Review of @FortressPress’s Jewish-Christian Interpretation of the Pentateuch in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies

Note, this is a temporary review. Some editing may occur later.

Donald H. Carlson sets the stage for a long and important career in examining early Christian pseudepigrapha. This is an essential one reading the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and understanding early Christian engagement with the Pentateuch against the problems raised by Marcion. His premise is simple. The Homilies serve to show us how Jewish-Christianity remained with feet planted in both ideologies while creating an independent identity based on properly reading the ancient texts. Perhaps just as interesting are the connections a modern reader can draw from the Homilies, thanks to Carlson, and how we as modern readers engage through historical criticism both the Old and New Testaments.

The book is divided into seven chapters with an unusual, but very helpful, Index of Greek Terms added at the end. Chapter 1 gives a decent overview of the previous scholarship on the Homilies. I say decent because Carlson does not require us to know the full history, but gives us a few notable figures and their work — people we will see throughout the rest of the book. This is satisfying for the novice and the scholar alike because it introduces us to what we need to know in order to read the book. Carlson’s second chapter explores the duel between the Homilies and other Greek literature regarding allegorical interpretations. While the interpreters of Homer (Appion is the central figure here, facing off against Clement) sought to take the (mis)deeds of the gods, the Homilist maintains a strict sense of the received text. The reasons are nuanced but they must be mastered before moving on to the rest of the book.

Chapter 3 will break a lot of hearts, I’m afraid. While I do not expect more conservative readers will engage the Homilies, I would almost require it. What we are introduced to is a highly nuanced world of Jewish Christians coming to terms with the Pentateuch and the literary world of early Christianity. They reconsigned the difficulties in accepting at face value Jewish Scriptures, texts replete with (mis)deeds they believed made the gods of Homer unworthy to emulate and thus false. Unlike Marcion who rejected wholesale the Old Testament, the Homilist needed to maintain the connection to Judaism and thus simply rejected the ‘false pericopes’ whereby we see Noah drunk, an angry and genocidal God, and even Adam’s fall. Further, Carlson suggests the Homilies are a reaction and correction to Marcionism (70).

Following chapter 3, Carlson submits 3 criterion and how the Homilist used each to decide the validity of Torah pericopes. The first criterion is the teachings of Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus is said to put away some of the aspects of the Mosaic law. However, what is most startling is how far the Homilist has taken the words of Jesus, as if the words of Jesus and not Scripture were sacrosanct. What emerges is a very Jewish method of following a teacher. The students, in this case the Homilist, takes the methodology of the teacher and expounds upon it. If Jesus said there was one false pericope, then there must be more. The second criterion is oral tradition. Carlson uses other extant works, including contemporary Jewish works, in discussing the validity of oral tradition in properly interpreting the Torah. The final criterion is something Carlson has named “the Harmony Criterion.” While the first was based on Jesus, the second on Moses, this final criterion is based on the Homilist himself (137). The Homilist seeks to know God from both Scripture and Creation (139).

Donald Carlson examines the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, but in doing so he introduces us to a wider world of early Christian interpretation of both Jesus and Scriptures. While Christology is often undefined (unless you compare the “throne of Jesus” to the “seat of Moses”), the Homilist incorporate three elements of biblical interpretation we miss today. First, they take a “What Did Jesus Say” approach. Second, oral tradition is on par with Scripture, if not just a measure above it. Finally, they understand rationalism unlike many of us today.

This is an essential book to wipe away the fog of studying early Jewish and Christian theological dialogue (along with, perhaps, some gnosticism). What emerges is not a poor community of exegetes, but a theologically robust, and quite wealthy, system of thought managing to merge nascent rabbinical exegesis, a faithful following of Jesus (sans high Christology), and early textual criticism. For the first time, we are taken through the intricate web of exegesis in this early community and get to see how it reacts to the change Jesus brings to Judaism. It is a fascinating book and one highly recommended.

On a personal note, the exegetical framework extrapolated from the Homilies, while not perfect, gives us something rather lacking today. For many conservative and even liberal interpreters of Scripture, the Homilist provides a “check” on our method. The Homilist provides for the role of keeping Jesus center in our interpretive measure, while allowing for historical criticism. But, more than that, the Homilist provides for an interpretive model only hinted at by the Reformation-era catechisms, that of the role of Natural Law and Reason in interpreting Scripture. How much better might we read Scripture if we used the appendix of God’s creation to understand it?

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