Fr Michael Hall introduces this exciting new series; exploring around and beyond the Canon.

The great Christian writer C. S. Lewis made famous a quotation from St Gregory the Great: “Scripture is like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim”.  Perhaps St Gregory – and Lewis – had in mind that wonderful image from the last chapter of the prophet Ezekiel: the stream of water flowing from the east gate of the renewed Temple.  It, too, deepened progressively as it left the holy place.  Fish were abundant, and the banks were lined with fruit trees, whose “fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12).

It seems to me that the articles published by the Bible Society’s “God who speaks” project are not aimed to make any of us feel inadequate about the level of our understanding of the Bible.  They are to point the way to the fact that “there is always more”, and to encourage us to “wade in the water” perhaps a little deeper than we’ve been before.

This is the first in a short series of articles that will consider – to continue the metaphor – the trees that grow by the banks of the river.  Alongside the developing collection of writings that we call “The Old Testament”, there were other works which did not gain a place in this collection. Dating from around the time of Our Lord up to several centuries before, these writings can help us immeasurably – not only to understand the context of the Old Testament, but to gain a sense of the milieu in which our Lord and his apostles taught.

My hope is that a reading of these texts will enable a richer understanding of Scripture. Perhaps things we might have previously missed or misunderstood may become clearer and less puzzling.

The first collection of writings to consider is, in fact, the Bible itself in its Greek version.  A legend said that the Scriptures had been translated from Hebrew by 70 scholars overnight, so this Greek version is known by the Latin word for 70 – “Septuagint” – which is often abbreviated to “LXX”.  This is the version of Scripture that was known and quoted by St Paul.  It is also the basis for the “canon” (the accepted list of books) of the Catholic Old Testament.

In addition to the books of the Hebrew Bible that would be accepted by both Jews and Protestants, the Septuagint contained some later works as well.  These include wonderful examples of Wisdom literature, such as Sirach or the Wisdom of Solomon. In general, Wisdom literature as in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom is not easy to historically specify or locate because it is not historically focused. However, it does include the history of the Maccabean revolt, less than two centuries before Christ.  And there were additions and extensions to some existing books, such as Daniel and Esther.

Though use of the Septuagint by the Jewish people was extremely common in the world of the New Testament, the Jews would later reject it in favour of those books which they had in Hebrew.  Some argue that one of the reasons for rejecting the later Greek books was because they gave such fertile support to the Christians, and their claim that Jesus was not only the Messiah but also the Son of God.

A similar argument would be used in the sixteenth century by the Protestant reformers – though they would be suspicious of the support which the additional books gave to traditional Catholic teaching. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is happy to consider all these works as part of the “stream which issues from the Temple”.  But our first example of a “tree growing by the water” provides an interesting footnote to this story of the Greek Old Testament.

In 1947, a young Arab shepherd boy, tending his sheep near the Dead Sea, discovered some old jars in a cave.  The jars appeared to contain old scrolls.  Investigation by archaeologists showed that these had been hidden there by a community which had lived in isolation at Qumran in the nearby hills for some time before, and several decades after the time of Jesus.

The findings from this community now form a treasure which has revolutionised biblical scholarship in the decades which have followed.  Some of the scrolls dealt with the rules, beliefs and expectations of the Qumran sect.  They tried to follow their Old Testament religion in radical purity, believing that the existing Jewish pattern in Jerusalem was both politically and religiously corrupt.

They had a wide collection of Hebrew texts of books which are not part of the Old Testament (and thus count as our “trees”) – some of which had not been known in Hebrew before.  (One, which we shall consider in a moment, was previously known in an Ethiopian language!) But there were also Hebrew versions of some of the additional books of the Septuagint – which had only been known in Greek.  This demonstrated that, far from being late creations of Greek-speaking Jews, the works accepted by the first Christians and modern Catholics had deep historical roots.

The texts from the Qumran community provide fascinating insights into the New Testament, particularly the writings of St John and the letter to the Hebrews.  They also demonstrate that many faithful inhabitants of the Holy Land were not only looking for a political Messiah, who would rescue the country from Roman rule, but also for a priestly Messiah, who would rebuild the Temple and restore true worship.  These insights will be explored further in this series of articles.

