Emic or Etic? Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures

A tangential issue that must be addressed is the idea that the negative language the gospels direct against Jews represents nothing more than a family squabble, or conflicts between different groups of first century Jews, and does not reflect Gentile Christians speaking ill of Jews. The evidence offered below indicates that the etic readings of Judaism by the writers of the Synoptic gospels were not part of either mainstream Judaism or any identifiable Jewish sub-group of the era. The ideology presented in these gospels is clearly Christo-centric, and the points being made far too often fit a Roman or Hellenistic context to sustain the idea that we are reading nothing more than the saga of some Jews involved in a petty dispute. In addition, the church fathers, who were certainly not Jewish, had no difficulty in using the NT to denigrate Judaism in a most derogatory fashion. This they could do without the necessity of rephrasing as Gentiles what they read in a Jewish New Testament. All they needed to do was to take seriously the NT on its own terms as they read and understood it. As it stood, it fit well with the decidedly non-Jewish world views and cultures of the church fathers.

See Also: How Jews and Christians Interpret Their Sacred Texts (Resource Publications, 2014).

By Charles David Isbell
Director of Jewish Studies
Louisiana State University
July 2015

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.

Comments (3)

You question (as do I) whether the apparent anti-Jewish orientation of the Synoptists is but intra-Jewish (“in house”) bickering.

I relate this, however, to Gerald Darring’s citation of even Christian scholars who designate the Gospels’ influence as a “precondition,” “contributing ingredient,” “prelude,” “matrix,” “germ-carrier,” “seed-bed,” “groundwork for,” “motivation for,” or “supplied the climate or context for” the Holocaust.

A doctrinal commitment to the Gospels as necessarily written in the language of love safeguards the Gospel writers themselves from responsibility for later anti-Jewish deductions. So also does the inference that apparent Gospel animosity toward Jews-rejecting-Jesus must be IN EVERY CASE a post-Gospel MIS-understanding of what was merely Jewish in-house squabbling.

As in commonly insisted, trends in Gospel interpretation are influenced, even unconsciously, by events in our own times. What MAY be at stake in the “intra-family” squabbling theory is even an unconscious disposition to trace the Synoptics’ anti-Jewish orientation solely to post-Gospel MIS-interpretation.

Even genuinely Jewish dimensions of earliest Jewish-Christian belief could have been enlisted and reworked or overlaid to reflect, and solve, problems of the Synoptists’ day, not Jesus’: processes I have coined as “Gospel Dynamics” (in my “Modern Jews Engage the New Testament”); and the problems addressed strike me as often those faced by GENTILE-Christian writers.

If not all your individual proposals are accepted, nonetheless the critical mass of what would remain is formidable. The pendulum toward “in-house bickering” has swung too far. I hope others weigh your most challenging piece, one that I myself certainly will keep handy and assign my students. Thank you!

Michael J Cook,
Bronstein Prof. of Judeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati

#1 - Michael J. Cook - 07/11/2015 - 15:40

There is a counsel-for-the-prosecution, polemical edge to this discussion that I find disturbing, though maybe salutary.
The term 'emic' is used in two senses here, a) to mean 'objectively authentic' and b)'intended to be authentic'. The question of whether the NT's own polemics are emic =family-quarrel material or etic = a critique by a rival family involves sense b). I suppose we might watch a powerful family drama in which we feel that one character is betraying the family's ideals whilst also passionately believing that he is upholding them - and whilst actually being a real cousin who has had the same education as the others.
I can't see any explanation of Christian origins which does not involve some theologians, a minority of their kind perhaps, taking the view that the Scriptures have within their own resources the means to satisfy the spiritual needs of people who had appreciated the powerful but imperfect ideas of Hellenistic philosophy, that a great leader with special authority was required to bring humanity in the required direction, that the scriptures would help identify that God-sent person and that God had duly obliged.
I don't think this basic approach, which resulted in Christianity. are either objectively preposterous or plainly inauthentic - against the prevalent spirit - in the world of 'Hellenistic Judaism', where there was plenty of exchange of ideas. I think it could be regarded as emic in both the senses I mention.
Of course other approaches to the development of the Scriptural teachings and ethos in the Roman world developed and it is to some of these that the name Judaism has become firmly attached. Their claim to authenticity and emicity is no doubt strong too.
It's undeniable that the Christians got themselves into some hermeneutical tangles. Paul - or the Pauline persona emerging from some generations of editing - has to say that the scriptures call on us to regard the Mosaic law as for a time only, while also claiming to be as authentically Jewish as the next man. This is a claim to emicity in sense b) and if someone sincerely claims that kind of emicity it is hard to contradict: he does of course have quite a lot of 'splaining to do if he is to make out his emicity in sense a). But then theologians can be very ingenious.
I think that the argumentation about the shining and fading of Moses' face may be slightly too ingenious but it's not stupid, is even at some points beautiful. Maybe you wouldn't agree.
I think you push some points a bit hard, as prosecuting counsel would. It's not particularly hard to believe that Jesus would have, as an aside, remarked on the divorce laws of the non-Jewish world: his Jewish audience might not have been too displeased to hear that these laws only encouraged adultery. I really don't see that mamzers come into it, even if the relevant laws were indeed generally observed at that time. There is no hint that Jesus was considered by public opinion to be anything but Joseph's son, as Luke explicitly says. If there were no cases when a woman who was known by one or two family members to be pregnant was accepted by a doting or scheming husband who would treat the baby as his own, I would, as our British politicians say, eat my hat.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 07/15/2015 - 20:50

I just returned from a short vacation and found the two comments above. I want to say first that I appreciate what Prof Cook says, and accept as valid his note that some of my points are stronger than others. I should have noted that I am not a NT scholar and make no pretense of being current with the latest in NT scholarship. I also want to take a good look at his book, in the hope that it might bring me more up-to-date with the NT work of fellow Jews. But for his kind appreciation of the overall tenor of what I was suggesting, I am grateful.

Now the response of Professor Hughes is a different issue for me. I do not doubt that a Christian reader can sense a sharp edge to some of the points I raise, as I am certain he realizes the same feeling on my part at some of the more strident characterizations of "da Jews" in the gospels. I think it is unfortunate that we are unable to discuss honest differences without a bit of such edges. I can only assure Dr. Hughes that I know of no way to remove such feelings of tightness (I do not intend to be polemical!) when the other guy summarizes our home team's position (on BOTH sides, I stress). I do not agree with his division of "emic" into two parts defined as he does. For me, emic cannot be equated with "authentic," nor etic with inauthentic. I know of numerous "Jewish" interpretations that are insider to the core but which simply leave me unfazed and un-convinced. My point was much narrower. The claim that follows the first post-NT generation of Christians is that the NT is THE proper Jewish interpretation of all things scriptural and all that this implies. And it order to make this claim, the church fathers did not need to appeal to a rereading of the NT. But perhaps that is my etic view of Christianity (from the outside), authentic and workable for me, but surely not for others.
Thanks to both Profs. Cook and Hughes for their thoughtful and insightful comments.
Charles David Isbell

#3 - Charles David Isbell - 07/20/2015 - 20:53

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.