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Friday, November 07, 2008

Jewish but not that Jewish: Jesus in an Age of Terror Part 3

Part Three is geared toward looking at the reasons for, and the politics of, the emphasis on ‘Jewishness’ in contemporary historical Jesus and NT scholarship. Since the 1970s, and in sharp distinction with what generally came before, a seemingly strongly positive attitude towards Judaism has occurred with scholars repeatedly telling us Judaism is not a bad religion, that the Jesus and the early Christians were ‘very Jewish’ and so on. Vermes’ Jesus the Jew (1973) paved the way for this new trend. Vermes’ recalls how shocking this now scholarly cliché was but that it also gained relatively easy acceptance in NT studies. The other major publication was, of course, Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Since Sanders, sensitivity towards Judaism has become increasingly noticeable in NT studies (and this was even clear in some of Sanders’ most hostile opponents) and since Vermes and Sanders plenty of books tell us about something about Jesus as Jew or Jesus and Judaism.

All sounds nice…but why did it take until the 1970s for such a dramatic change to come about? Why not immediately after the Holocaust? Well, for a start, as Sanders showed, anti-Jewish and antisemitic views were deeply embedded in NT scholarship right up until the 1970s. So the question might be rephrased, why did things change then?

Bill Arnal gives several plausible reasons for the emergence of the debate over Jesus’ ‘Jewishness’ since the 1970s. These include a reaction to socio-economic instability and fractured cultural identities. One reaction was the desire for fixed identities and behind much of the debates over ‘Jewishness’ is the idea of fixed identities and a culturally stable Judaism. Arnal gives other reasons (read his book if you want the whole lot) including a shift in the geographical centre of scholarship away from Germany and a desire for Christian scholars to show that Christianity is not anti-Semitic. I assume these reasons as correct but add a crucial reason which helps explain this major trend: the major cultural, political and intellectual shifts relating to Israel after the 1967 ‘Six Day War’, especially in the US, when Israel established itself as a powerful force in the Middle East. The relevant areas I look at are higher education, popular culture, Christian Zionism, shifts in Holocaust discourse, and Anglo-American politics. Prior to 1967 there was much indifference to Israel; after 1967, the changes are spectacular. I’m not going to summarise all the arguments there but I’ll add that I do have a section on the treatment of Nadia Abu el-Haj and her work on archaeology in Israel. In the case of Abu el-Haj it is clear that the campaign against her told untruths. Anyone can make a mistake and I know I get annoyed at being misrepresented but the treatment of Abu el-Haj is on a completely different level at times. Some of the reporting claims she denied that Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE but that it was Jews instead. Yet she says, absolutely explicitly, that Romans destroyed Jerusalem. She is also accused at gloating over murder of Jews, which she never does. She is criticised for a number of other things, none of which are true. She is generally accused of being antisemitic. I also look at reactions to other related books such (e.g., Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History).

In terms of NT studies this general context helps explain the rise of interest in Jewishness. The land is not a massive focus but does occur (cf. WD Davies’ famous book on the land) – it is usually another Jewish symbol to be transcended or ‘spiritualised’ (see below). The most recent example where it does occur is the debate over ‘Jew’, ‘Judean’ etc. I’ve analysed this debate in a bit more detail in a forthcoming article but some points are discussed. Despite the prominent and wholly justified sensitivities over anti-Semitism, different sides of the debate, despite accusations to the contrary, go out of their way to make sure that they are the best voice against antisemitism. The interesting thing is that given the interest in the terms in relation to the land (and this is a big point of debate) and given the overt concern for contemporary moral implications, there is simply never a concern for Palestinians. This voice is excluded and this says something, I think, about the ideological location of contemporary scholarship.

