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The Book of Jasher

Many people know that the Bible is not actually one book. Rather, it is a collection of books—sixty-six in the arrangement found in modern English translations. Less well-known is that the biblical writers occasionally refer to other ancient books as sources for some of their content. One scholar notes over two dozen documents referred to within the Bible (Beecher, 1915).

Some of those source books have survived to the modern period; others have been lost to time. Examples of “lost books” to which the biblical writers refer are:

  • the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14)
  • the “Visions of Iddo the Seer” (2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • the “History of Nathan the Prophet” (2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • the “Prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite” (2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • the “Book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:4)
  • Other eyewitness accounts of the life and works of Jesus (Luke 1:1-2; John 21:25)

What Was the Book of Jasher?

One of the more well-known lost books is the “Book of Jasher” (also spelled “Jashar” by some). It is mentioned in the Old Testament books of Joshua (10:13) and 2 Samuel (1:18). In Hebrew, the language in which the books of the Old Testament were originally composed, the name is sepher hayyashar. The word yashar means “upright” and so this lost book is at times referred to as the “Book of the Upright” or “Book of the Righteous.”

One discussion of the lost book additionally notes that “Some scholars have suggested a third [reference] in 1 K[gs] 8:12,” (Orr, Harrison, 1979-1988) where Solomon says, “The Lord has set the sun in the heavens, but has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, translated this line as “written in the book of the song,” which, in Hebrew (sepher haššîr), sounds very much like sepher hayyashar. It may be that the Greek translator misread his Hebrew text and his “book of the song” is actually a reference to the “Book of Jasher.”

Some scholars think Jasher is the same book as the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” because that book and Jasher were sources relating to military exploits. However, “the quotations [in Joshua 10:13 and Numbers 21:14] differ in metre, style and general contents,” so other scholars doubt the association (Van Selms, 1996). On the other hand, because of this possible musical reference, some scholars believe the Book of Jasher was “a collection of odes in praise of certain heroes of the theocracy, interwoven with historical notices of their achievements” (Woudstra, 1981).

The Book of Jasher: Claims of Discovery

The Book of Jasher has a long history of publication—one that no modern scholars believe involves the true ancient book quoted in the Old Testament. A detailed accounting is available in the articles by Chiel (1977) and McClintock and Strong (1891). Chiel’s research can be summarized here:

Printed Hebrew editions of a book publishers called “The Book of Jasher” appear as early as 1625 (Venice). An earlier edition may have been published in Naples in 1552, though there is some uncertainty on that point. The Venice publisher was Joseph ben Samuel. He marketed the work by two tales of the Hebrew book’s survival from antiquity. That the details of ben Samuel’s account have never been confirmed in any other account or ancient source speaks loudly for the inauthenticity of the stories.

Briefly, ben Samuel’s Preface states that his printed Book of Jasher:

. . . was discovered at the destruction of Jerusalem by Sidrus, one of the officers of Titus, who, while searching a house for the purpose of plunder, found in a secret chamber a vessel containing the books of the law, the prophets, and Hagiographa, with many others, which a venerable man was reading. Sidrus took the old man under his protection, and built for him a house at Seville, where the books were safely deposited, and thence this one was conveyed to Naples, where it was printed. (McClintock & Strong, 787).

Joseph ben Samuel’s Preface also includes a tale that allegedly took place centuries earlier than the era of Titus and his destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD). Supposedly Ptolemy II, the king of Egypt in the third century BC, dispatched a delegation to Jerusalem to obtain a copy of the Torah for the library of Alexandria. The Jews did not trust Ptolemy with a Torah, so they sent back a copy of the Book of Jasher instead. The king was none the wiser until his own scholars revealed the truth. Ptolemy II then invited 70 Jewish scholars to Alexandria to translate the Torah into Greek. The result (according to the ancient Letter of Aristeas) was the production of the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Ptolemy II emerged from all this work as the proud owner of both a Torah (albeit translated) and the Book of Jasher.

Septuagint scholars have established that Aristeas’s recounting is not historical. It is a contrived tale of the Septuagint (Dines & Knibb, 28-39). The origins of the Septuagint provide no basis for the existence of a Book of Jasher in antiquity.

The Book of Jasher: Publishing a Fraud

Joseph ben Samuel used the above tales about Sidrus and Ptolemy II to legitimize his 1625 edition. That work in turn was printed successively in various places, including Krakow (1628), Prague (1668), Frankfort-am-Main (1706), and Amsterdam (1707). It was translated into Yiddish in 1674 and into Latin in 1732.

The authenticity of Joseph ben Samuel’s Hebrew edition of the Book of Jasher went unchallenged until 1828. Arthur Chiel summarizes what happened:

. . . [I]n early November of [1828] the Bristol Gazette carried a story that Philip Rose, a publisher in that city, was soon to release a remarkable volume, The Book of Jasher. The report indicated that this was the English version of an ancient Hebrew scroll discovered in Persia in the eighth century, by the renowned English churchman, Alcuin. Alcuin, who had been summoned to France by Emperor Charlemagne to be his personal counsellor, had learned that the Book of Jasher was to be found in the royal Gazna library. He determined to make the perilous journey to the far-off Persian city where, eventually, in return for heavy payment of gold, he was permitted to study the scroll for a period of three years, and to translate it into English. It was this one thousand year-old English translation that was now being published.

