Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude

Who were Jesus, James, and Jude? David deSilva's most recent monograph,The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, tackles part of that question. For much of the history of the church, Jesus, his brothers, and the rest of the early church were distanced from their second temple Jewish background. We see this as early as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. deSilva tackles this notion head on seeking to show how Jewish Jesus, James, and Jude were by comparing their sayings and writings with writings from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

After this initial explanation of his rationale for the book, deSilva discusses his methodology. He is seeking toshow that Jesus, James, and Jude not only were at home within a second temple environment, but also dependence on works from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. It kicks off with a discussion of intertextuality; specifically with Hays' criteria for determining intertextual echos. deSilva's approach majors on the following:
  • Determining the authenticity of the tradition attributed to Jesus/James/Jude
  • Looking at possible relevant Jewish works for clear verbal or thematic echos
  • Determining if Jewish work is old enough, actually Jewish, and prominent enough to have influenced
  • Looking to see how Jesus/James/Jude agreed, disagreed, or moved beyond the text of origin
In the first two chapters deSilva defends what would be considered a fairly conservative approach to historical questions surrounding the gospels and the authenticity of the epistles of James and Jude. This includes a very nice, concise, common sense discussion of the various criteria used to determine the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus that I would strongly commend. The chapter on the authenticity of James and Jude criticizes the typical arguments against their authenticity but certainly doesn't break any new ground.

What follows in the remaining chapters is a careful and nuanced discussion around the four bullets above, though of course not in that order. deSilva begins with the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha of his choice and summarizes it. Next he discusses matters of dating and provenance and determines if the text could indeed have influenced Jesus, James, and Jude. Then he gets into the resonances with the teachings of Jesus, James, and Jude. No surprise, most of the space is devoted to influence on Jesus, since the gospels are much longer than James and Jude combined. The focus is almost solely on the synoptic Jesus and the authenticity of each saying discussed is examined. deSilva remains in conversation throughout with the Jesus Seminar (of whom he is consistently critical - and rightly so!) and a few key scholars like Davies and Allison. Wisely, most of this discussion is relegated to the end notes, so that the interested can read if so interested, while keeping the overall work accessible.

deSilva selects Sirach, Tobit, 1 Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, 2 Maccabees, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Testament of Job for examination. Perhaps these chapters are arranged by degree of influence. Certainly Sirach is a strong source of influence for Jesus and James, and likewise 1 Enoch for Jude. The case gets dicier with the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Testament of Job (though I think the argument is stronger than deSilva will commit to with the Testament of Job). Some of these chapters are a little long. Particularly, I thought the chapter on 1 Enoch could have been shortened by only focusing on the relevant books, skipping, for example, the Astronomical Book altogether. I also would not have minded if the very very lengthy discussion on whether or not the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs was Christian or Jewish had been shortened and/or partially relegated to an appendix.

Overall, deSilva's work is fantastic. The nature of the book makes it repetitive and a bit difficult to slog through consecutively. However I learned a lot through the process and appreciated his careful scholarship. deSilva is not a maximalist who commits parallelomania, however he does not deny direct influence when it is clear. Usually he's somewhere in the middle showing how Jesus, James, and Jude moved in the same world of thought as their contemporaries who knew these works and pointing out where they innovated. I'd wholeheartedly recommend The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha for anyone who wants to understand the Jewish background of the early Christian movement better. It is detailed and scholarly but still accessible and will make an indispensable reference for exegesis for years to come.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

John: Genre and Historicity

In preparation, I have been slogging my way through page after page of introductions to the Gospel of John. At the same time My wife has asked me to prepare some material on ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish history and culture to aid her Bible reading. So, I've red\ad David Aune's masterful study The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Library of Early Christianity). This is probably not a popular view, but I believe that these types of background study are indispensable - even more important to New Testament study than knowledge of Greek.

One of the commentaries I plan on using to study John is the masterful work of Craig Keener. I think he's one of the two or three best active Evangelical New Testament scholars. What I appreciate is his strong emphasis on background and his effort to place John within the proper genre for analysis. Keener, along with Aune, consider John to be a biography.[1] Ancient biography could span from pure fiction to an account of a person's life that was firmly rooted in history.

Where does John fall on that spectrum? In John 21:24 the author insists on the historical reliability of his testimony. Clearly, this means that he is intending to portray Jesus in a way that was consistent with the life he actually lived. That is not to that he did not shape what he wrote or invent discourses, a procedure perfectly acceptable in ancient biography. In fact, inventing discourses would be a necessity, unless the disciples had truly remarkable memories.[2] Speeches had to be made up, and were created to be appropriate to the setting and appropriate to the character of the individual. Ancient biographies would have been very boring otherwise.

So how historically reliable is John? There's really no way to know. To side with Dale Allison, we don't have enough independent sources to confirm or deny the historicity of many pericopes. The criteria typically used are of some value but I think are often misapplied.[3] This is why Keener's and Aune's work is so important. Given the way biography typically was written in the ancient world and its connections to the synoptic gospels, there's little reason to believe that John invented large blocks of material wholesale in a way that would mislead us from understanding who Jesus was. He does indeed seem to have cast Jesus ministry in a very particular mold, but he seems to respect his source material. In my estimation, on the whole, John does portray Jesus accurately and give us real insight into his significance. Yes, John could be deceiving us, and there's no way we could ever know, but does the author of the gospel seem like a deceiver? Not to me.

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[1] My biggest issue with Keener's work is that while depending on the work of Aune he obscures a distinction that Aune finds significant - that of biography from history. They were separate genres with separate conventions and expectations. When Keener discusses the historical reliability of John he sometimes draws analogies from ancient historiography.

[2] Keener discusses the ancient claims of the reliability of the memories of disciples of ancient teachers. While I believe that disciples could and probably did memorize teachers' sayings in a classroom setting or even public speeches, it is highly unlikely that they memorized disputes with other teachers or impromptu conversations. We need to deploy Keener's evidence cautiously.

[3] For example, multiple attestation in independent sources (e.g., of the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans) does mean an even likely happened. However, given the paucity of independent sources, a lack of multiple attestation means very little as recently noted by deSilva.