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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, by John Arthur Smith.  Farnham, Surrey/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.  271 pp.  $114.95.


In his introduction the author states that the sole precursor of this volume is Eric Werner’s two-volume The Sacred Bridge, which he calls a “pioneering working exploring for the first time in extended format the common ground between Judaism and Christianity” (p. xviii). Noting those volumes to be seriously out of date, Smith sets out to rectify this situation. His main sources for this volume are literary and archaeological (p. xviii), but he wisely notes that early texts cannot always be taken at face value and do not always allow concrete conclusions (p. xx). Smith does not think such inconclusiveness is a sign of weakness, but rather a “dual strength”: bearing witness to “a sober respect for what the sources say, and … an open invitation to investigate the subject further” (p. xx).

Aware of such challenges, Smith begins with an instructive opening chapter on “Background,” which includes an overview of the history from approximately 1000 BCE to 313 CE. In this useful prolegomenon the author tackles issues of transliteration and provides a helpful introduction to the literary, archaeological, and few musical sources that support this work. This is the work of a gifted teacher, who not only maps out the terrain for his readers but also alerts them to some of the swamps and morasses inevitably encountered.

Next follow five chapters on various aspects of music in ancient Judaism, a topic that occupies the bulk of the volume (pp. 33–165). Chapter Two on “Music at the Tabernacle and the First Temple” is quite  cautious, as the sources demand, since the Hebrew bible provides very little concrete information about music in this period (p. 38). Staying very close to the texts, especially the psalms, Smith provides a careful reading of the relationship between vocal utterances and the use of stringed instruments, suggesting that “in the cultic music of ancient Israel, instrumental and vocal elements were of equal importance” (p. 43).

Chapters Three and Four are both on “Music at the Second Temple.” In these rich chapters Smith underscores how instruments (i.e., plucked strings) and song were a sacred unity (p. 65). In the process he provides what amounts to a short primer on the Temple and its organization; especially valuable is his careful outlining of the ritual settings for the music both at sacrificial and non-sacrificial rites. His reinterpretation of the psalms of “ascent” (120–132) as psalms sung on the 15 “steps” leading from the Court of the Women to the court of the Israelites (pp. 80–81) is most intriguing. The second of these chapters provides an insight analysis of how Levites were trained for this musical service, in which he rejects the concept of Levites as professional musicians (p. 100) as well as that of a temple “orchestra” (p. 109). Most helpful was his examination of the Second Temple repertoire, including a charting of psalms possibly sung at the temple according to various literary witnesses (p. 93) and his cautious conclusions that hypothetically the repertory of the Levites “could have included some 84 psalms” (p. 97).

Chapter Five on music in religious devotion and worship outside of the Temple provides a good overview of musical practices in private homes and sectarian communities such as the Therapeutai and Qumran. His treatment of music in the synagogue is appropriately brief (pp. 131–134). Duly noted is the change in synagogal worship with the destruction of the temple, as by the second century synagogal services were now “approaching a liturgy of worship” (p. 132). Chapter Six on music outside religion devotion and worship was particularly eye-opening. With all the gifts of a mature scholar, Smith moves us from dirges, funerals, and music in the face of calamity, to the joyful music making that accompanies weddings, the birth of children, banquets and even prostitution.

Impressed with the Jewish segments of the volume, this reviewer turned to the Christian section with high expectations. Unfortunately they were not met. Limited to two chapters, totaling 54 pages, the survey of music in early Christianity in the first three centuries seemed much less imaginative and more perfunctory. There was virtually no parallel attention to some of the broader practices Smith examined in Chapter Six, even though decades before Johannes Quasten (Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, 1983 [1973]) had examined the role of women, the singing of boys, musical education of Christian youth, and the role of music in the cult of the dead. Quasten is not mentioned in the bibliography, nor are a raft of recent scholars who have written on music in the New Testament (e.g., Francois Viljeon’s writing on Paul’s utilization of Jewish, Roman, and Greek musical traditions). Where there is reference to biblical scholarship it is often dated, e.g., a bibliographic entry on the 1955 Interpreter’s Bible rather than the New Interpreter’s Bible published 40 years later. The material on music and monasticism is so reliant upon the work of Taft and Dyer that the reader might be compelled to return to those sources instead of reading this one.

More troubling was the unnuanced language of “Cathedral” and “Monastic,” suggesting that there were “pure” forms (p. 206) of these, a binary that recent scholarship by Bradshaw and others—which Smith does not reference—has long disallowed. Similarly, there has been a rethinking of the nature of agape, e.g., by Andrew McGowan, who disallows the easy binary between agape and Eucharist that Smith adopts. Even talking about “Christianity . . . in Judaea in the 30s and 40s of the first century of the Common Era” is anachronistic, as the followers of Jesus did not use the language of Christianity until late in the first century CE.

In sum, this is a wonderful resource on the music of Ancient Judaism, which is so strong on Judaism that the material on the music of emerging Christianity almost appears as an afterthought.

Edward Foley

Catholic Theological Union