Jesus and Judaism revisited

Jason Byassee of the Christian Century has taken issue with the comments offered by several bloggers (including your scribe, in a previous incarnation) on this article by Professor Amy-Jill Levine, which sharply criticized the Christian church for “divorcing Jesus from Judaism” (via Marvin).

Mr. Byassee is certainly right to oppose “shear[ing] Jesus of his Jewishness,” which he accuses us blogospheric malcontents of wanting to do. Of course, I’m equally sure that neither the Lutheran Zephyr, nor Derek, nor I intend any such thing (were it in our power to do so!). I wrote that “Prof. Levine is correct to warn against the kind of crypto-Marcionism that seems to be a recurrent temptation in the church. The Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament constitute the matrix out of which Jesus came and out of which our faith comes.” It’s also clear that there has been a deplorable trend in “historical Jesus” studies (especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries) to disregard Jesus’s Jewishness (though the pendelum seems to have swung the other way more recently, e.g. in the work of folks like E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright). But I think my qualification stands: “the ongoing tradition and experience of the church isn’t necessarily bound by the details of the Judaism of Jesus’ day, anymore than contemporary Rabbinic Judaism has to ape the Judaism of the 1st century.”

My point, in citing Luke Timothy Johnson, was not to downplay Jesus’ Jewishness, but that, as Johnson puts it, “historical reconstructions are by their very nature fragile and in constant need of revision. They cannot sustain the commitment of the human heart and life. … Christian faith as a living religious response is simply not directed at those historical facts about Jesus, or at a historical reconstruction of Jesus. Christian faith is directed to a living person” (The Real Jesus, p. 141, paperback ed.). All I take this principle to do is to block any simple deductions of the form “The ‘historical Jesus’ did x, therefore Christians should do x.” There’s nothing wrong, as a scholarly enterprise, with trying to get at “the historical Jesus” (though many such attempts appear driven by agendas other than that of pure disinterested scholarship), but the point is that these attempts cannot by themselves be normative for Christian faith, though they might inform it in various ways.

Prof. Levine is certainly right that in order to understand the Jesus of the New Testament we have to understand the 1st-century Jewish context of his life and that the historical caricatures of Judaism perpetuated by the church are to be deplored. My questions about Prof. Levine’s article, which were genuine questions not simply rhetorical point-scoring questions, have to do with what she takes the implications to be for Christian faith and pracitce if they are to respect the Jewishness of Jesus. When she writes that “the New Testament mandates that respect for Jewish custom be maintained and that Jesus’ own Jewish practices be honored, even by the gentile church, which does not follow those customs,” it’s just not clear to me what this means in practice, which, in fairness, probably couldn’t be spelled out in the space of a brief article.

None of that, of course, precludes a greater knowledge and appreciation by Christians of Judaism, both as it was practiced in Jesus’ day and as it’s practiced today, as well as a correction of the erroneous and vicious views about Jews and Judaism that Christians have often harbored. Such improved understanding is greatly to be desired. So, speaking only for myself of course, I happily agree with Byassee that “We gentile Christians certainly do not follow Jewish practices, as the Council of Jerusalem makes clear. We must, however, respect them, as we often have not. And we must recognize them in our Jewish savior, whose Jewishness is inscribed into his very Jewish flesh, now seated at the right hand of the Father.”

One last point, though: Byassee writes:

Levine’s piece is unique in the way it shows Christians on the theological and political left are not immune from the old, anti-Semitic habits that we pride ourselves for having left behind. Anyone who’s preached the sermon from Mark 6 will know what she means: Jesus is kind to the hemorrhaging woman and the dead girl, unlike the misogynist Judaism that kept women isolated and repressed. When I preach such passages in the future I will work to be clear that whatever is good in Jesus is also Jewish, and not anything he invented. “Jesus does not have to be unique in all cases in order to be profound,” Levine writes.

What I wonder here is whether Jesus is ever to be allowed to be unique. Is it true that “whatever is good in Jesus is also Jewish, and not anything he invented”? I mean, in some sense this is true by definition. Jesus is/was Jewish, so everything about him is Jewish.* But is Jesus and/or the Christian church never to speak a critical word about Judaism or Jewish practices? And is their nothing in Jesus’ person or message that goes beyond the Judaism of his day, even if it would be preferable to see it more as its fulfillment rather than in stark opposition to it? If not, then the split between church and synagogue starts to look incomprehensible. Granted that the messages of Jesus, Paul and the early church have often been interpreted in polemically anti-Jewish senses, mustn’t there have been some important difference and critique implied? This is obviously a touchy subject, and it may be that given our shameful history Christians have simply forfeited the right to be critical of Judaism. But I don’t know that Christians can adopt that stance with theological integrity. After all, if everything good about Jesus is contained in Judaism, it’s not clear there’s much point in being a Christian.

It may be that we still have a long way to go in understanding the proper relationship between the two faiths, in which case it’s salutary to be reminded that this tension exsits. Almost all contemporary Christians agree in repudiating supersessionism, but there’s much less agreement on what should replace it. Some Christians propose a “two covenants” theory whereby Jews are brought into God’s family through the Old Covenant and gentiles through the New, so no competition is implied. Others advert to a more general religious pluralism in which all the “great” religions are seen as roads to the same Truth. No doubt one of the major challenges for Christians in the 21st century is religious pluralism, but another is surely to reconnect with Judaism in ways that are historically and theologically appropriate.

I’m certainly open to correction on any of this, and reader thoughts are welcome.
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*Leaving aside here the question about to what extent Jesus may have also been influenced by the Hellenistic and Roman cultural currents of his day. Or, for that matter, how 1st century Judaism(s) were so influenced.

5 thoughts on “Jesus and Judaism revisited

  1. I think you’re spot on. 🙂

    Levine is not trying to turn Christianity into a denomination of Judaism or claim that Jesus didn’t do anything unique at all — I’m at a loss for where Byassee gets that. She’s warning against (especially left-leaning) Christian anti-Judaism that seeks to make first-century Judaism odious and taboo-ridden in order to exalt Progressive, Feminist, Third-World Jesus.

    As I mentioned in comments to the post over at Theolog, Byassee is also wrong about her thesis being “unique” — Walter Lowe addressed the issue of leftist anti-Judaism in MoTh in April, and he cites Jon Levenson and others who have done work on this issue, too. For an “academic”, Byassee is not up on the literature at all and needs to watch the claims he makes. I don’t see any reason to be intellectually lazy just because it’s a blog post.

  2. Chris, thanks for the comment. In retrospect, it was probably unwise for me to comment extensively on what is, after all, an excerpt from a book and no doubt didn’t do full justice to the nuances of Levine’s argument.

  3. Intellectually lazy. Right. To call something “unique” need I have scoured everything ever written to see if it’s been said before? Or can I claim with the word “unique” that it’s not often said, or been said to our audience?

  4. Hi Jason — Levenson’s work, at least, is pretty widely known. In any case, one can make positive statements about Levine’s work without going out on a limb, especially if one is not well-versed in the literature on this topic.

  5. Pingback: Blogs of Christmas past « A Thinking Reed

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