I. Prospective and Perspective
This article offers a revisualization of Jesus, not as a Christian diptych representing Jesus and Christ, the before-and-after-the-Crucifixion figures of conventional historical and theological thinking, but as two portraits, one of Jesus as a Jew who can be a model for living Jewishly today, the other as the demi-god Jesus who became the god Christ. This effort resembles the restoration of an old painting. The first, hardest, and longest part is the meticulous cleaning to remove layers of dust, varnish, and paint poorly applied in previous efforts. The last part is the careful renewal of the original portrait with duplicate colors and strokes. This revision involves two cleansing approaches.
One approach reconsiders the main difficulties in the Synoptic Gospels presumably relating the events, words, and deeds of Jesus’ life and death, to identify, not the “historical Jesus” of Christian scholars, but a truly Jewish Jesus in Jewish terms. (These Gospels are those of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but not John, which, with rare exceptions, most scholars deem the least historically reliable.) The process involves discounting, countering, or correcting elements of these narratives written to educate the faithful and proselytize the pagans outside Palestine, in the Levant and the Mediterranean basin.
The other approach identifies narrative structures and religious components derived, not from Hebraic sources, but from Hellenic ones, and shaping the central events of Christian belief: a miraculously born and miraculously resurrected god. These two miracles, articulated in the earliest, essential Christian creeds, Nicene and Apostles’, comprise the central narrative of birth, death, and resurrection, with its promises of salvation and everlasting life, which has inspired billions worldwide for two millennia. For this reason, Christianity has never needed a historical Jesus and no longer needs polemical Gospels for Christianity to survive and thrive.
Thus cleansed, one portrait depicts a Jewish Jesus consistent with Jewish law, principles, and values; and committed to the equality and wellbeing of all, and to the obligations to strive for social and political reform, and to speak truth to power. He was always there, just layered over by Christologizing. And of this Jewish Jesus, it might be said, “dayenu.”
The other portrait shows a Christianity that can and should detach itself from the Gospel-inspired canards of Jews as hostile to Jesus, hateful to Christians, and Christ-killers, and the doctrine of supersessionism which has enabled anti-Semitism and embedded it within Christianity. Christianity may be Judaism’s younger sibling, but it is no longer a young child; it is mature adult and should believe and act like one.
I offer the following as an abstract of what follows. No scholarly analysis of the Synoptic Gospels has depicted a historical Jesus as a Jew identifiable as the messiah by contemporary Jews or free of Hellenic influences. No figure of a historical Jesus prepares for, is linked to, or is reflected by the crucified Christ. Thus, whatever the historical value of the Gospels is, they have little or no bearing on the theological significance of Jesus. Their contribution to Christianity has been advancing the faith through narratives created for the purpose of educating the faithful and converting the pagan. To that end, they structured their narratives to parallel common pagan religious myths featuring the birth and death of a demi-god, and his resurrection as a god. But, implicit in his ministry, messages, and stances vis-à-vis religious and social norms, Jesus as a Jew, activist and critic, models what living Jewishly is at its best.
I develop the many arguments embedded in these approaches by a progressive presentation of partly overlapping topics. Section 2, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” analyzes its purposes, contributions, and prejudices. Section 3, “Jesus: History and Myth,” assesses the Synoptic Gospel accounts of the “historical” Jesus and suggests a myth-based account of Jesus’ last days. Section 4, “Christianity and Jesus,” explores the relationship between the pre-Easter man and the post-Easter messiah, and examines Christianity more in a Hellenic than in a Hebraic context. Section 5, “Judaism and Jesus,” suggests what Jesus might mean to Jews if they choose to recover him as one of their own. I repeat some questions because of their pertinence to distinct topics in different sections.
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I am not a trained scholar, only a self-informed student, in the religious history of the first century of the Common Era. As a trained and published scholar in another field (Shakespeare), with both creative impulses and cautious practices, I am careful to offer my essay, not as a work of scholarship, but as a reasoned inquiry into long-standing religious beliefs and more recently emerging scholarly interpretations. Decades ago, mainstream religious scholars attempted to recover and define the historical, the Jewish, Jesus; today, they are attempting to recover and define the origins and evolution of various Christian traditions. They have moved from research about the relationship between history and theology to research about the development of early traditions in Christianity. What this research has not addressed is the important relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Meanwhile, in Catholic and Evangelical Protestant churches, older, Gospel-based views of Jesus and Judaism still prevail; in mainline Protestant churches, newer, scholarship-based views get a hearing by some clergy who, however, are reluctant to introduce their congregations to them. Yet the relationship between Christianity and Judaism remains a topic of concern to Christians and Jews who, influenced by their respective texts and traditions, want to understand them better, follow their faiths responsibly, and respect others’ faiths. So I think that there may be value in a view of the forest enriched by recent research but not obscured by the trees of copious Biblical citations and abundant footnotes, and from a perspective not shared by scholars in the quest for the historical, the Jewish, Jesus or the search for and study of the roots and growth of Christian religious beliefs and customs.
The first thing for me to say about my perspective is that I am an unaffiliated and non-observant, but confirmed and committed, Classical Reform Jew. About God, I am an agnostic; I see no merit in arguing to affirm or deny the existence of a postulated entity which people cannot know through their senses or their sensors. But I deprecate no one’s religious views so long as they do not lead to or justify misconduct. Since the Abrahamic faiths claim that their gods are loving, merciful, and just, and want their faithful to emulate their gods, I judge believers accordingly, including the members of my three multi-faith families. My original family is Jewish; my extended original family, interfaith. My two ex-wives are Episcopalians; our children, Jewish or Protestant (one, an Episcopal priest); our sons-in-law, Catholic or Muslim; our daughters-in-law, Jewish or Buddhist. I have talked, or taught classes, on Judaism and Christianity with an approach which is comparative, not competitive. My personal and family experiences, and the historical and religious relationship of these two faiths have prompted my curiosity to understand its origin, nature, and evolution in its formative years.
The second thing about my perspective is that, despite the greater number of Jews and Christians in my families, I do not subscribe to, and indeed resist, the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition, for two reasons. Specifically, as the phrase is frequently and politically used today, not least by some Christian leaders, it is exclusionary of those in America who are neither. Generally, the idea neither admits the history of Christian antipathy to Judaism and Jews nor respects the integrity of these two religions and the real differences between them. This essay discusses some of those differences, which are indicative of many differences of principles and values.
The third thing about my perspective is that I understand the asymmetry of expectations when Christians and Jews discuss the others’ religion, especially when the discussion turns analytical or evaluative—in a word, critical (in a technical sense). In Christian societies, Christian criticism of Judaism is common and sometimes ceremonial; Jews expect it and endure it. Conversely, Jewish criticism of Christianity is uncommon and carefully couched; Christians do not expect it, and many regard it as inappropriate, some resent it, and a few get angry. I run a greater risk since my view of Christianity, which assumes the broad tradition of received opinion and ignores specifics of more recent doctrinal variations, is heterodox. By contrast, my view of Judaism is orthodox (not Orthodox), with some tilt toward its liberal tendencies. When conducted in all good faith (pun intended), interfaith exchanges exempt neither religion from honest criticism. I intend such criticism, although I recognize that its heterodoxy may make it seem harsh.
