A Review of Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview

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Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, xxi + 533 pp., $35.00 paper.

The complexity of Judaism between the conclusion of the events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the trajectory set after the Bar Kokhba Revolt continues to foster much discussion between various fields of scholarship. For Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholars, Early Judaism provides insights into questions of the formation of the Hebrew Bible, early interpretive perspectives, and the existential self-perception of Jews both in Palestine and the Diaspora. For New Testament scholars, Early Judaism sets the stage for life and ministry Jesus, reflecting his messianic identity and mission, as well as the emergence of the Christian movement.

The sheer amount of evidence, both literary and otherwise, is enough to occupy one for a lifetime. Students can easily find themselves lost in trying to sort through the available material. Yet, this recent volume published by Eerdmans, derived from the Dictionary of Early Judaism, makes an introduction to this complex world accessible to readers. The primary audience of this book is students with a working knowledge of Old and New Testament, as well as the historian.

Consisting on fifteen essays composed by twenty-one scholars, the volume takes a topical arrangement. In the first chapter, John J. Collins provides an introduction to Judaism in contemporary scholarship. A major issue in the study of early Judaism is what constitutes appropriate labels and terminology. Though no characteristic terminology for the Intertestamental period itself is without difficulty, Collins states “‘Early Judaism’ seems the least problematic label available” (2).

A further contributing issue is the question of what actually constitutes literary evidence of Judaism in this period. Collins overviews the place of rabbinic writings, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the study of early Judaism. He rightly concludes that “the identification of a given text as Jewish depends on the profile of Judaism one is willing to accept” (12). In the course of his survey, Collins rejects the claim, set forward by Jacob Neusner for instance, that it is illegitimate to speak of Judaism in the singular. This view advocates for an understanding of Judaism as a plurality of separate, but equally valid, traditions. But, as Collins notes, an insistence on radical diversity in early Judaism “distorts the data just as much as an essentialist approach that would exclude ostensibly Jewish material that does not conform to a norm” (8). The chapter concludes with a call for further research in the field of early Judaism.

The second chapter, authored by Chris Seeman, Adam Kolman Marshak, traces a detailed chronology of the Jewish people from Alexander to Hadrian. The organization of the material, for the most part, takes its cues from the leadership under which the Jewish people were subject. The chapter hinges on the two major Jewish revolts (Maccabean and Bar Kokhba). In addition to the political leadership, the authors describe the religious climate during this period. The rise of priestly power marked a significant feature in the relationship between political leaders and the Jewish people. The centralization of the synagogue, as well as life in Diaspora, is also addressed.

In the following two chapters, Judaism in both the land of Israel (James C. VanderKam) and the Diaspora (Erich S. Gruen) are taken up. In Israel, facets such as the temple, festivals and institutions, religious groups, and Jewish literature characterized Judaism. Though different emphases of Judaism may be found, VanderKam identifies two commonalities at the core of Jewish religion: monotheism and covenant.

Life in the Diaspora was noticeably different than that in Israel. Yet, as Gruen states, such a life is not foreign to the Jewish people, but rather, “the notion of removal from the homeland is lodged deeply in the mythology of the nation” (95). This chapter covers a variety of topics from extent of the Diaspora to the relation of the Diaspora communities to the homeland. The author argues against the popular notion of a continuing exilic perspective in the mind of Diaspora Jews. Jerusalem, says Gruen, “possessed an irresistible claim on the emotions of Diaspora Jews, forming a critical part of their identity. But home was elsewhere” (115).

In the fifth chapter, Eugene Ulrich examines the literary evidence during this period with a goal of presenting his understanding of the development of what eventuated in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. He identifies two distinct periods in the history of the biblical text: 1) A period of developmental growth and pluriformity; and 2) A period of uniform text tradition since 2nd century C.E. (122). The competing theories of the origin of the text (Urtext, ect.) are briefly described, yet dismissed. Ulrich concludes his chapter by seeking to clarify terminology regarding canon, which he reserves for the final product in the 3rd/4th centuries.

The sixth chapter consists of James L. Kugel’s  exploration of Early Jewish biblical interpretation. Despite the circumstances of exile, “Israel’s ancient writings offered an island of refuge” (154) and eventually took on a prescriptive quality. Kugel outlines several instances of interpretation both by later biblical authors, as well as later Jewish interpreters. Regarding the latter, he lists four assumptions that later interpreters commonly shared in viewing the biblical texts as cryptic, relevant for later audiences, harmonious, and divinely inspired.

The next three chapters (7-9) introduce the reader to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Loren T. Struckenbruck), the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eibert Tigchelaar), and Early Jewish literature written in Greek (Katell Berthelot). Each of these chapters provides background information about the provenance, dating, and value of each respective body of literature for the study of early Judaism.

Two chapters (10-11) give attention to two major sources for Judaism of the time: 1) Philo (Gregory E. Sterling, David T. Runia, Maren R. Niehoff, and Annewies van den Hoek); and 2) Josephus (Steve Mason, James S. McLaren, and John M. G. Barclay). Both chapters chart the life and works of these two men, relating the significance of their massive literary legacies to the subject of early Judaism.

The twelfth chapter (Jürgen K. Zangenberg) examines the archeological data for Judaism during the Second Temple Period. The author adopts a broad definition of “Jewish,” noting the difficulty of identifying a particular artifact (ie. a piece of pottery, letter, ect.) as intrinsically Jewish. More specifically, Zangenberg asks not just whether an object can be identified as Jewish, but “what type of Judaism it might reflect” (322, italics original). He organizes the chapter chronologically and geographically, surveying the available evidence from the period.

The three final chapters of the book (13-15) discuss Early Judaism in relation to three relevant issues: 1) the Jews among the Greeks and Romans (Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev); 2) the relationship of Early Judaism to early Christianity (Daniel C. Harlow); and 3) the relationship of early Judaism to latter Rabbinic Judaism (Lawrence H. Schiffman). These three chapter, asking very different questions, evidence the range of questions involved in the discussion.

A significant strength of the book is the inclusion of supplemental material such as a timeline of the Second Temple Period, 13 maps of various regions, and 71 photographs/figures of locations and artifacts (manuscripts, pottery, ect.). At various points in the book,  authors reference these pictures as visual support for their presentation.

In addition, the volume includes substantial bibliographies at the conclusion of each chapter, providing further resources for the interest reader. These sources provides an invaluable compilation of both primary and secondary literature for further study.

With all the strengths of the book, there exists weaknesses in various chapters. In some instances an author may overstate the evidence, or present their conclusions as the settled consensus of scholarship, without acknowledging other voices in discussion. One example is the chapter authored by Eugene Ulrich on text, ancient versions, and canon. The assumption of the fluidity of the texts of the Hebrew Bible until a very late date, though common, is by no means the only explanation for the evidence. Others, such as Emanuel Tov, have put forward alternative explanations for what appears to be the “standardization” of the text in later centuries. Such alternatives are simply not included in the chapter. Though it is impossible to address every issue in the discussion, such a fundamental point as the dating of the canon should have received wider attention.

Yet for all of its content this book should be found on the shelf of anyone serious about the study of the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, or the New Testament. Indeed, the title “Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview” is well earned.

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