Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus

By Frederick J. Murphy
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (2002). xviii + 474 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 344-345

One of the welcome consequences of breaking the scholastic monopoly on the Dead Sea Scrolls several years ago has been the resurgence of studies related to Judaism and Judaic influences in the NT world and text. Literature in this field has literally exploded in the last five years with at least a dozen notable works and many more of less notoriety.

The author of this work is professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Holy Cross. This work is a completely revised version of his 1991 The Religious World of Jesus: An Introduction to Second Temple Palestinian Judaism (Abingdon, 1991). Written to supply a text for his courses, the author purposes to “balance the effort to appreciate Judaism for its own sake, on the one hand, and the desire to shed light on Jesus and the early Christians on the other” (xiii).

The work is an amazing resource of factual information, well written and well conceived structurally. It has beneficial indexes and two helpful glossaries (of terms and of persons) and several useful charts, and the author often places explanatory boxes within the text. The chapters progress clearly and logically, covering the history of Israel in survey form, from Abraham to the Babylonian captivity and then with a little more detail from the Restoration to the NT era. Murphy dedicates separate chapters to Apocalypticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, various Jewish sects, the Roman rule over Israel, the Jewish revolt, and the interesting subject, “Jewish Foundations of New Testament View of Christ.”

However, the potential of this book is not realized because of what this reviewer would call a “conservative minimalist” view of Scripture and a resultant misunderstanding of the text. “Conservative minimalist” means one who takes the text of Scripture as only one of many texts to be examined in constructing a theology or reconstructing a history of the biblical world. Scripture is important, but no more or less important than other texts. The author says this in his introduction:

The canon of Judaism or Christianity is that body of writings accepted as authoritative and normative. Belief and practice are measured and judged by these writings. By choosing to include some writings in the canon and exclude others from it, each religion has defined its contours. The normativity of the included texts is expressed through the notion that they are inspired—that is, that God is responsible for them in some way (1).

He further states, “When we limit our study to the canon of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, certain viewpoints and prejudices are reinforced that are supported by the principles of selection that led to the formation of the canon in the first place” (6-7). For the author, canonization is merely a human effort to collect religious writings that support a group’s preconceived ideas of how they wanted their theology and worldview to be formed. Inspiration becomes nothing more than a “label” placed on texts by groups to validate their views or manipulate followers into acquiescence. Such biblical constructs as inspiration, inerrancy, and authority, are explicitly and implicitly denied throughout this book.

In the view of the author, the NT distorts the Judaism of the era, saying that the “treatment of Judaism is, on the whole, biased” (ibid.). A key purpose of the author is to present a “more balanced portrait of Jewish society” (ibid.) than one receives from simply “analyzing the apostle Paul or the Gospel of Mark.”

The author’s view of the OT text does not attain to a high level either. He affirms his belief in the compilation JEP theory for the Pentateuch (22) and the Deuteronomistic History theory to the remainder of the historic books (23). The Old Testament, in his view, was the product of redactors and editors and the final version of the majority of OT books was not finalized until late in the Judean monarchy or after the Babylonian captivity through the Hasmonean era. As a result, different sections of the OT are contradictory to each other or express entirely different worldviews (26).

Theologically, the author misunderstands the entire concept of the sacrificial system, stating, “[T]he basic idea of much of the Israelite sacrifice seems to have been that of a gift in thanksgiving for a favor or in hopes of getting God’s favor” (48). Prophecy is not predictive in any way; it is simply men writing words of encouragement to an oppressed people by utilizing “literary fiction” (163) to display an illusion of prediction, strengthening the encouraging words. Most important, Jesus is not the divine Second Person of the Trinity (407), He is simply a man on a mission to purify Judaism and speak out against the oppressors of His era, whose followers later ascribe to Him deity (349).

Stylistically the reader is struck by the fact that with all the author’s rather dogmatic pronouncements about history, culture, and interpretation of biblical and extra-biblical texts, the work has no footnotes or endnotes. Only a few in-text citations appear in the book. The end of each chapter has a bibliography that would be much more useful if collected as a whole, but no one is quoted and almost no references are given for additional study or to check on the author’s work. This being the case, it is no surprise that the bibliography is bereft of works from conservative or evangelical scholarship.

In the short space of this review it is impossible to list all the interpretative and theological errors. Though the author calls himself a Christian (xii), it is impossible to understand what he means by that since he denies or modifies every cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. This book is an excellent example of a genre of material coming forth from the failed and heretical “Historical Jesus” movement.