Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jesus the Jew

In a previous posting I concluded that the idea that Jesus did not exist was not viable, though it is true that we know far less about him than we would like to. Yet whether Jesus was mythical or real, it is clear that this individual was a Jew.

I can just hear some irreverent reader exclaiming: “No sh-t, Sherlock. When did you get the first clue?” In recent memory, of course, there have been various forms of denial. Fortunately, the Aryan Jesus, propagated by the anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain and by implication in Hollywood blockbusters, is no more. A more subtle version, still cherished in various Christian quarters, holds that Jesus’ critique of Judaism was so radical that he in fact departed from his ancestral faith In other words Jesus, ceasing to be a Jew, was the first Christian. Most New Testament scholars today, however, believe that many features of organized Christianity as we know it reflect a process of mythologizing that took place only after Jesus’ death. The apostle Paul is usually regarded as the prime culprit in this enhancement, though this view probably overpersonalizes the process. As far as we can determine, several different grouplets in the Jesus movement, including some strongly influenced by the pagan environment, were involved in the transformation of Jesus from a human teacher to a god.

What then is the evidence that Jesus was a Jew? In fact the four canonical gospels lay it out. From his birth Jesus was raised a Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2.21) and bore a common Jewish name, Yeshua, “he [God] saves” (Matthew 1.21). In fact, scholars have determined that Yeshua was the fifth most common male Jewish name of the time. Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common among women. As the English scholar Jonathan Went notes: “this in itself is sufficient evidence to throw doubt on the recently found tomb of 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' as it is like finding the gravestone of Mr and Mrs John Smith!”
The child Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2.22; cf. Deuteronomy 18.4; Exodus 13.2,12,15) according to Mary's period of uncleanness (Leviticus 12.2-8). A sacrifice was offered for him, a pair of doves and 2 young pigeons, indicating that his family were not wealthy (Leviticus 12.2,6,8; Luke 2.22-24). Thus Jesus was raised according to the law (Luke 2.39).

After this point, however, matters become murky, owing to the inadequate documentation for the “missing years” characteristic of the canonical Gospels. Owing to the general problem of the late date of supplementary documents, attempts to fill this gap in with the apocryphal gospels are unconvincing. Jesus’ family, and indeed most of his associates, were what we would nowadays call “working class.” Jesus’ father was either a carpenter or (less likely) a stone-mason. It is therefore improbable that Jesus could have received an elite Jewish education, starting with the reading of the written Torah at the age of five. In fact, it is not certain that he could read Hebrew, though he probably had some proficiency in written Aramaic and perhaps some Greek. The citations he makes from the Hebrew Scriptures (not always quoted accurately) were most likely derived from oral sources. This is what is meant, I think, by the information that by the age of twelve he was found in the temple precincts "both listening and asking questions" (Luke 2.46). The fact that the authorities there “were astonished at his understanding and answers" may reflect surprise that someone of his underprivileged background could make such progress.

These examples must suffice to prove the point: yes, Jesus was indeed a Jew. To be sure, one must be wary of anachronism, imagining the visible Jesus on the model of some pious Hasidic resident of Brooklyn, with all of the distinctive clothing and bodily features that neoteric avatar evokes. To be sure, modern Judaism in America is capacious and varied, with four major divisions: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Yet the historical Jesus does not map onto any of these. For his part, returning to earth Jesus would probably feel uncomfortable in any contemporary American synagogue--and perhaps even more so in any of our Christian churches!

The reality is that Jesus was a man of Jewish Galilee in the early Roman era, with all of the qualities and limitations that that status implies.

To be sure, there are significant contemporary scholars in Jesus studies who happen to be Jewish, including Paula Fredriksen, Joseph Klausner, Samuel Sandmel, my old schoolmate David H. Stern, and Geza Vermes.

The case of Geza Vermes is particularly interesting. He was born in Makó, Hungary, in 1924 to Jewish parents. When he was seven, all three were baptized as Roman Catholics. His mother and journalist father died in the Holocaust. After World War II, the young Vermes became a priest. He studied first in Budapest and then at the College St Albert and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he read Near Eastern history and languages. In 1953 he obtained a doctorate in theology. He left the Catholic church in 1957. Reasserting his Jewish identity, came to Britain and took up a teaching post at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1965 he joined the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, rising to become the first professor of Jewish Studies before his retirement in 1991.

Vermes was one of the first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls after their discovery in 1947, and is the author of the standard translation into English. He has been one of the more influential scholars in urging the study of Jewish cultural and religious milieu in order to understand Jesus.

“Jesus the Jew” (1973) is the first of three books that Vermes has published on the historical Jesus. He argues that Jesus was a Hasid, a type of charismatic miracle worker ostensibly common in first-century Galilee.

