DeSilva’s Jewish Teachers of Jesus… (Book Review Part II)

If you did not read the first post on this book, I am referring to David deSilva’s The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Oxford, 2012).

In the first couple of chapters in the book, deSilva makes the case that we do hear the voice of Jesus and his half-brothers (James and Jude) in the NT and there is good reason to believe that the Messiah and the earliest Christian leaders benefited from the wisdom of their   own Jewish teachers which include people like Ben Sira. That does not mean that Jesus (and the NT writers) drew everything from or only exclusively from second Temple Jewish texts and traditions, but it does mean that such texts did impact them in some fundamental ways.

He takes seven chapters to survey seven different Jewish texts to see lines of convergence and also where Jesus goes against or beyond these teachers. His key concern is not to point out how “unique” Jesus was, nor is it to argue for any kind of literary dependence on any of these texts per se. He wishes, first and foremost, to show how Jesus was influenced by the Jewish teachers of the second temple period that came before him and, in many ways, are the “fathers” that passed on teaching to him.

I will not survey all the chapters. Rather, I highlight insights and points from a few chapters.

The first chapter in this section (ch 3), is about Ben Sira and the wisdom text called “Sirach.” deSilva identifies Ben Sira as a “scribe living in Jerusalem, where he kept a ‘house of instruction’ (15:23), a school for training the sons of the more affluent Jews” (59). Sirach could confidently be dated to the second century BC, most likely 196-175BC – thus it would be a text written early enough to have some influence on Jesus’ own thought.

As far as the context and content of Sirach, deSilva situates Ben Sira in a time of political turmoil for Israel:

He witnessed the effects of Jewish elites rubbing shoulders too freely and too closely with their Gentile overlord. (59)

Some scholars refer to “Hellenism” as the problem, but deSilva issues caution in this regard. People like Philo were thoroughly acquainted with Greek philosophy, oratory, and literature, but tenaciously held to the observance of Torah: “Fidelity to Judaism does not equate with resistance to Hellenism. Fidelity to the Torah in all its particulars, however, was an obstacle to integration into Hellenistic society (60).

A fundamental concern of Ben Sira with respect to wisdom is the concern for honor. However, true honor can only be found through fidelity to Torah. Too many people have selfishly turned their back on true obedience to the Lord in view of gaining wealth, Ben Sira argues.

When it comes to the teaching of Jesus, there are parallels with Ben Sira’s discussion of concern for the poor and needy, which is particularly reflected in the Sermon on the Mount (see pp. 68-69). Ben Sira also took the problem of lust very seriously: “Don’t look too long at a virgin, or you may stumble and pay damage for her…Avert your eye from a beautiful woman, and don’t look too long at the beauty of one who belongs to another. Many have been led astray by a woman’s beauty, which kindles desire like a fire” (Sir 9:5, 8; cf. Matt 5:27-28). Here is another interesting similarity:

Do not talk idly in an assembly of elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray (Sir 7:14)

When you pray, do not babble like the Gentiles, for they suppose that they will be heeded because of their long prayers (Matt 6:7)

The list could on and on, but deSilva does not overlook some serious differences in their views. For example, there is the matter of Ben Sira’s perspective on women. He argues that “a man’s wickedness is better than a woman who does good” (42:14). deSilva notes that Ben Sira’s misogynistic statements like this are shocking to modern readers, but there were many writers of his own time who held very similar positions. In that sense, Ben Sira was reinforcing conventional wisdom of the day.

To contrast Jesus’ words and ways with Ben Sira is not to critique one man, but a whole culture of inequity. Here is what deSilva says about Jesus and women.

Where Ben Sira would adamantly consign women to the inner spaces of the house and restrict their access to males as much as humanly possible, Jesus invites women into the male spaces where disciples gather to learn from Jesus and values women as disciples and witnesses…[S]uch stories [of Jesus and the samaritan woman, and Mary the sister of Martha] preserve at the very least a historical memory of Jesus’ revolutionary attitude toward women, engaging them in public as persons worthy of dialogue and instruction, welcoming them into male spaces, and not reducing their moral worth to the sphere of sexuality (80)

Another key feature of Jesus’ wisdom teaching is his bold criticism of the temple leadership – something Ben Sira would protest (81).

