Judaism as Lived
Judaism: Practice & Belief 63 BCE–66 CE
E. P. Sanders
(London: SCM Press, 1992/Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992) xix + 580 pp., $29.95 paper
This is a useful and important book. E. P. Sanders has set for himself the goal of describing Judaism as actually lived by Jews in the century and a half between the conquest of Palestine by the Romans in 63 B.C.E. and the outbreak of the Great Revolt that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
The core of the book, Part II, “Common Judaism,” surveys an impressively broad range of topics and issues: “Common Judaism and the Temple” (with an excellent discussion of the impurity of Gentiles), “The Ordinary Priests and the Levites: At Work in the Temple,” “Sacrifices,” “The Common People: Daily Life and Annual Festivals,” “Tithes and Taxes,” “The Priests and Levites Outside the Temple,” “Observing the Law of God” (with discussion of worship, Sabbath, circumcision, purity, food, “charity and love”), “Common Theology” and “Hopes of the Future.” Part III surveys “Groups and Parties,” a roundup of all the usual suspects (aristocrats, Sadducees, Essenes, Pharisees, “other pietists”) and a familiar review of familiar evidence. There is something puzzling about this chapter, though: Why does it omit Jesus and the Christians? Weren’t they Jews? But just before the epilogue Sanders brings the book back to life with the chapter “Who Ran What?” returning explicitly to the theme of Part II. The book is rounded out by extensive notes, bibliography, and indices of passages and names.
By its scope and subject this book invites comparison with volume 2 of Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ,1 a standard scholarly reference work. Sanders’ book is almost as comprehensive as Schürer’s, but is far more comprehensible. This book about “common Judaism” seems to have been written for the common reader. It is written in an accessible and comprehensible style, and all Greek and Hebrew terms are transliterated (there are no non-English letters in the book). Undergraduates and nonspecialists must labor hard to get through Schürer, if they can get through it all, but they will need to labor less to get through Sanders. Sanders clearly had these readers in mind, and succeeded in writing a book they can understand.
Even on the level of content and scholarship, Sanders’ book represents a clear step forward beyond Schürer in three important respects. First, the focus in Part II (and in the chapter “Who Ran What?”) on Judaism as actually lived, is excellent. Utopian dreams, theoretical constructs, wishful thinking, prescriptive laws—all of these are interesting, to be sure, but none of them describes or even pretends to describe how real people lived their lives. Sanders always keeps this distinction in mind, but Schürer does not. Sanders often has to resort to imagination and conjecture to fill in gaps in our documentation, but he has an excellent feel for the material and, in a book on common Judaism, much common sense.
Second, Sanders is far more sophisticated methodologically than is Schürer. Sanders not only distinguishes between prescription and description, rhetoric and reality, but also is aware of the more fundamental problem of defining and describing “Judaism.” Despite the absence of an “official” or “orthodox” Judaism, and despite the presence of numerous groups and parties, sects and varieties, Judaism, Sanders insists, was a singular noun, consisting of that which was commonly believed and practiced by those who regarded themselves as Jews. Sanders addresses this unity/diversity question any number of times in the book.
Third, Sanders has a far more reasonable and realistic sense of the place of the Pharisees in Jewish society than does Schürer. Sanders’ Judaism is the first large-scale reference book that explicitly argues that the Pharisees did not control the 013institutions of ancient Judaism and that rabbinic texts cannot tell us what Judaism was “really like,” especially for the period before 70 C.E. The priests, not the Pharisees, still ran much of the religious life of society, both within and outside the Temple.
The book is not free from flaws, of course. Sanders often reassures his Christian readers that ancient Judaism was a perfectly fine and respectable religion by ancient standards; perhaps because I am not a Christian reader I find this apologetic somewhat bothersome. Sanders’ use of rabbinic texts is cautious and, in many respects, exemplary, but he often assumes a too-facile connection between Pharisees and rabbis, and between Pharisaic law and the Mishnah.
The annotations are extensive and, as far as I have checked, accurate; nevertheless, Sanders occasionally makes statements for which he fails to provide any documentation (for example, “It is not certain that all Jewish communities required circumcision of adult males who converted to Judaism”—is there any evidence that any non-Christian Jewish community did not, in fact, require circumcision of converts? I believe not. Sanders provides no footnote). The book is encyclopedic in scope but even encyclopedias occasionally omit things. Sanders omits any discussion of Jewish burial practices in the first century C.E. Sanders normally makes abundant use of archaeological as well as literary evidence, but he somehow overlooked Jewish burial practices, which are well attested archaeologically, and which provide hard evidence for Jewish beliefs in life after death. A serious omission.
