What is part of Scripture and what isn’t?

December 26th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 6 comments

I heard you quote something (on the Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV Show) from The Complete Works of Josephus but then it seemed like you were saying he was a rebel or something like that. So are his writing creditable?

And one last things that bugs me…the Catholic Bible includes the Apocrypha books (like The First Book of Esdras for example). Are these books part of the Jewish Holy scripture or not?

Kathy H.

Dear Kathy,

We think your question and confusion is shared by many. First, to clear up your question about Josephus. During the early years of the common era, Josephus headed the Jewish forces in their revolt against the Romans, who were led in northern Israel by general Vespasian. Josephus then betrayed his people and went to the Roman side. After Vespasian became emperor in 69 CD, Josephus was granted Roman citizenship.

His writings are historical accounts, including The Antiquities of the Jews and Siege of Masada. We approach his writings as we do that of other historians. That is to say, with interest and skepticism. He provides insight into the Jewish community of his day, but he is by no means an unbiased observer. Just as you will get two completely different views of American history by reading Howard Zinn’s account (which unfortunately is the one that most colleges use) or that of Russell Kirk, history is best read from many different approaches. Knowing a historian’s biases and prejudices is very useful. Josephus’ position and safety was dependent on flattering the Romans. This can certainly affect how he depicts the Jews and the events of the day. His writings do not have any sacred echoes.

What is known in Hebrew as the TaNaCH encompasses  the entirety of Jewish written Scripture. It is composed of Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Neviim (the Prophets from Joshua through Malachi, and Ketuvim (the Writings – sorry to be confusing here, but the K/CH letter in Hebrew is one letter with one sound at the end of a word like TaNaCH and a different sound at the beginning of a word, like Ketuvim). Ketuvim ranges from Chronicles to Nehemiah and includes, among other things, Psalms, Proverbs and the scrolls of Ruth and Esther.

Even though some books of the TaNaCH, or sections of books, read like history, that is not their function or reality. They may or may not tell of historical incidents, but they are timeless transmissions meant to provide a blueprint for living in all places and at all times, written under God’s direct or prophetic influence. The level of prophetic contact with God necessary for writing something that could be included in Scripture, disappeared after the last book of TaNaCH was written. Anything considered apocrypha may be of interest, but was never considered to have holiness. We, personally, have no knowledge of what Catholic or Christian apocrypha might be.

We hope this clears up some of your questions. Thanks for watching Ancient Jewish Wisdom on TCT,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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6 comments

Larry Morris says:

I think you gave a expernation on this subject. Many restrict theirself to only one form of reading and that can be a short coming. By reading the different items we can give ourselves a more rounded education on the subject matter. We may not agree in fullness with it but we have been informed/exposed to it.

Yahel says:

So Josephus was a jew but for his own safety, he betrayed his own blood to roman side? I see. Many theologian of Christianity put high values in his writing.
About the other books, is the book of Hanokh also a regular reading in Ivrim and sinagoga?

James Wesley says:

I wouldn’t necessarily say they put high value in his writing, they site Josephus in areas where it proves their point. For example, when people claim that Jesus was a made up person and didn’t actually exist, theologians would use the writings of Josephus to prove otherwise. Josephus was an unbiased source. If Josephus talks in his writings about a movement of people who worshiped and followed a man named Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth then he was probably a person who existed. Here is a Jewish man that has loyalty to the Roman Empire that speaks of these early Christians, if Jesus wasn’t a real person then Josephus would have stated so because at that time the Romans nor the Jews were really big fans of Christians. If there was any shred of doubt whether this man existed or not Josephus would have said so.

Michael Rodhouse says:

Your answer has triggered the curiosity of this long-time Thought Tools subscriber! Does this mean that the apocryphal books of I & II Maccabees are not the foundational sources for Chanukah like the Torah is for the Feasts commanded in Leviticus 23? If not, what are the/some sources for further foundational study on the origins of Chanukah?

Thomas Masty says:

As a former student and family friend of the late Russell Kirk, I want to thank you for your kind words.

Regarding the Apocrapha, my understanding was that Rabbis pulled books from the core set of records because they had been written in Greek. The Catholic Church kept them because they were part of the Septuagint. Later, Martin Luther moved them because they were not part of the Hebrew Bible at that time. Luther thus placed them between the Old and New Testament sections. Later various printers took matters even further by totally removing the books.

Is this your understanding as well?

Lisa says:

Oh Rabbi, how true it is to know a historian’s biases and prejudices.

I can recall hearing that very statement several times in school.

I can recall learning about the American history of slavery as a child in school. I was told that to fully grasp the conception of slavery, you definitely need the views from the slaves, and not just from the masters.

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