Resources for Studying the Second Temple Period


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.

apocryphaThe 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).

dead-sea-scrollsThe 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.

10 thoughts on “Resources for Studying the Second Temple Period

  1. I think it’s safe to stretch the dates for Second Temple to the actual time of the second Temple’s dedication circa 515 BCE. This would then include (even if on the outer peripheries through redaction, if not composition), Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, Malachi and Zechariah 1-9, as well as Nehemiah and Ezra. The Sixth century saw a renewal in Israelite literature that is reflected in these late histories and prophetic works as well as Daniel and the rise of apocalyptic and apocrypha literature. The riches are there for the plundering.


  2. Phillip, you know, but for other readers: I’m a pretty serious and long-time student of the Bible. I have an M.Div. which included Greek (to the level of slow, “lousy” translation skills) and Hebrew. Exegesis was key at Talbot then (and probably still now). I later had more formal theological education and tons pursued on my own. Still, I confess to a bit of the “intimidated” issue… not for fear of what I’ll find, but that it’s too much to make sense of and diverts me from higher interest areas.

    Actually, I DO get a fair amount of the content of these different categories second-hand via statements or summaries in other biblical studies or related works. But I’ve never had much draw to read them directly, nor even much of Josephus or the Church Fathers, though it’s fascinating stuff often, and actually of interest to me what they were thinking and why, etc.

    However, I’ve read enough here and there to say the “amen” and recommend people at least do some “sampling” in some of the more influential sources. Also that they do like me and at least read analyses of things like DSS and Josephus, maybe Maccabees, etc.

    Also, for what it’s worth: It is not only Catholic Bibles that have the Apocryphal lit.: I’m looking at the contents of my nice leather-bound New Revised Std. Version (NRSV) Bible. It calls the category “Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical Books”. I don’t know how many other translations offer this in various editions, but at least these books seem of some importance, historically if not theologically.

    One other non-canonical but potentially early book I HAVE read a couple times, and read a fair amount about is the “Gospel of Thomas”. Fascinating on several levels, including its relatively recent discovery. Also that it (to me, at least) lends credence to the inferred existence of other and probably earlier “sayings” gospels. And indirectly, to the reality of “Q” (or source for Matthew and Luke, probably composed prior to all the canonical gospels). Also fascinating re. the mix of gnostic and non-gnostic ideas, fairly similar to what we see in G. John, in my view. I see the composition of those two books being fairly close in time… probably between about 90 and 120, and indicating that traditional views tend to create a more clear demarcation between proto-orthodoxy and gnosticism than there actually was, as sects and religions were being rapidly “invented” and/or evolved in the 1st and early 2nd centuries (and longer).


  3. When conducting research using outside sources from the Bible, it is important to keep in mind that these sources aid in understanding but should not be used as a substitute for what the scripture says, and to not be too overwhelmed with all the information that it distracts from the main objective. Some of the sources may not accurately reflect the community as a whole, as stated above from Professor Long commenting that: “A given book in the library may or may not reflect the thinking of the Qumran community”. The Apocrypha, for example, provides insight into the development of the Jewish community, however, according to Tomasino’s Judaism Before Jesus, states that “Most of the apocryphal texts aren’t all that useful for reconstructing the history of the Jews per se” (26). In other words, these sources are reliable for developing and understanding Jewish culture and religious thought during this time period.


  4. It is important for Christians to read some of the outside sources from the second temple period so that they can have supplemental information that will enhance their ability to comprehend the concepts that are found in canonical texts. It can serve to provide some background cultural information, and like you stated in the original post, will do nothing to severely rattle the faith of any Christian, unless their faith is very weak. To answer the questions posited at the end of the post, I believe that a Christians should have good knowledge of the Bible before they begin to wade into these additional texts. Just as you would not start a budding Lord of the Rings fan on The Silmarillion before they had knowledge of the Hobbit and original trilogy, someone should not begin with these books and then work back to the Bible. This allows them to weigh what they read against the scriptures, and will enhance the experience. I would also remind anyone beginning the process of reading these texts that they are not considered to be inspired, meaning that they are not to be taken as the very word of God. They can provide information on the historical and cultural things going on, but should not be used as sources that reveal anything about the very character of God. As far as any limitations which will prevent full understanding of these texts, I believe the biggest limitation for most Christians will simply be time. Most simply do not have the capacity to intensely study these texts, which is why it can be good to read summaries or statements from other, viable academic sources that have the education necessary to wade through these texts and find important bits.


