If you were to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and either wander through the bookstalls or spend an hour or so with the book that lists sessions, times, and locations, one thing would surely strike you. As Tony LaRussa once told famed baseball writer George Will, “There’s a lot goes on.” So I want to start an approximate ten part series on knowing the currents that flow in the river called Biblical Studies.
There is no rhyme nor reason to the order of these currents. If I mention one book on the whole scene, it is Joel Green, Hearing the New Testament. The book is pitched at students but anyone who wants to figure a particular current out can make sense of each chapter.
Today we look at the Jewish context of earliest Christianity. (This is a biased way of looking at it that applies to most of my readers — Christians wanting to know the historical context of Jesus and earliest Christianity. One can study this just as Jewish history, or as religion in the ancient Mediterranean.)
The publication and availability of these sources has created an explosion of Jewish studies both by Jewish scholars — like Geza Vermes, Jacob Neusner, Daniel Boyarin, Shaye Cohen, Ross Kraemer, Louis Feldman, Alan Segal … it is unfair to stop but I have to — and Christian scholars, like Martin Hengel, EP Sanders, Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans, Michael Wise … it is unfair to stop but I have to again. I start with the sources themselves and then give some basic books.
First, here are the basic original sources. It all begins with the Hebrew Bible, often called Tanakh and also called the Old Testament by Christians. The Hebrew Bible has a different order of books than the Christian Old Testament, ending as it does with Chronicles. Second, there is what we now call the Old Testament Apocrypha — found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. In addition, there is the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, a massive 2-volume collection (ed. by James Charlesworth) of documents on a variety of topics, but perhaps most especially for many a collection of Jewish apocalyptic texts.
Then we proceed to Aramaic Targums of Hebrew Bible books. These attempted to translate the Hebrew Bible, in more or less an paraphrastic way — the way a slow-down pastor might do when he or she is clarifying everything in the text — into Aramaic, the language of the people. Then we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of books most likely derived from the Essene sect that lived at Qumran though possibly simply a deposit of the books of a variety of Jewish sects.
After the New Testament, and beginning some two centuries later and continuing for about four centuries, we have the classic sources of the rabbis: the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.
Third, [added in light of a comment below] we have two major writers whose writings have influenced NT study dramatically: Philo of Alexandria and Josephus.
Alongside literary deposits, there are archaeological studies and inscriptions of the time and letters that have been found.
Hebrew Bible: Jewish Publication Society
OT Apocrypha: New English Bible or New Revised Standard Version
OT Pseudepigrapha: James Charlesworth’s 2 volume edition
Targums: Michael Glazier Books
Dead Sea Scrolls: trans. by Geza Vermes or M. Wise/M. Abegg/E. Cook.
Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: M. Abegg and others — what the Bible looked like at Qumran
Mishnah: J. Neusner
Tosefta: J. Neusner
Jerusalem Talmud: J. Neusner
Babylonian Talmud: J. Neuser or I. Epstein.
Philo: Loeb Classical Library
Josephus: Loeb Classical Library
Second, on books that put lots of this together, I recommend:
E. Schuerer, G. Vermes, M. Goodman, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. (4 vols.)
E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief.
Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah.