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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Once again on the historical Jesus: who is deciding Jewish identity?

Mike has briefly discussed a new work edited by Hays and Gaventa on Jesus and identities. I can't deal with that book here but I can deal with the use in Mike's final redaction of his blog entry. Mike liked this quote about the Jesus Seminar: "This portrait was of a strikingly non-Jewish Jesus, a laconic wandering sage who loved witty aphorisms but had no interest in Israel's heritage or destiny, and no interest in leading a new religious movement" (p. 2). Mike added, 'Amen!'

I've said before (and in Jesus in an Age of Terror, chs 4-5; see also esp. Arnal, Symbolic Jesus), that this imposes a view of Jewish identity on Jews. If we follow this logic to its conclusion it means that if someone born Jewish in the ancient world decided to not bother with 'Israel's heritage or destiny' then they somehow ceased to be Jewish (whether they liked it or not presumably). It also implies that someone who was 'a laconic wandering sage who loved witty aphorisms' somehow could not be a Jewish person even if born Jewish! I think this is a not-very-helpful view of identity, goes against much of what has been written in contemporary academic discussion of identity and is reflective of some very old fashioned (and even essentialist?) views of identity. The question might be raised: who is deciding who can be Jewish here?

And do the Jesus Seminar really deny Jesus was Jewish, something which would be spectacularly controversial? No. Crossan's book even calls Jesus a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

Mike also points to the 'convergences between the various contributors: (1) Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew'. But is this anything remotely surprising? Who would deny this? Is there anyone since the Nazi scholars who denies Jesus was Jewish (a point well discussed by Arnal)? Is saying Jesus was a Jew now as obvious as saying 'we all agree that Jesus had a head'? Probably, so why the emphasis...?

I think there are social, political, ideological etc reasons for this strange emphasis on the obvious (Jesus was Jewish) in the past 30 or so years...see Arnal, Symbolic Jesus; Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror. I also think that in historical Jesus scholarship the construction of Jewish identity is frequently patronising and usually designed to make Jesus 'better' than what is, ultimately, little more than a scholarly construction. But that's another story...

Mike also adds, 'The Identity of Jesus Project at CTI, in contrast to the Jesus Seminar, came to believe that: "Jesus is best understood not by separting him from canon and creed but by investigating the ways in which the church's canon and creed provide the distinctive clarification of his identity. The church's ancient ecumenical creeds are not artificial impositions of Scripture but interpretative summaries of the biblical narratives. Therefore, they offer us an overarching sense of the meaning of the whole Bible, and of Jesus' place within that story" (p. 5).'
I ask this to Mike: given the contrast with the Jesus Seminar, is that a Jewish Jesus then...?


Anonymous Danny Kam said...

Hi James,
Thanks for posting this. I know that I only have a BA and I only have a minor in biblical studies, but I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post.

I think that any construction of the historical Jesus is extremely hard to do and everyone is just going to disagree with you anyways (so what's the point?). Just reading the introductions to books like Crossan's book or Witherington's book on the Jesus Quest seems to me that everyone has their own ideas and no one agrees with one another.

I think it is time that we let it sit in a bit of mystery. Because, ultimately, that is what we find in scripture: a mysterious Jesus.

This is not to say that we can't know things about him, simply that we have to be careful how quickly we let any sort of 21st century theory we come up with define Jesus to any extent.

December 22, 2008

Blogger Yirmeyahu said...

Zevel! (Rubbish in Hebrew)

Read something beside your own circles of belief -- like Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (Prof. Elisha Qimron, Oxford Publ.), which describes the religious Jewish community that constrains what essentially misojudaic gentiles may LOGICALLY ascribe to the historical Jew.

Additionally, Prof. James Parkes (Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) demonstrates that Jesus, a 4th-century Christian image, was the polar antithesis of the 1st-century Jew.

Thus, "Historical Jesus" is an intractable oxymoron. Your quest is defined as impossible from the get-go until you differentiate between "Jesus" of Christianity (which is 4th-century and subsequent; often European, in fact) and start looking for historical Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.

Paqid Yirmeyahu
Paqid 16, The Netzarim, Ra'anana, Israel
Israeli Orthodox Jew (Teimani Baladi Dardai)
Advancing Logic as Halakhic Authority
Welcoming Jews & non-Jews

December 22, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

I don't think it's about letting "it sit in a bit of mystery" Danny.

