(Full disclosure: I received a copy of The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor for review purposes from St. Martin’s Press.)
In The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor, Joel Hoffman—fiction writer, translator, and Bible lecturer—takes a look at the world in which the Bible was written and canonized, as well as several ancient texts that illuminate the Bible’s puzzles and elaborate on its stories. Unlike most such books, however, Hoffman’s latest work is aimed especially at lay readers who are unfamiliar with the apocrypha and the history of the Bible.
Indeed, the title itself takes a conspiratorial tone much like those of Bart Ehrman’s popular books, enticing the reader to discover a side to Scripture he or she might not have even known existed. In my experience, most Christians are only vaguely—if at all—aware that the Christian canon is the end result of a long and complicated process of writing and editorial production. The phrase “cutting room floor” and the implication that there is more to Scripture than what you find in a hotel Gideon Bible are sure to pique the curiosity of many.
The book consists of an introduction, eight chapters, one appendix, and an index (which was not included in my advance copy). It includes chapters on the history of the ancient Mediterranean, on the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the Septuagint, on Josephus, and on several Jewish pseudepigrapha. At this point, I would note that I found the title of the book somewhat misleading; I was about 66 pages into the book before it actually got around to discussing the non-canonical Scriptures omitted from the Bible. A minor complaint, to be sure; and I cannot say whether Hoffman or his publisher is responsible for the title.
In the first chapter, Hoffman expounds on the history of Jerusalem in order to help the reader understand the political and cultural backdrop against which the biblical texts were written. While a knowledge of the history of Palestine is undoubtedly essential knowledge for anyone who seeks to understand the Bible better, I have to admit that this was my least favourite section of the book. Though it covers an impressive swath of history and geography, it lacks focus in places, with excursuses on the Etruscans and other topics that have little or no relevance for the material that follows later. Still, Hoffman’s flair for storytelling should keep most readers engaged, and the chapter can be skipped if the reader is impatient to read about topics more directly related to the Bible.
The second chapter starts out with another history lesson—this time on the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Again, this material is not particularly relevant to the book’s overall topic, but the story is understandably too good to pass up. Finally, Hoffman begins discussing some of the most important manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the War Scroll, and the Temple Scroll, all of which he uses to illustrate the Qumran sect’s approach to Scripture and religion.
In the third chapter, Hoffman takes a look at the Greek Septuagint, providing numerous examples of how it can shine light on difficult readings in the Hebrew versions and even help us recover lost information. Hoffman also uses the Septuagint to drive home the point that the Bible has existed in different versions since ancient times, and that these traditions shouldn’t be considered “right” or “wrong” just because they disagree in certain places.
Reading the book, I definitely get the impression that Hoffman holds a great deal of reverence for the Bible, and the tone of the book would suggest that it is aimed particularly at a Christian audience. However, Hoffman does not adapt his views or conceal scholarly conclusions for the sake of his readership. He readily acknowledges, for example, that the reference to a “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 was mistranslated as “virgin” in the Septuagint and subsequently applied to the virgin birth of Jesus by Matthew’s Gospel—something the author of Isaiah could not have intended. Hoffman’s frankness and honesty regarding the way scholars interpret and understand such passages is to be applauded.
After the chapter on the Septuagint, Hoffman tackles the subject of the historian Josephus. As with the previous chapters, Hoffman’s intent here is less to discuss lost Scriptures, and more to provide information that illuminates our understanding of the Bible. Hoffman explains that familiarity with the works of the historian Josephus is vital both for the understanding the historical background to the Gospels and for his interpretations of the stories of the Hebrew Bible—those found in Genesis, in particular. Hoffman includes several pages describing the historical events surrounding Josephus’ life, and he responsibly warns the reader that even a vital resource like Josephus can be notoriously unreliable at times when it comes to historical matters. Hoffman is to be commended for not indulging in unnecessary apologetics—noting, for example, the doubtful authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews as well as the incompatible ways in which the Gospels and Josephus depict Pilate.
