The Scepter and the Star

The Scepter and the Star May 28, 2016

I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a free review copy of the second edition of John J. Collins’ book The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Anyone familiar with the first edition will already know that the book at the very least retains its value even without any updates. But Collins has gone through and updated references and interaction with secondary literature, as well as adding some new material, in particular an excursus on Israel Knohl’s The Messiah Before Jesus.

As I gear up for the Enoch Seminar on the Gospel of John and/as Jewish messianism in June, reading the second edition of Collins’ book seemed an appropriate way to remind myself of key relevant material. But I found that the book did much more than merely remind. Instead, its treatment seemed fresh and new, as well as thoroughly up to date. The key ancient sources are all given ample discussion, with consideration of a full range of scholarly views and disagreements. Not only the standard Dead Sea Scrolls that are always mentioned, but relatively neglected ones like the “self-exaltation hymn,” are discussed, as are 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon, Josephus, and many other texts.

Although not mentioned in the title or subtitle, the book is of particular interest for those who study early Christianity, and indeed the messianism of Jesus serves as the climax and conclusion of the book. But the subject is also in view throughout the book, and considered precisely as one of the many forms of Jewish messianism in this period. While there are respects in which Collins considers Jesus and Christianity something of an “anomaly” in comparison with others, one still gets a strong sense that every single messianic movement was distinctive. There were patterns and trends that were shared, but not in general mere precise copying. This is important, as Collins’ book challenges the tendency in Christian scholarship to treat Jewish messianism as a negative foil which can serve as a backdrop to highlight Jesus’ distinctiveness and superiority.

The treatment of the “sign prophets” mentioned by Josephus is a particularly good example of Collins’ evenhandedness, as he identifies assumptions about the purported violent militancy that has sometimes been assumed to have motivated these figures, with no actual support in the evidence. And in the process, Collins addresses the concern that has sometimes been raised about whether the texts of this period provide access to popular hopes and expectations, or merely those of the tiny scribal elite. “The pattern of prophecy and fulfilment was not merely a scribal exercise among the literate few. It had a direct impact on Jewish history in the Roman period” (p.219).

For those who have followed discussions of mythicism on this blog, Collins’ treatment of the question of whether a suffering messiah predates Christianity will be of interest. On pp.141-145, Collins examines how the suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah is treated in Jewish texts in this period, noting that the more messianic the interpretation, the more the suffering of the figure is played down or even eliminated. Where a figure is said to “make atonement,” some have jumped unjustifiably to the conclusion that this was through their sacrifice of themselves, rather than by more traditional priestly methods. On the use of certain Psalms as well as Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, Collins writes, “The Christian use of these psalms involved a new line of interpretation, however, for which there was no precedent in Judaism. There is surprisingly little use of Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, a fact that would be difficult to explain if that passage had been understood with reference to a suffering eschatological figure in Judaism” (p.235).

There are other important conclusions which are drawn about the New Testament. Bucking an earlier trend, but foreshadowing and influencing the direction that scholarship has since moved, Collins writes of the identification of Jesus as Messiah, “It is unlikely that Jesus’ followers would have given him such a politically inflammatory title after his death if it had no basis in his life…The messianic identity of Jesus must be grounded in some way before his crucifixion” (p.229).

Collins’ book is essential reading for anyone interested in ancient Judaism or early Christianity. And those who have read it before definitely ought to read it again in the second edition. At the very least, it will serve as a refresher. But I fully expect – at least for those who had not read it in a long time, like me – that it will impact you as though you are reading something new. Because Collins’ book in its updated form provides both – reminders of the familiar, but also interesting discussions of possibilities for the interpretation of that ancient material that continue to be the focus of discussion and debate in the present day.

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