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Jubilees and Second Temple Judaism(s)

August 12, 2011

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:

  1. 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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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:

  1. They assumed their sacred texts were fundamentally cryptic texts
  2. They assumed their sacred texts were a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day
  3. They assumed their sacred texts contained no contradictions or mistakes
  4. 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

  1. The plurality of Jewish groups
  2. The variety of competing sacred texts
  3. 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?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
    August 15, 2011 2:08 pm

    Reading this post today impresses upon me that a lot of the fracas I’ve read coming from some conservative evangelicals about the “New Perspective on Paul” and N. T. Wright or Dunn, it strikes me that a lot of the objections come down to the fact that New Perspective scholars take as given that 1) not all Jewish groups believed the same things 2) different groups regarded different documents as authoritative and 3) different groups held as authoritative documents that are not now canonical.

    A lot of “Old Perspective” preachers and theologians just don’t dig the implications of that, obviously. They don’t like Wright saying that the majority of theological assumptions made by conservative Protestants owe more to medieval scholastic debates in Europe and the political implications of those debates than anything Paul, as a first century Jewish convert to Christianity would have actually been concerned about.

    I always dig the stuff you post here about intertestamental literature. Looking forward to more in this series.

    • August 15, 2011 5:06 pm

      There are two things here for me: one, I don’t really care when I am doing biblical studies what the theological implications are, especially ‘Reformed’ or ‘denominational’ implications.

      Two, as a historian, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that there were different groups, who believed different things, and valued different sacred texts. Anything else is a misrepresentation. If that misrepresentation is made for theological presuppositions then, I guess, that tells you a little something about those tendentious presuppositions.

      • WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
        August 15, 2011 7:21 pm

        I’ve noticed those two things about you. 🙂

        I read Jeffrey Burton Russell’s fun five book series on the historical development of the devil in Western culture and he camps out a lot on intertestamental literature and “pagan” influences in how the “Christian” idea of the devil developed over millenia. He mentioned the role Enoch and Jubilees played in the development of Jewish and Christian ideas about the devil but all he did was a fly-by summary of the influence of the texts on a single issue rather than discussing the books in much detail so it will be fun to read a more detailed study of Jubilees.

    • Chris E permalink
      August 16, 2011 2:59 pm

      Is that really true? ISTM that most of the NPPs don’t really require plurality of schools as long as covenantal nomism of some kind is in the picture.

      Secondly, it’s interesting given the flexible notions of canon that existed in the 2nd Temple Period that rabbinic judaism was able to settle on a single canon and not splinter into various factions.

      • August 16, 2011 3:23 pm

        What happened after the destruction of the Second Temple, Jamnia, and the Second Jewish Rebellion is a whole other story…

      • WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
        August 16, 2011 6:29 pm

        Seeing as Wright is either by guilt-of-association or dint of sheer output considered the most famous NPP scholar out there; and since Wright takes as given that Jewish thought varied widely in the Second Temple period and before; I don’t think it’s inaccurate to write what I posted earlier. Sure, there are NPP sorts who assume a monolithic Judaism but that’s been one of the criticisms of Sanders’ work, so even within the NPP there have been criticisms that the three big points Scott outlined were not given adequate attention. As to what’s “New” in the NPP I’ve been reading a commentary by von Schlatter (one of Bonhoeffer’s teachers) and I’m noticing there’s a lot in the NPP that isn’t nearly as new as first appears.

        BUT lengthy digressions onto NT interpretation isn’t something I mean to jump into here on Scott’s blog, Chris E. We could kick around some ideas off line or over at my blog if you like, since NT is where my background as a hobbyist tends to be.


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  4. Judaism and the Bible

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