The Problems with ‘Jewishness’ in Historical Jesus Scholarship: An Overview of Critiques

It is well known that ‘Jesus the Jew’ is now a scholarly cliché, or as we often find ‘a very Jewish Jesus’ (which might lead to the questions: ‘what is not-very-Jewish’? ‘moderately Jewish’? ‘partially Jewish’? ‘a touch Jewish’? ‘less Jewish’,  ‘more Jewish’ etc). It is also well known, but more specifically among people who might generally be brought under the label ‘ideological criticism’ (or something like that), that ‘Jewishness’ is a problematic term in historical Jesus studies. However, for whatever reason (I’m not entirely sure) the critique of the scholarly use of Jesus the Jew has continued to be overlooked in the more traditional areas of historical Jesus studies. The following is a brief (ish) history of some (and only some) of the debate and discussion (apologies to those I’ve missed out). While I may or may not support some or all of the following, I do not necessarily endorse any of the following here (apart from my own, obviously). Rather, I think this sort of scholarship needs to be repeatedly highlighted because it is not being properly tacked in the areas it critiques.

In what should be regarded as an important book in the field [Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (London and New York: Routledge, 2002)], Shawn Kelley has argued that contemporary biblical scholarship has unconsciously perpetuated some racialized  perspectives which derive from nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany (esp. categories involving authenticity, lapsing into conventionality, and pure origins), via figures such as Heidegger and Bultmann and given liberal and anti-racist credibility in late twentieth century American scholarship in particular. As Kelley puts it, ‘The purging of the inauthentic to make possible authenticity, which has structured much of the twentieth-century’s most respected biblical scholarship, necessarily means identifying and shattering the forces of Jewification to better create a racially pure West.’

In Symbolic Jesus (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2005), Bill Arnal noted that the rhetoric of Jesus being a Jew is remarkably widespread in a discipline where no contemporary scholar denies Jesus was Jewish! [As an aside just look at how many book titles emphasise Jesus’ Jewishness.] Arnal gives several reasons for the emergence of the emphasis on a culturally stable Jewish identity in historical Jesus scholarship since the 1970s. These involve reactions to: ‘the postmodern condition’; a lack of socio-economic stability; and fractured cultural identities associated with ‘globalisation’. Arnal gives other reasons such as: a reaction against the dominance of pre-1970s German scholarship; the shifts in the geographical centre of scholarship towards the UK, Ireland and esp. North America; a desire to show that Christianity is not antisemitic at its core; and to distance Christianity from complicity in the Holocaust. Arnal points out that those allegations of implicit antisemitism levelled at, for instance, the Jesus Seminar and a Cynic-like Jesus assume affixed Jewish identity to the extent that a Jew could not have been a Cynic (-like) thinker.

In Jesus in an Age of Terror (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2008), I have made a complementary argument, suggesting that the turn to the rhetoric of Jesus the Jew can be contextualized in light of developments in American culture post-1967 and the dramatic shift towards a positive attitude towards Israel and Judaism alongside greater interest in the Holocaust. General cultural patterns (religious, political, and so on) involve a love for Judaism but a limited love: Jews and Israel are useful…for now. This is replicated in a dominant ‘Jewish…but not that Jewish’ Jesus where the rhetoric of Jesus’ Jewishness is ubiquitous but so is the argument that in minor or major ways Jesus was somehow different from anything in Judaism, or transcended Judaism. I have since argued, and will argue in much more detail in a forthcoming book (Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology [Sheffield and Oakville: Equinox, 2012]), that this ‘Jewish…but not that Jewish’ Jesus is also a product of contemporary liberal multiculturalism which accept accepts the Other but on ‘our’ terms, or, as Žižek put it, the Other deprived of its otherness.

Giovanni Bazzana points out, this pattern of implied difference (superiority?) is implied in the very title of Meier’s multi volume, A Marginal Jew. We can see the pattern of emphasising Jewishness (positively) whilst constructing (implicitly and explicitly) a fixed Jewish identity for Jesus at some point to transcend, overturn etc., in the works of major scholars of different persuasions, from Sanders to Wright. Larry Hurtado recently discussed the issue of ‘very Jewish’ with reference to a recent Early Christianity (vol. 1.3 being a freebie for all BTNC participants) article by Roland Deines where, I would add, the idea of both positivity and difference is clear enough and reflecting a widespread view in contemporary scholarship: “He cannot be understood without the analogies provided by the Jewish world he lived in but at the same time he is not fully encapsulated by them” (‘Jesus and the Jewish Traditions of His Time’ 351) [and note that Section I is called ‘The Importance of Jesus’ Jewishness’].

At this point we might compare Jonathan Z. Smith’s argument that ‘Judaism’ in Christian origins scholarship, and the move toward Jewish ‘backgrounds’,  has a double or duplicitous function. Judaism has ‘insulated’ Christianity from outside influence whilst at the same time, ‘it has been presented by the very same scholars as an object to be transcended by early Christianity’. [J.Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 83]

Todd Penner argues that the issue of ‘the Jewish question’ in nineteenth century nationalism was developed in New Testament scholarship in order to distinguish Christianity from Judaism and, Penner argues, perpetuated in the influential work of Hengel and continues in the present. [T. Penner, ‘Die Judenfrage and the Construction of Ancient Judaism: Toward a Foregrounding of the Backgrounds Approach to Early Christianity,’ in P. Gray and G. O’Day (eds.), Scripture and Traditions: Essays on Early Judaism and Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2008), pp. 429-55]. Here Judaism might be said to function as a kind of buffer zone to absorb pagan influences and functioning to keep Christianity ‘pure’ or ‘purer’ from pagan influences. The use of Jewish scripture might be seen as a particularly important way of forming a protective function from pagan influences. We might compare this with what Luke Timothy Johnson described the ‘Hengel sidestep’, i.e. Greco-Roman influences on the NT are filtered through Hellenistic Judaism with the implication that it becomes non-toxic.

