Giving the Jewish Jesus his Religion Back

As a pragmatic discipline, history’s task is to take account of evidence both prior to and after any historical figures. Events and people are known by their antecedents and their results. We have already seen that Aslan and Vermes do not like the result of the Trinity, but what is more disturbing is that they also bypass an assessment of the basic message of Jesus and its antecedents in Judaism.

See Also: Just War in Religion and Politics (edited with Jacob Neusner and Robert E. Tully; Lanham: University Press of America, 2013)
The Way of Jesus. To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010).

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
November 2013

Two recent books on Jesus illustrate a dramatic change in scholarship that the past fifty years have brought. Geza Vermes and Reza Aslan demonstrate this change, not in what they say, but by their silence. Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze” captures the situation. When Inspector Gregory asks Sherlock Holmes whether any particular point in the investigation should be followed through, Holmes replies that the curious incident of the dog in the night-time would merit attention. Perplexed, Gregory observes that the dog did nothing. “That was the curious incident,” Homes concludes. Someone known to the dog had come in the night to try to injure the racehorse named Silver Blaze.

In their studies, both Geza Vermes and Reza Aslan proceed on the assumption that Jesus can only be understood as located with Judaism. That was once a controversial perspective, but today scarcely a dog in the night would bark to dispute the position. Prior to the Second World War, a German scholar sympathetic to the Third Reich had argued that Jesus, from “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1), was not even Jewish. A great reversal has taken place, not simply because contemporary politics have changed, but also because scholarship since the seventeenth century has steadily shown that Judaism was not merely the “background” of Jesus and his movement, but their first environment.

The portraits that Vermes and Aslan draw are different, but they rely on this fundamental shift in scholarship. Vermes takes up the comparison that George Foot Moore had earlier made between Jesus and a rabbi called Hanina ben Dosa, a healer of the first century. (See Moore’s Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era [1927]). But that is only the staring point in Geza Vermes, Christian Beginnings. From Nazareth to Nicaea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). Vermes believes that Paul converted Jesus, originally a “charismatic” teacher (a term explained below), into the form of myth of a dying and rising god. Paul’s view, however, was only a preamble to the way in which there is in John’s Gospel “a clearer proclamation of the divinity of Jesus than anywhere else in the New Testament” (p. 132) by means of its theology of the logos or Word of God.

Half of Vermes’s volume is devoted to the argument up until this point. Then he treats of the Didache and Barnabas, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Polycarp, Hermas, Diognetus, Justin, Melito, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and finally Nicean Christology. He believes all this leads to a call for “a new ‘reformation’, zealous to reach back to the pure religious vision and enthusiasm of Jesus, the Jewish charismatic messenger of God, and not to the deifying message Paul, John and the church attributed to him” (p. 242).

Aslan starts from a different point, but arrives at a similar conclusion. Where Vermes relies on George Foot Moore’s work on Hanina, Aslan devotes himself to the perspective of S.G.F. Brandon in drawing a comparison between Jesus and the zealots in their revolt against Rome. Aslan’s title, Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013) in a kind of homage to Brandon’s Jesus the the Zealots (1967) and an earlier book by Robert Eisler (1929-30). This leads Aslan to the opinion that “the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history” in the vagaries of Trinitarian dogma (p. 216).

Neither of these authors needs much time to dispense with the Trinity: Aslan does the job in three and quarter pages (pp. 213-216), while Vermes takes nine (pp. 223-234). Vermes thinks of the doctrine as the outcome of “a big clerical row” ( p. 227), while Aslan portrays it as the decision of “balding, grey-bearded old men” (p. 213). Obviously, their dedication to history stops well short of any treatment of the convictions, disputes, and interpretations that fed into the Council of Nicea. Whether one likes the creed of Nicea or not, its central focus on the question of genuine being (ousia) behind the world of perception, an inheritance from Platonism, needs to be explained before one can even understand what it is saying.

No doubt Aslan and Vermes would prefer to be judged, not on their rejection of the Trinity (however ill-informed their contentions seem), but rather on their conceptions of Jesus on the basis of historical evidence. They represent the steady return to the criteria of history, rather than theory, to the foreground of study of Jesus over the past few decades. Appeals to Jesus’ alleged mentality as a Cynic philosopher, or his true status as a spirit-filled guide, popularized towards the end of the last century by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, have receded in favor of pragmatic assessment of what interpretations best take account of all the evidence to hand.

Just that measure, however, shows us the basic weakness in both books. As a pragmatic discipline, history’s task is to take account of evidence both prior to and after any historical figures. Events and people are known by their antecedents and their results. We have already seen that Aslan and Vermes do not like the result of the Trinity, but what is more disturbing is that they also bypass an assessment of the basic message of Jesus and its antecedents in Judaism.

Virtually every scholar engaged with Jesus has acknowledged that his message focused on what he called “the kingdom of God.” Recent research has proven that this phrase, originally Aramaic, was widely used in the time before, during, and after Jesus. (A full discussion is available in a recent introduction to the Aramaic versions of the Bible, which I wrote with Paul Flesher: The Targums ). Neither Aslan nor Vermes acknowledges this evidence; each prefers to fall back on the old, now provably inaccurate, claim that the phrase was not well known in Judaism.

