Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Reviewed by Chris Durham on 08/07/2022

This commentary is the third installment in the translation project of the monumental Kommentar of Strack-Billerbeck, edited by Jacob Cerone. The original project, developed by German scholars Hermann Strack and Rev. Paul Billerbeck, was published almost a century ago (1922–1928). Hermann Strack (1848–1922) was a scholar of Jewish antiquity, and Paul Billerbeck (1853–1932) was a Lutheran pastor. Both men were advanced in years by the time the project got underway, and Billerbeck had to see it to conclusion after the death of Strack on October 5, 1922.[1] Nevertheless, they shared an interest in the literature of Judaism, as well as an interest in Jewish mission, and stood as public opponents to the rising anti-Semitism of the period.

To what extent each contributed to the overall project is difficult to ascertain.[2] Though both were studied, it seems that Strack played a large role in the preparation of the earlier volumes; however, Billerbeck wrote much of the commentary connected with it. This work was not a commentary in the sense that it was the expression of a scholar’s interpretation of a given biblical text. Instead, it was a collation of Jewish sources which, in the eyes of Strack and Billerbeck, may be brought to bear on the words, phrases, and concepts found in the New Testament. The intention of this work was to present “the beliefs, ideas, and the life of the Jews in the time of Jesus and earliest Christianity.”[3] Consequently, each verse of the New Testament is presented along with as many rabbinical and Midrash references as economically possible (xxvi).

The introductory notes by David Brewer are helpful in situating the work in its historical context and also for understanding the impulses which gave rise to the initial project (xxi–xxxix). After its publication in the 1920s through the early 1960s, this collection played an important role in the study of the New Testament and Christian origins and may frequently be found in the reference section of many biblical studies.[4]

Two major stages of criticism have obscured the work, or at least made scholars highly conscientious of its deficiencies, and so tended to avoid its use. First, Samuel Sandmel leveled specific criticisms at the project: the citations were removed from their context; the users, unfamiliar with rabbinic contexts, were given and readily made for themselves a distorted picture of Jewish life in the time of Jesus; the quotations are too long; the reality of first-century Judaism was anachronistically obscured; and the authors have a Christian bias (xxvi).[5] Second, E. P. Sanders’s major monograph, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, set off criticisms of the work as being theologically biased (xxvii).[6]

Brewer counters these claims point for point. He argues that one must, of course, pay attention to dating in order to properly use the text; that the citations are appropriate in length by virtue of the project’s scope; and that there can be deficiencies in the work which should be taken into account (xxvi). While conceding that the work can be used inappropriately, Brewer also argues that the original compilers did not intend to develop a comprehensive theology of early Judaism, but rather to collect different possible views which may have existed in the time of Christ (xxx). The specialist and the non-specialist alike must beware of the pitfalls of such a resource (xxvi, xxx), but this need not mean we should discard the tool itself, only that we learn to use it with care. Brewer further makes the case that the complexity of dating need not mean that we abandon a resource simply because the dating of its textual sources is difficult (xxxii). This scholarly approach is commendable precisely because it refuses to collapse into false dichotomies, but seeks a mediating approach that seriously attempts to locate the sources in their historical context (xxxiii–xxxvi).

Additionally helpful, if one elects to sift through the sources and employ the Strack-Billerbeck translation, is the editor’s preface by Jacob Cerone. The editor offers a “user’s guide” which helps discern the arrangement of the notes and quotations. The guide is important since the new translation does make certain alterations to the text. For instance, in the English edition, certain material originally in the body text has been moved to the footnotes (xiii). The reader may then use the guide to determine what he is reading as he sifts through the material and accurately determines its source. However, the number of sources and the space present a challenge that the editors do not entirely overcome. Cerone labors to provide internal reference consistency, but this consistency forces the reader to frequently flip to other pages, which becomes cumbersome. In order for the reader to use this commentary properly, due to the internal reference system, it seems necessary to collect all the volumes, rather than add only one to his library; for only with all the volumes in hand can he easily assess a given text.

The most significant and obvious benefit of this project is that the editors have made available a major reference work in English that previously required as a minimum a robust understanding of German to utilize. Whatever pitfalls the readership may fall into, the work itself is accessible to them in a way and with a scope that it previously was not. An additional benefit of the work in general is that cross references to Old Testament passages, phrases, and ideas may be readily found in any given entry, in addition to the post-biblical material drawn from the Talmud and the Mishnah. For example, in the notes on Galatians 3:8B (625) (the divisions of versification are those of the commentary), the authors provide a generous discussion of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations, which includes the original Hebrew text, the LXX translation, and a discussion of subsequent interpretations of the blessing. Set against Paul’s exposition, these can be very illuminating. Likewise, if the reader examines the notes for Romans 14:13, “Not to cause a stumbling or an offense for your brother,” one finds a discussion of a hypothesized underlying passage, Leviticus 19:14 (“You will not lay a stumbling block in front of a blind person”) (360).[7] This discussion includes reference to the Hebrew and Greek texts, as well as a discussion of subsequent texts that may also have the original (Lev 19:14) in view.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the sources themselves and do not have the time or interest to place them in their historical context, this translation project may not be useful. Preparation for Bible study or sermon work may be impaired, rather than aided, by extensive forays into the dating of rabbinical literature. The attention properly due to those duties ought to prevent many from devoting themselves to endless rabbinical chronologies. This work certainly could be beneficial for those who wish to study rabbinical texts and their potential relations to the New Testament. Brewer and Cerone make clear that if one is willing to work hard, there can be real benefits for New Testament scholarship. The student who wishes to understand the relation between later Judaism and its first-century, Second Temple antecedent will do well to use these volumes to become acquainted with such literature, and move forward from the connections he finds in them to a deeper exploration of the complex history and development of the Jewish people and their literature.



[1] Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 4 vols. (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1922–1928), 2:vi.

[2] William Baird, History of New Testament Research, vol. 2, From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 418–419.

[3] Strack and Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, 1:vi. “Nicht eine eigentliche Auslegung des Neuen Testaments, sondern das zu seinem Verständnis aus Talmud und Midrasch zu gewinnende Material wollten wir darbieten; den Glauben, die Anschauungen und das Leben der Juden in der Zeit Jesu und der ältesten Christenheit wollten wir objektiv darlegen.”

[4] A few examples will suffice: W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (London: SPCK, 1948), viii; Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie and Charles A. M. Hall (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963), xi [initially published in German in 1957]; Archibald M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 7. On the other hand, after sharp criticisms, one may readily note the absence of the Strack-Billerbeck commentary in major publications such as John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), xii–xiii; E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), xiii–xiv. There are of course exceptions to this general decline in use. Joachim Jeremias continued to use the collection, possibly due to his connection with Billerbeck and the project overall. See Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus, trans. John Bowden (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), xiii; also James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), vii.

[5] See also Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 8–11.

[6] See also E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 42–44. Sanders found Sandmel’s arguments persuasive and lambasted anyone who continued to use the famous commentary without independent knowledge of its sources.

[7] All Scripture quotations are the author’s translation.