Wednesday, March 21, 2012


M. E. Stone, Ancient Judaism: New Visions and Views. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. Pp. xiv, 242. ISBN 9780802866363. $30.00.

Reviewed by Juan Carlos Ossandón, Pontificia Università della Santa Croce (

Version at BMCR home site


In the field of ancient Jewish literature, few authors can display such an impressive list of publications as Michael Edward Stone.1 Despite the title his latest book is not an overall presentation of Second Temple Judaism but rather a collection of specialized studies, with some relationship to each other. Most of its seven chapters deal with aspects that Professor Stone has addressed previously and to which he returns with "new visions and views" written in dialogue with the latest research. Accordingly, the bibliography is extensively updated and the book contains unpublished material, with the exception of chapter 4.

Chapter 1, "Our Perception of Origins: New Perspectives on the Context of Christian Origins" (1-30), serves as an introduction. Stone begins by observing that the historical period called "Second Temple Judaism" attracts the attention of scholars largely because it helps them understand contemporary Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, what has been considered over the centuries as "orthodox" has played a decisive role in the selection and conservation of the sources. Stone offers clear examples among Jewish and Christian scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. History is not "hard science" and historians must recognize the perspective from which they speak. But, against postmodern visions, Stone thinks that one should not renounce the possibility of accessing the past. His recipe is to try to challenge orthodoxy.2

Not all is theoretical in this chapter. After a description of the sources and their transmission (16-25) there follow some delightful pages, in which, under the title "What Comes Next?" (25-29), the author's long academic experience shines out, together with his hopes for the future and also some complaints. For example, Stone laments that there is still no critical edition of a text so studied today as 1 Enoch (27).

In the following chapter, "Adam and Enoch and the State of the World" (31-58), Stone recalls that two different stories were employed in Second Temple Judaism to explain the origin of evil and disorder in the world. In line with Genesis 3, one tradition attributes the origin of evil to the transgression of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, 1 Enoch does not put the blame on any human being, but rather on the Watchers, whose fall caused the flood and the disorder of the world. Stone's contribution consists in showing the links of this Enochic explanation, dominant in Qumran, with some other texts (Aramaic Levi Document, Testament of Qahat, parts of Jubilees, and many others) which speak of a priestly chain of transmission of written documents beginning with Noah and dealing with sacrifices, exorcisms and medicine. The relationship with the story of the Watchers relies on the figure of Noah, who is presented as the starting point of these teachings, because he was seen as a second Adam. He inaugurates the new world order after the flood. The instructions attributed to him offer the means to overcome the harm produced by the Watchers.

Chapter 3, "Apocalyptic Historiography" (59-89), analyzes a feature common to much of Jewish apocalyptic literature, namely the organization of history into fixed periods, from creation to the last time. Stone shows the progressive evolution of the more commonly used patterns, from the seventy years of the Babylonian exile to the seven millennia, including the famous schema of the four kingdoms. They all share an emphasis on eschatology: the various periods are stages of a process leading to the final intervention of God, who will reward the righteous and punish the sinners. The description of the end is usually constructed by analogy with other moments in history, especially the creation and the exodus.

In Chapter 4, "Visions and Pseudepigraphy" (90-121), Stone defends one of his most constant and debated theses: the presence of a core of real religious experience behind the description of visions in apocalyptic literature. Stone develops his argumentation from one of his favorite apocalypses, 4 Ezra. The vision of the woman who is transformed into Zion in 4 Ezra 9-10 has certain details that are unlike anything to be found in earlier Jewish literature. For this and other reasons, Stone argues that this text can be satisfactorily explained only if it reflects an actual experience of the author. This conclusion should be applied to similar texts, but Stone recognizes that he cannot provide a criterion to distinguish between a vision with real substance and a merely literary description (108). Therefore, despite his insistence, it seems to me unclear to what extent the presupposition of a religious experience would affect the interpretation of these texts.

"Bible and Apocrypha" (122-150) studies a rather new issue in Stone's writings: the formation of the collection of Judaism's sacred books. Perhaps for this reason one gets the impression of a certain accumulation of data without a clear pattern. In general, Stone shares the dominant view today, that is, to speak of "Bible" and "canon" before 70 AD is anachronistic but the privileged position of the Moses' Torah must be recognized. In any case, it is well worth reading an explanation of the canon by someone who has such a deep knowledge of non-canonical literature as Stone.

In "Multiform Transmission and Authorship" (151-171) Stone explains the curious phenomenon of the "textual clusters" of the Byzantine period, i.e., groups of texts that contain the same story in different versions, but we cannot know which depends on which. Stone describes the situation of three of these groups: the Adam literature, the Esdras or Sedrach literature, and the Elijah Apocryphon. He claims that these cases may help to understand similar phenomena in Second Temple Judaism (151). It would have been helpful if he had given some examples.

Finally, Chapter 7, "The Transmission of Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha" (172-194), tells the story of how many ancient Jewish works, rejected by the rabbis, fell into oblivion or disappeared, and of their gradual rediscovery in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards. The chapter ends with Stone's vision on the future of research in this field.

Many of the pages of this book are required reading for specialists, particularly the summaries of scholarly discussions,3 and students will find chapter 7 especially helpful. Chapter 1 has too many excessively general statements but addresses with honesty and balance problems that other historians prefer to avoid. As a general criticism, I would say that this book lacks unity. Stone himself, however, warns in the preface that the book "does not present a single thesis" (ix).


1.   A list of publications until 2004 can be seen in E. G. Chazon - D. Satran - R. A. Clements (eds.), Things Revealed: Studies in Early Jewish and Christian Literature in Honor of Michael E. Stone, Brill, Leiden 2004, 365-380.
2.   As a practical example, Stone proposes the use of archeology to interpret the ancient Israelite religion as done by W. G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 2005.
3.   For example, Stone clearly summarizes the discussion of the last 40 years about the presence of wisdom elements in apocalyptic literature (91, n.6). Another example of a good summary is the presentation of the various hypotheses on the origin of Jewish eschatology (75-79).

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