Buy Strack and Billerbeck’s Commentary – but beware! [technical article]

Strack and Billerbeck

Strack and Billerbeck

Logos.com is going to publish Strack-Billerbeck’s Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and the Midrash (published in the 1920s) in German and in English. For years I’ve said this should be translated into English! Despite its serious flaws it’s still unequaled, and the price of $149 for the English-only version is a steal.

Its drawbacks:

First, S-B treated Judaism as if it were one monolithic whole, and did not take into account the differences between one group and another or the changes that took place in Judaism throughout the centuries. So if they located a found a parallel to the New Testament in a 6th century AD tradition, they assumed that Judaism had not evolved over half a millennium, even though it demonstrably did – particularly with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the launch of rabbinic Judaism. In my own case, in my studies of the “kingdom of God”, at Matthew 4:17 they have a section about the kingdom of God in Judaism. S-B puts a lot of weight on a quotation from the Midrash Rabbah of Exodus 23 (84c), which understands the “kingdom of God” as the yoke that the Jew takes upon himself, the obligation to obey the Torah. This has almost nothing to do with Jesus’ use of the phrase; no wonder, since the Midrash Rabbah is from the early medieval period! S-B and others abound with such gross anachronisms. This is the same trap into which fell Alfred Edersheim with his Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah and The Temple.

A similar problem from today: popular presentations of “Christ in the Passover” that use post-biblical and even medieval Jewish customs to illustrate the 1st century practice of the Seder – for example, the idea that the Afikoman represents the Trinity, even though it was not practiced in the time of Jesus. Yet again: we misinterpret Paul’s command that Christian men pray with their heads uncovered in 1 Cor 11:4. So a common reading (see Leon Morris) is that Paul has the men reject the synagogue custom of wearing a yarmulke to pray, even though (see Gordon Fee) there is no evidence that they did so as early as the 1st century AD. I don’t remember if S-B made that particular error, I don’t have it in front of me, but that’s the sort of mistake they often committed.

Of course, S-B didn’t have the Qumran material now available, a wealth of documents that for the most part did pre-date the New Testament.

Second, their reconstruction of Judaism is based on a Christian paradigm, as if one should study Judaism as if it were merely a rival version of Christianity: “Here is what we as Christians believe, and here are parallels in Judaism.” This “parallelomania” led to a distorted view of Judaism, one which ancient Jews would have found hard to recognize. Imagine if a Muslim wrote a commentary on the Koran and “reconstructed” Christianity by finding sound-alike quotes in the Bible. A fairer method would be to go to the Bible itself and let it suggest its own paradigm. This quest for a historically fair representation  of Judaism is part of what fuels the so-called New Perspective on Paul. (see http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Redemption_NPP.htm)

S-B heavily influenced the first five volumes of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, meaning that its flaws are reproduced in thousands of theological libraries. It is worrisome that a whole new generation of students will use Strack-Billerbeck as source material, unaware that much of it has been painstakingly refuted for the past century.

An exciting new project: David Instone-Brewer is compiling a collection of rabbinic material that pre-dated the fall of Jerusalem in his wonderful series, Traditions of the Rabbis in the Era of the New Testament (T-R-E-N-T). I hope Logos picks up this series. Selections can be read on the Tyndale Fellowship website. [Note: Logos is in fact offering this series]

Related posts:

Jesus? Yeshua? Yahushua? Which is the ‘real’ pronunciation?

How to write a commentary when your library is 2000 miles away

Also E. P. Sanders, “Defending the indefensible,” JBL 110/3 (1991) 463-477.

“Buy Strack and Billerbeck’s Commentary – but beware!” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I stumbled on your site after seeing a promotion from Logos to subscribe to their pre-pub of S-B.

    Your point about making sure that any Judaic writings that can be dated to the first century should be given more credibility than those that come afterward is a good one.

    Your comments about S-B and Kittel have also made me a little more guarded about reading him.

    You say: ” People pray to God or (in non-Jewish religions) a godlike being, but not to a man.” But don’t Catholics pray to Mary without deifying her?

    Although 3 years late to this thread, I’ve found it informative and provided me with some intriguing readings to pursue eg Craig Evans; I see the book you cite is available in Logos. Yay.

  2. For what it’s worth, David Instone-Brewer’s Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament are currently available in Logos (at least volumes 1 and 2A). Thanks for your comments on S-B! https://www.logos.com/products/search?Author=18162%7cDavid+Instone-Brewer

    • Oh, I know! I scarfed them right up.

  3. Gary i’m disappointed that my extended comment didn’t apparenty make it into the melting pot of the argument. I thought that it was quite cogent. and not contradictory but gave food for thought.

    • Greetings! I received your comment at 5:01am this morning and then your followup just an hour and a quarter later. I have just returned to the city after a day and a half off the internet grid. I promise to look over your comment as soon as possible, which may not be today, given that there is a bit of a line.

