Description of the project
Since the nineteenth century, scholars have remarked on the unexpected existence within medieval Jewish manuscripts of Semitic language versions of old biblically affiliated apocryphal tales of Jewish origin such as Tobit, Judith, and Bel and the Dragon, works previously thought to exist only in Greek and later Christian language editions. The initial years of research devoted to exploring the remains of the Cairo Genizah, a manuscript hoard of Jewish documents first recovered from a medieval Egyptian synagogue during the 1890s, witnessed the astonishing discovery of several Second Temple era (515 BCE-70 CE) Jewish literary products such as portions of Hebrew Ben Sira, the remains of an apparent Aramaic language predecessor of the Greek Testament of Levi, and the controversial ‘Zadokite Fragments’ or so-called Damascus Document, a work eventually recognized as having originated among the Jewish sectarian community famous for their first century deposit of what are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Citations from written works attributed to biblical characters like Adam, Seth, and Enoch occur among the literary productions of the third-century Mesopotamian prophetic religion founded by the infamous Christian heretic Mani, including one work—the Book of Giants—whose Middle Iranian and Old Turkic versions are demonstrably indebted to a much older Aramaic composition discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Analogous hints to the likely existence of written works associated with antediluvian biblical characters are also extant in Mandaean and other Aramaic-language gnostic writings emanating in late antiquity amidst the Syro-Mesopotamian cultural sphere. Syriac language compilations of biblical legends and interpretative expansions often attest the continued vitality among eastern Christian communities of older Jewish motifs, themes, and narrative cycles drawn from Second Temple era Jewish writings such as 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the apocryphal Davidic psalms. Assemblages of so-called Isrā’īliyyāt; i.e., ‘Israelite lore’ within Muslim ḥadīth, tafsīr, and ‘tales of the prophets’ (qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’) collections often exhibit distinct cognizance of, and in certain cases a direct relationship to, the vocabulary, motifs, and themes found in early Jewish and Christian apocrypha and non-canonical legendry. Finally, certain medieval Jewish literary compilations and testimonia produced in Western Europe, North Africa, and Byzantium arguably attest to the importation, circulation, and continuing promulgation of a wide variety of exegetical and speculative traditions from the East.
The study of ancient Jewish apocryphal literature has attracted significant attention during the past sixty years, a focus that has produced a plethora of annotated anthologies, new western language translations, critical textual editions, and a series of analytical studies which probe the import of this material for reconstructing the intellectual history of early Judaism and nascent Christianity. New manuscript discoveries, such as that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been mainly responsible for the explosion of interest in apocryphal or ‘lost’ writings among both scholars and the general public. Relatively little attention to date however has been devoted to exploring the afterlife of these apocryphal works among literate circles within the Islamicate cultural sphere wherein Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other scriptural communities were active contributors and interlocutors. Shining light on the shadows which obscure these textual exchanges, and unraveling the tangled web produced by the intercultural sharing of extracanonical textual lore, are urgent desiderata.
My project concentrates upon tracing the history of the literary transmission of ancient Jewish extracanonical texts and non-biblical lore among the Near Eastern religious communities of late antiquity and the early medieval period, and then tracking their peregrinations from literate circles in the East to Jewish communities located in the West. Several plausible scenarios are emerging for explaining how such knowledge was communicated, the most promising of which seem to involve the migration or relocation of community leaders and teachers from Islamicate realms in the East and on the Mediterranean shores to the Byzantine orbit and to Christian Europe. Critical assessment of these (and other) models demands careful comparative study of both manuscript and print resources in a variety of languages, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian. Happily the rapid growth in digital resources made available by libraries, museums, research institutes, and commercial database vendors renders this a less daunting task than it would have been in the past. The Dead Sea Scrolls are now completely accessible in an electronic format, and the Friedberg Genizah Project provides web-based access to tens of thousands of images of manuscripts gleaned from the Cairo Genizah. Many academic libraries and special collections possess newly realized capabilities for producing inexpensive electronic versions of individual manuscript holdings. Several websites are dedicated to making rare specialist imprints of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic literature freely available for download and consultation. Thus a number of the primary resources crucial for the prosecution of my project are now conveniently available in an unparalleled way.
My project blends several trajectories of research which I have pursued throughout my professional career. Its ultimate goal is the preparation and production of a monographic study devoted to identifying and illuminating the complex cultural processes that govern the survival and adaptation of ancient apocryphal Jewish lore in late antique and medieval Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic language compositions. One important facet of my project will involve close scrutiny of the diverse traditions about prominent biblical figures that were allegedly introduced into early Islamic literature by shadowy teachers like Ka‘b al-Aḥbār (d. 652/53 CE?) and Wahb b. Munabbih (d. 728-32 CE?), infamous traditionists renowned as exponents of Jewish learning. Non-canonical lore attached to certain biblical characters was likewise prominent within Manichaeism, and I suspect the latter religion has a largely underappreciated role in the preservation, promulgation, and reformulation of older Jewish literary themes (e.g., the Enochic myth of the rebel angels and their earthly depredations) among later Near Eastern and European religious communities. A final aspect of my project will involve identifying and amplifying the most likely mechanisms by which this ancient apocryphal Jewish lore eventually migrated to the West and contributed to the development of interpretative and speculative thought in medieval Europe.
The prosecution of this project has lately been facilitated by the award of a fellowship for 2015-16 by the American Council of Learned Societies.