I recently attended a wedding at St. Agatha’s Roman Catholic Church in Milton, Mass. Before the ceremony began, I used the Bible in the back of the pew in front of me to catch up with my Orthodox Union nach yomi reading.
I opened the Catholic edition, known as the New American Bible. Scanning the table of contents, I noticed books in the “Old Testament” section that I had never read. These were the seven Apocrypha books, included in the Catholic version of the Bible but not the Jewish Tanakh or the Protestant Bible.
The Apocrypha’s content and the books’ inclusion in what I viewed at the “Jewish Bible” intrigued me. My attitude was tabula rasa: I knew about the Books of the Maccabees from Hanukkah, but hadn’t delved into them. The others were unknown territory, the only tenuous connection being that I have friends named “Judith.”
I started reading them in both the New American Bible and the Apocrypha section of the invaluable Sefaria site, which had a smaller selection that included the 322 verse-long Letter of Aristeas, telling the story of the Septuagint translation of the Torah.
Little did I imagine, as I sat in St. Agatha’s on a bitterly cold afternoon, that my encounter with the New American Bible would ultimately lead me right back to a fresh appreciation of Jewish texts I had never explored. Indeed, I came to regard St. Agatha as the accidental patroness, so to speak, of my introduction to midrash aggadah.
Here’s how that journey progressed.
Study of the pedigree of apocryphal literature plunged me into a thicket of academic and religious discourse, multiple translations, degrees of influence and disputatious faith traditions. Judaism uses some books but not in the Tanakh (Maccabees), the Protestants don’t include any in their Bible and the Catholics go for the whole megillah, so to speak, and some works appear solely in other Christian denominations’ Bibles. This article is exceptionally compelling in its discussion of the Catholic-Protestant schism on the matter.
I read the books with an eye on Jewish themes and shadings, rather than any relation to the New Testament and Christianity. Each, I discovered, had its charms in echoes of Tanakh literature. I returned to the books repeatedly looking for a perspective. What did they offer me as a reader, as a Jew? What jumped out at me from the texts?
Then, a glimpse of what became a possible framework came in the two works: Tobit and Judith, classified as “novellas” in the New American Bible. Both books refer to Ninevah, the location of the work of the reluctant prophet Jonah. I’ve always been fond of Jonah, beyond his world-famous aquatic adventures. As one commenter noted, Jonah was the most successful prophet on an effort-to-impact ratio. He said one sentence and the residents responded on the double-quick, in chapter 3:
Jonah began his journey through the city, and when he had gone only a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.”
And that got me to thinking. Jonah’s a short book with few details about Ninevah other than its huge size and repentant population. With Tobit and Judith, I gained more perspectives on that great city. And that led me to look at the Apocrypha as a gateway to new visions of Jewish themes.
I played with the idea that some apocryphal literature could be understood as ancient forms of fan fiction, where authors were so taken with the Tanakh that they reworked its characters and themes in their own style. Stepping away from more academic discussions of the centuries between the close of Tanakh and arrival of Christianity and rabbinic literature, I wondered if the Apocrypha expressed a robust enthusiasm for Jewish themes by literate fans, BCE style. Two thousand years later, they would have been writing about Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock, the Star Trekking godfathers of the fan fiction boom in the 1960s.
Judith, for example, reflected themes from Esther and Judges, with their compelling, action-oriented women. Sirach and Wisdom carried on the tradition of Ecclesiastes, with observations on life in more detail. Ultimately, however, I dropped this line of thinking because I didn’t want to fit a 20th century framework on ancient texts. I would take them for what they were.
The New American Bible gave me a good start on understanding the Apocrypha because of the extensive notes, such as for the first two books of Maccabees. That was especially useful since I’ve never explored the literature behind the story of Hanukkah. That line of inquiry into Maccabees took me into the debates over canon vs. non-canonical literature, how Maccabees wound up in the Catholic Bible and whether the books bounced among competing Jewish leadership groups before being left out of the Tanakh. This article sums up the historical issues.
After going down several rabbit holes of scholarly engagement, I returned to the texts themselves.
Sirach held my interest in its extended passages on timeless themes such as child-rearing, attitudes toward wealth, and relations between men and women─theme headings made the material stand out when otherwise I would have breezed past them. For example, chapter 8 has guidance for men about women, showing the tension between the sexes existed a long time ago:
Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom,
lest you teach her to do evil against you.
Do not give a woman power over you
to trample on your dignity.
Do not go near a strange woman,
lest you fall into her snares.
Do not dally with a singer,
lest you be captivated by her charms.
Do not entertain any thoughts about a virgin,
lest you be enmeshed in damages for her.
Do not give yourself to a prostitute
lest you lose your inheritance.
Do not look around the streets of the city
or wander through its squares.
