Monday, August 15, 2005

NPP (Part 1.5): 'Normative Judaism'



There have been sustained attacks against Sanders description of Second Temple Judaism as 'normative' Judaism, mostly by scholars studying Judaism. Jacob Neusner has led the attack (I use the word attack because much of Neusner's criticisms are couched in polemics) on the notion of an orthodox, normative, Judaism of the Second Temple period. Other prominent scholars offering the same sort of criticisms, with a little less polemic, include Martin Hengel (JTS 46), Phillip Alexander (JJS 37), and Jonathan Z. Smith.

One of the more interesting outcomes of these criticisms is how Sanders is accused (rightly) of describing Judaism as an outsider, and using essentially Christian categories to do so. Scholars of Judaism have never been tempted to describe the Second Temple period as a degenerative stage in the 'histories' of Judaism, for obvious reasons. This observation, along with the variegated nature of Second Temple Judaisms, led to a number of studies on what constitutes as a Judaism (see again Neusner and Smith). This of course has profound interest for those studying when Judaism and Christianity parted ways, so to speak. I am not trying to suggest that Sanders' 'New Perspective' is directly related to the discussion of the 'parting of the ways', but rather that the revolution that Sanders invoked made Christian scholars take notice of the rich complexities of Second Temple Judaism(s).

One of the recent attempts to illustrate the variegated nature of Second Temple Judaism(s) is book of collected essays entitled, Justification and Variegated Nomism. The editors did a magnificent job of rounding up the experts in a vast spectrum of fields, in order to show just how diverse the texts actually are. The insurmountable problem with this text is the puzzling way in which the various interpretations are co-opted by the editors 'post-script'. Certainly, Sanders is taken to task for offering a 'least common denominator' description of Palestinian Judaism, but others in the volume feel that 'Covenantal Nomism' works quite well as a short hand description, and wouldn't dispense with it wholesale. One wonders why in the editor's concluding section, such an unequivocally one-sided reading of the texts is offered, as if scholarship can now move beyond the Sanders revolution.

The positive and negative of these developments is that Pauline scholarship is no longer in a position to read the Jewish religion of the first century as a simple foil to Christianity, but likewise Pauline scholars can no longer assume that the backdrop of Pauline Christianity is always everywhere that of Covenantal Nomism. There is no escaping the Sanders revolution; it just means the task for reconstructing the back drop of Pauline Christianity just got substantially harder.

3 comments:

TheBlueRaja said...

The funny thing about labelling Christian scholarship on Judaism as the insight of "outsiders" is that Christianity in its essence began as sort of a radical "insider" critique of Judaism. Recognizing this is the very reason Christian scholarship has been motivated to seriously investigate the world of 1 C. Judaism.

With regard to the critiques of Carson and Seifrid et. al. it seems to me that their appeals to the complexity of Judaism misses the importance of the question Sanders was asking, which is "what makes Judaism Judaism, and not something else?" This kind of a question necessarily requires some sort of common denominator criteria. Pointing out the differences of the various sub-groups of Jewish factions in the 2nd Temple period is certainly helpful in reminding us that Judaism was never a simple monolithic whole -- but who's saying that? The question of interest in the work of Sanders, Dunn and Wright seem to be, "what makes all of these sects of Judaism still meaningfully categorized as "Judaism"?"

I've also frequently heard the criticism that such a pursuit might yield true generalizations, but such conclusions remain to general to be helpful. This is somewhat puzzling to me as well, since generalizations about Judaism abound in NT scholarship. If appeals are constantly made to the nature of Judaism in the literature, why would it be unhelpful to determine the general parameters of Jewish worldview, symbols and praxis?

While I understand that covenantal nomism shouldn't be read as the backdrop of every passage in the NT (and I particularly appreciate Wright's crique of Sanders here), I think what people like Carson and Seifrid fail to acknowledge is that there is much more continuity between the Judaism that comes out of our Old Testament theology and the Judaism of Jesus' day. The great thing about Wright's project is that he seems to be more serious than most in his attempt to unify the stories that make OT and NT belong to one continuitious canonical story.

metalepsis said...

... Christianity in its essence began as sort of a radical "insider" critique of Judaism. Recognizing this is the very reason Christian scholarship has been motivated to seriously investigate the world of 1 C. Judaism.


True, but this has also led to a caricature of 1C Judaism, as the foil to Christianity. By starting from the NT and the categories it provides and reading the Second Temple literature in light of this in order to assess it over against Pauline Christianity is not methodologically sound. When Jewish scholars do the same thing to Jesus or Paul we all cry foul, so we need to be fair.


...Pointing out the differences of the various sub-groups of Jewish factions in the 2nd Temple period is certainly helpful in reminding us that Judaism was never a simple monolithic whole -- but who's saying that?


Well, that is exactly what the Jewish scholars mention in the post claim Sanders does by looking at different texts and claiming for them the SAME Judaism.


..."what makes all of these sects of Judaism still meaningfully categorized as "Judaism"?"


The scholars inform us that reducing Judaism(s) to the LCD, only results in the most banal observations.


..."what makes Judaism Judaism, and not something else?"


This is the main critique thrown at Sanders, namely that the only problem in Judaism was that it was not Christianity.

...why would it be unhelpful to determine the general parameters of Jewish world-view, symbols and praxis?


Because if there is no Judaism of the 1 C then there is no 1 C Jewish world-view...but if we want to talk of Judaism(s) then we must also speak of world-views. And we can then compare these variations to the Pauline literature.


...The great thing about Wright's project is that he seems to be more serious than most in his attempt to unify the stories that make OT and NT belong to one continuitious canonical story.


True, not to mention the integration of Second Temple Judaism as the proper backdrop to understanding Paul.

Good Questions!

TheBlueRaja said...

I guess my point is that while I would oblige the fact that 1C Judaism has oft been mischaracterized in Christian scholarship, historically speaking Christianity not only emerged from Judaism, but remained essentially Jewish in many ways. Of course we shouldn't "start with the NT" and read these things back into other sources - but after understanding 1C Judaism on its own terms (understanding that the NT belongs to "2nd Temple literature" as well) we, as Christians, should also be careful not to fail to hear the NT critique of 1C Judaism.

I also understand that Sanders is accused of homogenizing Judaism, and I'm sure that criticism isn't entirely unfounded -- my point was simply that there must be some fundamental parameters for what can be called "Judaism" (delineated by symbols, story and praxis that make up a basic worldview), and knowing these is indeed helpful in mapping out the various textures within that larger framework, in all of their variegation, continuities and conflicts.

Moreover one can't speak meaningfully about Judaism or Judaisms without acknowledging these parameters.

In light of these things, and at the risk of some over-generalization (with a good many caveats along the way), explicating what normative 1 C. Judaism was all about seems like an enormously helpful thing to do!