Friday, April 13, 2007

Why the Jewish Jesus is Essential (and Dangerous)

I had prepared another post on my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus, but I have decided to hold off on it and pick up a thread today from the comments I have been seeing on my last post, the poll on the historical Jesus (which I encourage people to continue to reply to if you haven't already - I am sincerely interested in your opinion about this difficult question).

As I look back over the long history of the Jesus quest (and its popularized sidekick, Jesus in cinema), I continued to be struck (and I admit ashamed) that Jesus rarely appears as a Jew. There have been occasional voices over the last century that have demanded we remember that Jesus was Jewish, but these have been occasional and against the communal representations of Jesus that were developing in those eras.

And sadly this includes the Third Quest which largely has been trying to get around the fact that Jesus was Jewish by creating categories for Jesus as a Hellenized person living in Palestine or Galilee, but a person that doesn't look like any other Jew we know of who lived in Palestine or Galilee. As Rebecca Lesses noted in her comment, the Cynic Jesus is "bizarre." And it is our methods that have allowed us to feel "good" about our bizarre reconstructions, particularly the dissimilarity principle, which is nothing more than a way for us to create a "unique" and non-Jewish Jesus that will sit better in the Christian cradle.

Now there are a whole lot of reasons why scholars - particularly Jewish scholars and Christian scholars - don't want to talk about Jesus as a Jew. Since my own heritage is Christian, I can speak to that most directly. To be frank, the Jewish Jesus is completely irrevelant to Christianity today. He does not make sense, because all that he stood for that was Jewish, he no longer stands for in Christianity. What would Christians do if they really took seriously that Jesus was kosher, that he demanded his followers observe the Jewish Law in a way quite similar to Rabbi Hillel, that he believed his mission was to Israel, that his holidays were Jewish, that is Sabbath was Jewish, and that the eschatological Kingdom he was talking about never came?

It has only been in the last eight or ten years, as far as I can tell, that scholars as a collective voice have been reacting to this problem in their publications on the historical Jesus, demanding that we take seriously the obvious - that Jesus was Jewish. Jesus as a Jew is not just another agenda-driven "construct" as some have been suggesting (this really is a hyper-post-Modern stance). Being Jewish was Jesus' self-identity, and it has taken us two thousand years to admit it and talk about what it means. No amount of pressing the button on the "diversity" and/or Hellenization of early Judaism is going to erase the fact that for Jesus the Torah and prophets were his scriptures, the Temple his cult, Yahweh his god, and the coming of God's Kingdom his hope. Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting responses on other people's blogs
Rebecca Lesses
Mark Goodacre1
Mark Goodacre2
Loren Rosson
Jeff Garcia1
Jeff Garcia2


Judy Redman said...

I suspect that part of the problem Christians have with categorizing Jesus as a Jew is that Christians actually know very little about Judaism. Most of what we know, we've learned through the polemic of the gospels, which tells us what was wrong with the establishment Judaism of Jesus' time and we don't want the Saviour to be that kind of person. The rest of what we know often comes from media portrayals of Jewish extremists. Most Christians don't actually know any moderate Jews in anything other than a very superficial way, so we have no real understanding of the commonalities between Judaism as practised by moderate Jews and Christianity as practised by moderate Christians.

Along with ignoring Jesus' Jewishness, I think we also ignore the fact that Jesus almost certainly didn't intend to start a new religion. He almost certainly started out by simply wanting to reform Judaism. Much of what he was preaching/teaching against were particular practices, not theologies.

nbta said...

Here's the complete link.

Bob MacDonald said...

April - would you say that the NT writers are also Jews? And that the ingathering of the Gentiles is also Jewish? Sometimes the Roman occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the temple overpower other aspects of interpretation. As I noted in my post on that misspelled blog - the impact of HJ as Jew was to reframe the sevenfold gift - but it was a long way from turning it into 'Christianity'. The remnant of Christendom needs a similar reframing.

April DeConick said...

Dear Bob,

Yes I think that most of the NT writers were Jewish.

James Crossley said...

