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Jewish Texts to Be Translated Highlight Some Ancient Curiosities

August 11, 2005
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Jewish books about magic and giants are among the slew of ancient texts set to be translated into English. The manuscripts, which date from the third century B.C.E. to the sixth century C.E., include legends about numerous biblical characters, magical and astrological handbooks, poetry, visions, oracles, and apocalyptic prophecies.

“Some of these books are surprisingly unorthodox,” said professor James Davila, who is heading the research project along with his colleague Richard Bauckham at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Known as Old Testament Pseudepigrapha — meaning “books with false titles” — a term that applies to texts similar to biblical tales but written much later by unknown authors, the documents tell unofficial versions of biblical stories written to satisfy the curiosity of ordinary people of the time.

They include some examples of nonconformist beliefs and practices, such as Book of the Mysteries, a Hebrew handbook written in the talmudic era listing magical incantations and spells that sometimes invoke pagan gods, a practice forbidden by Jewish law.

Others are downright provocative, such as the tantalizingly named “Book of Giants,” which expands on a story told in the Book of Genesis where angels are said to have mated with the daughters of men who then gave birth to giants.

“The Bible hints at this legend but doesn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with it,” Davila said. “It tells us very interesting things about both the people who wrote them and the people who wanted to hear them.”

Some books retell or reuse Old Testament stories and themes and also include stories about Jews in the Second Temple period — 536 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. — and even pagan prophets of the biblical period, illustrating the demand for imaginative, colorful stories about biblical narratives.

Many documents were written in the name of biblical characters such as Moses and Elijah and contain revelations and prophecies credited to these figures to strengthen the weight of the authorship. Also included will be Sibylline Oracles, or Jewish wisdom literature.

Although many of the texts were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, they survived in translation into languages as diverse as Syriac, an Aramaic dialect, Arabic, and Coptic, the Afroasiatic language of the Copts which is derived from ancient Egyptian, undergoing multiple edits through the centuries.

Approximately 60 books discovered by historians in a variety of locations over the years are currently included in the project. Around half are directly related to Judaism; the others were written by early Christians and pagans. Earlier volumes of such manuscripts, published in the 1980s, have become indispensable tools for scholars doing research in the fields of early Judaism and early Christianity.

Ranging from small fragments on papyrus or parchment made from animal skin to complete manuscripts from late antiquity or the Middle Ages, the texts have been preserved in museums and libraries throughout Europe and the Middle East and even in India.

Fragments of the “Book of Giants,” alongside other texts such as an Aramaic book about the patriarch Levi — the son of Jacob and the founder of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient texts discovered in caves on the shores of the Dead Sea in the mid-20th century.

It is not known how many artifacts of this nature exist, and the number of documents included in the project is expected to grow as researchers explore libraries in Russia, Greece and other countries for additional manuscripts.

Funded by a research grant from the British Leverhulme Trust, the St Andrews team will initially consist of 30 international researchers, with up to 20 more to be recruited as the project develops.

The scholars hope that translating and publishing the texts, a project expected to be completed within four to six years, will provide a valuable tool for gaining insights into how biblical stories were interpreted by earlier peoples.

“I think there will also be popular interest,” said Davila, “and we want to make it available for everyone to be able to read.”

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