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SIDIC Periodical XXVI - 1993/3
Rethinking the Jewishness of Jesus (Pages 11 - 12)

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Response to Professor J.H. Charlesworth
Daniel R. Schwartz


I am honoured by the invitation to respond briefly to Professor Charlesworth's paper, "Rethinking Jesus' Jewishness". I hope that the following remarks do justice to this forum and to this eminent partner in dialogue.

Professor Charlesworth's thesis is, basically, that while in the past there may have been room to deny the historicity of Jesus, or to doubt the authenticity of virtually all which was attributed to him, today, due to the discoveries which he surveys, there is no justification for either. Some of these discoveries - those concerning Josephus' account of Jesus, evidence of crucifixion in Jerusalem, and the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - relate particularly to the person of Jesus; we will not discuss them here. There was never much reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus or the fact that he was executed and buried. Other discoveries - of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls - relate more generally to Judaism of the Second Temple period, and show that beliefs and interests attributed to Jesus, or against which he reacted, were indeed at home in the time and place in which he lived.

Rabbinic Literature
In order to grasp the significance of this argument, we must allude to something mentioned but once, in passing, in Professor Charlesworth's essay: rabbinic literature. In reference to "the paucity of sources from pre-70 Judaism" which characterized the pre-Qumran era , Prof. Charlesworth is bespeaking a fairly recent attitude of scholarship. Earlier in this century, scholars bent upon evaluating Jesus' Jewishness turned, frequently, to the vast corpus of rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Talmuds, Midrashim, etc.), which, although attributed for the most part to sages who lived after Jesus and edited centuries after his death, was assumed to preserve or reflect Jewish traditions current in his days. This was, for example, the assumption of such scholars as Leo Baeck, Joseph Bonsirven, R. Travers Herford, Joseph Klausner and George Foot Moore, who wrote extensively on this topic; it also underlay such massive projects as the Strack-Billerbeck Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch. Palestinian Judaism of the time of Jesus was supposed to be reflected in rabbinic literature; Jesus was supposed to be well at home in it; and those statements attributed to Jesus which didn't fit into this picture were often suspected to be creations of later generations of Christians.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, two mutually reinforcing developments undermined that approach. On the one hand, taking a leaf from form - and redaction - critical Gospel scholarship, students of rabbinic literature came more and more to recognize that it too reflects the time and interests of those who transmitted and edited it. That means that he who would use a rabbinic source, even one which is attributed to a contemporary of Jesus (such as Hillel), as evidence for Palestinian Judaism at the time of Jesus (and not: at the time of the text's tradents or editors), now does so at his peril. On the other hand, there were the discoveries which Professor Charlesworth surveys, which supplied sources which were definitely of the Second Temple period, and their great volume made them an object of study which could more than occupy many scholarly lifetimes. Thus, just when scholars were being told they couldn't use rabbinic literature as evidence for the period up to and including Jesus, they were presented with numerous other texts which were not affected by such chronological doubts. Given this, and given the taste for novelty, it is not difficult to see why the focus shifted to the new texts - which, in his two-volume collection of Pseudepigrapha, and his forthcoming volumes of Dead Sea Scrolls, Professor Charlesworth has done more than his share to disseminate.

These discoveries are certainly imposing, and it is of course important to assess the potential implications of every new text and datum for the study of ancient Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, in the limited space available, I would like to point out four potential problems, three concerning ancient history and once concerning current Christian-Jewish relations. The first historical problem concerns the statement that:
Unlike the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha are not primarily or merely the literary products of one small Jewish group which had withdrawn and isolated itself in the desert. The early Jewish Pseudepigrapha clarify the intellectual landscape of first-century, pre-70 Jews, like Jesus.

This statement admits that the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls might not serve as good evidence for Jesus' intellectual landscape, and fails to prove that the case is otherwise concerning early Jewish Pseudipigrapha. Indeed, how much do we know about the geographical or social settings of most of the Pseudepigrapha to which Professor Charlesworth refers? Next to nothing. Moreover, perusal of the three Tables of Contents of the two volumes of Charlesworth's Old Testament Pseudepigrapha will show that the number of those assigned a terminus ad quem of down to the second, fourth or seventh century, or later, far outruns those dated confidently to the period up to and including the first century (and of the latter too, some are debatable; the Lives of the Prophets, for example, in fact seem to belong to the fourth or fifth century - contrast D. R.A. Hare's somewhat vague case for the early first century [OTPII, pp. 380-381] with D. Satran's forthcoming Biblical Prophets in Byzantine Palestine). Is it really so clear that the geographical, ideological and even chronological distance of the Pseudepigrapha's authors from a first-century Galilean is of lesser significance than whatever separates him from first-century rebels or from the rabbinic traditions later edited in the Galilee?

