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Friday, March 21, 2008

Whose Jewishness is it anyway?

I made some comments on Jewish identity on Mike Bird’s blog and thought them worth discussing further here. Mike quotes Bockmuehl on the Jesus Seminar and Jesus’ Jewishnes who says, ‘Although these writers never explicitly deny Jesus’ Jewishness (and generally take vociferous exception to the charge that they do), they do in fact develop a Jesus largely neutered and declared as to Jewish religious specifics’. Bird adds, ‘I’ve argued much the same in an EQ article and I'm glad that I'm not alone on that one given Bill Arnal and John Kloppenborg's apologies for the construction of the non-Jewish Jesus.’

Notice how Bockmuehl makes a clear (and I think vital) qualification: ‘Although these writers never explicitly deny Jesus’ Jewishness…they do in fact develop a Jesus largely neutered and declared as to Jewish religious specifics’. The issue raised is, clearly enough, religious specifics and not simply Jewish identity as a whole. Mike’s argument actually seems to do what Bockmuehl avoided and go for ‘Jewishness’ as a whole when he speaks of ‘Bill Arnal and John Kloppenborg's apologies for the construction of the non-Jewish Jesus’. Firstly, who is this ‘non-Jewish Jesus’, language incidentally that neither Kloppenborg nor Arnal would use yet supposedly defend? Does it mean gentile, the obvious meaning of non-Jewish? Does it mean that Jews could only be deemed Jews if they were observant? It seems to me – and this was part of Arnal’s point I think – that here we have a modern interpreter saying what Jewish identity must be and that Jewish identity had to be fixed, a very dubious approach – assuming for the moment this is what is being assumed by Mike – to identity these days.

Now no one has to agree with the Cynic-like thesis (in one sense that is another discussion entirely). In fact opponents and supporters alike could agree on the fact that the Cynic-like thesis sees no inherent contradiction between Jewish identity and Cynic-like philosophy. Crossan clearly thinks his Jesus is, as he says quite explicitly in his subtitle to his famous book, Jewish. Arnal clearly says that someone could identify as both Cynic and Jewish, both non-really-observant and Jewish. Is it really fair for an interpreter to say who could or could not be Jewish in such terms? What if an ancient Jew would have disagreed? What if an ancient Jew liked Cynic philosophy and decided it was the most wonderful thing ever but still identified as a Jew? Now Bird may really have meant ‘non-Jewish’ in the sense of Bockmuehl’s ‘religious specifics’ but if so it would be much more helpful if it were made clear, not least because neither Kloppenborg nor Arnal ever apologise for a ‘non-Jewish Jesus’ and the only explicit ‘non-Jewish Jesuses’ of recent times have been the Nazi and Aryan Jesuses, hardly the kinds of beliefs most contemporary scholars would associate with. Is not the phrase ‘apologies for the construction of the non-Jewish Jesus’ particularly loaded?

I will have much more to say on all this in due course and why it is a big deal. That’ll have to wait too…

18 Comments:

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

James,

I agree with you. Jesus' "Jewishness" has become a hot button item to the extent that it serves as an apologetic tool for some. Arnal is essentially right.

In general, we know that some Jewish groups were more Hellenized than others. Does that mean they were non-Jewish? Of course not. Diluted-Jewish maybe, but still Jewish. And it's theoretically possible that Jesus was a more Hellenized Jew (diluted-Jewish) than not. I don't think the evidence points this way, but it wouldn't bother me in the least to learn that I'm wrong.

I'm instantly suspicious of anyone who invokes Jesus' "Jewishness" as a hot-button item. Invariably that someone is pressing an oblique agenda -- one of four outlined in my review of Arnal. (I cite Bird approvingly at one point in the review, though I think he may ultimately be guilty of this.)

March 21, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

"Observant" of what, James? Some Jews no doubt thought their 'observance' should be different from the 'observance' of others. The 'observance' or 'system of philosophy' of one Judas the so-called Galilean immediately springs to my mind. And interestingly, it is referred to as a 'system' which to me has a ring of theology. It was a 'system' that rocked the Jewish world, as implied even in the editied writings attributed to Josephus.

March 21, 2008

 
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

James,

1. I concede that I should have said "un-Jewish" rather than "non-Jewish" or perhaps even "diluted Jewishness". It was indeed the "religious specifics" in line with Bockmuehl that I had in mind. My main point is that I've objected before to the blanketing of Jesus in a hellenistic overlay (esp. B.L. Mack) so as to deliberately move him away from Palestinian Judaism and towards some sort view more at home in the gnostic Gospels or in Hellenism.

