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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.


The Apocryphal Old Testament was originally planned as a companion volume to M. R. James's The Apocryphal New Testament, first published as long ago as 1924.

When, in the mid-1950s, the stocks of R. H. Charles's well-known two-volume work, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (1913), were running low there was discussion at the Press about what should be done. Would a simple reprint be sufficient? Ought a revised ‘second edition’ to be undertaken? Or ought a completely new work to be commissioned to replace it?

There were a number of conflicting factors. After the lapse of nearly half a century there was an obvious need to up-date some of the information: many of the critical opinions expressed seemed less certain than once they did; and questions, too, might be asked about the items selected for inclusion in the second volume – why this, and if this, why not that? On the other hand, Charles's two volumes were one of the outstanding achievements of British biblical scholarship in the early years of the twentieth century: they had been widely used, and continued to be widely used; but they were both bulky and expensive. Further, it was clear that there was a much greater popular demand for the second (Pseudepigrapha) volume than for the first (Apocrypha), presumably because the books in the Apocrypha volume were readily available in several standard translations, whereas those in the Pseudepigrapha volume were not. The upshot was that the Press decided to reprint both volumes, as and when circumstances required, and at the same time to commission a much smaller, handier, and less expensive volume, designed on much the same lines as James's.

The idea was to ignore the books in Charles's first volume (the Apocrypha proper) and concentrate on those in the second. But it was agreed that some latitude in selection must be allowed – some of the books included by Charles might be omitted, while others, omitted by Charles, might be included. A volume of translations was the primary end in view: each translation was to be preceded by an Introduction and a Bibliography; and such footnotes as there were, were to be limited to points of text and translation. Since the Press were the publishers of Charles and were also to publish the new volume, there would be no difficulty in taking over a number of Charles's translations with only, perhaps, minor revision; though, of course, for the books not in Charles, which it was hoped to include, fresh translations would have to be obtained. So a team of translators and revisers was got together. I was appointed Editor, and, in addition to general editorial duties, I assumed personal responsibility for writing the Introductions and compiling the Bibliographies, in order to secure as much consistency as possible.

As with so many undertakings of this kind, the completion of the volume has been delayed beyond expectation. Some of the translators and revisers sent me their contributions within two or three years: others took longer; and a few of them very much longer. But this was not the major problem. A great deal of work had been done in the field since Charles's day, and it continued to be done; and this inevitably had an unfortunate effect on our rate of progress. At first glance it might seem that to revise one of the translations already in Charles was not a very time-consuming task. It might be assumed (especially in the light of the undisputed wealth of scholarship which lay behind Charles's two volumes) that no more than a cursory check-over was required. Yet when a new edition of the text in question had appeared in the interval (based, perhaps, on freshly discovered manuscripts, or on a different recension), or there had been more than one new edition, ‘revision’ began to take on a new meaning. And the same considerations applied sometimes to those contributors from whom fresh translations had been commissioned. In several instances a contribution was well under way, or even complete and sent to me, when new textual evidence was brought to light, or a new edition appeared, which, although it might not necessarily have to be made the base of the translation, nevertheless had to be taken full account of.

A further problem that became increasingly pressing as the work proceeded was that of translation-style. The style of the translations in Charles is what used to be called ‘biblical’ – i.e. a style which imitated the Authorized Version of 1611 and the Revised Version of 1881–1894 (and the same is also true of James's The Apocryphal New Testament, though less obviously so). Inasmuch as part of our original plan was to reprint as many as possible of the translations in Charles with only minor revision, it followed that we also were committed to ‘biblical style’. In the 1950s there seemed no serious objection to this, and all contributors were instructed accordingly. But as time went on it became clear that our decision was questionable. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the appearance, not only of The New English Bible and The Jerusalem Bible, but also of several other versions of the Bible (or parts of it) in modern idiom, which found a ready welcome from the Bible-reading public. Hence by the mid-1970s ‘biblical style’ did not mean what it had meant fifteen or twenty years earlier; and anything deliberately written in old-fashioned ‘biblical style’ was bound to seem tiresomely dated and artificial.

