Exploring the Library of Second Temple Judaism

Yeshiva University and Jewish Publication Society Celebrate Launch of Outside the Bible with Evening of Discussion

On December 3, Yeshiva University and the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) celebrated the publication of Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture (JPS, December 2013) at a special Hanukkah event at the Yeshiva University Museum.

Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, left, and Dr. Alex Jassen discuss major themes in Outside the Bible.
Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, left, and Dr. Alex Jassen discuss major themes in Outside the Bible.

“I think it is a remarkable tribute to this University that two of our three lead editors on this monumental 12-year, 70-scholar project serve on the faculty here, as do several other notable contributors,” said Rabbi Barry Schwartz, director of JPS, as he introduced the evening, which began with a communal candlelighting ceremony led by YU President Richard M. Joel to mark the seventh night of Hanukkah.

“We have to advance earnest and meaningful Jewish literacy, and this book demonstrates so much the beauty and importance that lies beyond the basics,” said President Joel. “A reading of these volumes—filled with apocalyptic visions and prophecies, folktales and legends, collections and sayings, laws and rules of conduct, commentaries and ancient prayers—builds a more colorful and textured understanding of our Jewish history and Jewish story.”

The book, a three-volume anthology of Second Temple literature that gathers portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and the writings of Josephus and Philo of Alexandria together for the first time, was edited by Dr. Louis H. Feldman, the Abraham Wouk Family Chair in Classics and Literature at YU; Dr. James L. Kugel, director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar-Ilan University; and Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of Judaic studies at YU.

In addition, more than 70 scholars contributed to the 3,000 page compilation, including several YU faculty members. Dr. Joseph Angel, assistant professor of Bible, was a contributor to the anthology. Dr. Yaakov Elman, Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies and professor of Jewish history, and Dr. Richard Hidary, assistant professor of Jewish history, were editorial advisors.

President Richard M. Joel leads a candlelighting ceremony at the event to mark the seventh night of Hanukkah.

The evening featured a discussion between Schiffman and Dr. Alex P. Jassen, associate professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and a contributor to the volumes, about the work’s main themes, including how the disparate texts included in the work impacted the people of their time as well as the Jewish and Christian traditions that came after them. “This is a period during which massive changes are going on in the Jewish people and the Jewish community,” said Schiffman. “The most important thing about the Second Temple Period is that when you understand it, you understand much more about how the rabbinic tradition came into being after a very long process of debate, disagreement and all kinds of differing approaches—and it enables us to better understand how Christianity developed as well.”

“This was an incredibly vibrant time of creativity when Jews were trying to make sense of their sacred scriptures and how to live their lives as Jews when they see themselves as heirs to the Israelite tradition,” said Jassen. “All of the thought patterns and speculation and literary activity you find in these volumes are things that Jews were doing because their sacred scriptures had to be constantly reinterpreted—they never stood as just literary artifacts—and they provided a window into the same type of activity which would later go on in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.”

Schiffman and Jassen also spoke about the challenging decision-making process used by the editors to organize texts written by very different authors for very different purposes and audiences. “I wanted us to be looking at what types of biblical interpretation and non-biblical texts were floating around in post-biblical Judaism, which requires that you get away from classifying the books by where they came from and instead classify them by what they say, because that’s how you can understand and bring to life the library of Second Temple Judaism,” said Schiffman.

“You have to remember that people were writing these texts with the intention that they would be scriptural, authoritative and sacred,” added Jassen. “They meant for these books to be part of what we call the Bible, but for one reason or another, they didn’t make the cut.”

Harold Dershowitz of West Orange, NJ, felt Outside the Bible’s launch dovetailed perfectly with the celebration of Hanukkah. “We’re celebrating Hanukkah now and it’s necessary to understand this very significant period of Jewish history to expand our appreciation of both the holiday and the period,” he said. “We’ve heard Dr. Feldman and Dr. Schiffman speak at our synagogue before—they’re both incredible fonts of Jewish history.”

Dr. Louis Feldman

“This gives a lot of validity to the study of texts which weren’t deemed sacred but weren’t wholly secular either and were written largely by Jews,” said Rachel Renz ‘14S, a double-major in Judaic studies and English literature who took a graduate course titled “Maccabean Revolt” taught by Schiffman and is undertaking an independent study with him as well.

Feldman, who has taught at YU for more than 50 years, delivered the evening’s closing remarks. “We are proud that we could produce a work that we hope will be available to a large audience,” he said. “Many of the original topics have never been put together in print. Now they’ll be in correlation with one another.”