A New English Translation of Strack and Billerbeck, Commentary on the Talmud, Volume 2, ed. and trans. by Jacob N. Cerone

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.

Strack and BillerbeckThe 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.

 

A New English Translation of Strack and Billerbeck, Commentary on the Talmud, ed. Jacob N. Cerone, trans. Joseph Longarino

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 covered Mark through Acts and volume 3 covers Romans through Revelation. For a variety of reasons, Lexham is releasing the third volume first in both print and digital Logos Library format and there is no plan to publish volume 4.

Strack and BillerbeckThis 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? It is possible someone might see “published in 1922” and think this is an old, outdated resource. Despite being nearly a hundred years old, Str-B is still cited frequently 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 the introduction to 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 complain in his famous article “Parallelomania” (JBL 81 [1962]: 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, then a hammer is scarcely the useful tool. 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 manage 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 in fact, 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 is 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 something of 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 which 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, 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 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.

Strack and Billerbeck

 

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 refers to much more than Rabbinic literature. There are many cross references to Old Testament texts. They cite Josephus, 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 to 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 works 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 presented 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 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. But with great power comes great responsibility. 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.

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.

Free Daf Yomi Reading Plan for the Babylonian Talmud

If you are using Logos Bible Software, follow the link and get the free Daf Yomi reading plan for the Babylonian Talmud.  Naturally Logos will sell you a copy of the Babylonian Talmud (30% off this week).

What is the Dafi Yomi reading plan? Daf Yomi (“page of the day”) is a reading plan which will guide a reader through the Talmud in about seven and a half years. According to the Logos site,

In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed a reading plan for Bavli which consisted of reading one page (two sides) per day, following the most common pagination (that found in the Bomberg/Venice Talmud of 1523, which was followed by most subsequent editions, including the popular Vilna Talmud of 1835). Thus each cycle covers the entire Talmud in about 7 years, 5 months. Unlike reading plans which can start at any time, Daf Yomi (Page of the Day) has each reading fixed to the calendar so that the entire community is reading the same Daf together each day. This synchronization has encouraged new benefits in the digital age, with blogs and podcasts and other internet resources dedicated to helping answer questions about the day’s Daf—very handy for new readers of the Talmud.

Daf Yomi has grown to be a very popular approach to Talmud study. Since 1923, the entire cycle has been completed 12 times, with the last finishing on August 2, 2012 (an event which culminated in the celebration of Siyum HaShas with an estimated 300,000 participants in large venues around the world marking the occasion). This reading plan starts the next day on August 3rd and covers the complete 13th cycle, which will finish in January of 2020.

Like most people, reading through the Talmud is an intimidating prospect, the Daf Yomi reading plan makes it possible to achieve this goal over the next 7+ years.  Despite being called a “reading plan,” I had to load the reading plan as a book on both my desktop and iPad versions of Logos.  The Desktop version worked fine, but the link for “today’s reading” did not work on the iPad app, and the link to the actual reading opens in a reference window rather than jumping to the portion directly.  I was able to scroll down and get to the right place, but it is two or three step process.  Hopefully the links can be fixed.

While this resource might not be valuable for all, kudos to Logos Bible Software for making the Daf Yomi reading plan available for free.

Free Books – Babylonian Talmud

James Davilla posted a link at PaleoJudaica to a free version of the Reformatted Soncino Babylonian Talmud.  As Davilla notes, this version was translated and prepared for the Soncino Press in 1935 – 1948.  These files are PDF so they can be read on a side variety of devices.  I used the new Send To Kindle app from Amazon to send the first Tractate to my iPad Kindle App.  Loading the files into a regular PDF reader allows for copy / paste of text.

The text is very readable and well-organized, with clear markers for sections (Berakoth 2b).  I find the text more readable than many of the other versions of the Talmud available.  Logos (for example) sells the Neusner translation, but the way the text is formatted is more difficult to read.  The text is available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive, but these files are much easier to read.  What is missing is an index or table of contents so you can go directly to a given section. These files include introductory material as well.