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Jerusalem Companion to the New Testament from Jewish Sources (1999-2005)

Research Project Director:

            Dr. Serge Ruzer, Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Academic Committee:

            Prof. Menahem Hirshman, Hebrew University

            Prof. Doron Mendels, Hebrew University

            Dr. David Satran, Hebrew University

            Prof. Daniel Schwartz, Hebrew University

            Prof. Guy G. Stroumsa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem


International Advisory Board:

            Prof. Hans-Jürgen Becker, University of Göttingen

            Prof. Hans Dieter Betz, University of Chicago

            Prof. John Gager, Princeton University

            Prof. Herman Lichtenberger, University of Tübingen


The publication of the Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrash  by H.L. Strack and P. Billerbeck (SB) became a milestone in the study of the Jewish background of nascent Christianity. The presupposition of both Billerbeck, the principal compiler, and Strack was that since most of those who authored/transmitted NT traditions in their formative period were Jewish, one has to examine contemporary Jewish sources in order to understand the meaning of those traditions. Billerbeck surveyed the Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, midrashic compositions and talmudic literature and provided the following generations of scholars and students alike with many valuable references to parallels to New Testament passages. This, in turn, stimulated numerous attempts to reconstruct the original, i.e. Jewish, context of many NT traditions and thus to restore their original meaning.


The information provided by the Kommentar has been (and still is) widely used. The basic presupposition that the Jewish background is of utmost importance for understanding the New Testament still holds. Since the publication of the Kommentar, however, important developments in the research have to a large extent changed our conceptions regarding that Jewish background. Of course, the most dramatic change was caused by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls: a new body of literature from the Second Temple period, previously unknown and highly relevant for the New Testament studies, became available. One might add the discovery of Gnostic texts, some of which could be of Jewish origin, and important Targumic traditions that were not known to Billerbeck.


The relation of the NT to rabbinical Judaism proper addressed in the Kommentar has also undergone a re-evaluation. Thus, a number of important studies highlighted the variegated connections between Palestinian rabbinical traditions and Paul's thought. On the other hand, scholars nowadays are much more cautious in their appraisal of the relevance of later strata of talmudic and midrashic sources for the NT. Scholars are also more aware of a multifaceted interaction between Judaism and Christianity during the first centuries of the common era: it seems that in quite a few cases relevant Jewish sources stand not so much for background of Christianity as for reaction to it. The venues of interaction between beliefs of the immediate Jewish Palestinian milieu of the nascent Christianity and those of the wider Greco-Roman world have also been the subject of a renewed scholarly scrutiny.


One may say that there is a dialectical relationship between the discoveries in the Judean Desert and the fact that scholars are nowadays much more reluctant to use rabbinic traditions for the study of the earliest Christianity. In a time when the rabbinic tradition, with all due limitations, was still the main source of our knowledge with regards to Palestinian Jewry in the late Second Temple period, many students of the New Testament were only too eager to use the (often anachronistic) evidence of rabbinic literature. Now, that the scholars have Qumran Scrolls at their disposal, which were actually (and, maybe, widely) read in the Land of Israel in the 1st century CE, they view the evidence contained in rabbinic literature with more suspicion.


Of course, both references to Qumran literature and the results of new research have been incorporated into New Testament commentaries that have appeared during last decades. However, as a rule, these commentaries did not have the reconstruction of the immediate Jewish context of the New Testament as their professed goal, and there has been no systematic attempt to create an updated and comprehensive Companion to the New Testament from Jewish sources.


The preliminary phase of the proposed project has been devoted to clarifying the problem of what may be assessed as relevant background for NT traditions. The question should eventually be answered on case-to-case basis, but we saw it as a natural prerequisite to define the problem and to establish a number of general criteria, taking account of the results arrived at by scholars over the past decades. The criteria established in these preliminary methodological deliberations - of which the International Colloquium, held in Jerusalem in July 2000, was an integral part - are now informing our appraisal of material found in the Kommentar. They will likewise serve us in dealing with more updated collections whether already complete or currently in preparation by other research groups, e.g. the collection of Philo's parallels to the New Testament and that of Qumran parallels.


A number of technical questions pertaining to the more general problem of the format were also addressed at the preliminary stage of the project, such as:

  1. How do we cite Jewish sources when critical editions are not available?

  2. Do we cite texts in their original language as well or only in their English translation?

  3. Should the traditions be presented chronologically or rather according to different "camps" (Hellenistic, Pharisaic, Qumran, etc.)?

  4. When there are distinctive traditions, e.g. the recensions of Luke-Acts, what kind of the New Testament text is to be used as the basis?

  5. How is the non-literary or, even, non-verbal evidence, e.g. that of material remains, to be presented?

Out of two possible approaches - the one concentrating only on Jewish material predating or contemporary with a New Testament pericope in question and the other allowing a somewhat wider scope - the later one should be preferred. In many cases a tradition preserved in rabbinic texts might be traced back to its less developed form attested in earlier strata of Jewish tradition, e.g. Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Philo or, again, Qumran; so the criterion of chronological relevance should not be an absolute one. It seems that concerning the relevance of this or that trend in, inter alia, rabbinic thought for a particular New Testament section, the Companion should not aim at reaching the final decision. It should rather present the reader with a reasonably wide spectrum of possibly relevant traditions, outlining in each particular case both the potential input and the methodological problems of using them for the study of the New Testament. It may be stressed again that, along with providing new material not known to Billerbeck, this is a feature of major importance that will distinguish the present project from the SB Kommentar.


