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The Jewish Jesus

Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation

Zev Garber


Though many articles, reviews, and books are not of one opinion on the life and time of Jesus, there is a general understanding in the dogma of the church and in the quests of the academy that the incarnate Christ of Christian belief lived and died a faithful Jew,1 and what this says to contemporary Jews and Christians is the focus of this volume depicting Jesus in the context of Judaism and its impact on Jewish and Christian traditional and contemporary views of the other.

In the context of our time, Pope John Paul II challenged members of the Pontifi cal Biblical Commission to help Christians understand that the Hebrew Scriptures are essential to their faith (1997). Th at is to say, Catholic mysteries, including annunciation, incarnation, crucifi xion, resurrection, and redemption are derived from the Hebrew biblical Weltaschauung. To speak of Jesus in the context of Judaism is affi rmed by the church’s acceptance of the Jewish Hebrew Bible as the Christian Old Testament, and this presents distinctive challenges to the visions of Judaism. When Jewish and Christian savants interweave the narrative and teaching of Jesus into the cultural and social life of fi rst-century Judaism in the land of Israel under the rule of Caesar, they pinpoint the evolving Christology of Jesus believers, which confl icts with the viewpoints of the rabbis and jurisdiction of Rome. Second, Christians and Jews committed to reading scripture together are deeply motivated by an academic and reverential disposition toward rabbinic Judaism and the desire to correct the malign image of Jews and Judaism that emerges from erroneous readings of the Gospel sources. Arguably, contra Iudaeos biases happen when historicity (Pharasaic kinship of Jesus, Peter, and Paul) is confl ated with apologetic (“give unto Caesar”) and polemic depictions (Jews are a deicidal and misanthropic people), and theological innovation (Christ replaces Torah).

Th e desideratum is neither extreme skepticism nor full faith acceptance but rather a centralist position, somewhat contrary to an ecclesiastical tradition which teaches that truth is bounded and restricted to New Testament and early Christian kerygma (preaching) and didache (apologetics). Exploring the place of Jesus within Second Temple Judaism means to apply drash (insightful interpretation) to peshat (plain meaning of the text). Why so? Because Jesus the historical being, that is to say, Jesus before the oral and written traditions, is transformed and transfi gured into a narrative character that appears in the canonized New Testament. Th e Jesus in narratology is a fl uid fi gure of creative, idyllic, and dogmatic imagination, whose realness cannot be fi xed in any given episode, teaching, or telling.

Th us, on reading the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, and the sentence of death, one may project that the Evangelist’s Jewish opponents are the reason for the virtual negativity of the Ioudaioi towards Jesus in his teaching and trial. Also, the cry of the mob, “His blood be upon us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25) is neither an acceptance of guilt nor perpetual pedigree damnation for the death of Jesus but can be seen as an expression of innocence that says if we are not innocent of this man’s blood then may the curse be fulfi lled (see Acts 18:6 and b. Sanh. 37a).

Jewish-Christian Encounter

Th e ground rule for Christian-Jewish scriptural reading and discussion is simple but complex. Let the Christian proclaim core Christian dogma (Easter faith) and dicta (e.g., Jesus “the living bread that came down from heaven” [John 6:51] is the savior of Israel) without a hint or utterance of anti-Judaism. Likewise, the Jewish observant needs to be aware and sensitive about claims of Christian identity. Th e objective in the quest for the rediscovery, and possibly reclamation, by Jews of the Jewish Jesus is to penetrate the wall of separation and suspicion of “law and grace” and enable the believer in the Second Testament to appreciate the saga and salvation of Israel experientially in terms of Judaism, that is to say, in accordance with the teaching of Moses and the exegesis of the sages of Israel. Reciprocally, the follower of the Torah way learns the how and why of the Christian relationship to the Sinai covenant as presented in the Christian spirit of scriptural inspiration and tradition, a strong sign that the centuries-old “teaching of contempt” is not doable for Christians and Jews in dialogue, where a shared biblical tradition is the surest sign that the stumbling blocks of religious intolerance can be overcome. Take lex talionis, for example.

