Item description for Holy Lives, Holy Deaths: A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Storytellers (Society of Biblical Literature Studies in Biblical Literature, 1) by Antoinette Clark Wire...
This volume provides a guide to the reader in listening to early Jewish stories about holy figures which appear to have been first told between 150BCE and 150CE. Following new translations, the book provides a close hearing of the oral storytelling that generated these narratives now surviving only in literary form. It argues that historical folklore must reconstruct storytelling performance from literary remains. Making use of contemporary folklore methods, the author examines the text, texture and context of over 100 stories, including birth prophesies, provision legends, prophetic stories of destruction or deliverance and tales of martyrdom. A broad range of stories of these four types is presented in a way that reveals and illuminates the oral patterns and characteristics of the storytellers. The stories are drawn from apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature, Early Jewish historians, first-century Christian texts and the Mishnah and early Talmudic writings. The Christian tradition is included here because it was generated within sectarian Judaism and the first reports about Jesus appeared from Jewish storytellers. This work aims to shift the attention of biblical scholars and historians of religion away from an exclusive focus on the thought and art of writers and authors, and toward a wider recognition of the work of the storytellers, men and women alike, who generated the traditions that ultimately came to be preserved in written form.
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Reviews - What do customers think about Holy Lives, Holy Deaths: A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Storytellers (Society of Biblical Literature Studies in Biblical Literature, 1)?
Ian Myles Slater on: A New Approach Jul 27, 2004
I found "Holy Lives, Holy Deaths" to be an enormously satisfying book, which I would gladly recommend to others to buy -- except for the price. Like other Society of Biblical Literature volumes, it seems to be aimed at professional scholars and libraries, not students and general readers. (Has anyone done a study of the SBL's publishing practices, and whether lower prices, and larger printings or frequent reprintings, would be justified by increased sales?)
I would instead advise trying to find a library copy before ordering it, as I am certain that some readers will find it objectionable on religious grounds (an unfortunate but inevitable fact), or discover that the material is just too unfamiliar, and the approach too difficult, for them to get enough out of it. If you like the book, you will probably want a copy available for further reference; it is packed with interesting details and bibliographic information.
As for the book itself, "Holy Lives, Holy Deaths" is an impressive attempt to apply tools developed in other fields, notably by New Testament scholars attempting to uncover the oral traditions behind the Gospels, Acts, and the Apostolic Fathers and early Christian apocrypha, to Jewish documents reflecting the same period. This has been done in an unsystematic way by others, but Wire's methodological sophistication and range of materials sheds new light on seemingly familiar territory.
Short narrative passages from Rabbinic literature are arrayed and analyzed alongside comparable narratives from Hellenistic Jewish writings, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Texts, and, perhaps more controversially, the New Testament. The working assumption is that at least some of these stories circulated independently of their present contexts, and that a careful reading reveals how storytellers worked, and the social functions the stories were intended to serve.
Wire covers retellings of Biblical material, stories about Biblical figures, and stories about contemporary (or then recent) events and people, looking for patterns, techniques, and implied occasions. Teaching episodes, miracles, and martyrdoms all find a place, with other subjects, topically arranged for easy comparison of like with like. Among Wire's more interesting contributions is the suggestion (which I think she demonstrates effectively) that many early stories about Jesus fit most naturally in a Jewish setting into the mold of Martyred Prophet / Teacher, NOT that of Failed Messiah.
Readers unacquainted with the Jewish story-telling traditions investigated by Wire may want to compare some equally (or more) wide-ranging collections, without her analytic interventions in the presentation. Unfortunately, most such anthologies are excessively popularized to be of much use for scholarly purposes, or are very scholarly, and assume a great deal of background on the reader's part.
A good approximation of an introductory collection would be the late Raphael Patai's massive "Gates to the Old City: A Book of Jewish Legends," which is unfortunately out of print (again). It is usually available used (note that, in my experience, the original Avon paperback edition was so overstuffed that it tended to fall apart on purchase). Unhappily, as the editor-translator, Patai decided to leave out most of the Biblical "proof-texts" offered in the originals, and so tends to avoid those stories which depend on Hebrew word-play. Patai's companion volume, "The Messiah Texts" is probably available (if you are willing to wait), and would also be worth consulting. Howard Schwartz is best known for retellings, but his "Reimagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the Rabbis" is a first-rate collection of essays, with useful bibliographic notes, and much of it is accessible to a beginner, unlike Michael Fishbane's several admirable volumes on Rabbinic readings of the Bible. Among more narrow collections, Reuven Hammer's "The Classic Midrash: Tannaitic Commentaries on the Bible," in the Paulist Press's Classics of Western Spirituality series, is an invaluable introduction, with extended sections allowing the reader to see how passages fit into their extant literary context -- the one area where Wire leaves readers to fend for themselves.