The issue came to a head over 1 Enoch. A revision of Charles's translation of 1 Enoch was ready when it was learned that Dr. M. A. Knibb was engaged on a new edition of the Ethiopic text, which was to be accompanied by a fresh translation, together with a full Introduction and (mainly textual) Commentary. The Press was to publish it; 1 It appeared, in two volumes, in 1978. and Dr. Knibb most generously agreed that we should be allowed to use his translation instead of the revision of Charles's translation we had ready. But Dr. Knibb's translation was in modern idiom. Very naturally he was unwilling to archaize, in order to make his contribution conform in style with the others. The only alternative was to modernize the others. And I undertook to do this as part of my overall responsibility as Editor: I can only hope that the result will not be judged too aggressively modern. Throughout, the convention that God is addressed directly in the second person singular has been retained (as in the first edition of The New English Bible). Also retained from time to time, though not necessarily universally, are certain well-known ‘biblical’ expressions such as ‘And it came to pass …’: the purpose in retaining them is to indicate that the text translated is itself not without an antique flavour; for there is much to be said for translations in a volume such as ours preserving something of the style of the originals instead of all being reduced to a dead level of uniformity.

Any reader of any translation is apt to assume that there is no need for him to bother about the original behind the translation unless there is some special reason for his doing so. This may not matter so long as no serious questions can be raised about the reliability of the text of the original. But when, as is the case with some of the documents we are concerned with, there are a number of manuscripts available which regularly differ from one another, there are, perhaps, three or four versions in as many different languages, and also, maybe, several distinct recensions, 2 Since it is a relatively short work, The Ladder of Jacob has been chosen to illustrate in its simplest form the situation when there is more than one recension of the text of the same document extant. On pp. 455–463 (below) will be found translations of both extant recensions of The Ladder, printed one after the other, so that whoever is so minded can compare the two and form some estimate of the kind of problems that arise. the identification of an ‘original’ text is no easy matter. Experts are often deeply divided. In these circumstances it is essential that the user of a translation should be plainly informed about what the translator has translated. We have always tried to do this. In each Introduction will be found a precise explanatory statement (usually at the end, or towards the end); and this statement, when read in conjunction with the details given elsewhere in the Introduction about the authorities available for the text, should provide the necessary information.

More particularized information about any significant textual variants, as well as about possible translational alternatives, will be found in the notes underneath the translations. These notes, as already indicated, have been limited to points of text and translation, and make no attempt to discuss any of the often highly controversial literary-critical, historical, or theological issues involved.

The Bibliographies are constructed in three sections. First in each comes a list of editions of the text – in chronological order: then a list of the existing translations in English, French, and German – also in chronological order; and last of all, a section headed ‘General’, whose function is to draw attention to some of the scholarly treatments that have been offered of the work concerned (not necessarily by the most modern authors), which in one way or another assist in its understanding and appreciation. The items in this last section are arranged, not chronologically, but alphabetically. No attempt has been made to be all-inclusive.

Few of our readers, who have been brought up on Charles, will fail to notice, not only a difference in the contents, but also a fundamental difference in general approach. These are not unconnected.

When deciding on the contents of his second volume, Charles seems to have been guided by no exactly definable principle of selection, except in so far as he regarded all the items he included as Jewish in origin, written in the so-called ‘intertestamental period’, and therefore of the greatest value, first to students of the Judaism of this period, and secondly to students of early Christianity, since they illustrated the Jewish background both of the primitive Church and also of many of the New Testament books.

In his general Preface Charles wrote:

For students both of the Old and New Testaments the value of the non-Canonical Jewish literature from 200 BC to AD 100 is practically recognized on every side alike by Jewish and Christian scholars. But hitherto no attempt has been made to issue an edition of this literature as a whole in English. 3 APOT i, p. iii and ii, p. iii.

and elsewhere

This literature was written probably for the most part in Galilee, the home of the religious seer and mystic. Not only was the development of a religious but also of an ethical character. In both these respects the way was prepared by this literature for the advent of Christianity, while a study of the New Testament makes it clear that its writers had been brought up in the atmosphere created by these books and were themselves directly acquainted with many of them. 4 Religious Development between the Old and the New Testaments (The Home University Library of Modern Knowledge; London, 1914), p. 9.

To-day an approach along these lines is barely possible. Despite Charles's ascription of all the items in his second volume to the centuries between 200 BC and AD 100, and his conviction that all of them were Jewish in origin, the fact remains that the textual tradition in nearly every case is Christian. 5 The exceptions are (i) The Zadokite Fragments, (ii) The Story of Ahikar, and (iii) Pirke Aboth. But Charles made it clear that he did not number these works among ‘the Pseudepigrapha’ as he understood the term: see his remarks to this effect in his Preface (APOT i, p. iv, and ii, p. iv). Here lies the major difficulty.