Nearly 30 years ago, at the Washington, DC, Jewish Community Center, I gave a talk entitled “Jesus for Jews.” The title plays on the name of a missionary sect known as “Jews for Jesus,” a Christian proselytizing group using deception and falsehood to trap unwary, uncertain, ill-informed, or insecure Jews. I intended the title to be stimulating, although I knew that it might be provocative. The obvious reason is that Jesus comes to Jews as Jesus Christ, and, in his name, Christians have treated Jews badly for two thousand years—a history of prejudice, insult, discrimination, harassment, abuse, boycott, extortion, plunder, segregation, violence, torture, rape, murder, and exile. Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust were phenomena enabled by endemic Christian anti-Semitism, now re-emerging 75 years later into public life in America and Europe. Understandably, I omitted anything about Christ as offensive and focused on Jesus as a critic of religious institutions and as a social reformer in the line of earlier Jewish prophets. I did not shy from answering the question what would Jesus say or do if he confronted modern American Judaism in its synagogues or temples.
Much of my thinking about Jesus has been influenced by movements to define the historical Jesus, two of three arising after the World War II, as some Christian thinkers reacted to the Holocaust, Christian influence on it, and Christians’ conduct in it. I have benefited from the work of quest scholars, some prominent in the Jesus Seminar—most from Marcus Borg and John Dominick Crossan, much from John Shelby Sprong. I also benefited from discussions with several senior scholars at its 1995 meeting. Its views elicited the enmity of traditional Christian theologians, who have tried harder to demean its views by mocking its method of voting on the authenticity of Jesus’ words or deeds than by disputing its views. But, as any reader who knows these scholars’ work will realize, I am no slavish follower of their views. Indeed, I am sure that they would take exception, likely strong exception, to mine, especially my construction of an essentially Hellenic, myth-shaped Christianity.
My last words of introduction concern my audiences and my purpose. My primary audience for the second through the fourth sections is Christians; for the fifth section, Jews. For both audiences, I repeat some well-known information about their religions as prologue to my purpose, in part because the general level of religious literacy of Jews and Christians is low. Although Jews know more about Christianity than Christians know about Judaism, both need to know more about the other’s religion. Jews need to know about Jesus; Christians need to understand why Jews, in rejecting Jesus as messiah, are not, despite the Christian anti-Semitic canard, “a proud and stiff-necked people.”
My purpose is to reclaim Jesus, a Jew, for modern Jews, as an example of a Jewishly inspired approach to contemporary issues. Jews need to remember that Jesus was never a Christian, although he has always been the central figure in Christianity. Christians arrogated, redefined, and redesigned Jesus for religious, theological, and proselytizing purposes. Understandably, Jews, because of their religious convictions and historical abuse, have shunned him as developed by Christians. But it is long since time, at least in the relative security of America, for Jews to revisit Jesus and reconsider him as a Jew who can be a Jewish guide to morally enlightened and socially conscientious living.
Scholars in quest of the historical Jesus have claimed that the record of his words and deeds is consonant with Judaism; for the most part, they are correct. However, they have not adequately addressed some important items in the full record—words, deeds, and events—adulterated by non-Jewish influences and adapted to evangelical purposes. So they take the Crucifixion to divide the historical Jesus from the theological Christ; where pre-Easter Jesus the man ends, post-Easter Christ the messiah begins. Necessarily theological, not historical, efforts to reconcile these two figures—the same figure or a figure of one kind evolving into a figure of another kind—encounter many difficulties, some settled by labeling them mysteries of faith, most unresolved to the inquiring mind. Of course, even this divide is not neat; the earlier story of Jesus’ birth lacks precedent in Holy Scriptures or Jewish literature or lore.
My account sees the divide differently, not Jesus’ crucifixion, but his entrance into Jerusalem; it sees a pre-Jerusalem and a Jerusalem-forward Jesus, with the birth story a later addition. Although he spends his last days in Jewish settings, he speaks and acts in ways reflecting a different religious tradition, Hellenic, possibly specifically Dionysian. My proposed division separating the Hebraic from the Hellenic lets each religion be true to itself without the one rejecting the new and the other repudiating the old. Jews can and should embrace the earlier Jesus; Christians can and should embrace only the later Jesus; and both religions should respect each other.
II. The Quest for the Historical Jesus
The three twentieth-century movements to define the historical Jesus—the first (1900-1910), the second (1955-1965), and the third (1980-2000)—all agreed on the basic fact that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew; and attempted to construct a figure of him from the words and deeds narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. Their attempts involved an inevitably circular process: scholarly interpretations of what Jesus likely said and likely did—no movement accepted the Gospels literally—and proposed figures likely to have thus spoken or acted. Because each figure results from a different selection of, emphasis on, or interpretation of, the evidence of Jesus’ words and deeds, scholars have developed a wide range of figures, many overlapping with others: eschatological seer, miracle worker, healer, social critic, cynic, prophet (both seer and critic), wisdom teacher, mystic, spiritualist, and more. Yet no figure can do Jesus justice by depicting him as a flat, not a rounded, figure—which necessarily reduces the man from a whole to a part or a set of parts. If scholars have warrant for their different figures of Jesus, yet they have established no one figure in especial. Debate about these partial figures stressing specific aspects of his words or deeds gains little and loses much of the multi-dimensional character of Jesus and his conduct in his historical context. Notwithstanding, although scholars remain in disagreement about his words, his deeds, and the kind of man he was, their work has done much to expand knowledge of the texts, the man, and the times.
Still, important, perhaps the most important, questions abide. The first is, so what? What difference does it make what kind of Jew Jesus was if the answer does not bear on the relationship between Jesus the man and Christ the messiah and on Christian belief. In this vein are three sets of questions about Jesus, whoever—that is, whatever kind of Jew—he was and whatever he said or did. One, if Jesus were unlike other populist Jewish figures of proclamation and protest in being uniquely charismatic, effective, and insightful—the Gospels claim that he attracted large crowds—, why did his fellow Jews not accept his ministry and message? Or was he a captivating cult figure, failed populist, failed leader, and reckless critic of the Jewish-Roman establishment, whose crucifixion was meant as another caution to comparable threats to established order? Two, how did whoever he was and whatever he said and did identify or establish him as the messiah? What are the links between man and messiah, between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter domains of this individual’s experience, between history and theology—aside from an instant of temporal contiguity? Three, if scholars cannot answer these questions, is more knowledge about the texts, the man, and the times enough? Are there no larger lessons about Judaism or Christianity or their relationship? If there are, what are they?
These questions are not the only ones which arise from scholars’ efforts to define the historical Jesus. Others emerge from the historical context of the two later movements arising after the Second World War. One important prompt was post-war discoveries of contemporary or near-contemporary religious manuscripts; among the many, the best known are the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of Thomas.
But the most important prompt was the post-war revelation of human depravity of incomprehensible nature and unimaginable magnitude throughout Christian Europe, most of it motivated by anti-Semitism, long endemic in Christian texts, doctrine, and instruction. Among conscientious people, many Christian scholars asked whether their religion had been a necessary condition or contributing cause of the Holocaust. Up to a point, worthy is their motive to review New Testament texts, re-interpret them in the light of new scholarship, and thereby re-educate and inoculate Christians against malign influences according to which Christianity, its churches, and its believers enabled or effected the Holocaust. However, even the most erudite scholarship, if it aims at ulterior ends, must be suspect, for ulteriority is an insidious influence in scholarly enterprises and often deflects the quest for truth to the support of agendas.
Yet the knowledge generated by the quest for the historical Jesus can make, probably has made, some, but not much, change at the margin of ignorance and prejudice. The reason for the modesty of this claim is simple: ignorance is rarely a cause of prejudice, and knowledge is rarely a cure; the prompts to bigotry go deeper, into the psychology of personality. If more and more widespread knowledge were a cure, anti-Semitism would have abated almost to the vanishing point decades ago and not re-emerged lately. Even a quest for the historical Jesus is no cure-all of the disease of anti-Semitism; some active members of the Jesus Seminar were, as I discovered, consciously or not, anti-Semitic.
