Book Review: Marvin Sweeney, Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today

Sweeney, Marvin A. Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 432 pp. Hc; $60.   Link to Eerdmans    Link to EerdWorld to read a twenty-six page excerpt

In his preface Marvin Sweeny explains the need for a new textbook on Jewish mysticism. Since he began teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, his only choices for textbooks were Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) and William Kaufman’s Journeys: An Introductory Guide to Jewish Mysticism (1980). Both volumes begin their survey with rabbinic literature. Sweeney could find nothing which included mysticism from the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, Qumran and Jewish apocalyptic texts. In addition, Sweeney gives a greater place in his volume to Jewish liturgical and theurgical practices, as well as textual interpretations of earlier mystical works. As he says in his introduction, later mystics built on their predecessors in order to “resolve ongoing problems left open by earlier movements and texts” (7).

Sweeney, Jewish MysticismThe first chapter describes visionary experiences in the Ancient Near East. By surveying Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian texts which depict “seeing and hearing the gods” Sweeney argues Ancient Near Eastern had a wide variety of ways of expressing human experience of the gods through dreams, visionary experience, and divine interaction. These were powerful experiences, but ultimately “undependable, self-interested, and frequently amoral.”

Chapters 2-4 survey visionary and dream experiences in the Pentateuch, Former Prophets and Psalms, and Latter Prophets (pp. 50-166). He collects every example of someone “seeing and hearing G-d” through visions and dreams in the canonical Hebrew Bible. Although these experiences often have tangible elements, “YHWH is experienced in the world by divine acts of mercy and justice the stand as the basis of the covenant between YHWH and Israel” (p. 81). For example, the Pentateuch describes YHWH’s enthronement in the tabernacle though the pillar of cloud and fire, but more importantly the Pentateuch “presents a creation narrative modeled on those of the Ancient Near East in which YHWH puts his creation in order, and establishes YHWH’s own people, Israel, in the midst of that creation, and establishes a sanctuary to honor YHWH as the creator” (p. 85).  Isaiah’s temple vision (Isa 6:1-13) and Ezekiel’s throne room vision (Ezek 1-3) are foundational for Heikhalot literature (temple visions) and Merkavah literature (throne visions).

Jewish apocalyptic literature serves as the transition from the Hebrew Bible to the Heikhalot literature. (ch. 5).  He begins with a survey of “proto-apocalyptic” such as Isaiah 24-27, 34-35, 56-66, Ezekiel 1; 8-11, 37, 38-39; 40-48; Joel and Zechariah 9-14. Wisdom literature is important for the development of Jewish mysticism, especially Job, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. He then briefly discusses two major Second Temple apocalyptic texts 1 Enoch and Daniel (which uses “the setting the Babylonian exile to address issues relevant to the outbreak of the Hasmonean revolt against Seleucid Syria” (p. 189). In his brief survey of the Judean Wilderness Scrolls, Sweeny highlights the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice as “anticipating later heikhalot compositions” (p. 194). Finally, he briefly introduces three late first century C.E. texts, Revelation, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. Although a Christian text, Revelation includes a heavenly ascent, throne room visions, and abundant allusions to the Exodus narrative. Bo0th 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch call on Jews to “observe divine Torah” in response to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. This, Sweeny suggests, “constitutes the foundational viewpoint of rabbinic Judaism: to sanctify Jewish life and the world of creation by adhering to the divine Torah in preparation for the time when God would bring about the restoration” as promised in Ezekiel 40-48, Isaiah 40-66, Jeremiah 30-33, and Zechariah 9-14 (p. 206).

Chapter 6 introduces the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature. After the failure of the Bar-Khokba revolt and the development of Oral Torah, rabbis sought to place limits on study of mysticism.  Sweeney cites a parable which illustrates the dangers of mystical study (b.Hag. 14b). Four rabbis entered the Garden (Pardes, paradise), but only Akiva left unhurt. “Entering Pardes” refers to the proper study of the Torah. Only Akiva understood his own knowledge and succeeded in mystical study (p. 216). These experiences of these four are developed in the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature.

