Saturday, December 1, 2007

On Jewish "Backgrounds"

I am a little uncomfortable with the course title, "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity," because it can imply that the Judaism of Jesus' day is only important for the light it sheds on the New Testament. "Backgrounds" study has also been criticized (rightly) because allowing Christianity, for example, to set the terms of comparison, inevitably skews what is being compared with it.

Still, on this second run at teaching the course in this context (to Christian college students from predominantly conservative evangelical backgrounds), I am planning to emphasize connections with early Christianity wherever possible as a way of engaging students in the topic. Hopefully, by the time we are through many of them will discover that early Judaism is a fascinating subject worthy of study in its own right.

Here's how I put it in the syllabus course description:

The driving force behind much recent New Testament scholarship is the recognition that Jesus and his earliest followers must be understood as Jews within the context of first century Judaism. Consider the following two examples:

  • Thirty-one years ago, E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism led to the “New Perspective on Paul,” a seismic shift which has transformed Pauline Studies. Though Sanders’s view of Paul has (rightly) been challenged, his attempt to place Paul within Palestinian Judaism set the agenda for the next generation of scholarship.
  • Thirty-five years ago, Geza Vermes published what was then a ground-breaking study of Jesus in his first century context. Its title, Jesus the Jew, is now taken as the starting point for the many scholars engaged in the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus.

Contemporary Paul and Jesus scholars, such as Sanders and Vermes, are dedicated to situating early Christianity more carefully in its early Jewish context; they also agree that Judaism should be studied fairly on its own terms and not simply as the background to Early Christianity. The result has been many fresh insights into the New Testament.

This course will adopt the same approach. We will examine pivotal “intertestamental” period events, such as the Maccabean revolt, and consider the impact of centuries of Persian, Greek and Roman rule on the beliefs, practices, and dreams of first-century Jews. We will learn about the distinctives of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as what was common to the majority of ordinary Jews who did not belong to any group. We will also gain a first-hand acquaintance with early Jewish literature by reading selections from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. By the end of this course, you will recognize more fully the richness and complexity of the Jewish milieu out of which Christianity developed. You will also be better able to identify the nature and limits of the historical evidence, and to distinguish between speculative and solidly grounded historical reconstructions.

And yet at every turn we will be concerned with the implications of what we are learning for our understanding of early Christianity. Our study of Jewish eschatological beliefs will shed light on the early Christian affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. Our analysis of early Jewish interpretation of Scripture will help us pay attention to the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. And what we learn about the role of the law in early Jewish life will provide a framework within which Paul’s statements about the law can be evaluated. Fresh ways of looking at familiar texts will raise new questions as well as answer old ones. This is good—not least because it can direct us back to the Bible, prepared to listen to Scripture more carefully and to hear its challenge with new force.


Nate Wall said...

Makes we wish I could be there . . .

David, I think I get where you're going, but would you be willing to elaborate on the potential for distorting Second-Temple Judaism by treating it as 'background.' Does it distort, for example, by studying eschatological expectation(s) through a NT-based eschatological grid? Just shooting in the dark . . .

d. miller said...

Hi Nate! Thanks for the comment!

Your shot in the dark is right on. Read the Gospels, and the obvious conclusion is that Jews expected the Messiah, David's heir (and they should have realized that he had to suffer, etc.). You can support this by scouring Jewish texts for messianic expectations, but scholars (like Sanders) have argued that a quite different picture--one with less of an emphasis on a Davidic Messiah-- emerges when one compares eschatological expectation within Jewish texts.

Another classic example is Strack and Billerbeck's multi-volume rabbinic commentary on the New Testament that consists of quotations from rabbinic literature lifted from their own contexts and placed in NT order. It can be a helpful tool to a difficult body of literature, but precisely because rabbinic literature is difficult it is essential not only to read the context of the Strack-Billerbeck quotations, but also to read widely in rabbinic literature itself to get a feel for what it is about.

Another example: E.P. Sanders's famous study of patterns of religion in Palestinian Judaism and in Paul took as its basic point of comparison the question of "getting in and staying in." While there is much to applaud in Sanders's desire to compare patterns of religion, he has been criticized for putting to Judaism a question with which the Jewish texts--unlike the Christian ones--were not much concerned. I think this way of framing the question has led to some confusion in the study of Second Temple Judaism.