So knowledge-based change is slow and uneven. For instance, that Jesus was the first Christian remained received opinion among Christians long after the Second World War. This view likely lent some support to the ancient canard of Jews as Christ-killers; from a Christian perspective, Jews did not kill one of their own, but the first of theirs—a felony compounded. As a sign of the slight progress of knowledge abating anti-Semitism, I offer this amusing story. In the 1990s, a rabbi at Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati) told me about his class in first-century religion at a nunnery in southern Indiana. In the wind-up discussion in the last class, one nun declared herself. She told the rabbi that he had convinced her that Jesus was Jewish. “But,” she added emphatically, “not Mary!”
The Apostles,’ or disciples,’ allegiance to Jesus, like the nun’s allegiance to Mary, is impressive, nowhere more so than in Gospel reports of their post-crucifixion sightings of and encounters with him, bodily resurrected. These reports are historical events, their claims of sightings are historical events, but the material actuality of these reported meetings with some of his followers is impossible to establish and open to doubt. The obvious comparison easily understood by the Baby Boomer generation is, regrettably, a denigrating one: Elvis sightings. Jesus’ followers were no more desirous of his return than Elvis’s fans were of his return. Any argument favoring one set of sightings over the other requires a basis in something apart from faith or desire, not to mention cultural importance. But allegiance is proven.
The allegiance of scholars in the quest for the historical Jesus to their Christian faith is also impressive; nothing about their emphatic definition of Jesus as a Jew amends or abolishes anything in their faith that the man Jesus was or became the messiah Christ. However, that allegiance raises a question about their scholarship, whether it is more theologically than historically oriented than they are aware or admit. No matter in what way or to what degree they believe Jesus to be Jewish, they focus their attention on the man who their faith believes was or became the messiah, and thereby enable a Christian framing of this Jewish man in preparation for his role as the foretold messiah.
Their alternative would be to consider that Jesus was just a Jewish man like other itinerant Jewish men acting on strong moral, political, or religious convictions, not one who was or would become the messiah. To consider Jesus in this way means asking yet again the abiding question of Christian historicizing which recent accounts of the emergence of Christianity make little or no attempt to answer: why did most Jews reject and few Jews accept Jesus; conversely, why did most pagans of the Roman world accept him? Not asking this question suggests a reluctance to face possibly anticipated but unwanted answers. They might challenge the presumed inevitability of prophetic fulfillment, show that whatever defines Jesus as a Jew would preclude defining him as the messiah, or establish that Jesus was merely a charismatic leader of a cult whose followers made more of him than he was in a way which promised acceptance and allegiance in the pagan world of the Levant and the Mediterranean basin.
So it is not unfair to infer that the scholarship of the quest for the historical Jesus is biased by a reluctance to consider one historically appropriate hypothesis: that Jesus was nothing more or less than a Jewish human like other Jewish humans or other Jewish practitioners, pretenders, or upstarts—full stop. Otherwise, any of the scholars in these quests could have asked and addressed such questions. Not one did.
III. Jesus: History and Myth
The Gospels—again, I refer to only the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke—are the only sources of evidence of Jesus in history, the person in his time and his place. Unfortunately, nothing in these Gospels about what Jesus said and did can be taken at face value. Even after scholarly scrutiny, very little in them is reliable beyond doubt.
Some of the reasons for skepticism are obvious. Despite similarities of names, none of the Gospel writers was Jesus’ Apostle. Although the dates of the Gospels are not certain, their writers wrote over three to six decades after Jesus was crucified. Mark, thought to have written in the late 60s or early 70s, could conceivably have known Jesus. Matthew and Luke wrote in the 80s and 90s, too late to have known Jesus. Since they lived outside Palestine, none of these writers was audience to Jesus’ words or witness to his deeds.
Other reasons for skepticism reflect the shaky foundations of these Gospel narratives. All have deficiencies or flaws making reliance on them for the purpose of reconstructing the historical Jesus, difficult, if not impossible. They assert or report everything; they demonstrate or prove nothing. As the only sources of information about Jesus, no independent evidence provides a direct check on the Gospels’ veracity.
Accounts of whatever events occurred, whatever words were spoken, whatever deeds were done—if they occurred, were spoken, were done—reflect long, different, complex lines of transmission, as evident in their coverage; Jesus’ life events, words, and deeds are not consistently congruent, disparities abound, contradictions occur. These features may be explained by differences of origins, circumstances of transmission, and authors with their different perspectives, interests, purposes, and audiences.
The Gospel narratives originate in the oral transmission of sayings or stories passed from Jesus’ Apostles to their followers and to their followers’ followers. In time, some followers wrote down the sayings or stories. So far as we know, Mark and a conjectured document known as “Q” relied on such oral transmissions; in turn, Matthew and Luke relied on Mark and Q. Since Jesus sent his Apostles on missionary excursions, their preachings inevitably differed for several reasons. They heard different words or saw different deeds, understood them differently, tailored their messages to their diverse audiences—Jewish or pagan—, or had different religious preferences or positions to advance in their accounts of his words and deeds.
In matters of religious importance, authorial bias is not surprising. In the case of the Gospels, it is obvious; the very term “gospel” denotes “good news,” plainly implying editorial processes of selection, rejection, or alteration, all to serve the author’s purposes and audiences. The essential purpose of all three Gospels is to prove that the living Jesus was the messiah foretold—and thereby insinuate, if not assert, the supersessionist doctrine that Christianity, by fulfilling prophecy, thereby completed or perfected Judaism. Such are the roots of Gospel anti-Semitism, reinforced by their repeated attacks on Pharisees, scribes, and Jews, to whom they ascribe hostile motives; and by the story of Passion Week. Indeed, the Gospels weave two narrative threads together: one is the narrative of words, many miracle-making, and deeds, many miraculous, purportedly spoken and done by Jesus as the messiah; the other is the narrative of episodic encounters between Jesus and hostile Jewish religious officials which lead to Jesus’ Crucifixion. These interwoven, converging narratives constitute the polemical basis of instruction for the already convinced and of persuasion for the readily converted.
At the extreme of authorial bias are authorial inventions, of which there are several. One dramatic story told by all three Gospel writers, all three non-Palestinian Christians, is that of Jesus exorcising a demonic and driving his demons into a herd of swine, which then run mad into the sea; upon this loss of much or all of their livelihood, the nearby villagers urge Jesus to move on. This story is unusual. With few exceptions, Jesus spoke to and acted among Jews only, and then in a Jewish context; this story lacks both. The villagers were not Jews, for purity laws forbade Jews from eating, touching, or raising swine. Atypically, it shows Jesus in an unfavorable and unpopular light rarely noted or discussed. Jesus demonstrates his power but shows no concern for the consequences of his work upon the local community. The story, subject to varied interpretations, was a creation suited to non-Jewish readers or audiences—they might have forgiven all if they took the swine to be Romans—but could have had no attraction to Jews.