      Blessings, Gary

  4. When we think of Talmudic and Midrashic parallels to the New Testament we must also bear in mind that Christianity was once a sect within Judaism that left its parent in its wake and eventually disowned it using it only as an anchorage to obtain historical legitimacy as did Islam in the 7th century CE. The revelatory appearance of the One God to Moses at Mount Sinai locked this oneness into a People, Israel by a renewed covenant relationship that was liturgical rather than ethnic and also took into account the whole of Mankind.
    By Torah Jews primarily mean the first five books of Moses(Pentateuch). Thje remainder of the Tanakh (OT) which includes
    the Prophets and other Writings is in effect the written Torah in three
    stages , with the Pentateuch having primacy. The oral Torah includes the Mishnah, which is a codification of a digest of that oral Torah and
    includes rulings, practices and tradition supposedly compiled by Rabbi
    the Prince around 200 CE and divided into six Orders, perhaps too, reflecting tradito lists and norms extant in the 1st century CE.
    Its appendix, the Tosefta, is a supplementation and commentary which amplifies the Mishnah and includes materials not included in the latter.
    Although around four times larger it has not been significant for shaping Jewish Law and Jurisprudence.
    There are two Talmuds, Jerusalem (EARLIER) and Babylonian (LATER), which are large Commentaries (gemara) to the Mishnah and its 63 Tractates: the Palestinian only has commentary on 39, the Babylonian 32. However the Babylonian has three times more exposition and has established itself as the authorative Talmud in Judaism. Midrash collections by Rabbis were along with Targums, periphrastic translations of scripture,the last major link in the belief system of Judaism.
    So what is the paradigm or template between the Mishnah and its commentary or Gemara that fits to become the Talmud?
    The Mishnah was a set of rules that were meant for all time but set itself an unrealistic goal. If it referred to salvation indirectly, messiahs were only a passing phase as they came and went oblivious to any trend as the sanctification of Israel was the keystone in a corporate situation. When several centuries later the completed work as in Talmud with its interpretive explanations glosses and expansions far outstripping the original intentions of the Mishnah, a final Messiah was once more in focus in Judaism. The even later midrash would be left to scholars to try form critical methods to try and distinguish earlier strands of tradition.
    That is perhaps why Strack-Billerbeck parallels are of such consuming interest and I hope that they are being produced in book form so that members of the public who evince an intelligent interest will be able to study them in english.

    • Thanks for sharing – I teach Jewish literature and find it useful. What I cannot regard as useful is material that was not known before the Tannaim. The vast majority of rabbinic literature and tradition was created or shaped after the destruction of the Second Temple. My point in this short article is that we should not identify parallels, for example, in 6th-century Talmudic Judaism for a 1st-century CE world, unless we have some indication that there was an earlier thread of tradition.

      The evidence we have from the 1st century CE is that it was not the church that left the synagogue behind, but the synagogue that denied access to Gentile Christians and expelled Jewish ones. The fact that Nero persecuted the Christian church in 64 is predicated on the fact that they were already legally and sociologically distinguishable from the synagogue, which had the standing of religio licita, a legal umbrella that did not extend to Christians.

      The apostle Paul kept returning to the synagogues, even though half-way through his career he had already been beaten with a lash 5 times by their rulers (2 Cor 11:24). So, who was pushing whom out the door?

      I’m not sure if they are publishing S-B in book form; the digital form is really what will be useful.

      • Thanks Gary for the time you have taken out of your busy schedule
        to reply to my extended comment, it is much appreciated.
        I don’t disagree with the general tenor of your argument but there is a double sided emphasis here. The term Christian was originally used according to the New Testament Book Acts at Antioch and thereafter as a term of abuse by those outside the sect until christians accepted it as a badge of courage leading to martyrdom.
        Jesus did not form any Church, he was an unorthodox rabbi. Paul with his presumed Rabbinical training fused it with a Graeco Roman
        philosophy to produce a synthesis that was in conflict with Petrine Jewishness at Jerusalem. There is no evidence that Jesus ever accepted a ‘godlike’ status during his lifetime. It was only with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE that the final last vestiges of association with Judaism was sundered as Petrine ‘Christianity’ foundered and
        Pauline Graeco. ‘christianity’ came to the fore rewriting the story of Jesus when its ‘Jewish’ model was swept away. Peter hoped that the
        messianism of this sect would usher in a new Age. What was different about this messianic/christian Movement was that the offence of the cross was rebutted because apparently Jesus had risen from the dead to show that death no longer held its victims in thrall. Like the Qumran sect before them this sect on the fringes of Judaism and maligned by the Orthodox Jewish authority at Jerusalem saw themselves as custodians of true ‘judaism’, when the seat of that authority the Sanhedrin was destroyed by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Pauline Christianity was able to develop a structure more on philosophic Graeco – Roman lines than the anthropomorphic lines as illustrated by Genesis where we have the picture of Yahweh Elohim (The Lord God) walking in the Garden in the cool of the day: although of course that difference should not be strained to overkill as there was crossover from both
        cultures. What this essentially means is that freed from its restricted Jewish trappings christianity could now accept a virtually unrestricted flow of Gentiles not subject to jewish dietary and other restricted practices so that by the 2nd century CE this messianic
        movement had changed its character so much that it was a seperate religion and it only had to wait on the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE to favour it for it to become a mainstream world religion in its own right. We can debate the mechanics of how this was achieved historically and there will always be different emphases by different commentators but the fact remains whether we see insular Jewish Authorities as the cause
        or the symptom of the fracture between them and a sect who were
        secretive in their practices and already causing concern to the Roman Authorities who in tandem with the High Priest feared an
        Insurrection from Galileans . It was from this area that messianic
        movements abounded and Jesus was considered to be a Galilean.
        So while you are quite right from your own perspective to touch systematically on historical cause and effect without the perameters
        of what was the general effect set against the backdrop of the inner
        contemporary forces,again I would say our disagreement is minor and more to do with emphasis.
        I concur with what you have said regarding Rabbinic literature which is in the main anachronistic and of a similar temper to J.G.
        Frazier’s ‘Folklore In The New Testament’ or its revision by T. H. Gaster, ‘Myth, Legend.and Custom in The Old Testament.
        Many of the parallels are highly speculative and devoid of any real
        value to readers so must be used with caution and are not really
        intended for those witout theological training.