Sweeney surveys four texts in this chapter. First, Ma’aseh Merkavah is the most basic account of the four rabbis who ascended to Pardes. The book focuses on the hymns and prayers a mystic must employ in order to undertake ascent the seventh level of heaven. Second, Heikhalot Rabbati describes the ascent of R. Nehunyah ben Haqanah to the throne of G-d in the seventh heaven narrated by R. Ishmael ben Elisha. R. Ishmael was one of the key Tannaitic sages, one of the most prominent rabbis of his day and one the Ten Martyrs. The book anticipates a time when the Torah will be “fully understood and applied to the sanctification of the world of creation” (p. 222). Third, one of the oldest heikhalot texts, Heikhalot Zutari (Lesser Places) begins with the parable of the four rabbis attempting to enter Pardes in order to “specify the experience of the prospective mystics” (p. 231).  The book refers to Metatron, the powerful angel of the presence who sits on the throne of G-d in the seventh heaven when Go-d is not present. The name may be derived from the Greek meta, with, and thronos, throne, but Sweeny suggests it is related to the Aramaic mattara’, “keeper of the watch” (p. 238). Finally, in this chapter, Sweeney introduces Sefer Heikhalot (Third Enoch). The book seems to be a response to the story of the four who entered Pardes but focuses on the visualizations of Metatron.

Chapter 7 surveys the transition from Heikhalot to early Kabbalistic literature. Kabbalah means tradition or “that which is received” and the study of this literature became a major Jewish mystical movement in the mid-twelfth century. Since Heikhalot literature assumes the transcendent nature of G-d who is approached by the mystic through liturgical prayer and theurgic practice, and Torah study, the Kabbalistic literature began to consider the immanent presence of G-d in the world of creation. After an introduction to the development of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, Sweeney introduces several early Kabbalistic texts.

First, Shiur Qomah “is easily one of the most problematic, controversial, and misunderstood writings in all of Jewish tradition” (p. 255). The name of the books means “The Measure of G-d’s Body,” a fair description of the contents of the book G-d’s height is given and 2,300,000,000 parasangs and the crown on his head is an additional 600,000 parasangs. A parasang is 30 stadia, or about 3.5 miles. G-d’s height is therefore more than 80 billion miles and an additional 2.1 million miles for his crown. The point here is that “the divine presence is beyond human capacity to comprehend in any meaningful way” (p. 263). Second, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation,” focuses on language has the means by which G-d manifests himself in creation and the creative power of human speech. The book observes that G-d spoke ten times in Genesis 1 and then uses several other numerical observations to outline the Ten Sefirot and describes their role in creation. Third, Sefer Habahir, the “Book of Brilliance” is the first major Kabbalistic work (p. 271). The name derives from Job 37:21, the sun is “brilliant (bahir) in the clouds.” Sweeney suggests the development of the Ten Sefirot in the book is dependent on gnosticism and is highly intertextual. The book is a synthesis of earlier Jewish texts with gnostic ideas to explain how an ultimately transcendent being can be fully present in a finite earthly world. He concludes the chapter with a brief survey of other key movements and figures in the period (The Hasidei Ashkenaz, Isaac the Blind, and Abraham Abulafia).

Chapter 8 focuses on the most well-known kabalistic texts, The Zohar. The name Zohar means splendor or brilliance and is likely drawn from Ezekiel’s description of a human-like figure show lifted the prophet up and transported him to Jerusalem to witness the fall of the city (Ezek 8:2). The book is a mystical comment on the Torah revealing the hidden meaning of the text. Like earlier kabalistic texts, the primary concern of the text is how the infinite character of God is manifested as a divine presence in a finite world (p. 289). The book therefore discussed the Sefirot, God’s shekhinah, his glory dwelling in the world (using sexual language), the nature of creation and the origin of evil and demons.

The final two chapters treat more recent forms of Jewish mysticism. In Chapter 9 Sweeney discusses Lurianic Kabbalah, a popular movement prompting Jews to adopt kabalistic spiritual practices and study in anticipation of the messianic age when the Messiah would appear, the temple would be reestablished, and the world of creation would be completed” (p. 325). After a short review of the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492, Sweeny describes the activity of Jewish mystics who gathered in in Safed, a small town in the upper Galilean hills. R. Luria (1534-1572) studied under kabbalist Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and became the principle kabbalist teacher in Safed after Cordovero’s death. Luranic kabbalah has three basic principles. First, the Tzimtzym is the contraction of the infinite God into the finite world. Second, Luria’s idea of the Abba (father) and Imma (mother), two aspects of God. When they are united, they form the third basic principle, the Zeir Anin, the “Impatient One.” Each of these three principles are tied to aspects of the Ten Sefirot. Luria also believed in the transmigration of the soul: a tzaddik (righteous person) could embody a past tzaddik. Luria thought he was the embodiment of R. Shimon bar Yohai, for example. This form of mysticism had an influence on Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676), a failed messiah who converted to Islam in 1666. Many of his followers continued to believe he was the messiah long after his death (the Dönmeh).

