Given that he is so vocal of late in his political theory of marriage and sexuality, let’s try and cross swords again with Mike Bird – who identifies with ‘subversive ideological terrorists’ and enjoys family picnics – in the ongoing promotion of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism. Which is now published, incidentally.
And really just to shoehorn this in, I’m going to turn to what is now an old ‘problem’ of Jesus being as Jewish as the Judaism constructed by scholarship, and how this is compensated in scholarship by the dominant ‘Jewish…but not that Jewish’ Jesus. To repeat yet again, many historical Jesus scholars will now emphasize how Jewish their Jesus is, tell us what constituted Jewish identity in the first century, before having their Jesus transcend this Jewish identity, or at least do something new and unparalleled either generally or on some specific (and often crucial) issue, typically involving the Torah and/or Temple. Subtly or otherwise, this pattern is relentlessly found from the more obscure Jesus scholarship through to the major works on the historical Jesus…whilst claiming how ‘very Jewish’ their Jesus is.
As mentioned before, this dominant ‘Jewish…but not that Jewish’ Jesus is, in part, a product of a post-1967 cultural shift, including the first widespread interest in the Holocaust and a favourable attitude towards Israel in Anglo-American political, educational and popular culture, which nevertheless includes attitudes of cultural and religious superiority in relation to Jews, Judaism and Israel, and all as part of the general shift of the centre of biblical scholarship from Germany to North America. This postmodern Jesus eases into an age of neoliberalism through a notable feature of contemporary multiculturalism, the liberal acceptance of the Other without the difficult Otherness (see Žižek).
‘Very Jewish’ (and the opposite ‘not very Jewish’) and ‘Jewishness’ are common phrases in contemporary historical Jesus studies. They are phrases that often go unexplained, at least in terms of identity, as if their meaning were obvious. An attempt at unpacking the meaning has come from Mike Bird (‘The Peril of Modernizing Jesus and the Crisis of Not Contemporizing the Christ’, EQ 78 , pp. 291–312) which, I think, highlights broader assumptions of Jewishness in historical Jesus studies. Bird sees a Cynic or Hellenized Jesus as an exercise in ‘de-judaizing’ Jesus. Such an exercise possesses:
…some similarity [!!] with Walter Grundmann’s Jesus der Galiläer which, written in Nazi Germany, advocated that Jesus was an ethnic Galilean and not a Jew. I am not accusing Mack and Crossan of anti-semitism [!!], but it seems apparent that their works are analogous to older monographs that endeavoured to deny the Jewishness of Jesus. I have read a lot of kafuffle as to how Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is blatantly anti-semitic and yet the de-judaizing of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar and others has met with little resistance from academia [really?]. Yet history shows that Christianity has done the most unforgiving violence to the Jewish people on those occasions when Jesus’ Jewishness was denied or minimized.
This might raise the question, as it does for Bird, what is ‘de-j[/J]udaizing’? For Bird this does not mean ‘anti-Jewish’ or completely ‘un-Jewish’. Instead, he adds the following ominous analogy: ‘De-alcoholized wine still retains a small measure of alcohol, but not enough to impact the drinker. Thus by ‘de-Judaizing’ I mean the act of moving Jesus’ Jewishness to the periphery or else negating its effects by blanketing it with a Hellenistic overlay’. Bird sees the Jewishness of Jesus as ‘the fail safe’ to stop modernizing Jesus yet then finds himself in difficulty when confronted with the problems of precisely what this might mean, concluding,
…a Jewish Jesus constrains modernization by seeing Jesus in conversation and confrontation with his times rather than ours. That means that intra-Jewish disputes about halakha, the status of Samaritans, paying imperial taxes, and maintenance of purity stipulations are more likely to feature as topics of Jesus’ interest than feminism, globalization, or church growth strategies.
Leaving aside the chronological (/theological) implication of when Jewishness ends, Bird does spell out key underlying assumptions concerning ‘very Jewish’ and so on, namely that if we talk about something or someone being ‘very Jewish’ we are talking about measurements of identity: by this logic Jesus could be more or less Jewish than other people of his day, could he not? A few teasing questions and suggestions might help point out some of the problems with Bird’s arguments and arguments assuming a measurement of identity more broadly (this critique is easily modified to incorporate most scholarly rhetoric about the Jewishness of Jesus). What if someone was identified as Jewish but could not care less about intra-Jewish disputes concerning halakhah, the status of Samaritans, paying imperial taxes and maintenance of purity stipulations? To state what should be the obvious, Bird’s wine/alcohol analogy makes identity more fixed than fluid or, to use the criticism of our times, essentialist. This can be highlighted better if we have some fun with his model.
So if we were to accept points of continuity what might this mean? That Jesus was 10% vol. Jew? Or are the points of continuity just general coincidence or ideas around in the Eastern Mediterranean? If so, does not the mixing up of ideas from different cultures say something problematic about Bird’s model of identity? What if someone could be in a synagogue one moment, in a guild or trade association the next – do the alcohol levels of such individuals rise and fall according to context? Or again, if, say, someone claimed that they had a serious interest in Samaritans and maybe taxes but were utterly indifferent to issues of purity and halakhah, are they ‘half-Jewish’, or, rather, a 7% vol. Jew? What if a Jew thought Cynic or Hellenistic philosophy wonderful, even more wonderful than the Torah or apocalyptic thought, do they shift from being (say) a hearty 12% vol. to a mere 2% vol.? Ultimately, does someone become more or less an ancient Jew depending on what a scholar says?