It is really in the last half of the book that we get to what the title promises: texts that were left out of the Bible but potentially could have been included. Hoffman spends three chapters discussing in detail the contents of three apocryphal Jewish works: the Life of Adam and Eve, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the First Book of Enoch. Hoffman’s interest in these works in particular seems to be twofold: (1) how they flesh out the often sparse and enigmatic tales of the patriarchs found in Genesis, and (2) how they illustrate differing views on theodicy and other theological topics. Generally speaking, I agree with his choice of apocrypha to use for this purpose. These three works are all quite important for understanding how key ideas developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition, and certain parts of the New Testament are difficult to understand without knowing some of the traditions that arose regarding Enoch.
In the final chapter, Hoffman summarizes his conclusions and presents the body of scriptural documents as a sort of museum consisting of a lobby with permanent displays (the biblical canon) as well as back rooms and archives with musty, obscure, and lost writings.
In the appendix, Hoffman provides several recommendations of scholarly works for readers who want to delve deeper into the topics of his book: Old Testament pseudepigrapha, history, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and Josephus.
Overall, Hoffman is to be commended for bringing a book like this to print. It is all too rare for Bible scholars to share their knowledge in a format that readers without specialized knowledge can appreciate and learn from, and without imposing a devotional spin or theological bias on the material. Hoffman’s enthusiasm for his subject matter is apparent on each page, even if his tendency to get side-tracked might occasionally puzzle the reader.
I have only a few complaints worth mentioning. One is Hoffman’s preference for depth over breadth. I would have liked to see a wider range of apocryphal books discussed, including New Testament apocrypha, rather than just the three Hebrew works that Hoffman included. Even those three could not discussed thoroughly in a book of this length.
Another is that Hoffman’s breezy writing style occasionally felt out of place in passages describing historical events. He sometimes lacks the neutral attitude I would expect of a historian—referring offhand to Herod a “Roman crony” (p. 39) as an example.
There were also some very minor errors I noticed. To give two examples, Hoffman claims on p. 121 that the virgin birth of Jesus is “clearly and amply” described in other books besides Matthew. (It is mentioned in only a single other passage, in Luke.) A few pages later, on p. 125, he states that Augustus removed Herod the Great’s children from power in A.D. 6. (In fact, only Archelaus was removed from power in A.D. 6. Antipas and Philip would remain in control of their respective tetrarchies for several more decades.) However, these are minor problems that probably just escaped detection during the editing process, and they do not in any way affect the essence of Hoffman’s book.
In the final analysis, Hoffman has written a very useful introduction to Jewish history and apocryphal Jewish Scriptures for the casual reader. Hoffman’s enthusiasm for the material is evident on every page, and his breadth of knowledge on these subjects is impressive. I would easily recommend The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor to anyone who is curious about the setting in which the Bible was written and compiled, and who wants to learn more about the diversity of Jewish scriptural traditions. This book should appeal to the same audience that many of Ehrman’s books (Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, etc.) are aimed at—those who want to delve deeper into the history of the Bible and know they’re not getting the full picture at church. Although Hoffman doesn’t sugarcoat his scholarly views, his approach to the material is, on the whole, more sympathetic to readers who revere the Bible than Ehrman’s is. That said, readers who expect a wide-ranging discussion of apocryphal or heretical Christian scriptures and are willing to read something a bit more dry might benefit from Ehrman’s Lost Christianities as a supplement to The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor.
Students and scholars who have already studied these subjects will find this book less useful. Hoffman’s take on the theological perspectives of the authors of Adam and Eve, Apocalypse of Abraham, and 1 Enoch is still of some interest; but for the most part, this book is aimed squarely at readers without any previous knowledge in these areas.
The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor is out this week. You can get it from Amazon and other booksellers for a very affordable price, in hardcover or as a Kindle e-book.