Writing and Rewriting the Bible in the Time of Jesus

Both Christians and Jews can learn from the reconstruction of the process by which unified scriptures emerged from diversity

Geza Vermes

The Jewish religion is based on a book that is surrounded, complemented and interpreted by tradition. The Hebrew Scripture includes the Law (Torah), followed by the Prophets (Neviim, the historical books and the works of the prophets), and finishing with the Writings (Ketuvim, Psalms, Wisdom books, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles). 

According to biblical tradition the principal part of the Law, the Decalogue was chiselled on two stone tablets by God himself. He even re-engraved them after Moses had smashed the first set of tablets to pieces on witnessing the Jews worshipping the golden calf. The rest of the Torah, the five scrolls of Pentateuch, was spoken by God to Moses, who recorded the divine revelation in the Book of the Law, referred to later as the Law of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). This Law was kept in the Temple before its destruction in 586 BCE. It was taken to exile in Babylonia by the priests and brought back to Jerusalem by Ezra the Scribe in the fifth century BCE. He promulgated it to the people and the Levites read it out and followed up the reading by an interpretation (Nehemiah 8:1-8).

As far as the Prophets are concerned, thanks to chapter 36 of the Book of Jeremiah, we learn details regarding the production of a prophetic book. Jeremiah, having received the divine message, dictated its words to his scribe Baruch, who wrote them down with ink on a leather scroll. The prophet presented this scroll to King Jehoiakim but the monarch disliked the message critical of Jerusalem, when it was read to him by one of his courtiers. He cut the scroll to pieces and threw them in the fireplace. Jeremiah repeated the prophecies to Baruch who prepared a new scroll. 

A further important detail about the preservation of the Bible in antiquity is mentioned in the Talmud, which reports that three master copies of the Torah were deposited in the Temple for consultation in case of doubt about a reading. This implies that the ancient rabbis were aware of the existence of variants in the biblical manuscripts. 

The oldest documents that include a scriptural citation are two silver amulets with minor variations of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. They are dated from c. 600 BCE and were found in a tomb at Ketef Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem in 1979. The earlier discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 11 caves in the region of Qumran yielded a substantial amount of Old Testament remains. The most ancient leather fragment belongs to the Book of Samuel and is dated from the middle of the third century BCE. Another manuscript of the same book originates from 100-75 BCE. The complete Isaiah scroll comes from 50-25 BCE. On the whole, the 225 Qumran biblical documents surviving as scrolls and fragments, range from the middle of the third century BCE to 68 CE when, following the Roman conquest, sectarian life and scribal activity came to an end on the Qumran site. All the books of the Old Testament with the exception of Esther are attested in the 11 caves. There are four scrolls (Leviticus, two Isaiah and Psalms) and thousands of fragments. Some of the biblical books existed at Qumran in several copies. We have 36 manuscripts of the Psalms, 35 of Deuteronomy, 23 of Genesis, 21 of Isaiah.

These discoveries between 1947 and 1956 and in 1979 have entirely altered our perception of the biblical text. Before Qumran, the earliest known complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex, came from 1008 CE. The highly authoritative but incomplete Aleppo Codex was copied in the tenth century. Earlier biblical manuscripts were discarded by the Jews as they lacked the work of the early medieval biblical experts, the Masoretes or guardians of tradition, who in order to fix the meaning of the scriptures, provided the original consonantal text with vowel signs. Consonants suffice to read and understand Hebrew and even modern Hebrew texts are devoid of vowels. 

Codices containing the whole ancient Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, are considerably older than the Hebrew Leningrad Codex from the 11th century: the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus go back to the fourth century CE. In fact, most Qumran biblical remains precede by more than a millennium the oldest complete Hebrew Bible previously known. 

During the Babylonian captivity (586-539 BCE) Hebrew largely ceased to be the vernacular spoken by the exiled Jews and was soon replaced by Aramaic, the international language of the Persian empire. Even some parts of the Old Testament (sections of Ezra and Daniel) exist only in Aramaic. If the interpretation of the Law of Moses by the Levites, members of the priestly tribe, at the great ceremony presided over by Ezra signifies translation, the Aramaic rendering of the Bible, called Targum, goes back as far as the mid-fifth century BCE. The earliest Targum texts come from Qumran. Two small Aramaic fragments from Leviticus and Job have been found in Cave 4. The Polish Scrolls scholar, J.T. Milik, dates the former to the late second century BCE and the latter to the middle of the first century CE. Cave 11 has yielded a somewhat longer fragmentary Targum, of Job, which originates from the middle of the first century CE. All the Qumran Targums display some variations compared to the original Hebrew. One renders “the Holy” as “the House of Holiness”, as do also the later Targums. The translation is not always literal. As none of the corresponding Hebrew extracts has survived at Qumran, it is impossible to establish whether the differences are due to the translator or to variant readings in the original text.

