BCE or so, we have no clear information about the continuity of Ezra’s tradition. In 196 BCE, the Sanhedrin or rabbinical senate was instituted, and it probably included a group strongly opposed to Hellenization. This group may have had some link with the Hasidim, those zealous adherents of Torah who joined the Maccabean revolt; and perhaps they also were connected later on to the rise of the Pharisees under the Hasmonean kings descended from the brothers of Judas Maccabeus. The Pharisees, the “separated,” became prominent well before 100 BCE, and clearly were the precursors of the great rabbis of the first two centuries of the Common Era with whom we most centrally associate normative Judaism: Hillel, Shammai, Gamaliel, Johanan ben Zakkai, Akiba, Ishmael, Tarphon, Meir, Judah the Prince. My thumbnail sketch slights crucial distinctions, since the Judaism of 200 BCE to 200 CE underwent enormous changes, had astonishing diversity, and perhaps displayed more discontinuity than any retrospective view as yet knows how to admit. What seems beyond dispute is that the rabbis of the second century CE, and Akiba in particular, represented the culmination of the processes that brought forth the normative Judaism that still exists today.

What we call the Pseudepigrapha was rejected by normative Judaism, just as the now better-known writings we call the Apocrypha were rejected. The Apocrypha or “hidden” books were regarded not necessarily as heretical but rather as inappropriate for group religious services. In an almost unique ancient act of translation, the Hebrew Bible was rendered into Greek for Alexandrian Jewry, and this version, the Septuagint, included what now is called the Apocrypha—a naming that follows the usage of St. Jerome in his great Latin Bible, the Vulgate. Among the Apocrypha are works far superior, in a literary sense, to any of the Pseudepigrapha. Especially remarkable are the books of Tobit and of Judith, the story of Susanna, the Wisdom of Solomon, and in particular Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, which certainly should have found an appropriate place in the canon of the Bible. Indeed, it is a considerable puzzle why Jesus ben Sirach was not included by the rabbis since the book is eminently in the normative current, surpassingly eloquent, and profoundly within the chain of tradition passing from Ezra on through the Pharisees. The Apocrypha is of course not under review here, and I mention its exclusion because it raises sharply the issue of the canonical principles upon which the rabbis worked.

Canon” is a Christian term, first used in the fourth century CE; the word itself appears to refer to a reed used as a measuring rod. The Hebrew notion of canonicity was far more vivid, being conveyed by the metaphor that sacred texts were those that “defiled the hands.” This great rabbinical paradox, “defile” where we might expect “purify,” presumably meant that the holiness of the book would defile hands not sufficiently sanctified. Since we have not lost the idea of canonicity, even in our secular academies, we can measure our estrangement from religious traditions by reflecting how odd the Hebraic metaphor would sound if we employed it now: “The poems of John Ashbery, unlike, say, those of—(fill in whom you will: the Imamu Baraka? Sylvia Plath? Allen Ginsberg?) truly defile the hands.” Yet the curious power of the metaphor still abides, and it seems very clear why none among the Pseudepigrapha defiles the reader’s hands. We cannot imagine Rabbi Akiba saying of the pseudepigrapha called 1 Enoch—with its frenzied vision of apocalypse and resurrection—or of the Sibylline Oracles what he beautifully said of the Song of Solomon, when he triumphantly fought for its entrance into the canon:

God forbid that any men of Israel should deny that the Song of Songs defiles the hands; for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the scriptures are holy: but the Song of Songs is holiest of all.


The subtitle of this new version of the Pseudepigrapha is “Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments.” The promised second volume will be more miscellaneous, comprising wisdom literature, fragments of lost Judeo-Hellenic works, prayers, psalms, and expansions of books in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Compared to that grouping, the volume under review is almost monotonously unified, since the “testaments” are more apocalyptic than not; nor would it be wholly unfair to say that when you have read one ancient apocalypse you have read them all. Apocalypse as a form has taken surprising turns in Romantic and modern literature, from Blake and Shelley to Gravity’s Rainbow, but the form’s early history, from the Book of Daniel on to the Revelation of John and the later Pseudepigrapha, shows relatively little development or variety. It is even something of a puzzle why the Book of Daniel got into the Hebrew canon, but that is matter for speculation later.

The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek apocalypsis, “uncovering,” and represents a final unveiling or, to change the figure, a last taking-off of the lid. A traditional apothegm holds that failed prophecy becomes apocalyptic, while failed apocalyptic becomes Gnosticism—a permanent resigning of nature, time, and history to the powers of darkness. The middle place of apocalyptic in that saying positions it between prophetic hope and Gnostic despair, but however transcendent the apocalyptic hope, a despair over the here and now is always an apocalyptic stigma.

Beyond question, the most impressive of ancient apocalypses is the first, the canonical Book of Daniel—canonized by the rabbis of the second century, however, among “the Writings” rather than among “the Prophets,” where it is to be found in the Christian Bible. Daniel, composed probably during the Maccabean revolt, is in a clear sense a work of patriotic purpose, a kind of war poem intended to inspire the Jews to the valor their difficult situation demanded. In the book’s crucial seventh chapter, the author of Daniel has a vision in which four rough beasts rise out of the sea:

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