The Survivors of Israel: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism
Mark A. Elliott, The Survivors of Israel: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000. xiv + 760 pp. Pap. $ 50.00. ISBN 0-8028-4483-9.
This hefty volume, the product of an Aberdeen New Testament thesis under I. Howard Marshall, is one of the most significant pieces of research on Jewish backgrounds to the New Testament to have appeared in years. Elliott, now pastor of the Frank Street Baptist Church in Wiarton, Ontario, tackles head-on the consensus that has been established via the ground-breaking work of E. P. Sanders that argues that a nationalistic view of election dominated pre-Christian Judaism. Elliott's thesis in a nutshell is that there are pervasive patterns throughout both the Dead Sea Scrolls and key intertestamental pseudepigrapha (esp. 1 Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Psalms of Solomon, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the Assumption of Moses) that look only for God's blessings to be showered on a faithful remnant of ethnic Israel rather than on the substantial majority of the Jewish people. It is only when one moves to primarily post-A.D. 70 rabbinic literature, which may well not reflect pre-Christian Jewish attitudes, that one begins to find true nationalism as prevalent as Sanders and the many who have followed him claim it was earlier on.
Elliott's argument proceeds by means of a lengthy series of chapters of close exegesis of numerous relevant passages from the demonstrably pre-Christian Jewish works cited. Topics, in turn, focus on texts that discuss widespread judgment imminent in Israel based on her apostasy, limits on who comprises the community of salvation, namely those with adequate faith and obedience, and dualism in the views of the Mosaic covenant more generally as well as specific soteriological dualism, especially in seed and plant metaphors. The origins of this dualism are traced by a selective historical survey of the intertestamental period, with particular reference to the polarizing effects of Hellenism within Israel and the diaspora. Apocalyptic literature is reassessed; it is not primarily future-oriented but present-focused, as writers who often felt themselves inspired in some sense offered consolation to the righteous sufferers and dire warnings to the intransigent wicked within Israel.
Dualism permeates pre-Christian Jewish pneumatology as well, not least with the Dead Sea Scrolls' famous contrasts between the spirits of good and evil and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs' contrasts between God and Beliar. Recent research is correct to stress the diversity of Messianic beliefs during this time period, including an emphasis on the apparently two Messiahs at Qumran. Less commonly observed, however, is the fact that Messianic blessings of whatever kind are consistently restricted to the elect, who commonly emerges only as a fraction of all of ethnic Israel. Hopes for eschatological restoration prove even more diverse. While often sweeping promises embrace the large percentage of Israel and beyond in a coming Messianic or “millennial” re-creation of the earth, implications for the current generation of Israel often remain bleak. And even promises of participation in the coming new age are at least sometimes limited to a righteous remnant.
A frustratingly brief conclusion scarcely scratches the surface in potential implications for New Testament study. Clearly the common notion that Jesus could not have intended to create a community of followers that would outlast him (the ekklesia) seems absurd in light of the pervasive pre-Christian Jewish hopes for an elect community of God's followers. Seemingly individual election in the New Testament need not be seen as so theologically unprecedented, as it usually is, nor reinterpreted in light of predominantly or exclusively corporate models. The Jewishness of the Gospel of John is reinforced, while Sanders' approach to Paul--that his main difference with Judaism is over the Messiah and “participationist eschatology”--is called into serious question. There are even implications for interpreting Revelation in a largely present-oriented manner that defy simple categorizations along the standard preterist, futurist, historicist and idealist lines. In sum, one must recognize additional pre-Christian Jewish precedents for numerous New Testament themes that have often been viewed as more distinctive and even Hellenistic than Jewish.
It is arguable that Elliott has overstated his case, just as Sanders did his. The clearer the references to a small, righteous remnant in the literature surveyed, the greater the necessity for an “unrighteous” majority that would have by definition disagreed with the assessment of the overall state of Judaism. To the extent that the “dissent” literature was at times protesting against a Hellenizing majority, then of course that majority would not have promoted pure nationalism, moving in the direction of a universalism instead. But to the extent that the Essenes and apocalypticists differed from the growing Pharisaic movement, it would have been with respect to the extent of disobedience within nationalistic Israel. Interestingly, of the Jewish sources Elliott exegetes, the Psalms of Solomon is the one which is both the most “Pharisaic” in origin and the least amenable to the strict dualism Elliott finds in so many other places. What he does ascribe to the Psalms is not nearly as self-evident as in many of the other documents studied. Further, to the extent that the oldest rabbinic sources at numerous points undoubtedly do reflect early first-century Palestinian Judaism, even if we cannot always be sure exactly where, Sanders' reliance on recurring themes in this material and his resulting nationalistic constructs are not unwarranted. Nevertheless, as other critiques of Sanders have pointed out, in none of the major cross-sections of Jewish literature are mercy and merit ever mutually exclusive or far removed from one another. So Sanders' larger portrait of “covenantal nomism,” while an important corrective to previous generalizations about Judaism, itself needs correcting with a reminder that what Christians have classically called legalism or works-righteousness is indeed present within the Jewish literature and, with Elliott, an important criterion for this strain of Judaism in their task of separating the elect from the reprobate.
Numerous subordinate insights emerge en route to Elliott's larger conclusions. Fascinating, though often tantalizingly brief sections introduce provocative and potentially persuasive conclusions about Jewish pseudepigraphers in a quasi-mystical sense believing they were in touch with the spirits of the people in whose names they wrote, about a pre-Christian origin for the Similitudes of Enoch and large swaths of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and about the function of the divergent calendars (not least at Qumran) within various Jewish schools of thought. While the implications of certain individual passages may have been forced into a slightly awkward fit to fill Elliott's mold, this is certainly rare enough not to jeopardize the overall validity and cumulative force of his argument. This book is therefore an indispensable work for scholars in virtually every arena of New Testament backgrounds and theology and deserves at least as serious scrutiny as Sanders' major volumes. It is also clearly enough written that busy pastors and theological students can still get a good feel for the volume by reading topic sentences only throughout the book (or in major sections thereof) and pausing for more in-depth study in a more highly selective sampling of the topics and texts that most interest them (a temptation to which this reviewer only rarely succumbed)!