Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics

By Chilton, Bruce | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics


Chilton, Bruce, Shofar


by Markus Bockmuehl. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000. 314 pp. $49.95.

When I saw chutzpah attributed to Jesus in this book, I smiled in recognition, since in a book which appeared during the same year, that attribution appeared in a similar context (Rabbi Jesus [New York: Doubleday, 2000], p. 89). In both cases, the usage is occasioned, not by an exercise in the ethnically obvious fact that Jesus was Jewish (nor even by an evaluation of his temperament), but by an assessment of how his claims to implement the Torah might have appeared to someone judging by halakhic standards other than his own.

Studies such as Bockmuehl's mark the sea change in the study of the New Testament that has taken placed since the publication of Ben F. Meyer's The Aims of Jesus in 1979 (London: SCM). After better than two hundred years worth of characterizations of "the Jewish background" of earliest Christianity, Meyer and his followers have made it clear that Judaism was also Jesus' foreground: the locus of cultural commitment, personal practice, and eschatological expectation. Markus Bockmuehl here pursues a consequent phase of that shift, into the initial evolution of Christianity, by means of this collection of erudite but crisply written essays.

Bockmuehl is well aware that anyone who undertakes such a task is shadow boxing with "a popular antinomian point of view in mainstream Protestant thought," which -- taken for "an interpretation of the New Testament" -- he believes is "seriously misguided". To make good that judgment, he undertakes an analysis of texts commonly cited as antinomian old chestnuts: the "naïvely Christian perspective" that love simply trumps "the supposed `legalism' and hide-bound casuistry" of Jesus' contemporaries" (p. 3, in an essay entitled "Halakhah and Ethics in the Jesus Tradition"), his teaching in regard to divorce ("Matthew's Divorce Texts in the Light of Pre-Rabbinic Jewish Law"), and his challenge to "let the dead bury their own dead" ("`Let the Dead Bury their Dead': Jesus and the Law Revisited").

There is a fourth essay in this first part of the book, although Part One was evidently conceived at first with only three essays (cf. pp. vii-viii). Where exactly to put this article involved an inevitably troublesome editorial decision, because it deals with James, not Jesus, and with Antioch, rather than Galilee or Jerusalem ("James, Israel and Antioch"). I first heard Dr. Bockmuehl make out the argument here in a paper he gave at a consultation I chaired in Orlando in 1998, published as "Antioch and James the Just" (see James the Just and Christian Origins: Supplements to Novum Testamentum 98 [edited by B. D. Chilton and C. A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1999], pp. 155-198), and I must say its gist is stunning: James (with the Tosefta and a substantial body of opinion cited by Bockmuehl) considered Antioch as part of the Land of Israel, so that "issues of purity would matter more literally there than in the Diaspora". …

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