Positive attention to the Jewish background of the New Testament from Christian writers has exploded since the middle of the last century, although there were hints of its value before then. My task is to treat the change that has come in the Christian perspective about the importance of Judaism in New Testament studies.
Since the rise of historical criticism and before the twentieth century only three key studies stand out. In 1859, John Lightfoot published A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica consisting of four volumes. There were precursors to this work by Johann Christian Schöttgen (1687-1751) and Johann Jakob Wettstein (1693-1754). In 1883, the former Talmudic student who embraced Jesus, Alfred Edersheim, published The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. This work was full of references from the Talmud and rabbis. In 1922-28, Paul Billerbeck and Herman Strack, published a four volume commentary in German, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch. This was basically a compendium of parallels running through the New Testament in NT canonical order. These works compiled an array of potential conceptual parallels from Judaism but suffered from the limitations of these early works by not paying attention to the lateness or varied origins of the sources cited. Their one benefit was to suggest that understanding a Jewish context for the background of the New Testament could contribute to understanding what was recorded there.
Behind the scenes, a change in perspective was brewing that was coming to appreciate the Jewish context for the emergence of the Christian movement. Three factors were significant in this development. First, in 1906 Albert Schweitzer in his analysis of the failure of the first quest for the historical Jesus argued that Jesus had to be understood against the backdrop of apocalyptic Jewish expectation (The Quest for the Historical Jesus). Schweitzer was picking up on themes raised by other key German scholars such a Johannes Weiss about the background to themes like the “kingdom of God.” Second, the Dead Sea Scrolls renewed significant attention to the variegated Jewish context of Second Temple Judaism and accelerated a return to serious consideration of this background to the New Testament. Third, the impact of European guilt for the Holocaust engendered a renewed sensitivity for how Judaism was portrayed historically and a growing awareness of the threat anti-Semitism represented for society. This led to the development of some appreciation for the impact of Judaism on Western thought.
This brief description of background influences why the explosion of attention to the Jewish context of the New Testament has become a growing concern for Christian NT writers since the beginning of the twentieth century with a significant uptick emerging in the middle of that century.
In such a compact survey, it is difficult to cover the ground with any fullness. Instead, this study will note three key areas for attention that give a feel for what has taken place and its impact. We examine in sequence: (1) Historical Jesus Studies, (2) New Perspective Studies, and (3) Jewish Themes and Monograph Studies. These comprehend the three main classes of Jewish New Testament Studies. The work in this background demonstrates the variegated character of Jewish movements and materials and has stressed the pursuit of these sources with an increasing awareness of paying careful attention to dates and settings so that the anachronism or oversimplification of these earliest studies are avoided.
(1) Historical Jesus Studies
Historical Jesus studies has always had two sides to it since Schweitzer. The School of Religions side has been marked by a claim that Christianity arose out of a Judaism heavily culturally compromised by its syncretistic tendencies with Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic influences. Add to this the legacy of F. C. Baur’s work on early Christianity which portrayed the church as a further and further departure from Judaism; this approach always viewed Judaism from a highly skeptical perspective that saw it only as a foil for the Jesus movement. In contrast to this, others recognized and took more seriously not only the Jewish backdrop to the Jesus movement, but also saw Jesus interacting with this Jewish background in ways that were both critical and embracing of this religious heritage, and engaged more in an internal struggle or family debate about spirituality than as a full opposition movement. What made this divide more complicated is that by the mid-second century and beyond, as the Early Christian movement became more exclusively gentile over time, Judaism did become an almost exclusively negative foil for the Christianity that was emerging, with the church losing its sense of its early roots.
The names tied to this second strand have now become the most dominant voices in the so-called Third Quest that emerged in the seventies, but whose roots go back before then. The list of Christian scholars contributing to this discussion at this level is long. A select sample includes Joachim Jeremias, Otto Betz, Martin Hengel, Tom Wright, James Charlesworth, E. P. Sanders, John Meier, Jens Schröter, Dale Allison (at least at one time), James Dunn, Craig Evans, Robert Webb, Ben Witherington and Klyne Snodgrass. My own work fits into this subgrouping as well. These writers are not all in the same place in terms of their specific conclusions but one thing they all share is that to understand Jesus and his earliest followers, one must appreciate fully and sympathetically the Jewish environment that spawned the new movement. A look at a source index for any of their works on Jesus is filled with references to, and reflections on, a host of Jewish sources. These sources are used with much awareness of context for these works and a greater care in distinguishing works that are contemporaneous with or that predate the first century (that is, that belong to the Second Temple period or earlier), from those works that follow that period and can only be used with some justification for why later practices might reflect earlier realities. There also is a greater appreciation for the array of ways some issues were seen by Jews at the time, though more work is certainly possible here. Long gone are the days where one can or should say, “The Second Temple Jewish view” of topic x is such and such, and this is the only context through which to see Jesus. Much of this has been the result of direct interaction between Jewish and Christian scholars in Second Temple textual study. An example here is the Enoch Seminar operating out of the University of Michigan and headed by Gabrielle Boccaccini, a group I have participated with on occasion.