Let us test out Bird’s alcoholic analogy further by applying it to Jesus scholarship. N.T. Wright, a major influence on Bird, has his historical Jesus not simply involved with intra-Jewish halakhic issues but on issues involving Sabbath, food, purity family and so on; he has Jesus making them redundant and opening up the promises to Jews beyond Samaritans. Could we not make the case that Wright’s Jesus is, by developing Bird’s methodology, a thoroughly non-alcoholic Jew, or at best a white-wine spritzer Jesus? Is Wright’s Jesus only of use for underage drinkers in the park who have not yet acquired the taste for the strong stuff? Does not Wright’s Jesus remove or de-alcoholize most of the symbols Wright constructs as central to Judaism, thereby making his Jesus effectively a Christian or proto-Christian?
Or, by engaging in questions about halakhah, purity and so on, is Wright’s Jesus a good 14% vol.? Given that Bird cites Wright in favour of his argument that the Jesus Seminar has supposedly de-Judaized Jesus in a way not dissimilar to the Nazis (yes, the Nazis!) we would probably have to infer, yes. If this is the case, Wright’s Jesus can transcend Judaism as much as he likes and yet Wright’s Jesus remains patronizingly Jewish through and through and this is the trump card against any sufficiently threatening scholarly Jesus.
If we assume that Wright (the Gentile former Bishop of Durham) and Bird (the Gentile evangelical) believe in what most of Wright’s historical Jesus had to say, does that make Wright and Bird…Jewish?
Bird’s analogy gets weirder still: it decides that the Jesus he does not like (the Cynic-like Jesus) cannot be ‘very’ Jewish, a non-alcoholic Jewish at best. But every contemporary advocate of a Cynic-like Jesus claims that…Jesus was Jewish!
Bird, however, tries to give evidence suggesting otherwise. He even goes as far as claiming that Mack ‘purposely dislodge[s] Jesus from being Jewish’ (my italics). I am, however, unaware of Mack ever making such a claim, yet Bird implies the following is an example of how the ‘works of Mack… minimize the Jewishness of Jesus in favor of a Hellenistic framework’: ‘The Cynic analogy repositions the historical Jesus away from a specifically Jewish sectarian milieu and toward the Hellenistic ethos known to have prevailed in Galilee’ (Mack, Myth of Innocence, p. 73). All this tells us is that Mack’s Jesus is removed from a certain kind of Jewish debate. Mack explicitly removes Jesus from a sectarian Jewish context and by Bird’s logic sectarian Judaism would have to equal Judaism as a whole which, given the different types of people identifying as Jews in the ancient world, is problematic to say the least (and makes the term ‘sectarian’ redundant). Bird effectively does what Mack in fact did not do, that is, assume that being Jewish and endorsing or playing around with Hellenistic views must necessarily be two distinct entities.
And what if the majority of people who identified as Jewish in the ancient world did not care about sectarian disputes, would their ‘Jewishness’ not be eradicated by Bird’s use of Mack? Mack may have been wrong to make such historical judgments about sectarian Judaism and a Hellenistic Galilee and there may be a range of modernizing factors which led him to make such judgments. But to claim that Mack was purposely dislodging Jesus from being Jewish is just wrong.
Bird’s association of the work of Mack and the Jesus Seminar with Nazi scholarship and potential violence against Jewish people is disturbing. Nazi scholars tried to disprove Jesus’ Jewish ethnic/racial identity in relation to Galilee with the obvious cultural ramifications this had in Nazi Germany. No member of the Jesus Seminar (including Mack) did/does this, at least as far as I am aware. Indeed, if we took self-identity as one way of establishing how someone thinks about themselves, then would not all contemporary historical Jesus scholars claim that their Jesus would have claimed to have been Jewish, and in notable contrast to Nazi historical Jesus scholars who would have claimed that their Jesus would not? Certainly, a case can be made for members of the Jesus Seminar producing a Jesus who stood over against aspects of certain Jewish ‘religious’ practices in many ways, but this is no different from countless works on the historical Jesus, including Wright’s work. To tie the Jesus Seminar in with some aspect of liberal America is one thing and probably accurate; to tie them in with the Nazis really is most unfortunate.
There may well be good historical reasons for not believing Jesus was a Cynic philosopher. But to refute such claims on the basis of imposing Jewish identity so that the only way Jewishness works is through the imposition of ideas of a Gentile Christian (irrespective, it would seem, of how people identified themselves) seems as anachronistic as the modernized Jesuses Bird wishes to refute. And to do this by way of making some alarming and wholly inaccurate remarks about opponents’ liberal Jesuses being like those produced by the Nazis no less would suggest something else is going on here. Ultimately, Bird’s model of Jewishness is no safeguard against modernizing Jesus; on the contrary, it provides access to the ‘postmodern’ multicultural Jesus Bird requires, or at least a barrier to the very Jesus Bird does not require.