Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Pseudo-Philo

Introduction to the Text:

Pseudo-Philo is the author of Biblical Antiquities (Latin, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum). As a retelling of the Hebrew Bible up to the death of Saul, it incorporates legends already present within the Hebrew Bible and elements from extra-biblical literature and traditions. Additionally, it contains expansions of texts within the Hebrew Bible by Pseudo-Philo’s hand. Written c. 1st century CE, it is a witness to the reception of the Hebrew Bible and how Pseudo-Philo, along with whatever tradition or community he represented, established traditions that helped to define his social identity. While any passage of Biblical Antiquities helps us to reconstruct the social identity  of Pseudo-Philo, I will choose one particular scene: Moses’ plea before Yahweh after the Israelites worship the Golden Calf.

Reception, Expansion, and Identity: 

After Moses learns that the people worshiped a golden calf, Yahweh threatens to destroy Israel. Moses quickly jumps to their defense, claiming that it would dishonor Yahweh’s own name: “Let not Your anger, O LORD, blaze forth against Your people… Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth'”(Exodus 32:11-12; The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004).Essentially, in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is defending his reputation from the Egyptians. Moses’ claim is that the Egyptians will use the death of the Israelites to mock Yahweh and claim that the exodus only took place in order to kill the people.

Within Exodus, Moses’ defense of Israel explicitly establishes Egypt as the Other. Through identifying Egypt as the Other, Israel sharpens its own identity as distinct from the traditions of Egypt. In this situation, Israel is representative of God and they identify with Yahweh in as much as they represent his covenant faithfulness to Egypt.

In a similar vein, Pseudo-Philo touches on this; however, he present a slightly modified paradigm. The Other whom Israel demonstrates Yahweh’s faithfulness is different. In an expanded picture about why Yahweh needs to save Israel, the Other becomes more than Egypt. The Other becomes the whole world.

“Therefore, if you do not have mercy on your vine (namely, Israel), all things, LORD, have been done in vain, and you will not have anyone to glorify you. For even if you plant another vine, this one will not trust you, because you have destroyed the former one. For if you indeed forsake the world, then who will do for you what you say as God?”

(Biblical Antiquities 12:9; Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume II, pg. 320; parenthesis added for clarity)

The vine is Israel. Moses claims, in Biblical Antiquities, that if Yahweh destroys Egypt, no other vines, or covenant people, will trust him because his action is unfaithful. While there are many differences between Pseudo-Philo and Exodus, one major difference is the identification of the Other. Unlike Exodus, Biblical Antiquities expands the Other to be the whole world. So, rather than just representing Yahweh for Israel, Israel, or the Jewish people, now represent God for the whole world. Consequently, the Pseudo-Philo places Jews within a place that identifies them as vastly different from any other group in the world. This new identity is far more exclusive.

Yet, this was an important part of the community which Pseudo-Philo represents. For them, representing Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness to the whole world was not enough. For them, representing Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness to the whole world is what was necessary. Perhaps such a shift was necessary because Biblical Antiquities was composed during a period of great expansions. As the Roman Empire expanded its territory, it was not enough to be representative only to Egypt. In order to adjust to the socio-political situations, the community developed accordingly. Perhaps, though, “developed” is even the wrong word, for it assumes that the previous social identity was not sufficient. The community, rather, evolved. Recognizing the shifting reality of the Roman Empire, they found it necessary to evolve in order to continue thriving as a community.  The evolution meant identifying their group as representatives to the whole world, not just Egypt.