Detailed knowledge of the background to any text is the crucial thing (whether one is attacking or elucidating the text in question).
I followed up Rabbi Danny Rich’s lecture last week by buying one of the books which he mentioned as impressing him - Prof Hyam Maccoby’s Jesus the Pharisee (SCM 2003). Part of the way through, I’ve discovered what a wonderful polemic it is. Maccoby is convinced that Paul is the real founder of a Christianity quite unlike anything which the Jewish Jesus could or did inaugurate; he attributes this to Paul’s relying on direct visions from God.
Some of his arguments like this don’t seem to stand up to real scrutiny. He thinks that the Eucharist is an invention of Paul’s, and that the absence of an account of its institution in John’s account of the Last Supper is one of the things which gives this away. He hasn’t noticed how far the poetry of ‘I am the bread’ and ‘I am the vine’ weaves around John’s Gospel.
But, even with these things put aside, his knowledge of the Jewish background appears to allow him to spot quite as startling misinterpretations in Christian commentaries, such as an unhelpful habit of confusing ritual impurity with sin.
So far, however, I’ve enjoyed most of all discovering the story in the Talmud when the direct voice of God was ruled out of order in a rabbinical discussion. God had given the law and its methods of interpretation, and a particular decision had been made after careful consideration, so the rabbi who called successfully for support from a stream asked to flow backwards and a voice asked to speak from heaven was judged not to be following God’s own chosen methods of deliberation and judgement. (I found the full text in an on-line Talmud by searching for the reference b. B. Metzi’a 59b.)
Maccoby suggests this rabbinical approach as helpful background in understanding Peter being told in Matthew that what he binds or looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. It is all fascinating stuff.
Meanwhile, for me the most satisfying photograph so far this week has been this close up of the grass beneath the feet of the disciples at the Ascension in St George’s, Bradley’s east window.