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 …

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