Let me note one example in an area of direct relevance to all of us. The discussion that surrounds the Two Powers in heaven teaching that Daniel Boyarinmakes much of in his work involves debating Jewish sources from not just Daniel but on to the Exagoge of Ezekiel, 1 Enoch, 3 Enoch and the citation of rabbis from the early second century, a range of sources showing that within the Second Temple period and just beyond there was vibrant discussion about a major figure who could share divine authority in significant ways during the anticipated period of Israel’s deliverance and vindication. The change in Jesus studies in light of renewed attention to the Jewish context has been immense. The added impact has been an enhanced regard for our sources about Jesus, coming a long way from the judgment of Bultmann that we could know next to nothing about the historical Jesus. One can say that the recovery of the Jewish roots of Jesus has produced a side effect, a recovery of a much better appreciation for Jesus as well.
(2) New Perspective
In what could be one of the great ironies of recent biblical studies, the New Perspective is actually an old (read original) one that has been rediscovered. To understand Judaism in its first century context is to appreciate the cultural setting Paul worked in originally, even though this first-century context came to be forgotten and thus when rediscovered became “new” again. No area of Pauline work has been as discussed in the last half century as the New Perspective work that dates back to E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Though there were hints earlier of this new perspective resurfacing, his work put it on the map. Sanders insisted that Second Temple Judaism not be seen as a legalistic religion but one rooted in the grace of God’s choice of a people with a following of the Law as a sign of the people’s faithfulness to that act of grace. Sanders’s systematic work through Jewish sources put this view solidly in view. The subsequent forty-plus years of discussion has not abated around this question.
The options emerging from Judaism in the period have surfaced more clearly and how they influenced Paul is still a vibrant and hotly debated topic, even to the point of asking if Paul was converted or simply had a spiritual reorientation. Was Paul converted or completed through reorientation? It was a little of both. He was living in the context of promises in continuity with the Hebrew Scripture. So in that sense he was completed. He would have argued that to embrace the Messiah by faith was to experience what the kings and prophets of old had longed to see. Yet this experience changed how he lived and so he also was converted to embrace the “new” wineskins Jesus sought to bring in connection with the promises of old. First Corinthians 7:19 and 9:20–22 may be the best evidence for this distinction.
Those who have embraced the New Perspective do so with distinct emphases, so it, like much Jewish discussion, is not monolithic. Some highlight viewing the law in terms primarily of “identity markers” that distinguished Jewish culture from the dominating Hellenistic world that surrounded Jewish presence. Here the prominent name is J. D. G. Dunn and particularly his work, The New Perspective on Paul, now in a second edition. His emphasis also appears in an array of other supportive works. A third prominent approach is that of Tom Wright, whose work also has elements of a strong supersessionist reading of Paul. It is fair to say that a veritable publishing industry has been created in the pursuit of the issues the work of these three—Sanders, Dunn, and Wright—has generated.
The emphasis on the New Perspective usually attempts to treat Judaism with more respect for its own internal dimensions versus through a critique involving a Christian charge of legalism. Sanders’ covenantal nomism has been a focus of the discussion. One enters into relationship with God by grace through God’s elective and covenantal choice but this relationship is maintained by how one responds to the Law. One of the core discussions is whether Second Temple Judaism can be summarized through only one such lens or did some variety exist in how Judaism functioned. The edited study by Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid raises the question whether covenantal nomism itself might not be an oversimplification of the status of things in Second Temple Judaism. The myriad of related issues this new approach has raised about Torah, circumcision, dietary issues, purity discussions, Temple practice, Sabbath, and calendar and their impact on New Testament discussions in general (just to mention some of the major themes) are too numerous for a summary like this. However, the discussion plunges us into the issue of Jewish backgrounds in general which have come to have a much wider play in New Testament study since the Qumran discoveries. What has surfaced are treatments that not only ask how this background impacts New Testament discussions but includes efforts to understand these areas on their own terms. This represents a real advance in study, though there is still much to be done.
(3) Jewish Themes and Focused Monographs
A third area of significant writing involves Jewish themes in monographs. Some of this overlaps with Historical Jesus work or the New Perspective discussion, but it comes at the conversation not so much from the standpoint of focusing on Jesus or Paul as from seeking to understand the context for, and impact of, their actions, often with corrections of how that background has been understood. This area is so prevalent that the multi-volume look at Jesus gave the topic of “Jesus and the Legacy of Israel” its own extended 300 page plus section. The range of topics includes: the view of God, the Sabbath, the Temple, the Shema, the purity paradigm, the Law, the Holy Land, sinners and outcasts, Israel’s eschatological constitution, and apocalypticism.