Th ree times the Pentateuch mentions the legislation of lex taliones (the law of retaliation, of an “eye for an eye” [Exod. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:18-21]). Th ough the law of “measure for measure” existed in the ancient Near East, there is little evidence that the Torah meant that this legislation should be fulfi lled literally except in the case of willful murder. “Life for life” is taken liter ally in cases of homicidal intention, and fair compensation is appropriate when physical injuries are not fatal. Equitable monetary compensation is deemed appropriate by the Oral Torah in the case of a pregnant woman whose unborn child’s life is lost and when animal life is forfeited. Indeed, the Written Torah casts aside all doubts regarding the intent of the biblical lex talionis injunction: “And he that kills a beast shall make it good; and he that kills a man shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:21).

Rejecting the literal application of lex talionis puts an end to the meanspirited charge that Judaism is “strict justice.” Similarly, the words of Jesus on the Torah (“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” [Matt. 5:18]) beckon interpretation. Christian citing of Matthew 5:38-39a (“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil”) to teach that “Jesus cancels the law of revenge and replaces it with the law of love” is wrong on two accounts:1) syntactically, the Greek text of Matthew 5:39 reads “and,” not “but,” thereby removing the onus of change; and 2) scripturally, the text in context (see Matt. 5:21-30, Jesus on murder and adultery) instructs not cancellation but affi rmation of the commandments. Th us, Jesus, like the sages, focuses on the signifi cance of the teaching and its cautionary warning about wrong doing in “thoughts, words, and deeds.”

Nonetheless, there are signifi cant diff erences on retaliation between Jesus and the Rabbis. In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus addresses ‘ayin tachat ‘ayin (eye for eye) in terms of personal revenge and related implementations, but the Rabbis’ understanding is mamon tachat ‘ayin (value of an eye), and this is seen as remedial justice for the guilty and concern for the injured. Also, a Christian interpretation of the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Lev. 19:18) preceded by the prohibition, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge,” (Lev. 19:18) is the foundation of the Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12; see also Luke 6:31). However, the Jewish position is somewhat diff erent. In Leviticus, “love your neighbor” is followed by, “You shall keep my statutes (chuqqotai, i.e., revelatory laws without applicable reason)” (19:19). In the rabbinic tradition, the covenantal partnership at Sinai represents the modus operandi to apply the love commandment, albeit taught in negative terms, “Whatever is hateful to you do it not to another.”2

Participants in Jewish-Christian scriptural dialogue aim to show the interdependence of Jewish and Christian biblical traditions and do so by truncating the cultural, historical, psychological, religious, and theological diff erences between them. Some may see this and the absence of sustained critical discussion of texts and historical issues as major weaknesses, but I do not. Th ere is something refreshing in connecting sentences to sentences, parts to whole, book to books. Spiritually informative, evocative in hermeneutics, less interested in critical scholarship that parses Jewish and Christian Scripture into strands and schools and more concerned with Torah and Gospels that instructs in moral values and fellowship; a religiously correct lesson for two sibling religions whose God is the author of all.

Testimony of Jesus3

Th ere is a line of basic continuity between the beliefs and attitudes of Jesus and the Pharisees, between the reasons which led Jesus into confl ict with the religious establishment of his day, and those which led his followers into confl ict with the synagogue.

Two of the basic issues were the role of the Torah and the authority of Jesus. Rabbinic Judaism could never accept the Second Testament Christology since the God-man of the “hypostatic union” is foreign to the Torah’s teaching on absolute monotheism. As the promised Messiah,4 Jesus did not meet the conditions which the prophetic-rabbinic tradition associated with the coming of the Messiah. For example, there was no harmony, freedom, peace, or amity in Jerusalem and enmity and struggle abounded elsewhere in the land. Th is denied the validity of the Christian claim that Jesus fulfi lled the Torah and that in his second coming the tranquility of the messianic age will be realized. As Rabbi Jesus, he taught the divine authority of the Torah and the prophets5 and respect for its presenters and preservers,6 but the Gospels claimed that his authority was equally divine and that it stood above the authority of the Torah. Th e disparity of the Jewish self and the Gentile other in the ancestral faith of Jesus is abolished in the new faith in Jesus: “Th ere is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”7 I see this testimony as a major point of contention between the Jesus way and the way of rabbinic halakha that ultimately led to the severance of the Jesus party from the synagogue. And this acquired new intensity aft er the passing of the Jewish Jesus and the success of Pauline Christianity.

