History of the Bible studies texts left behind by mainstream Judaism

Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

“The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible” was authored by Joel Hoffman, a scholar and translator who has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College, the seminary for the Jewish Reform movement. This book, the latest of several by Hoffman, impresses as a window on a universe of knowledge about which many of us know very little.

For several reasons, it is also a challenging book. In the first place, the author includes fine details of ancient history, arcane texts in unknown languages, familiar biblical personalities featured in unfamiliar stories and alien theologies. Most importantly, for some readers, Hoffman’s premise is likely to present an uncomfortable, conceptual challenge to their beliefs.

The title of Hoffman’s book borrows a metaphor from the film industry. During the pre-digital era, when hours of cinematography were edited by literally slicing and splicing film together, the unused film ended up on the editing, or cutting room, floor.

In the introduction, the author elaborates, “While we now consider [the Bible] a single book, it began [more like] a best-of collection, a college literature course, or a suggested reading list.”

In a phone conversation with the Light, Hoffman confirmed that, yes, all of the texts in the original collection were considered holy. Although, in effect, he contends, that the Hebrew Bible, including the first five books that form the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), was developed piecemeal rather than given to the Jewish people as a single document from God through Moses. It is this concept of the Torah having been a work-in-progress that will be disturbing to traditional Judaism.

Hoffman devotes full chapters to each of several books largely unknown to contemporary Judaism. I Enoch (“first Enoch”), which was well-known in the ancient world now survives, largely, in the scriptures of the Ethiopian Church. The Apocalypse of Abraham and the Life of Adam and Eve are also available in Christian texts with copies scattered in a variety of national languages.

As Hoffman points out, these texts—sometimes mystical and fantastic—struggle with questions that persist into the current moment: How was the universe created? Why would a benevolent Creator allow evil? What happens after we die? The author does not seem to acknowledge that these books fell from or never entered into the Jewish canon, because the books’ answers to these fundamental questions ceased to resonate with mainstream Judaism.

The several historical chapters at the beginning of “The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor…” are especially engaging and informative. Chapter 4 is about Josephus, the Jewish historian who is not entirely trusted, because he is believed to have eventually embraced Rome’s victory over the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Chapter 3 is about the Septuagint, which originated as a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible with a translation of the Torah for Hellenized Jews perhaps in the third century B.C.E.

Chapter 2 is about the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the intrigue surrounding their discovery in 1947 by Bedouin children chasing a lost goat, the community at Qumran to whom the scrolls belonged and the times in which they lived, and what the scrolls, as the oldest surviving copies of the texts in the Hebrew Bible tell us about the Bible itself. Hoffman notes that, astonishingly, because of a tradition of rigorously, faithful copyists, “the Five Books of Moses have survived nearly intact, with only a letter or two having changed over two [millennia].”

Chapter 1 is a history of Jerusalem and how its geography, for centuries within the path of warring kingdoms, made it vulnerable and prey to an unending series of conflicts internal and external. As Hoffman himself summarizes, “Hardly a spot on earth is untouched by the ideas and writings from that tiny hill two thousand years ago.”