Ancient texts that didn’t make it into the canon of the Bible purport to give insight into what happened to Adam and Eve after they left the Garden of Eden, the manner in which Abraham discovered monotheism, and the life of Enoch.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Joel Hoffman (@JoelMHoffman and @GodDidntSayThat) about his book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014).
You begin your book by saying, “The Bible you usually read is the abridged version.” Explain what you mean.
Dr. Hoffman: The Bible contains only some of the scriptures that were considered holy in ancient Jerusalem. One reason I wrote the book was to help people explore the cultures and writings that gave us the Bible.
Why were ancient writings left out of the Bible when it was finally assembled?
Dr. Hoffman: Some parts were left out because they contained background that was too obvious to include: For instance, there’s no way to understand the full impact of Matthew 2:1 without appreciating King Herod’s devastating influence on Jerusalem, but the Bible itself doesn’t describe it. Equally, Paul’s dripping irony in Acts 26:2-3 only comes through if the reader knows who Bernice is, but, again, the Bible doesn’t say. For that matter, Genesis 11:3 explains that the Tower of Babel was waterproofed to withstand a future flood, but modern readers who aren’t experts in ancient materials science would never know it.
Other parts of the Bible were omitted because of the limitations of ancient bookmaking technology. Also, religious leaders at times decided that they no longer liked the messages of the ancient texts. And some parts were even deleted by accident.
What are the Pseudepigrapha and how did you come to select the few books you did to investigate?
Dr. Hoffman: The term “Pseudepigrapha” refers to a subset of the biblical writings that were left out of the Bible. I focus on three particular books — The Life of Adam and Eve, The Apocalypse of Abraham, and Enoch — because of their penetrating answers to the timeless question of: Why is my life like this?
I also include the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are like the Pseudepigrapha, and other ancient sources that help us better understand the Bible.
Why is it important to understand the “thousand-year-long” cultural context of Jerusalem as it relates to the Bible?
Dr. Hoffman: Jerusalem’s violent and unprecedented saga created parts of the Old Testament, almost all of the New Testament, the Pseudepigrapha, and other ancient writings on the Bible’s cutting room floor. Reading them without knowing the cultural context is like trying to understand the Gettysburg Address while knowing nothing about the Civil War.
Does your book question the validity of the canon of the Bible as we know it today?
Dr. Hoffman: Just the opposite. I think the only way to understand the canon in its fullness is to appreciate both what’s in it and what was rejected from it.
One question I address at the end of the book is what Judaism and Christianity might have looked like if religious leaders had made different choices about the canon centuries ago.
Why do you refer to texts outside of the Bible as “holy”?
Dr. Hoffman: Because the people who originally compiled the Bible would have considered them holy.
How does the idea of divine direction in the compilation of the Bible fit with your book’s premise?
Dr. Hoffman: I believe the writings that make up the Bible are, at the very least, inspired by God. There was something unprecedented about Jerusalem during the centuries before and after Jesus. But I think that the Bible as we now know it contains only part of God’s message. (It seems to me that people who don’t see God’s hand in the text of the Bible have a dilemma. They have to explain why, of all the ancient writings, these are the ones that are so widely read.)
If people currently struggle to read the entire Bible, why should they bother to read the books left out of the Bible?
Dr. Hoffman: For two reasons: The parts that were left out sometimes make it easier to understand the Bible. And the parts that were left out are sometimes so compelling that they would be worth reading even if they weren’t biblical.
For example, in the parable of the Man with a Withered Hand, Jesus refers to the obvious merit of saving a sheep from a pit even on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11). The Dead Sea Scrolls, in something called the Damascus Document, offer a contrary opinion. So it turns out that Jesus was weighing in on a popular debate of his day, an aspect to the text that readers can only appreciate by reading other sources.
Similarly, even if The Life of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with the Bible, it would be worth reading for its high drama and insightful perspectives.
What’s one thing you wish more Bible readers understood about Scripture?
Dr. Hoffman: Scripture frequently welcomed more than one answer to a question. When we limit a question to only one answer, we have misunderstood the Bible.
This is why Jesus is able to say in Matthew 5:39 that turning the other cheek is an expansion of “an eye for eye,” not a contradiction to it. And it’s why Jesus starts his list of six topics there by saying that he doesn’t intend to abolish the law, even though to a modern eye that seems to be just what he is doing. (This is also why later Jewish rabbinic tradition would often record more than one answer to a question.)
How can faith communities bridge the gap between seminaries and the academic/linguistic study of Scripture, and the average layperson sitting in the pew?
Dr. Hoffman: Wow. I could write a whole essay about that. In short? Asking people to yell less and listen more would be a good start.
I feel fortunate that I get to travel to faith communities, seminaries, and secular universities as I talk about my research. One of my great joys is presenting to diverse audiences and exploring how much we have in common.
Bio: A frequent speaker at churches, synagogues, and community groups, Joel M. Hoffman, PhD, is also the author of And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning and In the Beginning. He is the chief translator for the series My People’s Prayer Book (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and for My People’s Passover Haggadah. He’s an occasional contributor to The Jerusalem Post and The Huffington Post and has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. He lives in New York and can be reached through his website.