Chapter 10 concludes with an introduction to Hasidism, the modern manifestation of Jewish mysticism. He is quick to point out modern Hasidism as nothing to do with the earlier movement. In this chapter, Sweeney describes the earlier mystical and pietistic movement led by Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) in the early eighteenth century and his follower Shneur Zalman (1745-1831). Zalman was the founder of the Schneersohn family line and the founder of Habad Hasidism (p. 379). Habad theology is rooted in the idea God is the only reality in the universe and all other realities are illusions. The chapter traces several movements which developed from this eighteenth century origin, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) and the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994).

Conclusion. For each mystical text surveyed in chapter 6-10 Sweeney provides a footnote to sources for reading the text and key studies. He only rarely uses long quotations from the texts, preferring to summarize the esoteric content for the reader. Although I would usually prefer to read selections from the original texts, the esoteric nature of this literature makes me appreciate his careful summaries. Still, a second volume collecting example readings for each chapter would be useful, especially when this book is used in a classroom setting.

NB: Spelling and use of YHWH and G-d conforms to Sweeney’s text. Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Justin W. Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity

Bass, Justin W.  The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. 238 pp.; Pb.  $13.99  Link to Lexham Press    Link to Logos Bible Software

In this short apologetic text, Justin Bass seeks to establish the basic facts of Christianity. Alluding to the introduction to John Meier’s historical Jesus study, The Marginal Jew, Bass imagines a meeting during which Protestants, Catholics, Jews, atheists and agnostics scholars evaluate evidence and determine what basic facts about Christianity everyone can agree on. In his introductory chapter he disregards the mythicist position represented by Richard Carrier. He cites Bart Ehrman description of the view as “foolish,” compares the “handful of mythicist hecklers” to Holocaust deniers (p. 5-7).

In the first chapter, Bass outlines his historical method. Following Bart Ehrman, he says historians want early dating, multiple eyewitnesses, corroboration of those eyewitnesses, and unbiased sources (p. 28). He then asks what we can know about Tiberius Caesar, the Jewish War, Socrates and John the Baptist using these four historical measures. In each case, scholars agree on a historical bedrock based on a variety of sources. With Tiberius, his reign is well known from four literary sources that date long after his death. Comparing this to what we can know about the apostle Paul, Bass argues scholars have an abundance of trustworthy sources for Paul’s life, especially compared to Tiberius and Socrates. However, Bass omits archaeology from his list. Hard evidence for the reign of Tiberius is abundant if archaeology, inscriptions, and numismatics (coins) are allowed as evidence. This kind of evidence is unavailable for characters in the New Testament.

The Apostle Paul is therefore Bass’s “Bedrock Eyewitness.” Chapter 2 sketches a biography of the apostle Paul drawing only on his epistles. He uses Acts for his chronology of Paul’s life, working backwards from Paul’s hearing before Gallio (A.D. 51/52; Acts 18:12-17). Having established that Paul is an early eyewitness, he presents his “Bedrock Source,” 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 (ch. 3). Bass argues this is a pre-Pauline creedal tradition delivered to Paul by the apostles (p. 74). He follows James Dunn who suggested the beginnings of this creedal statement may go back to the first few months after the resurrection (p. 82). But at the very least Paul must have received it during his brief visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 37 (Gal 1:18-19).

Having established the creedal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 constitutes early eyewitness evidence from multiple sources, Bass then examines the three key claims of the creed. First, the creed establishes the bedrock fact that Jesus was crucified: “Christ Died for our Sins and He was Buried” (ch. 3). After a short discussion of crucifixion in the Roman world, he draws together several texts from Paul’s early letters which demonstrate that Jesus was not just crucified, but that his crucifixion was “for our sins.” Bass argues these statements are based on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and he suggests  the historical Jesus may be the origin for the idea his death is in some ways like the servant of Isaiah 53. Here Bass goes to another tradition Paul received from the apostles, the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25. Although he considers the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate as a historical bedrock fact, he does not think the phrase “he was buried” can be counted as a bedrock fact. For Bass, it is likely Jesus was buried as recorded in the Gospels, but the evidence is not clear that someone named Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus.