What, then, of other trees that line the banks of our river?  These comprise books which had long been known both to early believers and to later academic scholarship.  Until the discoveries at Qumran, these had only existed in Greek or other ancient languages.

The writings are broadly grouped into four categories.  First, there is wisdom literature and poetry very similar to that found in the official Old Testament.  Five additional psalms exist, for example, a bit like the “supplements” that extend some of our hymn books.

Then there is a group of “legends and extended scripture”.  These retell some of the early stories of the Bible, answering questions that people often asked, and developing the “back story” of some of the characters.  Perhaps the most famous of these, the book of Jubilees, retells the stories of Genesis and Exodus.  It was well known in the Dead Sea Community, but also well known by the Apostles and early Church Fathers.

This “retelling” should not be regarded as strange.  Much of the Old Testament – and the Gospels too – existed as oral stories long before they were written down, and the practice of story-telling around a campfire was prevalent then as it is now.

Indeed, this “retelling of Scripture” can be found in the Old Testament itself.  The books of Chronicles are a later retelling of the stories of Samuel and Kings; the book of Deuteronomy retells and interprets the earlier books of Exodus and Numbers.

In both the Jewish and Christian worlds, the “extended Scripture” form of writing would give way to the “verse and explanation” commentary with which we are perhaps more familiar from Church history.

A particular form of “extended Scripture” forms the third group of writings, which are known as “Testaments”. 

In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his twelve sons from his deathbed, while in Deuteronomy 33 Moses does a similar blessing for the twelve tribes of Israel. The Testamentary writings extend this format to a wide range of patriarchs and prophets, using the “deathbed blessing” to prophesy, to instruct and to pray.  One particular collection, known as the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs”, has all of Jacob’s sons giving their deathbed blessing.

Though elements of this book date from the second century before Christ, and (as with a lot of this extra-biblical literature) can shed light on the period around the Macabbean revolt, it was so popular in the early Church that there are significant Christian additions to the text.  Again, this book would have been widely known in the early Church.

The final, and largest, group of extra-biblical writing is known as “apocalyptic”.  In common usage, this makes people think of the “end of the world”, taking up the word from the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse.  But the word itself is demonstrated in the other name for that last book – “Revelation”.

Apocalypses, in fact, are heavenly visions held together by a story.  They are usually attributed to a famous figure from the past, and usually take the form of a heavenly journey or a review of history, mediated by an angelic figure.

There is one such writing that stands out above all others in the extra-biblical literature, and that is the Book of Enoch.  In the form that it was known before the discoveries at Qumran (for example, as part of the official scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), there are some Christian additions.  But evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that much of the book could date from up to three hundred years before Christ.

Enoch reviews the history of God’s people, comments on current religious affairs, and predicts God’s judgement.  It develops the idea of the “Son of Man” seen in Daniel 7.  It was so widely known to the first Christians that there are echoes of it in several epistles, and it is quoted in the letter of Jude.

While this, and preceding, comments might appear to be of mild archaeological interest, the work over the last few decades of a Methodist scripture scholar, Margaret Barker, suggest that we should take Enoch more seriously.

She argues that one of the things that the book of Enoch does is to represent the thought of a group of Hebrew people who felt that the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem had become corrupted.  Like the Dead Sea community at Qumran, they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah – or Messiahs! – who would not only restore the nation politically, but – more importantly – rebuild the temple and restore the original worship of the Most High God.

Her compelling arguments suggest that this book can provide some valuable fresh insights into understanding parts of the New Testament – particularly John’s Gospel, the Apocalypse, and the Letter to the Hebrews.  Thus, it will be to the first of those books, the Fourth Gospel, that we shall turn next.

Fr Michael Hall is a parish priest in the Leeds Diocese.  For over 20 years he was also a teacher and school leader in secondary education.  He is Lead Associate of Barnabas Education Services.