Jesus the Jew – A Short Diatribe

Over the many years I have been reading and writing about the Christian Faith, I have become just a little irritated by those well meaning people who try to tell me that in order to really know about Jesus, or ‘Yeshua’ as they like to call Him, it is necessary to get a Jewish perspective on the Gospels. (Actually, “Yeshua” is Hebrew, and Hebrew was rarely spoken in Israel in His day. According to the esteemed Jewish historian David Flusser, “Yeshu” would have in all probability been His name in Galilee (The Sage From Galilee, 6)).

Now no one is going to say that the Jesus of Scripture was not thoroughly Jewish, and no one is going to say that the Bible is not a Jewish Book. Still, there are several reasons for my irritation; one of them being the fact that Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, plus the other writers of the New Testament, did not deem it necessary to include within their narratives a great deal of information about the Jewish culture and tradition of their times. Luke wrote a Gospel to Gentiles (as most every scholar claims), and yet he did not appear to be as concerned to relate to us the exclusively Jewish flavor of the events of Jesus’ Life; not like, for example, one sees in the writings of Josephus a generation or so later.

In starting my rant I should say that my annoyance is not with those in the scholarly guild who have in the last generation taken Jesus’ Jewish heritage seriously. Rather it is with those who insist on interpreting Jesus through the lens of Rabbinic books and practices that hale from a different era than pre-70’s Israel, as if these much later sources give us an inside line on Christ. Indeed, it seems that simply being Jewish is enough to grant one this insider’s perspective. This despite the fact that Jesus was a very counter-cultural figure who often went contrary to the traditions of the day.

On the first page of the classic work Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Solomon Schechter warns the reader of “the unsatisfactory state in which this [ancient Jewish] thought is preserved” and advises “caution and sobriety.” Apart from Josephus who wrote circa A. D. 90, and to a lesser extent his earlier contemporary Philo, the main source of information about Second Temple Judaism is the Mishnah, a collection of (often) disputes about the Law for study purposes. But the Mishnah was not compiled until the third century, of which, in an extended quote Schechter observes,

There must have been some Rabbinic work or works composed long before our Mishnah, and perhaps as early as 30 C. E. This work, or collection, would clearly have provided a better means for a true understanding of the period when Rabbinism was still in an earlier stage of its formation… But whatever the cause, the effect is that we are almost entirely deprived of any real contemporary evidence from the most important period in the history of Rabbinic theology… They have not left the least trace in Jewish literature, and it is most probable that none of the great authorities we are acquainted with in the Talmud had ever read a single line of them, or even had heard their name. (Ibid, 3-5)

There is a reason why experts like Flusser, E. P. Sanders, Sean Freyne, and J. D. G. Dunn do not spend much time citing the Talmud in connection with the Life of Jesus. Since it was compiled and written many centuries after Jesus lived it is not very relevant. There may be some bits of information that could be used for illustrative purposes, and these are supplied with a precautionary note in Craig A. Evans’s Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, 220ff., but Schechter’s words of caution ought to be heeded. There is little to no “light” on Jesus to be shed by documents originating centuries after the fact and from contexts which included the re-imagining of Judaism (i.e. Rabbinic Judaism) after the devastation of Vespasian’s armies in A.D. 66-70, and the Roman response to the Bar Kokhba rebellion of A. D. 132-135. One may appreciate the pious and scholarly efforts of Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, etc., but he was working with sources that were not contemporary to Jesus by any measure. Modern Messianic Jewish writers rely too much on Edersheim, although many modern scholars warn against it (e.g. Scot Mcknight’s strong warning in his essay, “Jesus of Nazareth,” in The Face of New Testament Studies, edited by Scot McKnight & Grant Osborne, 171). Claiming that “Jesus would have done this or that” on the basis of Rabbinic literature is a risky business. The Gospels are our avenue into His Life and times, and, as I have said, they do not bother to fill us in on many of the the customs of the time.

If we turn to Josephus it must be said that he was a priest who portrayed the Pharisees in a positive light (hence his influence upon E. P. Sanders!), and who was sixty years removed from John the Baptist and Jesus.

