THE RECHABITES IN PATRISTIC AND PARABIBLICAL LITERATURE
SBL PSCOsession 2003
(c) 2003: reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author
A handout for this presentation is here
[Note: I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a research leave fellowship that, along with a semester of leave granted by the University of St. Andrews, has made the research for this paper possible.]
My name is Jim Davila and I am a lecturer in early Jewish studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. My major area of research is Jewish traditions in the Second Temple period and late antiquity and the interface of those traditions with early Christianity. My interests in the so-called parabiblical literature go back to my dissertation work at Harvard in the late 1980s. The Dead Sea Scrolls that I edited under the supervision of Frank Cross were canonical texts (Genesis and Exodus) but working with them and trying to place them (if only for my own peace of mind) into the thought world of the Qumran library gave me my first taste of the problems that arise when we try to understand the ancient views about scripture. Since that time I have published a commentary on the Qumran liturgical works and a monograph on the Hekhalot literature as well as two conference volumes (here and here) on aspects the relationship between early Judaism and early Christianity. At St. Andrews I regularly teach a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls and another on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, both of which have periodically generated international discussion lists and extensive web pages. The otpseud course has focused especially on the problem of deciding whether a given pseudepigraphon is a Jewish composition, or a Christian composition that sets out to look authentically “Old Testament,”or something else. I am currently writing a monograph on this question. I also have a “weblog” or “blog” (PaleoJudaica.com) that keeps track of ancient Judaism and its historical and literary context in the media and on the Internet.
My assigned topic is the Rechabites. Jonadab son of Rechab appears first in the Bible when he joined Jehu on his chariot ride of slaughter during his coup against the house of Ahab (2 Kings 10:15-23). The house of Rechab appears to belong to the Kenites according to 1 Chr 2:55. In Jeremiah 35, the prophet called the Rechabites before him and offered them wine. They refused it on the grounds that they were commanded by their father, Jonadab son of Rechab, to refrain from drinking wine and to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, living in tents without houses or crops. Jeremiah received an a oracle holding them up as examples to the Judeans: they obeyed their father’s commands but the Judeans have disobeyed God’s. The Rechabites are promised that “there shall not be cut off a man belonging to Jonadab the son of Rechab to stand before Me all the days,” but the Judeans are promised punishment (Jer 35:18-19).
The early Christian writers had a very positive view of the Rechabites and referred to them a number of times. The list on the handout is not comprehensive, but comes mainly from an online search of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers Series. I assume a more thorough search would discover more references, but, as far as I know, this is the most thorough survey that has been done to date. For the sake of time, I ignore Jewish traditions about the Rechabites, since they have been covered in detail in a 1988 doctoral dissertation by Chris H. Knights, and I shall refer to the relevant ones in my paper in the Pseudepigrapha Section on Monday morning.
Hegesippus tells us that when James the brother of Jesus was being stoned to death, one of the Rechabites, who are identified as a priestly family to which Jeremiah testified, objected and told the attackers to stop (Eusebius, Hist. eccl . 2.23). The Rechabites are held up as an example by John Chrysostom for not disobeying their father’s command (Hom. Acts 5:34) and as people approved by the prophets (Hom. Matt.12:38-39 4). Jerome holds up the Rechabites as examples to monks for their teetotalism and outdoor life (Epist. 58.5); he extols the asceticism of the Rechabites and their obedience to their father (Jov. I I.3.15); and he calls them “holy men” in Epist. 52.3. Theodoret of Cyrus praises Jonadab and the Rechabites for their piety. Augustine praises the sons of Jonadab for willingly obeying their father, since sons ought always to obey their fathers as long as the command is not contrary to God (Enarrat. Ps. LXXI v. 2). In a monastic work John Cassian cites the Rechabites as examples of those who went beyond the law in self-denial, arguing that Christians should do the same (Conferences 21:4). Chris H. Knights reports that “Nilus of Ancyra (De Monastica Excertatione 3) extols the ascetic practices of Jonadab’s descendants, but points out that (for him) such practices have no value apart from Christ.” I have not yet been able to find this passage.
The only parabiblical work I know of which mentions the Rechabites is the Story of Zosimus , chapters 8-10 (7-9 in the old reckoning) of which sometimes go under the title the History of the Rechabites , because they tell the story of how “Aminadab” the father of the Rechabites, having heard the preaching of Jeremiah, ordered his descendants to adopt their peculiar lifestyle (combined, in the surviving recension, with social nudism). God’s anger turned away from Jerusalem as a result of their obedience, but when they refused to abandon their lifestyle, the unnamed new king of Jerusalem put them in prison. Fortunately, an angel delivered them and led them to a hidden paradisiacal realm. This story probably circulated independently before being imbedded into the larger work in which the hermit Zosimus was led by an angel to the realm of the Blessed Ones in order to bring their story back to the human realm.
One can readily see why Christians in late antiquity would like this story and transmit it. Role models for asceticism are rare in the Hebrew Bible and the usefulness of the Rechabites for validating an ascetic lifestyle was not lost on the Church Fathers. More to the point, one can see why Christians might well compose such a story, not just transmit it. This, in fact, is in my view the most reasonable understanding of the origin of the Story of Zosimus and its sources, and I shall defend it in detail in my paper on Monday morning.