Avert your eyes from a shapely woman;
do not gaze upon beauty that is not yours;
Through woman’s beauty many have been ruined,
for love of it burns like fire.
Never recline at table with a married woman,
or drink intoxicants with her,
Lest your heart be drawn to her
and you go down in blood to the grave.
Judith, meanwhile, mashed up centuries of history and rulers, making Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Assyrians rather than the Babylonians, ruling from “the great city of Ninevah.” Chapter 5 has a fascinating view of early Jewish history as seen from the outside, in a concise passage by Achior (Hebrew for “son of light”) on expulsions, disasters and renewals:
These people are descendants of the Chaldeans. They formerly lived in Mesopotamia, for they did not wish to follow the gods of their ancestors who were in the land of the Chaldeans. Since they abandoned the way of their ancestors, and worshiped the God of heaven, the God whom they had come to know, their ancestors expelled them from the presence of their gods. So they fled to Mesopotamia and lived there a long time.
Their God told them to leave the place where they were living and go to the land of Canaan. Here they settled, and grew very rich in gold, silver, and a great abundance of livestock. Later, when famine had gripped the land of Canaan, they went down into Egypt. They stayed there as long as they found sustenance and there they grew into such a great multitude that the number of their people could not be counted.
With her zeal for action combined with feminine wiles, Judith could be a fan fiction mashup of the prophet Deborah and Queen Esther. Chapter 8, verse 1 gives an exuberant genealogy for Judith and her fierce heritage:
Now in those days Judith, daughter of Merari, son of Ox, son of Joseph, son of Oziel, son of Elkiah, son of Ananias, son of Gideon, son of Raphain, son of Ahitub, son of Elijah, son of Hilkiah, son of Eliab, son of Nathanael, son of Salamiel, son of Sarasadai, son of Simeon, son of Israel, heard of this.
Judith connects with the dubious deeds of her ancestors, and she displays their fierceness, starting in 9:2:
“Lord, God of my father Simeon, into whose hand you put a sword to take revenge upon the foreigners who had defiled a virgin by violating her, shaming her by uncovering her thighs, and dishonoring her by polluting her womb. You said, ‘This shall not be done!’ Yet they did it.” . . .
Let my deceitful words wound and bruise those who have planned dire things against your covenant, your holy temple, Mount Zion, and the house your children possess.
Make every nation and every tribe know clearly that you are God, the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who shields the people of Israel but you alone.”
Judith uses female attractions and her Jewish smarts to achieve geopolitical ends─good Mossad recruit material! In 10:3, Judith goes full glam in what the espionage community calls a honeytrap:
She took off the sackcloth she had on, laid aside the garments of her widowhood, washed her body with water, and anointed herself with rich ointment. She arranged her hair, put on a diadem, and dressed in the festive attire she had worn while her husband, Manasseh, was living.
She chose sandals for her feet, and put on her anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her other jewelry. Thus she made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all the men who should see her. . .
So Judith ranks high in the Apocrypha books I’ll read again, given its timeless message.
Sefaria’s section included one book not found in the New American Bible, the 322 verse-long Letter of Aristeas, telling the story of the Septuagint translation of the Torah. It is part of the “pseudographia” literature of the 2nd century BCE, quoted by Josephus and subject to intricate scholarship on its provenance and goals, far more than I could untangle. It contains the earliest mention of the Library of Alexandria.
Skipping over arguments about how much truth it contains, the letter brims with passages like these, reflecting the high art of royal flattery and gift-giving:
(verse 33) If it please you, O king, a letter shall be written to the High Priest in Jerusalem, asking him to send six elders out of every tribe─men who have lived the noblest life and are most skilled in their law─that we may find out the points in which the majority of them are in agreement, and so having obtained an accurate translation may place it in a conspicuous place in a manner worthy of the work itself and your purpose. May continual prosperity be yours!’
(verse 139) Now our Lawgiver being a wise man and specially endowed by God to understand all things, took a comprehensive view of each particular detail, and fenced us round with impregnable ramparts and walls of iron, that we might not mingle at all with any of the other nations, but remain pure in body and soul, free from all vain imaginations, worshiping the one Almighty God above the whole creation. . .
(verse 318) And he urged the translators to visit him frequently after their return to Judea, for it was only right, he said, that he should now send them home. But when they came back, he would treat them as friends, as was right, and they would receive rich presents from him. . .
(verse 319) He ordered preparations to be made for them to return home, and treated them most munificently. He presented each one of them with three robes of the finest sort, two talents of gold, a sideboard weighing one talent, all the furniture for three couches.
As I became more attuned to the Apocrypha, references suddenly sprang up around me. I found that painters from Renaissance onward were obsessed with Judith’s story and heady victory over Holofernes. A friend quoted from Wisdom in a Facebook post. The Maccabees, of course, are a constant presence in discussions of Jewish resourcefulness and opposition to threatening forces.
