Extra-Biblical Literature in the Orthodox Church

This blog has often, and will continue to, make reference to extra-Biblical literature.  The two most important categories of this literature are Second Temple Jewish literature and early Christian writings such as the Apostolic Fathers.  Second Temple Jewish literature reveals to us the religious world and mindset of the first century AD from which Christianity emerged.  It shows us the theological lens through which the apostles understood the revelation which came in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Apostolic Fathers, and the Fathers of the second and third centuries as well, in particular, show us the continuity with, and transformation of, Second Temple Judaism that came to constitute the Christian religion.  Not only is the New Testament rife with allusions and in a few cases direct references and quotations from Second Temple Jewish literature, so are the early Fathers who understand the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, through that same religious grid.

This is not to say that the later Fathers moved away from this understanding or replaced it with another.  It has become a commonplace to argue that at some point, though this point differs in the telling, Christianity in the East moved away from its Jewish roots to replace them with Greek philosophy, Hellenizing the religion.  This is more related to a way of reading certain later Fathers than to the Fathers themselves or their mind.  The assumption is made that as new Greek terminology comes into play that this terminology brings with it its philosophical meaning from this or that philosophical system, usually Platonism.  Rather, Greek terminology is brought into play from the philosophical and in some cases religious worlds to describe Christian concepts which emerged from Second Temple Judaism.  Philosophical and religious Greek terminology is best suited to this, obviously, as attempting to translate such concepts into terms from some other area of life such as commerce would have produced even more, and more obvious distortion.  When read in light of these texts, particularly in the Greek or Greek translation, it becomes apparent that the scriptures are still being read and understood by the Fathers throughout Orthodox history within this same context.  The Fathers, Orthodox iconography, and Orthodox hymnography are filled with references to this literature and its interpretation of the scriptural text.

The greatest demonstration of this is that the vast majority of the Second Temple Jewish literature still available in the world today was preserved to the present day by the Orthodox Church.  While finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls include many of these texts, the primary texts of importance were already known before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the middle of the 20th century.  These perspectives and religious understandings were not just handed down in oral teaching, but in the form of the actual texts.  The importance of this handing down, this traditioning, should not be underestimated.  This is not a question of copies of texts continuing to exist in an Orthodox library or deposit of Orthodox text and happening to survive for two millennia or more.  This is a case of texts being actively copied, over and over again, for centuries, by Orthodox Christian monastics.  The reading, studying, and copying of these texts was not a minor or inexpensive matter, either.  Copying these texts was an expensive and time consuming exercise.  There was no ambiguity regarding the extra-Biblical nature of these texts.  They are not included in lectionaries or Biblical codices.  Yet their preservation was considered vitally important by generations of Orthodox Christian believers for the theological understanding which they impart.

A prime example of such a preserved text is 2 Enoch, also sometimes referred to as the Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch.  As the second name implies, the full text of 2 Enoch is available to us only in Slavonic.  Specifically, there are 20 manuscripts copied between the 14th and 18th centuries preserved for us in libraries of Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria.  Further, these 20 manuscripts show distinctive features meaning that they are not copies of each other, but represent independent lines of copying, such that the book’s use was widespread throughout the Slavic world.  The text includes certain Greek etymologies which demonstrate that it was translated from Greek.  There are also a number of untranslated Hebrew terms and emphases regarding Jerusalem, the temple, and sacrifices that imply a Hebrew or Aramaic original from the pre-Christian era.  For some time, there was a great scholarly debate about the antiquity of the text, with many scholars assigning its composition to the 10th century based on the Greek factors.  Recently, however, a few Coptic fragments of the text have been discovered from an early date, demonstrating the early date of the text.  This means that this text was translated into Greek and preserved in Orthodox circles, ultimately translated into Slavonic, and that the Slavonic speaking Orthodox churches then continued to copy this text across a vast geographical swathe for more than 1700 years.  The end of the manuscript evidence in the 18th century is not because 2 Enoch was abandoned, but rather due to the advent of the printing press.