2. The Jesus Seminar and similar proponents have copped a hiding to nothing from all quarters which is why Crossan himself has abandoned the Cynic Jesus thesis. It creates a Jesus in the image of white middle class American liberals. Arnal and Kloppbenborg claim that the "Jewishness" of Jesus is just as ideologically loaded as attempts to hellenize him. Perhaps so. But at the end of the day I object to the fairly clear effort to remove Jesus from reliance on a worldview linked to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish apocalytpic eschatology both of which are distasteful to certain quarters of NT scholarship in North America. For case in point, the recent book about Jesus edited by Amy-Jill Levine has a chapter on the Dionysus cult etc. but nothing about synagogues as relevant for the historical Jesus (I could give other examples of preferencing hellenistic institutions and ideas over Palestinian ones in that book). Is this historically plausible? Is there a certain presupposition behind this and is there a certain ideological aesthetic at work - darn right there is!

3. I assume a broad meaning to "Jewishness" or "Judeanness" but look at the chapter titles of the Levine book and tell me that this Jesus is at home in Palestine. I have doubts! Then go read Mark Chancey's stuff about Hellenism and the Galilee and tell me if this hellenized Jesus is even historically plausible. I'm not driven to this by apologetics or theology, but by material history.

4. To claim Jesus as Jewish does not gurantee his coherence with Christian orthodoxy as a clear reference to Sanders, Ehrman, Allison, and Vermes makes clear. The apologetic mileage one gets out of a Jewish Jesus is limited to interaction with the Jesus Seminar et. al. So it is far from a pure apologetic ploy to call Jesus "Jewish/Judean".

Best for the morrow as well!!!

March 21, 2008

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Danke!

1. I like Bockmuehl's religious specifics best: I think it coheres with what you say too and it explains more explicitly what is being meant. E.g. this is sort of what you mean, I think when you say, 'My main point is that I've objected before to the blanketing of Jesus in a hellenistic overlay (esp. B.L. Mack) so as to deliberately move him away from Palestinian Judaism and towards some sort view more at home in the gnostic Gospels or in Hellenism.'

Likewise, when you 'object to the fairly clear effort to remove Jesus from reliance on a worldview linked to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish apocalytpic eschatology both of which are distasteful to certain quarters of NT scholarship in North America.' Here it is clearly defined what is the issue. I don't think it is Jewish versus non-Jewish though as it sometimes gets framed, by both 'sides'.

In terms of historical context (Paletine, Chancey, etc.) I agree with you but that's almost another issue... I also agree with your comments on the ideological location of scholarship. Won't here me arguing with on that score! I don't think ideology is dictating all, I just think the language in which it was framed was problematic (and elsewhere, though I use examples of other scholars, I am going to explain why this language is common). Incidentally, even if theology had driven you to such conclusions, it doesn't make that necessarily wrong!

I guess what I'm getting at is how we construct Jesus identity, who constructs Jewish identity, and how the debate gets framed in terms of Jewish identity. And ultimately, why this is happening. I have no quibble with your historical results. I agree with many of them as it happens. This isn't necessarily a question of (historically) right and wrong.


'To claim Jesus as Jewish does not gurantee his coherence with Christian orthodoxy as a clear reference to Sanders, Ehrman, Allison, and Vermes makes clear.' I agree.

'So it is far from a pure apologetic ploy to call Jesus "Jewish/Judean".' Certainly. Again, I agree. I wouldn't go for pure apology. I think I'm far more interested in scholarly rhetoric but more on that to come...

March 22, 2008

 
Blogger Quixie said...

michael f. bird wrote:
" . . .For case in point, the recent book about Jesus edited by Amy-Jill Levine has a chapter on the Dionysus cult etc. but nothing about synagogues as relevant for the historical Jesus . . ."

Perhaps this has to do with the fact (as Jacob Neusner has pointed out) that there is no archeological evidence for any synagogues in the area of the Galilee prior to the war of 66–70? (per Neusner)

Also . . . though Dom Crossan seldom uses the word "cynic" these days, I don't think it is accurate to say he has "abandoned" or changed in any significant way his general portrait of Jesus.

BTW, for those interested, I just heard him interviewed by Terri Gross on today's edition of "Fresh Air."

March 22, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Never mind about synagogues, the prophet was going into the temple every day - between scheduled flights up to Galilee of course.

March 22, 2008

 
Blogger Steven Carr said...

What is a Jewish Jesus?

Did the Jewish Jesus make sin offerings in the Temple?

March 22, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

What do you think if the prophet drove animals out of the temple and proclaimed the Spirit as in g.John?

A Jewish 'Jesus' was a Jewish prophet basically like any other before him, but rejecting animal sacrifices for cleansing from sin. His was a 'system of philosophy' that had not been totally embraced before, although there had been distinct rumblings of it for over a century.

March 22, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Steven, there is one thing you can be sure a Jewish 'Jesus' or prophet would not have done, and that is promote himself. So how much would that fact alone affect the text of the extant NT?

