Strack, Hermann L. and Paul Billerbeck, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, ed. Jacob N. Cerone, trans. Joseph Longarino, vol. 3. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2021. 1008 pp.; Hb. $64.99; Logos Digital edition $59.99 Link to Lexham Press
Originally published between 1922 and 1928 as Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, Lexham Academic is publishing Strack and Billerbeck in English for the first time. Originally over 4000 pages in four volumes, volume 1 of the original work covered just the Gospel of Matthew (at over 1000 pages!) Volume 2 covers Mark through Acts, and Volume 3 covers Romans through Revelation. For various reasons, Lexham is releasing the third volume first in print and digital Logos Library format, and there is no plan to publish volume 4.
This new edition was translated by Joseph Longarino and edited by Jacob N. Cerone. Jacob N. Cerone is a doctoral candidate at the Friedrich-Alexander University at Erlangen-Nuremberg. He edited and translated Jorg Frey, Qumran, Judaism, and New Testament Interpretation (WUNT 2/424; Mohr Siebeck, 2919). He recently published Daily Scriptures: 365 Readings in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (Eerdmans 2021) and is the editor and translator of Adolf von Harnack, The Letter of the Roman Church to the Corinthian Church from the Era of Domitian: 1 Clement (Pickwick, 2021). Joseph Longarino finished his Ph.D. at Duke, “The Weight of Mortality: Pauline Theology and the Problem of Death.”
How important is Strack and Billerbeck? Someone might see “published in 1922” and think this is an old, outdated resource. Despite being nearly a hundred years old, Str-B is frequently cited in commentaries. I used the Logos to search for references to Str-B. In the second volume of Davies and Allison’s ICC commentary on Matthew, they cite Str-B 127 times. In the ten volumes of TDNT, there are 3,667 citations of this four-volume commentary. George Foot Moore described this word as “an immense collection of parallels and illustrations from all parts of the rabbinical literature, in trustworthy translation, with the necessary introductions and explanations” (cited by Baird, 422). In introducing this new edition, David Instone-Brewer calls the Commentary a “rich compendium of Rabbinic sources that help illustrate the language and thinking of many of the authors and initial readers of the New Testament” (xxi).
What is A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash? Strack and Billerbeck present their purpose in writing the commentary:
We did not intend to present an actual interpretation of the New Testament, but that which is understood on the basis of material from the Talmud and Midrash; we intended to present objectively the beliefs, the ideas, and the life of the Jews in the time of Jesus and earliest Christianity.… We protest emphatically against the idea that a conclusion should be drawn about actual or alleged views prevailing in contemporary Judaism on the basis of the material collected here (Kommentar zum NT aus Talmud, l: vi., cited by Baird , 419).
Joachim Jeremias described the importance of this work: “A field of research basically important for the understanding of the Gospels, which was previously a terra incognita, accessible only to a few specialists, the Jewish environment of Jesus and the early church has been opened for general use to the theological world since 1922. Through it, a new basis for New Testament exegesis, especially of the Gospels, was created” (Jeremias, “Billerbeck,” TRE 4:641, cited in Baird, 419).
Use and Abuse of Strack and Billerbeck. The reception history of Str-B is worthy of a scholarly article. Instone-Brewer warns in his introduction that “easy access to all these texts can be both a valuable research tool and a source of temptation for lazy scholarship” (xxiv). This was Samuel Sandmel’s complaint in his famous article “Parallelomania” (JBL 81 : 8–11).
What shall we make of the five immense books which constitute the Strack and Billerbeck Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch? Let us grant that it is a useful tool. So is a hammer if one needs to drive nails. But if one needs to bisect a board, a hammer is scarcely useful. I would state here that NT scholars devoid of Rabbinic learning have been misled by Strack-Billerbeck into arrogating to themselves a competency they do not possess” (8-9).
Sandmel though Str-B was “shaped as though its compilers were out of touch with NT scholarship” and “misleads many into confusing a scrutiny of excerpts with a genuine comprehension of the tone, texture, and import of a literature” (9). In fact, the fundamental problem is the work is too Christian: “Where Jesus and the rabbis seem to say identically the same thing, Strack-Billerbeck manages to demonstrate that what Jesus said was finer and better” (11).
Similarly, E. P. Sanders thought using Str-B led scholars to think they were appealing directly to the sources when they were citing the Commentary itself. For Sanders, Billerbeck “has distorted the clear meaning of the text or has prejudiced a question by his selection” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 42). Sanders thought there was a clear Lutheran bias in the Commentary work that skewed Jewish soteriology and implied Judaism in the Second Temple period had a “works for salvation.” This is a “ground zero” for the New Perspective on Paul: Lutherans like Strack and Billerbeck misunderstood Judaism and created a tool used by lazy scholars who did not read the material for themselves, thus perpetuating the error.
Instone-Brewer disagrees with Sanders’s assessment in his introduction, suggesting Sanders himself selected examples that prejudiced his view of Str-B. When the Commentary is read as a whole, “it becomes clear that the authors certainly do not imply that Jews, in general, believed that salvation came from personal effort” (xxviii). Even though James Dunn accepts these criticisms of the work, “they do not destroy the value of Strack-Billerbeck” (“They Set Us in New Paths,” 204). However, a quick search of Dunn’s Jesus Remembered indicates only five direct references to the Str-B. William Baird concludes, “for the understanding of Judaism, the weakness of the commentary is built into the design: Rabbinic material is presented in parallel to NT texts; the Christian sources are the lens through which Jewish teaching is viewed” (421).
