Historical writings provide an essential resource for Bible students, offering important information regarding the background of various biblical texts and sometimes filling in gaps of knowledge that further illuminate events recorded in Scripture. Nathan Steinmeyer, for example, notes how Shishak’s Bubastite Portal inscription provides corroborative evidence regarding that ruler’s march on Jerusalem recorded in 1 Kings 14:25-28 and 2 Chronicles 12:1-12. Likewise, Josephus’ account of Herod Agrippa I’s death provides additional information explaining the details of what happened to the king after God struck him (Acts 12:21-23; Josephus, Antiquities 19:343-350). The geographer Strabo similarly offers background and insights into the history of numerous locations cited in Scripture that prove helpful in understanding the environment of the early church. Indeed, history and archaeology have contributed greatly in enhancing our knowledge of the people, places, and events previously known to us only through the Bible. But using ancient works comes with some risks for those unfamiliar with the background of the authors or circumstances under which they wrote.
When I was studying history, in both undergraduate and graduate school, all my professors consistently stressed both the importance of looking for primary sources (those closest in both chronology and proximity to the people and events) as the basis for research and the need to evaluate them for their own mistakes, biases, and points of view. For instance, when researching the early Roman Empire, rather than relying on other historians who had written about it, the historian focuses on the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, and Josephus. However, rather than just accepting everything each source has written without further examination, the historian crosschecks the sources against one another, against archaeological evidence, and against themselves to uncover inconsistencies and potential problems. Thus, we can recognize Josephus’ tendency to exaggerate numbers, probably because he lacked the means for a precise count, though other possibilities exist. Additionally, careful evaluation of the writing style helps immensely in ferreting out rumor, gossip, and innuendo. While The History Channel promotes the most lurid of stories in Roman history by retelling the descriptions of Suetonius, most historians recognize his well-honed ability to report gossip convincingly, partly due to his own admission and partly due to the impossibility of access to some of the facts reported. The historian also looks at each source in its own time to consider potential motives or influences that might reveal a particular perspective. For example, Josephus enjoyed the patronage of the Flavian dynasty, making it in his interest to portray those emperors favorably while also seeking to argue for the legitimacy and legacy of the Jews. Tacitus, usually regarded as the least biased ancient historian, had a major political interest in portraying the Flavian dynasty poorly since he wrote during the reign of the succeeding line of emperors.
Preachers’ usual lack of historical and rhetorical training can lead to their taking ancient works at face value without any scholarly skepticism. In short, preachers sometimes treat historical works as if they are as accurate and unadulterated as Scripture. And that presents some problems. Some quote from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs without considering the origin of that work as a collection of various Lives of the Saints, which themselves have anonymous origins rooted in tradition and legend and served as encouraging propaganda during the dark days of the church in the Roman Empire. A quick perusal of these accounts demonstrates the exaggerated and even fanciful nature of many entries. This does not imply a rejection of their value but rather the importance of placing them in their context. Similarly, the varying traditions that originated from an unsubstantiated source deserve healthy scrutiny rather than mindless acceptance.
In the last few years Bible students also have shown an increasing interest in expanding their knowledge of ancient literature. These works have immense value in providing insight into what their authors believed, taught, and promoted during their time. The second century Gnostic works provide valuable, though limited, information that helps the Bible student understand the writings of John, who confronted a nascent form of this error in his inspired works. Therefore, while the world marvels in the The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas, treating them as reliable and realistic counters to the inspired accounts, the Christian should recognize them as important contrasts that demonstrate the difference between those fictional accounts that emphasize the trivial and fanciful and the inspired accounts that highlight the subtle and sublime.
All of these principles matter greatly when reading Jewish literature of the intertestamental period. As works produced throughout the Koine period, especially between the Maccabean Revolt and the beginning of Roman domination, these writings, collectively known to us as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, provide valuable information regarding the theological thinking during that historical period. The impact of the earlier writings continued into the latter first century, as the epistles of
2 Peter and Jude make clear. Since the Jews already had the Talmud as extensive rabbinical commentary on the law, these works served a different purpose. Typically attributing authorship to a respected forefather, the works contained in the pseudepigrapha served as religious tracts to persuade their readers to a particular point of view (usually Pharisaical). While most Christians easily recognize the (sometimes denied) syncretism of the Catholic Church in providing through the veneration of saints a competitive outlet for newly converted pagans, they fail to recognize the pseudepigrapha’s background during the period of Hellenization as a means of providing a competing mythology to the Greeks to prevent full religious capitulation and to reaffirm themselves as a credible and ancient culture—a similar approach to what Josephus sought to do through history during the Roman period. (Just consider the Additions to Esther as an example of their obvious motives.) Admittedly, the pseudepigrapha covers several centuries, and the regular reliance on symbolic rhetorical forms to argue rather odd questions theologically (such as questions of the calendar) creates its own problems. However, their hyper-spiritualism combined with their material vision of the Messianic kingdom explains much about the origin of the disagreements between the Pharisees and Sadducees as well as the mindset Jesus confronted during His ministry. Unfortunately, the lack of training necessary to evaluate these types of documents has left preachers in the Age of Narrative vulnerable to their mysticism. It is an easy mistake to make—especially when so many other explanations lack the charisma of Jewish mythology.
Brethren, in writing the above, I do so not to castigate and condemn but rather to encourage a greater attention to scholarship and wisdom. I remember reading from my hardcopy edition of Charlesworth almost twenty-five years ago when first considering the role of these works on Bible study. Since that time I have grown immensely as an historian and as an exegete. We have sufficient challenges in reaching a lost and dying world with the gospel and calling the faithful to greater holiness than to expend so much energy on ancient Jewish propaganda. I do not question the sincerity of those who find this fascinating. To the contrary, I believe them to be not only sincere but also full of zeal in seeking answers. I simply believe they are mistaken in purpose. And I write, hoping to prevent others from blindly following that path.