Latest issue of journal Interpretation (Oct 2012)

The October (2012) issue of Interpretation is a special one, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Union Presbyterian Seminary. Some interesting essays that look at the history of the seminary and also the relationship between church and seminary in general.

I found particularly interesting Joel Green’s review of Christian Smith’s Bible Made Impossible. While Green supports Smith’s overall interest and shares his concern, he finds the book to lack the kind of research and care he had hoped for. It is worth a read.

A Companion to Biblical Interpretation in Early Judaism – keep this “companion” close!

A new book from Eerdmans (2012) caught my attention recently and I think it is an outstanding volume: A Companion to Biblical Interpretation in Early Judaism (ed. M Henze). You may recall that in 2004 Henze edited a book called Biblical Interpretation at Qumran (also Eerdmans). Now, he has collected essays from experts of early Judaism on a range of techniques applied by Jews and Jewish communities in antiquity. This is an extremely valuable collection of trenchant essays – up-to-date, balanced, incisive treatments of biblical interpretation in all its complexity, diversity, and fluidity.

Here is the TOC:

Part I

“The Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation,” (James Kugel)

Part II: The Hebrew Bible/OT

“Inner-Biblical Interpretation” (Yair Zakovitch)

“Translators as Interpreters: Scriptural Interpretation in the Septuagint” (Martin Roesel)

“The Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in the Targums” (Edward Cook)

Part III: Rewritten Bible

“Biblical Interpretation in the Book of Jubilees: The Case of the Early Abram” (J. van Ruiten)

“The Genesis Apocryphon: Compositional and Interpretive Perspectives,” (Moshe Bernstein)

“Biblical Interpretation in Pseudo-Philo’s LAB” (Howard Jacobson)

Part IV: The Qumran Literature

“The Use of Scripture in the Community Rule” (Shani Tzoref)

“Prophetic Interpretation in the Pesharim” (G. Brooke)

“Biblical Interpretation in the Hodayot” (S.J. Tanzer)

Part V: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments

“The Use of Scripture in the Book of Daniel” (Henze)

“How to Make Sense of Pseudonymous Attribution : The Cases of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch” (Hindy Najman with Itamar Manoff and Eva Mroczek)

“The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Not-So-Ambiguous Witness to Early Jewish Interpretive Practices” (Robert Kugler)

Part VI: Wisdom Literature

“Biblical Interpretation in the Book of Ben Sira” (Benjamin Wright III)

“Pseudo-Solomon and His Scripture: Biblical Interpretation in the Wisdom of Solomon” (Peter Enns)

Part VII: Hellenistic Judaism

“The Interpreter of Moses: Philo of Alexandria and the Biblical Text” (Gregory Sterling)

“Josephus’s Biblical Interpretation” (Zuleika Rodgers)

Part VIII: Biblical Interpretation in Antiquity

“Biblical Exegesis and Interpretations from Qumran to the Rabbis” (Aharon Shemesh)

In total, the book is more than 500 pages.

There were three essays that particularly caught my attention and I will highlight them below.

Zakovitch on Inner-Biblical Interpretation: He notes that one factor that undergirds Scriptural interpretation in the OT itself is the desire for God’s word to speak freshly in every era: “Interpretation is always relevant; it is an ever-current indicator of a generation’s contemporary concerns” (29). He also points out that giving attention to how extra-biblical texts “use” Scripture might help us see those same methods already at work in the OT, even if they are used only in a rudimentary or implicit fashion (39).

Roesel on the LXX: Roesel’s discussion of the LXX is fascinating. He explains that a certain interpretive philosophy supports the translation assumptions at work in the NETS collection that has recently been released. Editorial director of the project Albert Pietersma guided the translators to follow an assumption of interlinearity – that the original purpose and use of LXX was to be set alongside the Hebrew Scriptural text.

