Book Review of Timothy Ling’s The Judaean Poor and the Fourth Gospel
By Michael J. Sandford
Timothy Ling’s broad-reaching monograph – which is a revised version of his doctoral thesis – is contentious and engaging throughout. He raises important questions for several different areas of New Testament scholarship.
After a brief introduction, Ling’s 2nd chapter ‘The New Testament world’ is largely concerned with the place of honour and shame culture in Judaea. Ling is bold in his rejection of the Context Group’s insistence on the pervasiveness of Mediterranean honour and shame culture in the New Testament world. Ling argues for a greater sensitivity to the cultural peculiarity of Judaea, a place in which religious values dominated, and honour before God was more highly valued than honour before people. His argument is persuasive and poses a challenge to the Context Group that must be taken seriously; it is unfortunate that responses to Ling’s arguments have so far not provided the serious critical engagement that Ling’s challenges warrant (B. J. Malina, ‘Review of Timothy Ling, The Judaean Poor and the Fourth Gospel’, RBL, 2007)
In the 3rd chapter ‘Judaea and ‘virtuoso religion’’, Ling argues that Judaea was a place in which the virtuoso practises of the Essenes and other pious ascetics flourished. Ling is again rather bold to criticise the whole Asceticism Group on two counts. Firstly, he suggests that the Asceticism Group tend to isolate the ascetic from their social world. Because of the Asceticism Group’s frequent reference to counter-cultural ascetics like the Cynics, there is perhaps some truth in this. But Ling’s characterisation of the Asceticism Group is unfortunately misguided, because those of the Asceticism Group who locate Jesus within the ascetic tradition do not seem to place Jesus as one who is detached from his social world (cf. Patterson, ‘Askesis and the Early Jesus Tradition’ in L. E. Vaage and V. L. Wimbush (eds) ‘Asceticism and the New Testament’ (London: Routledge, 1999), p.49-65). Ling’s second criticism of the Asceticism Group is concerned with their neglect of the Therapeutae and the Essenes. This is an astute criticism, and a survey of the Asceticism Group’s literature reveals a surprising and disappointing lack of attention to the ascetic practices of the Essenes. The second part of this chapter outlines the social and economic situation in Judaea, which, Ling argues, fostered an environment in which virtuoso religion flourished.
The 4th chapter, ‘The Judaean Poor’, focuses on the identity of the ptōchoi. Ling draws on the work of Brian Capper (who supervised Ling in the writing of his initial PhD thesis) that postulates the prevalence of Essene ‘poorhouses’ in Judaea, and at Bethany (‘House of the Poor’) in particular. Ling criticises 3 recent attempts to understand the identity of the ptōchoi. First, Ling criticises Schottroff and Stegemann for assuming a purely economic meaning, which he demonstrates to be simplistic. Secondly, Ling criticises Malina’s definition of the poor as ‘a sort of revolving class of people who unfortunately could not maintain their inherited status.’ Thirdly, Ling considers Hollenbach’s definition of the poor, which encompasses Malina’s view of the temporarily unfortunate poor along with the view of the poor as the structurally oppressed. Ling goes too far in his criticisms, apparently bent on emphasising the link between the ptōchoi and piety. He is correct in his assertion that the religious connotations of the ptōchoi have not featured enough in recent discussions of the poor, but he understates the economic dimension of ptōchos that is present far more often than the religious dimension.
In the 5th chapter, ‘John’s Social World’, Ling contests the normative sectarian view of the Fourth Gospel. He suggests that author’s detailed familiarity with the geography of Jerusalem suggests that the Fourth Gospel comes from the heart of Jerusalem; that the Fourth Gospel is not the product of some detached sect, but of someone who was intimately familiar with the Judaean social world. In this chapter again, Ling raises a bold and convincing.
Ling’s monograph is a contentious and exciting piece of work, with chapters 2 and 5 being of particular merit. His overall thesis, however, is a little unwieldy, in particular his conclusions in chapter 4 on the identity of the ptōchoi. Nonetheless, Ling’s discussion of the cultural peculiarity of Judaea, the identity of the ptōchoi, the role of the Essenes in Judaea, and the non-sectarian nature of the Fourth Gospel are stimulating, and are creatively woven together by Ling to produce a fine monograph.
Michael J. Sandford