The second element of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is the claim Jesus was “raised on the third day.” Bass shows that there were no traditions drawn from the Hebrew Bible to indicate a belief in the first century that the Messiah would be die and rise from the dead. Although there is a hint of resurrection in Daniel 12:2-3 and 2 Maccabees 7:9-14, a dying messiah is unknown. Bass argues there are three innovations from the earliest Christ followers. The first innovation is a positive interpretation of a crucified Messiah. There is no other crucifixion in the Greco Roman world seen in a positive light. The second innovation is the claim this crucified Messiah had been raised from the dead. This claim is unanticipated in Second Temple period Judaism. Third, that this crucified Messiah who God raised from the dead is the divine Lord of the world is an unparalleled innovation. Here Bass cites another early Christian tradition passed along to the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 8:6. This is the almost shocking insertion of Jesus into the Jewish shema. Bass cites Larry Hurtado, “this worship of the risen/exalted Jesus comprises a radical new innovation in Jewish monotheistic religion” (129).  Bass is using the so-called criterion of dissimilarity used in historical Jesus studies. Essentially, this criterion argues that if something is different than the Judaism of the Second Temple period, it is more likely to be authentic. In this case, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah is not something that a group of Jewish theologians would have created.

The third element of the creed is the list of post-resurrection appearances. That Jesus appeared to Peter, the Twelve, more than 500 at one time, and James is a wide range of witnesses. Bass recognizes that Paul has added himself to the list. He quotes skeptics Bart Ehrman and Paula Fredriksen as saying they might not know what Paul saw, but Paul believed he saw Jesus (p. 162). Bass argues Paul was not lying by using Paul’s “foolish speech” in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. This speech lists various ways Paul has suffered for his preaching of the Gospel. If he was lying about the resurrection of Jesus, then his life after his Damascus Road experience is inexplicable. In the conclusion to his book, Bass cites E. P. Sanders, “That Jesus is followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know” (Historical Figure of Jesus, 279-80). Bass’s challenge to this agnostic view of the resurrection is to push past agnosticism and “give the risen Jesus welcome” (p. 207).

Paul’s suffering serves as a transition to the final piece of Bass’s argument, the fast rise of the Nazarenes. For Bass, it is difficult to account for not only the persistence of followers of Jesus from the days just after the crucifixion, but also the willingness of those followers to suffer and die for their faith in a resurrected messiah who is the Lord of the world. This is a common apologetic strategy, but it may fail because there are many other movements that encouraged martyrdom from their adherents, yet they were based on horrible distortions of the truth (Jim Jones and David Koresh, for example). This chapter includes sections on Christianity’s unique origins, continuing influences, and skeptics who have converted to Christianity throughout history. Similar to the willingness to die for one’s beliefs, someone might suggest Islam has had a similar influence on the world, and no one wants to argue Christianity has always had a positive influence. This strategy is typical in apologetic textbooks, but I’m not sure how it contributes to the bedrock of Christianity as defined in the first chapter of the book.

Bass often cites skeptical scholars who agree with him such as Bart Ehrman or Paula Fredriksen; even Crossan and Bultmann make a few appearances. This is a rhetorical strategy designed to show these are in fact “bedrock facts” of Christianity. The book is richly footnoted and includes an extensive bibliography which will point interested readers to more detailed studies. The book will reaffirm the beliefs of committed Christians and perhaps encourage Christians who have some doubts. I’m not sure it will convince skeptics, but that’s the nature of apologetics. Bass’s book supports the contention the bedrock of Christian faith is reasonably historical.

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.

Book Review: Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 680 pp. Hb; $60.   Link to Eerdmans

Eckhard Schnabel contributed a commentary on Acts in the Zondervan Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2011), Mark in the Tyndale Series (IVP Academic, 2017) and Romans in the Historical Theological Interpretation series (in German; Wuppertal: SCM & R. Brockhaus). With David W. Chapman, Schnabel published The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary (WUNT/2 344; Tubingen: Mohr Mohr Siebeck, 2015; Hendrickson, 2019 forthcoming). Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days is similar to his Early Christian Mission (2 vol., IVP Academic 2004) in that Schnabel collects detailed notes on the people and places mentioned in the four Passion narratives. Essentially, Schnabel is interested in identifying who did what, where they did it and when it happened.