April, I think this hits at the heart of the question. Wright, and to be fair virtually all the others, push for a Jewish Jesus which is Jewish...but not that Jewish. The rhetoric is there but in practice there is still the scholarly construction that there is sufficient difference from Judaism to make Jesus Christian enough. But against this, I cannot see, for example, a serious case to make Jesus in opposition to any Sabbath law (I dare anyone to find one biblical Sabbath law Jesus opposed) in the synoptic tradition. This would suggest that they did not know of a single biblical Sabbath law Jesus opposed. In fact all the synoptic Sabbath disputes - historical or not - are paralleled in Jewish literature. that tradition must come from somewhere and I cannot imagine that a non-Sabbath observant Jesus would be removed if Jesus really were non-Sabbath observant. said...

I like to think of Jewish 'Jesus' (the theological name given to one Judas by gospel editors who were probably ex-Jewish messianic priests) as a prophet anointed with the Spirit to boot. For this prophet, at the time, the Jewish law related to animal sacrifices had become obsolete. In that respect 'Jesus' was no longer Jewish by the standards of the priests. Thus: 'The testimony to them' (Mk.1:44), them being the priests, was surely that the prophet wanted the cleansed man NOT to go and show himself to the priest(s), and NOT to offer any sacrifices, but in fact to tell everyone that he had been cleansed by the Spirit -'he began talking freely, spreading the' Spirit, not the 'news'.

April DeConick said...


I really appreciate your comment. I am as troubled with the marginally Jew rhetoric as I am with the move to make Jesus non-Jewish. All of it feels apologetic to me.

It is such a relief to read a fully Jewish construction of Jesus, although he is a person that will be difficult for contemporary Christians to connect with and may be a person that those faithful to modern Judaism might wish to avoid.

Rebecca said...

As a Jew, I am not disturbed by attempts to present Jesus as fully Jewish - why should I be? I am cognizant of the several ways it was possible to be Jewish in first century Judea and Galilee, and it would make sense that Jesus would be part of one of those ways. What I am disturbed by is Christian attempts to persuade me that if I do not regard Jesus as the son of God, then I am damned for all eternity.

By the way, Geoff, if Jesus no longer supported animal sacrifices in the Temple, how would this make him different from the Qumran community, which rejected the Temple leadership and its worship as illegitimate? (And no one reputable today disputes that they were Jews).

Anonymous said...


I agree with you. I think that no person has the right to dictate who will and will not be in the kingdom. Shouldn't that authority be left to God?

My understanding is that Jesus was a Torah observant Jew who spent a good deal of time mediating between the views of the two prominent Rabbis of the day. I see no place where he teaches against obedience to Torah, Sabbath observance, or the keeping of Kosher diet.

I enjoy this blog very much and I look forward to more literary and historic insights from it.


Jeffrey P. Garcia said...

Benign neglect of Jesus' Judaism can be dangerous. Your statements on the 'Third Quest', I believe, are right on and in the same are indicative of an insidious undercurrent to view Jesus as a Jew who came to usher in Christianity. Once Christianity is established, the Jewish part fades away. Another reason, in part, is the passive ignorance of Christian and Jewish scholars who have beem trained in Israel under Jews who were experts in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. There work is by and large is ignored in North America—as well, some of their work is still in modern Hebrew.

Just a thought...


Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

There are several dimensions to problem of the denial of Jesus as a Jew. Of course there is the basic issue that the propagana of Christianity as an institution needed to separate itself from Judaism to establish its credentials to the Gentiles as an independent religion.
Then there is the more recent aspect that Judy points out that today few Christians know much about Judaism now or then.
But there is another dimension in that everyone seems to want to pretend that the Essenes didn't exist and that Joseph and Mary were Essene Jews (along with their relatives including Jesus' cousin John the Baptist) who raised their son Jesus as an Essene and taught him all the criticisms of the Pharisee Jews and Sadduccee Jews that we see in the gospels. Even today mainstream Jews seem to want to join this conspiracy of silence about the Essene Jews and Jesus' relation to them. Part of the problem is that people don't understand that Judaism is not a monolitic or homogenious religion but even Jews seem to want to pretend it is, especially when they deal with non-Jewsasevery group does. Christians too will argue among themselves over the most trivial matters then pretend that Christianity is one belief when defending against non-Christians.
To accept Jesus as a Jew begs the question, which kind of Jew was he, an Essene, a Pharasee, or a Sadducee? Since the obvious answer ia that he was an Essene Jew and very few want to even admit there were Essenes much less deal with Jesus being an Essene, it is very convenient for everyone to just not talk about Jesus bein a Jew at all.