These difficulties for scholars questing for the historical Jesus are supplemented by difficulties for Jews confronting the Gospel writers’ treatment of Holy Scriptures, which is an independent and external, but indirect, means to assess the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds, and their implied arguments. The several types of difficulties have numerous instances in the Gospels; all involve deliberate distortions of the meanings of Holy Scriptures or tamperings with the text. Given that the faithful in the Abrahamic religions regard their holy texts as the word of God, Jews would likely have found such manipulations dishonest, unsavory, or impious. And Jesus would not likely have addressed such words attributed to him in the Gospels to Jews or, if he did, have had the favorable response which they often report. Here and hereafter, when I speak of Jews, I exclude a few from my generalities: Jesus, his twelve Apostles, and his earliest followers; I also assume an influential number of the remainder to be familiar with the texts from synagogue service or study. My text is The New Oxford Annotated Bible, RSV, 3rd ed. (2001).
One difficulty is a tendentious redefinition of a Hebrew word to give it Christian meaning. The most important is the word “messiah.” To Jews, it means a military-political-religious leader like David, not a heroic self-sacrificer to redeem humankind for its sins. Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah because they rejected not only the Christian redefinition of the messiah, but also the crucifixion of Jesus as anything but proof of his failure as a messiah. The Romans seem to have understood the Jewish definition of messiah because they mocked Jesus as the “king of the Jews.” And, of course, nothing in Judaism hinted that the messiah would die and rise, to become part of the godhead. It is hard to imagine that the Gospel writers thought prooftexts from Holy Scriptures would persuade Jews otherwise.
A second, similar, difficulty is the reinterpretation of words taken out of context. One of the most common is the change from the Jewish metaphor son, servant, and the like for the people Israel as an implied Christian allusion to Jesus. One example is the unique narrative in Matthew, Jesus’ family’s flight to and return from Egypt. The narrative of this event, not known to history, had a purpose: “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (Mt. 2.15). In Holy Scriptures, the prophet cites God’s words as proof of his love despite Israel’s backsliding: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11.1). “Son” is not a person, as Matthew would have it, but a people, as Hosea meant it. Every Jew would have known that the reference is to the Exodus, the Moses-led flight of the Jews from Egypt. Matthew means that God arranged the flight to Egypt so that the event served as a Gospel proof. He uses similar prefatory phrases elsewhere to the same purpose when he matches Jesus’s words or deeds to prophetic words in Holy Scriptures; however, here he creates a pre-figuring fiction as if it be a factual, historical report of the fulfillment of God’s purpose for Jesus. But no evidence suggests that Herod feared regicide or that his fear prompted an edict to kill males under the age of two or a “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem. Matthew invents the fiction and intends it as proof. Jews would have recognized and rejected his fabrication and his reinterpretation.
A third difficulty is omitting words with Jewish meaning which run athwart words with Christian meaning, or replacing words with Jewish meaning with words having Christian meaning. Luke 4:16-21 narrates an episode in which Jesus reads from a scroll in the synagogue words purportedly Isaiah’s in lines 18-19. The comparable passage in Isaiah is 61:1-2. I cite them in full:
|(18) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.|
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
(19) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
|(1) The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;|
(2) To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God;
Luke focuses on the poor, the blind, and the oppressed; Isaiah focuses on the oppressed and the despondent. Luke mentions captives and the oppressed (again); Isaiah mentions captives and prisoners. These differences are small but not insignificant: the one more personal, the other more political. The large and significant difference is that Luke omits Isaiah’s words emphasizing God’s vengeance presumably for the misfortunes and miseries of the people.
An instance of omission to obscure Jewish meaning and substitute Christian meaning occurs in Matthew 12:18-21. The comparable passage in Isaiah is 42:1-4. I give them in full:
|(18) “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.|
(19) He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
(20) He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.
(21) And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
|(1) Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.|
(2) He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
(3) a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
(4) He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
The differences are significant. In Matthew, the servant proclaims justice; in Isaiah, he effects it—the difference between words and deeds. In Matthew, the servant brings “justice to victory,” the meaning of “victory” left undefined; in Isaiah, he “establishe[s] justice in the earth,” the phrase vigorous in expression, secular in effect. Finally, in Matthew, “Gentiles,” trusting in his name, will hope—a vaporous statement of faith; in Isaiah, people throughout the world—“coastlands” connote remote lands—await moral instruction. And, of course, the servant in Matthew is Jesus; in Isaiah, the people Israel.
In response to both of these instances and others like them, Jews would likely note the Gospel editorial alterations, the resulting differences between Christian religious and Jewish moral meaning, and not thought better of the Gospels or, in the instance in which he reads from the scrolls, better of Jesus on their account.
A fourth difficulty, a rare and minor one, is the editorial manipulation of the text by quoting lines from different places in Holy Scriptures and kluging them into a single quotation. The Gospels introduce a few kluges as words seemingly written in, or read from, one place in Holy Scriptures when they actually extract and combine them from different chapters. But Jesus could not have constructed or delivered such kluges. I give as an example the relevant texts Matthew 21:4-5, and Isaiah 62:11; and Zechariah 9:9:
|(4) “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,|
(5) Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
|(11) Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes|
(9) Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Matthew’s lines report the first stage of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. He omits Isaiah’s mention of approaching “salvation” and Zachariah’s mention of a “triumphant and victorious” king. The passage containing Isaiah’s lines celebrates the “salvation” of Zion, or Israel, “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord” (12). The passage continuing from Zachariah’s lines speaks of the king who will end warfare and “command peace to the nations; and his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (10). The apparent need for this kluge is the absence of a parallel entrance into Jerusalem in Holy Scriptures, but the passages selected require redaction of any suggestion of secular “salvation” of a people or peacemaking by a powerful leader.
Such kluges undermine the credibility of the Gospels, for they show their authors cutting and pasting text to create proofs that words or deeds attributed to Jesus were pre-figured in Holy Scriptures, and thereby to support the larger effort to show him the messiah foretold. Obviously, these and the other types of textual manipulation make it difficult to regard the Gospels as documents historically reliable as opposed to religiously useful. Whatever the purpose of these editorial tampering, Jews knowing scripture would have been offended by such abuses of holy writ.
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Responses to these distortions would differ between Jewish and pagan audiences. Three or more decades after the Crucifixion, the Gospel writers would have known that almost all Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Palestine, had remained true to their faith, and would have believed them likely to remain so. They likely knew from hostile reactions to Paul and some Apostles when they preached in Diaspora synagogues that most Jews had rejected Paul’s message. They would have expected their attacks on Jewish religious leaders to anger Jewish audiences. Although the Gospels writers show Jesus as addressing Jews only, he, as a Jew, could not have thought to speak, much less have spoken, to Jews in Palestine, especially in Galilee, as the Gospels claim that he did. Instead, their reports that crowds questioned his authority or reacted with astonishment suggest euphemistic descriptions of far nastier reactions. Jews would have deplored or been angered not only by his criticisms of traditional Jewish beliefs or practices, but also by his various rhetorical devices perceived as egregious impieties. For these reasons, the Gospels more likely addressed Jews only by apostrophe and tailored the words and deeds imputed to Jesus for purposes of instructing Christians and proselytizing pagans. Pagans ignorant of Jewish beliefs, meanings, and Holy Scriptures would have noted nothing amiss and so been offended not at all. To Jews, these sleight-of-hand devices would have done no credit to the Gospels or to Jesus, who purportedly used them.
The Gospels have still larger difficulties in their messages about important Christian beliefs or rituals to different audiences. They do not address three issues because they could not explain them to Jews and need not explain them to pagans. Difficulty one: before Jesus was crucified, Jews would have had no way to know that Jesus was the messiah; after he was crucified, they would have known that he was not the messiah. His death meant that he failed to satisfy their understanding of the word “messiah”; he was not the this-world military and political leader of his people in their country. Gospel statements in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of God are the authors’ words put in his mouth, were not spoken to Jews in general, and were not proofs in any event. Had Jesus spoken such words to his Jewish Apostles, their acceptance would have been a gesture of indulgence of a charismatic leader. Other Jews would have dismissed them as vainglorious or impious. To pagans, he comes already pre-packaged as the messiah.