What repels them in the Aramaic phrase, “kingdom of God” is that it contradicts their pictures of Jesus. Aslan wants him to be a nationalist, and the phrase in fact was not used in a political way, but to assert divine influence over the whole of life. In particular, God’s kingdom was held by Jesus and other Aramaic teachers to involve purity, and this helps explain Jesus’ intervention in the Temple, a factor Aslan ignores. Vermes wants Jesus to follow the definition of a “charismatic leader” set out by the German sociologist Max Weber, which excludes traditional influences. Since “kingdom of God” is at least as old as the Psalms (see 103:19, for example), that is a difficult contention to argue, unless you ignore evidence to the contrary.

As I pointed out in an earlier essay in Bible & Interpretation (In My View: from “The Historical Jesus” to understanding Jesus, historically), how we prefer to think about Jesus should not determine the results of historical research concerning what he said and did. You might like him to be an ideological figure of some sort, a champion of the Trinity or a poster child for charisma or a political activist, but his signature concern for the kingdom of God shows that his motives were in fact religious. He anticipated that his followers would put into action the same care for one another and for enemies that God displayed, as part of the global transformation that he believed was unfolding. You might like or dislike his vision, but it is not quite honest to cover it up with truncated history.

Bruce Chilton, Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College, directs the Institute of Advanced Theology there, which recently hosted a conference with the United States Military Academy at West Point, published as Just War in Religion and Politics: Studies in Religion and the Social Order (edited with Jacob Neusner and Robert E. Tully; Lanham: University Press of America, 2013). His most recent book on Jesus is The Way of Jesus. To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010).

Comments (6)

A welcome reminder of the importance of the Kingdom idea. However, some queries.
Here we have, it seems to me, an example of what I would call 'fixed point' historical method, the fixed point here being that there existed someone called Jesus whose principal idea was the Kingdom. Aslan seems to me to work from another point claimed to be fixed and certain, Roman hostility to Jesus.
I tend to think that each point that people treat as fixed begins to shift when the whole weight of interpretation is put on it. That is why the problem of Jesus is so difficult.
If there was a pre-Jesus movement, apparent from the Targums, to emphasise the idea of the Kingdom then it may well be that this movement has left its mark on the New Testament. But if we have to look to one particular element of the Jewish world in order to perceive this movement we might not think that the idea was really established and generally understood in a distinct form. If it was in use but not too well defined then it is not so useful in drawing a clear picture of Jesus: that is to say it offers us less of a fixed point than we might have hoped.
I would hesitate before thinking that the Evangelists expected most of their intended readership to be aware, even vaguely, of ideas whose main expression is in the Targums.
Moreover, if the Kingdom was such an absolutely central idea for Jesus, why is there variation even in wording, ie between 'of God' and 'of the heavens?'. Why does it not play such a central role for Paul or for John? And why are its characteristics rather puzzling - it is within us, hard for the rich to enter, possessed by violent men?
All in all I'm not sure that the importance of the Kingdom in the Gospels does not really preclude either a Jesus who charismatically reinterprets a rather flexible idea according to his own inspiration or a Jesus who gives it a political, even a nationalist spin.

#1 - Martin - 11/17/2013 - 16:31

I am not a biblical scholar, so I hope my question is not too naive. Is there a problem with viewing Jesus as someone whose politics were infused with religious zeal. Must it be one or the other?

#2 - renee hack - 11/20/2013 - 23:36

As far as I can see, renee, Professor Chilton considers that Jesus held to a form of religious zeal that was incompatible with political activism in the normal sense because it was centred on the idea of a 'kingdom' that called for the moral purity and religious devotion of individuals and regarded other things as at least secondary. I would accept that this is a possible understanding of the facts behind the NT narrative but I would also think that problems arise with it, as I mentioned above.

#3 - Martin - 11/24/2013 - 19:47

Renee, that is an insightful question, not a naive one. As Martin rightly discusses, biblical scholars tend to focus on one idea of Jesus described in the NT. The problem is, The NT is many faceted. That is why there are so many different Jesus protrayals by different scholars.

Frankly, is it silly to dismiss others' focal point and assert your own. Especially when your reasoning is a Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

#4 - Mark Erickson - 11/25/2013 - 12:28

I think Professor Chilton miss represents Professor Vermes positon on the Kingdom of God. Professor Vermes states the the Concept of the Kingdo of God is a concept dating back to the Hebrew scriptures and is a central part of the proclamations of Jesus. I don't understand how being a "Charismatic" teacher is at odds with the proclamtion of the Kingdom of God.

I don't quite understand Professor Chiltion's criticism of Professor Vermes position on the Trinity. I think Vermes lays out the history of the formation of the trinity correctly. The history is the same weather you agree or disagree with the concept.

#5 - Duane Patterson - 12/04/2013 - 19:10

Just briefly to respond to a few comments. Variation of wording between "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of the heavens" is well established in both the New Testament and Judaic sources. Focus on that concept by no means excludes 'zeal." In fact, "zeal" is attributed to Jesus over the issue where he used violence: the Temple. New Testament scholars discovered this connection; to claim that they have not seen Jesus in terms of zeal is just not true. In particular, I have shown the violent dimension of the teaching of the kingdom. That becomes clear in the Aramaic sources, which Vermes ignores.

#6 - Bruce Chilton - 12/09/2013 - 13:29

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