Sunday, March 07, 2010

SECSOR: Day Two (pt III)

I came down to SECSOR expecting to return to Knoxville with the same number of books I brought with me. That has never happened before, and it's not happening this time. I purchased two books yesterday, both at better prices than I could find online.
  • First, I purchased George M. Landes's Building Your Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary: Learning Words by Frequency and Cognate (second edition; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001 [1961]).

  • Second, and perhaps more surprising, I purchased Leo Duprée Sandgren's massive volume, Vines Intertwined: A History of Jews and Christians from the Babylonian Exile to the Advent of Islam (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). Few books not written by James Dunn are thick enough to print the title across (rather than along) the spine; Sandgren's survey of 1,300 years of history does. The book comes with a CD that includes a .pdf of the book's full-text, which makes it fully searchable. This is, well, awesome. Sandgren divides his historical survey into six sections, and at the end of each he has a brief synthetic discussion that summarizes and recaps the material for that section. This provides a helpful path through an otherwise intimidating text (the book is 838+xxv pages of small, dense type!); I think this is probably a necessity for any book over 500 pages. I've read the Introduction (1–7) and am very impressed so far. A few teaser quotes:
    A history of Jews and Christians in Antiquity must begin somewhere. We begin in 640 B.C.E. It is true there were no Christians then, but neither were there Jews as we understand the term "Jew" today. Both Jew and Christian are primarily religious identities, with due deference to secular humanism as an option within a Jewish or Christian cultural context. In fact, we find the beginnings of Jewishness at the turn of the first century, just when Jewish believers in Jesus and the Gentile converts were making their own beginning. But the religions of Judaism and Christianity come later still, and it may be argued (as it is) that Judaism as a religion came into existence only in response to Christianity as a religion. (1)

    As a religion without a temple, Judaism begins simultaneously with Christianity. The two communities forged their templeless identities in plain sight of each other, and in continual dialogue, and as constant rivals for the title "people of God" or "true Israel." We now recognize that Judaism and Christianity are what they are because of the other. Neither formed itself in isolation. (2)

    It is easier to describe being a Jew, or being a Christian, than the isms to which they belonged. If a person is asked, "Are you a Jew?" we expect, under neutral circumstances, an answer without excessive deliberation. . . . The same may be said for Christians. . . . Asked to describe their Jewish or Christian practices, we would find all manner of variety. Asked to describe their beliefs, we would be overwhelmed. People tend to muddle along inarticulately with questions and answers about God, the universe, and the human predicament. That is perhaps the wisest course, but it frustrates the neat categories and labels of historians. (3)

    Even under ideal circumstances, however, the best we can achieve in historical description in verisimilitude, a verbal picture that is similar enough to the reality behind the elusive facts of history that it is accurate in impressionistic terms. The description of a person may be more or less accurate, hence verisimilar. . . . Memory and literary license are at work, in which each author differs. But when we have compared all the information about Akiba or Jesus, or any historical figure, it is often possible to arrive at a satisfying verisimilitude. (4, 5; my emphasis)

    I love that phrase: accurate in impressionistic terms. Sandgren has, I think, put his finger on the key to a historiographical perspective that is both sufficiently rigorous and critical as well as reasonable about the degree of certainty our evidence can sustain. For such a massive volume, this book is very reasonably priced (list: $34.95), and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Christian and/or Jewish origins, the relation between the two, and the so-called Parting of the Ways.

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