Jewish tradition places the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch by Onkelos to the late first or early second century CE and the Targum of the Prophets by Jonathan to the first century CE. Both Onkelos and Jonathan are fairly literal, except in the poetic passages. The present form of the Palestinian Targums of the Pentateuch (Codex Neofiti, Fragmentary Targum and Pseudo-Jonathan), filled with exegetical supplements, are somewhat later. Pseudo-Jonathan was revised up to the seventh century CE, but they were all redacted between the second to the fourth century CE and have preserved much earlier tradition. Onkelos is sometimes associated with Aquila, the second century CE literal translator of the Greek Bible. 

The Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures was produced for the use of the Jews living in the Hellenistic diaspora. It appears to have started in Alexandria in Egypt probably in the third century BCE. According to the legendary account included in the Letter of Aristeas, a Jewish-Greek document from 150-100 BCE, the translation of the Torah of the Jews into Greek was prompted by King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BCE), who wanted to store the legal wisdom of all the nations in his library. Therefore he asked the High Priest in Jerusalem to supply him with translators. Seventy-two Greek-speaking learned men were dispatched to the nearby island of Pharos to work undisturbed. Supervised by Demetrius, the Alexandrian head librarian, they consulted each other and, after comparing their renderings, produced an agreed translation.

Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE-40 CE) offers a more miraculous account. King Ptolemy decided to have the Law of the Jews translated from Chaldaean (Hebrew) into Greek. The High Priest of Jerusalem sent wise interpreters and they were installed on the peaceful island of Pharos. There, possessed by the Spirit, they all ended up with literally the same correct Greek rendering, produced not by translators but by prophets and priests of mysteries. The purpose of the story was to present the Septuagint as an inspired work of the same significance and standing as the Hebrew Bible. The completion of the enterprise was annually celebrated with a Septuagint festival at Pharos. 

In the course of the second and first centuries BCE the Prophets and the Writings were also turned into Greek and the Septuagint was further enriched by the Apocrypha, some of which was originally composed in Greek (Wisdom of Solomon, 2 Maccabees), others being translations into Greek from Hebrew (e.g. the Wisdom of Ben Sira or Sirach and others) or Aramaic (possibly Tobit).

Contrary to the claim of Philo, the Septuagint is not always a strictly literal rendering. To bring the Greek closer to the Hebrew, in the second century CE three new Greek versions were produced. 

Before the discovery of the first Qumran scroll in 1947, no Hebrew manuscript of the Bible belonging to the age of Jesus was known, with the sole exception of the small Nash papyrus containing the Ten Commandments and other scriptural extracts, and dated from between the mid-second century BCE and the first century CE. No rules relating to the making of biblical manuscripts have been preserved before the Talmud and the post-Talmudic tractate on the Scribes, the Massekhet Soferim. With the discoveries at Qumran, Masada, and other caves in the Judaean desert, we have now a considerable amount of written documents on leather and papyrus. They offer direct evidence of what ancient Hebrew manuscripts were like. Qumran alone has yielded remains of 930 original documents. We can now deduce from concrete evidence how they were manufactured.  

The main writing material was leather, mostly sheep and goatskin, or papyrus, all specially prepared by craftsmen. The leather used for some of the scrolls found in the caves was probably treated in the two tanneries, one at Qumran and the other at nearby Ain Feshkha. Being more durable, leather was preferred for literary works, especially for biblical manuscripts. We have only a single papyrus fragment of a scriptural book (Isaiah). The rabbis later formally prohibited the use of papyrus for copying the Bible. By contrast, letters, deeds of sale, acknowledgments of debt, and non-biblical religious works were often recorded on papyrus.