These surveys move into another level when a topic receives the focus of a full monograph. For example, Lutz Doering has such a study on the Sabbath. My own work on Blasphemy and Exaltation fits in this category. This kind of focused look at the cultural context goes back to studies like that by Martin Hengel on the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism, which challenged the idea that one could completely sever the two contexts and make historical judgments in doing so. This kind of cultural backdrop meant that New Testament study became more complex as both social contexts needed attention even for the consideration of Second Temple Jewish questions. Part of what Hengel showed is even in a Jewish separatist community like Qumran, factors from Hellenism were present. So both micro studies and more macro considerations of background have developed in the last half century.
In many of these types of microstudies, the sequence is often predicable. There is the tracing of Jewish background, usually running from the OT through to the Talmud. Even though emergence of the Mishnah and Talmud are much later than the time of Jesus, the full tracing of such background can explore whether the roots of later rabbinic treatments have traces in earlier material. Then follows the application of that background to texts involving Jesus or the early church. What frequently emerges is the variety of views within Judaism on a theme. That result means that a phrase common in popular discussion about “This is the Jewish view” of something is shown to be fraught with difficulty as an oversimplification. Such studies give space to probe the nuances of those internal discussions and how they refract off of events described in the New Testament. We already noted above examples like the discussion of a significant special power in Judaism in the context of Israel’s deliverance typology. These kinds of studies underscore the importance of careful study of Jewish background, both on its own terms and for its impact on the emergence of Christianity. The rediscovery of this background and the effort to engage in careful study to retrieve it has produced much initial fruit. The future also holds much potential in this regard, including the greater potential for studies across religious traditions.
My brief survey is but a beginning glance at what has taken place, but it is fair to say that the result of this kind of work both by Jews and Christians has impacted numerous topics. In many cases what had been seen in the past as an outright confrontation and revolution has developed a subtlety within the scope of common, internal Jewish debate. The result is a sense that what was taking place was a family dispute using means both sides could appreciate as arguments went back and forth. In other words, Jewish background truly enlightens the heritage and historical significance of what became two faiths, yet in a way that shows elements of shared connection.
Dr. Darrell Bock is the Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored more than forty books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke, Acts, and several addressing the historical Jesus. From 2000–2001, he served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). He currently serves on the boards of Wheaton College and Chosen People Ministries and is a consulting editor for Christianity Today. His articles appear in leading publications and he is often an expert for the media on New Testament issues.
1 I have in mind here the historical overview discussion one can see in Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Jesus and Judaism (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019), ET of 2007 German work, 23–38. The opening sentence reads, “No Christian theologian today doubts Christianity grew up in Jewish soil.”
2 The School of Religions approach largely occupies what became the second quest and is perhaps most well-known through the work of the Jesus Seminar, an effort that almost entirely bypassed engaging seriously with the Jewish background of Jesus’ ministry and that of the earliest church.
3 Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London, SCM, 1990). ET of 4th ed., German work from 1968; Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: SCM, 1969). ET of German ed. from 1962.
4 Otto Betz, What Do We Know about Jesus? The Bedrock of Fact Illuminated by the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Hymns Modern and Ancient Ltd., 1968).
5 His individualized studies are numerous. Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1995).
6 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1997).
7 James Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism (New York, Doubleday, 1988).
8 E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1985).
9 John Meier, A Marginal Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994-2016). This five volume series is still not complete.
10 Jens Schröter, Jesus of Nazareth (Waco: Baylor University Press). ET of German 2012 ed. His opening sentence on the chapter “A Jew from Galilee” reads, “The placement of Jesus in his Jewish environment can be regarded as the most important characteristic feature of recent Jesus research.”
11 Although he has recently stepped away from historical Jesus pursuits, his earlier work was deeply engaged with Jewish backgrounds. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).
12 J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
13 Craig A Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
14 Darrell Bock and Robert Webb, eds. Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus. WUNT (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2009).
15 Ben Witherington III, The Christology of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1990).
16 Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).
17 Besides Key Events, see my Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Jewish Examination of Jesus. WUNT (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1998).
18 Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: New Press, 2012). On the teaching as it developed in the early rabbinic period, see Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012).
19 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM Press, 1977).
20 J. D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2007). Another related volume is Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990).
21 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: SPCK, 2013). Also earlier see his The Climax of the Covenant (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991). A recent evaluative essay that also traces the array of New Perspective views is Joel Kaminsky and Mark Reasoner, “The Meaning and Telos of Israel’s Election: An Interfaith response to N. T. Wright’s Reading of Paul,” HTR 112 (2019): 421–46.
22 D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien & Mark A. Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism: A Fresh Appraisal of Paul and Second Temple Judaism, 2 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2001, 2004).
23 Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter, eds. Handbook for the History of the Historical Jesus 4 Vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2011) 3:2575–2909.
24 Schabbat: Sabbathalacha und praxis im antiken Judentum und Urchristentum TSAJ 78 (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1999).
25 Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Jewish Examination of Jesus.
26 Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period (London: SCM, 2012). (English translation of German work, 1969)