  5. In my opinion, intertestamental studies are so fascinating simply because it enables you to look at sources outside of the Bible…that is not to devalue the sufficiency of the scriptures, but rather validate the actual history of the Bible. A lot of individuals forget to perceive the word of God as literal history, because they are too busy picking out verses to caption their selfie photos with. Obviously these external sources are to be read, applied, and professed with caution because it something other than what is God-breathed. But how awesome is it that we have resources that we can read alongside the Bible, that teach us Jewish history? I would say that it is almost crucial to understand the context and history of these sources. I know that the Bible is superior to anything else, but why not check out what other antiquities have been written? Example…it is kind of like only buying products from Meijer…you know that it will always be your #1, but why not check out other grocery stores once and a while? It might even further your thankfulness for Meijer!


    • Interesting comment about the obsession with our “selfie-friendly scripture” culture today. I feel that this is a big reason why there isn’t more interest in these books, they definitely don’t fit into that type of “consumer Christian” mentality. How do you feel that we can practically push people away from the issue of “selfie scripture”? Thanks for your input!


  6. As stated in this post, I do think that many Christians find these documents intimidating. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a little afraid of learning more about these documents; not because I think that they will cause me to lose faith, rather I think that it will just be more difficult to comprehend. As Christians, I think that it is vital to remember that these sources are not God’s word, meaning that these sources were not included in the Bible for a reason. If someone who is struggling with their faith begins to study these sources, I would take great caution. I think it is very important to study the Bible and have a good understanding of what the word of God says before you take everything any one of these sources says as truth.


  7. I am still very interested in what Jews’ views were on the (now called) apocrypha in the days of Jesus. Were such books as the Maccabees considered merely historical accounts or were they praised as exuding some form of divine origin (or the events/people contained within). I know that the ideas presented in those books made the Jews what they were in the days of Jesus, but what was the extent of their veneration, if any? Also, since early church fathers used these writings in their worship, what does that mean for the texts? Were the fathers wrong in using them? What caused the fathers to think the apocrypha were authoritative to begin with?

    As for your questions posed at the end, I would give one recommendation for how to deal with apocrypha. We must understand that this literature is exalted by some branches of Christianity (esp. the Roman Catholic tradition). This prompts both an encouragement to study them as well as a caution in discussing them. First, I would encourage people to read the apocrypha so that they can relate to their brothers and sisters who take them as authoritative. Second, I would caution people to be sensitive in how they converse about the apocrypha. Since there are those who believe them to be inspired, it would be heinous to talk about them in an insensitive manner.

    The Rabbinic literature also provides an interesting commentary on the Torah. The reason it is interesting is because of what I recently read in a book titled “Judaism Before Jesus: the events and ideas that shaped the New Testament world”. The author, A. J. Tomasino, states, in reference to the return from Babylonian exile, “There was no king to serve as the center of national pride; no temple that could be the focus of religious ‘elitism.’ … And thus were sown the seeds of a new individualism: nationalistic hopes and collective piety were giving way to personal piety and expectation of an intimate, personal relationship with God.” (pg. 71)

    If this individualistic psychology carried itself into the first century, then no doubt this would be the kind of mindset the first century Rabbis possessed when writing their literature. I am curious to read Rabbinic commentary on the Torah. Observe how the preexilic Yahwism of the Torah is interpreted by the postexilic Judaism of the Mishnah.


  8. These resources have had many conflicting viewpoints on how to approach them as several others have already pointed out. I would be more inclined to approach the Apocrypha as a sort of Jewish version of CS Lewis writings or the Iliad. Josephus and other historical writers I would be more inclined to read those as accurate historical accounts. Each of these works should be taken as you would take any non-religious resource using textual context, and historical context. Studying them as one would study any work of literature in trying to discern the authors intent in writing.


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