What about the Dead Sea Scrolls? A Good question. But those who like to draw our attention to the Jewishness of Jesus seldom make much of them (Geza Vermes did, and his emphasis on Jesus’ Jewishness was welcome, but his works on Jesus are shot through with outdated Bultmannian bias). If the strictly segregated community at Qumran were Essenes (which view is not held universally), then we can say two things: first we can say that study of the scrolls help us to know that,

Jesus’ engagement with his contemporaries, both supporters and opponents, reflects an understanding of Scripture and theology that we know, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and related literature, to have been current in pre-70 Jewish Palestine. (Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World, 9)

The other thing that must be said is that, “The Essenses, as far as we know, played no direct role in Jesus’ life and work” (E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 46).

If you wish to see the world through the Jewish eyes of Jesus, the books of Kenneth Bailey may be helpful, although just because a person has lived in the Middle East for half a century does not alter the fact that he is still two thousand years and very many upheavals removed from what he is writing about. Yes, Eastern societies had a pronounced outlook on honor and shame, similar in some respects to the Japanese in our own day. In Japan you don’t poke fun at people and their mishaps in the way one might do in the West. It isn’t funny. Even so in the Gospels one might understand Jesus’ answer to the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10:18-19 as giving the man an opportunity to save face. The Lord may have been doing that; or then again He may not. Jesus didn’t seem too bothered about honor and shame when calling Peter “Satan” in Matthew 16:23, nor for that matter did the Pharisees when dealing with the man born blind in John 9:28, 34. Apparently the Pharisees had something else on their minds than the honor of the poor man they were haranguing.

Reading the likes of Bailey, Sanders, N. T. Wright, James Charlesworth and the rest, one thing keeps staring me in the face. It is that these writers, informative as they certainly are, agree upon many of the historical elements of the Gospels, but their reconstruction of the background of Jesus’ ministry hardly advances anything not already found in the Four Gospels, other than filling in details of the historical figures and places. Sanders seems miffed that Jesus appeared to bypass the major cities of Galilee (Sepphoris, Tiberias and Scythopolis), and he constructs opinions on that basis (The Historical Figure of Jesus, 103-107), but just because the Gospels don’t mention it doesn’t mean He didn’t frequent these venues.

If the student wants to gain a good idea of the present state of scholarship on Jesus’s First Century Jewish setting, let them read James D. G. Dunn’s excellent survey in his Jesus Remembered, 255-326. Dunn runs through the relevant sources and cites all the relevant scholars. If Dunn’s liberal tendencies are off-putting (although they don’t show much in those pages), I suggest Paul Barnett’s terrific Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, 27-153. Not to be overlooked are the articles in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. but let’s not fool ourselves that calling Jesus (Greek “Iesous“) by a Hebrew name and adding Talmudic interpolations to the Gospels, or even the fact that a Bible teacher is a Jew brings one closer to the Jesus of the Gospels. It doesn’t! It may even push the real Jesus further away. We all have one true source; the Four Gospels. End of rant.

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T Howard's picture

In 2019, I began my literary journey through the literature of ancient and Hellenistic Greece and ancient Rome. When I came to Herodotus, I was both overwhelmed and fascinated. I was overwhelmed because The Histories is a monumental summary of ancient world history that spans roughly 250 years (716 BC - 479 BC) in nine books. I was fascinated because many of the historical and cultural details Herodotus shares in his work have bearing on the context and cultures surrounding and interacting with exilic and postexilic Israel.

When I got to later Hellenistic and Roman authors, I found this reading also fascinating because I was learning about history which intersected with postexilic Israel and the rise of the Maccabean Revolt.

Reading authors such as Plutarch and Cicero were interesting because here you have two men who wrote extensively about various historical, philosophical, and political subjects that directly intersected with the New Testament. Cicero wrote in the first century BC and died before Caesar Augustus formally came to power (106 BC - 43 BC). Plutarch lived and wrote in the first and second centuries AD (AD 43 - AD 119). Reading both men provides important context about the Greco-Roman society in which Jesus and the apostles lived and wrote. In searching for Jesus' jewishness, we often forget that he grew up under Roman occupation and that the apostles lived and ministered in a Greco-Roman society.

That being said, we must also remember that ancient sources often are not unbiased, objective observers. Even the works of Josephus were heavily edited by later Christians and may not be completely reliable. At most, they provide a fascinating view into the mind of the author / editors and how they saw the world in which they lived.

Paul Henebury's picture

The amount of redaction of Josephus by Christians is a subject of debate, but it would be misleading to say that "the works of Josephus were heavily edited by later Christians."  I am unaware of anyone who would make that claim, although certainly the "Jesus" passage in Antiquities 18.3.3. has been altered in some significant respects.  

There is a nice balance in the above comment.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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