Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jesus' "Jewishness!"

"Why the continued insistence on a point everyone accepts? What is behind the shrill reiteration of Jesus' having been Jewish? What agenda is served by accusing contemporary scholars of an anti-Jewish animus, or of offering sly insinuations to this effect?... Jesus' Jewishness is not currently under attack, and has not been for several decades. And yet it is under discussion more now than ever. To my mind, this suggests that the issue is somehow overdetermined; it is a screen onto which other, more current, and unresolved matters are being projected. It is a manufactured controversy serving to express other problems, theological and secular, in a covert or implicit manner." (William Arnal, The Symbolic Jesus, p 19)

10 Comments:

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

I haven't read Arnal's book yet, but I think this is a trenchant observation. The constant reiteration of an obvious point suggests its real purpose in service of some "master narrative." The hardest thing to do in any kind of historical criticism is getting outside the boxes of our own master narratives and explain what's going on.

I suspect part of the problem is that a lot of the foundational work on the historical Jesus came out of 19th and early 20th century Germany, in a context that held to profoundly anti-Semitic assumptions (e.g. that authenticity is to be looked for with country folk rather than with urban dwellers). As a practical matter, it is easier to try to limit the effect of this assumptions by continually reminding ourselves that Jesus was Jewish rather than rebuild the entire HJ methodological edifice from the ground up.

I blogged some thoughts on this line in "Searching for the Authentic Voice of Jesus" (Jul. 18, 2005), which you've also interacted with.

5/17/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I agree entirely, Stephen. You should read Bill's book before you're a month older. It's a pretty trenchant work overall. (Even if Bill is a hopeless Q enthusiast.)

5/17/2006  
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

I blogged on Arnal's book sometime ago. Although I recognize the value of his book (let him who is without theological baggage write the first book review) I think it is mostly an impassioned defence of the California Jesus! If the Jewish Jesus is simply an agenda driven portrait on behalf of Christian orthodoxy, I remain perplexed as to why it is advocated by commentators as diverse of Sanders and Vermes. If the Cynic Jesus is not a construct of Western theological liberalism, then I'm suprised why no-one other than Western theological liberals advocate it. Let me qualify that again, Arnal's book is a good read and makes a genuine contribution to the debate. It should be on all reading lists about the HJ. But I found his attempt to "deconstruct" a Jewish Jesus (it really is about something else like a scholarly cipher for consevative Christianity) a little crass. I'd say the same about a recent essay by Kloppenborg.

5/17/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Michael wrote:

If the Jewish Jesus is simply an agenda driven portrait on behalf of Christian orthodoxy, I remain perplexed as to why it is advocated by commentators as diverse of Sanders and Vermes.

Arnal does not claim that the "Jewish Jesus" is favored by the orthodox alone. Those who like the Jewish Jesus may be driven by any one or more of the following agendas:

(1) -- the agenda to save one's scholarly soul from the legacy of German Lutherans. Sanders, Fredriksen, Vermes, etc. have paved the way to a new and distinctive Anglo-American scholarship, free of Bultmannian influence. (pp 41-47)

(2) -- the intent to save one's political soul from any taint of the Holocaust. The Jewish Jesus approaches a stereotype modern Jews, thereby reclaiming (or insulating) Christianity from complicity in the Shoah. (pp 47-55)

(3) -- the need to keep one's religious sensibilities intact. A Jewish Jesus, ironically, helps maintain a distinctive Christian identity and can even reinforce supersessionism (in cases like Wright and Witherington). (pp 56-69)

(4) -- the goal to preserve one's cultural identity in the face of postmodernism. A Jesus who believed in Torah, the temple, and purity is a formidable weapon against the erosion of social identities, in effect insisting upon cultural stability. (pp 69-72)

The last two may be relevant to orthodoxy, but (1) and (2) have nothing to do with being a religious conservative. They are the agendas for which scholars like Sanders and Vermes may well be liable.

5/17/2006  
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

Alas, has Arnal's "deconstruction" shown us that a Jewish Jesus is nothing more than a ruse for competing ideologies? I think not. I wonder which ideology Jim Crossley should be assigned to since his Jesus is quite Jewish too. That is assuming that Crossley's motives and aspirations can be so simply explained away as Arnal thinks he can do with Wright, Sanders and Vermes? I wonder if Arnal would consider that maybe Wright, Sanders, Crossley and Vermes are writing as they think it truly is, and though presuppositions and backgrounds colour their thinking, ultimately ideology does not determine their views. It is one thing to say that someone's conclusion is conducive to certain ideologies, but it is quite another thing to say that ideology is what drives and determines those conclusions in the first place.

