The history and literature of the Palestinian Jews from Cyrus to Herod: 550 BC to 4 BC

Written by W. Stewart McCullough Reviewed By Richard N. Longenecker

Two introductory texts to the history and literature of the intertestamental period were published in North America during 1975, and both deserve some mention and evaluation. In certain respects, perhaps, it could be said that these two works are alike, since both are productions of older writers and both are somewhat doctrinaire in their own ways. In the main, however, particularly in their levels of scholarship, their quality of presentation, and their theological stances, the two are decidedly different.

By far the better of the two in its scholarship and presentation is the book by W. Stewart McCullough, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, University College, University of Toronto. In his The history and literature of the Palestinian Jews from Cyrus to Herod, McCullough deals with three matters in about equal proportions: (1) the history and theology of Israel during the late Babylonian and the Persian periods (550–333 bc); (2) the political history of Palestinian Jewry from Alexander of Macedonia to Herod the Great (333–4 bc); and (3) the literature of late Judaism from Ben Sira to 2 Esdras. While the presentation is interesting and informed throughout, the quality of treatment varies somewhat from section to section. The first section reflects something of a reformed classical liberalism in its stance as it works from rather ‘traditional’ liberal literary analyses of the materials yet seeks to be more constructive with regard to history. Of particular interest within this section is the author’s noncommittal attitude toward the interpretation of the Isaiah Servant Songs, his scepticism regarding the extent of Zoroastrian influence on the development of Israel’s religion, and his habit of deciding most issues on the basis of what seems to him either ‘credible’ or ‘incredible’. In effect, what results is principally a rehash of earlier liberal literary opinions coupled with more moderate historical evaluations and a hesitancy to speak theologically. It all makes very interesting reading, but one probably learns more about McCullough in the process than anything else.

Section 2, on the political history of Palestinian Jewry from Alexander to Herod, is the best part of the book. McCullough is obviously most interested in and most at home with the interplay of political forces during this period, and in tracing out such inter-relations and in spelling out the events he is at his best. Somewhat surprising, however, is the author’s tendency to ignore many cultural, ideological and religious factors that could very well be taken into account by way of a fuller explanation of at least some of the political and military movements he enumerates. Elias Bickerman’s From Ezra to the last of the Maccabees is included in his bibliography as one of the ten ‘modern studies dealing with various aspects of our subject’, but McCullough does not interact with or even suggest any awareness of Bickerman’s many illuminating suggestions along this line. Nor is there any indication that he knows of the sociologico-historical studies of such men as Louis Finkelstein, Marcel Simon or Martin Hengel. Furthermore, it is somewhat surprising to read so repeatedly of the action of Antiochus IV in Jerusalem during 168 and 167 bc as being a departure from Seleucid cultural and religious policy generally—a ‘gross error’ of judgment on the part of Antiochus IV alone, which can be explained externally only in light of conditions in Judea—without any indication of competing interpretations.

Section 3 on the literature of late Judaism is, in the main, quite good, though almost entirely based on such earlier views as are incorporated in R. H. Charles’ 1913 magnum opus. Following Charles and company, McCullough tends to credit the authorship of the various writings to either Sadducees or Pharisees depending on the type of polemic represented, without any serious consideration of the various cross-currents of sectarian opinion then extant. Furthermore, he writes off the work of Martin de Jonge on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs by means of a caricature of his position and the simple statement that fragments of the Testaments in Aramaic and Hebrew have been found at Qumran (which, of course, is what de Jonge’s literary analysis anticipated, and which in their extent and nature tend to support de Jonge’s position), and he simply calls the thesis of J. T. Milik on the Similitudes of Enoch ‘extreme’—neither response being either adequate or fair in view of the evidence and recent discussion. McCullough’s treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a good introduction to the material, though his employment of the data is somewhat selective in support of his own stances. Nevertheless, despite these objections, this third section of the book is a generally good survey of the literature of late Judaism, if one keeps in mind that its judgments and some of its data take us only up to about 1960.

Raymond F. Surburg’s Introduction to the intertestamental period, while it covers the same period and deals with the same literature, is quite different from McCullough’s work. As Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Concordia Seminary, Springfield, Illinois, Surburg is definitely interested in the theological issues of the period and he continually points out features of the time that could be understood as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and as a preparation by God for the advent of Christ and the spread of the Christian gospel. But his scholarship is based almost entirely on secondary sources, with only the most obvious primary materials used in support, and his literary style is rather archaic and awkward.

Part I on ‘The historical background’ deals in sweeping fashion with the political history of Jewry from the beginning of Persian rule through Hadrian’s invasion. It is a readable summary of events drawn from the standard texts on the subject, but one could wish that the author’s adjectives (both laudatory and perjorative) had been kept to a minimum, that a few errors of fact were not included (e.g. that the Acra is the Old City of David fortified; that the allegorical method of interpretation characterized the Pharisees), that dates were given more accurately, and that there was more of a breadth of explanation for what occurred. Part II on ‘The religious background’ is a generally good survey in popular terms of the theology of the period, though one cannot help wondering how the author could deal with such matters without first treating the literature itself. This section contains material drawn largely from such writers as Robert E. Dentan (who is alternately called Dentan and Denton, but who does not appear in the bibliography), W. O. E. Oesterley, and George Beasley-Murray, and provides abundant opportunity for one who wants to employ his source-critical abilities. Part III of 100 pages is devoted to the ‘Jewish literature of the intertestamental period’, by which the author means not only the so-called apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings together with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also the Septuagint, Philo and Josephus. It includes a good popular survey of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a pedagogically proper (but less perceptive) presentation of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical materials. But in his treatment of these latter texts, Surburg exceeds McCullough in his dependence upon older commentators and their views—without any interaction at all with recent issues or scholarly debate. And, rather strangely, he is able to develop a relatively full discussion of the so-called Temple Scroll from Qumran (dependent solely, of course, upon Yadin’s very brief comments) without any indication that the text has yet to be published.

In sum, Stewart McCullough’s work is a scholarly and significant introduction to the intertestamental period—or, at least, two-thirds of it is. Section 2, when supplemented by the works of such writers as Bickerman, Finkelstein and Hengel, and section 3, when brought up to date in its judgments and in some of its data, are highly recommended for the graduate student in biblical studies and all serious inquirers. Raymond Surburg’s book is a popularized account, based chiefly on secondary materials, of the history, theology and literature of the period. It will probably prove to be popular in many quarters, but I would hesitate to recommend it to the serious student for fear that it might immunize more than inform and inspire with regard to the subject.

Richard N. Longenecker

McMaster Divinity College, Ontario