Modern Jewish scholarship of the New Testament is concerned with how Christ’s teachings are nurtured by Judaism and stem from it. According to one expert in the field, this can serve to further understanding between the two religions
New Testament scholars have spent an impressive amount of energy on the study of the historical Jesus and much of it in the last few decades has revolved around his Jewishness.
Christian reawakening to the Jewishness of Jesus began in the late nineteenth century but received greater attention as Christians devoted increased attention to Jews and Judaism in light of the Shoah. From the 1960s onwards, a desire for reconciliation with, and greater understanding of, Judaism became commonplace, epitomised by Vatican II and the publication of Nostra Aetate in 1965.
Nearly all Christian studies now take the Jewishness of Jesus seriously, but what is less well known is the work of Jewish scholars who similarly have re-awoken to the fact that Judaism nurtured Jesus the Jew.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, David Flusser and Géza Vermes, both of whom built on the pioneering work of a small number of Jewish scholars in the early twentieth century (notably Martin Buber, Joseph Klausner and Claude Montefiore), have been followed by three new Jewish scholars – Shmuley Boteach, Daniel Boyarin and Amy-Jill Levine.
While Flusser portrayed Jesus as a charismatic figure whose teaching demonstrated an extraordinary sense of mission, Vermes depicted Jesus as a Galilean Hasid and holy man. For both, Jesus was a charismatic teacher, healer and prophet. Vermes in particular has had the greater impact, demonstrated by the title of his first book, Jesus the Jew, which in 1973 seemed revolutionary but now is taken for granted in New Testament scholarship.
In the last decade, Amy-Jill Levine has taken on the mantle of Géza Vermes, establishing herself as the foremost Jewish scholar of the New Testament of her generation. In The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the scandal of the Jewish Jesus (2006), she argued that “Jesus was a good Jew” who taught Jews in a Jewish land.
Levine is particularly concerned with anti-Jewish interpretations, which arise from the gospels and epistles. This primarily happens when, in an attempt to set aside Jesus as unique, the Jewish people and/or leaders of his time are depicted as monolithic, obsessively rule-bound, unconcerned with the poor and outcast, and particularly oppressive to women. However, Levine also encourages Jews to appreciate Jesus in continuity with other leaders and prophets of Israel. She describes how Jesus dressed, ate, taught and prayed like a Jew, argued like a Jew with other Jews, and amassed Jewish followers. For Jews to pay attention to the New Testament, they must move beyond their stereotypes, Levine argues.
“A number of Jews think that a lot of Christian ideas are nonsense,” explains Levine. “‘How could somebody believe in a virginal conception? How could somebody come back from the dead?’ They think it’s a form of paganism, but when I point out that these Christian claims find root in a Second Temple Jewish context, they’re surprised.”
These misunderstandings arise because “Jews don’t formally ask questions about Christianity”. Respect is reciprocal, she says. “If I want my Christian neighbours to respect Judaism … then I need to respect them, and that means knowing something about them beyond Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. I need to know what their texts say, and talk to them about how they understand those texts … There is one other reason why Jews need to learn about Christianity: understanding Christianity is a way of strengthening one’s Jewish identity.
“If we want to keep Jews Jews, we don’t tell lies about Christianity, and we don’t hide information – we educate ourselves … and we have to see what that means for us and for Jews who have Christian partners.”
The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011), co-edited by Levine and Marc Z. Brettler, is not only written entirely by Jews but is intended, in part at least, for Jewish readers as well as for Christians who “wanted to know more about the Jewish background of the New Testament”. Both editors agree that the work is a testament to how much the field has changed since they entered it decades ago.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, there were not enough Jews in the field,” Brettler says. “But it’s become more natural over the past few decades that part of what you do while studying rabbinics, in addition to studying Hebrew and Aramaic rabbinic texts, is to study the New Testament.”
In Kosher Jesus (2012), Shmuley Boteach argues that the authentic Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew and an active opponent of Rome. Like Montefiore, who saw Jesus as a proto-Liberal Jew, Boteach’s Jesus is a mirror of the author’s own version of Judaism: traditional and committed to the Torah. He portrays Jesus as “a Torah-observant teacher who instructed his followers to keep every letter of the Law, whose teachings quoted extensively from the Bible and rabbinical writings, who fought Roman paganism and persecution of the Jewish people, and was killed by Pontius Pilate for his rebellion against Rome, the Jews having had nothing whatsoever to do with his murder”.
Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels: the story of the Jewish Christ (2012) argues that Jesus was embraced by many Jews because his messianic teachings were in line with Jewish beliefs. Not only were Jesus and his followers Jewish, but he proposes a Jewish link to the Christological interpretations proposed by the Early Church.
“While by now almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, is happy enough to refer to Jesus, the human, as a Jew, I want to go a step beyond that,” writes Boyarin. “I wish us to see that Christ too – the divine Messiah – is a Jew. Christology, or the early ideas about Christ, is also a Jewish discourse and not – until much later – an anti-Jewish discourse at all … Thus the basic underlying thoughts from which both the Trinity and the Incarnation grew are there in the very world into which Jesus was born and in which he was first written about in the gospels of Mark and John.”
In other words, the messianic role that Jesus fitted was not, as many would have it, constructed after the fact by Christians who sought to portray him as such. Rather, it was an already-existing Jewish expectation that Jesus sought to fulfil. Boyarin argues that Christology was not created for Jesus but merely applied to Jesus. What came to be known as Christianity came much later, as religious and political leaders sought to impose a new religious orthodoxy that was not present during Jesus’ lifetime.
Both Boyarin and Boteach take for granted that there are two firmly established religions, but therein lies their weakness because there is no single line or single point in the first centuries of the era that distinguished Judaism and Christianity once and forever. There are several lines and several points.
A reader may worry that this is a complex picture, but today, Jews and Christians have much to gain from this loss of simplicity: a realistic understanding of the intellectual and spiritual potential inherent in Judaism and Christianity before they became well-defined and, until recently, opposing religions; and most importantly, a better appreciation of crucial ideas cherished by Jesus the Jew.
* Edward Kessler is founder of the Woolf Institute and fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. His new book, Jews, Christians and Muslims in Encounter, is published by SCM Press.