Book Review – 7/20/06

I have been searching for several years for books that dealt fairly and comprehensively with the issue of the separation of church and synagogue. These books qualify for that description.

The late Rabbi Phillip Sigal was ahead of his time in terms of the clarity with which he saw the true origins and essentially Jewish character of early Christianity. He was also uniquely qualified as a master of ancient Jewish writings and an in-depth student of the New Testament. He wrote during the same time as E.P. Sanders’ revolutionary works, but seems to me to be more balanced than was Sanders in his assessment of 2nd Temple Judaism.

I would like to recommend the 3-Volume (4-Book) series: The Emergence of Contemporary Judaism, by Rabbi Phillip Sigal

Volume One: The Foundations of Judaism – from Biblical Origins to the Sixth Century A.D.

Volume One, Part One: From the Origins to the Separation of Christianity

Volume One, Part Two: Rabbinic Judaism

Volume Two: Survey of Judaism – From the 7th to the 17th Centuries

Volume Three: From Medievalism to Proto-Modernity in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Rabbi Sigal also wrote Judaism: The Evolution of a Faith and The Halakah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew, which was actually his dissertation for a doctorate in New Testament Studies at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and a book I would very much like to get my hands on.

Here are some very short excerpts to give you just a glimpse into the kind of viewpoint backed up by excellent documentation and superior scholarship that you can expect from this series. I only have the 2-part Volume One, by the way, as these are difficult to locate for a reasonable price, so I am making my recommendation on the basis of Volume One, having not read volume 2 or 3.

Christianity arose from the matrix of Judaism. It was a variety of Judaism until the Christians were expelled from the synagogue, probably toward the end of the first century. Theology, however, was not initially a major factor in the separation…. Not even such notions that developed into doctrine as the incarnation of God in human form, need necessarily have resulted in the great schism between Judaism and Christianity….Paul, no more than Jesus, was antithetical to Judaism and neither underwent a break from Judaism. Both taught a form of Judaism which was understandable within the messianic context in which they preached, but was not persuasive to those who did not believe the Messiah had manifested himself. (Pg 377, Chapter 7 – The Watershed, Vol 1, Part 1)

Some scholars take Paul’s primary theological postulate to be “justification by faith” and Judaism’s core concept to be “justification by works,” and assume that the two are in irreconcilable opposition. …Because this is manifestly a misreading of both Paul and Judaism the antithesis falls and so does the idea that Paul and Judaism were antithetical. (Pg 413 – Vol 1, Part 1)

Out of all these views on Paul and his relationship with Palestinian Judaism three positions have been summarized: a) Paul is basically a rabbi (I would say a proto-rabbinic figure) who believed the Messiah had come; …. Of the three I adhere
basically to the first. (Pg 414 – Vol 1, Part 1)

That Paul was a learned Jew is evident in his scriptural quotations throughout the epistles and the manifest rabbinic midrashic style he applies to their interpretation. That Paul might have been a disciple of Gamaliel I as he claims is even given credibility by a scholar who is far from being biased in Paul’s favor. Finally, to set up rabbinic Judaism of the third – fifth centuries as one’s model, and to measure the Paul of the years 32-60 against that in order to declare him a deviant, is not in accord with sound scholarly method in comparative religious history. (Pg 414 – Vol 1, Part 1)

Sigal works very hard to not take the perspective of Orthodox or Reform or Conservative Judaism, but to approach Judaism as the evolution of a faith, and discuss its evolution throughout history. Which is one of the reasons I appreciate him so thoroughly.

First of all understand that I recommend these books for their benefit as it regards the study of history. Correctly understanding that Christianity was first a “variety of Judaism”, as he puts it, and only later developed into something separate and different, Sigal presents a thoroughly researched and uniquely unbiased approach to tracing the separation of the Church from the Synagogue. (no one is totally unbiased, of course, but I appreciate the degree to which Sigal strives for this goal, and the degree to which he achieves it).

The understanding of the facts surrounding our origins can only improve our theology and doctrine. Just as the Church separated from the synagogue, Judaism as it was in Yeshua’s day morphed into something different as well. So present-day Judaism is certainly something separate from present-day Christianity. However, it is important that we understand that both Christianity and Judaism (as we know it today) sprang from the same original fount, but have resulted in two new entities.

Judaism has focused on what was intended to be a preliminary and then complementary issue, and in missing the core has moved away from the original fount. Christianity, in jettisoning one of the complementary (yet crucial) parts, has maintained the core in theory, and struggled desperately to realize it in practice.

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