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.