Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Book Notice: Judaism of the Second Temple Period

First, my sincere thanks to the kind folk at Eerdmans for a review copy of the first volume of David Flusser's collected essays on ancient Judaism. This first volume focuses upon Qumran and Apocalypticism.

David Flusser (1917-2000)
Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Volume 1. Qumran and Apocalypticism (translated by Azzan Yadin)
Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8028-2469-1. 370 pages.
$36.00 Hardcover

I have decided to call this a book 'notice' rather than strictly a 'review' simply because I am not qualified to judge the quality of this work in any serious way. However, anyone with a passion for learning is going to be interested by what an honoured academic, deeply familiar with the primary literature, has to say. So I picked up the book with a desire not so much to offer clever words of critique here, but to learn.

I suppose the first question people will ask about a volume like this is 'who is this supposedly learned author, you speak of?' As the dust jacket explains: David Flusser was 'professor of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and a recipient of the national Israel Prize in 1980 for his academic achievements'. He is most famous for his book, Jesus, now published in a fourth edition by Eerdmans as The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus' Genius. Flusser was prolific author and published over 1000 articles in Hebrew, German, English, among other languages. As a devout Orthodox Jew, he knew he way around the Torah and Talmud like few Christian or secular scholars, and his learning encompassed ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic texts, as well as the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls – indeed he became a leading scholar in his field. As David Bivin informs us in his Foreword: 'Flusser conversed fluently in nine languages and read scholarly literature in an additional seventeen' (vii)! In other words, he deserves to be studied.

I have spent more time looking at the two related questions (Who is he? and Why should I read him?) as this is perhaps the most useful information I can give, as a collection of essays is never easy to summarise in an approx. 800 word review. An overview of the content can be found on the Eerdmans webpage here. And scholarly blurb about this publication, more concomitant with the immediate focus of the book's study can be found here.

What I will do is focus in on one of his articles and from there also make more general comments about the collection as a whole. The essay in question is chapter 18 'The "Flesh-Spirit" Dualism in the Qumran Scrolls and the New testament' pp. 283-292.

Immediately one grasps that Yadin has translated well; he has imitated Flusser's engaging writing style. Plus, Flusser's use of question posing helps orientate the reader at various points as well as provoke the reader's thoughts further (he ends the essay with a couple of questions). More importantly, his insights are worthy of discussion. So he maintains that the 'theological basis for the flesh-spirit dualism [in Qumran and Paul] is not, then, the deeper dichotomy of matter and spirit, but rather the view that God elevates his elect from a debased state – from the reality of "flesh" – by endowing him with spirit' (286). A little later: 'the Qumran community and the early church maintain a dialectic position not only with regard to the flesh, but with regard to the spirit as well. Even though he received the spirit when he entered the Qumran community (1QH 6.13), the elect may still "look for the spirit" (1QH 8.14)' (290). Such passages as these are of the sort that receive the treatment of my underlining pencil!

However, one also gets the impression that some of his insights are a little dated. So he can speak of '[t]he religious worldview of Qumran [which] divides humanity into two camps' (285). The religious worldview of Qumran (cf. also chapters 1 and 2 in this volume)? Perhaps one is also left wondering what can be learnt from essays published before the entire fund of Qumran texts was released, and before many of the modern developments concerning the relationship between the texts and the Qumran site (though cf. his comments in his introduction, xi-xii). This actually does not bother me too much, as much as his familiarity with what had been published (cf. my comments above). However, his grasp of the complexity of Paul's 'flesh' language was likewise lacking nuance, for example claiming that 1 Corinthians 3:3 'indicates that Paul too sees the flesh and human nature as one and the same' (285). But Paul's usage of 'flesh' is more complicated than this, and could be used in a variety of very different ways. Another small grumble concerns the lack of dating of the original essays. One is left wondering when and where some of them were originally published.

While this is not the first book I would recommend on Qumran or Apocalypticism, and while I am less enthusiastic on some other points, the connoisseur will enjoy the lively and learned articles this volume offers. I leave the closing words of this 'notice', however, to David Bivin, the writer of the foreword, as he reflected on his involvement in the project of publishing these essays. He writes that 'disciples should assure that all the unpublished material of a prominent teacher is published before they publish their own research. The teacher's work takes precedence over the disciple's' (viii). All I can say to my doctoral supervisor is: 'Max Turner, don't get any funny ideas!'



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