        • I have been working on other writing projects, thanks for patiently waiting my reply!

          First, a detail – You mention that messianic movements “abounded” in Galilee before Jesus. I know of only one – Judas the Galilean in the tax revolt of AD 6 – but perhaps you are thinking of others. I wouldn’t use the word “abounded”. Theudas led a rebellion in Judea, not Galilee, and Judea is the location for Josephus’ “ten thousand other disorders” (Antiquities 17.269–270).

          I may be wrong, but my impression that you are following lines of thought that were popular many decades ago, but which most scholars have rejected (with an exception in Bart Ehrman with respect to some of them). I am speaking especially of the Hegelian distinction between Pauline and Petrine Christianity, that is, the Tendenzkritik idea that Pauline Christianity is based on Hellenistic categories (he focused on the naming of Jesus as Kyrios, sacramentalism, etc.). This doesn’t mean that you are mistaken, of course, but I do wonder if you have worked through more contemporary research, such as Craig Evans, From Jesus to Church: the first Christian generation.

          I would also point out that it is very difficult to prove that “Christian” was a term of disapprobation, since the only uses we have of it from the first century are from Christian sources, who seem to already “own” the term or at least are not uncomfortable with it. Another theory is that “Christian” means “Little Christ”, but this too is unproveable.

          “Christianity” dates from the letters of Ignatius at the latest (AD 107?), again, with no negative connotation. The morphology of “Christian” seems to indicate no more than “follower” or “partisan” of Christ (similarly 1 Cor 1:12). L. L. Welborn, Politics and rhetoric in the Corinthian epistles, shows that “I am of …” is political language typical of the Greco-Roman environment, for example, from Quintilian, Training of an orator 2.11.1–2: “Alius percontanti Theodoreus an Apollodoreus esset?” [Another person, asked if he was ‘of Theodore’ or ‘of Apolodorus’] responded “egone?… Parmularius” [Me? I am of Parmularus!]

          There is, as you say, a dividing of the ways between church and synagogue following the destruction of the temple and the Tannaite period. Nevertheless, Roman historians seem to be able to distinguish between Jews and Christians in the 60s, since Nero persecuted Christians (they were religio illicita) but not as such Jews (religio licita) – and apparently they were distinct enough that Rome could distinguish one from the other.

          The idea that Jesus was regarded as merely a human in the “Petrine” church has various problems, in particular the fact that the Aramaic-speaking church used “Maranatha” to address Jesus as Lord in prayer; this is known from as early as 55 where Paul cites the Aramaic loanward in Greek (1 Cor 16:22), and later in Rev 22:20, translated into Greek). People pray to God or (in non-Jewish religions) a godlike being, but not to a man. And in 1 Thessalonians (AD 51?) Paul was regularly applying “Yahwistic” texts from the Scriptures to the Lord Jesus.

          While the fall of Jerusalem make it easier for Gentiles to become Christians, there was no stemming the flow from the 40s onward, and Paul himself shows, especially in Romans 14-15. And in his view, there is no dietary or calendrical piety that a non-Jewish Christian need worry about.

          Thanks for sharing, Gary

  5. Thank you for your comments on Strack Billerback. I found them useful for laymen wondering what to make of Messianic interpretations, ie interpretations based on out of date Jewish sources.

    • Hi Paul, unless you have the ability to sift through millions of Talmudic data, then I couldn’t tell you where to begin. It would probably be better not to use them at all.


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