The history of Israel is told in the Bible until the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The New Testament picks up the story about 480 years later with John the Baptizer. What happened in between?
The answer? A whole lot. In fact, the period in between, which makes up the largest part of the Second Temple Period, was a time of growth in Israel’s worship, doctrine, and practice. As many readers and scholars have discovered, the Second Temple Period is one of the most important for understanding the formation of Judaism and Christianity.
Well, since the Hebrew Bible stops with Ezra and the New Testament starts with John the Baptist, isn’t there a major gap in Jewish literature?
No, there is not. We have quite a few writings from this period. We called them the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, the Hidden Books and the Falsely Ascribed Books. The Apocrypha is a collection of books included in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles but not in Protestant ones (the Orthodox churches have a few more than the Catholic ones). These are books like Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Additions to Daniel, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Ben Sira, Naruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, 1, 2,3 and 4 Maccabees, 1 and 2 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, and Psalm 151.
The Pseudepigrapha are too numerous to mention here, but are divided into two categories: Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and New Testament Pseudepigrapha. The most famous Pseudepigrapha are books like Enoch, Jubilees, and Psalms of Solomon. The most famous New Testament Pseudepigrapha include books like the Acts of Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Acts of Peter.
I remember from Bible college the standard Protestant line about the Apocrypha: “They don’t belong in the Bible, but they are good religious writings from their time and worthy of reading.” I remember that no one took the professor’s advice to read these books, nor were we seriously encouraged to. It all seemed just for the academics.
Well, I am still no expert in the 2nd Temple Period Jewish writings, though anyone who reads them at all has a leg up on most of the world. I have read parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls in English. You can too. Just order the Geza Vermes edition, which is popular and readable. I have read from Enoch, Jubilees, and Psalms of Solomon. You can too if you can afford to by James Charlesworth’s two-volume set, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Easiest of all to access and read is the Apocrypha. You can easily get an NRSV Bible with Apocrypha. If you really want to learn about it, I recommend David deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha.
As we approach the High Holidays, it is a time for confessional prayer, soul-searching prayer aimed at rooting out the wicked ways within us. This is a time of year to ask God for power to rid us of our own evil works.
In the foreword to David deSilva’s book, Dr. James Charlesworth, of Princeton University, relates a story. A Baptist minister discovered that the Pulpit Bible at their church included the Apocrypha. He decided to surprise his congregation one morning.
He read to them from the Prayer of Manasseh. Afterwards, several of the congregants remarked about the beauty of the prayer and how they could not find it in their Bibles.
“It’s in our Pulpit Bible,” the minister replied. It was a good way to introduce them to the fact that there are Jewish writings that lead up to the New Testament. In fact, the prayer he read could easily be in the New Testament. The concept of divine grace pervades the prayer.
Charlesworth observes that it would also make a fine Yom Kippur prayer.
Here it is for your edification and perhaps as a prayer you might offer to God:
And now I am bending the knees of my heart before you;
and I am beseeching your kindness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned;
and I certainly know my sins.
. . .
In me you will manifest all your grace;
and although I am not worthy,
you will save me according to your manifold mercies.
Because of this (salvation) I shall praise you continually
all the days of my life;
because all the hosts of heaven praise you,
and sing to you forever and ever.