Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Other Second Temple Literature (Fifth Post)

Book Reviews, Books, Christian Living, Church History, Discipleship, Uncategorized

Second Temple (S.T.) literature is the entire diverse (and I mean diverse, as there is no such thing as one brand of theology that it contains) corpus of Jewish literature put down in writing between 538 B.C. – 70 A.D. It reflects the theology, history, hopes, and prayers of the Jewish people. It typically includes the OT Apocrypha, OT Pseudepigrapha which we have already looked at, but also Josephus and Philo, Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishna, and Targums which we will look at in this post. We should alsoSecond_Temple_view keep in mind that some OT books and many NT books were also written during this time as well.

With all there was to talk about in the previous posts, we have not had time to look at why this literature exists in the first place. But it is an important question. The Jews had been in captivity for 70 years, between roughly 605 – 535 B.C.  The second generation led by Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest returned to Judah to find their land and culture in ruins.  Jews in Babylon were now assimilating a new language, culture, and religion (like Zoroastrianism).  In Judea, Aramaic (now dominated; fewer and fewer people could read or understand Hebrew. Two hundred years later, everyone would be speaking Greek. Around 458 B.C., Ezra is sent by Artaxerxes I to Jerusalem to teach his people the Law of God. It is during this time that Ezra commissions fresh copies of the ancient books to be transcribed. Meanwhile, new revelations from the LORD were given to Ezra, Nehemiah, and later prophets like Haggai and Malachi.

Evangelicals are used to thinking of the years between Malachi and Matthew (roughly 450 B.C. – Christ) as the “silent years.” This phrase refers to inspired prophetic revelation, not to Jewish literary activity. In fact, during this time, the Jews were extremely busy putting down ancient oral tradition into writing for fear that if they did not, their entire history would be erased from memory. This serves as the most important reason that S.T. Literature exists. The second has to do with the Jewish need to try and understand their present circumstances in a theological way. This literature reflects the ability to think theologically about their circumstances, advancing one idea in such and such a book, and another idea in a different book.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Probably the most important discovery of the 20th century in terms of Christianity was the so called “Dead Sea Scrolls.” Discovered in 1947 in a series of caves near the Dead Sea in Israel, this treasure trove of literature opened up new vistas in our OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAunderstanding of life amidst one community of Jews in the two centuries just prior to Jesus Christ. They were a group of ascetics, dedicated to poverty, ritual immersions, and priestly rule of law. For a working list of the Dead Sea Scrolls see the Table at the end of this post. Among the most important finds at Qumran were copies of the Scripture that dated back 1,000 years prior to our formerly earliest copies of the OT. You can actually purchase a definitive English version of the Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (see bibliography in the last post of this series).

Philo and Josephus

Josephus is the more famous of these two historian/theologians. A contemporary of Peter and Paul, “He was a Jewish priest at the time of the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66.  He was captured by the Romans, imprisoned, set free and then retired to Rome where he wrote a history of the Jewish Revolt called the Jewish War.  Later he wrote Antiquities as a history of the Jews.[1] Philo of Alexandria was a contemporary of Jesus (25 B.C. – c. 50 A.D.). He was a hellenistic Jewish philosopher living in Egypt and had an influence on several Church Fathers, especially those of the more allegorical bent of interpretation.


There are many reasons to read these two men. Perhaps the most fascinating is that, each in his own way, they bear witness to Jesus Christ. Josephus actually knew about Jesus of Nazareth and wrote about him (Antiquities 18.63-64). Philo, who does not seem to have been acquainted with Jesus the man, certainly writes about the person Jesus claimed to be: the Logos. Reading Philo on this is often just like reading the Gospel of John.[2] Philo is reflecting here a theology called “Two Powers” by the Rabbis that was common in a lot of Second Temple literature. Two Powers theology believed in only one God, but also a Second Figure that seemed to be both God and yet something or someone other than God, and this becomes a major channel through which NT Christology is developed. For this reason alone I recommend this material is highly.


Mishna is the first major redaction (a form of editing multiple sources into a single work) of Jewish oral tradition. Though not finished until sometime before the death of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (217 A.D.), its contents certainly fit the time frame of the NT and even prior to that. Mishna differs from midrash, in that the latter compiles thoughts in a biblical order, while the former compiles them theologically or thematically. There are six “orders” of Mishna:

  • Zera’im (“Seeds”), dealing with prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws (11 tractates)
  • Mo’ed (“Festival”), pertaining to the laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals (12 tractates)
  • Nashim (“Women”), concerning marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths and the laws of the nazirite (7 tractates)
  • Nezikin (“Damages”), dealing with civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths (10 tractates)
  • Kodashim (“Holy things”), regarding sacrificial rites, the temple and the dietary laws (11 tractates)
  • Tohorot (“Purities”), pertaining to the laws of purity and impurity, including the impurity of the dead, the laws of food purity and bodily purity (12 tractates).

Along with the later (and much larger) collections of Talmud (but to a greater degree than Talmud), Mishna helps us to better understand the thinking of Jews and their Scripture at the time of the NT. You want greater insight into Jesus’ dealing with the Pharisees? You may just find it in the Mishna.


Targums are completely fascinating and some of my favorite ancient literature to read, because Targums are actually paraphrases of Holy Scripture itself. I liken to them in some ways to modern translations of the Bible such as The Message or The Living Bible. Targums were written in Aramaic (a cousin language to Hebrew) for Aramaic speaking Jews before, during, and shortly after the close of the NT. They were often read in the synagogues.

To a greater or lesser degree, depending up on the particular Targum, they follow the ancient Jewish practice—a practice seen in the NT itself—of midrash. You can liken midrash to what is supposed to be a main job description of a pastor. First, he exegetes a text, then it delivers a homily/sermon. Midrash often fills in gaps that are in the Scripture. Thus, in some of the more liberal Targums, you will find short stories that explain some kind of bewildering passage. These stories were rooted in ancient Jewish oral tradition. Being that I have a kind of hobby of writing about biblical giants, I thought I would give you an example. Here is Gen 14:13 from Targum Pseudo-Jonathan:

And Og came, who had been spared from the giants that died in the deluge, and had ridden protected upon the top of the ark, and sustained with food by Noah; not being spared through high righteousness, but that the inhabitants of the world might see the power of the Lord, and say, Were there not giants who in the first times rebelled against the Lord of the world, and perished from the earth? But when these kings made war, behold, Og, who was with them, said in his heart, I will go and show Abram concerning Lot, who is led captive, that he may come and deliver him from the hands of the kings into whose hands he has been delivered. And he arose and came, upon the eve of the day of the Pascha, and found him making the unleavened cakes. Then showed he to Abram the Hebrew, who dwelt in the valleys of Mamre Amoraah, brother of Eshkol and brother of Aner, who were men of covenant with Abram. (Gen 14:13 PJE, purple is the actual biblical text, italics is the midrash)

There are several Targums, representing many books of the OT. Some books of the Bible have multiple Targums preserved. For example, Genesis-Deuteronomy have versions of the fairly conservative Onkelos Targum which deviates from the biblical text much than the more expansive Neofiti and Pseudo-Jonathan Targums. A final note: Many OT books have ancient Jewish commentaries called Rabbahs (Genesis Rabbah, Exodus Rabbah, etc. These date a little later than the Targums, are hard to get full copies of in English, but a few can be found online). Pastors such as John Gill often made use of these in his commentaries.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)


Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

[1] Matt Slick, “Regarding the quotes from the historian Josephus about Jesus,” CARM at, last accessed 3-9-2015.

[2] For a brief snippet on Philo and the Logos see:

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