Excellent post of course, well said. Now everyone had better read your book!!

December 22, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

Yirmeyahu: Zevel! I don't think you understood the post.

December 22, 2008

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...


(1) My "Amen" was motivated by my article in EQ (2004) where I argued against the "California Jesus" (Jesus Seminar) and "Big Tent Revival Jesus" (Evangelical Jesus). For the record, I stated there that the Jesus Seminar offers a de-judaized Jesus, not an unJewish Jesus. As I've told you before and I sayeth unto ye again: Burton Mack said he was deliberately moving Jesus away from Judaism and towards Hellenism with his picture of Jesus! So my remarks remain justified so far as he goes. I resonated with RBH and BG on this point.

(2) It's not my task to defend RBH and BG, but in their convergences you omitted their first point: "Jesus was a Jew". I would suppose that their canonical and creedal Jesus is meant to be consistent with that proposition (whether it is so I'll leave to others to decide).

(3) There were some ethnic Jews who were not interested in their heritage or history, i.e. the Hellenizers during the Maccabean period and Tiberius Alexander are the ones that come immediately to mind! Would you call Tiberius Alexander Jewish?

December 22, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

When I read "Amen" I read it as advocating the quotation it followed. An old article in EQ didn't come to mind. Not even Mack says that Jesus was "non-Jewish". For him, Jesus was a Jew influenced by surrounding culture. So what is a Jew? Are contemporary Jews Jewish or "non-Jewish" because they are no longer like biblical Jews perhaps?. I don't think it is justified to agree with that quotation from Hays and Gaventa.

December 22, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks Danny. I sort of agree, though I could never bring myself to allow Jesus to sit in a mystery! But you are generally right, the quest for the historical Jesus does face the problems you say.

Yirmeyahu: you don't seem to be making sense. Firstly, of course people (inc me and Mike) have read 4QMMT! And being in NT studies, I largely read almost everything apart from my own circles of belief (actually I don't even know what my own circles of belief would - care to elaborate?)

No argument from me about the difference between C4 Christian figure and C1 Jew.

What do you mean by 'your quest'?

Mike, I'm with Steph here: the 'Amen' is right after the quotation. But I know about your other argument but it is still problematic becausewho is defining what 'Jewishness' is? Why does it have to be about Israel's history and future? Couldn't some define themselves in different ways? I'd need the Mack quotation but I say to you in reply (again), could not a figure who was born Jewish have lots of interest in things Hellenistic and not that typically designated 'Jewish'? Of course, that might upset some people, some might be indifferent, and so on but in the abstract, why foreground religious identity? Identity is very, very slippery and very difficult to define inany 'scientific' way.

I know what you are talking about but I think it is worth some people using different language because 'non-Jewish' (their term, not yours, I know, but you did 'Amen' it!) is seriously problematic. Your term de-Judaised is probably better because it emphasises the elements of religion (but then I think Wright's Jesus would also have to be a 'de-Judaised' Jesus by this definition). In fact aren't the terms used by you, on the one hand, and RH and BG, on the other, significantly different?

As for Hellenised Jews etc, well it depends on lots of things. Self perception is one possibility. It may well have been the case that lots or some of the Hellenisers in the run up to the Maccabean crisis still identified themselves as Jewish (interestingly, there are examples where the hostility in the Macc literature can't always find somethign the Hellenisers have done wrong). Who knows, even thos who removed circumcision may still have identified themselves as Jews? On the other hand, some might have ceased to identify themselves as Jewish. Also, identity in much of what we have is being construted by opponents. So we know how people construct opponents' identity but not necessarily how others identified themselves.

Perhaps the most entertaining is how Josephus tires to deal with similar problems: ‘At this time a Jewish garrison and the Jewish renegades did much harm to the Jews; for when they went up to the temple with the intention of sacrificing, the garrison killed them...’ (Ant. 12.362)!!!

Could Tib Alex lose his connections with 'Jewishenss'? It's an interesting question and one where postcolonial stuff will help a lot I think (plenty of parallel examples). In fact he's a good example of just how slippery the issue of identity actually is.

