Rabbi Jesus

A scholar argues that Jesus was not setting out to subvert or discredit Judaism, yet Jesus did want to change Judaism.

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College

    Everything significant about the man has influenced the civilization of the West for the better part of two millennia: his birth, teaching, actions, death, and the belief he was alive after he died. Today over a billion Christians around the world worship him.

    Yet Jesus’ biography remains veiled in enigma and controversy. What we know -- or think we know -- about him we cull from sources written a generation after his death (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), from the scholarship of theologians and historians, and from the fictional reconstructions of novelists like Norman Mailer and Nikos Kazantzakis. But for all the volumes that have been written about him, we know surprisingly little about the forces that shaped Jesus as a child or affected him as a man.

    How could his birth have been described by believers as miraculous, and by detractors as a shameful scandal? What kind of cultural environment formed his personality? Why does history first encounter him as a public, religious figure, not in his native Galilee, but near the Jordan River among the disciples of John the Baptist? Who was this John, and what caused Jesus both to follow him as a disciple and then to go his separate way? When and where did Jesus begin to develop his own following, so that he was recognized as a teacher -- a rabbi -- in his own right? What political forces brought him to Jerusalem, and ultimately to his death? How much did he discern of the dangers that awaited him there, and what did he believe he was doing when he shared his last meal with his disciples and spoke of the resurrection of the dead? Was their experience of Jesus as alive after his death an historical reality, or a figment of faith?

    All those basic questions have remained open, even while a growing consensus of scholarship has lain to rest the old secularist myth that Jesus was just a legendary figure. His influence continues to form and reform our culture, and yet he does not have a life of his own, because we have not yet put together the story of his development.

    Historical and archaeological research have illuminated the Judaism of his time in its wide variety, so here I put Jesus back into his own Jewish environment, and let the story of his development give him back his life. Jesus’ intimate story is told in terms of the growth and setback, the change and passion, the commitment and accident, the final struggle and dying breath, which is the common pattern of human biography. Rather than read the Gospels superficially, as texts either to be embraced as infallible or relativized as symbolic, I put them in the context of what was happening when they were written, which includes comparing them to early Jewish literature: the Torah and the Prophets in Hebrew, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Jewish historian Josephus. In particular, I have been involved over the past twenty-five years in the study of the Targums. These texts represent the oral Aramaic folk renderings of Scripture that Jesus, an illiterate, would have memorized and mastered, and which depart from the Hebrew texts in significant ways.

    As compared to previous work on Jesus, including my own, Rabbi Jesus sets out a new medium of investigation, by dealing with the evidence in a narrative context. I have decided on that approach for two principal reasons. First, the issue of development is crucial in the story of any human life. From the Synoptic Gospels to the most recent monograph, the dimension of Jesus’ change over time has been missing. Factoring that dimension in is a necessary condition of biography. Second, academic research has not been successful in tracing how Jesus’ influence eventually prompted the emergence of his movement as a religion distinct from Judaism. Understanding his development permits us to identify crucial religious factors, along with economic and social conditions, that generated Christianity.

    As I engaged in this work, however, I discovered what I have come to see as the underside of Jesus’ story. From the time of his birth, an emotional dialectic pushes and pulls through his life. One of the first things Jesus would have experienced as a child was rejection from Nazareth’s religious community. As a mamzer—one who could not prove that his birth came from a licit sexual union—Jesus would not have been allowed in synagogue, not even for his own father’s funeral. This rejection fueled a distrust of religious authority, as well as Jesus’ desire as an adolescent to follow John the Baptist in Judea, far from his native Galilee.

    With John, Jesus learned both a distinctive program of immersion (or baptism), typical of the Judaism of the period, and a tradition of meditation on the moving Throne of God, the Merkavah which the Hebrew Prophets had described. The Merkavah was the source of the Spirit of God, and John believed that his immersion brought access to that Spirit. In a painful break from John just prior to his teacher’s death, Jesus taught that God’s Spirit -- and with it the all powerful force of his kingdom, which would one day replace all human hegemony -- could be experienced apart from baptism, in the mealtime fellowship of Israelites. In his years as a rabbi, however, Jesus was not setting out to subvert or discredit Judaism, something that many Christians and Jews today believe. While he had contact with non-Jews throughout his life, Jesus was generally suspicious of gentiles and struggled to balance this xenophobia with his intuition that human beings, in the image of God, were pure by virtue of their God-given Spirit.

    Yet Jesus did want to change Judaism. It was his actions on this front—like the riot in the Temple, an attempt to enact the prophecy of Zechariah —that led to his death at the prodding of the High Priest Caiaphas, whose successful manipulation of Pontius Pilate is described in detail on the basis of Jewish and Roman sources. Crucial within that unfolding of events was Jesus’ declaration that the wine and bread served to his disciples during his last meals with them were his own sacrifice. In the Aramaic sense of his words, Jesus designated the wine he shared as the blood of sacrifice, and his bread the flesh which God preferred to what was offered in a corrupt Temple. The blasphemy he was accused of by many in Jerusalem, even some of his own followers, was a natural consequence of what he said.

    Jesus’ resurrection is not excluded from this biography, contrary to the fashion of recent work. His promise that those who joined him in the vision of God could know a life beyond death, comparable to the place of angels in the divine pantheon, was a distinctive part of his teaching. The careful discipline of seeing God he fashioned during his life, and conveyed to his chosen disciples, was a necessary condition of their experience that God had raised him from the dead.

    Rabbi Jesus is the only biography by a scholar to present a coherent narrative of Jesus’ life from his birth until his death, including his often-neglected adolescent years. By looking through the prism of the Hebrew and Aramaic sources, we are able to see where Jesus got his ideas and why he acted as he did. The story provides a picture of not only this extraordinary man’s life, but also of the society in which Jesus lived, as he himself would have experienced it.

    "As a non-Jew—and a priest at that—I will doubtless make both Jews and Christians apprehensive with Rabbi Jesus," I admit in the Foreword. "So inculcated are the taboos in our culture, so visceral the abyss between Judaism and Christianity, that it is almost as if I am cross-dressing, transgressing basic categories that define who we are and how we differentiate ourselves in the world. But my hope is that Rabbi Jesus can point the way across the perilous gulf of artificial ideologies and misguided animus that has divided Jews and Christians (and different sects within Christianity) from one another."

    Bruce Chilton is a scholar of early Christianity and Judaism, who has authored the first critical translation of the Aramaic version of Isaiah (The Isaiah Targum, 1987), as well as academic studies that put Jesus in his Jewish context (The Temple of Jesus, 1992; Pure Kingdom, 1996). He has taught in Europe at the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Münster), and in the United States at Yale and Bard College. Currently Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard, he also directs the Institute of Advanced Theology there. Throughout his career, he as also been active in the pastoral ministry of the Anglican, and is presently priest to the Free Church of St. John the Evangelist.

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