The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature






Publication: Shofar
Author: Avery-Peck, Alan J
Date published: July 1, 2011

The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Reimund Bierenger, Florentino Garcia Martinez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter Tomson. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Leiden: Brill, 2009. 544 pp. $241.00.

This volume collects papers presented at a symposium on the study of Rabbinic literature and the New Testament held in 2006 at the Catholic University of Leuven. The focus is the use of Jewish writings in the interpretation of early Christian history and thought. As William Horbury points out in the introductory essay, this is not a new approach; as far back as the Church Fathers, Christian theologians and scholars recognized the value of Rabbinic writings in interpreting New Testament passages. What has changed is the spirit in which this work is done. Generations of Christian scholars, continuing into the past century, denigrated Jewish ideas as fictions that were unmasked by the perfected religious ideology preached by Jesus. But while this polemical aspect of the comparative work has faded, methodological issues increasingly have been recognized. The texts of Rabbinic Judaism derive from the third century and beyond. How on their basis are we to determine what Jews believed and pt acticed in the first century? And what of the diversity in early Christian thought, not to mention the temporal gap between the historical Jesus and even the earliest Christian writings? While examining Jesus and the church's Jewish backdrop should be central to understanding Christianity, the approach clearly requires careful methodological considetation.

In light of these issues, this collection initially focuses upon methodologies used to determine the history of Judaism in the first centuries. With this methodological foundation in place, the main sections of the book illustrate the light Rabbinic literature - both law (Halakhah) and lore (Aggadah) - sheds on New Testament writings. Horbury's introductory overview, "The New Testament and Rabbinic Study - An Historical Sketch," is followed by these topical sections and articles:

Methodology in Rabbinic Studies: Isaiah Gafni, "The Modern Study of Rabbinics and Historical Questions: The Tale of the Text"; Giuseppe Veltri, "From the Best Text to the Pragmatic Edition: On Editing Rabbinic Texts"; Günter Stemberger, "Dating Rabbinic Traditions"; Catherine Hezser, "Form Criticism of Rabbinic Literature"; and Roland Deines, "The Social Profile of the Pharisees."

Halakhah: Peter J.Tomson,"Halakhah in the NewTestament: A Research Overview"; Lutz Doering, "Sabbath Laws in the New Testament Gospels"; Friedrich Avemarie, "Jesus and Purity"; Thomas Kazen, "Jesus, Scripture and Paradosis: Response to Fr iedrich Avemarie"; and Peter J. Tomson, "Divorce Halakhah in Paul and the Jesus Tradition."

Midrash: Jan Joosten and Menahem Kister, "The New Testament and Rabbinic Hebrew"; Menahem Kister, "'First Adam' and 'Second Adam' in 1 Cor 15:45-49 in the Light of Midrashic Exegesis and Hebrew Usage"; and Miguel Pérez Fernandez, "Midrash and the New Testament: A Methodology for the Study of Gospel Midrash."

Other Materials: Martin McNamara,"Targum and the New Testament: A Revisit"; and Crispin Fletcher-Louis, "Jewish Mysticism, the New Testament and Rabbinic-Period Mysticism."

The section on methodology sets out how Rabbinic writings can be used for historical study. What sort of history is revealed by the Rabbinic literatute (Gafni)? No one today takes at face value the much later Rabbinic texts' claims for events that happened hundreds of years earlier. Still, Gafni notes the general chronological and geographical consistency apparent throughout the Rabbinic literature as well as the many hard-to-account-for parallels between later Rabbinic texts and the much earlier writing of Josephus and the New Testament. This means, for Gafni, that, beyond reflecting on the history and ideology of this literature's own authors and redactors, Rabbinic documents also may at points be useful as evidence for historical events that occurred long before their redaction. While the question of how much we can know remains hotly debated, important in this section is the setting out of specific approaches to writing the history that must be teased out of the Rabbinic texts.

The extent to which Jesus obsetved, and the New Testament represents, Halakhah as it was set out by the rabbis takes up the next section. Of singular significance is Peter Tomson's overview of the history and meaning of the concept of Halakhah within Judaism and then, more substantially, of scholars' evolving treatment over the past hundred or so years of the attitudes of Paul and the Gospel-writers towards Rabbinic Law. Tomson briefly summarizes each relevant study, depicting shifting readings especially of Paul, who today generally is understood to have retained his sense of being a Jew and obligated under the law (even if he did not always understand the law as the rabbis did). This means that earlier claims that Paul entirely rejected the Halakhah and denied the significance of membership in a distinctive Jewish covenant with God are now being rethought. As a result, first-century Jewish practice increasingly is recognized as a necessary starting point in Pauline studies.

While lacking an overview of the state of the field, the section on Midrash yields a similarly significant introduction to this aspect of the interrelationship of New Testament and Rabbinic studies. Certain New Testament themes and ideas are undeniably related to paradigms found in Rabbinic Midrash. As in the case of the legal materials, and as this volume as a whole attests, this means that the fields of New Testament and Rabbinic studies are inextricably tied. A full and accurate interpretation of the New Testament is impossible apart from the study of Judaism and, in particular, of the Rabbinic literature that in many ways presents a window into the world out of which Jesus and earliest Christianity emerged.

Author affiliation:

Alan J. Avery- Peck

College of the Holy Cross

Worcester, Massachusetts

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