Further autumnal abundance of reviewlets

Moving on now to a more vague category, pre/early Christian Jewish-related stuff.

Richard Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Baker, 2007). This is a weird book, which is not to say that it isn’t good, but it’s certainly odd. I’d say that if the subtitle were switched around to “A Biblical and Archaeological Survey” it would be better descriptive. Hess spends too much time in this book doing footwork supportive of historical reliability for Hebrew Bible narrative. It’s very interesting, and convincing in the manner that it’s laid out, but it seems misplaced in a book on Israelite Religions. What I expected more of, and which I found to be lacking, was an exhaustive and detailed reading of all Biblical data related to religious practices among Israelites as described in the Bible, and in this sense, I would rather have set aside the normative/Prophetic religion (we know, or think we know, enough about that) and priveleged the non-normative religious practices that seem to be decried on every other page of the Prophets. There’s a wealth of material there. But in Hess, individual instances are not dealt with in any satisfying detail, probably so much of the book has been devoted to ephemera, though very interesting ephemera: the aforementioned pro-historical OT chapter, a survey of study of Israelite religion, two chapters on the religions of nearby nations, and then two chapters on early normative Israelite religion. Two thirds of the book is thus taken up with stuff that is basically already known and covered in better detail elsewhere. But the title of the book, Israelite Religions, with its provocative plural intimates that we are to expect some substantial coverage of a variety of religious practices in relatively distinct and coherent systems in existence in the United Monarchy and Two Kingdoms period of Israelite history. But the coverage of nearly all of that is scattered lines in one chapter, insufficient detail to make the presentation interesting, let alone informational. The presentation of the archaeological material here is cursory. The reader is better referred to Ziony Zevit’s The Religions of Ancient Israel (Continuum, 2001), not least for the better discussion and coverage of archaeological material, but for the better contextualization of that material in the Biblical text, which is both broader and deeper than is found in Hess. I see this Hess book as something of an introductory survey book, for which it would serve admirably, despite its distracted focus. Zevit would then be for the more advanced student or the one interested in detail.

Editors Huub van de Sandt and Jürgen K. Zangenberg, Matthew, James, and Didache: Three Related Documents in Their Jewish and Christian Settings (SBL, 2008). The proceedings of a previous 2003 symposium, limited to discussion of the Gospel of Matthew and the Didache, was edited by van de Sandt in 2005 as Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Jewish-Christian Milieu? (Royal Van Gorcum/Fortress, 2005). The 2007 symposium added the Letter of James to the discussions. The results are a series of very interesting, highly exploratory papers, as is only befitting the beginning stages of such a field of investigation. As many have noticed before, there are distinct resemblances, or reminiscences, or allusions, in and amongst all three of these works, and they’re suggestive of a particular form of early Christianity (namely, perhaps the earliest) which was still more Jewish than not. How precisely to describe those clearly perceived but elusively described connections is what this group is working on. So, while this series of papers may not be conclusive, they are at any rate very interesting for the manner in which we may eavesdrop on the founding of a particular direction of investigation, and watch its methodology unfold. I would also recommend the van de Sandt and David Flusser volume, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity (Royal Van Gorcum/Fortress, 2002).

Anthony J. Tomasino, Judaism Before Jesus: The Events and Ideas that Shaped the New Testament World (InterVarsity Press, 2003). A couple of years ago a friend of mine at church asked me for a good introduction to the “intertestamental period.” So I bought myself a little stack of such books, and go through one now and again. (Two of that stack that I’ve discussed before are Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, and the Vermes, et al., reworking of Schürer’s The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ [scroll down to the next-to-last paragraph on that page]). I have yet to find one that I would recommend wholeheartedly, but this book by Tomasino comes close. He manages to squeeze in several hundred years of history, much of which is deliciously tempting to follow into other areas of research of course, a temptation which rightly and admirably avoids in this introductory level book. There are a few of those (to me, annoying) text boxes where various subjects are dealt a cursory swipe in coverage, and a few graphics, but the book is pretty solidly text-filled. It’s a straightforward account, avoiding controversy, again, perfectly introductory. I would quibble with the “Ideas” in the subtitle. Most of the book is dealing merely with events, and any in-depth coverage of “ideas” is lacking. Events can shape things pretty well on their own, even without the anachronistic imposition of ideology behind their inspiration.

George Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah (Fortress, second ed.: 2005). The book includes a CD with a complete Logos version of the book, including a number of old photos of various sites taken decades ago by Nickelsburg. These kinds of survey books are generally better as reference than as reading material. That being said, Nickelsburg has made his survey readable by not going overboard on nitpicky details, and by keeping a lively and well-informed active voice. It helps that this is the most recent of these survey works for this body of work, and so incorporates the findings of the last several decades, various aspects of which Nickelsburg has had a personal hand in. The book on my shelf that this most effectively updates as a compendium of descriptions of works of the period is ed. Michael Stone, Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus (Van Gorcum/Fortress, 1984). Even the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Yale, 1992) is getting a bit long in the tooth, as good as it is. But it’s nice to have everything in one volume, and very nice to have it in an electronic version included gratis with the book. Every book should have such, whether Logos or simply epub format (which I prefer) or something else. One could be at, say, a bar, and simply have to know the current discussion of the date and provenance of the Parables of Enoch (I’ve had stranger conversations at my local watering hole). It’s a nice thing to be able to pull up Nickelsburg on the iPhone and find whatever. Or to just blow some battery juice reading Nickelsburg under a tree on a nice day. Let that be the start of a trend.