About the Jewish origin of many of them there can be no doubt; and some of these would seem to have come down to us in very much the same form as their authors wrote them – Jubilees is a case in point. Most of the others, however, have been transmitted to us as what would appear to be an amalgam of Jewish and Christian elements, which to the unpractised eye are not very easily separable. But Charles, committed as he was to the view that all were Jewish originally, had no scruples in explaining the Christian elements as either later additions to, or interpolations into, what were once purely Jewish texts. And in his translations he repeatedly enclosed several words, or a verse, or verses, or a whole chapter, or more, within square brackets, and added in his notes such a comment as, ‘The words in brackets are a Christian interpolation, as is evident from …’.

For Charles's successors much of this has seemed nothing like so evident. In many instances of alleged Christian addition or interpolation Charles may well have been quite right. We know that Christians did take over Jewish writings, and there is every reason for supposing that from time to time they added to them and interpolated into them bits and pieces here and there, in order to make them more acceptable for Christian use. But there is also evidence to suggest that they sometimes recast a Jewish text altogether, so that for us to think purely in terms of ‘additions’ and ‘interpolations’ is irrelevant – such a work will have been a Christian work, though based on a Jewish foundation. We have also to allow for the likelihood that Christians also wrote works with a traditionally Jewish background: they may have been influenced by Jewish legends they had come across, either written or oral, or the influence may have been no more than what they had read for themselves in the Old Testament, expanded by a liberal use of their own imagination (in much the same way as some of the already existing Jewish works had come into being); but again these will have been Christian works from the beginning, and the appearance in them of Christian theological expressions, or what may look like quotations from the New Testament, should occasion no surprise.

In other words, the problem has proved to be much more complicated than Charles imagined, and his approach in consequence was much too narrow. We have, therefore, when considering which items to include in our own volume, thought it best to abandon the concept of ‘background literature’ entirely. Our single criterion for inclusion has been whether or not any particular item is attributed to (or is primarily concerned with the history or activities of) an Old Testament character (or characters). And we have tried to include all the more important and interesting items that satisfy this criterion, irrespective of date, and irrespective, too, of whether or not a convincing claim can be put forward on behalf of any one of them for a respectable Jewish pedigree.

To have included everything which satisfies this criterion would have been impossible. In making our choices we have been guided principally by a desire to produce a collection as representative as possible of the various types of literature within the field – i.e. History (and Legend), Testament, Apocalypse, Psalms, etc. A number of items, such as 1 Enoch, selected themselves. With others a decision sometimes was more difficult. The extant fragments of the apocryphal Ezekiel, for example, were thought too insubstantial to merit inclusion; and some readers might maintain, not unreasonably, that the same argument should have been applied to the fragmentary Apocalypse of Zephaniah, which has been included (see below, pp. 919–20 ). And so one might go on.

In practice the differences in content between our volume and Charles's second volume are nothing like so great as the above remarks might suggest. We have naturally dropped The Fragments of a Zadokite Work, The Story of Ahikar, The Sibylline Oracles, and The Letter of Aristeas, as failing to satisfy our criterion: 4 Ezra belongs, strictly speaking, to the Apocrypha (= 2 Esdras), and it has therefore also been dropped: 4 Maccabees is a doubtful case, and we have decided against it. On the other hand, we have added a number of other items – The Apocalypse of Abraham, The Testament of Abraham, The Testament of Isaac, The Testament of Jacob, The Ladder of Jacob, Joseph and Aseneth, The Testament of Job, The Odes of Solomon, The Testament of Solomon, The Apocalypse of Elijah, The Paraleipomena of Jeremiah, The Apocalypse of Zephaniah, The ‘Anonymous’ Apocalypse, The Apocalypse of Esdras, The Vision of Esdras, and The Apocalypse of Sedrach. Even so, there is an essential core common to both volumes.