Dating the Rabbinic sources is the biggest problem for Str-B. The Mishnah dates to at least AD 200, and the Babylonian Talmud to at least the sixth century. But both works contain traditions that are much older. Each rabbi cited in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud needs to be dated accurately, a daunting task for experts in the field, let alone scholars dabbling in Rabbinic material. This is important since one cannot state a particular Rabbinic saying that illustrates Paul’s thought if it dates 500 years after Paul. Even if a saying is attributed to an early rabbi (Hillel and Shammai, for example), the tradition was not written until after AD 200. It may not illustrate first-century thinking or practice. In fact, as Instone-Brewer comments in the introduction, much of this material is not datable (xxxvi).
Instone-Brewer’s introduction has a list of rabbis found in the Mishnah with suggested dating by century. Rabbis quoted most often are printed in bold.
Using Strack and Billerbeck in Logos Bible Software. I opened Str-B in Logos and synced it with my current Bible. Since Volume 3 covers the Epistles through Revelation, I opened my New Testament to 1 Corinthians 7:16 and Logos synced Str-B to that section, specifically the line, “Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” Str-B lists the following:
Genesis Rabbah 17 (12A): It once happened that a pious man was married to a pious woman; but they did not acquire any children from each other. Then they said, “We are of no use to God.” They got up and separated from each other. He went and took a godless wife, and this woman made him godless. She went and took a godless husband and made him righteous. You see that everything depends on the woman.
t.Demai 2.17 (48): R. Simeon b. Eleazar (ca. 190) said in the name of R. Meir (ca. 150), “It once happened that a woman was married to a ḥaber (a member of a Pharisaic covenant with the law) and tied the tefillin around his hand. Then she married a tax collector and tied the customs slip on his hand.”
Genesis Rabbah is not tagged, but the reference to Tosefta tractate Demai is. There is a cross-reference to Volume 2 of the commentary (John 7:49, but this is not yet available in Logos) and references to the Babylonian Talmud, b. ʿAbod. Zar. 39A and b. Bek. 30B. Since I happen to own the Neusner translation of the Talmud, I can click the link and open directly to the passage. Alternatively, I can hover over the reference, but usually Talmud references are to whole pages, so I almost always just click and scroll down until I find the exact lines I want. I did look these up and found a discussion of a wife who meticulously keeps the Law, helping her husband.
Regarding dates, Genesis Rabbah is a collection of midrash (rabbinical interpretations) on Genesis written AD 300-500. Although this quotation might illustrate what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 7:16, one cannot state this with any certainty at all. The Tosefta dates to the late second century, so the same warning applies. The significant section in the reference to the Babylonian Talmud (b. ʿAbod. Zar. 39A) is a saying attributed to R. Simeon b. Eleazar (before AD 200).
Strack and Billerbeck refer to much more than Rabbinic literature. There are many cross-references to Old Testament texts. They cite Josephus and Philo, as well as books from the Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. For example, on Revelation 6:1 they cite 1 Enoch 47:2; 90:20, and 4 Ezra 6:20. On Revelation 6:12, they cite 2 Baruch 70 and the Sibylline Oracles 5.528. In each case, the English translation of these works is from Str-B’s German, so there are slight differences when compared to modern translations. Logos tags all references, so if you own Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, clicking the link opens the passage in context. All references to Josephus and Philo are tagged as well. It is occasionally frustrating that references to excurses in other volumes are unavailable, but these will be updated when the first two volumes are complete.
The more resources you own, the better Strack and Billerbeck work in the Logos environment. Since I have added Neusner’s translation of the Mishnah, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, and the Tosefta, I can click on many of the links in the commentary and read the reference in context (often leading me down a deep rabbit hole). If you do not own a version of the Mishnah or Talmud in Logos, you cannot click to read the saying in context. (Neusner’s Mishnah is not expensive, the Babylon and Jerusalem Talmud is fifty volumes and is more expensive, but reasonably priced for 25,000 pages!)
Conclusion: Is this new English translation of Strack and Billerbeck worth the investment? This is not a reference work for the casual reader. It is a major tool intended for serious Bible students and scholars. For many, an English translation of Strack and Billerbeck opens up a new world of Rabbinic literature for the first time. But with great power comes great responsibility. Using Strack and Billerbeck can enhance one’s understanding of the Jewish background of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament. But it is a tool that may lead to unintentional consequences and misreading the Rabbinic literature.
Lexham is publishing English translations of the first three volumes of Strack and Billerbeck, releasing the third volume first (on November 3, 2021) and volume 2 in May 2022. As of this writing, there is no release day for Volume 1. You can download the original German version of Strack and Billerbeck on archive.org. Browsing the free German version might convince you this new English translation is worth the investment.
Bibliography: Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” JBL 81 (1962): 8-11; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 42-44; James D. G. Dunn, “They Set Us in New Paths VI. New Testament: The Great Untranslated,” ExpTim 100 (1989): 204; William Baird, History of New Testament Research, Volume Two: From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 417-21.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.