Kristian Heal contributes to new book of Old Testament pseudepigrapha

02.04.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

Kristian Heal, director of our Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, has just published a translation of the Syriac History of Joseph in an important new edition of writings related to the Old Testament entitled Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Vol. 1.1 This volume is the product of an international project to expand upon a previous collection2 with a corpus of about 100 additional documents including “apocalypses . . . ; magical, oracular, exorcistic and mantic works attributed to prophets and sages such as Moses, David, Solomon, the Sibyl, and Jeremiah; songs and poetry attributed to Old Testament characters, especially David; ‘rewritten scripture’ that retells stories known from the Old Testament from the fall of Adam and Eve to the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs; legends and tales set in the Old Testament period . . . ; and various other obscure and intriguing works, including a legendary account of the hiding places of the Temple treasures, lost pre-exilic oracles of Balaam the seer, and a legend of how all human knowledge was preserved in the Great Pyramid during the Flood.”

The Syriac History of Joseph falls into the category of “rewritten scripture.” Heal describes it as “a dramatic prose retelling of the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph” that is “rich in expansions, many of which contain Jewish elements” (85). In his introduction he examines eight of these Jewish elements, but on the basis of his broader research concludes, “Evidence indicates that the Syriac History is an original composition, written in Syriac in a Christian context. The text can be dated to the early fifth century” (92). The Jewish elements illustrate, as do many related texts, just how influential Jewish traditions were upon early Syriac Christian exegesis. And uniquely, “unlike later Syriac retellings, the Syriac History does not exhibit a self-conscious relationship to scripture—there is no indication that the auditor is expected to be aware of the biblical text, nor are there explicit indications of the presupposition of, or allusions to scripture. The Syriac History is thus a fluent freestanding composition woven from the biblical narrative, imaginative and interpretive expansions, and other contemporary traditions” (87-88).

The publication of this text is important, as is the project and volume it belongs to. Interest in pseudepigrapha and related texts, among both scholars and the public, continues to grow. This new edition is a fundamental reference work that should be placed in every researcher’s library.


1.  Richard Bauckham, James R. Davila, and Alexander Panayotov, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

2. James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983–85).