The difference in general approach, which has been alluded to, can most satisfactorily be illustrated by comparing the two treatments of the text of The Ascension of Isaiah. Charles explained the existing text as a 2nd cent. AD putting together of three previously independent constituents, one of which was Jewish and the other two Christian: the first (Jewish) constituent he identified as the fragmentary ‘Martyrdom of Isaiah’ ( i. 1–2a , 6b–13a , ii. 1–8, 10iii. 12, v. 1b–14 ), the second as the ‘Testament of Hezekiah’ ( iii. 13b–iv. 18 ), and the third as the ‘Vision of Isaiah ( vi. 1–xi. 40 ) – the remaining verses were ‘editorial additions’ ( i. 2b–6a , 13b , ii. 9, iii. 13a , iv. 19–v. 1a , 15–16, xi. 41–43 ), inserted to give cohesion to the whole. Charles, accordingly, in his second volume printed the text of ‘The Martyrdom of Isaiah’ only, and he described it as such. In our Introduction to the work we have, of course, discussed the various literary-critical hypotheses that have been put forward; but we have preferred to give a translation of the text entire (and we have described it as a translation of ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’) on the ground that this is the form in which the work was popularly known, and the title by which it was popularly known, in the Church.

Occasionally this difference in approach may have a more obviously practical consequence. For example, in Charles's view The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs were a Jewish work which had suffered heavily from Christian interpolation. Before Charles most scholars had thought of it as Christian in origin, though no doubt modelled on earlier Jewish ‘Testaments’; and some still do. In three separate passages in the Testaments as we have received them the two commandments, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God’ and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’, are associated together. Charles's comment here was that the Testaments were the ‘earliest literary authority for conjoining love to God and love to one's neighbour’. 6 APOT ii, p. 334. If Charles was right and the Testaments are Jewish (c. 100 BC), then Our Lord's so-called ‘Summary of the Law’ (Matt. xxii. 37–40; Mark xii. 29–31 ) was anticipated; but if Charles was wrong and the Testaments are Christian, then the passages in question are likely to be no more than the reflection of the teaching in the Gospels (and the same would also be true, of course, if the passages were three additional Christian interpolations into his originally Jewish Testaments, which had escaped Charles's eagle-eye!).

And finally, the term ‘Pseudepigrapha’ has been avoided altogether. Pseudepigrapha is, in any case, an ugly word. And when used in association with ‘Apocrypha’, as it so frequently is, it can be very misleading. Strictly it is ‘a collective term for books or writings bearing a false title, or ascribed to another than the true author’. 7 OED viii, p. 1542. Many of the books commonly grouped together and alluded to as ‘the Pseudepigrapha’ are indeed pseudepigraphical – no doubt a majority. But there is nothing distinctive about this: there are pseudepigraphical books in the Apocrypha (e.g. The Wisdom of Solomon), and there are pseudepigraphical books in the Old Testament itself (e.g. Daniel). To refer to ‘the Pseudepigrapha’, without further definition or qualification, creates the impression in the popular mind that alongside the ‘canonical’ Old Testament and the ‘deutero-canonical’ Apocrypha there is a third, universally recognized, ‘trito-canonical’ collection of books – when there is not. Any collection of books of this kind, however chosen, is bound to mirror the predilections and the prejudices of its editor(s); and it is well that this should be realized. The term therefore, though ancient, is best avoided.

It only remains for me to record my personal thanks: first, to my team of translators and revisers, and to express the hope that whether dead or still living they will not think too unkindly of the liberties I have taken with what they submitted to me: next to certain of my friends – notably to Dr. S. P. Brock, who has assisted me ungrudgingly in various ways over the years in hunting out obscure details, and also to Mr. J. S. G. Simmons, who undertook the final oversight of all the Slavonic entries in the bibliographies in order to ensure a reasonable uniformity in transliterations and other matters; and, last of all, to the authorities and staff at the Press, especially to Mr. Peter Spicer, who originally floated the idea of a volume like this, and to Mr. J. K. Cordy, who has watched over its genesis with a patience for which I am profoundly grateful.

Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury H. F. D. SPARKS

29 December 1981.


1 It appeared, in two volumes, in 1978.

2 Since it is a relatively short work, The Ladder of Jacob has been chosen to illustrate in its simplest form the situation when there is more than one recension of the text of the same document extant. On pp. 455–463 (below) will be found translations of both extant recensions of The Ladder, printed one after the other, so that whoever is so minded can compare the two and form some estimate of the kind of problems that arise.

3 APOT i, p. iii and ii, p. iii.

4 Religious Development between the Old and the New Testaments (The Home University Library of Modern Knowledge; London, 1914), p. 9.

5 The exceptions are (i) The Zadokite Fragments, (ii) The Story of Ahikar, and (iii) Pirke Aboth. But Charles made it clear that he did not number these works among ‘the Pseudepigrapha’ as he understood the term: see his remarks to this effect in his Preface (APOT i, p. iv, and ii, p. iv).

6 APOT ii, p. 334.

7 OED viii, p. 1542.

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