Monday, August 25, 2008

Who Was Jesus of Nazareth - Part 2

This week will be a longer blog, since I want to respond to the prior posts, introduce Adele Reinhartz, make some disclaimers, and actually move into Reinhartz's first characterization of Jesus. With that, let's get right into it.

The responses I received were well thought out and almost exclusively in theological terms. There's nothing wrong with theological descriptions of Jesus (such as "Son of God," "Messiah," etc.) because they are expressions of our faith. However, when thinking about how we characterize Jesus, I think we'll find that, whether we're faithful Christians, atheists, or anywhere in between, we all have a conception of Jesus that informs our reactions to him. These conceptualizations operate beneath faith and doubt, and I hope to penetrate to that level of thought.

This is one of the areas where scholarship really shines as a tool, since scholars of the Gospels come in all faiths and beliefs. On that note, let me introduce Adele Reinhartz. She is a Jewish scholar whose area of study is the Christian New Testament. She has a passion for discussing views of women and Jews, especially in the Gospels. The book that I'm using is actually the rather lighthearted Jesus of Hollywood, which was a textbook in my class on "Jesus in Film." Because it's a lighter book (and not gritty scholarly fare), she is able to make generalizations about scholarly opinions, which she does to great effect. She sees basically three ways that Jesus is characterized in scholarship, which she details based on the "Jewishness" of Jesus in each characterization.

The view of Jesus that I'd like to discuss this week is the most "thoroughly Jewish" one. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to call this characterization the "Jewish Jesus." The main scholars holding the torch for the Jewish Jesus are Ed Sanders, Geza Vermes, Sean Freyne, and Paula Fredriksen (none of which I'm familiar with, unfortunately). These scholars see Jesus as really a product of the Jewish culture of his day. One of the things we know for sure about Jesus is that his teachings most closely resemble those of the Pharisees. Like family members, the quarrels between Jesus and the Pharisees were so passionate because they really had so much in common that their few differences became exaggerated. In addition, Jesus (for the most part) was seen as observing all the Jewish laws, including "Sabbath, purity, sacrifice, and atonement" (he also wouldn't have trimmed his beard, as in the depiction on the right). We can see Jesus' observance of Jewish ceremonial law in things like the Last Supper, which is really the Jewish meal of the Passover. However, Jesus saw himself as a prophet--in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets--whose mission was twofold: 1) to call people to true worship and 2) to prophesy the end of the age and the creation of a new age. Thus, his teaching was primarily what we call in scholarship, "apocalyptic," meaning that it came out of the Jewish stream of thought that looked forward to God's destruction of the current age and creation of a new, just age. We can see evidence of apocalyptic thought in the way Jesus talked about the coming "Kingdom of God/Heaven," as well as the prophetic passages that warn about the terrors of the coming day of destruction. So, to summarize, these scholars characterize Jesus as the Jewish apocalyptic prophet whose teaching emerges from that of the Pharisees, but also critiques them for their inadequate worship.

So, now that I have detailed one of the scholarly images of Jesus, I hope you can see how we can characterize Jesus this way whether or not we are Christians who believe in the Gospel story. If we think of Jesus as primarily a Jewish prophet, then we hold similar views to the Jewish Jesus. In fact, I started with this view because I think it, in a lot of ways, resembles the Jesus we tend to see in the conservative church traditions most of us came from. You can see a lot of truth in this characterization of Jesus, and a lot in common with the Gospel stories. At the same time, though, each characterization is missing gaps. So, what I'd like to see for next week are your thoughts on "Jewish Jesus." And let's move beyond a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to this characterization; instead, let's break it into component parts and analyze it that way. For instance, here are some questions to think about: Does he resemble the Jesus you think of? How is he different? How is he the same? Did you learn anything from reading about this version of Jesus?


Scott Biddle said...

Ben, you talked about the responses you got from the last blog, but I do not see them as comments on your blog. Were they emailed to you? Is there a way to encourage your readers to leave comments with links to things they are reading so us common folk can join in the fun.

I am really enjoying being able to learn as you learn. I am ready to start, or continue, the process of learning on a deeper level.

Thanks for taking the time to do these.

Ben said...

Most of the people are reading it on my facebook page. I have my notes configured there to pull in this blog via RSS technology.

I know we're friends on facebook, so you can log in, go to my page, and you should be able to find my "Notes" on the left. I have them posted there, and that's where others have posted their comments. Thanks for reading!