This approach presents several problems. Vermes' claim that Jesus was a type of Galilean charismatic Jew rests on slim evidence. His two examples are Honi the Circle Drawer (first century BCE) and Hanina ben Dosa (first century CE). While there are some similarities between Jesus and these two, Honi was not Galilean and Hanina's Galilean origin is far from certain. And Vermes relies on later traditions, some stemming from the Mishnah,compiled under rabbical auspices some three centuries after the death of Jesus, and others as late as the eighth or ninth centuries CE.

Moreover, Vermes employs an inconsistent methodology. He trawls through Mark's gospel to find evidence for a more primitive Jesus tradition consistent with his Hasid theory. Yet he ignores other Markan evidence that doesn't support it. Even in Mark's gospel we see Jesus forgiving sins, preaching the Kingdom, and predicting his death. His assertion that Jesus’ forgiving sins was not remarkable is hard to accept in light of the reactions reported in the gospels. All this puts Jesus in a different category than Honi and Hanina ben Dosa, Vermes’ two paragons.

In my view, the basic problem of Vermes’ construction of Jesus’ Judaism is that it is anachronistic, because it relies on incipient rabbinical motifs, some of which were recorded and assembled as an explicit challenge to Christianity. Vermes’ later books attempt to address these problems, but they do not do so conclusively.

Post-Exilic and Hellenistic Judaism saw the rise of a new genre of religious writing: the apocalyptic tradition. These texts, generally of pseudonymous authorship, include the Apocalypse of Abraham, The Apocalypse of Elijah, 1, 2, and 3 Enoch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and many others. One may consult the comprehensive set of translations edited by James H. Charlesworth, “The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha” (2 vols., 1983).

The message of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible was primarily a preaching of repentance and righteousness so that the nation would escape judgment. By contrast, the message of the apocalyptic writers was of patience and trust for that deliverance and reward were sure to come. The apocalyptic writer despairs of the present, directing his hopes absolutely to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present. The underlying dualistic principle may ultimately stem from Persian (Zoroastrian) sources, When Jesus speaks of the future coming of the Basileia or Kingdom he clearly has this apocalyptic perspective in mind. The natural corollary of such a belief is an uncompromising asceticism. One who would live to the next world must shun this. Visions are vouchsafed only to those who to prayer have added fasting.

In New Testament studies the apocalyptic or eschatological approach became dominant about a hundred years ago, through the work of Albert Schweitzer and others. While it is currently discounted by the members of the Jesus Seminar, clearly the apocalyptic strand, with its visions of Armageddon and the Last Judgment, was important for the early followers of Jesus.

A contrary view holds that Jesus’ critique was directly primarily to the iniquities of the present world, and that he was a Zealot, a kind of revolutionary. The Zealots were a Jewish religious-political faction, who thrived for a period of about 70 years or possibly more, in the first century CE. In their theology the Zealots were relatively close to the Pharisees, but their doctrines strongly focused on the necessities of violent actions against the enemies of Judaism.

According to Luke 6:15, Simon, one of Jesus' disciples, was a Zealot. It was also in a climate of tension created by their agitation and violence that Jesus was executed. Some scholars have inclined to the view that Jesus himself may have ranked as a Zealot. The clearest indicator was his execution on a cross, a punishment the Roman authorities preferred for political rebels. Another indicator is the cleansing of the Temple in Mark 11, which expresses attitudes in accordance with the Zealot ideology. A third indicator is that at least a few of the disciples carried weapons (Mark 14:47), all the time or under certain circumstances.

But other evidence points away from this theory, for Jesus did not teach strict adherence to the Law, and he associated with sinners and people outside the Law. The fact that Jesus may have been perceived as a Zealot does not mean that he actually was one.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) comprise almost 1,000 documents, discovered between 1947 and 1979 in eleven caves in and around the Wadi Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The texts include virtually the only known surviving copies of Hebrew Scriptural documents made before 100 CE. There are also original treatises, and most scholars believe these to be the product of an ascetic sect, the Essenes.

The general public first became aware of the importance of the scrolls as the result of a series of sensational articles by the literary critic Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker in 1955. Wilson argued that the interpretation of these texts would drastically alter our knowledge of the origins of Christianity, forcing major revisions of Christian theology. Others went so far as to assert that Jesus was himself an Essene, living within the community’s precincts for much of his life. These claims are now seen to be overblown. (An interesting, perhaps arcane fact is that the idea that Jesus was an Essene was first advanced by a French Jewish scholar, Joseph Salvador, in 1828, long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.)

After an initial flurry of publication, the release of the scroll texts came virtually to a halt. This hiatus fueled conspiracy theories that the unpublished texts contained explosive material that was being deliberately withheld. In the wake of the massive release of the original documents in 1991, these claims were shown to be unfounded.