’Ani Hu’/ I Am He: Seeking Unity in Diversity

No matter how composite the fi gure of the historical Jesus and how rudimentary the concept of the Christ event in the Second Testament, there can be no doubt that the Jewish and Gentile believers bestowed divine attributes and power upon Jesus and venerated him above all creatures. Such an attitude towards the person of Jesus as God incarnate led to confl ict with the sages, who revered only Torahfrom- heaven. Th is is illustrated in the exegetical dissimilarity between church and synagogue on how one is to submit to God’s righteousness. Reading the nature of God’s commandment (Deut. 30:11-14), the Apostle Paul comments that Christ is the subject of “Who will ascend into heaven? . . . Who will descend into the deep?” and confesses, “Jesus is Lord . . . in your mouth and in your heart”8 is the justifi ed salvation for all. For the sages, however, salvation is in believing and doing the commandments. “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you . . . it is not in heaven,”9 is the raison d’être of rabbinic Judaism. Th at is to say, the Torah is not in heaven, it is here and near so that Israel can hear “the blessing and the curse” and do the 613 Commandments10 in order “to choose life”11 and live.

Th e doctrine of the eternity of the Torah was axiomatic in Second Temple Judaism. It is implicit in verses that speak of individual teachings of Torah in phrases such as the following: “A perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your (lands of) dwellings” (Lev. 3:17) and “throughout the ages as a covenant for all time” (Exod. 3:16). Biblical (Proverbs, in which Torah equals wisdom), Apocryphal (the wisdom of Ben Sira), and Aggadic (Genesis Rabbah) traditions speak of the preexistence of Torah in heaven. Th ough the Talmud acknowledges the prerevelatory heavenly Torah, which the sages claimed was revealed to Moses at Sinai, it concentrates more on the Torah’s eternal humanistic values. Indeed, the rabbinic mind speaks of two strains: revelation (“everything which a scholar will ask in the future is already known to Moses at Sinai”; see BT Menach. 29b) and the power of intellectual reasoning (as suggested in BT Pes. 21b, Ketub. 22a, B.K. 46b, Chul. 114b, Nid. 25a, B.M. 59b, and so forth). And by twinning the two dialectics, it appears, the sages taught more Torah than they received at Sinai.

Volatile are the arguments and disagreements between Petrine and Pauline Christians on issues of faith in Christ, with or without observance of the Torah on how to outreach to Gentiles.12 On the other hand, the fallout is decisive and divisive in the disputations between the church and synagogue beginning with nascent Christianity, as John 8 seems to suggest. Th e destruction of Jerusalem and of the Second Temple was suffi cient proof for believers in Christ that God had pronounced dire judgment upon his stiff -necked people and that the God of promises dispensed his countenance to those who accepted Jesus as Messiah. Hence, “Christ is the end of the law,”13 in “(whose) fl esh the law with its commandments and regulations”14 are abolished. But Torah and its commandments are the matrix in which rabbinic Judaism was born, and it proved to be the mighty fortress to withstand danger of extinction from without (Rome) and from within (non-Pharisaic philosophies, including Jewish Christianity). Th us, in the rabbinic way, to despise an individual precept of the Torah is tantamount to rejecting the whole Torah; and this explains the measures taken by the synagogue, for example, the second century Birkat ha-Minim (prayer against Jewish sectarians inserted in the Eighteen Benedictions), to preserve its national and religious character in the face of adversity and catastrophe.