In the introduction to the book Schnabel argues this simple outline is an essential approach to help readers understand texts like the Passion Narratives. He rejects form criticism and more recent historical Jesus methods which employ the criteria of authenticity. Further, he wants to avoid the postmodern view that all history is subjective. He observes the fact very few practicing historians are impressed by philosophical objections to the possibility of truth in history (p. 4).

More positively, he reads the Gospels as similar to the Greek bios. The Gospels are expressions of faith, but they also provide examples from Jesus’s life and teaching which preserve the memory of Jesus. Here Schnabel builds on the work of Richard Bauckham and others who have focused on the significance of eyewitnesses for the transmission and preservation of the words and deeds of Jesus. To a large extent, many of the persons surveyed in chapter two of this book were eye-witnesses to the events of Jesus’s last week, and the earliest traditions concerning the authorship of the Gospels claimed Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Schnabel believes this method of reading the “canonical Gospels as historical biographies of the life of Jesus that are based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and treating them as good historical sources is neither gullible nor uncritical” (p. 7).

Remarkably, Schnabel uses data from all four Gospels. For some this might not be a surprise, but in New Testament studies John’s Gospel is often dismissed as lacking historical details. For Schnabel, John’s chronological details are important (“six days before the Passover” in John 12:1, for example, p. 153). He includes John’s unique contributions to the Passion Narrative such as Jesus washing the disciple’s feet (John 13) and the farewell discourse (John 15:1-17:26).

Since he includes data from all four Gospels, the book can be read as a “harmony of the gospels.” An unfortunate result of this method is the flattening of the four gospels into one story so that the individual theological emphases of the writers are lost. But since this is a historical study of the last week of Jesus’s life not a biblical theology of any one of the Gospel writers, this observation is does not detract from the value of Schnabel’s work.

The first three chapters of the book can be read like a Bible Dictionary since they identify the people and places associated with Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. The first chapter briefly identifies seventy-two people one encounters when reading the four versions of the passion stories in the Gospels. Some are named individuals like Annas, Caiaphas, Barabbas or Simon of Cyrene. Others sections treat groups of people, Pharisees, Sadducees, or experts in the Law. A few are rather generic, such as the gentiles, pilgrims, crowds, or the blind and lame. Schnabel includes brief units on the “rich people” in contrast to the widow who donates two coins (Mark 12:41). There are even brief paragraphs on obscure persons like the man with the water jar (Mark 14:13) or the soldier with the sponge (Mark 15:36).

Chapter two describes seventeen places, including larger areas such as the city Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives. Schnabel usually includes some discussion of the modern identification of locations such as Gethsemane, Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb. There are units on the residences of Annas, Caiaphas, and Herod and the location of the Sanhedrin building. These are important for reconstructing the trials of Jesus and his movements after his arrest. Throughout this section Schnabel uses detailed historical data to describe the locations mentioned in the Passion narrative.

In his brief third chapter Schnabel lays out his timeline for the events of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. He dates the crucifixion to A.D. 30 (Nisan 14, April 7-8) rather that A.D. 33 (Nisan April 3). He then offers a short description of what happened on each day, concluding with Sunday, Nisan 16 (April 9-10). He includes suggested hours of the day as well.

Chapter four traces the events of Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem from the anointing at Bethany to his resurrection appearances to the disciples. This is by far the longest chapter of the book, covering twenty-four topics in 223 pages. Since the topics are arranged chronologically, this chapter can be read sequentially as a commentary on the events of the Passion Week. Since the burden of the book is historical research rather than exegesis, there is little textual work in this chapter other than identifying Greek words. Schnabel sets important events like the Temple action into an Old Testament context. He states the symbolic action on the Temple Mount “was not anti-temple or anti-sacrifice. It was an action intended to announce the beginning of the messianic era” (p. 164).

He often refers to Second Temple literature in order to illustrate the events. When discussing the trial of Jesus he compares the accusations against Jesus as a mesit and maddiakah (a “seducer”) by comparing Deut 13:5-11 and the Temple Scroll (11Q Temple LIV, 8-LV, 10). When discussing the possibility the messiah was described as “Son of God” Schnabel cites 1Q28, 4Q174, and 4Q246 at length (p. 257-58). He interacts with Greco-Roman literature when necessary, such as Seneca’s description of crucifixion (Ep. 101.14, p. 315).

