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Ronning, John


The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology. Peabody: Hendrickson 2010. XX, 315 S. gr.8°. Kart. £ 19,99. ISBN 978-1-59856-306-1.


Catrin H. Williams

This book revives the argument that the Jewish Targumim – Aramaic translations recited in the synagogue after the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures – provide the interpretative key to the use of the Logos title in John 1:1–18. The study also goes further than its predecessors by claiming that Targumic themes, especially those linked to Memra (›Word‹) as a metonym for God, have influenced several christological ideas found elsewhere in the Gospel of John.
After a preliminary overview (Chapter 1) and detailed analysis (Chapter 2) of the possible Targumic influence on the christological application of ›the Word‹ (λόγος) in the Prologue, the study broad­ens its scope to enquire whether the Targumim can also illumi­nate John’s presentation of Jesus as the one who reveals God’s name and as the Son of Man who descends from heaven (Chapters 3–4). By focusing on passages in the Hebrew Bible whose counterparts in the Targumim give prominence to the Memra, R. seeks to demonstrate the Targumic background to the depiction of the Johannine Jesus as fulfilling the divine roles of warrior, bridegroom and lawgiver (Chapters 5–7), as the one whose self-revelation calls for a faith-response (Chapter 8), and as the one who embodies the ›I am he‹ pronouncements of God (Chapter 9). These chapters are fol­- low­ed by a somewhat incongruous comparison of unconscious proph­ecies in John’s Gospel (especially Caiaphas’s words in 11:50–51) with what R. describes as ›unwitting references‹ in the Targumim to Jesus as the fulfilment of the divine Word (Chapter 10). The study extends its scope even further by examining ›high‹ christo­logical passages in other New Testament texts through a Targumic lens (Chapter 11) before offering a robust defence of the main thesis against probable and actual scholarly objections (Chapter 12) and concluding with a brief outline of its implications for Johannine studies.
There is much of interest in this monograph. It bristles with new ideas and identifies several intriguing points of contact be­-­tween Johannine and Jewish Aramaic exegetical traditions. It also justifiably highlights the need for New Testament commentators to engage more actively with Targum research, which has become the subject of renewed interest during the past few decades. Nevertheless, the volume is not without its serious flaws. As R. himself acknowledges (XII), the work would have benefited from more ex-tensive research and, one could add, from further percolation be­- fore its publication. He amasses hundreds of possible Johannine/ Targumic parallels, but, more often than not, without offering a close analysis of their relative significance and without giving due attention to the literary relationship of the Jewish Targumim and the fluidity of their textual transmission. Certain methodological issues therefore call for particular comment in this review.
First, while R. laments the fact that many New Testament schol­ars choose to overlook the Targumim, he does not fully acknowledge the inherent difficulties of citing Jewish evidence that incontrovertibly postdates the first century C. E. He accepts that ›all the extant Targums seem to date from the second century C. E. and later‹ (10) and offers a three-page discussion of this issue in the final chapter (266–69), but a study of this nature requires thorough engagement with the extensive scholarly debate about the dating of texts like the Pentateuchal Targumim (Neofiti, Fragment-Targumim, Pseudo-Jonathan). It may well be the case that some, even several, of the traditions preserved in the extant Targumim were already in circulation during the New Testament period, but R. fails to formulate workable criteria and controls that would enable him to distinguish between earlier and later interpretative material, opting rather for a holistic approach to the Targumic texts in question. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, for example, figures promi­nently in this study, and its version of the divine declaration in Deut 32:39, which includes two occurrences of Memra, is repeatedly cited with reference to the Johannine ›I am‹ (ἔγω εἴμι) pronouncements. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is, however, a text that underwent much development and expansion before its literary crystallization and final redaction around the seventh or eighth century C. E., and it cannot simply be assumed that every aspect of its rendering of Deut 32:39 belongs to an early rather than later stratum of the text.
Secondly, R. tends to adopt a myopic view of the Jewish matrix from which John’s Gospel emerged. In the case of several proposed Targumic parallels to John’s vocabulary and ideas, the influence of other – and earlier – Jewish traditions appears equally plausible, such as the significance of ›glory‹ (δόξα) in LXX Isa 6:1 for the interpretation of the explanatory comment about Isaiah’s vision of glory in John 12:41. It does not suffice, moreover, to posit a Targumic ›new Adam‹ background for the Johannine ›Son of Man‹ title (Chapter 4) without evaluating whether this proposal provides a more likely interpretative context than the reception of Dan 7 in Jewish apocalyptic circles, particularly if material belonging to the latter can be confidently dated to the first century C. E. Towards the end of his study (267–69), R. admits that traces of the Memra theology of the extant Targumim can already be found in Philo’s writings and in the Wisdom of Solomon (16:5–13; 18:14–15). Acknowledging, as he does, that the Targumic traditions form later expressions of other strains of thought in late Second Temple Judaism (and from which they cannot be clearly separated) represents a more nuanced assessment of the Jewish evidence than one encounters in the central chapters of the study.
Thirdly, and closely related to the second point, R. repeatedly states that, if one accepts a Targumic background for the Logos title in the Johannine Prologue, this must strengthen the likelihood of Targumic connections elsewhere in the Gospel. This is rather flimsy ground on which to build a thesis, particularly if, as R. later concedes, a Word theology is already attested in earlier, non-Targumic, Jewish material. Furthermore, in subsequent chapters (especially Chapters 5–7) he relies much more on evidence drawn from the Hebrew Bible than from the Targumim and, for topics where there is a paucity of close Johannine/Targumic ›parallels‹, he resorts to offering an extended discussion of points of contact be­-tween the Targumim and the Synoptic Gospels (Chapters 5 and 7) and Pauline and deutero-Pauline material (Chapters 4 and 6). This is not to deny that the Aramaic Targumim may be a potentially fruitful area of investigation for the interpretation of John’s Gospel, but this recent contribution on the subject of ›John and Judaism‹ alerts us once again to the importance of handling methodological questions in a full and judicious manner.