What Gibson Neglects: Jesus' Jewishness

Roundup: Talking About History

Jay Tolson; Linda Kulman, in US News & World Report (March 8, 2004):

... since the Reformation, a growing number of clerics, theologians, and scholars have worked hard to recover the historical Jesus. To Protestants, this effort was part of the struggle to throw off the "corrupted" misreadings of the Roman Catholic Church and return to the real Jesus. Yet even in the midst of such attempts, a combination of church politics, deeply ingrained prejudice, and limited evidence impeded a full or fair examination of Jesus's Jewishness well into the 20th century.

That has changed during the past 50 years. Aided by finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have made great strides in reconstructing the centuries surrounding the Crucifixion. In addition to restoring the fully Jewish context of Jesus's career, they have also shown how some early Christians attempted to distance their founder and his movement from their Jewish roots.

Geza Vermes, emeritus professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University , is arguably the dean of this recent scholarly enterprise. Three decades ago, with his book Jesus the Jew, he led the way by reading the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke as part of what he calls a "continuously evolving Jewish religious and literary creativity." Among other things, Vermes showed how these three narratives drew on many of the same sources that later rabbinical writings would draw on. In one such source, the first-century B.C. Psalms of Solomon, for example, the psalmist evokes the coming kingdom of God and anticipates a "Jewish savior-king establishing divine rule over the gentiles." Vermes's reading yields a figure who "fits perfectly into the first-century Galilee ," an exemplar of the "charismatic Judaism of wonder-working holy men" of the time. The Gospels can be read in many ways, Vermes acknowledges, and he does not disparage orthodox Christian interpretations. "But if you read them literally," he cautions, "without knowledge of what they describe in terms of institutions and politics, then suddenly the Jews can become different, the enemies, the opposition. What is really going on in them is a family quarrel within Judaism."

This is not strictly an academic matter for Vermes. In his view, a willful disregard of the Jewishness of Jesus and his teaching has been partly responsible for "all the nasty things" that are associated with Christian anti-Semitism. And it is not only Jews who share that concern. New Testament specialist Margaret Mitchell, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago and a Roman Catholic, worries that Gibson's movie, like all uncritical, ahistorical readings of the Gospels, will potentially "flatten what ought to be a curriculum for each generation of Christians to struggle with, including this strange fact of a religion starting in Judaism and then moving away from it."

Trigger finger. What, then, are some of the highlights of the corrective "curriculum" that recent scholarship has provided? The first, certainly, is a fuller understanding of the politics of ancient Palestine . The conquest of that land by Pompey in 63 B.C. inaugurated an era of shared Roman-Jewish governance, during which time able and compliant local leaders such as Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) enjoyed considerable autonomy. Less adept leaders such as Archelaus, who inherited a third of Herod's lands (namely, Judea and the city of Jerusalem ), fared less well. After tolerating 10 years of his incompetence, Roman prefects took over Archelaus's territory, though they continued to share the running of Jerusalem with the high priests of the Temple . The two other portions of Herod's former lands, including Jesus's state of Galilee , remained under Jewish rule. This arrangement lasted until a major Jewish revolt brought on a harsh Roman reaction and the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.

The delicate governing arrangements and the political volatility of Palestine are crucial to understanding Jesus's fate. For example, Pontius Pilate was far from being Gibson's (or the Gospels') somewhat benign figure, puzzled by the high priests' insistence on punishing Jesus. He was rather, as the first-century historian Josephus relates, a notoriously harsh prefect, quick to crucify even potential political rebels.

It is not clear whether Jesus's followers thought he was the Messiah or an apocalyptic prophet declaring the imminent coming of God's kingdom. But the fact that his arrival in the city stirred up popular interest among the holiday crowds in Jerusalem would have set off Pilate's alarms that he might be dealing with a seditious leader. The Jewish high priests of the Temple were also certainly concerned about any disturber of the peace, although declaring oneself the Messiah, Vermes has argued, was not blasphemy by Jewish law. Indeed, if Jesus's crime had truly been blasphemy, as the Gospels assert, then the priests would have rightfully condemned Jesus to death by stoning--rather than handing him over to Pilate for the Crucifixion. As Boston University scholar Paula Fredriksen puts it, "I see Roman concerns exceeding priestly ones. If Pilate didn't have an itchy trigger finger, the Crucifixion, which was a specifically political punishment, probably would not have happened."

The new scholarship also emphasizes the theological variety within Judaism at Jesus's time. To be sure, there were certain constants: All Jews worshiped only one God, and all believed in the divine election of Israel , the divine origin of the law, and repentance and forgiveness. Apart from that, there were many different beliefs associated with the priestly class and clergy, the various religious parties, and, not least, the great majority of unaffiliated Jews.

The Pharisees, for instance, a party some 6,000 strong, shared with most first-century Jews a belief in life after death and developed their own traditions governing observance of the law. The Gospels, particularly Matthew, would later caricature the Pharisees as inflexible legalists in order to suggest a divide between the Jewish emphasis on the law and Jesus's emphasis on the spirit and grace. Yet as the discoveries of post-biblical Jewish texts have helped to demonstrate, the concern with mercy, forgiveness, and the inner spirit of the law was widely shared throughout Judaism, and certainly not unique to Jesus's teaching. Even the Gospel of Mark shows Jesus sharing the Pharisees' belief that love of God and love of one's fellow man are the greatest commandments.

The distancing of Jesus from his Jewish roots is a complex story involving the gradual separation of the Christian movement from Judaism both in Palestine and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world, beginning shortly after the Crucifixion. Yet as the new scholarship emphasizes, even the belief in Jesus's Resurrection should not be considered a Christian novelty. "The resurrection of the dead was one of the redemptive acts anticipated in Jewish traditions about the End of Days," Fredriksen explains in Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Jesus's individual Resurrection was thought by his early followers to herald a more general resurrection that would come with the establishment of the kingdom of God .

Another tenet of apocalyptic Judaism was the belief that righteous gentiles would turn to the true God as the kingdom approached. And indeed, as the movement spread through synagogue communities on the coast and throughout the Jewish Diaspora, it drew more and more gentiles. In response, leaders of the Christian movement in Jerusalem decided that these gentiles-in-Christ did not have to convert to Judaism as long as they abandoned all forms of idolatry.

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