Jesus on My Mind [1]

As a staff member of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Calgary, my duties include the teaching of introductory courses in "Western Religions," including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Coming to North America with a specialized Israel training in Jewish Studies, I was at first quite daunted by the prospect of having to teach Christianity to classes that consisted largely of Christians. In a reputed "Bible belt" like Alberta I anticipated some friction with fundamentalist students, and I recall assuring my first class that since I could not expect to avoid offending somebody, I would at least try to offend everybody in equal proportions.

In researching the material for my courses I became more and more overwhelmed by the feeling that as a Jew I had a different perspective on the text than was standard in the Christian world. I felt that these records were largely internal Jewish documents, saturated in the realities of first-century Eretz Israel and full of allusions to a variety of political, religious and halakhic questions.

The subjects are familiar to those who have been brought up in the literature and lifestyles of Talmudic Judaism. But could they possibly mean anything significant to someone from outside the fold of traditional Judaism?

Closely related to these thoughts was the conviction that Jesus was after all a Jew, no less so than any of the other assorted Jewish sectarians, reformers and revivalists who proliferated during the Second Temple era, and had relatively little connection with the religion that was to build up around him.

I was aware that the above approach, which draws a sharp division between the actual teachings of Jesus and the religion called Christianity, is fairly conventional in historical studies of early Christianity, which have long distinguished between "the historical Jesus" and "the Christ of faith." I was, however, unsure to what extent such a perspective had filtered down to the level of the undergraduate classroom.

Sharing a Jewish View

In the three years that have elapsed since those initial hesitations I have come to realize that much of what I had thought was a peculiarly Jewish slant on Christian history has come to be part of the standard presentation current in universities and liberal seminaries.

Christians have also become very sensitive to several points that have given offence to Jews. Thus, it is now common to find non-Jewish writers employing the neutral dating system B.C.E. / C.E. (Common Era / Before Common Era), rather than the theologically loaded B.C. / A.D., which translate respectively as as "before the messiah" and "year of our Lord," and presuppose the messiah-ship and divinity of Jesus.

Our Bible is also referred to in these circles as the "Hebrew Bible," or even "Tanakh," rather than as "Old Testament," which implies the existence of a superseding "new" testament.

On a more substantive level, the first generations of Jewish Christians are depicted as a "Jesus movement" within Judaism, rather than as a distinct religion. A possible indication of this tendency to distinguish between the teachings of Jesus and the religion of Christianity is to be found in the fact that textbooks on Christianity rarely devote more than three pages to Jesus' life or teachings. Christian scholars have been taking the trouble to study the classics of rabbinic literature in order to understand Jesus against the background of his contemporary Jewish society.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
In general, then, Christian scholarship has been very careful to dissociate itself from the more glaring anti-Jewish versions of Jesus' life. The most virulent attacks, they argue, should be seen as reflections of the intense rivalries between Jew and Christian in the generations following Jesus' time when the Gospels were being composed. The Gospel of John, perhaps the most vocally anti-Jewish work in the New Testament, is sometimes regarded as an embarrassment to liberal Christians, and we rarely hear them making sweeping references to "the Jews" as a monolithic entity.

Ironically, in trying to minimize the differences between Jesus and his Pharisaic contemporaries it is not uncommon for scholars to veer to the other extreme. Having combed talmudic literature and discovered hundreds of rabbinic parallels to Jesus' teachings, scholars find themselves at a loss to discern any significant difference between the two. If Jesus was really so much like the Pharisees then why the big fuss about him?

The "Poor Carpenter"

In spite of this general willingness to discard traditional anti-Semitic stereotyping, there are a number of details that have attached themselves to Jesus' biography, which make assumptions about Jews and Judaism that are much more subtle, though no less disturbing. In some cases, we have become so accustomed to these details, that they strike us as perfectly innocent--until we see the uses to which they are put (as I have learned from listening to my students and reading their essays).

For example, who is not familiar with the description of Jesus as "a poor carpenter?" Taken by itself this assertion sounds perfectly obvious and harmless. Beneath the surface however lurk some troubling implications.

The first problem that comes to mind is that the New Testament itself does not indicate anywhere that Jesus was regarded as poor. In the context of Galilean Jewish society at his time--a community composed largely of small olive and grape farmers and seasonal field workers--a carpenter would have been considered a very comfortable and mobile profession.

The fact that such an unfounded "aggadic" detail is added to the traditional Christian perception of their founder need not trouble us of itself. It certainly is in keeping with other documented aspects of Jesus' teaching which emphasize his appeal to the lower classes and social outcasts.

But here too we must recognize that, from the perspective of Jewish society, "outcasts" were not necessarily poor. Quite the contrary, Jesus seems to have been antagonizing his contemporaries largely because of his over-familiarity with the wealthy tax farmers ("publicans"), Jewish collaborators with the Roman occupiers who became rich off the sufferings of their countrymen.

Jesus' alleged poverty takes on more disturbing overtones when used in such contexts as, "the learned Jewish scribes did not wish to listen to the preaching of this poor carpenter from Galilee." The implication is clearly that a Pharisaic scholar could not have been a carpenter, poor or otherwise.

Aside from the fact that this is simply untrue--the Jewish sages at this period in history were normally craftsmen and field workers, and Jewish law then prohibited accepting payment for religious instruction--one wonders what the authors of such statements imagined that the Pharisees did do for their livings.

From my own experiences with students, I have often discovered that beneath such innocent-sounding sentences is likely to be lurking a classic medieval anti-Semitic stereotype. The Pharisees, according to the unarticulated presumptions of otherwise well-meaning Christians, must have been wealthy bankers, business executives, or (Lord preserve us!) university professors!

Pioneer Feminist?

A similar cliché that I have been encountering quite frequently (and not only from students) has it that "The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus spent so much time in the company of women." Once again the implication is that "real" Jews were hostile to women and that Jesus thereby takes on the appearance of a pioneer feminist.

Here again the least of the difficulties with this thesis is the fact that it is not supported by any New Testament sources. Christian scripture is not reticent about listing Jewish objections to Jesus, and had this been an issue it would undoubtedly have been mentioned somewhere.

It is evident that what we have here is another instance of twisting the evidence in order to present Judaism in a disadvantageous light. The truth is of course that neither Jesus nor the Pharisees seem to present a very consistent picture as regards their attitudes to women. In either case one can easily produce texts or interpretations to support both sexist and egalitarian readings.

The above instances should alert us to how deep and complex are the roots of Christian anti-Semitism--and I do not wish to imply by any means that equivalent factors do not colour our own attitudes towards Christianity. Even with the most sincere of intentions, and even with the progress which has been made, it will prove very difficult to eradicate the unconscious strata of anti-Jewish feeling that have grown up over the centuries.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JS, Aug. 25 1989.