Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kosher Jesus' Lack of Historical Context (Part II)

(Part I)


First, it is important to emphasize that there really is nothing original in Rabbi Boteach's book. There is a curious phenomenon when it comes to Jesus of a collective amnesia on the part of those selling material on Jesus to the general public as to what has been written before. Scholars are constantly being reported as unraveling new understandings of Jesus when there has really has been nothing new in the field of Jesus since the important discoveries of the Dead Sea and Nag Hammadi scrolls more than fifty years ago. Even in these cases, such discoveries simply offered hard evidence for what scholars had long suspected that the early Christians had much in common with other Jewish sectarian groups from the period and that they were a diverse group of people with proto-orthodoxy being one of many competing sects. Academic scholars for over a century now, since at least from the time of Albert Schweitzer, have focused on Jesus as a first century Jew. Scholars such as Morton Smith and Geza Vermes have pioneered the use of Jewish texts such as the Talmud and Midrash as keys for understanding Jesus.

For that matter, Christian scholars, particularly Protestants, have long since been actively conscious of Jesus' Jewish identity. Martin Luther famously wrote an early philo-Semetic work That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew. (This was before his later infamous work The Jews and Their Lies.) For the most part, Protestant interest in Jesus' Jewish identity has led to philo-Semitic attitudes toward Jews down to today. A critical part of Protestant philo-Semitism, including Evangelical support for the State of Israel, is that Protestants strongly identify with the Old Testament and by extension with the people of Israel as the nation that produced Jesus. Furthermore, from almost the beginning of the Reformation, Protestant theology broke down the rigid distinction between the triumphant Church as the true Israel and the synagogue as a religious relic. This was largely due to the fact that Protestants rejected the notion of a visible Church of the saved. If it was no longer clear that Christians were saved then Jews stopped being particularly remarkable or satanic for being damned or at least not yet visibly saved.
      
Early Modern Protestant philo-Semitism should give one pause from drawing a straight line between the charge of deicide and anti-Semitism. One could embrace Jews precisely for their role as depraved sinners against God, representing the depraved hearts of all humanity as it rebels against God. If Jews could antagonize God throughout the entire Old and New Testaments and still be his beloved people for whom he has left open the possibility of salvation, then they should be embraced by Christians (who are also utterly depraved sinners) as a symbol of hope for their own salvation. From this perspective, the whole question of Jewish responsibility is beside the point. It matters little what blows first century Jews physically struck against Jesus or how they called for his death. Jews (along with everyone else) caused his death by rejecting him and making his sacrifice necessary. Theologically literate Christians, the kind that Jews might wish to talk to, already understand this. Jews need to get over this issue and stop being paranoid that they are being blamed for killing someone's Lord and are about to be sent to gas chambers for it. Unfortunately Rabbi Boteach exemplifies precisely this sort of problematic attitude. Much of the book is devoted to proving that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, that the Romans were the true villains of the story and that the Church distorted this fact.
 
The problem with writing about Jesus is that it is essentially impossible to say anything new because everything that might possibly be said has been said. Whatever Jesus you want, communist revolutionary, conservative capitalist or liberation feminist, you can find scholars who can give you your own Jesus tailor made. This illustrates a fundamental problem with trying to discover the "historical Jesus;" the canonized Gospels represent a web of contradictory information and this problem only gets worse once the non-canonized Gospels are brought into play. Anyone making definitive claims about who Jesus was and what he preached beyond the fact that he was a Jewish preacher from the Galilee can be dismissed from the beginning as missing the point.

It is thus laughable for Rabbi Boteach to strive onto the field with barely a nod to biblical scholarship and claiming to offer a definitive answer as to the real Jesus. The one author that Rabbi Boteach demonstrates a close reading of is Hyam Maccoby, whose polemical work was hardly representative of the field. A good example of how Rabbi Boteach tries to force through the conclusion that Jesus was a good Pharisee is his claim that the reason why Jesus allowed his followers to pick grain on the Sabbath was because they were in danger of starving to death because they were patriotic rebels on the run from the Romans. Rabbi Boteach also claims that Jesus making inferences from simple to more difficult cases is evidence of his using Pharisaic logic. This may be the true story, but there is no evidence for it and it turns the Gospels intent on its head.

2 comments:

Edwin said...

I like this post as a whole very much, but I think you overstate the extent of early modern Protestant philo-Semitism. Protestants identified with Biblical Israel, but this led them to the view that contemporary Jews had corrupted Old Testament teaching just as Catholics (or, in Protestant language, "Papists") had corrupted the New Testament. Luther wasn't the only Protestant leader to advocate harsh treatment of Jews--Martin Bucer, on whom I wrote my dissertation, did the same thing (probably with more immediate practical effect), in spite of his great interest in Hebrew and in Jewish scholarship and his insistence on the continuing validity of the Old Testament.

Also, I'm not sure where you got the idea that medieval Catholics believed that everyone in the visible Church was saved. Quite the reverse.

Thanks for the thoughtful and stimulating discussion. I am a Christian who teaches both church history and world religions at an evangelical college, and I am always happy to find Jewish discussion partners!

Izgad said...

Glad to meet a fellow scholar in the history of religion. Today I have been spending my time writing several paragraphs about Tertullian's view of martyrdom. My interest in the matter comes from the fact that Tertullian makes a connection between being a martyr and being a visionary.
What I know of Martin Bucer is his back and forth with Josel of Rosheim and that he was someone from the German Reformation, who helped bring the Reformation to England.
I would not draw a straight line and say that early Protestants were philo-Semitic, but there are some things about Protestant theology that for the most part were helpful. Focus on the Old Testament is part of it. There is also the doctrine of human depravity. If all humans are utterly depraved then Jews can't be worse than everyone else. So yes the Jews may have corrupted the true Church, but that just makes them as bad as everyone else. This is an example of how the doctrine of human depravity so unpopular today can be helpful.
In the case of Luther, I am not certain if he can be called an anti-Semite simply because he does not seem to hate Jews more so than he hated the rest of his opponents. Luther was in the habit of calling for the blood of his opponents and that included Jews.
As I understand early Protestant theology and I suspect you know much more about this than I do. One of the sources of Protestantism was a crisis in faith about salvation as set forth by orthodox Catholicism, which focused on salvation through the visible Church. As a medieval Catholic one is baptized into the physical body of the Church and therefore guaranteed salvation. (Even if you may have to spend time in purgatory, which can anyway be shortened through good works.) This salvation is made manifest through the power of saints and their relics. For this reason Catholics are generally much less anxious about salvation than Protestants. Obviously this crisis that created Protestantism goes back centuries. The philo-Semitic element in Protestantism seems to go back to the Joachim of Fiore apocalyptic tradition.