Early Judaism and Modern Culture: Literature and Theology

Early Judaism and Modern Culture: Literature and Theology

by Gerbem S. Oegema


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Early Judaism and Modern Culture: Literature and Theology by Gerbem S. Oegema

Gerbern Oegema has long been drawn to the noncanonical literature of early Judaism — literature written between 300 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. These works, many of which have been lost, forgotten, and rediscovered, are now being studied with ever-increasing enthusiasm by scholars and students alike.

Although much recent attention has been given to the literary and historical merits of the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and other deutero- and extracanonical writings, Early Judaism and Modern Culture shows that it is also important to study these literary works from a theological perspective. To that end, Oegema considers the reception of early Jewish writings throughout history and identifies their theological contributions to many issues of perennial importance: ethics, politics, gender relations, interreligious dialogue, and more. Oegema demonstrates decisively that these books — more than merely objects of academic curiosity — have real theological and cultural relevance for churches, synagogues, and society at large today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802864444
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 02/15/2011
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gerbern S. Oegema is professor of biblical studies at McGill University, Montreal. Among his other books is The Anointed and His People: Messianic Expectations from the Maccabees to Bar Kochba.

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Literature and Theology
By Gerbern S. Oegema

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Gerbern S. Oegema
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6444-4

Chapter One

Early Judaism and Modern Culture: The Unanswered Questions

In order to promote the investigation of the relevance of noncanonical writings for modern culture, we must now formulate the questions to be asked. It is high time to reflect on these questions, given the advancement of the academic study of noncanonical writings in recent decades. Though it would make sense to have the questions defined by the theologies of the noncanonical writings, for the sake of argument we shall focus on what present-day theology would like to ask these writings. We shall do this in a theoretical and systematic way, rather than by taking one particular theology as our starting point. The questions to be asked will address issues of word of God and canon, relation to both testaments, the dynamics between scripture and tradition, the relevance of historical theology, impact on Christology, consequences for religious ethics, influences on politics, and ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Before being more explicit about the questions I consider to be relevant to the present discussion, it is worth referring to Daniel Harrington's classification of the relevance of the Apocrypha in three categories: (1) literary contributions, comprising narrative, instruction, discourse, and apocalypse; (2) historical contributions relating to the return fromexile and the Maccabean revolt; and (3) theological contributions concerning God, suffering, and wisdom. As in recent years sufficient attention has been given to the literary contributions of the Apocrypha (and most other deutero- or extracanonical writings), the time has come to do the same with their theological contributions. In the following we will expand Harrington's three subcategories with several more.


To start with the most important question for Biblical Theology: do the noncanonical writings contain the word of God? If yes, then why don't they belong to the canon? To the latter question the rabbis and church fathers answer that these books were not inspired; prophecy had ceased at the time of their composition; they had not been written by a prophet, apostle, or otherwise inspired or authorized person; they were not old or authentic enough, etc. — in short, they lacked the criteria for canonicity. However, in defense of the noncanonical writings, one could say that these main characteristics of holy writings are not always found in the canonical writings either, as for instance in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, or Hebrews and Jude, to give but a few examples.

As far as the word of God is concerned, can it really be argued that it is found in every character of the books of the biblical canon? Why could one not also find the word of God outside of the canon? What about oral traditions? Might one not also find the word of God in the apocryphal Psalms 151–155, in the Hodayot, in the Wisdom literature, in the works of Philo of Alexandria?

To limit ourselves to just one example, the Gospel of Thomas—does it not sometimes contain words of Jesus in their most authentic form? At least it does in the reconstructions of the trajectories in which the words of Jesus are most likely to have been transmitted from oral utterances to oral tradition to written traditions. We work with these assumptions, but we do not dare to say that the Gospel of Thomas contains some of the authentic words of Jesus—or some glimpses of theword of God—and call them canonical.

In most hermeneutics, the Old Testament, whether the Septuagint or the Hebrew Bible and whether interpreted in a Christian or Jewish way, cannot be understood without knowledge of the traditions following the biblical period. The New Testament, according to most hermeneutics, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, cannot be understood without the preceding biblical traditions, the culture, writings, and religious traditions of the period in between, formally known as the intertestamental period and now generally called the Second Temple period, Greco-Roman antiquity, or early Judaism. Yet, despite these facts, this crucial period hardly plays a role in Biblical Theology.

This is historically incorrect and hermeneutically misleading. Even more, Protestant theology (more than Catholic theology), which is responsible for turning away from this period in its focus on the Hebrew Bible, is wrong in its neglect of the traditions of mainly Greek-speaking Judaism, which were so important for the early church fathers. Biblical Theology has long existed against the background of historical-critical scholarship, and historical-critical scholarship also involves research into the historical, cultural, and political context and pre- and posthistory of the biblical writings, with which it is engaged in a constant theological dialogue.

