The Letter of Aristeas can best be understood when interpreters attend to the full range of postures toward Hellenism and Judaism exhibited by the various characters in the work. These stances range from the translators’ public, universalist philosophizing before the king in Alexandria to the High Priest Eleazar’s more particularistic defense of Jewish ritual law articulated in Jerusalem. Yet when the translators work on the Island of Pharos, or when the High Priest writes to the King, these characters display other sides of themselves. For the author of Aristeas – himself a Jew parading rather successfully as a Greek – knowing how much to conceal or reveal, when and where, is a fundamental skill, the secret to success for Jews in the Hellenistic diaspora.
This essay dialogues with Joel Marcus’s volume on John the Baptist. After praising Marcus’s penchant for introducing helpful analogies, questions are raised regarding two of Marcus’s hypotheses. First, it is difficult to accept that the Baptist was ever associated with the Qumran sectarians; second, it is equally doubtful that the Baptist was a nuanced legal reformer. A third section probes additional matters regarding the Baptist and purity in ancient Judaism. The common denominator to many issues raised here is Marcus’s tendency to treat the possible as probable.
The following response to John Meier's article begins by raising initial questions concerning the relationship between oaths and vows, and the criterion of double dissimilarity. The focus then turns to the complicated relationship between the Pentateuch and Jewish legal sources of the Second Temple and Rabbinic periods. It will be suggested that demonstrating Jesus' legal disagreement with either the plain meaning of scripture or other first-century Jewish legal sources does not yield sufficient evidence to claim that Jesus clearly and unambiguously abrogated a matter of Jewish Law. It will also be argued that, in the case of oaths, it is particularly difficult to demonstrate either a contradiction with the Pentateuch or a complete disagreement with the preponderance of contemporary legal sources. Therefore, while Jesus may indeed have prohibited all oaths, this ought not be taken as clear evidence of an abrogation of a matter of Jewish Law.
General insights from the discipline of religious studies may contribute to a better understanding of the Essene Hypothesis. In its “softer” form, the Essene hypothesis posits a sub-group relationship between the Qumran community and a larger Essene movement as described, above all, by Josephus. This effort to accommodate differences between accounts of the Essenes and the Scrolls can be better understood when contextualized in light of the so-called “insider/outsider” problem. Josephus’s use of the term “Essene” can be productively compared to generalized labels for groups of sub-groups, like “Quaker,” “Mormon,” “Hasidic” and “Gnostic”—terms used more often by outsiders, and frequently by writers of introductory religion textbooks. The Essene Hypothesis makes a greater deal of sense when seen in light of the ways generalized labels are used in a variety of descriptions of religious groups, both ancient and modern.
Recent scholarship on fate and free will in ancient Judaism is characterized by a lack of precision with regard to the nature of these disputes. There is also some disagreement concerning the degree to which the disparate positions can be constructively compared with either Hellenistic philosophical approaches or later rabbinic theological ones. It is argued here that Josephus's brief typology of ancient Jewish disputes on this topic finds confirmation in other ancient Jewish literature, especially the Wisdom of Ben Sira, the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls, and later rabbinic literature. Yet it is imperative to nuance Josephus's typology so as to avoid imposing Hellenistic philosophical systems onto ancient Jewish theological ones. These observations hold true especially when it comes to understanding the balance between fate and free will — the “compatibilism” — that characterizes the Pharisaic approach. It is rarely noticed that Josephus's accounts attribute to this group two distinct ways of balancing fate and free will. On the one hand, each of these two approaches finds distinct analogues within rabbinic literature, a fact that further confirms both Josephus's reliability and the productivity of comparing his accounts with later rabbinic traditions. On the other hand, neither of the two types of compatibilism attributed by Josephus to the Pharisees can be identified with Stoic compatibilism. Nonetheless, the term “compatibilism” remains the most appropriate term for distinguishing the Pharisaic compromises from the more extreme (but by no means uncomplicated) positions that seem to have characterized the Sadducees and Essenes in Josephus's day.