The final chapter of the book is a short theological essay on the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Schnabel concludes that Jesus exercised messianic, royal authority in his final week, a fact recognized by Pilate when he ordered “King of the Jews” to be written as the charge against Jesus (p. 377).  With respect to the theological meaning of Jesus’s death, Schnabel begins by reflecting on the suffering of God on the cross and concludes the deal was a sacrificial death “for sinners,” a substitutionary death which turned away the wrath of God (Romans 3:24-25; 5:1-2; 8:1). Using the sermons in the book of Acts, Schnabel argues in the earliest Christian preaching the resurrection did not supersede Jesus’s crucifixion (p. 390). Finally, Schnabel reflects on Jesus’s mission and the mission of his followers. Similar to his Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (IVP Academic, 2008), Schnabel points to Luke’s commission of the disciples to go out from Jerusalem as witnesses “to the end of the world” (Acts 1:8). Similarly, Matthew concludes his gospel with a command to go, “making disciples” (Matt 28:18-20).

In addition, Schnabel includes thirteen excurses on details of the Passion Week which do not fit his people places and events scheme. For example, he has short notes on the Cursing of the Fig Tree and Peter’s Denials of Jesus. Some discuss historical details, such as Historicity of Annas’s Interrogation of Jesus or the Hour of Jesus’ crucifixion. Several of these sections concern the Greco-Roman context of the Passion Narrative, such as Crimes against the Emperor, The Passover Pardon and Roman Legal Precedent, Carrying the Crossbeam in Greco-Roman Sources, and Jesus’ Shout in Greco-Roman Perspective. He has a brief note on the ending of Mark, although it explains the shorter ending rather than a discussion of how the longer ending developed nor is there anything on the textual history of the longer ending.

The book includes occasional photographs, diagrams, and tables. Schnabel provides extensive endnotes (179 pages). For example, in chapter one there are 652 endnotes for only 90 pages. Although I prefer footnotes, endnotes make this book easy to consult on some detail of the Passion Narrative, further details are found in the notes. The book also includes a detailed bibliography (49 pages) and indices of authors, subjects, Scripture and other ancient writings references (51 pages). This means the body of the book is only 399 pages.

Conclusion. Schnabel’s Jesus in Jerusalem is a major contribution to the study of the final chapters of the four Gospels. The detail provide is staggering, yet the layout of the book is uncomplicated and comfortable for the non-expert.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Jesus as a New Moses

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” (Matthew 5:1–2).

In Exodus, Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the Law then taught the Law to God’s people. Like Moses, Jesus is presented as a second Moses who teaches the Law on the Mountain. Matthew intentionally draws a parallel between Moses as the original leader of God’s people and Jesus, the ultimate “lawgiver” and interpreter of God’s Law.

Jesus and Moses

In fact, there are a number things in the Gospel of Matthew which indicate the author wanted to intentionally present Jesus as a “new Moses.” Dale Allison pointed this out in his 1993 monograph, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology and it is now quite commonplace to find this commentaries on Matthew. In fact, drawing parallels between Jesus as Moses goes back at least to the fourth century writer Eusebius in this in his Demonstration of the Gospel. McKnight has a lengthy quote from Eusebius (p. 23), but as he observes, Eusebius’s point is “the noxious fumes of supersecessionism,” the belief the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people.

Just a few examples should be sufficient here. First, when King Herod ordered the execution of children in Bethlehem Jesus and his family escape to Egypt (Matt 2:13-18), just as Moses escaped Pharaoh’s order and was adopted by the Egyptian princess. Second, Jesus passes through the water in his baptism (3:13-17) and goes into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil (4:1-11). Israel passed through the waters at the Red Sea and went into the wilderness and were eventually tested for forty years. It is also significant Jesus answered the devil’s temptations with quotations Moses’s words drawn from the book of Deuteronomy. Third, in Matthew 5 Jesus “went up a mountainside” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος) to teach his disciples. The content of this teaching is in many ways an interpretation of the Law of Moses. In Exodus 19:3, Moses “went up to the mountain of God” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ). Moses “goes up to the mountain” in Exodus 24:18 (when he entered into the glory of God) and 34:4 (when he received the two stone tablets from God). Finally, Scot McKnight points out Jesus’s posture is important: he is sitting down to teach the Law, just as those who teach with legal authority “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matt 23:2).

