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…