The Missing Jesus: Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament

(edited by B. D. Chilton, C.A. Evans and J. Neusner;Boston: Brill, 2002)

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
May 2003

    How can Jesus is be said to be “missing”? Christians have developed their conceptions of Jesus for nearly two millennia, and the world of scholarship has seen a renaissance in the study of Jesus over the past twenty-five years. In fact, Jesus’ place in popular culture has been surprisingly prominent as a result of recent historical study. What is “missing” is not by any means reference to Jesus: what is missing is rather an entire dimension of his identity. In order for us to understand Jesus and his profound influence on global culture, we need to see him within the context of the Judaism that was his own natural environment. No one can be assessed apart from one’s environment, but a variety of factors have isolated the study of Jesus from the study of Judaism. The “missing” Jesus is Jesus within Judaism.

    Scholars over the past decade have called attention to this problem, especially in response to the work of “The Jesus Seminar,” as we discuss in this book. It represents a forum convened at Bard College, under the sponsorship of the Crohn Family Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Max Richter Foundation. I am obliged to our sponsors and to Brill Academic Publishers for the opportunity to develop the forum and for the trust they placed in me.

    Professor Jacob Neusner, the preeminent Judaist of his generation and my colleague at Bard College, co-chaired the forum, and together we invited Professor Herbert Basser and Professor Craig Evans to join us. But our work was not limited to the invitation of speakers and limited discussion, the norm in universities and colleges today. Professor Neusner and I are dissatisfied with the standard model of academic conferences, and we have devised a more searching and interactive model at Bard College. We taught a course which ran parallel to the conference so that the students were prepared in advance. That was possible because the invited speakers were gracious enough to provide drafts of their presentations long before the conference convened.

    We have used this model before, both at Bard and at the University of South Florida, where Professor Neusner once held an appointment. The level of engagement that the students achieve is rewarding, and the effect on the lucidity of speakers is also notable. This volume represents the work of four scholars in close encounter with talented students, and we also include the responses of some of our academic colleagues from other institutions, who attended the conference, in some cases bringing their students with them. We believe that both the topic and the model of approaching it make this volume an innovative and stimulating contribution, and that the dialogue begun here represents the next phase in the critical study of Jesus.

    In this work, we wish to lay out certain basic results, and fundamental, continuing approaches, which elucidate the identity of Jesus within Judaism. In his introduction, “Finding a Context for Jesus,” Professor Craig Evans orients readers within the lay of the land and then in his essay, “The Misplaced Jesus,” he attacks the tendency of North American scholarship to propose an implausibly Hellenistic portrait of Jesus. I probe complementary aspects of the question of context and location in a response to his work called “Mapping a Place for Jesus,” underscoring the tendency in scholarship and popular discussion to neglect the Judaic dimension of Jesus’ identity.

    In his essay, “Contexts of Comparison: Reciprocally Reading Gospels’ and Rabbis’ Parables,” Professor Neusner articulates a vigorous challenge to the practice of comparison as represented in the past. He insists that the effort to describe contacts, point by point, is doomed to failure, unless due account is taken of the profoundly distinct perspectives of Judaism and Christianity. Each of these great religions generates an entire view of the world, a definition of the people of God, ideals for the way of life, and those systemic visions are part and parcel of what they say in detail. Professor Neusner calls for a Copernican shift in the way in which we read the texts, and we have devoted two responses to it.

    First, Professor Gary Herion of Hartwick College explains how the discipline of biblical studies needs to learn from the discipline of the critical study of religion that Professor Neusner has so ably developed. Then, Professor Herbert Basser of Queen’s University undertakes an analysis of the connections between Jesus and the Rabbis in regard to the Sabbath. His approach takes account of the theoretical cautions offered by Professor Neusner and of the historical complexity involved in evaluating Jewish sources that evolved over several centuries, but it is also concrete and detailed in its exposition of a single issue. Professor Evans responds in essential agreement but underscores the importance of antecedent scriptural traditions.

    My first essay is entitled “Getting it Right: James, Jesus, and Questions of Sanctity.” One of the most persistent failures in the study of Jesus in the modern period has been that scholars have not taken account of how the Gospels came into being. “Conservative” scholars assume that the texts are historical and read Jesus directly off the pages of the texts as much as they can, while “liberal” scholars put the texts at the mercy of whatever view of Jesus they believe is to be preferred. Such orientations fly in the face of one of the most secure finding of critical research in the modern period: the Gospels are neither chronicles of history nor inventions of faith, but interpretations of Jesus for distinct communities. We need to get to know the communities that the traditions in the Gospels were directed toward and which shaped those traditions prior to their incorporation into the Gospels, if we are to understand what they say.

    No one can understand a statement apart from an appreciation of who is saying it, where, and why. Of all those who shaped Christianity during its emergent period, no teacher was more important, none is more thoroughly misunderstood today, than James, the brother of Jesus. “Getting it Right” seeks to remedy that situation, and Professor Scott Langston of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary masterfully spells out the implications for the interpreter in his response.

    My second essay, “Jesus within Judaism,” sets out the story of how, despite the work of scholars over several centuries, the study of Judaism has been marginalized in the study of Jesus and Christian origins. The purpose of that discussion is to suggest the approaches that may be opened up by a more critical orientation, as I developed them in my book, Rabbi Jesus.

    In all, we believe we are providing two services in this volume. First, we are redressing a serious imbalance in the portrait of Jesus, especially in North American. Second, we are setting out some of the lines of inquiry that will lead us to a more complete picture in the years to come. Together, these essays lay out the theoretical and tactical ways forward in improving the current perception of the historical Jesus.

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