David deSilva’s Jewish Teachers of Jesus… (Review Part I)

When I think of New Testament scholars who really know what they are doing and who write and teach and present papers with wisdom and wit, few people come to my mind as quickly as David deSilva. I grew up in Ashland, OH where he is Prof of NT at Ashland Theological Seminary. After I finished my PhD, David was kind enough to work towards extending to me a one-year visiting lectureship at Ashland Seminary. Over the years I have gotten to know him and he continues to impress me.

Three areas come to mind when I think of deSilva’s contributions to NT scholarship: #1, honor and shame (and social-rhetorical criticism) in the NT, #2, scholarship on Hebrews, and #3, scholarship on the OT Apocrypha. Also, David has also written an outstanding introduction to the whole New Testament! How does he do it??

Well, recently he published a nice little monograph with Oxford University Press called The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (OUP, 2012). Essentially, his concern is that Christians tend to think that Jesus (especially) sort of just “came up with” his teachings – because he is the Son of God, he did not need to be taught anything about God, faith, ethics, or otherwise. That also means that Jesus is all too often stripped of his “Jewish” identity and tradition. He is a man without a cultural and religious history.Whenever Christians do eventually take an interest in influences upon Jesus, they default to the OT (which was certainly of interest to Jesus). However, little interest is paid to the Judaism of his time.

The exclusion of the Apocrypha (or Deuterocanonical Books) leaves the reader of the Protestant Bible with the impression that God fell silent, and ethical reflection ceased to progress, between the postexilic period and the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus. It does not give the reader enough background material to assess fairly the shape of Judaism in the time of Jesus, excluding the best evidence for the ongoing, creative development and refinement of the Jewish heritage and thus the extent of Jesus’ embeddedness in contemporary Judaism. (5)

I think part of what deSilva is communicating is that to treat Jesus’ teaching as if he was “listening only to Scripture and the voice of God,” would be to miss out on one key aspect of the “humaness” of Jesus -he learned from other Jewish teachers of his time! Here is how he states a key goal of his book: “Jesus’ teaching was certainly innovative, but much more of his teaching has a ‘pedigree’ than is often supposed” (9). As for deSilva’s vision for how the book as a whole will change how we read the NT: “It is my hope that readers who discover the extent to which Jesus and his brothers found value in the materials contained in these writings will be more inclined to read these writings for themselves, to reflect upon their broader contributions to the ongoing life and thought of both church and synagogue, and to explore their value as spiritual and ethical literature in their own right” (p. 11).

As the book title suggests, deSilva is not only interested in Jesus (and the evidence of the Gospels), but also Jesus’ brothers – James and Jude. Now, many scholars will protest this approach by saying that we do not have the “real” Jesus, James, and Jude in the NT, but only distortions (through the Gospels) or fiction (James and Jude). To this matter deSilva turns in his first and second chapter: “Recovering the Voice of Jesus” and “Recovering the Voices of James and Jude.”

When deSilva engages in analysis of the canonical Gospels for the “real voice of Jesus,” so to speak, he endeavors to approach this task using the traditional authenticity criteria supported by Jesus scholars. However, he points out that “No single criterion is adequate for the entire task, nor are the criteria meant to be used independently of one another” (25). Rather, they offer an “ensemble of tests” that help us zero in on the “ipsissima vox and ipsissima intentio, if not the ipsissima verba” (25-26). You might not be surprised to find that deSilva treats much that is written in the Gospels as reliable for the study of Jesus and his teachings. deSilva accepts that “the availability of the original disciples and other living witnesses to Jesus’ teachings and the authority accorded to Jesus’ personal followers throughout the early church provided a check against the wholesale invention of material…” (27).

However, that does not mean the Gospels are some kind of pure historical report. Appealing to study of oral cultures, deSilva argues that within such environments where tradition is passed, “there is a certain level of flexibility allowed in the recitation of traditional material,” but “there are also limits in that flexilibilty where the reciter is perceived to have crossed the line between fair re-presentation of the tradition and undue alteration of the tradition” (27). Perhaps to play it safe, though, deSilva relies mostly on the Synoptic Gospels.

