Jesus, the apostles, and their Jewish background.

The most important Jewish texts.


On Monday, December 6, 2004, Jim Davila of the University of St. Andrews posted on his weblog (called Paleo-Judaica) a nice piece about which ancient Jewish texts are the most, and which are the least, important for studying the Jewish background of the New Testament. Immediately Stephen Carlson predicted that this piece would become a classic in scholarly blogging, and Mark Goodacre echoed his prediction.

The Judaism standing behind Jesus and the apostles is, of course, an abiding interest of mine, so I think it worth my while to summarize what Davila has to say.

Responding to a question as to which is more useful as a backdrop for Christian origins, the Old Testament pseudepigrapha or Philo of Alexandria, Davila writes:

...I don't see why it has to be an either-or choice. There are good reasons to study both.

Then he goes on to award first place to a different Jewish corpus altogether:

First, another critically important Jewish corpus for the New Testament background is, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls. I would say that they are more important for that purpose than either Philo or the pseudepigrapha. We have them in their original Hebrew and Aramaic in a physical context datable to the first century C.E. and located in Palestine, and they cover a huge range of Jewish themes and ideas.

Second place goes to yet another source:

Second, Josephus is perhaps more important than Philo (I'm not as sure about some of the pseudepigrapha) for NT background. Again, he's a first-century, Greek-speaking Jew (but he also knew Aramaic and, presumably, Hebrew) and he comes from Palestine and knew of John the Baptist and the Jesus movement and probably Jesus himself.

On to third place:

Third, most (perhaps not all) of the Old Testament Apocrypha (Deuterocanonical books) are relevant as NT background material too.

It is with the fourth and fifth places that we finally reach the subjects of the original inquiry:

As for Philo, he is useful for NT background because his works are certainly Jewish, they appear to have been transmitted with reasonable accuracy, and they are almost exactly contemporary with Jesus. Philo's disadvantages are that he is a Greek-speaking, Diaspora Jew who writes with a Hellenized philosophical agenda in Alexandria, a big city....
The OT pseudepigrapha are a messier problem, mainly because nearly all of them were copied and transmitted by Christians, often in a translation with the original being lost.

Davila likes to deal with the question of how to tell whether such a book is of Jewish or of Christian origin. The default position of many scholars has been to assume that a book is Jewish until its Christianity peeks through. Davila takes the opposite approach, assuming that a book transmitted in Christian circles is Christian until it can be demonstrated that it is Jewish. I think that I prefer the latter approach. If the most ancient text or cited reference that we possess is Christian, then we ought to start from the presumption that the work is Christian.

Davila goes on to helpfully summarize the results of his own research, book by book. He lists among those books which can be shown to be Jewish from external considerations, and which were written no later than a century after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, only the following:

  • Four sections of the book of Enoch:
    • The Book of the Watchers.
    • The Astronomical Book.
    • The Book of Dreams.
    • The epistle of Enoch.
  • The book of Jubilees.

Davila lists among those books which can be shown to be Jewish on internal grounds, and which were written no later than a century after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the following:

Davila lists the following books as those which are Jewish in origin, but which cannot be certainly placed to within a century of the crucifixion:

Davila lists the following books as those which may or may not be Jewish:

Finally, Davila thinks that the following books are probably Christian through and through (only the first does not come from another weblog of his on the same topic):

I refer the reader to the following essays by Davila on this topic:

Methodological rigor appears to be the call in all of these essays, and the weighted lists of texts that Davila offers look like a good place to start when describing the Jewish background of the generation of Jesus and the apostles.