Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck’s Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash (often abbreviated as “Strack-Billerbeck”) is a reference work for illustrating the concepts, theological background, and cultural assumptions of the New Testament. In this excerpt from his introduction to Volume 3, David Instone-Brewer illustrates the riches that can be found within this commentary as well as the potential pitfalls of using it without proper context or understanding.
For scholars studying a passage in the New Testament, Strack-Billerbeck provides an unparalleled introduction to useful background material from the rabbinic world. Given the huge number of volumes of rabbinic material, easy access to this rich world is immeasurably helpful.
However, we should bear in mind the authors’ first aim in creating this compendium, as defined so well by their predecessor J. C. Schoettgen: “the phrases and sayings of the New Testament are illustrated” by this material. We can fall into problems when we attempt to go beyond this aim.
If we try to uncover the culture or even history of New Testament times using this rabbinic material, as Strack-Billerbeck tempts us to do, we have to tread carefully. This is not an unworthy task, but that kind of endeavor requires a much more nuanced effort at dating sources than is presented here.
No New Testament scholar should limit themselves by working without the riches of Strack-Billerbeck, but the benefits of these heights require careful attention to this preflight safety warning.
The richness of rabbinic quotations collected in Strack-Billerbeck can save a scholar hours of work with Hebrew concordances and background reading. Almost invariably there are more quotations than necessary, which means that the key text one needs to follow up on is very likely to be found there (or is present in the other sections referred to). Paradoxically, this richness has been criticized, not because of the resource itself but because of the way that it has been used.
Easy access to all these texts can be both a valuable research tool and a source of temptation for lazy scholarship. Almost every phrase and idea in the New Testament that could possibly have an origin in Judaism has been annotated with likely parallels in rabbinic literature. This presents the temptation to assume that all these parallels are significant—as well as the more insidious temptation to regard these sources as the conclusions of one’s research rather than a starting point. This can also tempt the lazy reader to use Strack-Billerbeck as a key to New Testament interpretation or a summary of Jewish thought, when it is neither.
The stated aim of this work is to collect excerpts that may illustrate the language and concepts found in the New Testament. To understand any text, it is essential to know how a reader at the time would have understood it. If a modern writer refers to “pork-barrel politics,” a reader in two thousand years’ time could be forgiven for thinking this relates to pigs. So a list of contemporary quotations using such language would be invaluable to them. Ideally this would be a balanced collection of quotations that include sources from local political debates where pork-barrel deals might be welcomed, and some from government circles where they are condemned. But if the quotations came only from government sources—because perhaps everything else had been destroyed in a devastating war—the future reader would have a very one-sided negative viewpoint.
This is akin to what we often have in rabbinic sources, because most of the Jewish literature from New Testament times was destroyed. We have some of the religious documents of a Jewish sect found in Dead Sea caves, some paraphrases of the Old Testament (a few Targumim and some rewritten Bible stories at Qumran), and the legal discussions of a few rabbis (mostly Hillelites) who survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Because this small group refounded Judaism, it is tempting to regard them as representative of the majority in Jesus’ day. However, when they debated their rivals, the Shammaites, they were few enough to meet in a large upper room.10 So they probably numbered no more than half of the one hundred and twenty early Christians who met in a similar location (Acts 1:13–15).
Therefore, we have to ask two critical questions when we see the lists of quotations that illustrate a text. First, are they actually parallels, or do they merely use similar language? The “Kingdom” is clearly an important theme for both rabbinic Judaism and Jesus’ followers, but the word does not mean the same to both groups. That’s why the Gospels spend so much time spelling out what they mean by it. However, it is still necessary to explore the Jewish meaning, because this is what the readers are assumed to know well. By knowing what the Gospels are disagreeing with, we can understand the differences they are asserting.
Second, we have to ask whether the quotations are representative of wider Judaism. Modern Jews and scholars of ancient Judaism were particularly offended to read the supposed parallels to “hate your enemies” (Matt 5:43). Everyone agrees that the listed quotations are not representative of Judaism, then or now. Even Strack and Billerbeck themselves may have been aware of this potential misunderstanding, because they state in the foreword to the first volume: “We strongly oppose the idea that from what we have gathered here (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount), a conclusion can be drawn about the actual or supposedly valid form of Judaism”—with a footnote to the “15 principles of Jewish ethics.”
A much closer parallel is now known in the opening page of the Qumran sect’s Community Rule: “in order to love all the sons of light … hate all the sons of darkness” (1QS I, 10). If this had been available, the offending list of quotations could have been omitted as irrelevant. In this instance, the list of supposed parallels fails both of these critical questions, because they are not true parallels of the text and they do not represent Judaism in general. This does not mean they should not have been included, but the reader should beware of making simplistic conclusions.
This powerful tool is so easy to use that one can forget the dangers. It is too easy to come to false conclusions by forgetting to look at dating and context. And this work should not be regarded as a compendium of Jewish beliefs, because its topics are defined by the New Testament. When these warnings are heeded, Strack-Billerbeck becomes an invaluable set of signposts toward fertile areas of exploration for New Testament research.
This post is adapted from David Instone-Brewer’s volume introduction to Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash, Volume 3 (Lexham Press, 2021).