An important aside on this debate: the linguistic basis still used is KG Kuhn’s TDNT article. This is a seriously problematic resource. Kuhn wrote Nazi propaganda, including, around the same time as his TDNT article, some material on, er, ‘the Jewish problem’ and hatred of Jews and other issues that are not unrelated to his TDNT article. Now, it may be that he still got the Greek linguistics right despite being an anti-Semite but that article needs a serious looking over. Moreover, Maurice Casey wrote a NovT article in 1999 on the antisemitic bias in the early TDNT articles and of Kuhn’s he showed how his Nazi sympathies interfered too much with his linguistic and historical work. Casey also makes some comments on how this has had a negative impact on some of the contemporary debates that go for ‘Judean’. I am still agnostic on the whole issue of translation (I’m not sure there’s too much at stake in terms of definition to be honest – both terms are defined in roughly the same manner) but would it not be right to take Kuhn’s influence into serious consideration before further work is undertaken?

Anyway, back to it. In light of changes outlined above, there is a strong case for the emphasis on ‘Jewishness’ being very much a part of the post-1967 shifts. But this needs a big qualification. For all the pro-Jewish rhetoric, Jesus is constantly, with not that many exceptions, constructed over against Judaism as constructed by scholarship. Jesus *has* to be different. Even Meier’s Jesus is a *marginal* Jew. Even the great EP Sanders gives allows times where Jesus went against the Law. The worst offender is Wright who relentlessly tells us how Jewish Jesus was and how wonderful Judaism was before making sure Jesus is better in various areas. Now, all this may even be historically true but it is done by a) telling us all about Judaism and b) ignoring Jewish evidence that wouldn’t put Jesus over against even scholarly constructions of Judaism. Why ignore Jewish evidence if Judaism is now so wonderful? I look at several examples of this trend and slightly sarcastically call it a ‘Jewish…but not that Jewish’ Jesus. I’d add that Vermes’ Jesus is actually a serious threat because, by scholarly constructions of Judaism, he is ‘too Jewish’ and much of scholarship merely pays lip service to Vermes’ challenge. I should add that I am not arguing here that Jesus *must* be law observant and completely within Judaism as constructed by scholarship but rather why the narrative bulldozers through and why Jewish evidence is ignored.

This ‘Jewish…but not that Jewish’ narrative (including the ignoring of Jewish evidence) is found in other areas, such as the increasingly popular Jesus-as-alternative-priest (a view which lacks serious evidence anyway). I also look at this general 'Jewish...but not that Jewish' narrative in Christian origins. Of course, figures such as Paul and John could play around with Jewish identity in quite dramatic ways but the narrative becomes the default mode in the absence of evidence. This can be seen in debates over the origins of Christology and the view of very early Christology in the very strongest sense. Of course Christians *did* view the full deification of Jesus over against Judaism, as did plenty of Jews, but when it is not there, something else is going on…

I then turn back to the cultural context where, despite the new love for Israel, there is constantly a note of superiority over against Israel, from politics to Christian Zionism (not that they can always be separated!). I also briefly look at Orientalist traditions and some of the recent work on the construction of Judaism in the history of NT scholarship. Once again, NT scholarship is very much a part of its cultural context and I am not convinced too much has changed since the overtly anti-Jewish views of pre-1970s scholarship: Judaism still comes out, at best, second. The difference from earlier scholarship is largely rhetorical.


Blogger N T Wrong said...

James, you've convinced me. I'll be queuing at the Equinox stall at SBL. It will be out by then, do you know?

November 07, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

The Jewishness of early 'Christianity' is an issue that has been forced upon scholars by the publication and wide discussion of the DSS. These documents are there for all to read. We now realise that Judaism itself was in considerable turmoil and change in the first century, and in the two centuries before. Much that was previously understood about the period of earliest 'Christianity' from the NT, the writings attributed to Josephus, and Rabbinnic literature can be seen as later fabrication. The story is not all over - there are too many literalistic scholars out there who haven't left childhood.

November 07, 2008

Anonymous James C said...

NTW: yes, it is indeed due to be out for SBL. Pure coincidence I'm plugging it, naturally. I will look forward to seeing you at SBL. You're the one with the beard, bald head and huge cross, right?


November 07, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

James, just listen for his Tarzan yell.