According to Pietersma, many of the translations of the LXX are not meant to be read independently. The Greek text was translated as a tool to understand the Hebrew, a “crib for the study of the Hebrew” [quoting Pietersma]. Only at a later stage in the history of reception were the Greek texts read independently. (p. 71)

If Pietersma is right, this has huge implications for the interpretration of the LXX, namely that the “connotations of the Greek words [should] stay in the semantic range of the Hebrew” (72). Roesel rejects this theory. First, Roesel argues that the “interlinear” trend cannot be traced back to the 3rd century BC. Also, the kinds of interlinear texts we do have knowledge of are “not coherent texts but lists of words and phrases that should be used as examples” (p. 73). Also, Pietersma’s theory does not account for the frequent appearance of neologisms in the LXX. I would be very interested in a response to this essay from Pietersma, because Roesel’s counter-arguments seem to me to be worthy of one.

Najman on Pseudonymous Apocalyptic Literature: Hindy Najman is interested in why writers of apocalyptic texts attribution authorship to a different, usually well-known, figure. She wishes to set aside modern notions of authorship that paint the true author as a forger.

An alternative is to consider the notion of a discourse tied to a founder: a practice of ascribing texts to an ideal figure, in order not only to authorize the texts in question but also to restore the figure’s authentic teachings” (326).

Pseudepigraphy, then, is an author’s attempt to reactivate the teachings of a holy man from the past, whether Moses, or Ezra, or Baruch. This is not just an act of deception, whether pious or deviant. It is a pedagogical choice, not (merely?) an ideological one.

By assuming and emulating such figures as Baruch and Ezra in pseudepigraphal attribution, the writers of these texts become these characters, insofar as they — like the heroes they invoke — struggle to recover a perfect, holy, and idealized past in the face of destruction. (327)

I think Najman is on to something, though I wonder if Revelation is a special case…

While a number of the chapters are illuminating, the most rewarding discussion appears in the introduction (“The Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation”) by James Kugel. Looking at the big picture of how Jews of the second temple period thought about Scripture (based on their own “uses” of it), he isolates four “basic assumptions” that appear to be pervasive.

1. “The Bible is fundamentally a cryptic document;” that is, “Often, when it seems to be saying X, what it really means is Y.” Thus, many interpreters are on the look out for hidden meaning.

2, “The Bible is a great book of lessons” – “Although most of its various parts talk about the distant past, its words are actually aimed at people today.”

3. “The Bible is perfectly consistent and free of error or internal contradiction” – if an error is perceived, it must be an interpretive mistake, not a problem that exists in the text itself.

4. “Every word of Scripture comes from God…Even the psalms, whose words seemed to be directed to God, were nonetheless held to have come from God, indeed, to be a form of prophecy” (see pp. 14-15).

Kugel clarifies that we do not read these assumptions written out anywhere. They were unconscious. 

Nevertheless, a careful reading will reveal that they underlie virtually everything that was written about Scripture during this crucial period and thus had a great deal to do with the ‘spin’ that accompanied the Bible from antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and — to a great extent — even into our own day (15)

Mike Bird on WATSA Gospel of Thomas?

Over at Euangelion, Mike Bird has been reading my book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? After a brief overview of the book’s contents, he concludes:

“The book is successful in its aim of helping the non-specialist navigate the maze of GTh scholarship. Besides reading GThom, I recommend it for anyone who is hoping to get a grip on what all the fuss about GThom is about.”

Thanks for the kind review, Mike!

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.

More Gospel of Thomas Material in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?

Last night Mark Goodacre posted further comments about material from the Gospel of Thomas that exists in the newly disseminated fragment known as The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. This topic has been explored in great detail over the past few week. When the fragment was first made public, several of us noticed that portions of Gos. Thom. 101 and 114 seemed to be present. Then Francis Watson wrote an essay in which he suggested that the fragment is a patchwork of material taken from different portions of the Gospel of Thomas. In this most recent post, Mark notices that one line of the fragment is taken from Gos. Thom. 30. This is a characteristically good find by Mark (is anyone surprised?). Mark concludes:

I would like to suggest, then, that Francis Watson is bang on the money in finding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife to be a patchwork of pieces from the Gospel of Thomas, and to offer this suggestion as extending and so confirming his excellent case.

Based upon all I have read to this point, I think Goodacre and Watson have made the most compelling argument about the origin of the document.