What is the Book of Jubilees?

The Book of Jubilees is a critically important book for the study of the New Testament. As a summary and expansion of the Law, Jubilees provides an insight into the way some Jews in the last two centuries before Christ thought about the importance of the Law.

Dead Sea Scrolls

The book is often called “The Little Genesis” in Latin and Syriac translations on the basis of content. Jerome (fourth century), Syncellus (eighth century C.E.) and the Catena of Nicephorus (ninth century CE.) all refer to the book as Little Genesis. Syncellus also indicates the book circulated as “The Book of Adam’s Daughters.”  R. H. Charles published the text as The Book of Jubilees, or the Little Genesis. (London,: A. and C. Black, 1902).  The name Jubilees is known as early as Epiphanius (Haer. 39:6).  A Syrian fragment has the title “Names of the Wives of the Patriarchs according to the Hebrew Book of Jubilees.”  The book circulated under various other titles in the middle ages (Apocalypse of Moses, Life of Adam, etc., see the discussion of the title in Wintermute, “Jubilees” in OTP 2:41, 51, Charles, APOT, 2:2).

The book was written in the second century BCE in Hebrew as a summary and expansion of the book of Genesis and Exodus 1-12.  The book was translated from Hebrew into Greek and Syriac, then from Greek into Latin and Ethiopic. The Greek version is only known from fragments cited in other literature.  Likewise, Syriac manuscripts are fragmentary and known only from an anonymous Syriac chronicle published in 1921.  Only one-fourth of the book is known from Latin manuscripts published by Charles and Hermann Rönsch. The Ethiopic manuscripts are “virtually complete” (Wintermute 2:42), although the best manuscript dates to the sixteenth century (B.M. Orient. 45).

The book is present among the Qumran literature in twelve manuscripts, although not all have been published (1Q18 (1QJubb) 1QJubileesb; 2Q19 (2QJuba) 2QJubileesa, 2Q20 (2QJubb) 2QJubileesb, 4Q216 (4QJuba) 4QJubileesa). The book is called “The Book of the Divisions of the Times for Their Jubilees and Weeks” in CD 16:2-3 (Vanderkam, “Jubilees,” 3:1030). The number of fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates the book was popular for the Qumran community and may indicate a wider circulation in the first century.

James VanderKam reports that paleographic studies date fragments of Jubilees to 100 BCE, providing the latest possible date for the book. The earliest possible date is more difficult to determine, since there are no clear allusions to history in the book.  Charles argued the book must have been written between 153 and 105 B.C.E. assuming the book reflected a time after the Pharisees withdrew support for John Hyrcanus. (APOT 2:6).  Charles wrote well before the fragments from Qumran were discovered.  Josephus first mentions the Pharisees during the time of Jonathan (161-143 BCE,, Antiq. 13.171), but the earliest episode dates from the time of John Hyrcanus (135-104 BCE).  When Hyrcanus assumed both title of king and high priest, the Pharisee Eleazar told Hyrcanus he should not take the title of high priest (Antiq. 13.288).  Hyrcanus then allied himself with the Sadducees, and little else is said except that Hyrcanus quieted the stasis, translated “outbreak,” but more often it refers to an uprising of some sort.  In JW 1.67-69, however, the same incident is described, but with several differences.  There are a number of Pharisees who protest against Hyrcanus which eventually becomes a war.  Only after Hyrcanus puts down the rebellious Pharisees can he be said to have a quiet reign.

This range of dates is usually supported by the so-called anti-Edom texts (38:14, for example), which reflect a time when Hyrcanus controlled Edomite territory.  More 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 of Jubilees must be dated between 161 and 140 BCE.

Since the book appears to have been written in Hebrew in Judea by a member of a priestly family (Wintermute, “Jubilees,” OTP 2:45), Jubilees is a unique insight into the heart of an observant Jew in the period just prior to the events of the New Testament.  While Charles saw a pharisaical background to the book, F. M. Cross has 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.

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