Why would Matthew use Moses as a model for Jesus in his Gospel? Most commentators want to avoid any hint of supersecessionism and anti-Semitic overtones and (correctly) observe Jesus does not replace Moses (nor does the church replace Israel), but rather Jesus fulfills the Law of Moses (McKnight 24). As we will see as we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a new way of reading the old commands, “do not kill” or “do not commit adultery.” This “new way” is really the original way, to seek the heart of God in his commands and find ways to live out God’s heart in the real world.

I would suggest Jesus is a new Moses in that he demonstrates how the disciple in the new age should understand how to apply God’s word in the new age of the Kingdom. Under the Law, it was entirely possible to do many functions of the Law perfectly, yet still miss the heart of the Law. This is what the prophets constantly condemned Israel for doing. Amos, one of the earliest writing prophets, declared that God hated Israel’s worship, the sacrifices and music was offensive to him because Israel did not practice the justice at the heart of the Law. Amos 5:11 decries abuse of the poor through taxation and 5:15 demands justice prevail in the courts.

Jesus therefore says it does no good to “not murder” if you are going to hate people in your hearts. It does no good to follow the commands on oath making if you are going to find all sorts of ways to bend the rules. As the New Moses, Jesus demands his disciples look deep beneath the surface of religious practice for the heart of God.

If this first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel is intended to recall the original covenant God made with his people, how does that change the way we read the Sermon on the Mount? Is this a “strict moral code” for following Jesus? Or is Jesus offering a pattern for thinking through how the heart of God can be applied to new and different cultural situations as his disciples move out into the world with the message of the Gospel?

 

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics

It is no coincidence that the Sermon on the Mount echoes throughout the Gospel of Luke, as well as in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament….  In the first three centuries of the church, no other biblical passage was referred to as often…There is no question that it was understood as the charter document for Christian Living.  Church leaders constantly quoted it when offering moral exhortation. Glen H. Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove:  Invert-Varsity, 2003), 31.

For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the core of Christian Ethics. As Stassen and Gushee state above, the early church used the Sermon frequently to describe how a Christian ought to live out their life in Christ. The same is true for modern Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously used the sermon as the basis for his The Cost of Discipleship, one of the most influential books on the thinking of Christians in the latter half of the twentieth century. For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation for Ethics, so that books like Kingdom Ethics can use Matthew 5-7 as a starting point for an ethical system.

But as Scot McKnight comments in his recent commentary on the Sermon, Jesus does not “do ethics” quite like anyone else. His teaching is not quite virtue ethics or utilitarianism or any other category of “modern ethics.” He therefore suggests “it is wiser to begin by wondering what Jesus sounded like—morally, that is—in a first century Galilean Jewish world” (Sermon on the Mount, 7).

Sermon on the MountAs McKnight explains it, the Sermon makes people nervous because it does not fit any one category of “doing ethics.” He suggests there are three dimensions to the ethics of Jesus, “from above, beyond and below.” “From above” refers to the commands directly from God as found in the Torah. The Law is not ethics in the contemporary sense since it claims to be a direct revelation of God’s will. Jesus speaks this way in the Sermon on the Mount. He teaches “by his own authority” (Matt 7:28-29). Even if he makes reference to the Law (Matt 5:21, 27) or seems to reflect rabbinical debates (Matt 33-37), Jesus declares “this is what I say.”

But Jesus does not simply command. According to McKnight, his ethics also is “from beyond.” Here McKnight refers to a “kingdom ethic.” The disciples of Jesus are part of the new age (already) even if that new age is (not yet) fully present. There is an eschatological dimension to the Sermon on the Mount since the “future has already begin to take place in the present…An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus nor Christian” (11). But Jesus did not have in mind a kind of other-worldly detachment from the present world. The coming Kingdom of God shapes the way Jesus-followers live right now in this world.

A third dimension to Jesus’ ethic is “from below,” by which McKnight means Jesus’ ethics are like biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom is intensely practical and is often based on observation of the human condition. Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matt 6:25-27 says worry is not worth the effort, one is better to find contentment in want God has already provided than worrying about tomorrow. This is not a “from above” commandment, “Thou shalt not worry.” Nor is it based on a prophetic look ahead to a future when one does not have any worries in a future kingdom. It is based on a common observation that people who are overly worried do not accomplish much.

In the end of his introduction, McKnight concludes that Jesus’ ethics are messianic and kingdom-oriented, but they also describe how a gathered, Spirit-filled people are to live. This observation bridges the gap between the original audience and later Christians who seek to follow Jesus.

Do other teachings in the Sermon fit into McKnight’s three categories?