Book Review: The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism

The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism by David Daube

This is a very detailed, and very long book which took me some time to get through. I’ve even post-poned doing this review until now because of how long I’d been reading this book. It was certainly worth the read, though I would not recommend it to many. It is chiefly concerned with discovering Rabinnic precedent behind phrases, concepts, and traditions in the NT. And it does that very well. I’ve made one other post with this book as a source: Yea Have Heard… But I Say

There is a lot I could say about the book, but I wanted to bring up the one biggest things I learned, and it is about baptism. Previously, my best sources concluded that they were unsure if Jewish proselyte baptism existed prior to Christian baptism. This book points out two facts supporting the idea that Jewish proselyte baptism was at least practiced, if not entirely agreed upon in meaning, method, or form by Rabbis before Jesus’ ministry. One, Hillel is recorded as baptizing coverts. Two, the Rabbinical writings in many places skew away from Christian principles, it would be incredibly odd for them to pick up an establish Christian practice. With that said, Daube reflects on Hillel:

For one thing, the parallelism in form between the two parts of the maxim – ‘he who separates himself from the uncircumcision [through baptism and conversion] is like him who separates himself from the grave’ – is striking: it suggests a parallelism in substance, an actual comparing of him who rises above heathenism to one who rises from the dead. pg 110

Clearly that is very similar to the Christian claim about baptism – a new life – Rom 6. Now onto specifics about the baptism.

The person wishing to become a Jew ‘at this time’ should be asked whether he does not know that ‘Israel at this time is broken down, pushed about, driven about and tossed about, and that sufferings befall them’. If he replies ‘I know and am not worthy’, no further tests are needed, but he should at once be admitted as a candidate and be taught… It is the gentile who approaches the Jews, not the Jews who approach the gentile; and the Rabbis lay down that before his proper initiation can even begin, he must have grasped the fundamentals of the faith – he must recognize even that Israel’s humiliation in this age means exaltation. pg 113, 114,

Rabbi Nehemiah, about AD150, says that persons who join Israel at one of these moments [of prosperity] cannot be considered genuine until they give proof of their loyalty ‘at this time’, i.e. in the face of persecution… We shall presently see that eschatology is the principal theme of the concluding part of the Tannaitic catechism; and the notion ‘at this time’ recurs there, being opposed to ‘the World to Come’. Manifestly eschatology plays a role even at the opening stage.
pg 118

I have two remarks; (1) the known suffering would easily play into the known Christian suffering under persecution in the early church and, (2) perhaps the fact that Jews were used to gentiles approaching them explains an apparent “slowness” in the preaching of the Christian faith immediately after Pentecost.

Concerning John the Baptist

John, believing the kingdom of heaven imminent, preached the baptism of repentance. A Rabbi like Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, about AD100, predicted that at the approach of the Messiah the gentiles would come in flocks to be received. Eliezer would never have applied proselyte baptism to people already Jewish. It was because John did so that he was called “the Baptist”. Yet the eschatological character of his and early Christian baptism was Jewish. Some rebukes administered to Pharisees and Sadducees according to Matthew and Luke closely correspond to an opinion, held by many Rabbis, that people seeking admission in the days of the Messiah were not to be trusted. pg 119

John, calling on Jewish people who thought they were inside the covenant with God, to be baptized like a proselyte, meant that they were not in fact in covenant! John’s very invitation for baptism is an open-handed slap to anyone who considered themselves practicing Torah. All while that very invitation is gladly received by those who knew they are not in living in covenant!

This next part is about the instruction:

The actual preparation of the catechumen should begin by making known to him some of the lighter and some of the weightier commandments… Rabbi Judah the Prince gave the advice: ‘Be heedful of a light commandment as of a weighty one, for thou knowest not the reward for each.’ The terms small and great may replace light and weighty… The word qal may denote not light, but also easy, and hamur not only weighty but also burdensome… [Daube then suggests that both translations should be considered] pg 119, 120

…during the act of baptism, during immersion, we learn, two Scholars are to stand by – in the case of a woman they are to stand outside but within hearing – in order again to communicate to the proselyte some lighter and some weightier commandments. We may regard this as another sign that, by the Tannaitic epoch at least, proselyte baptism was no purificatory rite but had a moral and spiritual significance… Actually, we may go so far as to assert that, in listening to the commandments during baptism, the proselyte stood at mount Sinai. From the beginning of the 1st cent AD down to our day the ceremonies of reception into Judaism have been based on the same principle: they must be identical with those by which the Israelites were received into the Sinaitic covenant. pg 120, 121

I think that all of this, and he goes on for at least ten more pages, is very relevant to our understanding of baptism – as it would have been to those who first practiced it.


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