Herold Weiss. A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath among Jews and Christians in Antiquity. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. x + 262 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-468-8.
Reviewed by Alex Jassen (Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2005)
In A Day of Gladness, Herold Weiss has written a highly readable and informed study on ancient Jewish and Christian conceptions of the Sabbath. The present volume brings together Weiss's many years of research on the Sabbath in Judaism and Christianity. Many of the chapters have previously been published at various stages of Weiss's research. This book provides Weiss the opportunity to synthesize the conclusions of the individual studies and begin to identify larger points of contact and divergence in early Judaism and Christianity. In framing the parameters of his discussion of the Sabbath, Weiss states that his objective is to explore "the ways in which ancient Jews and Christians constructed their world of meaning" (p. 1). In elucidating this world of meaning with respect to the Sabbath, Weiss spreads a wide canvass. He is equally interested in the various theological explanations of the Sabbath's significance, the different ways the Sabbath was observed (including the inevitable conflict that therein arises) and the "symbolic worlds" that this observance reflected (p. 1).
Another dominant theme suffuses the entire book. As Weiss acknowledges, the illumination of the "complexities of Jewish-Christian relations" is a secondary goal that underscores the present study. Weiss correctly observes that the central character of the Sabbath in Judaism translated into an equally significant, though modified, role of the Sabbath in early Christianity. The highlighting of this shared cultural heritage is indicative of much recent scholarship that no longer views Judaism and nascent Christianity as entirely distinct. Rather, as Weiss's study of the Sabbath indicates, Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries C.E. are understood as developing in far greater relation to each other than once imagined. As is readily apparent, such scholarly approaches to ancient Jewish-Christian relations have serious implications for modern Jewish-Christian discourse. The recognition of ancient points of contact facilitates the nurturing of modern dialogue (pp. 3, 7-8, 182).
The book unfolds with a series of individualized studies on the Sabbath in specific Jewish and Christian communities in Antiquity. Weiss groups together texts with assumed shared communal affiliation and uses these texts as reflections of the community's conception of the Sabbath. In some cases, his discussion is restricted to one individual, though larger communal concerns are also in view (for example, the chapter on Philo provides evidence for the Jewish community in Alexandria). There are four chapters devoted to Judaism (early Judaism, Philo, Samaritans, and Josephus) and five for early Christianity (synoptic Gospels, Gospels of John and Thomas, Pauline letters, Letter to the Colossians, and Epistle to the Hebrews). In general, each of these chapters treats a central theme while at the time exploring other issues (for example, the chapter on the Samaritans concentrates primarily on Samaritan halakhic views). In most cases, these concerns appear in diverse textual corpora and thus in different chapters.
With respect to the Jewish material, this approach is sometimes uneven. The writings of Philo and Josephus are given individual chapters that explore the Sabbath in each of their writings. Each of these chapters is incredibly informative in its own regard. Weiss's discussion of Philo focuses on the apologetic character of Philo's treatment, which is responding to those who believe that the observance of the Sabbath detracts from its importance (p. 33). Likewise, the chapter on Josephus discusses at length the Jewish refusal to fight on the Sabbath and the ancient debates that ensued over this question (pp. 63-68, 73-80). However, there is little attempt to integrate these findings into the larger question of the Sabbath in early Judaism. At the same time, the chapter on early Judaism often appears too integrated. This chapter draws upon the whole range of rabbinic texts, often making little distinction between the tannaitic and amoraic corpora. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent the other major corpus discussed in this chapter. In addition, material from Jubilees is incorporated. Weiss readily acknowledges that it is inappropriate to merely assume that later rabbinic views on the Sabbath were normative and thus serve as a lens with which to view other texts (p. 2). Yet the harmonizing treatment of a wide range of rabbinic texts by themselves as well as together with the Qumran material at times suffers from this same tendency. Though Josephus' writings provide a natural independent corpus, the contents surely can better inform a discussion of early Judaism than rabbinic literature can. Each of these distinct corpora would have benefited greatly from their own independent treatment that takes into account the relevant literary and historical considerations. At the same time, the material should be discussed together when the texts warrant such an integrated treatment.
Weiss is imminently successful in his presentation of the early Christian material. Here, the textual and communal divisions are more readily apparent than in early Judaism and generate natural chapter groupings. For example, it would be inappropriate to discuss the Sabbath in the synoptic Gospels together with the Letter to the Hebrews. However, the Gospels of John and Thomas deserve to be treated together because of their assumed "intimate contact" (p. 105).
Analysis of the Christian material reveals a continually developing conception of the Sabbath in early Christian communities. Weiss's treatment of the synoptic gospels focuses on the "controversy dialogue." Namely, was it really Jesus' intention to break the Sabbath law and did he actually do so (pp. 86-89)? Weiss's conclusions, that there is little evidence that early Christians debated whether the Sabbath was to be observed or not (pp. 90-91), serves to bring nascent Christianity even closer to contemporary Judaism. Weiss even suggests that, as in contemporary Judaism, Christians merely deliberated on what types of actions were allowed to be performed on the Sabbath (p. 96).
While the Gospel of John continues to a certain extent this trajectory, it, along with the Gospel of Thomas, marks a dramatic shift. John clearly still displays evidence of a continuing "controversy dialogue." However, Christians now began to appeal to the saying and deeds of Jesus (rather than the Torah) as authority for alteration of Sabbath observance. John also draws the Sabbath into his Christology and bestows upon it new eschatological significance. Likewise, Thomas conceives of the Sabbath as having cosmic significance. Observance of the Sabbath transports one back to primordial time. This signifies the period before the fall, when man was created in the image of God. Gender, specifically the female gender, is a post-fall creation and impedes the ability of one to once again be undivided in the image of God. Only the observance of the Sabbath allows one to attain that state. Ultimately, both the Johannine and Thomas communities ceased to be concerned with how to observe the Sabbath and began to see themselves as living the Sabbath every day (p. 109). As Weiss observes, though the Sabbath was retained, its severely modified form marked a dramatic movement away from contemporary Judaism (p. 110).
Many of the themes and issues discussed in each chapter cut across the textual and communal boundaries that Weiss establishes. As such, the individualized nature of the studies diminishes from the opportunity to identify the points of contact (and divergence) among the various Jewish and Christian communities and between the two religions. While Weiss does attempt to incorporate the findings of each chapter in others, it is only in the final chapter that the conclusions of each chapter are fully brought to bear on one another. Here, in brief, Weiss identifies and contextualizes the wide spectrum of views on the Sabbath in the different corpora discussed (treating Judaism and Christianity separately). For example, the eschatological role of the Sabbath is tracked through Philo, Josephus, Qumran, and the Samaritans (pp. 169-170). Likewise, the competing conceptions of the eschatological character of the Sabbath in the Gospel of John, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Epistle to the Hebrews are framed in the context of one another (pp. 172-174). However, this treatment is brief and cursory. The book as a whole emerges primarily as a series of highly informed individual studies. While Weiss begins to connect the dots, this task is ultimately left to the reader.
Notwithstanding the organizational deficiencies, this work provides an excellent treatment of the Sabbath in each of the texts and communities discussed. In exploring the Sabbath in early Judaism and Christianity, Weiss is directed by the very texts themselves and as such addresses the central issues and concerns of these Jewish and Christian communities. In doing so, he succeeds in his stated goal of illuminating the wide range of Jewish and Christian conceptions of the Sabbath as well as identifying significant correspondences and dissimilarities between early Judaism and Christianity that underscores their continued shared world of meaning and practice in the first two centuries C.E.
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Alex Jassen. Review of Weiss, Herold, A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.
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