Before long I had worked my way through the Apocrypha in the New American BIble and Sefaria. The novellas and wisdom literature left me wanting more. Having read the Tanakh several times, I yearned to see the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and kings afresh. Where could I find other Jewish works with unfamiliar stories and perspectives?
Sefaria provided the first answer. Its Midrash section includes “Legends of the Jews,” edited by Louis Ginzberg. As the introduction states:
Legends of the Jews is an original synthesis of a vast amount of aggadah from all of classical rabbinic literature, as well as apocryphal, pseudopigraphical and even early Christian literature, with legends ranging from the creation of the world and the fall of Adam, through a huge collection of legends on Moses, and ending with the story of Esther and the Jews in Persia. Ginzberg had an encyclopedic knowledge of all rabbinic literature, and his masterwork included a massive array of aggadot. However he did not create an anthology which showed these aggadot distinctly. Rather, he paraphrased them and rewrote them into one continuous narrative that covered four volumes, followed by two volumes of footnotes that give specific sources.
I had seen the Legends series at library book sales, but it never caught my attention. That changed, however, once I got the itch to read about the Jewish characters. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but Ginzberg delivers what I wanted to find after exploring the Apocrypha. Here, he recounts the first wedding in the Garden of Eden, a charming tale of when Eve said “yes to the dress”:
The wedding of the first couple was celebrated with pomp never repeated in the whole course of history since. God Himself, before presenting her to Adam, attired and adorned Eve as a bride. Yea, He appealed to the angels, saying, “Come, let us perform services of friendship for Adam and his helpmate, for the world rests upon friendly services, and they are more pleasing in My sight than the sacrifices Israel will offer on the altar.” The angels accordingly surrounded the marriage canopy, and God pronounced the blessings upon the bridal couple, as the Hazan does under the Huppah. The angels then danced and played upon musical instruments before Adam and Eve in their ten bridal chambers of gold, pearls and precious stones, which God had prepared for them.
Then I went further afield with “Sefer ha-Aggadah–The Book of Legends,” by Chaim Nahum Bialik and Yehuda Ravnitsky. This enormous volume makes an excellent companion for Legends of the Jews. While Ginzberg produced an integrated narrative, Bialik and Ravnitsky collected rabbinic parables, stories and teachings arranged by theme. If the Talmud is an ocean, Book of Legends at least qualifies as the Great Lakes, in its heft and detail. I randomly opened pages and found compelling material everywhere, building on the basics of the Tanakh to instruct me in Jewish thinking. Some examples:
(Perek Shira) It is reported of King David that when he finished the book of Psalms, he became complacent, saying to the Holy One: Master of the Universe, is there a creature you created in Your world who utters songs and paeans of praise more than I? In that instant a frog confronted him and said: David, do not be so complacent—I utter more songs and paeans of praise than you.
(Lev. R 32.6; Song R. 4:12, MTeh 114.4) Israel were redeemed from Egypt because they did not change their names. They went down there as Reuben and Simeon, and came back as Reuben and Simeon. Reuben was not called Rufus, nor Judah Julianus, no Joseph Justus, nor Benjamin Alexander. Also, because they did not change their language—they continued to speak the sacred tongue, for Scripture says, “When the house of Jacob [went forth] from a people of strange language (Ps. 114:1), and Joseph also said, “It is my mouth that speaketh unto you” (Gen. 45:12)—speaks to you in the sacred tongue.
(Gen. R. 24:4, Lev. R. 15:1) The sages said: King Messiah will not come until all souls that have been considered for creation have been created; and these are the souls referred to in the Book of Adam. (A book containing the entire history, past and future, of mankind).
(P. Meg 1:9, 71b; Esther R. 4:12) Jonathan of Beth Gubrin said: There are four beautiful languages, which all the world should use: Greek for song, Roman—Latin—for battle, Syriac—Aramaic—for lamentation, and Hebrew for conversation. Some add: Assyrian for writing. Assyrian has a script but is no longer a spoken language. Hebrew is a spoken tongue but has no script of its own. The Hebrews chose for themselves the Assyrian script and the Hebrew tongue. Why is the Hebrew script called Assyrian? Since it is clear, easy reading of it is assured. R. Levi said: Because it came to them from Assyria.
In the months after I encountered the Apocrypha in St. Agatha’s Roman Catholic Church, my path meandered through Catholic texts, their Jewish context, and finally back to the texts of Talmudic legends and study. And the process will never be complete; Sefaria gives me access to Legends of the Jews, and I’m exploring the wide world of Hebrew fiction from the midrashic period on to the Hasidic tales. I already have a volume from Reb Nachman of Breslov, so my reading agenda grows every time I encounter one source and follow its branches elsewhere.
So, thank you, St. Agatha’s Church, for inspiring this endless journey into Jewish learning.