Difficulty two: the claim that Jesus as the messiah was also the Son of God and, risen, a part of the godhead along with the Holy Spirit, mentioned as early as Mark, establishes what would later be called the Trinity. The addition of a second (and third) member of the godhead would have been repudiated by the Jews as a departure from monotheism. Jews would have found the explanations of how three are really one verbal trickery at best or special pleading based on faith or impiety at worst. But pagans, accustomed to a pantheon of gods, would have been untroubled by three, even said also to be one.
Problem three: in the Last Supper, Jesus’ representation of the Passover bread and wine as tokens of his body and blood to serve as remembrancers of him—the basis of Communion—inserts theophagy, or god-eating, admittedly symbolic, into the ritual of a major holy day of Jewish worship. Passover is a Jewish ritual; Jesus’ offering is Hellenic theophagy, a ritual, whether actual or symbolic, without parallel in Judaism, Jewish history, or Holy Scriptures, but with precedent in Dionysian and other pagan rites of worship. No Jews would have accepted a ritual of god-eating; they would have found the idea—worse, its implementation in ritual—repellent and impious. That a Jewish Jesus and twelve Jewish Apostles could have engaged in this pagan ritual unprecedented in Judaism is beyond improbable. A pagan audience would have little or no such difficulty; pagans, especially those familiar with Dionysian rituals, would have thought it in no way out of the usual, indeed, entirely appropriate, even necessary.
A few words about pagan religions, the cult of Dionysius, and his parallels to Jesus are fitting here. Pagan religions consisted of collections of myths, some of miraculous births and deaths of gods or demi-gods, each with distinct powers and dedicated rituals, but neither any nor all having an ethic. The cult of Dionysius was typical. His father, Zeus, king of the Greek gods, impregnated his human mother, Semele. Dionysius’s life was known for its revelry, promiscuity, and other forms of hedonism—and no message. His last days were of trial, death, and resurrection as a god in the Hellenic pantheon of gods. This dying and reborn god acted as an intermediary between the living and the dead, and his worshipers ate grain and drank wine as proxies for his body and blood.
The parallels to the life and afterlife of Jesus are obvious. Jesus’s miraculous birth and miserable death, with no mention of, or commitment to, his ministry or message, became the basis of the Nicene and Apostles creeds. His resurrection as the second person of a tripartite godhead installed him in the Christian pantheon, of which other intercessors like Mary and the many saints became later, lesser members. Some scholars affirm the parallels; other deny them because they are not exact in detail. (In Christian apologetics or polemics, what does or does not count as a parallel often depends on the writer’s position and just as often is debatable.) But exactness of detail would not have appealed or even mattered to pagans; fidelity to the structural features of the myth—a born demi-god, and a dying and rising god—would. In the birth and death narratives of Jesus or Dionysius, there is nothing Hebraic, only Hellenic. For nowhere in Judaism is the Jewish messiah imagined as a dying and rising god.
From a larger perspective, a faith purporting to parallel analogical precedent and fulfill messianic prophecy with its central act featuring a father’s sacrifice of his son would have mightily offended Jews. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God’s test of Abraham’s love ended without the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Jews interpret this story as God’s sign that he did not want Jews to practice human sacrifice as pagans did. Jews would have seen God’s sacrifice of his son Jesus to prove his love of humanity as a return to barbarism. Later, in other ways, this central act in Christianity has bedeviled theologians. If Jesus was fully human but was resurrected, the question is in what sense was he sacrificed. If Jesus was fully divine, the question is the same. And if he was both fully human and fully divine, the question remains the same, and other questions arise. In short, this central Christian act is another mystery posed by trying to have everything both ways or all at once. Obviously, Jews had no reason to go along.
Problem three raises another issue: the reliability and plausibility of the accounts of events in Passion Week. The Gospels agree on the main facts: Jesus entered Jerusalem for Passover, caused a disturbance at the Temple, taught in the Temple, celebrated Seder with his Apostles days later, was betrayed by Judas, was seized by Roman troops, was arraigned before a Jewish tribunal, was turned over to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, and was by Romans crucified. A minor matter: incongruities among Gospel accounts of Jesus’ reception at a Jerusalem gate: cheering crowds (Mark), puzzled crowds (Matthew), and no crowds (Luke)—and their contrast with the consensus among those accounts that a Jewish crowd inexplicably demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. A middling one: discrepancies between the dates of Passion Week events and the calendar. A major one: multiple improbabilities of the incident at the Temple. The context is a week-long celebration of a major holy day, a large influx of worshipers, an enormous building and expansive grounds, with many vendors and their stalls, a greatly increased Roman force to prevent or squelch disorder, and an edgy, hostile Prefect known for executing thousands of Jews by crucifixion. It is improbable that Jesus upended more than a few stalls, improbable that soldiers patrolling Jerusalem and the Temple grounds did not seize him, and surprising that the episode seems not to have influenced Jewish or Roman authorities in trying, convicting, or carrying out the execution of Jesus. The trial is a puzzle all its own. Charges of blasphemy—taking the name of God in vain or presuming to be God—would have been a Jewish matter of no interest to the Prefect and would have required no emergency, nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin; conviction would have led to stoning, which required neither approval nor action by the Prefect. However, charges of insurrection would have been a matter, not for a Jewish court specially convened, but for Roman soldiers and low-level officers unlikely to call a minor, presumptuous, aggressive malcontent to the attention of the Prefect. The life of such a person was not valued; casual charges would have led to quick decisions and quick action. All of these oddities about the events of Passion Week suggest a narrative created to fulfill, not Hebraic messianic prophecy, but Hellenic mythic expectations.
Reaction to these improbabilities urge a story more probable though less dramatic. Jesus entered Jerusalem, created some sort of disturbance which attracted the attention of soldiers on alert, was duly apprehended, and summarily executed in the usual way, namely, crucifixion, as another example to discourage others. To the Apostles, such a commonplace sequence of events and such an ignominious end ill-befitted the leader whom they loved and admired. Their elaborations or fabrications of the events and of Jesus’ words and deeds of Passion Week ensued to valorize Jesus, vilify Jews, exonerate Romans or extenuate their conduct—they alone could and would have crucified Jesus—, and supply episodes instructive and inspiring—all consonant with pagan expectations.
Whatever the truth—actual though improbable events or elaborations of ordinary ones—, the narrative of Passion Week is less history in the making than myth in the making. The Gospels treat Jesus in his last days as a mythical figure in a historical context. One implication is that the divide between the pre-Easter Jesus and post-Easter Christ is less useful than a divide between the pre-Jerusalem Jewish Jesus and the Jerusalem Hellenic god-to-be. The big exception is the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Mark, usually assumed to be the earliest Gospel, does not have it; Matthew and Luke, later Gospels, do have it. An obvious inference is that it is a late invention inserted to complete the mythic structure, to revere Jesus as a god in suffering, in sacrifice, and in the process of deification. Thus, the Gospels depict him as the demi-god of Christianity.