November 07, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

I certainly agree that the difference from earlier scholarship is largely rhetorical. Many scholars profess a Jewish Jesus so that they can avoid any charges that they are anti-Jewish in their scholarship. They want him to be a little bit Jewish, but not too Jewish. You are also right that they always depict ancient Judaism as just a little bit inferior to what Jesus represents.

I would say that there is, in fact, almost no love for Judaism. Usually, in other fields, when a scholar writes about a subject, they have a fair amount of real love and appreciation for their subject. The context of Jesus' story is 1st century Judaism, with Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism being the particular context of Jesus' Jewishness. Is there any mainstream historical Jesus scholar who can be said to have a love for the Pharisees and rabbis? I don't think so. In the writings of R. Travers Herford, who was of course not Jewish, you can sense a real love for the Pharisees and rabbis. But he was a rare exception.

The result is that the Pharisees are still misrepresented by most scholars. There is no love in telling lies about a culture. Pharisees are still presented as being obsessed with rituals and legalism. Who tells of their love for consitutionalism and due process? Or their love for stories and parables and God's ongoing revelation in oral Torah? No one really gets what the Pharisees accomplished. And scholars' avoidance of understanding Jesus as a Pharisee and rabbi is a clear sign that they fear this will make Jesus too Jewish.

William Arnal's book "The Symbolic Jesus" is a major sign and expression of this continued prejudice. His way of saying "too Jewish" is "honorary Jew". He says we should not make Jesus into an honorary Jew. What a bizarre thing to say. Also, in a book that is supposedly dedicated to encouraging multiplicity in the ways of looking at a culture, he steadfastly avoids even mentioning Pharisees and rabbis. He simply disappears them from history. He explicitly declares his preference for a Jesus closer to Greek culture. And he makes several disparaging references to what he would call traditional Judaism (using words like obsessive and rigid), but never uses any disparaging words for Greek culture. He constantly sums up 1st century Judaism as some combination of rituals, Temple, and purity concerns, and never gives a clue that a better summary might be spirituality, peace, due process. The purpose of the book is to make sure that this kind of prejudice remains firmly in place and that anyone who exposes it will be silenced or ostracized from scholarly debates.

Arnal's book is one of the surest signs that current scholarship is as prejudiced as it ever was. It is a cleverly written book to reinforce prejudice.

Leon Zitzer

November 09, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

May be Leon, all scholars should study the DSS, because there they will find a Judaism in 4QMMT that is completely different from any strict stereotype. There they will find the 'they' group of the document who were letting the blind and the deaf and the lepers into the temple and were offering sacrifices of grain, but boiling the meat presumably to eat. There are about 20 complaints in all by the 'we' group (the strict group who had separarated themselves) about the liberal practices of the 'they' group (those who were running the temple at the time). Clearly there were ructions going on in Judaism (well before the time of the prophet) that were suppressed in the writings attributed to Josephus.

November 10, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

In fact Leon, I would suggest that the 'we' group of 4QMMT were the priests (the seekers of the Law)and the 'they' group were the prophets (the seekers of smooth things). And it was the strict 'we' group of the priests that were adding "a great many observances by succession from their fathers which are not written in the laws of Moses" (a role that was later taken over by the Pharisees) and it was the prophets who rejected those observances.

November 11, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

So, the earliest 'christianity' had its origin in the more relaxed opinions of prophets, the 'they' of 4QMMT, "the seekers of smooth things".

And the earliest Pharisaical/rabbinic Judaism had its origin in the more strict opinions of the priests, the 'we' of 4QMMT, "the seekers of the law". Codifying of oral law by rabbins, was continuing the tradition of the priests - adding to the laws of Moses.

The extant writings attributed to Josephus give us a confused view of Pharisees - as being strict and benign. They were certainly not the "seekers of smooth things" of the DSS.

November 12, 2008

Blogger Larry Tanner said...

Hi, you mention the Jewish evidence several times. Just what is this evidence? I am curious to investigate.

January 30, 2009


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