Sunday, July 2, 2017

2 Baruch, my first thoughts on a major pseudepigraphical document:

One precious manuscript, a Syriac text from the sixth or seventh century, preserves this apocryphal document – one text that flood or fire or neglect could easily have taken from us forever.

But it endured the vicissitudes of history, to be gathered up into the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana in Milan, in the 17th century or thereabouts, where it has been safeguarded ever since. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) for the ambitious idea to build this treasure-house of art and literature. His agents “scoured Western Europe and even Greece and Syria for books and manuscripts” for the collection, many of which might otherwise have been lost forever.

As with other ancient documents of this type, I try to picture the first century Jew, most likely of Palestine, who wrote this work. His was a world wracked with change and pain. After a century of strife, the Romans had just destroyed the second Jewish temple, tightening the vise on Jerusalem to almost unendurable constriction.

So I picture him, brow furrowed by a life of stress, bent over a table in some little room somewhere in the city or near it, carefully inking on papyrus or vellum the Hebrew characters that spell out this text, perhaps by late afternoon sunlight slanting in through a narrow window, or by the light of a clay lamp late at night.

No one would write such a book for a lark, on a whim, not in such a place or time. His words were important to him, this anonymous man of long ago. And he stands among those other men, some known, many unknown, who stood bravely and gathered from the wreckage of classical Judaism, the bricks by which modern, Rabbinical Judaism was built.

The text reveals his time by oblique references to the temple’s destruction, but also reveals his dependence on earlier writings and traditions – even, possibly, upon texts that were used around the same time to build the corpus of Christian literature.
The extant Syriac text was translated from Greek, which was most likely translated from a Hebrew original. That means that what I read in English, is three languages away from the first ink that committed it to writing. I cannot expect that the style of the original, its literary beauty, has survived the journey, and I must be content with what I have.

The Church Father Barnabas knew of this work and quoted 61:7 in 11:9 of his epistle, calling the writer “another prophet:”
In the quotation, “Baruch” spoke wistfully of the Jerusalem of old, in the days of Solomon and David.

“And the land which then received mercy, since its inhabitants did not sin, was praised above all countries.”

Listening to the shouts of Roman soldiers outside his window, or the angry debates between anti-Roman Zealots and those who sought accommodation and peace in their time, perhaps he could dream of that lost Golden Age of Israel, and eulogize it in this work.

And so preserved for us, like a fossil in rock, is this reminder of one who once lived, a human being trying to make sense of a world in chaos, bringing together all that he knew and believed and thrusting it forward like a battle shield, to ward off the terror of the unknown.

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