Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why the Genesis Apocryphon Matters

Over the last week or two, I’ve devoted quite a bit of time to translating portions of one of the earliest discovered texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) known as the “Genesis Apocryphon” (4QapGen). When people ask me what I’m doing and I tell them they usually think, and occasionally even ask, “Who cares about the Genesis Apocryphon?” In a sense, this question speaks to the value of the DSS as a whole.

First, the scrolls are interesting because they provide insight into an ancient culture. In this way the Genesis Apocryphon matters similarly to the way Tacitus’ writings matter. Historically speaking, then, the scrolls are one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th century. Second, more than just providing information about history, the DSS illuminate the thought-world of Jews living near the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians. Debates about when exactly 4QapGen was written are unsettled, but the range is between the latter half of the first century BCE to the first half of the first century CE. Carefully reading this text and other DSS gives us information about what Jews around the time of Jesus thought, wrote, and believed. Third, the specific text of the Genesis Apocryphon, among other DSS, shows how some Jews read their scriptures. My main interest is here. What can the Genesis Apocryphon tell us about how Jews before or around the time of Jesus read scripture? Ultimately, this may show us how Jesus and Paul used scripture in similar or different ways than their contemporaries.

The Genesis Apocryphon uses scripture in a fascinating way. In this sense 4QapGen is an odd piece of literature. It is difficult to classify literarily because it follows the narratives of Genesis in terms of chronology and outline, but differs in details with numerous expansions and omissions from the text of Genesis itself. 4QapGen is too loose with the text of Genesis to be classified as a Targum (an Aramaic interpretation) and does not follow characteristic interpretive guidelines of exegesis focusing on a specific text to be described as “Midrash.” So years ago, the notable Jewish scholar Geza Vermes suggested the phrase “Rewritten Bible” as a form of Jewish interpretation that includes the Palestinian Targum, Josephus’ Antiquities, Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, Jubilees, and the Genesis Apocryphon.[1]

The phrase “Rewritten Bible” is helpful but also a bit anachronistic. The phrase is historically problematic because when the Genesis Apocryphon was written, and when Jesus walked, the Bible did not yet exist. This is not to say that the texts of the Pentateuch, prophets and writings did not exist, but that the concept of “Bible” was not yet a reality. So, we have to be careful about assuming too much how various Jewish works treat the texts which were later canonized and imbued with an elevated authority. That said, the phrase should probably not be abandoned.

The fact that a certain body of texts provided the literary concerns of people hundreds of years after those texts were written means something. The fact that those same texts were later officially canonized does not mean that the idea of sacred writing was not at work much earlier. There is not space to fully address these issues here, but the way in which Jewish literature focuses on Torah to provide a core identity and provide insight into divine activity in new historical situations means that they read this literature as something like what would later be called “Bible.”

More to come on this specific text, but first I want to open up some discussion on the DSS. 

  • Do you think the DSS matter? Why? How can they be helpful?
  • What insights have you gleaned from the scrolls?
  • If you have had little or no interaction with the DSS, what questions do you have?

[1] Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, Studia Post-Biblica 4 (2nd edt. Leiden: Brill, 1972) 67-126. Google preview here. I am following Daniel Machilea, “The Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20): A Reevaluation of its Text, Interpretive Character , and Relationship to the Book of Jubilees,” (PhD. Dissertation University of Notre Dame 2007) 7-8 available for free viewing here.


Onieh said...

Why do people just assume that this document is not what it claims to be? I believe it is Scripture and you all who accept the book of Genesis as Scripture have no justification as to why you accept other books but not this one. your standards are arbitrary.

Unknown said...

What are you suggesting that this document "claims to be" exactly?

The definition of the canon is not arbitrary. It is defined by the documents that the church has used in worship for thousands of years. Genesis reflects Hebrew text this is much older and widely used than what appears in the Genesis Apocryphon.

What is your criteria for defining what constitutes "scripture"?

I'm not entirely sure what you're trying to argue for or against.

Onieh said...

Sorry for taking so long to reply i didn't see this.

"What are you suggesting that this document "claims to be" exactly?"

Its evident the genesis apocryphon claims to be actual documents written by the patriarchs. Lamech, Noah, Abraham. There is no basis for anyone to assume that these books are pseudepigrapha anymore than any book in the Bible. The evidence that exists best supports the Genesis apocryphon as actually being written by someone who was not dependent on the Book of Genesis, and the evidence points rather to the author of Genesis being dependent on the Genesis Apocryphon. You assert that Genesis reflects Hebrew text that is much older than the Genesis Apocryphon but there is no basis for that claim of yours. Genesis apocryphon could be equally as old if not older than the Book of Genesis. There is hardly any textual data that exists for any biblical texts before the 3rd century BC. So to say Genesis predates Genesis apocryphon by thousands of years is an assumption that has not been demonstrated by any scholars or bible readers. One might argue on appeal to church "tradition" or mainstream consensus of a particular theory, but such appeals are not really convincing for the truly skeptical and truth seeking mind.