Most annoying of all is the lack of a topical index. This is a wide-ranging book, but many of its riches will remain hidden because the reader has no way of knowing what the book does or does not discuss. For example, the chapter on “Tithes and Taxes” discusses poverty, and the chapter on “Daily Life” discusses clothing and hair styles, but a casual reader will never know its from perusing the table of contents. (I want to be absolutely sure that Sanders forgot to discuss burials, but I can’t, because there is no topical index.) False economy by the publisher. Most distressing: this excellent book, destined to be a standard reference book, is printed on paper that has the feel, and I imagine longevity, of newsprint. More false economy by the publisher.
Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs
Savina J. Teubal
(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990) 270 pp., $19.95
Abraham’s wives—the banished Hagar, mother of Ishmael, and the favored Sarah, mother of Isaac—share more similarities than differences: Both are exiles in a foreign land, isolated from their cultures and kin; both spend many years in Canaan before becoming pregnant; both are impregnated by the same man, and each has only one child, a son; and both are singled out by God to become the “mother of the people” (p. 195). Comparing these two women, Savina Teubal quite convincingly shows that Hagar was no more a mere slave or concubine than Sarah was a “conventional wife” (p. xv).
The evidence Teubal uses is imaginative, credible and scholarly. She combines a close reading of the relevant chapters in Genesis with pre-Judaic religious and legal codes from Babylonia, Assyria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Although there are scant biblical references to Abraham’s concubine, Teubal’s thesis is that Hagar, as portrayed in Genesis and elaborated upon by male exegetes, perpetuates the doctrine of female subservience. On the more obvious level, Hagar is the subordinate of Abraham; an equally misogynist subtext, however, is a hierarchy and hostility between women. Hagar is described as Sarah’s
Teubal is firmly committed to the documentary hypothesis, a theory that traces the Genesis narratives to various authors based on the use of divine names, J for YHWH, E for Elohim, P for a priestly school of writers, D for the Deuteronomistic historian and R for the later editors, or redactors, of the material. She questions who first told Hagar’s story and arrives at three possibilities: “(1) that women, as well as men, were originators of the texts; (2) that both J and E could have used a source that generated from Hagar as the author, at least of that part that deals with her experience in the desert; and (3) that portions of the J source may very well have been female but were subsequently edited by an androcentric hand” (p. 13).
Teubal postulates that the “original text” did not contain Hagar’s conflict with Sarah; the story that pits Hagar and Sarah against each other is the result of the editing by this “androcentric hand,” and it reveals a deeper cause of conflict than mere female jealousy. According to Teubal, it is quite likely that Hagar and Sarah were associated with a religion that worshiped female deities. The canonized text of the Hagar/Sarah narrative attempts to eradicate a religious experience that did not conform to the cult of YHWH. By investigating the historical climate that produced the narrative in its present form (dated by her as 3200 to 2000 B.C.E.), Teubal ties it to the general deterioration of women’s position in society and determines that the subordination of women and their enslavement was the necessary consequence of the desire of this male biblical editor to overthrow powerful goddesses who were being worshiped in favor of a supreme male deity.
Teubal’s most original contribution is her attempt to reconstitute the story, to discover the “original intent” and “silent texts.” By altering the sequence of verses and chapters, Teubal gives us a new Genesis narrative, one that replaces the paradigm of hostility between mistress and servant with a tale of female bonding, a text that validates both Hagar and Sarah’s prestige as ancestresses of a people. Teubal’s “lost tradition” rejects victimization in favor of female empowerment, 014reevaluates social values and shows how both Sarah and Hagar merit prestige in their own right, not merely as receptacles of Abraham’s seed.
Women [in early Israel] controlled every aspect of the propagation of their tribal unit, including the sexual activities of their men. A bonding between the women and their [female] companions facilitated this condition. I do not envision this situation as that of dominance of one gender over another, but as a condition that permitted women to regulate their pregnancies and sexual activity and avoid any sexual harassment directed at themselves, their daughters, or their companions.
Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs, by Savina J. Teubal
Learning Through Suffering: The Educational Value of Suffering in the New Testament and Its Milieu
Charles H. Talbert
(Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier/The Liturgical Press, 1991), 92 pp., $6.95
To the question why a good God allows human suffering, the Bible gives us several, not necessary compatible, answers. The diversity of the canon and of religious experience inhibits a comprehensive response. Charles H. Talbert’s field of inquiry in Learning Through Suffering is narrower than the much-debated “problem of evil” that consumes theologians and laypeople alike. Talbert asks a single, manageable question: Since the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition have offered many answers to the problem of evil, what can we learn from one of those answers?
