Christians have often called the Second Temple Period is sometimes called the “400 silent years” since there are no authoritative writers from the end of the Old Testament until Paul begins to write in the early 50s A.D. But this period is anything but silent! Jewish writers produced a considerable amount of literature during the Second Temple period, especially if we include Josephus and Philo. Aside from the New Testament, these are the main collections of texts a student needs to read in order to understand the Second Temple period
The Septuagint (LXX). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The translation took place over a long time, although the prologue to the Greek translation of Sirach indicates all three parts were known by the end of the second century B.C. Jerome knew three different versions in the fourth century A.D. and Origin used two different in the creation of his Hexapla.
Histories. The main source is Josephus, who wrote twenty volumes on the History of The Jews and another six on the Jewish War against Rome. His autobiography was probably intended as an appendix to Jewish War. He also wrote an apology for Judaism, Against Apion. I will have a great deal more to say about Josephus later in this series.
The Apocrypha. The Apocrypha represents books popular in the Second Temple period but were not accepted as authoritative by the Jews. The earliest post-biblical writers use the Apocrypha in their own writings and worship and some early Church Fathers used some of these books as Scripture. The Apocrypha provides valuable insights into the development of the Jewish community in the period from the end of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New Testament. The origins of the sects and divisions of New Testament Judaism are seen in the Apocrypha as well as the influence of external forces like the Greeks and Romans.
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. James Davila called the Pseudepigrapha “a motley collection of some scores of quasi-biblical books.” The name “pseudepigrapha” means “false writings.” These are books which most believed were not inspired or authoritative. There is no canon of the pseudepigrapha and early publications of this literature included some apocryphal books and one rabbinic text. Some texts are only available to us in translations dated centuries later than the Second Temple Period. For example, 2 Enoch (The Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch) may date to the late first century A.D., but there are no manuscripts which date earlier than the fourteenth century and any “supposed Greek composition need not have been produced before A.D. 1000.”
An additional measure of popularity is the amount additional pseudepigraphal material created based an earlier text. 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra seem to have sparked a whole series of books which are based on the earlier versions (i.e. 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch the various other books of Ezra). That Enoch was being read and re-created to reflect a later historical context is a witness to the influence the book may have had in the first century. The main collection for this literature is James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (2 vols; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983–85).
The Dead Sea Scrolls. The DSS is a collection of manuscripts dating from as early as 200 B.C. to as late as A.D. 70. They appear to be the sacred library of a sect of Judaism known as the Essenes. Prior to the Roman destruction of their community in Qumran, they hid the scrolls in caves. The scrolls were placed in sealed ceramic jars and hidden in caves near the Dead Sea. This collection includes copies of biblical books and literature collected by the community. It is difficult to know why a particular book appeared in the library. A given book in the library may or may not reflect the thinking of the Qumran community. Many of the documents are fragmentary so it is difficult to use them in reconstructing the thinking of the Qumran community in the first place.
Philo of Alexandria. Philo was a Hellenistic Jew who wrote a philosophical apology for Judaism. In doing so, he wrote 39 books of commentary on biblical books, historical-apologetic works (Against Flaccus, Embassy to Gaius), and philosophical works. He sought a philosophical interpretation of the rituals of Judaism by using Hellenistic allegorical interpretation to find ethical teachings in the rituals.
Rabbinic Literature. The Mishnah is a commentary on the Jewish Law reflecting the oral tradition of the teachers of the Law up to about AD 250. The rabbinic literature presents special problems as a source for studying the practice of the first century: what really goes back to the first century?
For most Christians the sources are an unknown territory, and perhaps intimidating. But there is nothing shocking in any of this literature. There are no hidden dark secrets which undermine Christianity and if anything in this literature shakes a Christian’s faith, that faith was fairly weak to begin with.
How should we use these sources? What cautions would you recommend before wading into this vast literature? Are there some of the limitations which will prevent full understanding of this literature?
Bibliography: James Davila, “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha as Background to the New Testament,” The Expository Times 117.2 (2005): 53-57.