The Christian Monks Who Saved Jewish History

The Christian Monks Who Saved Jewish History

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Malka Simkovich

Many Jews view the Second Temple period as a “filler” period that bridges the biblical period and the rabbinic period. Some figures who appear in the latest strata of the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah are viewed by many of these Jews as proto-rabbis who forged the way into the rabbinic period. Yet it was during the late Second Temple period—the second century BCE through 70 CE—that Jews became especially prolific, writing a vast body of diverse literature that includes the entire body of the Dead Sea Scroll library, the voluminous treatises written by Philo of Alexandria, and the writings of Josephus, not to mention the many other Jewish texts written in Greek.

And this only comprises the material that survives to the present day. One can barely imagine how many thousands of other documents were composed and did not survive the two millennia.

One of the most remarkable anomalies of Jewish history is that its most popular literature, its documents that were translated from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into languages such as Latin, Slavonic, and Ethiopic, were preserved mainly by Orthodox Christians instead of Jews. For centuries, Christian monks carefully copied these Jewish texts in scriptoriums, rooms where scribes copied books, usually books that would be placed in their monastery’s own library, where they sat for centuries.

Some of the most popular Jewish documents that were highly circulated among Jews in the ancient world were preserved in monasteries that thrive to this day: St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert, and the twenty monasteries on the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos. Both St. Catherine’s and Mount Athos were settled by Orthodox Christians in the early medieval period, and both are geographically isolated: St. Catherine’s is surrounded by desert, and Mount Athos’s rugged mountainous terrain, with its sharp cliffs that give way to the sea, is difficult to access.

Tradition has it that since the medieval period, no females have been admitted to the peninsula. The ban on females visitors to Mount Athos extends even to animals, although this ban is not enforced.

St. Catherine’s Monastery
Two of the oldest surviving copies of the Bible were discovered at St. Catherine’s monastery in the 1800s. One is the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth century CE codex comprising the books of the Old Testament, the books of the Apocrypha, the New Testament, and some other Christian documents called the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, all written in Greek. This codex was first discovered in 1844 by the German scholar Constantin Tischendorf, but it was only in 1859, upon one of his return visits to St. Catherine’s, that Tischendorf discovered the bulk of the manuscripts. Tischendorf would later claim that he discovered the codex as it was about the be consigned to be burned for fuel, but this claim is dubious.

The second ancient Bible preserved at St. Catherine’s is the Syriac Sinaiticus, a late fourth century copy of the four Gospels that are now preserved in the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The text’s language, Syriac, is a dialect of Aramaic that was spoken by Christians living in the region north of the land of Israel, specifically in the grand city of Antioch, as well as in eastern regions of the Roman Empire. This document was of particular fascination to scholars because it was a palimpsest, a document whose original text was scratched out by a later scribe, who rewrote a second text over it. In the case of the Syriac Sinaiticus, a scribe working in the eighth century rewrote stories about Christian female saints and martyrs over the Gospels.

The Codex Sinaiticus and the Syriac Sinaiticus were incredibly important for Christians seeking to determine the most authentic version of their scriptures. The discoveries of these codices have eclipsed the preservation of other ancient texts in St. Catherine’s, which are of Jewish origin. Before discussing some examples of these texts, let’s discuss a second ancient depository of manuscripts, the collections of documents on the Greek peninsula known as Mount Athos.

Mount Athos
Mount Athos region encompasses a thirty-one mile stretch of land that extends in a southeasterly direction into the Aegean Sea, but the Mountain itself lies at the very bottom of the peninsula. The name Mount Athos alludes to the historical figure of Saint Athanasios, who founded a monastery there in the tenth century. Most monks on the mountain live in monasteries, but others live in tiny communities called sketes, which are under the jurisdiction of a nearby monastery. Other smaller dwellings house three or four monks who are associated with a particular monastery. Yet other monks live solitary, or eremitic, lifestyles.

Today there are twenty functioning monasteries on the peninsula, most of them centuries old, and boasting a library with precious manuscripts that include manuscripts which derive from non-Christian traditions. Many of the manuscripts in these libraries date to the medieval period, and of these, many texts were originally composed well before the medieval period. In addition to ancient documents, the monasteries also boast incredibly valuable and ancient artifacts of gold and other precious metals that have religious value for the monks. Broadly speaking, scholars interested in perusing the treasures of Mount Athos have not had easy access to them. But in recent years, the lack of access has begun to change. The government of Greece even initiated a project three years ago to begin digitizing the precious manuscripts preserved on Mount Athos.

