Review of The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha

When I learned about the publication of The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, I was thrilled. Edited by Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills, this is an excellent volume and worth owning for any scholar of early Judaism and early Christianity. So I decided to write up some thoughts about it.

The editors emphasize a few ways they want to present the Apocrypha (the deuterocanonical works) with a “Jewish” framework. One is through the perspective of the contributors–all of whom are experts in Second Temple Judaism, and many of whom identify as Jewish. Yet the contributors also demonstrate wider diversity in the field, as there is some inclusion of POC (beyond Jewishness), and many of the contributors are women. It’s nice to see a volume that presents perspectives different from those of white Christian men who have had particularly loud voices the field of early Judaism and early Christianity.

The book is full of excellent contributions, including introductory material, annotations, and cogent essays for context. The translations all come from the well-known New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, but the introductions and annotations are all new. Each introduction situates the work in a number of ways, including information about contents, literary features, authorship, date of composition, historical contexts, interpretation, and role in Judaism. Annotations throughout provide fresh commentary on detailed issues of language, connections to biblical passages elsewhere, and interpretation, as well as general aids for contexts and interpretations. All of this is welcome for those who want to dig deeper than is possible with other translations of the deuterocanonical works, often paired with other biblical content that tends to take priority.

One fascinating decision is the inclusion of Jubilees. As the editors and introductory material to the text demonstrate, Jubilees appears along with the Apocrypha in the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Christian community. This inclusion speaks to the fluidity of how the biblical canon is defined by different communities. Jubilees is one of a few early Jewish works that survive in full only in Geʽez because of their place in Ethiopian traditions. It is unfortunate that the collection doesn’t also include 1 Enoch (another work that survives in full only in Geʽez), which enjoys the same status as Jubilees for Ethiopian Christians and other religious communities. In fact, while no mention is made about the significance of Jubilees for the Ethiopian Jewish community known as Beta Israel, they also consider the deuterocanonical works (and 1 Enoch, among other apocrypha) to be canonical. Although, once we begin to expand what might be included in a collection like this, it could be several volumes, all double the size of the current book.

I won’t discuss all of the ancillary essays, but a few particularly interested me for how they address the biblical canon and apocrypha. The first is Annette Yoshiko Reed’s contribution on “Canon.” In her essay, Reed lays out some of the major issues and stakes of canonicity, beginning with a discussion of distinctions between “scripture” and “canon” and moving through evidence and examples of the complexities of the subject in Second Temple Judaism. I especially love her notion of “a rise in ‘canonical consciousness’–that is, the rhetorical elevation of the idea of closure” (570) as well as an emphasis on “the local diversity of long-standing lived traditions of liturgy, teaching, and textuality” as key concerns for the authority of scripture and canon (571). Reed doesn’t keep her focus only on early Judaism, though, since she follows some of these ideas through the reception of the deuterocanonical works during the first few centuries of Christianity.

The second essay that grabbed my attention, and that pairs well with Reed’s, is by Eva Mroczek, on “The Incredible Expanding Bible.” Mroczek (like Reed) emphasizes the fluidity of canonicity across cultures and time, as well as the necessity of context and locality in more widespread religious diversity. Drawing on ideas distilled from her longer book about the fluidity of ideas about “the Bible” among the Dead Sea Scrolls (The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity [Oxford University Press, 2016]), she also covers a lot of other ground: as the title indicates, “From the Dead Sea Scrolls to Haile Selassie”–or, from Second Temple Judaism to the commissioning of “the complete Bible of Ethiopia” for Ethiopian Christians in 1961.

Heading toward a conclusion, I want to note that this volume follows in a line of other Oxford versions of the Bible with similar aims, such as The Jewish Study Bible, A New English Translation of the Septuagint, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament. And it fits in very well. The annotations and supplemental essays all go a long way toward recentering the Apocrypha in early Jewish contexts.

Mrozcek begins her essay with the provocative question, “What if the Bible is not complete?” I can’t help but consider the question of “completeness” like this as a common thread in studies of biblical apocrypha (as I define them broadly). We might consider, for example, the nature of expanding our corpus with recent endeavors like Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures; the counterpart volumes of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (volume 2 here); and e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha (ECCA). That could lead to many other musings. Yet it is clear that The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha is one more addition to giving us at least a more complete understanding of the deuterocanonical works and many related apocrypha.


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