Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Review of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament by Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Part 3

Chapter 2 – Results of Ignorance: Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus

Cook divides the history of this topic into six periods. It’s not a bad overview. The first historical period Cook treats is the period of Jesus’ ministry. Here Cook maintains that we can know little of what Jews of that day actually thought about Jesus, because our sources—the gospels—are separated from the original events chronologically, geographically, demographically (that is, more Gentiles than Jews were Christians by first century’s end), and ideologically (anti-Jewish bias in the gospels). I’ll address Cook’s historical minimalism as the review progresses, as well as the idea that the gospels reflect anti-Jewish bias. At this point, note that Cook finds the available sources, which he restricts to the gospels, highly problematic as historical evidence.

Period two takes us to the end of the second century, where our sources remain few. We have Josephus in his famous Testimonium, which in its current form is recognized to reflect Christian interpolation. We have the gospels, where Cook seems willing to accept its portrayal of negative non-Christian Jewish views of Jesus, but Cook is silent on positive portrayals (Joseph of Arimathea; the 3,000 and 5,000 (or increasing to a total of 5,000) who came to believe in Acts 2:41 and 4:4, who were certainly therefore favorable towards Jesus before they came to faith; and the multitudes of Jewish people who listened to him favorably (Matthew 7:28-29). Finally, he mentions Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, where he is correct to see the dialogue, whether a literary invention or not, as reflective of actual argumentation that was taking place. The portrait of Jewish views skews toward the negative; the truth was that Jews responded negatively and positively, with the development of “border lines” between Judaism and Christianity being solidified more by the leadership on each side than by the man in the street. And note that just as there were Jews in the first and second centuries whose positive attitudes towards Jesus led to official negative responses, later on (e.g. in the days of John Chrysostom) we encounter the phenomenon of philo-Semitic Christians visiting synagogues and observing Jewish holidays, leading to a hardening of the positions by church leadership. Thus borders solidified on both sides of the fence.

The third period is that of early rabbinic literature, roughly the 3rd through 6th centuries. There is a substantial literature on the phenomenon of “Jesus in the Talmud,” with voices on the spectrum between maximalist and minimalist positions (that is, those who find all alleged references to Jesus in the Talmud to be actual references and those who do not). Here we find the beginnings of the ideas that Jesus was a sorcerer, a blasphemer, and an enticer of Israel. Again the evidence is skewed to the negative. “Mindful that some Jews had been lured into Christian ranks, the rabbis denounced Jesus for attempting to ‘entice and lead Israel astray…’” (p. 15). The term “lured” sounds like a retrojection of modern Jewish attitudes towards Christian missionaries and implies some sort of deceit in the presentation of Jesus during this period. It’s an anachronistic term in that environment; the rabbinic label of ‘enticement’ was based more on the rabbis’ perception that Jesus had arrogated God’s prerogatives to himself thereby promulgating idolatry. Again, too, Cook fails to mention any of the positive or neutral references to interactions between Jewish believers in Jesus and the larger Jewish community (see the recent Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik [Henderson, 2007]). To be fair, it is mostly recently that the imbalance is being addressed in scholarship, though the cry against the “lachrymose” view of Jewish-Christian relations—as one of little but persecution on the part of the Christians—goes back to Salo Baron.

In period four we find ourselves in the Middle Ages. The well-known medieval disputations tell little of what the man in the street thought of Jesus. For that, we can go to the Toledot Yeshu, a medieval parody of the gospels’ Jesus story, a counter-narrative that has lasted in Jewish minds well into the twentieth century. Cook here acknowledges that the Toledot “misdirected” Jewish thinking about Jesus. What was said above about the lachrymose view of Jewish history applies perhaps even more strongly in this period.

The fifth period is the mid-1800s on, the period of the “First Quest for the Historical Jesus.” The Jewish context of Jesus was rediscovered, and Jesus was fixed within the orbit of Judaism and the charge at his trial reconfigured to be sedition; while Paul, not Jesus was the “bad guy” (not Cook’s term) who spun off Christianity as a separate religion.

Finally, the sixth period is right now: a “split” has developed among Jews between those willing to expose themselves to the subject of Jesus and those who are not so willing. Cook wants the refuseniks, so to speak, to enter the discussion. Yet there is also another, possibly more important split, that has to do not with willingness to engage, but—among those who do engage—with to what extent they see Christianity, Paul included, as inherently Jewish (even if they disagree with the message) or to what extent they see faith in Jesus for Jews, and the existence of Jewish believers in Jesus, as valid. In other words, attitudes are the beginning point; but once established, we still have matters of content to deal with, and that can be as polarizing as the matter of attitude.

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