The Precious Manuscripts Housed at Mount Athos and St. Catherine’s
Besides ancient Bibles, Greek monasteries have been home to medieval manuscripts based on texts originally written by Jews in the Second Temple period. These fall under the category of what some scholars call Rewritten Bible, a term first introduced by the Hungarian scholar Geza Vermes. Vermes used this term to refer to an array of texts written in the Second Temple period that expand on biblical stories in different ways. But many scholars now recognize that the term poses some difficulties. In the first place, the term presumes that by the time certain texts were written in the middle of the Second Temple period, there was some sort of “closed” Bible. In fact, however, there may have been a high degree of fluidity in the Second Temple period as to what was regarded as scriptural, and what was not. Jewish communities probably differed on the scriptural status of certain books. We know, for example, that the community who lived near the Dead Sea had at least fifteen copies of the book of Jubilees in their library—and no copies of Esther. Debates about what books were regarded as authoritative extended into the early rabbinic period, and are recorded in the Mishnah.

The second problem with the term Rewritten Bible is that it presumes that authors who wrote books relating to scriptural stories shared the same motive: to rewrite, or perhaps replace, early scriptural texts. In all likelihood, however, this was not the case. The texts that share some relationship with biblical material were written in different genres, from brief adventure tales to wisdom texts to apocalyptic documents in which a biblical hero is given a vision about the end-time. The authors of these documents had varying beliefs about Judaism and its place in the world, and varying motives for writing their texts. Some authors wanted to critique contemporary Jews who interpreted biblical texts and traditions differently than the author, and others wanted to entertain their readers with pious but entertaining stories. Among this vast corpus of documents were what some would refer to today as “fan fiction:” texts that paid homage to the scriptural stories by using them as springboards for other stories.

The libraries of Mount Athos and St. Catherine’s include ancient Jewish documents that participate in all of these genres. Some of their documents are canonized in the Hebrew Bible, others are included in the books of the Apocrypha, which is included in the Catholic Bible, and yet others are not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, Catholic Bible, or Protestant Bible, but are preserved in other canon lists, such as the Ethiopic canon. There are many books in these libraries that are not preserved in any Bible today, and scholars do not know whether they were considered scriptural at all in the ancient world. Nevertheless, Greek Orthodox readers saw enough value in these documents to preserve them.

Today, these documents are preserved in the Pseudepigrapha, which is a collection of documents that were not regarded as a single collection in ancient times, but is a term that came into use in the eighteenth century to refer to texts that were written by Jews in the Greco-Roman period and not canonized in most major religious traditions. I will briefly turn to two examples of pseudepigraphic texts.

Joseph and Aseneth
The manuscripts preserved in the library of St. Catherine’s include three copies of the ancient Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth in manuscripts dated to the tenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A monastery on Mount Athos called the monastery of Konstamonitou is also home to a fifteenth century manuscript of the Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth. This manuscript is part of a group of manuscripts that can possibly be traced to an original version of the text. The compositional origins of Joseph and Aseneth is under dispute; some scholars date its writing to as early as the second century BCE, while others date it to as late as the fourth century CE. But most historians agree that the text was written by a Jew sometime in the Greco-Roman period.

Joseph and Aseneth comprises two novellas, which may have each been written at different stages and later combined to make a single story. In the first half, the lovely Egyptian maiden Aseneth, a daughter of the priest Pentephres, falls in love with Joseph. This section builds off of the obscure reference to the marriage of Joseph and Aseneth in Genesis 41:50–52. Joseph and Aseneth opens with a description of Aseneth’s devotion to idol worship. When Pentephres mentions to Aseneth that he is considering giving her to Joseph as a wife, Aseneth, who has not yet met Joseph, reacts with disgust that she would have to marry a lowly Israelite.

