Strack, Hermann L. and Paul Billerbeck, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, Volume 2. Edited and translated by Jacob N. Cerone. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022. xlii+981 pp.; Hb. $64.99; Logos Digital edition $57.99 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, volume 2 covered Mark through Acts and volume 3 covers Romans through Revelation. For a variety of reasons, Lexham published the third volume first in both print and digital, Logos Library format. There is currently no plan to publish volume 4.
The second volume was translated and edited by Jacob N. Cerone, a doctoral candidate at the Friedrich-Alexander University at Erlangen-Nuremberg. He edited and translated Jorg Frye, 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).
For my comments on the importance of Strack and Billerbeck for biblical studies, see my review of volume 3 (published November 17, 2021). In his introduction, David Instone-Brewer says, “For scholars studying a passage in the New Testament, Strack-Billerbeck provides an unparalleled introduction to useful background material from the rabbinic world” (xxxvi).
Volume 2 covers the gospels of Mark, Luke and John and the Book of Acts. There are three levels of commentary. Scripture is printed in the largest font, Old Testament and Septuagint in a slightly smaller font, and Jewish literature in the smallest font. Not all entries have all three levels. Compared to Matthew (about 1000 pages), the commentary on Mark is minimal at 61 pages, with very little on the Olivet Discourse (presumably because volume one covered the material). Luke is about 288 pages, John is about 323 pages, and Acts is only 211 pages.
As an example, I selected Luke 1:69. The first level of commentary prints the verse, “he raised up the horn of salvation.” The second level gives the Greek κέρας σωτηρίας and Hebrew וְקֶֽרֶן־יִ֝שְׁעִ֗י from Psalm 18:3 (English 18:2) with the explanation that horn was a common symbol of power in the Old Testament. The third level commentary is a page of Jewish sources: Mekhilta Exodus 15:14 and Midrash Psalms 75, both fully translated. At the end of the first paragraph are several parallel passages. The Midrash on Psalm 75 lists ten horns God has given to the Israelites, beginning with the Abraham (who is the horn in the vineyard of the Lord in Isaiah 5:1 in this midrash), the ram caught by his horn in Genesis 22:13, and the horn of Moses (Exod 34:29). Eventually, the midrash says the Lord will raise the horn of the righteous to break the horns of the wicked.
The final paragraph says “the ancient synagogue prayed daily for the exaltation of the Messiah’s horn” citing the Eighteen Benedictions, which may date to the first century CE. However, they then cite the Babylonian recension of the Habinenu prayer, “may the righteous rejoice in the rebuilding of your city, the restoration of your temple, the sprouting of the horn of David, your servant, and the restoration of the lamp of the son of Jesse, your anointed (messiah).” The Talmud attributed the Habinenu prayer to Samuel of Nehardea (165-254 CE). Since Luke 1:69 has a messianic context, it is tempting to quote this prayer as support for “horn of salvation” as a messianic image. However, the prayer dates at least 200 years later. Although it is possible “horn of salvation” is a messianic metaphor, the Habinenu prayer cited by Strack and Billerbeck cannot be used as evidence for this.
Strack and Billerbeck refer to much more than Rabbinic literature. There are many cross references to the Old Testament, Josephus, and Philo, as well as books from the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. For example, on Acts 3:11, the so-called hall of Solomon, they cite Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.2 and Antiquities 15.11.5 on Solomon’s portico with the relevant text printed. For the Gate called Beautiful in Acts 3:2, Strack and Billerbeck include about six pages of data from Josephus and other Jewish sources on the Second Temple gates. Commenting on the alabaster jar of nard in Mark 14:3, they cite 1 Enoch 29 (the mountains of aromatic spices). There are a dozen pages of valuable information on the prohibitions in Acts 15. If you are using the electronic version in Logos Bible Software, all references are tagged. If you own Josephus or Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, clicking the link opens to the passage in context.
There are three excurses related to the Gospel of John. First, before the commentary on the Gospel of John, The Memra of Yahweh (34 pages). Essentially, they ask if the use of the phrase Memra of Yahweh (Word of the Lord) in the Targumim “offers a starting point for Johannine Logos.” Did the “ancient synagogue” think of the Word of the Lord as an embodiment standing between God and the World? This article interacts with German literature reflecting mid-nineteenth century scholarship. The short answer is no. The Memra of Yahweh is a descriptive substitute for the name of Yahweh (384). Nor does the phrase have messianic overtones.
The second excursus follows the commentary on Acts, the Feast of Tabernacles (42 pages). Of importance here is the data on the water libation ritual since on the last day of the feast, Jesus offers himself as living water (John 7:37-38). The third excursus concerns the day of Jesus’s death (42 pages). The subtitle is important: “when considered in relation to the halakah.” The article discusses what day they could have eaten that Passover meal that allowed for his execution the next day. The synoptic gospels imply 15 Nissan. John shifts to 14 Nissan.
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 the serious Bible student and scholar. For many, an English translation of Strack and Billerbeck opens up a new world of Rabbinic literature for the first time. In fact, it is very easy to open this book randomly and read something fascinating.
Using Strack and Billerbeck can enhance one’s understanding of the Jewish background to Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament. But it is a tool which may lead to unintentional consequences and misreading the Rabbinic literature.
NB: Sometimes the commentary refers to Matthew. For example, on Luke 2:4, Bethlehem, the reader is directed to Matthew 2:5; The Son of man coming on the clouds in Luke 21:27 redirects to Matthew 24:30. This makes sense, although at this time volume, one is unavailable. This will no longer be a problem when the first volume is published. On page 883, Acts is misspelled in the header.
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.
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.