Perception is one way I'd approach the problem. I don't like strict definitions for what identity 'was' because masses people don't fit into such categories so easily. The imposing of Jewish identity in historical Jesus studies is a big problem.

December 22, 2008

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

James (and Steph),
Fair enough, my "Amen" should have been more nuanced. Yet, if I have to choose between the Jesus Seminar and Theissen-Burridge-Hays (classic Jesus Seminar despises), I choose the later on the basis of historical versimilitude.

Here is a quote from Mack, (Myth of Innocence, 73): ‘The Cynic analogy repositions the historical Jesus away from a specifically Jewish sectarian milieu and toward the Hellenistic ethos known to have prevailed in Galilee.’ You can see the manifold problems behind this: 1. Was Galilee Hellenistic (what does that even mean in practice)? 2. Was there sectarianism among Hellenistic Jews? 3. Does this explain the nature of the Jesus tradition and the rise of early Christianity? 4. What motivates or allures Mack to have a Jesus that is positioned so?

I'll send you my EQ article!

December 22, 2008

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

James, I'll repeat a request I made at Euagg. here:

Could you kindly supply a list of notable first century (I'll take BCE or CE to make it easier!) Jews who cared not about "Jewish history and heritage"? Thanks so much. Look forward to reading that list...

December 22, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks for the Mack quotation. As, I say, why shouldn't someone born Jewish identify themselves as a Jew and behave in such a manner? But if we are going to foreground the religious, then, as I said, this works interms of your definition (not RH and BG).

Now as for historical problems, fine. I know the historical problems surrounding the reconstruction of Galilee, I know which kind of portrait of Jesus I think is most accurate, and think I could do something on establishing the ideological context of Mack's scholarhsip. And who knows I might even agree with you! But those are different questions. Important and interesting questions, certainly, but different nonetheless. My question is merely about definition of 'what is/was a Jew' and scholarly views of identity.

December 22, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

JB, as I wrote on Mike's blog:

JB, there are texts which do not discuss or foreground what we call religious heritage or identity (e.g. papyri). Now some these people may well have been very interested in heritage and history but we don't know. If they didn't, then what? Then we could add that ther were Jews who worked the land and wrote nothing. What did they think, what did they do? What about the people of the land? Of course, lots of Jews were interested in heritage and history but it should not follow (if anyone wishes to imply so) that they were not longer identifying themselves and Jewish and people were no longer identifying themselves as Jewish.

Also, see Philip Harland's stuff (esp his book on associations) for C1 Jewish examples (inscriptions, epigraphic) where interests were not necessarily about specifically Jewish religious heritage and future and has different interests e.g. their associations. Harland's book is as good as any to go to on these issues.

December 22, 2008

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

James, I posted my reply at mike's blog so I won't clog up further here!

December 22, 2008

Blogger andrewbourne said...

It appears that there is an assumption that we are able to know and describe what it was to be of the Yahwistic faith in the 1 C.E. I avoid `Jew` as I feel it is anachronistic. There appears at times if Josephus says what a Jew is then that is de facto Jewish, however Josephus was an Israelite who had gone over to the Romans he has an act to grind how much of his text is a defence of his own position against others who stayed and fought in the rebellion. In essence how much is the search for a Historical Jesus more about the Jesus of faith or not Loisy`s suggestion that most of the time we see the Jesus we want to see is still correct. It is a James in his excellent recent book to be aware of the log in our own eye of bringing our prejudices and wish fantasies of the kind of Historical Jesus we would like to have rather than the enigma that stands at the heat of the Christian message

December 26, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Yirmeyahu makes perfect sense. He is absolutely right that the DSS constrain what a historical Jew of the first century could have been like. These documents from the ground must be given priority over any 'above ground' documents that almost certainly have been contaminated by editors. And talking of 'ground', I think most biblical scholars have buried their heads in it, afraid to discard their traditional images of a historical Jew Jesus - after all his name puts the 'bread' on the table, particularly in relation to book titles. The traditional image of Jesus the christ, the Jew could not have existed, period. If there was a messiah or christ, he would have been like those in the DSS, akin to Osama Bin Laden, not Paul Scholes, or sweetie Jim, as JG = NT Wro.. called him.