IV. Christianity and Jesus
The first-century Gospel writers tried to do too much for too many different peoples: sometimes history, sometimes myth; sometimes fact, sometimes fiction—depending on the audience, one or the other, sometimes both, to offer religious support for faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God. In the effort, necessarily, they distorted, omitted, and fabricated much, creating complications and conundrums which were later denoted as mysteries of faith, like the Trinity. The result is that much does not lend itself to cogent, coherent, rational explanation because so much has to be taken on faith—not that any religion can be entirely, perhaps even largely, coherent, cogent, or rational. A religion like Judaism, which satisfied its followers, rejected the package; various paganisms, not satisfying many, accepted it.
Difficulties result from conflicting impulses in the Gospels. By the time of Mark, the Jerusalem Church of Christian Jews under James, Jesus’ brother, had failed, and the Second Temple had already fallen or was soon to fall. Gospel writers were no longer trying to persuade Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora to see Jesus on a historical basis as the fulfillment of Judaic belief in a messiah foretold in Holy Scriptures. Instead, in the Levant and the Mediterranean basin, they thought to provide instruction to Christians about correct doctrine and church conduct, and to persuade pagans that Jesus as the messiah was a god akin to, but better than, the gods whom they already understood in their religions. Thus, they exploited elements of pagan, mainly Hellenic, myths to present a Jesus who appealed to pagans’ religious propensities. As noted, the fusion of the Hebraic and Hellenic occurs most obviously in the Passover dinner during which Jesus offers bread and wine as symbolic reminders of his body and blood. Although the Gospel writers might have wanted to succeed with Jews as well as with pagans, they knew that what could not and had not worked for Jews, would work well for pagans.
The difficulty for Christianity is that it wants biography for the sake of fact and hagiography for the sake of faith. It wants a man caring, conscientious, and charismatic; it wants a messiah, his body sacrificed to redeem sinful men and women, resurrected as the Son of God, and seated as the second part of the trinitarian godhead. Yet nothing about Jesus in his pre-Easter existence as a man served as the basis for his post-Easter existence as the messiah. The challenge for Christian scholars is to link man to messiah. Thus far, they have not yet shown that the facts, such as they may be, link to the faith, such as it is. Without such a link, the historical Jesus is only a curiosity by contiguity with the crucified Christ.
The challenge confronts three sets of related questions. One, what words or deeds identified the man Jesus as the messiah Christ before the Crucifixion? If the Jewish public at large did not so identify him, how did the twelve Jewish Apostles do so? If they took him at his word, why did they? Were they, as insiders, motivated to believe secret truths revealed to them? Two, given a prevailing Jewish definition of the messiah as a military-political-religious leader, how did the crucifixion of Jesus, in the historical context of thousands of crucifixions of malcontents and misfits, identify him as the messiah to anyone, the Jewish Apostles or the Jewish public? Why did his failure to match the meaning of the messiah not dissuade his Apostles from their pre-Crucifixion belief? Three, in the absence of answers to these questions and in all honesty about what the data allow or disallow, would it not be better to abandon the effort to establish a relationship between the man and the messiah?
To overcome this difficulty and answer these questions, scholars attempt to find in the historical Jesus features of, or anticipating, the messiah. Among many efforts, the recent emphasis on Jesus’ rhetoric—parables and aphorisms, if truly his—suggests that his manner of speaking to his audiences, including his Apostles, may somehow enable the recognition or intimate the realization of him as the messiah. Indeed, Jesus’ rhetoric is different from the rhetoric of early Jewish prophets. However, although scholars place Jesus’s life in the context of his times, they do not properly consider it in the context of his career, in the line of other prophets, preachers, miracle workers, and healers—with unsurprising differences. None of the recognized Jewish prophets operated in an Israel occupied or controlled by the forces of another country. All directly criticized Jewish political, military, or religious leaders as well as the Jewish people as a whole to warn of or rationalize God’s punishment, often in the form of foreign conquest and occupation, for Israel’s sinful ways. Although their experience shows that prophets were often without honor in their country, few were threatened or abused, fewer still killed, and certainly not by crucifixion, a Roman method of execution. For them, direct criticism was possible because they were speaking to their leaders and their people according to their laws, customs, and politics—and, in effect, were protected by them. Because of these norms, even Herod initially refused to kill John the Baptist.
By contrast, Jesus spoke and acted in an occupied country, with a Jewish leadership of Sadducees cooperating with the Romans and Pharisees conforming to Roman control. Already under foreign control, the Jewish people had no need of another prophet to warn them of the punishment awaiting them for their sinful ways; they were already being punished. Repressed and exploited, Jews could do little according to Jewish ethical practices to ease or end their punishment since such practices would amount to social activism, not something which the occupiers would see as anything but dangerous, even rebellious. So Jews stressed ritual practices of little concern to the occupiers in hopes of alleviating their condition. But Jesus seems not to have lost perspective; like prophets before him, he seems to have realized that purity of temple sacrifices and of personal religiosity availed not against conquest or occupation. He rejected doubling down on these failed, traditional responses to danger or hardship—thus his quarrels with Pharisees and Sadducees. He spoke to the people more than to their leaders to advise them to act compassionately toward each other without the hindrance of purity restrictions. The lesser importance which Jesus attached to worship and religiosity, and the greater importance which he attached to moral reform and social amelioration, implicitly reproved and repudiated an oppressive establishment. Not surprisingly, in a hostile situation, Jesus delivered his advice by the indirect, cryptic rhetorical devices typical of critics of oppressive regimes. Still, he aroused resentment and a desire for retribution. However, his distinctive rhetoric does not reflect a crypto-godlike capability intimating his divinity, only an appropriate adaptation to the distinctive historical circumstances in which he found himself.
That said, I cannot understand what Christian scholars think that the study of the historical Jesus is about or can achieve for Christianity. Curiosity about the man believed to be or become the messiah needs no justification. However, the connection between the man and the messiah, and its importance are problematic; Christian scholars have no agreed-upon account of it or even agreement that such an account is necessary. John Meier, author of a magisterial, four-volume biography of Jesus, claims objectivity in his research, despite his strong Catholic faith, because, to him, the living Jesus means nothing, the risen Christ means everything. Yet even he feels the need to rationalize the study of the historical Jesus in relation to the risen Christ, but his reasons are probably unconvincing except to the already believing. If Christian scholars not so plausibly objective as Meier study the man of history because of his importance as the messiah of faith, they may reasonably be suspected of shaping their history so that, despite all their caveats about its limitations, it prepares for and conforms to faith. The result is not historical analysis seeking truth, but theological polemic masked as scholarship—which does not make a connection clear or convincing.
Notwithstanding, I want to suggest an approach to possibly make the connection. The Gospels provide texts, but they may also provide subtexts. If the Jewish definition of the messiah is a military-political-religious leader, perhaps Jesus should be measured by those dimensions, with the idea that some are appropriate to altered circumstances. Jesus was doubtless a religious leader. If he were a military and political leader, he would have planned a strategy for a campaign and a strategy to enlist support. A case for his military and political leadership would explore the rationale for his travels: which cities, in what order, for what reason; would consider his public declamations and his deployment of followers on missions; and would evaluate his relations with subordinates. It would address his reactions under stress; Jesus showed moments of frustration and anger, and responses which seem callous, even calculating. It would assess his weighing of priorities and his decision-making. For instance, it would ask whether he was wise to seek to recover a lost sheep by himself but leave the rest of the flock unguarded and unprotected. Of course, it would consider whether his talk about the “kingdom” was more military and political than religious. I am not proposing that Jesus was a proto-crypto member of the Sicarii, but I am wondering whether the Roman sign “the king of the Jews,” though mocking, was an apt indicator of his military-political leadership, and whether the Gospels might be suspected of suppressing this side of Jesus as creating a danger to Christianity under hostile Roman rule. Given a case for his military-political-religious leadership, Jesus’ Apostles and earliest followers might have had some reason to see him as the messiah as Jews understood the term. The abiding difference between the expected and the executed messiah might explain the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah, but a slightly narrower difference before his Crucifixion might explain the Apostles’ acceptance of him as Christ.
