The Lutheran Zephyr has got an interesting post up
that engages some things said by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. He is reporting a summarization of her comments (so I’m probably commenting on fourth-hand material here; caveat lector…) that remind Christians that Jesus was, in fact, Jewish and that therefore knowing things Jewish are an important piece of understanding him. Here are my thoughts in response to LZ’s thoughts that may or may not address Dr. Levine’s actual thoughts. :-D
One of the real successes of the third quest for the Historical Jesus was the rediscovery of a Jewish Jesus. [Nutshell–First Quest: Reimarus to Wrede (18th and 19th centuries, see Schweitzer’s classic chronicle of it in Quest for the Historical Jesus); Second Quest: Bornkamm et all (1940’s-’50’s); Third Quest: Perrin, Jesus Seminar, Crossan, +Wright (80’s to the present, see Mark Alan Powell’s great recent work on it.)] In the sense that Dr. Levine is calling for a recognition of this, she is speaking to the non-scholarly audience; most NT scholars have been on board with it for at least a decade. Ditto with the latest trends in Pauline scholarship.
Yes, modern Christianity–indeed, Christianity through the ages–has had Marcionite tendencies that attempted to divorce the NT from the OT, Christians from Jews. The dark side of this are the well-known expressions of anti-semitism. This is something we have to guard against and more pastors need to wake up to that the fact that the NT really cannot be properly understood without a solid grounding in the OT. In fact, this is the way a lot of earnest interpreters get into real trouble…
What I don’t hear in your initial summary of Dr. Levine’s thoughts, LZ, is a reflection on Judaism, however. Quick history lesson: 2nd Temple Jewish religion was a complex mass of different groups, theologies, and practices. There were several groupings or sects that stand out and most treatments of the topic zero in on Josephus’s attempts to explain it to the Romans. From what we can tell from the surviving texts–he’s done quite a lot of oversimplifying. There were all kinds of ways of beng “Jewish” in the centuries before and after Christ and for a while being Christian was one of them. All of that dramatically changed in AD 70. The sack of the Temple and the descturction of Jerusalem was a huge blow not just to Jewish pride but, more importantly, to Jewish self-identity and religious conciousness. Suddenly several different ways of being Jewish disappeared overnight. That is, those who held that the heart of Jewish religion was the sacrifical system of the Temple were in real trouble. Furthermore, so were those who believed that they and only the held the real secrets to the Temple liturgies, not those damn usurpers in Jerusalem (after all, they couldn’t hope to take it over and set things right any more). In essence, the groups whose polity and piety and less to do with the Temple dealt with it better. Christians were one of these. After all, we claimed that the true temple was, in fact, the physically body of Christ and by extension, his mystical body. Another group who was philosophically cheek-and-jowl with early Christianity, the Pharisees, were also in a better place to cope since others. They had been arguing all along that the true temple is not just the Temple but the people of Israel; hence, they’d been harping for years that the temple purity regulations should be obeyed at home as well. (There really are a lot of similarities between the Pharisees and us; this little drive-by can’t hope to do them justice.) Anyway, time passed, Christians and Jews moved apart and those Jews who wanted to retain their religious heritage rather than just assimilating started talking and systematizing how to do that. And that process took a while. The first authoritative text on it, the Mishnah (or key parts of it), took written form around 200, the Gemara (commentary on the Mishnah) and the Talmud (commentary on the Mishnah and Gemara) came even later, in the 500’s or so.
Now–here’s the point that I really want to make about this.
Yes, Jesus was Jewish. No, Jesus did not practice Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, it didn’t exist until centuries after his death. That is, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism developed alongside and with knowledge of one another. (Although, Christianity was essentially an entirely gentile enterprise from–say–the 150’s on so you can’t really say they were “competing.”) As a result, you can imagine that it bugs me when people who want to honor the religious roots of Jesus start pulling in practices of Rabbinic Judaism (The prime example being the Maundy Thursday Seder dinner. That’s a rant unto itself.) in the supposition that it’s “what Jesus did.” I respect they’re wanting to reconnect with Judaism in appropriate ways–that’s just not one of them… It’s historically anachronistic and more often than not does justice neither to Christian nor to Jewish theology.
Getting to LZ’s second point, there is a fundamental problem with the thoroughly protestant notion that Jesus has to be “rediscovered” by the means of historical inquiry. The distinction that some folks (like seminary professors) like to use to finesse this is to talk about the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. The idea here is that you can hold onto your theological Christ of Faith so you can dig and tackle the hard historical questions with your Jesus of History. The problem, as I touched on here, is that this attitude is fundamentally Nestorian.
I guess where it really comes down for me is this: are we looking for information about a historical figure in the past–or are we learning about a relationship with a living, dynamic being, who swoops up on us and shocks us with his love? Fudamentally, are we asking about the dead or the Living? If we believe that Christ is strongly and powerfully alive, then it changes the whole framework for how we shape the questions. As I see it, an undeniable part of what t means to be Christian is learning about how the relationship unfolded with our spiritual ancestors. If we really believe that the Church is the Body of Christ in more than just a metaphorical sense, then we must learn our history as part of learning about who he his. We must look for his face in the faces of the saints–then and now.
[And for the sake of full disclosure, many of the thoughts in that last paragraph come from a book I heartily recommend Living Jesus by Luke Johnson (a former Benedictine New Testament scholar).]