As a rule, biblical texts were copied on the hairy side of the skin and rolled up with the text inside so as to be protected. Before setting out to write, the scribe lined the leather sheets horizontally with the help of a reed. Papyrus sheets were often covered with writing on both sides and not lined. Contrary to our custom, the Qumran scribes did not write on the lines, but attached the top of the letters to them. Two vertical lines determined the width of the columns. To protect the writing from repeated finger marks on the opening sheet of a scroll, the scribe left a larger first margin blank. 

A sheet usually contained five columns of text. For a longer work several sheets were needed and, to ensure that they would be sewn together in the correct order, their sequence was discretely marked by the scribe. Some of these numberings are still visible. Mistakes were regularly corrected: either erased or signalled by correction dots. Missing words were inserted between the lines or in the margins.

The title of the work was indicated on the verso of the first sheet. Some of these relating to non-biblical texts have survived and consist of the first few words of the document. As a result, the rolled-up scrolls could be easily identified. The scribes used vegetable ink kept in inkwells made of clay or metal, six of which have survived. Ink containing acid damaged the leather as can be seen in the scroll of the Genesis Apocryphon. The copyists wrote with reed pens which they sharpened with the help of a “scribe’s knife”. 

Most Hebrew and Aramaic Qumran manuscripts were written with the “square” alphabet, which is still in use in modern Hebrew. Twelve biblical manuscripts display the archaic Hebrew alphabet and there are also a few documents employing cryptic scripts. In a number of Qumran scrolls, in order to make it stand out, the four-lettered divine name-YHWH-was written with archaic Hebrew letters, or marked by four prominent dots. 

According to Jewish tradition, it was through direct speech that God conveyed the Bible to its authors. They recorded the dictation and thus the later users, according to strict Jewish (and Christian fundamentalist) orthodoxy, had God’s own words in front of them in the Holy Scriptures. The earliest manuscript evidence we possess varies and does not support the idea of divine dictation. Qumran testifies to a considerable textual elasticity. Unification resulted only later from the intervention of rabbinic authority. First the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible was established and subsequently the meaning was further determined through the introduction of “pointing” or the Masoretic vowel signs, which eliminated equivocation. For example, without vowel signs, the three consonants MLK can be read as MeLeK (king), MaLaK (he reigned) or MoLeK (Molech, a pagan god).

The Qumran biblical manuscripts attest many notable variations. Some of them, called proto-Masoretic, roughly prefigure the later traditional (Masoretic) text. Others recall the somewhat different Hebrew underlying the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek of the Septuagint. Fifteen per cent of the texts are non-aligned: they differ from the three previously listed patterns. The Qumran evidence demonstrates that variety preceded textual unity.

How should one judge these textual variants? One must assume that the scribes intended to transmit what they believed to be the correct form of the sacred text and intended to put in their scrolls what was for them the word of God even when these differed from the commonly accepted version. Consequently, unusual readings, which are not obviously interpretative, represent texts preferred by the copyists. 

Some of the variants have doctrinal basis. The Samaritans substitute Samaria for Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim, their sacred mountain, for Mount Zion. The manuscripts mirroring the Hebrew used by the Greek translators of the Septuagint prefer to speak of “angels” rather than “sons of God”. The same verse may exist in shorter and longer versions. For instance for Exodus 10:5 the Masoretic Bible and the Septuagint assert that the locusts “shall eat every tree”. By contrast, the Samaritan Pentateuch and a Qumran fragment substitute for it: the locusts “shall eat every grass of the land and every fruit of the tree”.  

In the case of a poetic passage (Deuteronomy 32:43), the medium length Qumran text constitutes a halfway house between the long Septuagint and the short traditional Masoretic version.

Septuagint Greek

Rejoice, O heavens with him and let all the angels of God worship him.

Rejoice, O nations with his people 

and let all the sons of God declare him mighty.

For he shall avenge the blood of his sons

and shall take revenge on, and pay justice to, his enemies

and shall reward them that hate him. 

Qumran Hebrew

Rejoice, O heavens, with him and all you “gods”, worship him.

For he shall avenge the blood of his sons

and shall take revenge on his enemies

and shall reward them that hate him. 

Masoretic Hebrew

Rejoice, O nations, with his people;

for he avenges the blood of his servants

and takes vengeance on his adversaries. 