Next, on November 19, 1828, a letter appeared in the London Courier over the signature of Moses Samuel, a Hebrew scholar of Liverpool. He, too, had come into possession of the Book of Jasher, the Hebrew text; it had been brought to him by a Jew from North Africa. Moses Samuel went on to say in his letter that he was currently translating the work and preparing a critical edition of it. He conceded that, while certain later additions had been made to it, the core of the work was, indeed, very ancient—perhaps two thousand years old.

Within days of Moses Samuel’s letter in the London Courier, a lengthy and learned epistle appeared in the Berliner Nachrichten. It was, in fact, a treatise suited to a scholarly journal. The Book of Jasher was there carefully analyzed and its origins were traced to the twelfth or, perhaps, the eleventh century. It was, in all likelihood, written in Spain by a talented Hebrew. . . . The signatory of the indignant response which appeared in the Berliner Nachrichten was none other than Leopold Zunz, the father of Jüdische Wissenschaft [i.e., the founder of modern academic Judaic studies]. (Chiel, 371-372; cf. Singer and Hirsch)

Recall that, in Joseph ben Samuel’s otherwise un-witnessed and unproven story about the history of his 1625 publication of the Book of Jasher, the Hebrew text had come to Venice (perhaps by way of Naples) from Spain. The Spanish provenance suggested by the result of the scholarly essay in Berliner Nachrichten suggests quite strongly that Joseph ben Samuel’s edition of the Book of Jasher originated in Spain and was therefore not ancient, ben Samuel having fabricated an earlier ancient history for the Spanish literary creation. But the truth is a bit more complicated as Chiel elaborates once more:

Zunz had, indeed, locked horns with Samuel over the Book of Jasher, the Hebrew Aggadic [i.e., Midrashic] work. . . . [T]he Bristol Gazette story, however, was related to an entirely different Book of Jasher. This one was the ingenious product of the pen of Jacob Ilive, a Christian deist, who, with his brothers, Abraham and Isaac, ran a quality printing establishment in London for several decades. The Ilives were exponents of a variety of non-conformist ideas, and Jacob became a prolific writer of tracts in which he elaborated their views. In them he inveighed against the doctrine of eternal damnation [and] favored a religion of nature and denied the divinity of Jesus. In 1751 Jacob created a sensation with the latest work which he brought off the family’s London press, the Book of Jasher. In the title-page he informed his readers that this book “was translated into English from Hebrew, by Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus of Britain, Abbot of Canterbury, who went on a pilgrimage into the Holy Land and Persia, where he discovered this volume in the city of Gazna.” (Chiel, 372)

It was this translation that Philip Rose was re-publishing in 1828. Ilive’s literary creation (the alleged ancient English translation of the Book of Jasher) was deemed a fraud from its initial publication. It bore all the marks of the doctrinal eccentricities of the Ilive family, complete with a rejection of the divine revelation of the Torah. Chiel notes that in Ilive’s Book of Jasher, “Jethro emerges as the ‘founding father’ of Israel’s law code. It was Jethro who convokes Moses and the seventy elders on Mt. Sinai where he instructs them about the governance of Israel” (Chiel, 373).

Ilive was actually arrested for the fraud and imprisoned three years. Nevertheless, his Book of Jasher continued to sell and, in one form or another, be re-published in subsequent eras:

This clumsy forgery was reprinted at Bristol in 1827 [sic], and published in London in 1829, as a new discovery of the book of Jasher. A prospectus of a second edition of this reprint was issued in 1833 by the editor, who therein styles himself the Rev. C. R. Bond. This literary fraud has obtained a notoriety far beyond its merits in consequence of the able critiques to which it gave rise, having been again exposed in the Dublin Christian Examiner for 1831, and elaborately refuted by Horne in his Introduction (ut sup.; new edition, iv, 741–6). (McClintock & Strong, 787-788)

It was news of the re-publication of Ilive’s fraud that prompted Zunz to publish his scholarly analysis of the Hebrew text that allegedly undergirded the English work.

To date, then, there is no reason to think that any Book of Jasher one finds for sale on the internet is authentic, either in Hebrew or English. At best the Hebrew text originated in the eleventh or twelfth century AD and is thus medieval. The English translation was created in 1751. The lost Book of Jasher is still lost.

Resources

Willis J. Beecher, “Chronicles, Books of,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Edited by James Orr, John L. Nuelsen, Edgar Y. Mullins, and Morris O. Evans; Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915)

J. Orr and R. K. Harrison, “Jashar,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988)

Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981)

A. Van Selms, “Jashar, Book of,” New Bible Dictionary (ed. D. R. W. Wood et al.; Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996)

Jennifer M. Dines and Michael A. Knibb, The Septuagint (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004)

Arthur Chiel, “The Mysterious Book of Jasher,” Judaism 26:3 (1977): 367-374

Isidor Singer and Emil Hirsch, “Leopold Zunz,” Jewish Encyclopedia online

John McClintock and James Strong, “Jasher,” Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1891)

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