Pseudepigrapha


We got a few responses from our Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism volume that we were just beholden to the New Perspective and its fundamental problem—letting Jewish texts determine the meaning of inspired revelation. (That said, if they had actually read the volume or understood the New Perspective, they would have not so easily made that claim about our volume.) The challenge seems a little less pressing when you consider Jesus in his Jewish environment like we have with Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism, but even then I (Ben) have received a comments from some quite hesitant to allow any uninspired text to shape our understanding of the Bible. That sounds spiritual, but the historical study of the Bible is foundational for all serious interpretations. Whether one follows the historical-critical method or its evangelical cousin the historical-grammatical method, the key idea is history.

We don’t have any problem studying the practices of the cult of Artemis in Ephesus to help us understand Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s experience there in Acts 19. We don’t have any problem looking at archeological dig sites to help understand the daily life of Jews and their Decapolis neighbors to understand Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. In fact, my evangelical compatriots often rightly appeal to the distinctly historical nature of the narrative accounts in the Gospels and Acts to argue for their reliability. In these cases, allowing for a historical boundedness to meaning does not entail that we are letting uninspired knowledge determine the meaning of the Bible. Rather than a hindrance, we think of these as aids. In the same way, we have a treasure trove of Jewish texts that give us a window into historical perspectives of Jews contemporaneous with the New Testament. Why would ignore this rich variety that we find in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, etc.? These help us gain invaluable historical information about the first century Jewish experience.

When you read Reading Mark in Context, you will see that Jesus and Mark disagree with or modify Jewish categories as much as they accept them. As a result, we are not allowing these other texts to control our understanding of the Bible. They do, however, enlighten our understanding. If we are concerned with bad interpretation, I am much more worried about those who ignore historical information and therefore import their own very modern conceptions back onto Jesus and the New Testament. As they try to avoid letting actual historical documents determine the meaning, they end up committing a worse error by allowing their own opinion to determine the meaning (i.e., eisegesis). God chose to reveal himself in Jesus in a Second Temple Jewish setting for a reason, and it behooves the serious interpreter to understand the historical context in which God’s revelation occurred so we can understand it better. Reading Mark in Context won’t uncover all the historical issues, but it can at least tangibly introduce you and your students to Jesus’ world.

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Just the other day a new student asked me (Ben) about studying the New Testament and early Christianity. They were wondering how you study early Christianity because we have relatively few sources for knowing what they thought and practiced. However, when I noted exponential growth in the variety of material we have from the second, third, and forth centuries, the problem is not too little material from these early Christians to process but too much material. Of course, it’s not really too much, but there is so much that putting all the data together can be quite complex.

Since that is the nature of later Christian material, they offered that it’s too bad that we don’t have that same diversity with Jewish material for understanding the New Testament. While again we don’t have “too much,” we have quite a bit of theological, liturgical, historical, philosophical, mystical, narrative, etc. texts from Jews that lived within a similar time frame as the New Testament. The problem isn’t so much the limited amount of material that we have, the problem for students interpreting the New Testament is that they are almost completely unaware of the existence of the material, much less its breadth and depth.

9780310534457I was so much on board when the idea was initially brought up for Reading Romans in Context and now Reading Mark in Context because after seminary I was partially aware that this world existed, but I didn’t know anything about specific texts or much about particular ideas. Our goal with these is to introduce students to this world by making this material accessible to graduate and undergraduate level students. We provide glimpses into that world to help people know it exists and to get a sense of some of its flavor. With just glimpses this means that each chapter is selective, just covering one central topic. Of course, the depth and variety of each biblical passage means there’s much more that could be explored, but we hope this will whet the appetite to study these issues further.

This spring I (Jason) wrote two short pieces on resurrection. The first is on the Sadducees’ question about marriage and resurrection in Mark 12.18-27 (par. Matt 22.23-33; Luke 20.27-38). The second surveys Jewish views during the second temple period. The issue that stood out to me while working on these projects is the lack of clear evidence for a widespread belief in resurrection during this time. I think most people work with the impression that the vast majority of Jews believed in resurrection, and the Sadducees were the odd ones. Reading a work like N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God certainly gives the impression that most Jews believed in resurrection. The literature, however, does not clearly support this view.

Sirach has no notion of a continued bodily existence after death. One lives on only in the memories of others. This work was hugely popular in the second temple period and even into the Rabbinic era. Of course, later scribes added resurrection statements, which indicates that they were bothered by the lack of a resurrection belief. These edits, however, come at later stages and cannot be dated clearly to the second temple period.

Jubilees 23.31 describes the death of the physical body and the continuing existence of one’s spirit. Wisdom of Solomon appears to describe a similar view. In order to get either text to refer to resurrection, one must assume that eschatological texts that speak of a continued existence after death assume resurrection even if not clearly stated.

Perhaps the most surprising evidence is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Experts in this literature have, for some time, been challenging the reading that finds here a strong belief in resurrection. George Nickelsburg made the case in his early study Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life (1972), which was updated in 2006. Important texts like 1QS, CD and 1QM have no clear evidence for a belief in resurrection. The strongest evidence comes in the Hodayot, but this is far from clear. I suspect that the author(s) did have leanings toward a bodily afterlife, something like resurrection, but this is far from obvious. Even then, the evidence from the scrolls is strikingly thin.