For now, given either a lack of connection between the man Jesus and the messiah Christ, or a complete and exclusive faith in the risen Christ as the saving Son of God, Christianity has had no ability or need to accommodate the historical Jesus. Simply and starkly put, the historical Jesus is of little or no theological importance to Christianity.
Paul is my proof, although his biography is odd in several ways. He was born and raised a devout Jew in Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor. In this center of Dionysian worship, he knew of this and probably other pagan cults, all with a plenty of gods and a paucity of ethic; it is unlikely that this cult exerted no influence on Paul’s thinking, especially when he undertook his mission to the gentiles. He lived in Jerusalem and claimed to work in the area as an agent repressing Christian Jews in the early 30s. He claimed to have had an epiphany, a blinding vision of Jesus resurrected, whom he accepted as the Jewish messiah and the Son of God. He thereupon began his career from the mid 30s to the mid 60s as a self-proclaimed Apostle to the Gentiles. So far, so good.
However, despite being a contemporary of Jesus and, during his last days, a resident of Jerusalem, Paul seems not to have known him. For many years after his death, he knew those who witnessed or knew Jesus and from whom he could have learned about his ministry, message, and execution; perhaps he did. After his epiphany, Paul was a member of the Jerusalem church of Christian Jews under the leadership of James, Jesus’ brother. Yet Paul shows no interest in Jesus and says almost nothing about him in his letters. Instead, Paul focused almost exclusively on Jesus’ death, resurrection, and lordship. The inevitable inference is that he had no use for the historical Jesus, and the religion to which he gave theological definition had no theological use for him either.
Paul’s position on Jewish law is complex and not entirely clear. Many scholars agree that Paul’s position on the law is antinomian, but they also allow that it is ambiguous. Aside from disparities arising from the different circumstances of his letters–issues, purpose, audiences, etc.–the ambiguity may reflect a choice between conflicting influences: the imperatives of Jewish law versus the slackness of Hellenic ethics. For his version of Christianity resorted to and exploited mythic structures and components widespread among and appealing to pagan populations. His is the Jerusalem-forward Jesus and a death-resurrection myth (with a demi-god-like birth added later) structured like the Dionysian myth. (The later Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds reflect this mythic structure, with no ministry or message in the middle between birth and death.) The difference is Paul’s preoccupation with sin, forgiveness, faith in Christ, and salvation. By disregarding Jesus’ ministry and message according to Jewish law and by dispensing with Jewish law as both a cause and metric of human sinfulness, Paul set up an antithesis between Law and his alternative to it, Love of God and fellow Christians in their communities and churches. This love—not sexual, romantic, even emotional—accords with the Greek love “agape” (say, “siblingly” love) of Greek philosophy. These culturally and morally neutral, or “universal,” beliefs which Paul offered pagans gave them an easier admission to Christianity than the culturally and morally alien, rigorous, and “particular” demands of Judaism gave them. In both a literal and figurative sense, circumcision was a cutting-edge issue, not only as a matter of law, but also of justifiable fears of pain, disease, even death. The parallel structures of Christian and Dionysian myths, as earlier noted, would also have facilitated conversion.
Paul’s antithesis of law and love, and of other such dichotomies (e.g., justice vs. mercy, revenge vs. forgiveness), according to his tendentious definitions of terms, unintentionally enabled one basis for anti-Semitism. Living in the Diaspora, the Gospel authors knew the widespread, increasing appeal of Judaism. To meet the competition, so to speak, they wrote their Gospels as instructional and proselytizing aids. They used various devices to diminish Judaism and bolster Christianity. They used proof texts and false parallels, insistently in Matthew, detached from their Jewish context, drained of their Jewish meaning, and reinterpreted to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophesies of Holy Scriptures. They used narratives, attractively in Luke, to depict Jewish leaders, notably their rivals the Pharisees (akin to today’s rabbis), in unflattering ways and to paint Jesus as an appealing figure worthy of belief as the messiah.
Thus the Gospels rendered Judaism as the recalcitrant enemy of Christianity, and Jews, of Christians; and inaugurated anti-Semitism. One major theological belief has constituted traditional fundamental Christian anti-Semitism for two thousand years. It is the belief that Judaism, by rejecting Jesus as the messiah, or Christ, in fulfillment of prophesies in Holy Scriptures, is an incomplete or imperfect religion—a faith of little or no worth–and Jews, for refusing to accept him as their personal Savior, are “a proud and stiff-necked people,” unrepentant and damned—a people of little or no value. Whether adherence to these beliefs is growing or shrinking today remains to be seen.
The paradox of Paul’s version of Christianity is that, on the one hand, the pre-Jerusalem Jesus is—or could or should be—unnecessary to Christian faith, without prejudice to Judaism; and, on the other, his rejection of Jewish law invited a repudiation of Judaism and a justification of that repudiation. The Gospel writers undertook these tasks by manipulating Jewish texts and manufacturing tales to their purposes and thereby established the basis of the anti-Semitic doctrine of supersessionism. Thus, inadvertently, Paul made it possible for the Gospels to import anti-Semitism into Christianity. But, as Paul shows, Christianity does not require a historical Jesus; as the Gospels show, anti-Semitism arose out of historical circumstances which are—or should be—no longer necessary in a mature faith and in believers secure in that faith.
V. Judaism and Jesus
I turn to Judaism, the undoubted religion of Jesus, to see him as a Jew in the context of his religion, the circumstances of his time; then as a prophet-like critic whose message applies to modern Judaism and modern American society.
Judaism is a religion characterized by four features. One, monotheism it invented. Unlike contemporary or earlier religions, which restricted themselves to the ceremonial worship of a pantheon of gods, Judaism worshiped one God indivisible. Two, morality it invented. Unlike those religions which worshiped their gods for their power and sought to placate or please them with sacrificial offerings in hopes of favor, Judaism aspired—however often it failed—to worship their one god as just, merciful, and loving, and to honor him by conforming to God’s commandments to guide righteous behavior. In sum, pagans accepted or rejected gods on a might-makes-right principle; conquered people readily accepted their conqueror’s gods on this basis. Jews remained committed to their God as right, whether in victory or defeat. Three, history it invented. Unlike pagan religions, which explained the vagaries of human experience as reflecting the fluctuating emotions and motives or inscrutable whims of their gods, Judaism explained the vicissitudes of human experience as God’s rewards or punishments of the nation, or the people Israel, for good or bad conduct. Four, it invented itself as a religion by combining monotheism, morality, and history, with history the least of the three because it is merely combined monotheism and morality in the flux of time. Thus, Judaism is the first ethical monotheism. Its primary principles—worship and conduct—may be thought of as the y-axis of rite, or ritual, and the x-axis of right, or righteousness.
Such are the ordinates—outward observances and exercised conduct in accord with inward ideals or imperatives—of the occidental, or Abrahamic, religions. Their historical development is usually an increasing commitment to rite and a decreasing commitment to right, until ceremony or custom largely displace right conduct and compassion, and until reform or revolution rebalances them. So it is with Jesus, whose positions were in line with those of earlier Jewish prophets. Despite differences in their messages, two similarities dominate: one, a lesser emphasis of ritual observance and, two, a greater emphasis on right conduct, both personal righteousness and public justice.