Rebecca said...

Why is it obvious that Jesus was an Essene? said...

Rebecca- just noticed your comment

'Jesus' (really Judas) would have empathised with the 'seekers of smooth things' and the 'wicked priest'.

I view the priests of Qumran as mainstream temple worshippers who obviously did support the temple cultus of animal sacrifices. I suggest that for a time these messianic priests were barred from the temple and that the 'seekers of smooth things' then in control of the temple (along with the so-called wicked priest) were the prophets - who according to the biased writers of the scrolls 'despise the Law' (4Q162/163) i.e. I suggest, despised the law related to animal sacrifices. There was thus civil strife between priests and prophets well before the first century. Most scholars believe that the 'seekers of smooth' things were pharisees, but there is no evidence to prove their existence at the time the scrolls were written apart from what are obviously interpolated references to pharisees in the writings attributed to Josephus. Pharisees were a part of the post 70 CE transformation of Judaism under the Flavians.


Rebecca said...

Geoff, why do you say that the passages in Josephus that refer to Pharisees are "obviously interpolated"? The passages I can think of are well-integrated into their context, and Pharisees are mentioned along with the other Jewish "philosophies."

Chris Weimer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Weimer said...


You'll have to pardon Geoff. He's known at other boards of producing a radical, agenda-driven interpretation without any evidence. Years ago there was Ebla, and he was just as bad there too. He even accuses Dr. Jeffrey Gibson of being, among a host of other online people, Craig Evans! In my opinion, and take it as you wish, he's to be ignored.

Chris said...

Except, Rebecca, Josephus would have described the two orders of Jewish 'philosophy' or governance, namely priests and prophets, that had been in existence for a long time since being introduced by their legislator, Moses. Thus Pharisees and Sadducees are retrospective interpolations. They are not in the DSS, nor in Philo.

As for what Chris Weimer wrote, he is Gibson's friend. They meet at SBL. I have never said that Jeffrey Gibson was Craig Evans, so Weimer was not telling the truth. I have said that Jeffrey B Gibson writes under a number of online aliases, including for example Earl Doherty, who supposedly wrote The Jesus Puzzle - a con that seems to have fooled Craig Evans and a number of other scholars. Gibson has never denied these accusations. Weimer must know this.

scrollman said...

I am very interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls and biblical archaeology. I have come to the belief that Jesus, who lived and died as a Jew was more than likely an Essene. The Essene community which was perhaps very similar to a monastery, was uniquely different from the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Dead Sea Scrolls show a messianic like cult who practiced an observant style of Judiasm yet were in conflict with the Priests in the Temple. They were communal and mostly celibate. They were allowed to leave for a two year period and take a wife and then return. I do not remember seeing evidence in the ruins at Qumran of animal sacrifice. They did use a communal bath (mikvah) which they used before eating together after a day of work. The scrolls are an amazing window on life in Jesus' time.
As a Jew, I respect Jesus and wish he were a part of Judaism. I think it would be good for Christianity to have a clearer picture of Jesus and his Jewishness. At the same time, Jews have no clear picture of how Jesus fits into their Jewishness historically. I read recently that a Chabad Rabbi forbade Jews from reading a recent book offering a new form of Judiasm that includes Jesus. So we have on one hand some Christians who would like to believe Jesus wasn't Jewish, which would be totally incorrect, and religious Jews on the other hand who not only reject Jesus as messiah, but refuse to even allow to discuss the subject or even mention it.
For many like me, whether he is the messiah or not is less important than the great message he offers of love, peace, and respecting our fellow man.
I appreciate my Jewish heritage, however, I can easily reject a Jew like Herod who was a great builder on one hand, and an evil despot on the other. I can also accept a great Jew such as Jesus, who would have had my vote had he lived today. Which of our political leaders are even close to being for his fellow man as Jesus? Would Jesus be for the 1% or the 99%,
would he support the poor and elderly, would he be for Wall Street... would he be against health coverage or for people to have their homes foreclosed? It amazes me how the historical Jesus now seems to be co-opted.