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A few years ago I wrote a review of the following book:
Manns, Frédéric. Une approche juive du Nouveau Testament. Initiations bibliques.
Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1998. Pp. 298. F195.
I thought I’d share it here with you.
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.
Capernaum is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Although we cannot say for certain, it is probable any local population would have been killed or otherwise displaced in the Assyrian invasions in the 8th century BC. In fact there is little material evidence of human settlement before the 2nd century BC. Later Jewish writers refer to Capernaum as “Kefar Nahum” (the village of Nahum—not likely the biblical prophet). Apparently, Capernaum was the site of some of Jesus’ earliest miracles, a fact that didn’t escape the hometown crowd in Nazareth (Luke 4.23). Matthew tells us that Jesus healed the centurion’s son from a distance in Capernaum and went on to heal Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8.5, 14). He healed a paralytic after four of his friends peeled back the roof of a modest Capernaum house and lowered him in front of the Savior on his mat (Mark 2.1; Matt 9.1-8). It was in Capernaum that Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, implored Jesus to raise his daughter after the mourners had already gathered to grieve (Matt 9.18-26). Despite all the miracles Jesus performed there, he still prophesied destruction against the village and people there because of unbelief (Matt 11.23).
Capernaum is described in the Gospels as “his own city” (Matt 9.1), but the text is silent on why Jesus chose Capernaum as the center of his public life. Perhaps it was the ease of travel on the flat plain along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps it was the speed of passage across the lake to the Gentile cities of the Decapolis. Perhaps it was because Capernaum sat at some distance from Antipas’ seat of power. It was Antipas after all who had John beheaded, and Jesus’ fate was supposed to end in Jerusalem not Galilee. Still for reasons known only to him, Jesus chose Capernaum, and now for centuries Christian pilgrims have made their way to the place where Jesus first proclaimed with power the rule of God.
Modern visitors to Capernaum can explore the remains of a beautiful synagogue built in the Byzantine era. It is one of the best preserved ancient synagogues in the Holy Land. The large, white limestone blocks and columns stand in sharp contrast to the native stone which is a black basalt (volcanic) stone. The Byzantine synagogue was apparently built over the site of an earlier synagogue whose floor archaeologists uncovered a few years ago. It measures 60 feet wide by 79 feet long. Since building materials were hard to come by, builders often incorporated stable parts of earlier foundations and walls into later structures. This both concealed and preserved the earlier buildings. Although we cannot say for certain, this may well be the floor of the synagogue where Jesus preached and exorcized evil spirits in Capernaum (Luke 7.1ff; Mark 1.21-28).
In the fifth century AD Christians built an octagonal church building south of the synagogue. Byzantine Christians loved the octagonal form and often used it to commemorate places they considered holy. The building with its lovely mosaic floors had been constructed over the remains of a 4th century structure (likely a church) that had in turn been built over a first century house. A particularly strong tradition holds that this is the Capernaum residence of Peter, one of the twelve. The house of Peter, as it is called, was a modest, one-story house. Its roof would have been made of branches, thatch and mud, not unlike the roof that was dug out to allow the paralyzed man access to Jesus (Mark 2.1-12). The plastered walls of the large, central room contain over 150 inscriptions scribed like graffiti in the walls in the various languages of the early church: Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin.
To preserve the house where tradition has it that Peter lived, believers have constructed a new church over the site. Like its ancient counterpart the modern structure has eight sides, but it sits several meters above the site atop eight pillars that describe eight sides. It hovers above the Byzantine remains preserving and protecting the precious material culture of the past from Capernaum’s warm summers and winter rains. Today Christian pilgrims, like their spiritual ancestors 1500 years ago, make their way to Capernaum to see the place where Peter lived and where Jesus began to turn the world upside down.
When Jesus heard that John the baptizer had been imprisoned, he left the Jordan valley and went north toward the district of Galilee (Matt 4.13). His baptism by John in the river had been the turning point of his life. From here on everything would be different. Jesus had lived a private life; now he would become a public person. He had earned his living as a carpenter selling his goods in Nazareth and likely Sepphoris, a larger, more affluent city a few miles away; now he would become a preacher of the Kingdom of God, healing and making disciples throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and the Decapolis. He had grown up in Nazareth; now he would leave behind his hometown and settle in Capernaum.
But why did Jesus go north to Galilee? Why didn’t he head straight for Jerusalem, the city of prophets? Well, the answer is simple. He was guided by Scripture. Hundreds of years before Mary labored and gave birth to her male child, the prophet Isaiah had foreseen a day when hope returned to the land mortally wounded by invaders from the north. He prophesied:
Isaiah 9:1-2 (NASV) But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.
Jesus knew the Scriptures. He understood that the renewal was to begin up north, in the ancestral lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, districts known in his day as Galilee. That was only right in the justice of God because it was these regions that fell first to Assyrian and Babylonian aggression. The villages and towns first to fall and walk in darkness were to be the first to have the light shine upon them. Jesus was that light. Capernaum would become his city.
Rather than return to Nazareth, his hometown, the Gospels tell us that Jesus “moved” to Capernaum and made it the headquarters of his ministry. Capernaum was a village on the north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was the home of two sets of brothers–Simon and Andrew, James and John. Fishing provided their families a living on the Sea of Galilee. The sea also provided plenty of fresh water for the people residing there. Population estimates during Jesus’ day for the village have conservatively been set between 1200-1700 inhabitants. Although most of Capernaum’s citizens were Jewish, there is evidence some non-Jews also made it their home. Still this is no thriving city. Unlike larger cities it had no wall to protect it, no aqueducts, no colonnaded streets, no administrative buildings and no theater. Its only significant public space was a synagogue that served as both a place of worship and a community center. Had Jesus not made Capernaum his base of operations, it is likely most would never have even heard of it.
Join me next for Part 2 of Jesus and Capernaum.
John McRay died recently. From 1980 to 2002 he taught in biblical studies at Wheaton College, the place I now teach and where I serve as Dean of the School of Biblical and Theology Studies. When he retired, he was awarded emeritus status.
I never met John personally, but I did know him through his books. I used his book on Paul the apostle in undergraduate courses at Houston Baptist University, until Randy Richards, Rodney Reeves and I wrote our own. It was a solid book on the apostle, but I didn’t always agree with him.
Perhaps John’s greatest accomplishment in scholarship came through his study of the New Testament through the land and material culture of Israel. He was part of the digs at Caesarea (Maritima), Herodium and Sepphoris, three premiere sites in Israel. Through his passion for the people and the land–and students–he became a beloved member of the Wheaton faculty.
If you’d like to know more about John, there is a good article about him on his Wheaton Emeritus site:
I’m grateful now to be a small part of the history of a college that has done so much to serve the church and benefit the world.
Today, I led in Graduate orientation at Wheaton College and we had students from China, Zimbabwe, England, Colombia, and all around the country. In part, the success of our program goes back to people like Dr. John McRay. Rest in peace, John.
I had the great fortune yesterday (6/12/2016) of teaching Mark Lanier’s Sunday School class at Champions Forest Baptist Church. Mark is one of the best communicators and Bible teachers you will ever hear so I am grateful and humbled for the opportunity. He and his wife Becky are currently in Oxford awaiting the birth of their first grand baby.
Brent Johnson and his staff at Champions Forest were excellent to work with. They have already made the video available.
I taught on 2 & 3 John because Mark has been working his way through the New Testament for nearly 49 weeks now. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to talk about these little, neglected books.
To see the video click here.
Or here is the URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wJXNu1ncN0