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Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics.

Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics. By Marcus Bockmuehl. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. xvii and 313 pages. Paper. $29.99.

Marcus Bockmuehl has two major concerns as the basis of his scholarship: first, the prominent role of Jewish law in the ethics of Jesus and the early church, and, second, the principles and concerns by which Christians formulated an ethic for Gentiles.

The book is divided into three parts. In part 1, the focus is on Christianity in the land of Israel. Individual studies focus on Matthew's divorce texts (5:32 and 19:9), Jesus' statement to "Let the dead bury the dead" (Matt 8:22), and James's role in the conflict at Antioch. In part 2, the author turns to Jewish and Christian ethics for Gentiles, discussing the concept of natural law in second temple Judaism and the New Testament and also the role of the Noachide Commandments. In part 3, public ethics is considered among the apologists, especially Aristides and The Epistle to Diognetus.

It is clear from this brief summary of the contents that a lot of ground is covered in this book. This is a collection of previously published independent essays from 1989 to 1998.

Although each chapter is carefully argued, I often ended thinking, "Yes, this is possible, but is it probable?" A case in point is the argument about Jesus' admonition to a potential follower to "let the dead bury the dead." The long history of debate by Adolf Schlatter, Martin Hengel, and E. P. Sanders on this text has concluded that Jesus departed from traditional Jewish piety in significant ways. Bockmuehl has clearly demonstrated that Jesus was not wholly unique in his approach to burial practices. The Nazirites too would have taken this view, without rejecting Jewish law. Although there are a few parallels in Jesus' words to Nazirite practice, the conclusion that this is reason to assume that Jesus still held to Jewish custom on burial issues is not convincing.

Similarly, Bockmuehl's entire argument concerning James's involvement in the Antioch dispute is based on a possible, but not probable, argument in a couple of sources that Antioch was considered as Eretz Israel. My colleague Rabbi Richard Freund has compiled overwhelming evidence in the Bethsaida archaeology volumes that this town near the Sea of Galilee was located on the northern boundary and that most viewed Antioch as Gentile territory.

One also wonders about the approach that sometimes focuses on Matthew at the expense of the other synoptics. The chapter on divorce treats Matthew's unique wording without doing justice to the complexity of views preserved in the synoptics. Likewise a comment about Jesus wearing tasseled garments (p. 8) is documented by citing Matt 9:20 while ignoring Mark 5:27, which does not mention fringes on his garment.

References to Rabbinic literature also must be read with caution. First-century Yohanan ben Zakkai is reported like Jesus to quote Hosea 6:6 with regard to temple sacrifice (p. 8), yet, as Neusner argued three decades ago, this may be a projection from third-century concerns.

Still, Bockmuehl is to be credited for presenting serious work on the topic of Jewish law in the life of Jesus and the early church. He clearly has a grasp of the important sources of second temple Judaism. Hopefully these case studies will be a first step that will lead to a more synthetic presentation in the near future.

Fred Strickert

Wartburg College
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Author:Strickert, Fred
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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