In general, biblical poetry allows for more textual freedom than prose, whether it is in the Hebrew itself or in Greek or Aramaic translation. The hand of the ancient Jewish scribe of the Bible was not tied. These scribes were not servile copyists but felt entitled to exercise creative liberty. Flavius Josephus also declared that in retelling the scriptural story he did not add to or omit anything from the Bible. In fact he was regularly doing the opposite to convey what he thought to be the correct meaning of the text. 

A biblical text differing from what has become traditional may have two causes. Either the scribe (or the Greek or Aramaic translator) employed a model, which was not the same as the “official” version. Or the scribe/writer deliberately re-edited his prototype and created a new genre, the “Rewritten” Bible.

The four Qumran manuscripts of the Reworked Pentateuch, dating from the second half of the first century BCE, are considered as an intermediary stage between a re-edited version of the Bible-using synonyms, additions and omissions or changing the word order-and a traditional text enriched with interpretation. The most striking example is the enlarged Song of Miriam. At Exodus 15:22 we read: “Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” 

However, in the Reworked Pentateuch we have a longer poem in which this opening is followed by seven more lines which are incompletely preserved: “. . . you have despised . . . For pride . . . You are great, a saviour . . . The hope of the enemy has perished and . . . They have perished in the mighty waters, the enemy . . . And lifts up to their height. You have given [a r]ansom . . . he who acts proudly . . .”

Considering the length of similar scriptural songs, those of Moses (Exodus 15:1-17), Deborah (Judges 5:2-31) and Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), it is most unlikely that Miriam’s inspiration dried up after a single verse. In the mind of the scribe the extra lines represented the authentic continuation of the poem, omitted from the traditional Bible. In short, the Reworked Pentateuch should be classified as a revised text of scripture rather than as interpretation.

The Temple Scroll from Cave 11 is considered by some as a sample of Reworked Pentateuch, though it can also be defined as a work of interpretation or a substitute composition for the traditional Jewish Law, the Qumran Torah. Generally dated to the mid-second century BCE, it is probably pre-sectarian, but its close links to the Qumran Damascus Document and to the sect’s liturgical calendar suggests that it was adopted and adapted by the Dead Sea community. 

The Temple Scroll, all 26 feet of it, is the longest Qumran manuscript. It is a fresh composition mostly made up of rearranged long excerpts from the Pentateuch. One of its chief characteristics is the author’s switch: he replaces the biblical revelation of the Torah by the Deity to Moses with a direct presentation of the commandments by God in the first person to the people of Israel. 

See for example Deuteronomy 21:5 set against Temple Scroll 63:3.

Deuteronomy       Temple Scroll 

And the priests, And the priests,

the sons of Levi, the sons of Levi,

shall come forward, shall come forward,

for YHWH your God for I

has chosen them have chosen them

to minister to him to minister to me

and to bless and to bless

in the name of YHWH. in my name.

Moreover, the author of the scroll eliminates duplicate commandments, reorders the biblical laws by topic, as do the later rabbis in the Mishnah (c.200 CE), and introduces new laws such as that regarding the festival of the new oil. The compulsory monogamy imposed on the Jewish king and the introduction of “hanging” (probably crucifixion) as a Jewish death penalty are also novelties of the Temple Scroll. 

There are four types of scripture exegesis among the Qumran writings. The first takes the form of an interpretative synopsis of biblical books. It allows the reader a quick grasp of Genesis and Exodus with regard to the creation, the flood, Pharaoh’s attempt to exterminate the newborn Jewish boys, Moses at the burning bush, the encounter of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh and the ten plagues of Egypt. 

The Qumran pesher (fulfilment interpretation) belongs to the second type. It is construed with a scripture quotation followed by an introductory formula and an interpretation usually associating the biblical prediction with its realisation in a recent event of the history of the Dead Sea community. We have such exegetical works on Genesis, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Malachi and Psalms as well as 13 columns of the almost complete commentary on Habakkuk. Such fulfilment interpretation is occasionally found in rabbinic literature too, but it is more common in the New Testament.

Legal exegesis constitutes the third type. It reinterprets various biblical commandments, as does also frequently the Temple Scroll. 

Fourthly, selections of scripture passages are employed to develop messianic and eschatological doctrines.  

The term the “Rewritten Bible” has been hotly debated during the last quarter of a century. I use it here in the meaning I gave it when I first launched the concept in Scripture and Tradition in Judaism in 1961: 

In order to anticipate questions, and solve problems in advance, the midrashist (interpreter) inserts haggadic (descriptive or doctrinal) developments into the biblical narrative . . .