The second historical problem concerns scholarly fashion. Above, I alluded to Gospel form - and redaction - criticism as major influences upon the scholars who moved rabbinic traditions down closer to the times they were edited. Professor Charlesworth, however, participating in a backswing of the scholarly pendulum, trumpets the recognition that the Gospels preserve pre-Easter data; "redaction criticism is possible only because traditions were extant to be edited". But the same backswing is also well in evidence in rabbinic scholarship, partly due to the very discoveries which Professor Charlesworth has surveyed here. Especially the halachic material from Qumran has shown time and again, in recent years, that later rabbinic material contains traditions of Second Temple vintage. See for example, the contributions by L.H. Schiffman ("Qumran and Rabbinic Halakhah") and J.M. Baumgarten ("Recent Qumran Discoveries and Halakhah in the Hellenistic- Roman Period") in Jewish Civilisation in the Hellenistic-Roman Period (ed. S. Talmon), Sheffield 1991, pp. 138-146 and 147-158 (respectively).

Let us take a brief look at a case which illustrates both of these historical problems. Professor Charlesworth twice refers (1,2) to Jesus' "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:43-44) and suggests that either apocalyptic (of the Pseudepigraphic variety) or Qumran calls for divine vengeance upon the Jews' enemies may have supplied the background for it. But one need go no further than the pages of Josephus to find first-century Jews who hated their enemies. And it is not at all clear that rabbinic calls for vengeance, or strictures against such, cited in many commentaries, could not have elicited Jesus' statement. Nor, for that matter, is it clear that the admonition Matthew attributes to Jesus is in fact historical; it could well be that the image of the pacific Christ owes more to evangelists who knew where Jewish rebelliousness led, or who had little sympathy for Jewish nationalism, than to the historical Jesus. That, in any case, was argued by many in the wake of the important archaeological discoveries at Massada in the 1960's. Cf. D.R. Schwartz, "On Christian Study of the Zealots", in idem, Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity, Tubingen 1992, pp. 128-146.

The third problem is simply the temptation to force texts to supply parallels. Professor Charlesworth points to llQ Temple 57:17-18, which specifies that a king may not take a second wife so long as the first one is alive, "for she alone will be with him all her life", as a prohibition of divorce, adding: "What is demanded of the king is even more stringently required of others". Thus, this passage provides a parallel for Jesus' sweeping prohibition of divorce, attested in Mark 10:10-12. However, as written the passage in question in the Temple Scroll does not explicitly prohibit divorce; it prohibits bigamy, leaving somewhat open the possibility that a king may indeed divorce his wife, although he may not remarry as long as she lives. Moreover, even if our text does mean a king may not divorce his wife, which is quite possible, the fact is that Jewish marriage laws are more stringent for people in authority than for laymen: for the laws concerning priests, and even more stringent ones for high priests, see Leviticus 21, and for the special rule for the king, which is the text paraphrased by the Temple Scroll, see Deuteronomy 17:17. Thus, the extension of the prohibition is gratuitous. Similar overly enthusiastic interpretations of texts which bring one into line with another are frequent in Qumran research, as elsewhere.

The problem concerning Christian-Jewish relations concerns the outset of Professor Charlesworth's conclusions, which links the recognition that "Jesus was a first century Jew" to the conclusion that "Jesus is no longer an impediment on the road to better relations between Jews and Christians". As Professor Charlesworth notes concerning the latter, however, "it may be too early". For the recognition that Jesus was a Jew is not new. The first Christians knew it, the rabbis knew it, Luther devoted a famous tract to it; etc. The question is, however, what Jesus having been "a first century Jew" has to do with Jews. Jews may be defined, in the main, nationally or religiously, although the distinction is at times artificial. In his essay Professor Charlesworth chose to sidestep, by referring only to Pilate's impressions but not to the truth of the matter, the question of Jesus as a Jewish nationalist - a type well known from Josephus and other first-century evidence, and one with clear analogues among Jews today; compare my essay cited above. That choice left him examining Jesus' "Jewishness" with respect to religion sensu strictu alone. But virtually all Jews and brands of Judaism today, as for almost two millennia, define themselves religiously according to their relationship - whatever it might be - to Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism of the Mishnah and the Talmud. If one severs that Judaism from the days of Jesus, if one views the generation which saw the rise of Christianity and the Destruction of the Second Temple as such a watershed that what dominated and was preserved after it in the Jewish world was virtually a novum without links to what preceded it, then why should the proof that Jesus was a first- century Jew, based upon documents which Jews chose not to preserve, be of any positive significance for Jewish-Christian relations today? Does it not rather lead, at best, to the unhelpful conclusions that Jesus was a Jewish dinosaur, and that Judaism is divorced not only from the "New Covenant" but also from the "Old" one?

It is always easy to raise a few questions in the margins of someone else's work and then to plead space limitations. Professor Charlesworth too had his space limitations here; as he notes, elsewhere he has espoused the conviction that rabbinic literature too preserves "many edited essentials for grasping the religious life and the liturgy of first-century Jews, like Jesus". See, for example, his "Jewish Prayers in the Time of Jesus", Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Supplementary Issue 2 (1992) pp. 36-55. The above questions should be taken as no more than that, as a modest reminder that beside the new material to which Professor Charlesworth so justifiably directs our attention in the present essay there is much which has always been around, which is still being lived, and which, just as Jesus, may now be rethought - precisely in light of the new material.

* Daniel R. Schwartz is Professor in the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.


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