Amy-Jill Levine has argued [e.g. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006)], among other things, that superiority over Judaism is perpetuated in areas where she and others might ordinarily be sympathetic: liberation movements. Levine argues that liberation movements have had a history of using Jesus’ Jewish context as something negative and oppressive which Jesus is needed to overcome. Levine’s targets are more typically churches but still apply to more academic publications. There are obvious affinities here with Kelley’s argument in the sense of the perpetuation of superiority through credibility.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, with eyes both on ecclesiastical and scholarly worlds, attempts to bring anti-Judaism and antifeminism together to be critiqued [e.g. Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation (New York & London: Continuum, 2000)]. She engages with a number of positions on ‘Jesus the feminist’ in relation to anti-Judaism, and like Levine sees problems with certain readings. However, she also seeks to look at, and rescue, other influences which may too hastily be seen as disrespecting Judaism when their context may be more precisely (say) anti-ecclesiastical.

Explicitly using postcolonial criticism (which may be implicit in a number of the above approaches), R.S. Sugirtharajah argued that In spite of the attempts to place Jesus in his Palestinian social world the image that emerges is that of an isolated and autonomous figure’ [Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), p. 118]. One point Sugirtharajah stresses about ideological critiques of scholarship under scrutiny, which is common to most, perhaps all, of the critiques described in this post: ‘it is not the political allegiances of these interpreters but their pre-understandings and the models they work with that concern us’ [Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 102].

The above critiques really ought to be answered, not least because we are dealing with issues which have clear political ramifications. And so I now, via Adorno, want to spell some of this out. In his analysis of different types of present-day anti-Semites, and in the shadow of the Holocaust, Adorno looked at his what he called: ‘The Jew-lover’ (T.W. Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays [London: Routledge, 2001], p. 204). What Adorno meant by this was the type of thinking which stresses the differences between Jews and Christians in a way friendly to the Jews. However, Adorno thought that this type of thinking has an anti-Semitic nucleus with origins in racial discrimination and the overcompensation becomes a secret discrimination or a ‘fundamentally unreliable adoration’. I am not – emphatically not – suggesting we take Adorno too literally for understanding contemporary manifestations of supersession and/or cultural superiority (Adorno himself engaged in exaggeration). However, I do think we could suggest that the contemporary manifestations of ‘pro-Jewish’ rhetoric in NT scholarship is superficial in that it perpetuates the old notions of superiority seemingly more typical of the now so regularly denounced pre-Sanders scholarship.

Or, put another way, if we cut through the scholarly rhetoric aside, have things really changed so much since prior to the 1970s?

James Crossley


9 responses to “The Problems with ‘Jewishness’ in Historical Jesus Scholarship: An Overview of Critiques

  1. Pingback: J.C. – More Jew Than You « The Dunedin School

  2. i agree entirely, but it seems to me that two further (obvious) factors are hanging about muttering, like impatient elephants in the room, and that it would be best to name them outright.

    first is the tradition of the caucasian (even blonde) Christ in Western Christian art. and, second, the not at all distinct tension for Christian believers between the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus and the Christian claim on Christ (‘The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith’ as J.R.P put it, or ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ in Pullman’s eyes).

    of course, that ‘fact’ that these elements are clearly (to me) in play (“I’m sure all scholars will agree. Lol.”) testifies to the way in which certain scholars have been shaped in their approach by specific confessional agendas.

    i have been sermonized many times on the evils of ‘our’ tendencies to deny Jesus’ Jewish heritage. this line is especially regurgitated in churches whose doctrinal inclinations emphasise that Christ’s blood sacrifice put an end to the Jewish sacrificial system, the Temple and (by imaginative extension) to Judaism itself.(NB remember how Gibson portrays the ripping of the Temple veil as its near-destruction by an earthquake in The Passion… ?).

    i read the clichéd emphasis on Jesus’ ‘Jewishness’, in certain NT scholarship and the conservative branches of the Church alike: as a manifestation of a kind of corrupted guilt and insecurity about the Church’s over-Christianised Christ, which as well as spawning from unpleasant doctrine has unintentionally swallowed, reproduced and perpetuated an insidious and pernicious cultural ideology.

    • Yes, indeed. On the Christ in western art etc we could also say that scholarly Jewish Jesus’ are an attempt to counter this image but in fact perpetuate the difference more subtly and with credibility. On the Jesus of history v Christ of faith, yes, this issue has run throughout the history of Christian scholarship and, again, it could be argued that the emphasis on Jewishness perpetuates something of the Christ of faith through subtlety.

  3. This is not really biblical matter, but a questioning of what lies behind those who study the Jewishness of Jesus. Scholars are wasting a lot of time on each other….

  4. I notice that you didn’t talk about John Elliot’s “Jesus the Israelite” article, which argues that Jesus wasn’t a Jew at all, and renders Arnal’s comment about no scholars denying the Jewishness of Jesus sort of out-of-date! Any reason why you left it out? It seems worthy of discussion to me…

    • Yes, Elliott’s article could have been discussed and there are important ideological issues surrounding that debate. But what’s also interesting about Elliott’s article is that ‘Israelite’ is (more or less) a direct replacement for ‘Jew’ and both more or less mean the same thing in scholarly discourses on Jesus. So I think Arnal’s critique would still apply…

  5. Pingback: November Biblical Studies Carnival: The Undead Edition « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  6. Pingback: Mark and the Historical Jesus « Euangelion Kata Markon

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