To be sure, there were Jews who believed in bodily resurrection. Josephus indicates that he believes in resurrection (Ap. 2.217-18), and he attributes the same to the Pharisees, despite describing their position in Greek philosophical language (J.W. 2.163; Ant.18.14). Texts like 2 Macc 7 also give the impression that resurrection was a popular position. 2 Baruch also advocates for resurrection, although it is not clear exactly what the author envisions the afterlife to be like (chapters 49-52). And, of course, the New Testament texts testify to the belief in resurrection among the early Christians.

In the end, though, the Jewish literature does not provide strong evidence for the view that many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection after death.

Matt O’Reilly has written a review of Reading Romans in Context edited by Ben, John and myself at his blog Orthodoxy for Everyone. He writes toward the end:

Reading Romans in Context is distinct in that it introduces elements of context by focusing on particular texts. We might say that books on biblical backgrounds often take a wide-angle approach; Reading Romans in Context is a zoom lens that takes the reader up close to the particularities of the ideas in question. I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the large amounts of information that come with a lecture or reading assignment on New Testament backgrounds. There is a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of work. The precision focus of the chapters in this book strikes me as offering a complimentary approach that has potential to mitigate that problem. Students should be able to handle this book, and I am happy to recommend its use in a course introducing the New Testament, Paul and his letters, or on the exegesis of Romans. As a pastor, I would also feel comfortable recommending this book to an interested layperson in a local church setting.

Thanks Matt for the review. Although there are not formal plans (yet) for additional volumes on Paul’s letter, we are working on Reading Mark in Context.

Sinces it was first introduced just a few weeks ago, there has been an enormous amount of specticism about the authencity of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Many scholars have charged that the fragment is a forgery, several even advancing theories about its possible dependance on the coptic version of The Gospel of Thomas. Now scholars are suggesting that the fragment was probably composed with the use of a specific online interlinear of Thomas, since the fragment and the interlinear share the same typographical error. This evidence looks quite damning for The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. For more, see the article by Andrew Bernhard, as well as the blog posts at Evangelical Textual Criticism and the NTWeblog.

Cambridge University Press has begun advertising the forthcoming release (January 2013) of Mark D. Mathews’s monograph, Riches, Poverty, and the Faithful: Perspectives on Wealth in the Second Temple Period and the Apocalypse of John (SNTSMS 154). This release is very exciting. Mark is a fellow Durham grad; we started together in 2007 and submitted our theses within days of each other in 2010. Mark and I were also neighbors in Durham for two years. His doctoral work was supervised by Loren Stuckenbruck, so when Loren moved to Princeton in 2009, Mark and his family followed him there. Mark is now in full-time church ministry at Bethany Presbyterian Church, near Philadelphia.

Here are the book summary and table of contents:

In the book of Revelation, John appeals to the faithful to avoid the temptations of wealth, which he connects with evil and disobedience within secular society. New Testament scholars have traditionally viewed his somewhat radical stance as a reaction to the social injustices and idolatry of the imperial Roman cults of the day. Mark D. Mathews argues that John’s rejection of affluence was instead shaped by ideas in the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period which associated the rich with the wicked and viewed the poor as the righteous. Mathews explores how traditions preserved in the Epistle of Enoch and later Enochic texts played a formative role in shaping John’s theological perspective. This book will be of interest to those researching poverty and wealth in early Christian communities and the relationship between the traditions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament.

Table of Contents

Part I. Introduction: 1. The question of wealth in the Apocalypse
Part II. The Language of Wealth and Poverty in the Second Temple Period: Introduction
2. Dead Sea Scrolls: non-sectarian Aramaic documents
3. Dead Sea Scrolls: non-sectarian Hebrew documents
4. Dead Sea Scrolls: sectarian Hebrew documents
5. Other Jewish literature
Preliminary conclusions
Part III. Wealth, Poverty, and the Faithful Community in the Apocalypse of John: Introduction
6. The language of wealth and poverty in the seven messages – Rev 2-3
7. The present eschatological age – Rev 4-6
8. Buying and selling in Satan’s world – Rev 12-13, 18
9. Final conclusions.

As one of the primary preparations for a NT (or Patristics) PhD, I recommended focusing on primary text background sources.  I got an email question about which specific sources I would recommend, in order of importance.  These are the lists that I drew up.   Am I missing anything?  Would you recommend a different order?  Other thoughts?

Jewish*

  1. OT Apocrypha
  2. DSS
  3. OT Pseudepigrapha (esp. 1 Enoch)
  4. Josephus: Jewish Antiquities, Jewish War
  5. Philo: ???  (Recommendations on 2-3 works on where to start?)

*Need it be said that you read the OT itself first (possibly even from the LXX): Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Daniel, etc.?

Greco-Roman

  1. Cicero: De Natura Deorum, De Finibis (both read like a 3 views on theology and ethics, respectively)
  2. Plato: Timaeus, Phaedo, Symposium (longer works like The Republic will also repay attention given)
  3. Epictetus and/or Seneca
  4. Histories: Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus
  5. Homer (which was the “Bible” of Hellenism)
  6. Rhetorical handbooks by Quintillian or Aristotle

Mike Bird has a list here which has a similar focus, but also points to key secondary sources.

Christian

  1. Apostolic Fathers
  2. NT Apocrypha
  3. Nag Hammadi
  4. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus