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SIDIC Periodical XII - 1979/3
Jesus the Jew (Pages 19 - 22)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The historical Jesus in Israel today
Ghana Safrai


Just recently P.E. Lapide published a book dealing directly with our present topic' His interesting presentation, though rather subjective as he himself puts it,' is divided into three parts. The first, that part most related to our discussion, deals with various literary efforts in Jewish circles on Jesus and his times. The second part, in which Lapide himself is most interested, deals with Israeli education concerning the historical Jesus, while the last part sums up the history of official Jewish attitudes towards Jesus as reflected in rabbinical literature throughout history. In a way, Lapide's three chapters reflect certain aspects of the question in general, that is to say, the many-sided problem of Jewish attitudes to the historical Jesus.

It is rather interesting that one feels the need to differentiate general literary efforts from rabbinical literary works. This difference does not necessarily apply only to the present context, and, one might add, we are touching a long-standing situation in the Jewish world. One might even say that the gap in this respect between general and rabbinical works is growing wider in modern times and more so in the past few years, so much so that, as far as the Israeli scene is concerned, we cannot point to any recent work dealing with our topic in rabbinic circles. Lapide's book provides a rather interesting collection of past views. We shall therefore leave aside that aspect of things is the present discussion.

Israeli Education

As was mentioned above, Lapide devotes a substantial part of his book to the question of Israeli education our topic. In this part 3 the author gives a rather long account of a recent survey, done by the ministry of education, to evaluate Christian information given in Israeli schools. Without going into details, the general picture strikes me as rather poor. It seems that this opinion was shared by the committee since Lapide goes on to describe and outline the new booklet published for teachers in order to widen and deepen their knowledge for the benefit of their students.

Although Israeli education about early Christianity, the historical Jesus or basic Christian theology is not very extensive, none the less one major point should be made: there is a serious attempt to avoid colouring the picture of early Christianity with the sad relationships between Jews and Christians of medieval times. Lapide, in an earlier article on Israeli schoolbooks,' explained that the picture is a very positive one, so much so that there were some Rabbis who considered that they were faced with the same problems as those of recent Jewish existence in liberal America and complained that this very 'open, liberal, positive' attitude might cause problems of assimilation.

This last point illustrates very clearly the dangers to the discussion on the historical Jesus as well as to any other Christian topic. It is hardly surprising that one finds quite a few books and articles occupied less with the problems as they emerge from the given sources, and more with the question of the Jewish or Israeli attitude to them. There is a strong overtone either directed to possible Jewish prejudice or to the Jewish Christian dialogue. As an illustration one might read the final remarks in one of the lectures given by S. BenChorin in the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem. He ends his lecture on "Jesus and Paul in their Jewish Times" 5 with a short 'sermon' stating that he does not expect his audience to accept his strong Jewish overtones, nonetheless he would appreciate if they would at least pay attention to his approach.

A Bibliography

Quite a few good articles seem to be published in various journals involved in the Jewish Christian dialogue: D. Flusser: "Inwiesern kann Jesus fur Juden eine Frage sein", Concilium (10) 1974, p. 506 ff.; P.E. Lapide: "Jesus in Israeli Schoolbooks", Journal of Ecumenical Studies (10) 1973, p. 515 ff.; S. Ben Chorin: "The Image of Jesus in Modern Judaism", Journal of Ecumenical Studies (11) 1974, p. 401 ff. Or again D. Flusser: "Thesis on the Emergence of Christianity from Judaism", Immanuel 1972, p. 74 ff. Or the two joint articles of S. Safrai and D. Flusser: "Die Auslegung der Bibel in der tannaitischen Literatur" and "Die Auslegung der Bibel im Neuen Testament" in Juden and Christen lesen dieselbe Bibel, ed. H. Kremers, Duisburg, 1977 p. 5 ff. One could list a few more, though the picture is rather clear. It might be of interest to mention one more article of D. Flusser, and the only one in Hebrew in this list: "Christianity in the Eyes of the Jew", Keshet Be'anan (38), 1976. This last one would represent what one might call the utilitarian attitude vis-a-vis the Israeli scene as opposed to the general Jewish Christian dialogue.

Jesus in Jewish Thought

Far be it from me to disregard the very important role of the activity mentioned above. The need is still there to enlighten both scholars and laymen, Jews and Christians, to the mutual benefit of a better understanding. None the less I should like to draw the reader's attention to a slightly different aspect of research concerning the question at hand as it seems to have developed in recent years in Israel. In 1925 H.A. Wolfson wrote what seemed then to be practically a dream: that Jesus will have to be reclaimed by Jews as an integral part of Jewish thought.' As was indicated earlier, this dream has not been realized as yet, but I would like to add a few remarks on that point. The relevance of the Jesus story to the history of his contemporary Judaism has been a well discussed subject ever since the beginning of Jewish wissenschaft, but Wolfson could not take it for granted, just as it was still a point to be made in 1970 by S. Sandmel in his book: We Jews and Jesus (London 1970). When A. Buechler discusses in his book 7 the priests in Jerusalem, he was well aware of the relevance of the Gospels to the question as also well versed in all the details. For that reason it is surprising that he assembles all the so-called New Testament evidence together 8 rather than deal with each one in its general rabbinic context. It is very surprising how limited is the use of the Gospels in this work and extremely noteworthy that, in describing the eve of passover and the semi-festive atmosphere on the afternoon of the passover sacrifice, he quotes Chwollson rather than the direct synoptic versions.9

As a point of reference one could compare the not so recent book of S. Safrai: The Pilgrimage in the Second Temple Period, 1963. The quotations from the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular are well spread throughout the work and even more important, they never assume a bigger place beyond the issue at hand. If the story of the last supper is quoted it is because the author is interested in describing the festive atmosphere in Jerusalem on passover, and the Gospel is as important an evidence as any other available source. This might seem an amorphous argument, nonetheless these few steps nearer to Wolfson's dream are very realistic to scholars at the present time. If one reads D. Flusser's criticism of Judge H. Cohen's version of the trial of Jesus,'" this seems to be his main point. On those grounds exactly he finds fault with various details. He complains again and again that our first duty is towards history as it unfolds and presents itself from all available sources. His basic demand is to allow the details the freedom to create their own pattern without our prejudices.

To be able to use the material in the story of Jesus without reluctance and without the permanent feeling of doing something out of the ordinary is still not an easy task, though one finds this attitude in Jerusalem today. In a seminar conducted by D. Flusser and S. Safrai together, they related that they were recently reading Tana debei Eliahu, a book which they consider to be a tannaitic Midrash." One of the peculiar features of this work is the author's prayers, interesting in their length and content. Up to date there has been no full investigation of this matter, but one detail has bearing on the present paper. Some of its prayers begin with the `famous' opening: My Father, may your great name be blessed." Obviously this opening was compared to other known early formulae of prayer, but the Lord's Prayer was introduced as one of the best examples for comparison; and again, not for purely ecumenical reasons but as a sustaining evidence to the tannaitic background of the sentence.

The Lucan Tradition

It was this same method that brought R.L. Lindsey, of the Baptist Church in Jerusalem, to develop his theory on the priority of Luke. As he relates it, it all began from the experiment of a new translation of Mark into rabbinic Hebrew. In a word, there was no real leading hypothesis but rather a pattern that emerged during his research." With some modifications, and never taken for granted, the Lucan priority seems to be a working guideline in all of D. Flusser's works in recent years. Again and again he points out that the Lucan tradition preserves a better version which is more accurate and closer to Jewish traditions. There will appear soon a collection of his articles, including both hitherto unpublished as well as revised editions of previously published articles." In one of these dealing with the synoptic question he elaborates on the implications of Lindsey's theory." The major point in question is again the eorrelation of the best synoptic version, or the better preserved one with the relevant sources, rabbinic as well as other material such as the Qumran writings, Philo of Alexandria and Hellenistic works.

S. Safrai outlined in a short article a peculiar group of Rabbis within the general sect of Pharisees the so-called 'Hasidim' (pietists)." Since then this picture has gained in depth and it is quite notable that many of the teachings attributed to Jesus are rooted in this circle. If we have pointed previously to the similarity in prayer formulae between Tana Debei Eliahu and the Lord's Prayer, this similarity is all the more significant now that we are able to trace many pietistic features in Tana Debei Eliahu. One example will suffice here. Even in a superfidal reading one finds in Tana Debei Eliahu many traces and re-working of the `Derech Eretz' literature. This work Derech Eretz has quite an affinity to the `Two Ways' literature and rabbinical and hasidic literature. D. Flusser attempts to outline this literary and ideological circle in an article soon to be published." The mutual understanding of both prayers seems now to be an additional stone in the better and more exact understanding of Jesus in his contemporary Judaism.

