Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book Review: Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period

Length: 528 pages
6 x 9 inches
Binding: paperback
IVP Academic (July 2002)
ISBN: 0-8308-2678-5
IVP Order Code: 2678

The Second Temple Period, spanning from 586 B.C.- A.D. 135, was a fascinating time of joy (due to the return from exile in Babylon) and hope (of a future return of the ten northern tribes who had been scattered by Assyria). Mixed with the joy and hope are themes of tribulation, restoration, nationalistic identification, liturgical purification, and eschatological and messianic expectation which all help to further our understanding of the New Testament. With Larry Helyer’s Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Students, he takes on an ambitious task...and succeeds. In 528 pages he surveys over 35 documents from the Second Temple Period, from the Babylonian Exile to the rise of Rabbinical Judaism and the Apostolic Fathers.
For each document, Helyer provides an introduction (discussing authorship, dating, purpose, and structure), outline, and analysis. Concluding each analysis is a section pointing out each Second Temple document’s significance for the New Testament. What really makes this book worth its weight in gold for students of the New Testament, however, is the discussion questions, the recommended readings for further study, and the advice concerning which texts to use for each document. These resources make the book perfect for independent study with Helyer as the guide. With the Second Temple documents in one hand and Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period in another, the student is well equipped to dive into these sources and bear much fruit for understanding the New Testament.
While I did enjoy the book and would recommend it to all, I do so with a few caveats for Catholic readers. Being a Protestant, there are issues with Helyer’s understanding of the Old Testament Canon. Although his rejection of the seven books of the Old Testament that the Church has always held as canonical do not prevent the book from being profitable (for more on the Old Testament Canon, see my review of Walter Kaiser’s The Old Testament Documents). What is more of a concern is Helyer’s Calvinistic presuppositions that influence his understanding of the texts. For example, he seems to suggest that the Qumranites are proto-Calvinits:
“The doctrine of the two spirits actually attributes the evil impulse to God. Though accountable for their sin, the wicked, by virtue of God’s eternal plan, have no recourse but to succumb to the evil angel and the resultant misdeeds.” (256)
Did the Qumran community really believe in double predestination? That is highly debatable, which is why it is startling to see him state immediately after, “This theological problem is never raised or discussed in the Qumran literature; it is simply assumed as a fact.” If the problem is never raised or discussed, who is assuming it as a fact? The Qumranites or Helyer? His search for a proto-Calvin doesn’t end with the Qumranites, however. A couple of pages later in discussing how the Qumran literature is significant for the New Testament, Helyer states that Paul believes in the predestination of the elect. I have no problem with that. But, then he goes on to say, “Paul does not, however, explicitly state the contrary, namely, that the wicked are predestined to damnation” (259). The problem is that Paul nowhere, even implicitly, argues for double predestination! Yet, Helyer seems to think that Paul comes close in the following quote from Romans:
‘What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?’ (Romans 9:22-23)
Is Paul saying that God has predestined some here for damnation? By no means! God is patient with the all. If the evil doer fails to repent of his ways, it is he himself who is responsible for his damnation, not God. St. John Chrysostom explains:
“Why are some people vessels of wrath and others vessels of mercy? It is by their own free choice. God, being very good, shows the same kindness to both. For it was not only to those who were saved that God showed kindness but to Pharaoh also, as far as he deserved. For both Pharaoh and God’s people had the advantage of God’s patience. And if Pharaoh was not saved it was because of his own will, since God had done as much for him as he had done for those who were saved.” (Homilies on Romans 16)
Elsewhere in the context of the churches established by Paul, he suggests that they “appear to have been autonomous” (224). To his credit, however, he adds in a footnote, “This statement, of course, will not go unchallenged by many who are convinced that the NT displays more of a hierarchical structure than I have allowed. I own up to my Baptistic presupposition on this point!”
Aside from the above mentioned issues, I think Helyer does a fantastic job surveying such a wide breadth of literature in one book and should be commended for his effort. Anyone who wishes to do a serious study of both Second Temple Literature and the New Testament should get this book!
Many thanks once again to Adrianna Wright and the good folks at InterVarsity Press who have provided me with a review copy of Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Students.

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