But when Joseph comes to visit Pentephres’ household and Aseneth meets Joseph for the first time, she is immediately smitten and renounces her idols. The question of whether Aseneth “converts” to Judaism in this story (which would depend largely on whether there was any kind of systematic conversion to Judaism at the time that the author wrote his story), or whether she simply commits herself to worshipping the Israelite God among other gods in her pantheon, is up for debate. But the love that Aseneth bears for Joseph is far from ambiguous.

In the second half of the book, some of Joseph’s older brothers, Dan, Napthali, Gad and Asher (Bilhah and Zilpah’s sons) ally with Pharaoh’s son to kill Joseph, and wrest Aseneth away and marry her. When Joseph’s other brothers–the sons of Leah—get wind of the plan, they fight the other brothers and save Joseph and Aseneth.

Joseph and Aseneth touches on a number of themes that readers in the late Second Temple period would have found pertinent to their own lives. Besides Daniel, Joseph was the consummate diasporan Jew. He lived in Egypt (like hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived there in the late Second Temple period), was widely respected among Gentiles, and never renounced his ancestral faith. Readers of this story would have appreciated Joseph’s effective balancing of his tradition with being a modern man of his times. They also would have appreciated the typically Hellenistic features of the story: an unlikely romantic pairing, threats against the hero’s life by a wicked antagonist, and a story that climaxes in a battle between good and evil forces.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is a collection of twelve texts that recall the wise words that Jacob’s twelve sons imparted to their wives and children as they lay on their deathbeds. Each of these speeches is called a “Testament.” The Testament form of writing was a genre unto itself in the Greco-Roman world. Besides this collection, other testaments have been preserved that were written by Jews at this time, including The Testament of Solomon, The Testament of Adam, and The Testament of Job. Perhaps the three most pivotal figures in this collections of texts is Judah, Levi, and Joseph. Judah and Levi are portrayed as being imbued with monarchic and priestly leadership in these documents, and their roles as communal leaders will be restored in the end-time. Joseph is portrayed as the quintessential man of piety, a person who exhibits complete mastery over his desires and who refrains from integrating into his gentile surroundings.

A Greek medieval manuscript of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is preserved in Mount Athos at the library of Koutloumos, as well as at St. Catherine’s monastery. This manuscript contains Aramaic material from The Testament of Levi that was also found in the Cairo Genizah and in the Dead Sea Caves near Qumran. It is therefore an important witness to a manuscript tradition that goes back to at least the first century CE.

What is it about these texts, and others that fall under the category of “Rewritten Bible,” that made them appealing and worth the painstaking cost of preservation to those living in monastic communities? There is likely more than one answer. The most basic is that today, many members of the Greek Orthodox Church consider these texts to be Christian. As these documents were copied, scribes interpolated references to Jesus’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection into these texts, as well as references to the Trinity. Still, this explanation does not clarify why the earliest Christian copyists of these texts preserved and copied them–before they were subject to interpolations.

One important feature of documents such as The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and Joseph and Aseneth is that while they are of Jewish origin, they almost never make reference to distinctively Jewish practices. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs does make passing reference to Jewish mourning laws and levirate marriage, but neither of these documents talk about the main identifying markers of Judaism in the ancient world: circumcision, Sabbath and holidays, and dietary law. Nor do they make reference to Jewish purity practices, which were also a distinguishing feature of Jewish practice at this time.

This is not to say, however, that the authors of these texts viewed themselves as assimilated Jews. On the contrary, the authors of these texts extolled the patriarchs for their devotion to the Israelite God, which conveyed to their readers that they, too, should cling to their ancestral tradition. Yet in order to present Judaism as a sophisticated religion of integrity, they emphasized the ethical aspects of the religion rather than the ritual ones.

Christian copyists saw in these documents “proto-Christian” elements that underscored ethical concern and universalist messages. They may not have understood, of course, how central these values were to Judaism. Jews, likewise, have viewed these texts as marginal to their tradition, but in fact they represent a vast body of pious Jewish texts that do not mention the distinguishing aspects of Judaism. I hope that one day these documents will be seen as reflective of what life of was like for pious Jews living in the Greco-Roman world who were devoted to their scriptures and to their ancestral traditions. In this way, these texts will become regarded as central to Jewish tradition, and to what would become rabbinic Judaism, rather than marginal to it. If that happens, we have Greek Orthodox monks to thank.

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