Rediscovering the Jewish Jesus
‘More than money, more than politics’, said Time magazine earlier this year; ‘ideas are the secret power that this planet runs on’. Among the ideas that Time felt its readers needed to know about were Common Wealth, Reverse Radicalism and … the Jewishness of Jesus!
Jesus was a Jew but until recently this fact played little part in the way we read the Gospels in particular and the New Testament in general. In the last thirty years, however, Christian academics have begun to appreciate the importance of the Jewishness of Jesus – while Jewish scholars have sought to reclaim him and to set him firmly in the world and culture of first-century Judaism.
Jesus, say some Jewish writers, must have been hijacked by Christians because a Jewish Jesus would never have said or done some of the things attributed to him in the Gospels.
By comparing rabbinic precepts in the Talmud, a number of Jewish academics present a case for viewing Jesus as a Pharisee. Therefore, some of them do not accept as authentic the criticisms directed towards the Pharisees in the Gospels – or else they see Jesus’ strong condemnations of hypocrisy as directed only at certain individuals rather than the entire group.
No doubt, there is truth in the claim that the Lord’s rebukes were not directed at all the Pharisees. For example, Luke 13:31 strongly suggests that some Pharisees were sympathetic towards Jesus: ‘At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you”.’
Other Jewish scholars, such as Hyam Maccoby, want to reconstruct Jesus as a first-century Jewish freedom fighter. Following Maccoby’s lead, Shmuel Boteach will argue in a forthcoming book that Jesus was a Roman-hating, Pharisaic, would-be Messiah – who failed in his mission to deliver Israel from the occupying army and died a martyr’s death at the hands of Pontius Pilate.
Familiarity with the world of first-century Judaism and the Talmud is immensely helpful, but it should not be forgotten that the Gospels themselves are first-century documents. As such, they are a far more reliable guide to what was happening and being taught in first-century Israel than the Talmudic documents composed in Babylon three centuries later.
Generations of preachers, teachers and commentators have viewed the New Testament through the lenses of their own cultures and, being unfamiliar with their Jewish contexts, have jumped to unwarranted conclusions about the meaning of some texts.
Our understanding of the Lord’s table, for example, can be enhanced by an understanding of the traditional Jewish Passover Seder. Why did the Lord Jesus ‘break’ bread at the Passover meal? Why, in Luke’s Gospel, does he drink from two cups? Why does the Lord refer to the cup ‘after supper’ as ‘the cup of the new covenant’?
Many of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus become clear when we understand the colloquialisms, figures of speech and verbal imagery current in ancient Galilee and Judea. The parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan and the lost coin come alive – and their significance is strengthened – when we hear them with first-century Israelite ears.
Keeping the balance
But we must also retain a sense of balance. Categorical imperatives and doctrinal truths can be understood irrespective of the time and culture in which we live. The glory of the gospel is that the basic truths of John 3:16; 14:6; and Romans 3:23 read the same in all cultures at all times. But our understanding of these great truths can be deeply enriched when we get ‘under the skin’ of those who first heard or read them.
Bad thinking on this issue may lead to bad theology. For example, an Evangelical writing in a denominational magazine a few years ago asked: ‘Is the New Testament really a Jewish book?’ He answered, ‘It was written in, and for, the Hellenistic … world’ and went on to say: ‘The virgin birth means Jesus had no Jewish blood’.
A deficient understanding of the cultural milieu of the New Testament resulted in a dodgy concept of the virgin birth.
Power to transform the world
Time magazine was surely correct to recognise the power of ideas. But the Jewishness of Jesus, in itself, has no power to transform the world. Jesus was a Jew but he was more than a Jew. He was a man among men but he was more than a man.
The rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus will have no beneficial effect on our generation if scholars reduce his teachings to those of a standard Jewish rabbi of his day. Recognising the culture, worldview and thought-forms of first-century Jews is a fascinating and enriching field of study but, as with any area of academic research, caution must be exercised.
The message of a Jesus who said only what modern scholars allow him to say – or whose words ‘when properly understood’ add up only to what other rabbis and sages were teaching – would never have upset the first-century Jewish status quo. Nor would his message have had the power to turn the world upside down!