By Jesus’ time, the axis of rite oriented the dominant forms of religious practice: Sadducee temple worship, which featured the burnt offerings of animal sacrifices, and Pharisee personal religiosity, the rigorous observance of the minutiae of the purity laws. The axis of right suffered under an economy in which the urban leadership, both Jewish religious leaders and Roman occupation forces, impoverished the rural population. In the city, Jesus challenged the Sadducees by reacting to the commercialization and corruption of Temple observance. In the countryside, Jesus repeatedly responded to the challenges of the Pharisees by showing them to prefer being self-righteous rather than reasonable, holy rather than helpful. In response, so go the Gospels, Sadducees and Pharisees connived with Roman conquerors to eliminate by crucifixion another inconvenience to the status quo.
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Today, Jesus could hardly accuse Jewish institutions or rabbis in America of economic exploitation. Membership in synagogues, temples, and Jewish schools is voluntary; however, membership and participation can be expensive, but these institutions often assist those with limited financial resources. Rabbis do not get rich by being rabbis. Still, he would indict these institutions for their social self-absorption, their limited political activities, and, perhaps, even the poor quality of their Sunday school education, with its focus on Jewish customs and holiday rituals. He would accuse rabbis of Sabbath sermons and guidance which are insipid and soothing; which focus, not on the traditional triad of God, Torah, and the people Israel, but on the modern triad of the state Israel, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust; which do little or nothing to identify, interpret, and apply Jewish moral principles to modern American life; and which demand little or nothing of Jews in their everyday lives, little or nothing in the way of living their Judaism.
In what follows, I offer a personal extrapolation of my study of Jesus which outlines what I think would be his Jewish-centered message in America. I think that he would not sound as he does in the Gospels because he would be able to speak freely and directly, without fear of punishment or imprisonment. I know that he would not sound like me, for, in writing what I think he would say, I cannot help sounding like me. Whether he would have an audience of Jews or even Christians able to listen, and open or receptive, to his views is not certain. Most Jews, for reasons given earlier, might be unreceptive, and many Christians whose primary or only interest is personal salvation, not social remediation, would also be unreceptive.
Jesus would build on the law. He would talk about what law, properly instituted in a society to organize and benefit its people, represents: the defining feature of civilization and a potent means of social cohesion and of social and personal betterment. Failure to fulfill the law would not be an option. The alternative to law is autocratic rulers of barbaric or despotic groups. Moses knew as much, and the Ten Commandments were the means to take Jewish slaves and make them a society of Jewish citizens. Holy Scriptures, the Torah in particular, is the Jewish monument to the rule of law by respect for and obedience to it. He would decry those who casually declare, in justification of misdemeanors or vulgar behavior, that “rules are meant to be broken.” He would remind Jews that they are committed by covenant to distinguish themselves by their obedience to the law as an example to other peoples. He would stress that Jews must concern themselves less with ritual observances of holy days like Passover and Hanukkah, and more with the principles of right conduct (minimally, the seven of the Ten Commandments which constitute the Noahic Law).
And then Jesus would consider the laws, all 613 of them, as codified in the medieval period by Moses Maimonides. Anyone who has read these laws knows that many reflect concerns with group identity—most of the dietary laws work to this end—and rural living—most of the economic laws specify land and crops. Many are outdated by urban society and modern technology. Even so, many assert ethical behavior; others imply it. No law specifies compassion, but several laws specify setting aside portions of fields or crops for the poor. Jesus would commend both, but he would likely rely on duty under the law before depending on compassion in the heart. At the same time, he might not advise adherence to every law. For instance, he might find the law “not to marry non-Jews” less important to identity than important to good social relations in America’s pluralistic society. But he would likely worry about the survival of the religion if intermarriage did not at least break evenly in the religious upbringing of children. In the end, most of the 613 laws are entirely reasonable and, in fact, the principles and values underlying them also underlie many of the laws in the American legal system.
As his engagements with Pharisees and Sadducees suggest, Jesus would speak to the authorities on public issues of our day. In a democratic society which promises the Constitutional right of freedom of speech, Jesus might still use aphorisms and parables, but he would also speak directly in the Jewish prophetic tradition, namely, truth to power, about those issues. And he would encourage others to do the same.
Jesus’ paramount issue would still be equality, in all dimensions, but primarily, of race, gender, and class. Jesus did not address race, but race was not then understood in the modern sense of the term. But the trajectory of his moral thinking would lead to opposition to societal discrimination based on racial distinctions. Jesus did address gender, if only by the inclusion of women in his entourage, in his ministry, and in Apostles’ missionary work; women and men traveling and working together were an innovation. Taking meals with prostitutes suggests that Jesus would treat all LGBTQQ people as social equals. He would oppose classes based on race and gender. And, perhaps above all else, he would oppose classes created by gross disparities of income and wealth, and the resulting social class structure based on them. Indeed, he would insist on economic fairness in a generous, not a nasty and niggardly, provision of necessities—food, water, clothing, shelter, medical attention, and education for all, without restriction or requirement. I infer that he would favor cradle-to-grave, universal health care; free public education; and a progressive income and wealth tax system covering all income without distinction or exclusions. He would view environmental degradation and worldwide militarization as threats to all people and to equality in all dimensions, and urge coordinated worldwide action against them. These positions would place him in opposition to the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Romans of our day.
Nothing in this projected vision of Jesus as a Jew in modern America departs from his representation in the Synoptic Gospels as a Jew among Jews. What Jesus as a Jew represented then and projects now conforms to Judaism then and now. Indeed, Jesus’ healing ministry and moral messages affirm traditional Jewish values, and Judaism, with the exception of Orthodox Judaism, has evolved in ways compatible with them. Thus, I believe that Jesus as a Jew in his pre-Jerusalem life is one whom Jews should embrace with pride as one of their prophets and the one well suited to serve as an example of enlightened Jewish living, with less emphasis on ritual and more emphasis on right, with equality and justice for all.
The disproportion between the discussions of Christianity—three sections—and those of Judaism—one section—reflect the importance of detaching the man Jesus from the demi-god Jesus and, after the Crucifixion, the god Christ. The detachment enables a brief consideration of Jesus as a Jew, without taint of later Christian coloring and with respect to modern issues similar to those in his day and of his ministry and message. As I understand him, Jews can eagerly try to follow his example and just as enthusiastically remain Jews.
One purpose not explicitly stated earlier is to locate the origins of Christian anti-Semitism in the Gospels, which were intended to instruct followers and proselytize pagans. Their purpose, to promote the fledgling faith Christianity, in part by abusing Holy Scriptures, in part by denigrating the mature, established, and appealing Judaism, was accomplished long ago. But that success has led to what many now regard as moral and religious failure. Gospel anti-Semitism, which served local, contemporary needs, then became Christian doctrine and practice, and spread anti-Semitism throughout the world, even where there were few or no Jews. It is fair to say that any Christian who has had any religious education at all or has lived in a mostly Christian society is liable, even likely, to be anti-Semitic in some kind or to some degree, or other. Yet isolating this source of endemic anti-Semitism can serve to abate it if Christian priests and ministers, deacons and preachers, choose to identify, separate, and explain the offensive texts as tactical devices for their times, not theological doctrines of all times. One purpose explicitly stated earlier is to promote better understanding of, and respect for, Judaism by Christians, and Christianity by Jews. The members of the Abrahamic faiths should act like family, in love of others as their gods wished them to.