Are we now in a situation wherein we have to change our theological thinking? In my estimation, we are. At least we have to integrate scholarship on Greco-Roman antiquity—and its enormous progress in the past few decades— in order to rethink biblical-theological questions. To give an example, in recent years, New Testament theology has been rethinking the teachings of Jesus in conversation with historical Jesus research, against the background of the cultural and religious milieu in which Jesus lived and taught, and by using apocryphal writings to recover the original wordings of Jesus and the sociological setting of his earliest followers. Does this now mean that the archaeology of Galilee in the time of Jesus Christ and the studies into the Gospel of Thomas or into textual criticism, to give but three recent examples, are mere auxiliary or even ancillary sciences? If so, shouldn't we then also interpret Galilee and the Gospel of Thomas in a theological way?

If we would give a theological meaning to the Jewish and Christian traditions before, after, and outside of the biblical canon, our approach to the Old and New Testaments would dramatically change. We would have to take into consideration that God could also have been revealed outside of what would only later receive canonical authority. We would have a completely different approach to "scripture," perhaps no longer looking upon it as something static. We might well be forced to extend the interpretation of "scripture" considerably and include many of the pre-, postand extrabiblical writings.

Furthermore, we would have to redefine "scripture" by giving it a more dynamic character. We would have to take into account the importance of tradition and the many forms it takes by looking upon it as an additional locus of divine revelation apart from "scripture" (which, in the days of old, was itself also tradition, albeit an already-fixed literary tradition). Finally, we would have to change our evaluation of the relationship between scripture and tradition as something principally very dynamic. In short, we would have to create a space in our theological thinking for the conceptual universe of the noncanonical religious world. By doing so, we might also change our view on the canon itself.

Biblical Interpretation in the Letters of Paul and His Contemporaries

The following discussion will focus on some examples of biblical interpretation in Paul (i.e., Paul's reading of the Bible) within their cultural context. 3 This cultural context I define as the world of early Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation as well as of the knowledge and employment of Greco-Roman rhetoric within its socio-religious and political context of first-century c.e. Palestine and Jewish-Christian relations.

This presentation is limited to Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, of which chapter 3 will serve as an example of Paul's use and interpretation of scriptural quotations against the background of his contemporaries. The highest concentration of biblical citations in Paul's literary corpus is in Gal 3:6-14, which seems to serve in verses 6-9 as a midrash or pesher on Abraham's faith and in vv. 10-14 as a biblical foundation for faith in Jesus Christ.

Although most readers today are used to approaching Paul in a systematic-theological way, reading him in a church setting or studying him in a divinity school, many of his thoughts as expressed in his letters can only be understood against the background of his use and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation, as well as his employment of some of the principles of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Paul's Biblical Interpretation in Cultural Context

While it is clear that Paul's main focus in his interpretation of scripture is his belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind and that this Christology clearly defines his hermeneutic, it is also beyond doubt that he had a Jewish background and that he had received a Jewish and Greek education, which included exposure to and practice in contemporary Jewish biblical interpretation, whether of a Hellenistic or Palestinian Jewish nature.

The issue of the extent to which his letters reflect all this is best summarized in the title under which scholars have usually encapsulated their hypotheses, namely "Tarsus or Jerusalem?" as, for instance, by Willem van Unnik some thirty years ago. Were Jewish and Greek education in Tarsus more influential for Paul's education, or was it his study in Jerusalem with Pharisees like Gamaliel the Elder, if we give more credit to the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 22:3)?

To start with a general characterization of Paul's biblical hermeneutic, it will suffice here to quote from Dietrich-Alex Koch:

With contemporary Judaism and the early Christian communities before and contemporary with him, Paul believes that not only the commandments and ethical teachings of scripture have undoubted relevance for the present, but that scripture as a whole, and therefore, also its historical traditions and prophetic sayings, point to the present. This principal relevance of scripture for the present lies at the basis of the substantially different approaches to its use in Qumran, in Hellenistic Diaspora Judaism, and in Palestinian-rabbinic Judaism, as far as, namely, the statements of scripture are actualized, whether the eschatological character of the present in the interpretation of scripture is underlined, or whether an "edifying" exegesis which strives to communicate religious and ethical teaching to the reader has been applied.

