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A Jewish Approach to the New Testament

Manns, Frédéric.  Une approche juive du Nouveau Testament.  Initiations bibliques. 

Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1998.  Pp. 298.  F195.

Reviewer:  David B. Capes, Houston Baptist University, Houston, TX.

Frédéric Manns has contributed widely to biblical studies within the Franciscan tradition.  Over the last years he has published translations and commentaries of the Targums from Codex Urbaniti 1.  He has proven to be a competent and insightful reader of both early Christian documents and Jewish literature of late antiquity including the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pseudepigrapha, the Mishnah and Talmud.  Several sections of this book reprint some of Manns’ earlier articles published in Revue des sciences religieuses.

Manns distinguishes between “methods” of interpretation and “approaches” to scripture.  While the former appears more scientific, reading the NT within a Jewish perspective offers rich results, particularly for those who read and interpret within a faith community.  Manns begins by acknowledging that Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged from a common heritage, namely, ancient Judaism.  Accordingly, both movements share a canon of inspired texts and use similar principles for interpreting and applying them.  Early Christian interpretations, however, did not simply derive from Jewish thought; they were worked out through the experience of the church, especially through its conflict within the synagogues.  Modern interpreters who privilege the historical-critical method over a Jewish approach to the texts are astonished at the readings of early Christians and Jews.  Manns overall purpose is to analyze Christian texts in light of the traditions and principles of Jewish hermeneutics.  Therefore, he offers a modified “Strack-Billerbeck” approach to the NT. 

Part one of the book deals with methodological considerations.  Therein Manns rehearses a brief history of NT interpretation and shows how Jesus’ authority as a teacher would have been understood by his disciples.  Following a survey of Jewish hermeneutical principles, the author reflects on how NT writers utlized them. Manns is interested not only in the rules of Hillel, but also the the popular use of etymologies and word plays from the Hebrew as they relate to the names of people and places.  No doubt he offers a number of creative readings, but it is not at all clear that Greek writers or readers could have caught any of these possibilities.  Similarly, Manns takes up the rabbinic use of al-tiqra and finds evidence of a similar phenomenon in the NT Gospels.  Using al-tiqra (translated, “do not read”) readers could vary the vowels of a word or phrase to discover a different sense to a text.  Since Hebrew texts contain no vowels, this became a common practice for deriving other meanings.  With these principles and methods in mind Manns is ready to approach selected NT passages in light of other Jewish texts from the same period. 

Part two deals with Matthew’s treatment the story of Judas’ death (Matt 27:3-10) as a Christian midrash and the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-10).  In part three Manns argues that the source for Luke’s special material derives from a Palestinian setting. He deals with the question of women in the synagogue during the time of Jesus and shows how the literary and archaeological evidences elucidate Luke’s unique perspective.  In another section Manns argues for a causal reading of hoti in Luke 7:47 based upon the insight that Luke may have modified his account of the sinful woman in light of Jewish reflection on Rahab.  Having gathered ample rabbinic evidence, he relates the conviction that just as God justified Rahab because she acted hospitably toward the spies, so Jesus announced the forgiveness of the sinful woman because of her loving act.  In a sense the story of Rahab provides the basis for the Gospel account.  Manns also deals with other Lucan texts including Luke 1:68-69, 4:16-30 and 24:32. 

In part four Manns submits that the Fourth Gospel comes from a Jewish-Christian source as well.  Regarding 1 John 3:4, he suggests that anomia be understood as a personification of those powers hostile to God which lead humans to abandon God’s law.  In his investigation of the phrase “the angel of the church” in the seven letters of Revelation (chs. 2-3), he concludes that “angel” is best read as a symbol of the bishop which heads each Christian community.   Mann also takes up the language of the hymn found in Rev 12:10-12 and explicates it neatly with regard to Jewish apocalyptic and liturgical interests in the period.   In part five Manns expands his investigation into the Catholic letters with sections on (1) a Jewish liturgical tradition behind Jam1:21b, (2) the phrase “confess your sins to one another” in Jam 5:16 and (3) Sarah as the model for an obedient wife from 1 Pet 3:5-6.  In each case Manns finds ample material in Judaism to explain the source and meanings of these texts. 

With this book Frédéric Manns joins a long line of researchers who find Jewish approaches to the NT rich and evocative.  No doubt Second Temple Judaism is the fertile  soil from which early Christianity springs.  Manns offers some creative and in some cases persuasive readings of the NT passages he selects.  One is left to wonder, however, to what extent the writers and first readers of these texts would have understood the rich imagery modern interpreters discover as they mine the many volumes of Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmud, etc., which are readily available to us.  Are we the first to see these images, to hear these echoes?  In some cases the answer is clearly “no,” as Manns shows when he cites the early Christian fathers.  In other cases the answer may be “yes.”  Overall Manns’ book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how early Christians approached the task of interpreting their faith through theological reflection on Jewish beliefs and practices.  Many useful insights await those willing to consider the playful and creative ways early Christians and Jews made use of their traditions.


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