Dale C. Allison confesses that he is unaware of what makes Sanders tick, and I'm inclined to follow Allison over Arnal. Unless Arnal has had some serious group therapy sessions with Wright, Sanders, Vermes and Witherington I lack confidense in his (or anyone's) ability to reduce their historical enterprises to ideological discourses masquarading as the HJ.

Of course, let's play fair, perhaps it is the case that Arnal's own analysis of Sanders and Vermes is equally ideological driven as the Jewish Jesus portraits that he seeks to analyze. The ideological door swings both ways.

If I remember correctly (and it's been well over a year since I went over the book in one afternoon) I got the feeling that Arnal does not try to deconstruct the Cynic Jesus with quite so much surgical rigor as he does to the Jewish Jesus. If fact, he (or was it Kloppenborg) strenuously objected to the mocking title "Califronia Jesus" that is used describe the Cynic Jesus.

Loren, for bringing this book up again, it's a reminder that I need to re-read it. Keep in mind, I don't have a copy of the book with me so my criticism are coming from memory and based on what you said in your blog.
Regards

5/17/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Michael,

Keep in mind that I myself favor the so-called "Jewish Jesus", but am aware that agendas can drive interpretations here as much as with the "non-Jewish Jesus".

Dale C. Allison confesses that he is unaware of what makes Sanders tick, and I'm inclined to follow Allison over Arnal.

I'd revise this. I honestly don't know what makes Allison tick. (Save when it comes to resurrection beliefs.) Though he favors a Jewish Jesus, I wouldn't ascribe to him any one of the four agendas mentioned by Arnal. On the other hand, I have more sense than Allison as to what's been driving Sanders' scholarship. It's clear that his mission has been to rescue perceptions of Judaism from pre-Holocaust and German Lutheran caricatures. That doesn't diminish his landmark work; and he remains one of my favorite scholars.

Unless Arnal has had some serious group therapy sessions with Wright, Sanders, Vermes and Witherington...

Arnal prefaces his discussion with the following caveat: "I do not have direct access to the inner motives behind scholarly assertions... I am not especially concerned with the personal and individual motives of the scholars advancing the views I discuss... The important thing about all of these scholars is not what they personally believe, but the kind of cultural work their scholarship accomplishes, whether intended or not." (pp 39-40)

perhaps it is the case that Arnal's own analysis of Sanders and Vermes is equally ideological driven as the Jewish Jesus portraits that he seeks to analyze. The ideological door swings both ways.

Yes, but Arnal is very upfront about his own biases, just as he's candid about not liking the "Jewish Jesus". Acknowledging one's biases is half the battle, no?

I got the feeling that Arnal does not try to deconstruct the Cynic Jesus with quite so much surgical rigor as he does to the Jewish Jesus.

I don't think he needed to, because the agendas of Crossan, Mack, etc. are so transparent. As far as I'm concerned, they're just rewriting Jesus to validate liberal Christianity or dispense with the religion altogether. That's an old story. The agendas behind the Jewish Jesus -- with whom my sympathies lie, mind you -- have been much more difficult to get a handle on. But Arnal nails them down well.

5/18/2006  
Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

It occurs to me that part of the reason for emphasizing Jesus' Jewishness is as a counter to the models of the historical Jesus that look more like a liberal theologian or a "California Jesus," neither of which look a lot like a Galilean Jewish peasant.

5/20/2006  
Anonymous Barrett Pashak said...

The fact is that there are mythicists like Earl Doherty who do deny that Jesus is a Jew. It is very useful to cite Arnal against these people:

No one in mainstream New Testament scholarship denies that Jesus was a Jew.--p.5

You can see most of Arnal's book via Googlebooks.

1/18/2007  
Anonymous Barrett Pashak said...

My criticism of Arnal is that he doesn't even mention Jews who write about Christ's Jewishness, eg. Leo Baeck, Joseph Klausner and Constantin Brunner.

1/18/2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For sure, if Jesus has existed, he was a Jew,
and the first people who wrote about him were deeply jews, as attested by the multiple references to the scriptures.

However, the first layer of material in Galilee, Q1 & Thomas, deals only with the cynic philosophy and ignores anything Jewish.
While in the diaspora, jews were preaching a mythical Jesus, Son of God and redeemer of world's sin.

So, the Jesus Seminar sees him as a cynic sage and wonders about Paul's delirium about this illeterate jewish preacher.

However, this contradicts the first claim ...
excepted of course if Jesus didn't exist.

8/31/2007  

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