The essential feature of the Rewritten Bible is that instead of reproducing separately the biblical text followed by exegetical comments, as does the pesher, the Rewritten Bible incorporates the interpretative remarks into the scriptural text itself. The commentator literally “rewrites” the Bible. This kind of composition may be found throughout the whole of Jewish literature from the Bible itself (Deuteronomy reuses the earlier books of the Pentateuch and Chronicles re-edits Samuel and Kings) to the works Philo, Josephus and the rabbis. However, in recent years transatlantic scholars have tended to restrict research on this topic to the Dead Sea Scrolls. A number of them also object to my phrase “Rewritten Bible” and prefer “Rewritten Scripture”. They argue that in the Qumran age the notion of “Bible” was still in a fluid state. But this literary category extends beyond Qumran. Furthermore, is there any difference in meaning between Bible and scripture? Finally, according to Josephus, in his time in the first century CE, Jews recognised as authoritative 22 books precisely. This signifies that there existed a canon, a definite list of works consisting of the five books of the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy), the 13 books of the prophet-historians (Joshua, Judges-Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah-Lamentations, Ezekiel, Minor Prophets, Daniel) and the four books of Hymns and Wisdom (Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). They made up the Bible, so the phrase “Rewritten Bible” is fully justified.

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls, the principal representatives of the Rewritten Bible were the Book of Jubilees (mid-second century BCE), which retells with inserted comments the story of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus; Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (end of first century CE), covering the whole biblical history; and Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities (first century CE), concerned with the Bible account from the creation to David. To these are to be added in the world of the rabbis the Palestinian Pentateuch Targums (Pseudo-Jonathan, Fragmentary Targum and Targum Codex Neofiti), all dating from the second to the fourth century CE, but containing much old material. Read out during the synagogue services, the Palestinian Targums performed the same role for the somewhat literate Jews as the visual narration of the biblical story in the frescoes and statues of the medieval churches did for the largely illiterate Christians.  

The Qumran caves have yielded a few manuscripts that belong to the Rewritten Bible class. Some 20 fragmentary Hebrew manuscripts of the Book of Jubilees, previously known only from Ethiopic, Greek, Latin and Syriac translations, were discovered in Caves 1, 2, 3, 4 and 11. But among the Qumran finds, the pride of place is occupied by the Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon of the first century BCE, an extended Aramaic paraphrase with substantially enriched interpretative supplements. The section relating to the story of Abraham is fairly well preserved. The adduced example concerns the account of the healing of the plague (impotence), which had been inflicted on Pharaoh and his men, due to Abraham’s intervention after Sarah’s forcible transfer to the royal palace.

Gen 12:19

Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her as a wife for myself. Now here is your wife. Take her and depart!

GA 20:26-29

You told me, “She is my sister”, whereas she is your wife. And I took her to be my wife. Behold your wife who is with me. Depart and go hence from all the land of Egypt. And now pray for me and my household that this evil spirit may depart from me. I prayed for him, and I laid my hands upon his head, and the plague went from him, and the evil spirit departed from him, and he lived.

Two columns of a Genesis commentary yielded by Cave 4 transmit the story of the flood (Gen. 6:3-9:25). The redactor adds to the biblical dates of the various events their equivalents in the 364-day solar calendar of the Qumran community. It thus becomes a standard example of the Rewritten Bible.

In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month—on the first day of the week—on the seventeenth day (of the month), on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights—until the twentysixth day of the third month, the fifth day of the week

The Jewish Antiquities by Josephus (37-c.100 CE) and the Book of Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo are the two major samples of the Rewritten Bible surviving, the first in Greek and the second in Latin. Their style of exegesis recalls the Genesis Apocryphon. In Jewish Antiquities, the decree ordering the destruction of the Jewish boys born in Egypt is explained as follows.

 One of the sacred scribes-persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future-announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown. Alarmed thereat, the king, on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river (Ant. 2:205).

Likewise Pseudo-Philo supplements the Genesis account of the sacrifice of Isaac by asserting that Isaac not only did not resist his father, but willingly and gladly agreed to become a sacrificial victim.

Don’t you remember what happened in the days of our fathers, when the father was to sacrifice his son and the latter did not object but joyfully consented (Bibl. Ant. 40:2). 