Here is his conclusion about Jesus:

My presumption is that the early church was more likely to preserve and pass along authentic sayings than invent them out of whole cloth or mistakenly attribute to Jesus Jesus wisdom that Jesus did not, during his lifetime, personally affirm (30)

So much for Jesus. deSilva takes a rather “moderate” approach to Jesus and the reliability of the Gospels, accepting we get close enough to the historical Jesus to find the Synoptics very useful and more illuminating than any other text or set of texts. What about James and Jude (ch 2)? While skepticism over genuine authorship of the letters of James and Jude is the scholarly default, deSilva wishes to revisit the arguments again. The key issue he tackles regarding James is the level of Greek knowledge. Can a Galilean really master Greek the way we see in James? Relying on the scholarship of J. Daryl Charles, he notes that we have exemplars like Josephus, Theodorus, Meleager, and Philodemus. Historically speaking, deSilva reminds us: “The author of the Epistle of James is no longer the simple Galilean craftsperson of 29 CE but the head of an international Jewish sect in the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem as late as 62 CE” (47). He also entertains the possibility that James (the half-brother of Jesus) may have enlisted the aid of a well-trained secretary, which could account for style and proficiency of Greek in the letter (48).

He argues for much of the same kind of openness for connecting Jude to the letter attributed to his name. While writing pseudonymously was rather common in early Jewish literature, Jude does not necessarily fall easily or obviously into that category. deSilva argues that one of the marks of pseudonymity is an obvious effort on the part of the writer to “look like” the purported author – “that is, their authors tend to try too hard to establish the ancient persona as the actual author” (53). Is that the case with Jude? deSilva thinks not.

Again, it should be kept in mind that deSilva is not working with an “either-or” category of “completely and only James/Jude” or “absolutely not.” He only wants to establish that we find Jesus, James, and Jude in the NT even if it is only their “voices,” not specifically paragraphs and whole discourses.

I think that deSilva is rather bold in pushing for such associations (esp with James and Jude), but he has made enough of a case for the rest of his book to have a fair hearing.

Thus, after chapter 2, the remaining substantive chapters (3-9) address particular Jewish texts and how they may have impacted and inspired the brothers of Nazareth: Sirach (3), Tobit (4), Enochic Literature (5), Psalms of Solomon (6), 2 Maccabees/Lives of the Prophets (7), Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (8), Testament of Job (9).

In the next post, I will not survey all of the chapters, but the ones I am most interested in: Sirach, Tobit, Psalms of Solomon, and Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

To be continued…

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7 thoughts on “David deSilva’s Jewish Teachers of Jesus… (Review Part I)

  1. The New Testament was not written so that scholars could have some shiny object to play and tamper with. It was written to radically and supernaturally transform our lives. And unless every word of it is humble received for what it is, The Word of God and all that such a thing implies, then its very purpose is eclipsed by intellectual speculation and pride of scholars who sometimes seem more interested in their “new” angles and “fresh” perspectives than they do in honoring God by honoring His Word.

    1. As this is written as a response to a review of one of my books, it’s difficult for me not to read it as your indictment of me. For what it’s worth, I agree that the Scriptures were written “to radically and supernaturally [by the power of the Spirit of God] transform our lives,” and I have pursued all of my studies and projects because of this conviction. The book that Nijay reviews, moreover, is hardly prompted by innovation.

      1. I wonder where scholars, like yourself, draw the line between cultural influence and the divine in Jesus’ thought. I am quite certain that the impeccability of Christ = perfection in his theology, his doctrine, would certainly have an impact on any cultural influence he received while growing up. After all, there was no such perfection to be found in the culture…they rejected and murdered him. I wonder where the balance is. There is little doubt that Jesus, as a human learned just as we learn and as any human learns. But Jesus’ learning was not tainted with a sin nature like our learning process. There is then, a continuity but also a significant discontinuity between how we progress and how Jesus progressed. There has never been a human being quite like Jesus. I see serious limitations in any theory that would attempt to draw parallels between cultural influence in the thought of the Christ and cultural influences in the typical fallen sinful human.

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