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Historical Jesus Scholarship: The Jewish Factor

By Zev Garber
Professor Emeritus and Chair of Jewish Studies
Los Angeles Valley College
November 2011

In the introduction to The Historical Jesus in Context, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and John Dominic Crossan (Princeton University Press, 2006), Amy-Jill Levine underscores the preference in the Academia for historical-critical methodology in the quest for the historical Jesus contra the creedal authority of the Gospel narratives as believed and preached in the Ecclesia. The “Quest” favors Reason (objectively setting Jesus in a historical and cultural context) over Revelation (creedal statements molding a dogmatic Christ). The history of the Quest is parsed into the old and the new. The “Old Quest” established a distinction between rational ethical religion and historical religion that emerged in a given culture at a particular period of time and whose claims of truth are not necessarily rational. Many in the original quest deconstructed the Gospel miracles, myths, and legends and reconstructed Jesus into an advocate of late nineteenth-century enlightened rational religion.

Early twentieth-century Form Criticism (structural study of literary units) raised questions about the nature, origin, and transmission of the Synoptic Gospels. It dismissed outright any kernel of historicity in the Gospels and suggested that many of the traditions about Jesus in the Scriptures were created later than this historical period to fulfill the liturgical, preaching, and teaching needs of nascent church communities. Each tradition has a Sitz im Leben (“Setting in Life”) which is interpreted in its own right, independent of historical validity. Kerygma (teachings about Jesus) has replaced history as the central core for the Christian faith. Indeed, Rudolf Bultman, the leading kerygmatic theologian, argued the only essential historical teaching is the crucifixion of Jesus: all else is conjecture and interpretation.

The “New Quest” began after World War II. Like the “Old Quest,” it questioned the Gospels as they are but also considered the input of a flesh and blood Jesus. It embraced a variety of approaches (anthropological, sociological, theological, etc.) to understand the New Testament Jesus. These included viewing his eschatological message of the Kingdom of God in terms of existentialist philosophy to seeing him as a Mediterranean Jewish peasant or a wandering cynic-sage. For all the myriad views of Jesus, there is close consensus that he lived and died a faithful Jew, and theologians and biblical scholars explore the ramifications of that for Jews and Christians then and now.

Recently, on the Sheffield Biblical Studies website, Prof. James Crossley (University of Sheffield) posted “The Problems with ‘Jewishness’ in Historical Jesus Scholarship: An Overview of Critiques”. His insightful essay addresses the 1970’s overused scholarly cliché, the Jewish Jesus and its problematic “Jewishness” in Jesus studies. He presents an overview with a brief commentary on select scholarship concerning historical, social, political, and religious ideology related to this debatable label. Works include Shawn Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (London and New York: Routledge, 2002); Bill Arnal, Jesus (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2005); James Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2008); John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (vols. 1-4, 1991-2009); Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006); Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation (New York & London: Continuum, 2000); R.S. Sugirtharajah, Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998); and T.W. Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays (London: Routledge, 2001).

The works suggest rejection of Jewish stereotypes and a proper depiction of Judaism in the molding of the scriptural Jesus. Pivotal discussion points include purifying nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German racial stereotypes of Jesus; showing Christianity is not antisemitic at its core; distancing Christianity from complicity in the Holocaust; applying a more positive post-1967 Christian attitude towards Israel and Judaism; and evolving post-Shoah theology. Nonetheless, a persistent anti-Jewish virus permeates under the guise of philo-Judaism (replacement theology, evangelical conversion of the wayward Jew, etc.).

In the inaugural Faculty/Student Seminar Series sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies (10 October 2011), I spoke on the Synoptic Jesus in the context of history and tradition. Among the perspectives I presented are establishing the historicity of Jesus; seeking ways of understanding Jesus in the religious and cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism and in the spirit of reconciliation; and encountering the Jewish Jesus in a dialogue between Jews and Christians. I also shared that a number of contributors to Zev Garber, ed., The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2011) reacted vehemently about the cover that depicts Jesus reading from the Torah. Why? Concern over Jewish triumphalism and/or fear of Christian backlash supersessionism?

My reasoning for emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus is straightforward and transforming: dialogue celebrating uniqueness. As a practicing Jew who dialogues with Christians, I have learned to respect the covenantal role that Christians understand to be the way of the scriptural Jesus on their confessional lives. Also, Jew and Christian in dialogical encounter with select biblical texts can foster mutual understanding and respect as well as personal change and growth within their faith affirmation. Moreover, the interfaith study of Scriptures respects differences and requires that the participants transcend the objectivity and data driven detachment of standard academic approaches and encourages students at whatever level to enter into an encounter with Torah and Testament without paternalism, parochialism, and prejudice. The thought of potential directions to where this can lead current seminars and symposia on Jesus is an exacting and exciting idea.

In sum, it is my view that no one philosophy can be superimposed on the Jesus agenda. Suggestions come easily when they deal with facts and figures, but issues in Jesus education reflect the vitality of live concepts. Thus, interfaith discussion mirrors causes of existence and conditions of being and responds to the imperative “conversation not conversion” in ways different from exclusively piloted agendas (such as those found in ecclesiastical outreach and synagogue separatism). Also, Jewish and Christian thinking on Jesus cannot function under ideological imperialism. Its stream of consciousness necessitates diversity and adaptation.

Finally, at the 2011 SBL Annual Meeting in San Francisco, there are two parallel sessions (Nov. 20) highlighting Jewish involvement in Jesus scholarship: book discussion on The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation (Purdue University Press) and perspectives on The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford University Press). The dawning of Jesus for Jews in the City by the Bay, Kosher brit?