In other words, the main characteristic of Paul's biblical interpretation is that he, like his contemporaries both within and outside of the Jesus Movement, "actualizes" biblical verses, although the direction of his actualizing exegesis takes quite a different turn. It will be interesting to investigate the cases in which Paul's biblical interpretation resembles that of his contemporaries and in which cases it differs from them, in order to have a clearer picture of biblical interpretation in the middle of the first century C.E. For this reason, we shall now look at Paul's use and interpretation of the biblical verses quoted in Gal 3:6-14 and ask which Bible versions he used, how he quotes the verses, how he interprets them, and how his interpretations compare to those of his contemporaries.

Galatians 3:6-14

The text of Gal 3:6-14 reads in the NRSV translation as follows:

Just as Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" [Gen 15:6], so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you" [Gen 12:3]. For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law" [Deut 27:26]. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for "The one who is righteous will live by faith" [Hab 2:4]. But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, "Whoever does the works of the law will live by them" [Lev 18:5]. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" [Deut 21:23]—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Emphasis mine)

The Quotations in Galatians 3:6-14

Genesis 15:6 is quoted as follows: "Abraham 'believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness'" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Although Paul quotes here according to the majority of the manuscripts of the Septuagint ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), in the first part he omits both [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (and replaces it with kajãv) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (whom he had mentioned before as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to make the quote fit in the grammar and syntax of his argumentation in Gal 3:6-9. Instead of "And Abram believed God," we have "Likewise Abraham believed." We find a similar case of an adaptation of the text of Gen 15:6 to the syntax in which it is quoted in Philo (Abr. §45): [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], as in the MT: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The second part of the verse of Gen 15:6 is quoted according to the majority of the Septuagint manuscripts (similar in Rom 4:3 and Jas 2:23).

There are two strong arguments to conclude that Paul quotes here according to the Septuagint. First, because he uses here the passive form, "it was reckoned to him" (as we also find in the Peshitta and in the Old Latin, which both follow the Septuagint, as well as in the Vulgate), instead of the active form, "he reckoned it to him" (as in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Targum Onqelos, the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the Targum Neofiti I, and the Samaritan Targum, which follow the reading found in the MT). Second, the Septuagint reads, in Gen 15:6, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] instead of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which is otherwise used to translate the Hebrew [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

Genesis 12:3 appears thus: "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). It is clearly a combination of elements from the Septuagint versions of Gen 12:3b ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Gen 18:18b or 22:18b ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). As is the case in, for instance, Acts 3:25, which also quotes Gen 12:3, quotations can sometimes be a combination of elements from more than one biblical verse. In the case of the quotation of Gen 12:3b/18:18b/22:18b, Paul seems to have quoted the main part from Gen 12:3b, but has read [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] instead of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (so too Philo in Migr. §21), while omitting [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Whether he has quoted the verse by heart or whether he intended to give his version of the quote a more general or even more universal character, and therefore reads [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is difficult to determine.

Leviticus 18:5 appears as follows: "Whoever does the works of the law will live by them" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a quotation according to the Septuagint ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with the exception of the omission of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which Paul could easily skip, since in the preceding verse he had already mentioned "the man who will live" by referring to the righteous one ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Later manuscripts of Gal 3:12, including the Codex Bezae, the Majority Text, several Old Latin manuscripts, the Sixtina Vulgata of 1590, and a reading within the Syrian tradition, add the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in order to harmonize Paul's reading with the one found in the Septuagint.

Deuteronomy 21:23 appears as: "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul quotes the verse according to the Septuagint, which reads [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and which is the only ancient Bible version (followed by the Vulgate) that reads both [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a reading we do not find in the MT, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Peshitta, or the Targumim. Only Temple Scroll 11Q19 64.12 from Qumran has "on wood," and it lacks "everyone," reading "A curse of God and men is the one who has been hanged on wood" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). As none of the other ancient Bible versions has both words together, we can only conclude that Paul must have quoted from the manuscript tradition of the Septuagint.


Excerpted from EARLY JUDAISM AND MODERN CULTURE by Gerbern S. Oegema Copyright © 2011 by Gerbern S. Oegema. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Noncanonical Writings between Early Judaism and Early Christianity....................1
The Status Quaestionis: A Brief History of Research on Early Judaism....................5
Early Judaism and Modern Culture: The Unanswered Questions....................21
Early Judaism and the Bible....................22
Early Judaism and Philosophy....................37
Early Judaism and the Politics of Identity....................44
Early Judaism and the Literary World....................52
Early Judaism and Gender....................80
Early Judaism and Ethics....................97
Early Judaism and Interreligious Dialogue....................111
Early Judaism between Tradition and Politics....................124
Early Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism....................143
Early Judaism and the Early Church....................154
Postscript: Early Judaism and Modern Culture: A Theological Approach....................173
Index of Modern Authors....................223
Index of Biblical and Other Ancient Sources....................227

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