John 8 (indeed, throughout the Fourth Gospel) exemplifi es disparate views of the Jesus party on the yoke of the Torah (temporary or eternal) and the separation of a specifi c Jewish Christian community in the late fi rst century from the Jewish society to which its members had belonged and are now excluded by synagogue fi at. On the former, consider Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well: “salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”15 and on the latter, the intensity of confl ict between the Jewish Christian community for which John was composed and the reigning religious authority is refl ected in the hostile and vindictive language placed on the mouth of Jesus accusing his Jewish detractors of not accepting the truth, plotting to kill him, and being the children of the devil.16

In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people by Christian believers based in part on the anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John. Th e cornerstone of supersessionist Christology is the belief that Israel was spurned by divine fi at for fi rst rejecting and then killing Jesus. Th is permitted the apostolic and patristic writers to damn the Jews in the rhetoric of John 8, and more, to assign the worst dire punishment on judgment day. Th ese are not words, just words, but they are links in an uninterrupted claim of antisemitic diatribes that contributed to the murder of Jews in the heartland of Christendom and still exist in a number of Christian circles today. How to mend the cycle of pain and the legacy of shame? Th e key is a midrashic (peshat cum drash) interpretation informed by an empathic and emphatic dialogue between siblings, Christian and Jew, individually and together.

Let me explain. It is a fact that church-synagogue relations turned for the better when the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) issued the document Nostra Aetate (In Our Times), the fi rst ever Roman Catholic document repudiating collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. In the Roman Catholic world, this inspired many dioceses and archdioceses to implement Nostra Aetate and to rid the anti-Jewish bias of Christian teaching. To illustrate, consider the sentiment of the Italian bishops to the Jewish community of Italy (March 1998): “For its part, the Catholic Church, beginning with Second Vatican Council—and thanks to the meeting of two men of faith, Jules Isaac and John XXIII, whose memory is a blessing—decisively turned in another direction [from teaching divinely sanctioned punishment of the Jews], removing every pseudotheological justifi cation for the accusation of deicide and perfi dy and also the theory of substitution with its consequent ‘teaching of contempt,’17 the foundation for all antisemitism. Th e Church recognizes with St. Paul that the gift s of God are irrevocable and that even today Israel has a proper mission to fulfi ll: to witness to the absolute lordship of the Most High, before whom the heart of every person must open.”

Few can rival Pope John Paul II’s papacy in ridding the Roman Catholic Church of antisemitism. He more than any predecessor has condemned “the hatreds, acts of persecution, and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place (Yad Va-Shem, 23 March 2000). He has labeled the hatred of Jews as a sin against God, referred to the Jews as Christianity’s “elder brother,”18 with whom God’s covenant is irrevocable, and established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel (1994). Th e Vatican documents, We Remember: A Refl ection on the Shoah (1998) and Confessions of Sins Against the People of Israel (St. Peter’s Basilica, 12 March 2000) are major milestones in the Roman Catholic Church’s eff orts to reconcile with the Jewish people. And, we might add, mainline Protestant denominations in the World Council of Churches, in diff erent degrees, have done likewise.

I welcome this gesture of professing and confessing spoken in the spirit of teshuvah (repentance) from the largest member-church in the “body of Christ” and it bodes well for Jews to off er teshuvah (response) in kind. Jews must be true to their Torah, distinct from other sacred scriptures and religions. It is not the role of the synagogue to judge whether Jesus the Jew metamorphosed into the Christ of faith or that Jesus and the Christ are one and the same individual. Rather, Jews must do their homework and cleanse the people Israel of any conceived or perceived anti-Christian bias. Jews must see the Roman Catholic Church’s altering attitude and action toward them as good omens done in the spirit of humility and contrition. Jews need to be reminded that the Roman Catholic Church views the encounter with Judaism and the Jewish people as an organic part of Christian penance. Indeed, Christianity is a legitimate dialogue partner in tikkun ‘olam, endowing the world in peace, understanding, and unity.