The Palestinian Targums of the Pentateuch, written in Galilean Aramaic close to the language of Jesus, constitute a peculiar exegetical phenomenon. Sometimes their supplementation is terse, but quite often highly elaborate and expresses rich theological thinking prevalent among the authors of these Aramaic paraphrases. A particularly significant illustration may be found in the story of the Passover attached to Exodus 12:42:

That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.

 A fragmentary Targum combined with Neofiti: 

 Four nights are recorded in the Book of Memorials.

On the first night the Word of the Lord was revealed on the world to create it . .

On the second night the Word of the Lord was revealed upon Abraham . . . that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Abraham aged one hundred years can beget and Sarah aged ninety can bear.” Was it not on our father Isaac’s thirty-seventh birthday that he was offered on the altar? The heavens were let down and descended and Isaac saw their perfection . . .

On the third night the Word of the Lord was revealed upon the Egyptians . . . His right hand slew the firstborn of the Egyptians and his left hand spared the firstborn of the Israelites . . . He called this the third night.

On the fourth night the world shall reach its end to be delivered . . . Moses shall come out of the wilderness and the King Messiah shall come out of Rome. One shall lead the flock and the other shall lead the flock and the Word of the Lord shall lead between them and they shall advance together . . . 

This Rewritten Bible episode relies on the Jewish liturgical tradition, which places the sacrifice of Isaac on the 15th day of Nisan, the future date of Passover. Its antiquity is confirmed by its mention in the mid-second century BCE Book of Jubilees. However, by the beginning of the second century CE the view prevailed in rabbinic circles that the sacrifice of Isaac took place on the future New Year’s day, the first of Tishri. In this reinterpretation the connecting link is the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) at New Year’s day, recalling the ram substituted for Isaac as a sacrificial victim. 

Parabiblical literature, previously called pseudepigrapha or works falsely attributed to biblical personalities, is a group of writings with biblical background comprising compositions associated with a scriptural character, but with no continuous link with the sacred text. For instance the Book of Enoch, preserved fully in Ethiopic, but originally written in Aramaic as the numerous Qumran fragments reveal, is 72 chapters long. Yet Enoch figures only in five verses of Genesis (5:20-24). To the same class pertain the Testament of Levi, Amram, and Qahat, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as well as the various apocryphal works ascribed to Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elisha, Jeremiah, Elisha, and Zedekiah from the Qumran caves and numerous other compositions collected in the two volumes of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha by James H. Charlesworth (1983). The existence of these parabiblical writings proves that Jewish religious imagination was scripture inspired, but this literature is not part either of the Bible or of its exegesis. 

The foregoing survey of the Bible and its interpretation in the late Second Temple period (250 BCE-100 CE) may offer both Jews and Christians fresh insights into the development of their religion. Traditional Jewish education is restricted to the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic corpus (the Mishnah and the Talmud), with emphasis on the latter, and Christian religious training is New Testament-based, with a vague familiarity with the Old Testament and within the framework of Church tradition. Christians will discover with astonishment how much the New Testament’s use of the Hebrew Bible resembles that found in non-biblical Jewish writings in the age of Jesus.

It is especially the Qumran pesher that sheds light on the evangelists’ effort to demonstrate the realisation in Jesus of the prophetic visions of the Hebrew Scripture. Thus the New Testament doctrine of the virginal conception of the Messiah is based on Matthew’s peculiar understanding of Isaiah 7:14: 

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel.” 

Like the Qumran authors, the evangelists handle freely the scriptural evidence with a view to arriving at the conclusion they need. Not infrequently both have recourse to special twists. The author of the Qumran Damascus Document cleverly transforms the divine threat of destruction addressed to Israel in Amos 5:26-27 into a promise of salvation. In turn, Matthew, focusing on the Septuagint’s term of parthenos (virgin), deliberately ignores that the Hebrew Isaiah speaks of young woman (‘almah) rather than of a virgin (in Hebrew betulah). St Paul exaggerates even more in his handling of Genesis in Galatians 4:22-31. Turning the argument on its head, he deduces from the story of Abraham that the Jews are the children of Hagar, his concubine, whereas his wife Sarah is the mother of the Christians. 

Whether in the church or in the synagogue, scripture was interpreted with equal freedom. This observation indicates that the study of the Bible in the age of Jesus is likely to supply the best approach road for the understanding of the aims and teachings both of traditional Judaism and early Christianity.

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