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.
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.
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.
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.