Admittedly, dialogue at times creates unexpected friction, of a kind found in chronicles and hoary debates, if aggressively done for the purpose of settling a score. Progress, not regress in Christian-Jewish dialogue is only possible if old canards are exposed and reciprocal teachings of respect are encouraged. So proper dialogue on John 8 neither overlooks the harsh statements against the Jews and explains them in a setting in life of that time, nor allows misguided judgments of mean-spirited hermeneutics to pass by unchallenged, nor allows a conjunctional albeit controversial thought to go by untested. Th e “I am ” of John 8:24, is such an example. It reveals an aura of divinity by Jesus because his words, “I am the one I claim to be,” can be equated with God’s identity to Moses, “I am that I am.”19 For the Christian divine, this can be interpreted as “I am” (God) is revealed in “I am” (Jesus). But the text continues, “He (God) said, ‘Th us shall you say unto the children of Israel: I am has sent me (Moses) to you.”20 Th is can mean that God as God not God as Jesus is the absolute and suffi cient revelation of the divine pathos for the Jewish people.

Th e signifi cance attached to the name of God in the above midrashic discussion dispels illusion by illustration. Th e holiness, sanctity, and power of God’s call are heard equally and necessarily diff erently by church and synagogue. One by Christ and the other by Torah. However, the completeness of God’s name, meaning his essence and plan, is hidden in this world forever,21 but in the fullness of time it will be made known: “Th erefore my people shall know my name; therefore, on that day, that ’Ani Hu’ (name of God, the shem ha-mmephorash) is speaking: here am I.”22

It is incumbent upon Jew and Christian together in dialogue and in action to bring that day speedily in our lifetime.

Case for Jesus the Jew

In the fi nal paragraph of “Refl ections on Jesus,” a review essay by Zev Garber and Joshua Kulp on several books dealing with Jesus in the context of his time, the New Testament and Talmud,23 I affi rmed unashamedly that the modern Jew can identify with the faith and fate of Jesus but not faith in Jesus. I have no clue what Jesus would say but I proposed to Professor Peter Haas, Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, Chair, Department of Religious Studies and Director, and Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University, to convene a symposium on rediscovering the Jewish Jesus. So it was presented and so it was received. Th e three-day symposium on “Jesus in the Context of Judaism and the Challenge to the Church,” hosted by the Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies and managed brilliantly by Linda Gilmore,24 took place at Case, 24-26 May 2009. Th e symposium presentations (Garber, Zevit, Moore, Basser, Fisher, Rubinstein, Bowman, Knight, Jacobs, and joined by Cook) were edited for publication in Shofar 28.3 (Spring 2010). Here they appear in a diff erent format and increased word length. Additional chapters by Chilton, Schwartz, Ulmer, Kerem, Simms, Smerick, Mandell, and Magid complete this volume.

Th e articles in this volume cover historical, literary, liturgical, philosophical, religious, theological, and contemporary issues evolving in and around the Jewish Jesus. Th e contributors refl ect on a plethora of issues on the Jewishness of Jesus and what this means to the steadfast articles of faith in Christ Jesus. Th ey demonstrate that concerned and informed Jews and Christians together can assess dis/misinformation, monitor dissent, alleviate religious fears, and reassure that the covenantal mission of Torah and Gospel, historically honed by apologetics and polemics, has now become blessedly altered by academic quests and congenial interfaith dialogue.25 In sum, the tradition has been enhanced by the acceptance of diff erences. Th e passionate dialogue over the Jewish Jesus has proven to be a blessing, not a curse. Indeed, the mosaic of articles by a seminal group of Jewish and Christian scholars has seized the teaching moment and developed an academically responsible agenda to learn and teach the Jesus narrative with academic savvy and with religious tolerance. One wonderful opportunity B’Yameinu (In Our Time) to lift the Cross of Cavalry from the ashes of Auschwitz. So may it be done.

Zev Garber’s opening plenary address on “Imagining the Jewish Jesus” postulated that the Easter faith without its Jewish historical context is unwieldy, or worse, a proven feeding ground for centuries-old Good Friday sermons that espoused anti-Judaism (replacement theology, conversion of the Jews) and anti- Semitism (“perfi dious Jews and Christ killers”). A critical read of the Golden Rule, the Last Supper, and the Great Commandment in the context of Jewish exegesis showed how and why. Garber’s methodology of reading Torah in the response of na’aseh ve-nishma (“We shall do and we shall hear [reason]”; Exod. 24:7) explained his darshani (interpret me) imperative in his analysis of scriptural readings.

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