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.
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]
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