As more sober voices prevailed, it became possible to offer a more plausible assessment of the relationship of the scrolls, if any, to Jesus of Nazareth. The case has been summed up by the Princeton scholar James H. Charlesworth (Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1991). Charlesworth enumerates 24 linkage themes. On closer examination, however, most of these turn out to be inconclusive. We learn that both Jesus and the Qumran Community believed in one God and appealed to the Scriptures as a repository of authority. Well, so have most Jews throughout the centuries. Other motifs, such as the importance of water and the two-age theory, were common beliefs at the time. Moreover, as Charlesworth acknowledges, there are a number of significant differences between the closed community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and the open Jesus movement. In short, Jesus may have been influenced in some respects by the religious currents documented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but if so, this was merely one of a number of significant sources. The evidence suggests that Jesus was not an Essene.

The late Morton Smith is best known for his purported discovery of the Secret Mark (treated in one of my previous postings). In 1978 Smith published another controversial book, entitled “Jesus the Magician.” He argues that, among other roles, Jesus was a magician in the sense that the word was understood in the ancient world. In this capacity he functioned as a village medicine man, a kind of curadero, traveling through Galilee and healing people.

The monumental work of John Dominic Crossan, “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant” (1993) seeks to depict Jesus in almost anthropological terms, as a product of his time and milieu. Crossan's erudition brings together otherwise disparate pieces of ancient history and literature, biblical and secular, to create a detailed and consistent portrait.

His method has elicited some criticisms. The two most significant sources for his attempt to specify the "first layer" of the Jesus tradition are the "Sayings Gospel" Q (discussed in a previous posting--WD) and the extracanonical Gospel of Thomas. While many swear by it, it is uncertain, first, whether such a document as Q actually existed, and second (and much more controversially), whether different layers of its sedimentation can be reliably ascertained. Crossan eccentrically dates the Gospel of Thomas to the 50s CE (even before the canonical Mark, which he holds did not appear until the early 70s). Most scholars would agree with John Meier, who in the first volume of his "A Marginal Jew" series argues for the dependence of Thomas on the synoptic gospels.

Crossan is often criticized for classifying Jesus as a sort of Jewish Cynic in the philosophical sense, Still, this view may be worth pondering.

In his 1993 volume “The Lost Gospel” Burton L. Mack (a member of the Jesus Seminar) goes so far as assert that the earliest stratum of Q “enjoins a practical ethic of the times widely known as Cynic” *(p. 114). Mack further notes that “New Testament scholars have often remarked on the Cynic parallels to much of the material in Q1.” This ascription will strike many as improbable, as the world of the Cynics seems far from the rigors of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Moreover, in common parlance the word cynic (with a lower-case c) has come to have an unsavory connotation of disengaged negativity. Yet this view is not historically accurate, for the ancient Cynics were popular philosophers who traveled about imparting the truths of Hellenic wisdom. If circumstances required it, they were capable of bluntness, of “speaking truth to power.” In these respects they were not unlike Jesus in his public life. It is uncertain, though, whether the parallel is more than an analogy.


The above account is by no means exhaustive. There are a number of variants of these views, and nowadays a proliferating set of popular accounts. Still, one is struck by the lack of consensus as to what the expression “Jesus the Jew” really means. Striving (as we must) to avoid anachronism, the emerging picture of Jesus as a first-century Jew remains unclear. In part this unclarity reflects the ongoing difficulty, despite the work of the Q scholars, to determine a plausible sequencing of the earliest Christian beliefs and practices.

When all is said and done, it is likely that Jesus was a kind of bricoleur or eclectic. He combined mainstream Jewish views with others that were oppositional. Some of these latter stemmed from heterodox Jewish sources (such as the apocalyptic literature), while other motifs were Greek in origin.

PS (October 21, 2008). I recently had occasion to go back to the 1965 book of Hugh Schonfield, "The Passover Plot." Among other things, this book is an early contribution to the discussion of the Jewish Jesus. Despite the controversy it aroused--largely because of the author's speculative (Docetic) account of the Crucifixion--I find that this is an eminently fair-minded book. It is also highly readable--even charming, a rare quality in this supercharged field.

A Scottish scholar of Jewish origin, Schonfield emphasizes that he had no intention of denigrating Jesus, but rather of displaying his true greatness by stripping away the layers of later theological accretion. Notwithstanding his admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels, Schonfield remained a proud Jew. He certainly was not a "Jew for Jesus" as we now understand the term. Given his standpoint, his book is pioneering contribution to the nowadays wrongly-despised realm of Judaeo-Christian studies. Despite its age, I recommend "The Passover Plot" as a splendid example of how to accomplish this kind of thing.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this essay. Jesus was born a Jew, died a Jew and was even buried as a Jew (The Bone Box, by Itamar Bernstein.)

8:03 PM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

I thought Lonnie Frisbee did the best Jesus imitation. At least, he looked the part, even if he died from AIDS for having played a "different part," without a Beloved Disciple on his chest, or a bunch of hypocrites ready to sell him for a few pieces of gold.

Oh. I take it back. When Lonnie brought the faithful in, he was totally charismatic and super cool. But when his being f*cked by other men caused a mini-Rebellion among his New Harvest Believers, none could be found to comfort Lonnie in the cold hospital room where he died alone.

Ain't god great?

6:44 PM  

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