In chapter 4, deSilva addresses the teachings of the book of Tobit. While it is a narrative tale, it also promotes wisdom and Torah obedience in a way that Ben Sira would appreciate. Jesus, too, found much inspiration from texts like Tobit that encourage almsgiving and generosity among the destitute. However, if there is one key area where Jesus parts company with the author of Tobit, it is on “the value and definition of kinship” (98). Tobit promotes kindness and a sense of duty with respect to “kindred,” but Jesus extends this call for hospitality to anyone, including “non-Jews” (98). Also, Jesus did not share with Tobit a vision for exclusive “national restoration” – Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and an eschatological in-gathering of “many” who will come from “east and west” (see Matt 8:11-12) – presumably according to Jesus people from all nations, Gentiles included.

It is not just wisdom and moral teachings from earlier Jewish teachers that had an impact on Jesus’ own thought and teachings. The fifth chapter of deSilva’s book is about 1 Enoch. I will highlight one section of deSilva’s wider discussion which I found particularly illuminating regarding Messianism and eschatological expectations.

Both the author of the Parables [of Enoch] and Jesus clearly understand the Son of Man as a messianic figure. Both even use the expression in contexts that show the “Son of Man” to be synonymous with “Messiah” (see 1 Enoch 48:2, 19; Mark 14:61-62 and parallels). Nevertheless, both show a strong preference for the title “Son of Man” over the title “Messiah.” Both develop the Son of Man figure from Daniel 7 in a direction that gives the Son of Man a judicial role in the final judgment. Jesus’ use of the term, therefore, is reflective not merely of Daniel 7:13-14 but of the interpretation of Dan 7:13-14 already evidenced in the Parables of Enoch. (138-39)

deSilva makes two further key points in this regard. First, Enoch says nothing of a suffering or dying Son of Man. This is a distinctive contribution of Jesus himself. Secondly, there is no clear way to show that Jesus depended on 1 Enoch or any of its parts for traditions about the Son of Man. Rather, “Jesus seems to know and draw upon the traditions about the Son of Man known from the Parables of Enoch but not necessary upon those particular texts directly” (139).

In the sixth chapter, deSilva looks at the Psalms of Solomon and specifically the vision of the messiah. He argues that the Psalms of Solomon are impacted by the “military revolutionary efforts of Judas and his brothers” which “became a model and an ideal for how God would bring about Israel’s restoration whenever threatened again” (143). Psalms that refer to a coming messiah (like 17:21-24) demonstrate dissatisfaction with Israel’s life, a situation that would be remedied when God would punish “sinful Judeans and the Gentile occupation force” (150). Jesus fits the model of a messiah who is a good “son of David” and who “participated in prophetic critique of the authorities who held power over Judea” (p 154). Here is how deSilva articulates, though, how Jesus broke the mold, so to speak.

Like the authors of the Psalms of Solomon, Jesus was revolutionary; unlike many of his contemporaries who shared in the hope of the restoration of the kingdom to a messiah from Israel, Jesus did not endorse violence as the means by which to pursue revolution. The reestablishment of the throne of David was in God’s hands and God’s time, not be hastened by improvised acts of terrorism and armed revolution, as in the days of Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers (154)

I was struck by how deSilva refers to Jesus as a “revolutionary” messiah, a figure trying to lead a revolt. This deflates assumptions that Jesus just frolicked the hills of Galilee trying to start some kind of hippie community. No, he had a “destabilizing message: by speaking of the kingdom of God’s ordering, it called into question the legitimacy of the current regime and its exercise of power” (154). He had dangerous words indeed, words and actions that got him killed.

Well, that is chapters 3-6.There are 3 more substantive chapters on 2 Maccabees/Lives of the Prophets (ch 7), Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (ch. 8), and Testament of Job (ch. 9), all equally rewarding, but I will not survey them here.

What can I say about this book overall? Read it! Here is the bottom line: right now I am teaching a course called Early Judaism and the New Testament. Had this book been released six months ago, I definitely would have assigned it as a textbook. DeSilva admirably is able to (1) introduce basic background and context issues related to early Judaism, (2) survey the contents of key texts of Hellenistic Judaism, (3) relate these texts to the NT in meaningful ways (through both pointing out influence and divergence), and (4) give critical insight on the shaping of early Christianity in ways that will impress scholars who have studied these texts for years. David deSilva is one of the clearest and most reliable NT scholars at the forefront of Biblical scholarship today.

Let me also say that OUP priced this volume very reasonable – $35, and Amazon is offering it for $27.00. I highly recommend this text.

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