January 02, 2009

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

One thing that the DSS make absolutely clear is that a first century Jew would certainly have believed in the two spirits, the spirit of truth or light and the spirit of deceit or darkness. These were two spirits that every person possessed. And that it was the purity of one's spirit that determined one's eventual status before God. A first century prophet that didn't take these spirits into account never existed. For my money there is plenty of information in the extant NT to make one think that belief in the two spirits was fundamental to the prophet's theology, and that cleansing of the spirit by receiving the Spirit of God was the priority.

Secondly, the DSS are just as important for what they don't say 'Steph' as what they do say. Their silence shouts. Thus there were no pre 70 Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes ('Stephen Goranson' of Duke Stacks department who Mark Goodacre never speaks to, note).

It wasn't Pharisees who let Pompey into Jerusalem, it was prophets who were being persecuted by the messianic priests. The same was true later in 66 when so called 'Idumeans' were let into Jerusalem by so-called 'zealots'. These 'Idumeans' were Roman soldiers under Nero come to destroy the priests and their temple cult of animal sacrifice. And it was the prophet friends of the executed James who let the Romans in to kill Ananus the leader of the priests and the murderer of James. No doubt Ananus saw himself as a Messiah.

During their apparently secret approach to the walls of Jerusalem, the so-called 'Idumeans' even formed a testudo with their shields, laughably to keep the 'rain' off during a 'storm'. Now I just have to wonder at the intelligence of the academic 'experts' on Josephus with their literalistic childish interpretations (see page 20 of Rome and Jerusalem for (Martin Goodman's literalism re Idumeans).

January 03, 2009

Blogger Joachim Martillo said...

In Every Israel Advocate a Madoff, I point out that reuse of gentilics or demonyms is hardly unusual in the European context, and Patrick J. Geary summarizes practice in The Myth of Nations, The Medieval Origins of Europe, pp. 118-119. His analysis applies at least as much to the term Jew (יְהוּדִי) as it applies to any European ethnic name.

Conclusion: Old Names and New Peoples

The fourth and fifth centuries saw fundamental changes in the European social and political fabric. In the process, great confederations like those of the Goths disappeared, to re-emerge transformed into kingdoms in Italy and Gaul. Others like the Hunnic Empire or the Vandal kingdom seemed to spring from nowhere, only to vanish utterly in a few generations. Still other, previously obscure peoples, such as the Angles and the Franks, emerged to create enduring polities. But whether enduring or ephemeral, the social realities behind these ethnic names underwent rapid and radical transformation in every case. Whatever a Goth was in the third-century kingdom of Cniva, the reality of a Goth in sixth century Spain was far different, in language, religion, political and social organization, even ancestry. The Franks defeated by Emperor Julian in the fourth century and those who followed Clovis into battle in the sixth century were likewise almost immeasurably distant from each other in every possible way. The same was true of the Romans, whose transformation was no less dramatic in the same period. With the constant shifting of allegiances, intermarriages, transformations, and appropriations, it appears that all that remained constant were names, and these were vessels that could hold different contents at different times.

Names were renewable resources; they held the potential to convince people of continuity, even if radical discontinuity was the lived reality. Old names, whether of ancient peoples like the Goths or Suebi or of illustrious families such as the Amals, could be reclaimed, applied to new circumstances, and used as rallying cries for new powers. Alternatively, names of small, relatively unimportant groups might be expanded with enormous power. The Franks were the most significant of these. In the third century, they were among the least significant of Rome's enemies. By the sixth century, the name Frank had eclipsed not only that of Goth, Vandal, and Sueb, but of Roman itself in much of the West.

July 13, 2009

Blogger jacob said...

I have the answer James has been looking for in answer to the question - "Could you kindly supply a list of notable first century (I'll take BCE or CE to make it easier!) Jews who cared not about "Jewish history and heritage"

The answer - Marcus Julius Agrippa and his sister Berenice Julia.

They didn't care enough about Jewish history and heritage to destroy the temple which after all was the starting point of Christianity (i.e. Jesus' prophesy/the whole point of Mark 13).

And the gospel was written by a guy named Marcus? Hmmmm ....

And wikipedia presents evidence that Berenice stood behind the early saint Veronica/Berenice of Paneas


J.B Hood did ask for a first century Jew of this description. I found two.

July 14, 2009


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