Another distinguishing feature of the Companion is that the main audiences of the Companion, as we see it, are two groups of scholars. First, the New Testament scholars trying to "contextualize" different religious (and literary) phenomena of earliest Christianity, who still rely on the SB as their major tool. Second, those scholars, whose main field of interest is late Second Temple Judaism and/or mishnaic and, more generally, rabbinic Judaism. As indicated above, the relationship between early Judaism and Christianity is much more complex than previously thought of by those who espoused the once dominant linear model of Christianity "growing out" of Judaism. The format of the Companion should, therefore, be designed with those main groups of addressees in mind.


We believe that instead of working separately with different Gospels the Companion should address the sequence of the Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum ,thus creating an opportunity to incorporate results of Synoptic research. For each section a revision of Jewish material mentioned in SB and an evaluation of its relevance is to be conducted; furthermore relevant evidence from newly discovered sources is to be incorporated. Two levels of commentary will be prepared. The first level will contain a discussion of the possible immediate context of the section in question with an emphasis on relevant patterns of religious expression and trends attested in contemporary Jewish, both Palestinian and Hellenistic, traditions. When differences, e.g. among the Synoptics, seem to reflect plurality of Jewish approaches (whether synchronic or diachronic), those differences will be discussed. The second level of the Companion will cover more technical matters, such as discussion of linguistic peculiarities, textual references and actual quotations from relevant sources, as well as bibliography.


The first stage of the project has been made possible through grants from the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Ministry of Science of Niedersachsen, Germany. During the first year we concentrated mainly on the preliminary study in order to define the desired format of the Companion. A survey of approaches that have been followed in research was an integral part of this study. In the years 2001-2002 (the second and the third years of the work on the project) we focused concentrate on a limited number of topics with the aim of presenting the results of the research in the format to be later used in the Companion proper. Four topics have been chosen for this stage of the project:

  1. Antitheses in Matthew 5, especially the exegetic (midrashic) techniques applied.

  2. Matthew 6 as a sermon with the forgiveness of sins as its central theme, which suggests two alternative (complementary?) ways of acquiring God's forgiveness: to forgive others and/or fulfill in the true fashion the 'ritual gestures' of fast, prayer and charity.

  3. Descriptions of the baptism offered by John the Baptist to the multitude, on the one hand, and descriptions of what happened to Jesus at the time of his baptism vis à vis different patterns of baptismal tradition within different contemporary Jewish groups.

  4. Formula quotations in Matthew vis à vis patterns of early messianic Jewish exegesis.


For every one of these topics the Jerusalem Team has been working on creating an updated database of passages that might be relevant for discussion of the topic Jewish setting. During these years a research seminar led by Dr. Ruzer has been conducted at the Center for the Study of Christianity of the Hebrew University, which provided a framework for discussion of issues pertaining to the Companion.


While discussions in the classroom provided an important stimulus for the work of the Jerusalem Team, the work itself - on each and every issue - consisted of a number of elements: revision (via re-evaluation) of the Strack-Billerbeck material with necessary additions from relevant Rabbinical sources overlooked in the Kommentar; revision (and re-evaluation) of the Jewish material, presented by other commentaries; gathering of relevant material from Qumran and other sources not covered by the Kommentar at all (these three stages allow to build an updated database of Jewish material relevant to the topic); and, finally, analysis of the results of the search with the aim of presenting the conclusions in the format of a topic-oriented commentary to be later incorporated in the Companion. The work has been conducted with the participation of three assistants, all advanced M. A. students, one concentrating on Rabbinic sources, another on Qumran and Pseudepigrapha, and the third on reviewing the existing research.


In July 2002 an International Colloquium was convened in Jerusalem to discuss the work progress and problems of methodology. It was decided to prepare for publication a Pilot Volume, which will focus on the Sermon on the Mount. In 2004 we organized - in cooperation with the Orion Center - an International Colloquium on Qumran and the New Testament.


The volume, edited by H.-J. Becker and S. Ruzer and entitled The Sermon on the Mount and Its Jewish Settings was published in Les Cahiers de la Revue Biblique Series (Paris: Gabalda, 2005). It summarized the results of the methodological quest by the participants of the Project and of their Project-centered research. In the Introduction, the status quaestionis, existing problems and suggested method(s) for dealing with the question of the NT Jewish context are outlined. Part I includes six studies by Israeli and German scholars (J. Frey, H. Lichtenberger, H.-J. Becker, B. Schaller, S. Ruzer, M. Kister), suggesting updated reassessments of the question of the New Testament Jewish setting. Each essay addresses the problem with regard to either a certain issue or a certain pericope from the Sermon. Part II contains one Companion unit (on Matthew 6:1-18, written by S. Ruzer and M. Ginsburskaya) from those the Jerusalem team, associated with the Center for the Study of Christianity, has been working on. It has the format of a topic-oriented commentary and is appended with a large amount of relevant source material (in English translation). In addition to the task of "contextualization," common to both parts of the volume, the discussion in Part II also aims at "mapping" New Testament material that may be seen as an early witness for certain general patterns of Jewish thought that are attested in a fully developed form only in later rabbinic sources.


Publication of the 2005 volume marked the completion of the initial stage of the Project. Its potential further stages would have to gradually widen the scope of investigation while continuing to apply the mode of research that has already been worked out and probed. Additional themes, units and layers of the New Testament should be included with the ultimate aim of creating an updated topic-oriented Companion-Commentary, the Companion which will incorporate the results of current international research and could become an important research tool to be used by both New Testament scholars and scholars whose main field of interest is Second Temple and early rabbinic Judaism.




Symposia programs:



Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity

11-13 January 2004


Pilot Volume: Colloquium

21-22 July 2002


The Sermon on the Mount: New-Testament Traditions and the Problem of Jewish Context

25-27 July 2000

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