One possible ramification of this point of view is the different connotation it gives to the 'Jesus self-awareness', in particular to the so-called 'I' sayings. We have noticed the language of prayer in the Tana Debei Eliahu for example, and D. Flusser has compared the self-awareness of Jesus with the self-understanding of Hillel the Elder," implying that we are confronted with a similar case of a charismatic personality, part of the Hasidism of the period. Both had a strong faith in the human possibility of reaching the divine sphere. The difference could possibly be understood, not in the historical Jesus or Hillel, but rather in the later interpretation given to each in their respective communities.

The Parables of Jesus

Two books are being written on the much debated question of the parables of Jesus. One is written by J. Bloch, the other by D. Flusser, both of them professors of Christianity and Jewish Thought in Israeli universities The mere fact that there are two attempts of sincere investigation into this crucial theological issue is in itself illuminating. Jewish scholars in general and Israelis in particular have no qualms lest they trespass. On the contrary, they feel that, as Jewish scholars well versed in their own culture, they are able to bring a new contribution to this study. It is interesting to note from the point of view of Jewish Christian dialogue that both books will appear in German." Both writers are interested in the real message of this special way of teaching, but that is where the similarity ends, as far as I can understand through a cursory reading of the books. Bloch seems to emphasize the theological aspect of the parables as the way of proclaiming the immanent kingdom of heaven. Flusser on the other hand tries to reveal the 'true' meaning of the parables through a study of the literary form of the parables to be found in rabbinic literature. He agrees willingly that Jesus was one of the best of the narrators of parables, but then points out that he is one of the earlier among the parable narrators and we seem to have only a very limited number of parables from this first and superior literary genre. Seen against this background, Flusser emphasizes the general social message of the genre as a whole and tends to link the pious and social aspects of the historical charismatic Rabbi, not very different from other contemporary Rabbis, though possibly on a higher literary level.

Do we have a school of thought on the historical Jesus in Israel? Is it really different from scholarship all over the world? True, Jews tend to emphasize the historical Rabbi as both Lapide and Ben-Chorin havedone in their respective articles relating to our topic,2 but it seems that there is slowly emerging a slightly different picture, might one say a more clearly defined one? This is coming about, not through a different ideology, but rather through a careful and unbiased use of all available sources. Flusser, in the preface to his short monograph Jesus, explained that he wanted to show that one can still write and talk about Jesus. It would seem, then, that respecting the sources, one must go on and continue to seek for a deeper and better understanding.

1. P.E. Lapide, Ist das nicht Josephs Sohn? Jesus in Heutigen Judentum, 1977.
2. Ibid, p. 42.
3. Ibid, p. 45 ff.
4. P.E. Lapide, "Jesus in Israeli Schoolbooks", Journal of Ecumenical Studies, (10) 1973, Philadelphia, pp. 515.
5. S. Ben-Chorin, "Jesus unt Paulus in Juedischer Zeit", Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute, (10) 1975/6, Jerusalem, pp. 17.
6. H.A. Wolfson, "How the Jews will reclaim Jesus", in J. Jacobs, Jesus as others saw him, 1925.
7. A. Buechler, Die Priester unt der Cultus im lezten Jahrzehnt des Jerusalemischen Ternpels, Jahresbericht der Israeltisches Theologischen Lehramstalt, Vienna, 1895.
8. Ibid (in Hebrew) p. 61-67.
9. Ibid, p. 129.
10. D. Flusser, "The Trial and Death of Jesus the Christian", Molad (2) 1969, (in Hebrew).
" For a different view see: Z. Werblowsky, "Philo and the Zohar", Journal of Jewish Studies (10) 1959, p. 24-44; 113-136.
12. Tana Debei Eliahu, ed. Ish-Shalom, 1969, p. 83; 89. " R.L. Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, Jerusalem, Dugith, 1969.
14. D. Flusser, Christianity and its Jewish sources, (in Hebrew, to be published).
15. Ibid, The literary relation of the synoptic Gospels.
16. S. Safrai, "The Hasidic Mishnah in Tannaitic Literature", Wehine Ein Josef, A Memorial Volume in honor of Josepf Amorai, 1973, p. 136 ff. (in Hebrew).
17. D. Flusser, ibid, There are Two Ways.
18. D. Flusser, "Hillel's self-awareness and Jesus", Immanuel (4) 1974, Jerusalem, p. 31 ff.
19. One should not attach too much significance, as there are some circumstantial reasons as well.
20. S. Ben-Chorin, "The Image of Jesus in Modern Judaism", Journal of Ecumenical Studies (11) 1974, p. 401 ff. P.E. Lapide, (see note 1) p. 41-42.


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