Now for the two books I’m in the midst of reading right now, for which I’ll give simply short, preliminary impressions.

Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009). In the comments to the first post of these autumnal reviewlets, Doug noted that he found Campbell “brilliant and fresh.” I entirely agree. I would also add, conscientious, concerned, thoughtful, intelligent, skilled, and comprehensive. It’s truly an astonishing amount of work that Campbell put into this book. It is well worth it. I’m about one third of the way through it, and have benefited greatly from his overviews of Justification theory (something that as a Catholic and Orthodox Christian, I’d never encountered). I tend to shy away from reading books like this, primarily because it seems books on Paul’s theology and work in particular seem to be less detached than those on the Gospels or other NT writings. Much scholarship on Paul therefore tends to hew more closely to one or another party line (=denominational theology) than is interesting or comfortable for me to explore. But one of the great examples of someone who managed to thrill me in not doing so was J. Louis Martyn in his Anchor Bible volume on Galatians, which was (pardon the pun) revelatory. And of course, Campbell rates Martyn well in this book, which is not surprising, as the focus on the apocalyptic Christ in the life of the believer is shared between the two. Already I sense that Campbell is going in a direction which will fit well not only with Martyn, but with Orthodox views on theosis, as well. So, we shall see. In any case, this is a very interesting and well-written book, one that I hope becomes influential in a degree relative to its heft.

Last but not least is Fr Nikolaos Loudovikos, Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity (Holy Cross, 2010). Fr Loudovikos, a student of Metr John Zizioulas, presents corrections to the theological writing of the latter (particularly as exemplified in Being as Communion) via the theology of St Maximus the Confessor, one of the most brilliant and therefore difficult and therefore avoided of the Church Fathers. There is system to St Maximus, and Fr Nikolaos draws it forth. I’m only about halfway through this one, and he has yet to substantially interact with Zizioulas outside of the notes yet, but already it’s been a fascinating ride through the writings of St Maximus. Very interesting! At times it’s a bit demanding, as Fr Loudovikos is no slouch (as I am) in terms of modern NW European philosophy, some familiarity with such will be helpful (at least I have that!). His interaction with such is concise, however, so it requires close, careful reading. It will be the more rewarding for that.

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5 Responses to Further autumnal abundance of reviewlets

  1. Doug says:

    A couple of years ago a friend of mine at church asked me for a good introduction to the “intertestamental period.” . . . I have yet to find one that I would recommend wholeheartedly.

    Wait, what’s wrong with the Vermes/Millar/Black/Schurer volume? It seems to be a fairly reasonable introduction. The fact that you and I both had these volumes (mine, sadly is unsigned) was further proof (to my mind) of its excellence. Also, there is something particularly wonderful about seeing modern scholars interacting in such an intimate fashion with nineteenth century scholars.

    Have you seen The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism? I haven’t looked at it myself (I just ordered it today), but I saw Scot McKnight pushing it. Of course, it would seem to pale in comparison to Encylopedia Judaica (which you have access to through Berkeley’s library).

  2. I was looking for a more introductory level book than the hardcore nuts and bolts Vermes, et alia. I think it truly is excellent, but it’s not easily available anymore at a good price. I remember seeing it everywhere even up until about ten years ago, but now T & T Clark has only vols. 1, 2, and 3.2 available, for the low low price of $145 per volume. And though they did tell me that they were switching that title to Print-On-Demand, if they have, they should be cheaper and all the volumes should be available. In addition, though, I found volume one to be the only one to have aged well (the social setting stuff in volume two has a distinct dustiness to it, and the literary surveys in volume three are just outdated, what with the full Qumran library available now and so much more work done on the pseudepigrapha/apocrypha in the last two decades). Volume one gets ten stars out of five in my book (partly due to Fergus Millar’s inscription to Peter Smith in my copy, and Smith’s marginal corrections of the Greek accents!). But volume one is exhaustive, as I mentioned before, in that truly nineteenth century exhaustiveness that people just don’t even attempt anymore, for various reasons (partly competence, I’m sure). The sources for the history of the period haven’t changed significantly, and the reading and correction of them in volume one is superb. One would do well enough with just that single volume from the set, I think. But it’s really not good as an introductory survey. The reader would have to know the sources fairly well already in order to understand where they were being corrected. Reading it first would be like reading Pierre Briant’s essentially corrective From Cyrus to Alexander without being familiar with the sources or even the general narrative (such as that in Olmstead’s History of the Persian Empire, harmonization extraordinaire!) that he is correcting. So, I’m still on the hunt for a good narrative introductory level book for someone who is educated, but not in the particular field of Hellenistic Judaic history leading directly into early Christian history. The Tomasino is pretty good. I’m just kind of non-plussed by it. It’s so workmanlike that there’s no real flair. But that can be a good thing in an introduction, yes? I’m thinking down the road that I may have to give it a try myself, since all I ever seem to do is complain about how everyone has done it not quite satisfactorily for me….

    I’ve seen the Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism advertised, but wondered what it was about. I’ll wait for your evaluation!

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