March 22, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Or was Steven asking if the prophet was a priest descended from Aaron, like Zechariah, and therefore had access to the priest's area of the temple? If the prophet maintained the levels of purity that are attributed to Zechariah, then the prophet also had access to the rival altar of the sanctuary (garbled to 'a place' - the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane in the synoptics).

Josephus was a priest but never practiced as one. He was more than likely a prophet. And Josephus' hero was Judas the so-called 'Galilean' probably a garbling of the word prophet as in Acts - "are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?"

March 23, 2008

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apostle Paul might be a good test. On the one hand he is a Jew who is proud of his Jewishness (Philippians 2). On the other hand, he says a number of extremely radical things (pace Gaston-Gager) which seem to question the validity or importance of the Torah. Even the advocates of the New Perspective admit that he was pretty radical. Now, if Paul could take a law-free attitude (or at least a very liberal attitude), why Jesus couldn't? (I'm speaking about historical presuppositions.) It might be a fun to imagine the Quest for the historical Paul in the absence of his own testimonies. Something like "Paul was throroughly Jewish and therefore never questioned the eternal validity of the Law" etc.

March 23, 2008

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Anonymous: yes, that is a very significant point. Paul shows how seriously messy issues identity can get. You are absolutely right (or I have agreed with your point elsewere - not sure that's proof of 'absolutely right' but you get my drift): in Paul we have solid C1 evidence for the cultural/historical plausibility of such a thing (for what it is worth I don't think Jesus do such things but as you imply, that's not realy the point).

March 24, 2008

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Geoff: observant of the law was what I meant in this instance. And, yes, of course, there could be internal debates over who was right.

March 24, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Internal debate could include the possibility that a historical 'Jesus' and a historical 'Paul' were both Jewish but revolutionary prophets in that they rejected obedience of the law (in particular animal sacrifice) as the way to be cleansed before God. There is sufficient prophetic Jewish background that such a view of the law could have been held entirely within prophetic Judaism. With low moral standards among the priesthood and rulers, the law could have been viewed as completely ineffective. Thus even the issue of circumcision could have been within the scope of the prophet's debate. After all, just at the right time, Judas the 'Galilean' had a unique 'system of philosophy'. But of course the propaganda leads us to believe that Judas was concerned with violent opposition to Roman rule.

And one would expect Paul to be like Jesus if they were the creations of the same Pauline editors - they had Paul say "I am crucified with Christ." But were these characters created from nothing, thus completely mythical, or were they developed from writings about earlier real prophetic characters like Judas and James?

March 25, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

That there was a longstanding internal debate about circumcision is evident. Some Jewish folk recognised that mere 'observance' of the ritual aspects of the law was not a passport to glory.

'Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts' (Jer.4.4)

'Circumcise your hearts therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer' (Deut.10.16).

March 25, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

James, you wrote with reference to Jesus that you thought he was "observant of the law". I have come to the conclusion that he was out to defy the law and to encourage others to do so. He faced-down the priests who were afraid of him as a prophet with authority. The later editors moderated original prophet's law-breaking to stories about not keeping the Sabbath. Typical is the interpolation of Jn.5.8 - "The day on which this took place was a Sabbath." What examples would you give to support your view?

April 01, 2008

 
Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Romans revered their law. Thus the Pauline editors were happy to have their Jesus seen as breaking the Jewish Sabbath, but not Jewish law. Thus many of the stories in the NT were originally about the prophet breaking Jewish law deliberately. For the prophet, Jewish law was defunct. The law was to be superseded by the Spirit.

April 02, 2008

 
Blogger Leon said...

I am always amazed at how vague most discussions about Jesus' Jewishness are and at the same time how they manage to pick out the most superficial aspects of 1st century Judaism. When scholars talk about ancient Judaism, they almost always mention some assortment of Temple, rituals, purity, Torah (or the Law), etc. Nobody ever sums up 1st century Judaism as, e.g., spirituality, justice, peace. But that kind of summary would be much closer to the heart of Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism and Jesus' real context. That scholars fail to approach Judaism this way tells you something about their prejudices.

William Arnal's book "The Symbolic Jesus" is rather duplicitous in the sense that while he supposedly champions the idea of multiplicity when studying any culture, and Judaism in particular, he silences Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism. He will not allow its voice to be heard at all and belittles the idea of Jesus as rabbi and the repeated references to him as rabbi in the Gospels.

I will give you a very specific idea of 1st century Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism which everyone avoids. The Torah was regarded as a written Constitution which was subjected to constant debate and interpretation, i.e., oral Torah. Jesus participated in this system of debate. The evidence is there in the Gospels. A second aspect of this Judaism was that one could challenge God and debate him. God wants you to do that. Call it chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards God. This too is in the Gospels, plenty of evidence for it. With these two facets in mind, it is possible to build a very specific picture of Jesus' Jewishness. But scholars block every rational attempt to do this.

Leon Zitzer

April 10, 2008

 

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