Jubilees and Second Temple Judaism(s)
Over the next while I would like to do some posts on the book of Jubilees and its importance for understanding the development of halakhah and the interpretation of sacred texts for some groups in Second Temple Judaism.
Many lay persons operate under the faulty assumption that the texts of the Old Testament were composed–and then a four-hundred year silence occurred where God was ‘silent’ and no relevant texts were authored–and then from that vacuum, the texts of the New Testament started being authored. However, for those familiar with the many texts now at our disposal from this supposed ‘silent’ period, we know that this conception is false: there were lots and lots of texts being authored, many of them in genres similar to familiar biblical material.
These texts demonstrate that the interpretation of sacred texts in the Second Temple period was more a process of “ramping up”–as certain newer developments in understanding and interpretation built on older ones. This “ramping up” of interpretation of sacred texts continues from the Hebrew Bible, through much of the extant literature of the Second Temple period, and continues into many of the ideas presented in the New Testament.
But before we begin diving into Jubilees:
Ideas That Need To be Discarded:
- All Jewish People Believed the Same Things: Perhaps one of the faultiest conceptions that some persons use to ‘understand’ the time period under question, and especially the NT, is Jewish religious belief and practice as one monolithic entity: just one united group of legalists who practiced and believed the same thing uniformly. This is wrong. Because of the diversity in Second Temple beliefs and practices scholars have taken to talking of Judaism(s). That is, there are different identifiable groups who may fall under the umbrella of ‘Judaism’ who hold some dissimilar beliefs (and I would add Christians as well!).
Ideas That Need To Be Understood:
- Different Jewish Groups Considered Different Sacred Texts Authoritative. Probably one of the most difficult conceptual lenses for modern persons to remove from their understanding of ancient sacred texts is that of ‘canon’. However, not all of the different groups in ancient Judaism read or revered the same texts. Not only that, but…
- There are texts NOT in the ‘Canon’ that Were Treated As the Authoritative Words of God by some Groups. In short, there were texts considered sacred and the words of God, that never made it into ‘our’ canon, but nevertheless, were viewed, at the time, as the very words of God. Simply put: Not only do we have different groups in Second Temple Judaism but many of these groups considered different sacred texts as normative, formative, and authoritative. However, ancient caches such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and writers such as Josephus, demonstrate that some modern conceptions of ‘canon’ are wholly inadequate in understanding authoritative sacred texts from this time period.
So then we have plurality and complexity: Plurality in the number of groups that can be identified within the different conceptual worlds of Second Temple Judaism, and complexity in the variety and number of texts that these differing groups believed to be the normative words of God.
There is one more point to muddy the waters for us a bit before we continue: the interpretation of sacred texts. I believe that James Kugel can help us out a bit here. In his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now James Kugel offers four assumptions of ancient interpreters:
- They assumed their sacred texts were fundamentally cryptic texts
- They assumed their sacred texts were a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day
- They assumed their sacred texts contained no contradictions or mistakes
- They believed their sacred texts were essentially a divinely given
If these assumptions are correct–and in his book Kugel goes through great lengths to demonstrate how these assumptions affected the interpretations of many ancient interpreters–then I believe that by the time of the authorship of a book like Jubilees–and its subsequent impact on later religious groups–we need to be completely cognizant of how these assumptions would affect not only the authorship of Jubilees, but also the reading, hearing, and understanding of such a text within the interpretive world of Second Temple Judaism.
Therefore, Hopefully As We Move Forward We Will Understand
- The plurality of Jewish groups
- The variety of competing sacred texts
- The similar assumptions of the interpreters of these competing texts
These three points will help us analyze and understand the enormity of the claims of a text like Jubilees within the thought-worlds of some Second Temple groups, and why perhaps one New Testament book had to confront the claims of Jubilees head-on.
Now that we have had all that build-up. Next: What exactly is the book of Jubilees?