3 Baruch is another example of such a text.  In 3 Baruch, Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, takes a journey through the heavens and describes his experiences of each.  This text was originally written in Greek, as attested by two Greek manuscripts from libraries on Mount Athos from the 15th century.  These two manuscripts show clear signs of being two copies of the same original.  There are more than twelve manuscripts of 3 Baruch in Slavonic which represent at least three strands of copying tradition.  Interestingly, one of the best Slavonic manuscripts, dating to the 13th century, comes from the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt.  This shows the wide circulation of this text throughout the Orthodox world and over a vast span of time.  The antiquity of this text is attested to by the fact that Origen references it in On First Principles as the place to find a description of the seven heavens.  3 Baruch, in distinction from other apocalyptic literature, contains an important account of the early 2nd century view of Paradise and Hades as the location of souls before the resurrection of the dead as those places are referenced by the New Testament.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs represent Second Temple Jewish literature which is critical to understanding the New Testament in general and the Johannine literature in particular.  In Genesis 49, Jacob on his deathbed speaks to each of his twelve sons imparting a prediction regarding their future.  This format became the model for a wide variety of Jewish literature known as testaments.  The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, then, is a collection of twelve such testaments, one from each of the sons of Jacob who were the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.  These testaments were written originally in Hebrew, and many Hebrew fragments have been discovered in various locations, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.  From Hebrew they were translated into Aramaic and Greek, and thence into Armenian, Slavonic, and other languages.  The earliest full representation of the Greek manuscript is a 10th century manuscript from Mount Athos.  Another manuscript from the 17th century comes from the library at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai.  The Mount Athos manuscript, from the Koutloumousiou Monastery, has a particularly useful copy of the Testament of Levi.  The 10th century copyist had access to both an Aramaic and a Greek form of the text which differed somewhat.  He copied the Greek text and then used notations to indicate the differences in the Aramaic, making this manuscript our best witness to both forms of the text.  While there is not evidence of direct literary dependence between these testaments and St. John’s writings, conceptually they are drawing from similar wells of Second Temple Jewish thought.

Another testament document preserved in the Orthodox Church is the Testament of Abraham.  This text from the 1st century AD describes an apocalyptic journey through the heavens and the earth by Abraham.  This text was written originally in Greek and seems to have been deliberately composed to match the style of Greek Old Testament texts in circulation at the time.  It is available in a complete form in Romanian translation and in parts in several Greek manuscripts and translations into Slavonic, Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic.  One of the Greek manuscripts is from Jerusalem in the 15th century.  This text bears important witness to the idea of the world being held under the sway of demonic powers who would someday be overcome by God and his Messiah.  In light of this, it argues for the keeping of the commandments to prepare to face judgment at the time of the Messiah’s coming.  Once again, this text was copied and translated throughout the Orthodox world.

One of the most popular Jewish texts of the ancient world is Joseph and Asenath.  This text describes the romance between the patriarch Joseph and his wife Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest as mentioned in Genesis 41:45, 50-52.  This text was written by a Jewish author in the first century AD, but was popular in both Jewish and Christian communities.  As evidence of its widespread popularity, the Greek text is found in several manuscripts at St. Catherine’s Monastery from the 10th to the 17th centuries, at multiple monasteries on Mount Athos from the 15th century, at Mar Saba monastery from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and in Romania from the 16th and 17th centuries.  In addition, two modern Greek illuminated manuscripts exist at Mount Athos from the 16th century.  Throughout history, this has been a well-known text to literate Christians throughout the Orthodox world.

The above mentioned example are just that, a mere handful of significant examples of Second Temple Jewish texts preserved within the Orthodox Church because of their relevance to understanding the Christian faith and the scriptures.  Indeed, it is only recent generations of educated, literate Orthodox Christians who are unfamiliar with these works, as is clear from their transmission and copying history, and their presence in all of the surviving ancient Orthodox libraries.  Likely many more works, and more complete and better manuscripts of these works were present at the great monastic foundations of Constantinople before its fall.  While most contemporary Orthodox Christians are aware of the importance of the Church’s liturgical traditions, iconographic traditions, and the Church Fathers to interpreting and understanding scripture, many, perhaps even most, are unaware that this tradition of extra-Biblical texts even exists.  These texts, though not holy scripture, represent an important and too long neglected element of that tradition which has been handed down to us by our forefathers according to the faith.

3 comments:

  1. I was reading the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem yesterday. I don’t know if you’re aware but he mentions the giants in it. He also spends a good amount of time talking about exorcism and it’s roots in the OT. Found that very interesting considering my interest in these issues. He also talk about angels receiving forgiveness, that there were angels who must have repented as a motivation for the catechumens to not despair of forgiveness. Please keep it up.

  2. ” These texts, though not holy scripture, represent an important and too long neglected element of that tradition which has been handed down to us by our forefathers according to the faith.”
    Thank you Father for presenting to us The Whole Counsel of God.

  3. Being familiar with Enoch 1 brought new meaning to my reading of Abimelech’s rebellion in Judges 9 (Judges 9:48 in particular).
    Loved your conversation on the Aeropagus podcast BTW. I have one question: “What does God need with a starship?”

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