Jesus: A Jewish-yet-not-too-Jewish Road-tripping Galilean?

A couple of months ago I attended a tutorial at the theological faculty. One of the professors was complaining about the state of historical Jesus research, pointing out that everyone seems to be saying the same thing: “Jesus was Jewish…but he didn’t follow the Jewish Law…he wasn’t really like other Jewish leaders during this time…he didn’t respect the Sabbath…and obviously he didn’t keep the purity Laws”.  So in essence, everyone starts with a hypothesis and then unwittingly argue against it while they’re trying to argue for it. Everyone says that they’re part of the “new perspective”, but in reality, the consequences of what they say aren’t that different from Käsemann (and his criteria of  anachronistic cultural colonialism). I wholeheartedly agree with my professor: is it really good research if everyone is simultaneously arguing for and against the same thing?

To my mind, the root of the problem is this: scholars often want to distill Jesus down to something they can agree with themselves (to paraphrase Sanders). They want a Jewish-but-not-too-Jewish Jesus, someone who eases their Christian guilt by being Jewish, but who isn’t so Jewish that he becomes alien to them (classic example of creating facts to suit theories). The problem (or, rather, one of the problems) with this is that “Jewishness” is not a comparative concept. It’s a religio-ethnic category which you either are or are not a part of: you can’t be semi-Jewish, pseudo-Jewish, “diet-Jewish” or “Jewish-light”. Is your mother Jewish? If the answer is yes, then so are you. Was Jesus’ mother Jewish (and for those of you out there who don’t believe that second temple Jews traced ethnicity via their mothers: read father [if human, descendant of a Jewish king, if divine, son of a Jewish God])? Answer: yes, problem: solved. Once you have established this relatively straight-forward reality, you have to deal with its consequences. A second temple Jewish man who wanders around preaching about the coming of the Kingdom like a proper Old Testament prophet but who doesn’t follow the Jewish Law is an oxymoron. It’s not a religio-cultural category that existed during this time – when scholars try to get all Bultmann-y on Jesus, they are attempting to create a “Diet-Jesus”, someone they can agree with, someone who will agree with them, distilling a religio-historical phenomenon down to something that can be easily swallowed by our modern mindset.

This is deeply problematic from both an academic and a religious perspective. Academically, it’s highly anachronistic – it’s bad methodology (the root of all evil). Religiously, it creates a lense through which we distort our holy scripture. We want Jesus to be a certain way, and so we ignore all the indications in the text that point to something else. That Jesus was a full-blown second temple Jew isn’t a faith problem: I would be more worried if he didn’t follow the Jewish Law, because then he wouldn’t be in sync with the prophecies he’s fulfilling – the continuity would be broken.

In conclusion, if you pick up the New Testament looking for a sugar-coated fairy tale about a nice Jewish-yet-not-too-Jewish man and his faithful friends road-tripping through Galilee, you’ve come to the wrong place. The New Testament is a book about a messiah, a prophet like Moses, who came to the world to announce the fast-approaching judgement; the final, eschatological judgement that would usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to allow for the coming of this Kingdom, the messiah had to die a horribly gruesome death, only to rise again, clothed in morning’s young blush. There’s nothing cozy, nice, ethical (according to our modern definition), or un-Jewish about that.

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10 Responses to Jesus: A Jewish-yet-not-too-Jewish Road-tripping Galilean?

  1. Mike Bird says:

    Well said, esp. about the “Jewish-yet-not-too-Jewish man,” but do keep in mind that a propensity to relax some commands and to intensify others was a feature of Judean renewal movements like John the Baptist, Qumran, and the Jesus movement! And the debate about the relationship between ritual purity and morality was not imposed by Protestant writers but was an on-going discussion in Jewish circles (see e.g., J. Klawans).

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  2. rebeccarunesson says:

    Thanks! I agree wholeheartedly that “relaxing” (or perhaps a better word here is rephrasing), or intensifying some commandments does in no way place a Jewish individual outside of Judaism(s): having different opinions about the Law (including ritual purity) is the hallmark of an observant Jew.

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  3. Well put! I do sometimes wonder if this rather common depiction of Jesus in NT scholarship has something to do with reading Jesus through Paul, as opposed to Paul through Jesus.

    Thanks!

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  4. Mike: which commandments did e.g. John the Baptist relax? And did any of those mentioned think they were “relaxing” comments? Or is this language of “relaxing” actually highlighting the point made in the post?

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    • Fred Weston says:

      Salvation partly by baptism, and not by Jewish rituals, like circumcision?

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      • rebeccarunesson says:

        If a Jew proclaims that baptism (ritual washing, similar/identical to mikveh rituals) brings forgiveness of sins (does it really bring salvation according to John [Matt 3:11, Mark 1:4-5, Luke 3:1-9, cf. John 1:23-27?), is it not then a Jewish ritual? In which way is repentance unrelated to Jewish Law? Or, could one perhaps argue that John follows in a long line of very angry Israelite prophets demanding that the people stop being so relaxed where the Law is concerned?

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  5. Fred Weston says:

    Your neo orthodox description of Jewishness is too inflexible for real Jews. Take today’s secular Jews, say.

    At times the books are quite inflexible. But in actual life? Herod cooperated with the Romans. Jesus said he saw more faith in a Roman centurion than any Jew.

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    • rebeccarunesson says:

      Unsure of what neo-Orthodox refers to, and how my post could be considered limiting in terms of Jewish diversity – the point I tried to make is that diverse halakhic discussions are a trademark of ancient Jewish identity. As far as I know, secularism is a modern concept, so I’m willing to agree that the description is too inflexible for direct application to such modern secular Jews as you mentioned. Perhaps drawing too much of a parallel between modern secular Judaism and First Century Judaism(s) is part of the problem rather than the solution?

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      • Fred Weston says:

        Unless hellenization more or less secularized many. Or at least took the edge off strict obedience to conservative Judaism.

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