Thursday, December 09, 2004

What About Rabbinic Literature?

I want to add my voice of appreciation to Jim Davila's carefully thought-out post on the proper Jewish sources to use as a background to New Testament study. (The question was first posed by Eric Sowell.) I agree with everything that is said there; but I would hate to see the rabbinic, especially the Tannaitic literature, unduly neglected in favor of Qumran or the pseudepigraphical texts. (Not that I think Jim recommends such neglect.)

I know that the rabbinic material is later, and that the use of them to illuminate conditions in first-century Judaea bristles with problems. Nevertheless, there are parallels in them to NT genres not attested in the other sources, for instance, the parables. The only clear parallel to the parables of Jesus are the parables of the rabbis. Plus Judaism, or the Judaisms, of the first century were thoroughly halakhic. You'll find a lot of halakha in the Scrolls, but the best parallels (IMO) to the kinds of halakhic issues discussed in first-century CE Judaea are found in the Mishnah. If one leaves out all of this, isn't one disenfranchising (again) the Pharisees?

Therefore I would suggest this rule of thumb: using the rabbinic literature as a source for the history of NT times is problematic; the stories about historical figures are too overladen with legend and haggada to be helpful. But when it comes to genre parallels, the rabbinic texts, judiciously chosen, should have an equal place at the table.

This is just a dashed-off bleat from the sidelines; I haven't taught in the area of NT backgrounds. But I'd like to hear what others think.

UPDATE: In response to Justin's comment: The question of balance and proportionality is an important one, but I'm not sure how to answer it. I will note that George Nickelsburg's anthology "Faith and Piety in Early Judaism" (Fortress, 1983) contains about 22 pages of rabbinic material (no parables, no halakha) in a book of 231 pages. That's about 10%, and it strikes me as too little. What percentage would be just right is hard to say.

1 comment:

Justin D said...

I like it. Lately I've been a little perplexed that the Tannaitic material--especially the Mishnah/Tosefta--has not been mined as much as it could/should for reconstructing the halakhic worldview of early Judaism, especially of the "NT" variety. It's definitely present in Gospels commentaries, etc., but it seems to me usually superficially. I also agree one would need to weed through the Mishnah carefully--some of the stuff is definitely very early tradition, but some is perhaps post-descruction or post-2nd revolt evolution.

Here's a follow-up question: What do you think the proper balance between Tannaitic, Qumran-ic, and other parabiblica/pseudepigrapha in 1st c. Palestinian Judaism would look like?