Jubilees and the Eternal Covenant


The book of Jubilees is a critically important book for the study of the New Testament. The book was written in the second century B.C. in Hebrew as a summary and expansion of the book of Genesis and Exodus 1-12. Vanderkam reports paleographic studies date fragments of Jubilees to 100 B.C., providing the latest possible date for the book (Vanderkam, “Jubliees” ABD 3:1030). Recent studies have concluded the latest historical references in Jubilees are to the Maccabean revolt (specifically, 1 Mac 5:3, 6:5), thus the book must be dated between 161 and 140 B.C.

Since it was written in Hebrew in Palestine by a member of a priestly family, the book is a unique insight into the heart of an observant Jew in the period just prior to the events of the New Testament. Frank Cross described Jubilees as representing a kind of “proto-Essene” because of this emphasis on separation (The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies. Rev. ed., 199). In either case, we have a representative of a strict form of Judaism reacting to the Hellenizing tendencies of the Hasmonean rulers.

Jubilees claims to be a record of what was revealed to Moses during his forty days on Mount Sinai. Many distinctive Jewish practices are grounded in patriarchal narrative and in the created order itself. For example, circumcision was given as a sign of the Covenant in Genesis 15 and Jubilees expands on the practice. Circumcision is a commandment “written in heaven on heavenly tablets” (15:25). If Israel keeps the eternal commandment of circumcision, then “they will not be uprooted from the land because the commandment was ordained for the covenant so that they might keep it forever for all of the children of Israel” (15:28-29).

The primary purpose of Jubilees is to define the true Jewish people as those who keep God’s law and to call the Jewish people back to obedience to that Law. The Law is rooted in the very creation of the world. To violate law is therefore to flaunt the created order itself. Given the probability of a date just after the Maccabean revolt, the writer is reacting to those within the Jewish community who were too tolerant of the Greek world.

When Antiochus IV Epiphanies banned feasts and festivals, the Sabbath and circumcision, he violated the Law of God. Although the Maccabean revolt restored these practices, there was still apathy towards them in the Hasmonean period. The writer of Jubilees might have thought the Maccabean revolt did not go far enough since the Hasmonean kings were little better than the Seleucid kings they replaced. To be a proper Jew, one must retain the traditional boundary markers of the Hebrew Bible because they are rooted in the very nature of the world and there is no room for any negotiation on these practices.

Unlike Sirach, Jubilees envisions a complete separation from the Hellenistic world. The author of Jubilees does not encourage readers to adopt or adapt Hellenistic practices or thinking along Jewish lines. Unlike Sirach or the canonical Proverbs, wisdom is not rooted in creation, but rather the Law of God as it appears in the Mosaic Law. While Sirach said wisdom was to keep the Law of God, he was never very clear on what that Law might be. The author of Jubilees is quite clear as he re-writes the stories of the Hebrew Bible to establish the antiquity of the boundary markers of the Jewish people.