Talbert reviews a significant strain in early Jewish thought (represented by Philo, Josephus, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Pseudepigrapha, some Qumran texts and other literature from the first centuries before and after the Common Era). This viewpoint understands human suffering as divine discipline, the goal of which is the advancement of human righteousness (because it leads to repentance) and the increase of human piety (because it leads to obedience and faithfulness).
Talbert next looks at a similar although distinct strain of thought in Greco-Roman paganism, specifically Stoicism. Stoics understand suffering in almost athletic terms: its goal is “education/conditioning/training for virtue” because engagement in struggle increases one’s strength for virtue. In the Jewish document, 4 Maccabees, Talbert finds a synthesis of these views. Suffering in 4 Maccabees occurs under the sovereignty of the one God (a typically Jewish idea) but suffering is also viewed as increasing human moral strength rather than necessarily correcting bad behavior (a Stoic idea).
The bulk of Talbert’s study next focuses on four New Testament documents in which he finds various expressions of this combined Jewish and Stoic view of suffering: James, 1 Peter, Hebrews and Luke-Acts. James focuses on human suffering, but 1 Peter, Hebrews and Luke-Acts also reflect on the suffering of Jesus. In each case, Talbert pays close attention to the historical and literary contexts of the passages he reads, leads his reader carefully through the steps of his arguments and draws reasoned and understandable conclusions. A brief conclusion offers suggestions for the contemporary religious and pastoral relevance of the texts.
Talbert makes an especially useful contribution to the subject in his discussion of the inevitability of suffering in James and 1 Peter. Just as the righteous martyrs in 4 Maccabees suffer for their faithfulness rather than for their faithlessness, so too God’s people, James and 1 Peter assert, sometimes suffer not because they have done anything wrong but precisely because they have not. The religiously relevant question, then, concerns one’s proper response to suffering rather than one’s explanation of it. The authors of James and 1 Peter therefore offer exhortations to patient endurance and right living, so as to assure that one will indeed suffer for righteousness’ sake rather than for misbehavior.
One of Talbert’s most subtle and astute observations about suffering in Luke-Acts is his discussion of Luke’s view of Jesus as one who “progresses” (see Luke 2:52, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature …”) in his consciousness of God’s unfolding plan. Because Jesus, by suffering rejection, hostility and death, develops a mature awareness of God’s intention, he therefore provides the model for believers similarly to gain spiritual growth and development and be educated by their own sufferings on behalf of the gospel.
Learning Though Suffering asks a question that both scholars and church people raise and answers it with careful scholarship, clear argumentation and interesting writing. Talbert, professor of religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, has experience in this sort of writing. His Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1984) and Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (New York: Crossroad, 1987) have already provided the same broad audience with lively and creative conversation partners for Bible study. Learning Through Suffering now joins those volumes as fruitful reading in the college and seminary classroom, on the pastor’s desk and in church education contexts.
The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God
(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992) 256 pp., $21.99
It has always been something of a puzzle to explain how a group of Jews, known best of all in antiquity for their absolute insistence on the oneness of God and their refusal to grant worship to any other, should come in the middle of the first century to worship the man Jesus of Nazareth, whom they called Messiah, Lord and Son of God. The question becomes even more puzzling when you consider that those Jews who believed in Jesus gave him titles 015apparently ascribing to him qualities and actions previously reserved for God alone.
Margaret Barker proposes an innovative—not to say idiosyncratic—historical reconstruction of early Christian language about Jesus that claims that certain elements of pre-Christian Judaism looked forward to a redeemer figure more like Jesus of Nazareth than most scholars have heretofore suspected. Barker, who teaches Old Testament at Ockbrook School in England, argues that first-century Judaism included people for whom the titles “Son of God,” “Messiah” and “Lord” were virtually synonymous, thought to describe various divine and semi-divine figures and were applied to Jesus by the earliest Christians. “[T]he evidence points consistently in one direction and indicates that pre-Christian Judaism was not monotheistic in the sense that we use that word,” Barker writes. From the Old Testament, she finds evidence that Yahweh was understood in ancient Israel as the son of the Most High God, and she contends that the early Christians likewise saw Jesus as one more manifestation in human history of this Yahweh.
Barker does not seem particularly concerned by the question of how such a polytheistic view could have had much currency if (as they did) first-century Jews stayed away from Christianity in droves, and if (as it was) the church by the turn of the second century was nearly completely Gentile in composition. If the thought structures of early Christology truly existed in Judaism prior to the birth of the church, one is very hard pressed to explain the widespread Jewish resistance to Christianity. A provocative and intriguing thesis such as Barker’s, however, is always worthy of consideration, if only for the value inherent in periodically questioning long-held presuppositions and time-honored reconstructions.
Judaism as Lived
Judaism: Practice & Belief 63 BCE–66 CE