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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

TIMOTHY J. M. LING, The Judaean Poor and the Fourth Gospel (SNTSMS 136; Cambridge: CUP, 2006). Pp. xvii + 245. 53.00/$US90.00.

It is a while since I have been so excited about a book, but Timothy Ling’s monograph was one I read and then re-read with great interest. L.’s work, which is a revision of his doctoral thesis supervised by Brian Capper, opens up new perspectives and new questions for New Testament studies. His work, while naming the Fourth Gospel in its title, in fact has far wider implications for understanding the world of first century Judaism, and so I would strongly recommend this for all New Testament scholars. For some years the approach of the social-scientists has been of concern to me. Something about this methodology seemed reductionist and lacking in an ability to assess the theological dimensions of scripture. L.’s work offers a necessary critique of the usual social scientific models that are applied too readily to first-century Palestine.

After a brief introduction outlining his approach, L.’s first major chapter examines the premises underlying the usual ‘honour’-‘shame’ model proposed by the social-scientists for understanding first-century Palestine. This model has four characteristics, “it is public in nature, paramount in practice, rooted in gender distinctions, and agonistic in character” (12). These four characteristics are analysed, including their anthropological basis, and are found to lack sufficient sensitivity to other cultural data to be imposed in a dogmatic way for a model of the New Testament world. L. notes the frequent use of Greco-Roman literature as a major source of information, then the globalising of these results to interpret other Mediterranean cultures such as the Mediterranean Arabic world. Here there is an assumption that the values and concepts that fit one Mediterranean society necessarily hold true of other social groups. L. draws on studies that show this to be a false assumption.

The following chapter proposes another term drawn from sociological analysis-virtuoso religions, that is, “forms of piety that may lead to the formation of religious orders” (62). This approach emphasises the role of the religious social actor within a society. Virtuoso religion, L. claims, is not sectarian, in that it “functions as an alternative community not outside society but within it,” therefore having the potential to impact on that society. L.’s analysis of virtuoso religion presents the tension of virtuoso religion vis-à-vis the wider society in that it aims to live out the ideal values of the society while at the same time offering a living critique of the society; it is both conservative and subversive. “The defining capacity of the virtuoso is their ability to maintain alternative structures which present a reversed image of society whilst remaining within its ideological and institutional boundaries” (74). The virtuoso religion emerges in particular circumstances within an agrarian society and so provides another way of examining the social world of first century Judea. This chapter then examines in some detail characteristics of Judea in the first century; it is a society ruled by a puppet King, having a strong religious identity dominated by the Jerusalem Temple, and with a great disparity between the social/religious elite and the small landholder. These circumstances L. argues led to the development of particular Judaean forms of piety such as the Essenes, which fit the social-scientific description of virtuoso religion.

L.’s fourth chapter is titled, “The Judaean Poor,” and this chapter describes different types of poverty peculiar to Judea: economic, social and socio-economic. This chapter offers a brief excurses on the makarism, “Blessed are the poor”(Luke 6:20) ‘… in spirit” (Matt 5:3). Here he argues that the statement in Matthew reflects the piety of the poor for whom Deutero-Isaiah promises a great reversal. This L. claims, expresses the piety of virtuoso religion in first-century Judea. When examining the usages of ‘the poor’ in the New Testament the term seems to be addressed to the religious attitude of poverty, particularly witnessed in the life of Jesus and his close followers.

Having established the religious and social background of first-century Judea, L.’s fifth chapter turns to the Fourth Gospel to critique the usual classification of the Johannine religious context as sectarian. He argues that the Gospel emerges from within an indigenous Judaean form of religious virtuosity. This category, rather than ‘sect,’ may better explain aspects of this Gospel—its tension between being ‘not of this world’ yet sent into ‘this world,’ the prominence it gives to women as religious actors, its love commandment.

A short concluding chapter summarises his central line of argument that the social category of ‘virtuoso religion’ better describes the type of Johannine tradition than the category of “sect.’ This chapter is followed by a bibliography, an index of modern authors, and subjects.

In his argument, Ling makes good use of recent studies on the Essenes and their influence on the religious and social world of Judea. His work on Bethany and the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus was particularly intriguing. This is a work that aroused my interest to follow up Ling’s footnotes, to become more acquainted with the religious world he described and to see if I would reach the same conclusions.

Graduate students and scholars will find this book both challenging and enlightening, and will probably want to delve into the new perspectives that L. opens up for understanding the first-century world.

Review by
Mary L. Coloe
Australian Catholic University
Locked Bag 4115
Fitzroy VIC 3065