Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Post-Holocaust Era in New Testament Studies - Le Donne

Several months ago, I argued that the standard "Quests" paradigm is misleading. You can read my thoughts herehere and here. Yesterday, as a follow up to the comments on this post (and the comments is where the action be), I suggested that the so-called "Third Quest" had a few interesting quirks, but wasn't all that innovative.  It could be that the most innovative thing that happened in Jesus studies during this period was the love affair that we had with the word "Quest".  Referring to this essay, I wrote:
'Jesus the Jew' has the been the key to rendering Jesus as a historical construction from Augustine onward. When we take a long view (one that includes Josephus, the Talmud, Spinoza, Ya'avetz, Joseph Klausner, David Flusser, etc.) the non-Jewish portraits from Renan to Kasemann do not represent an era before the "Third Quest". These non-Jewish portraits are failed attempts to hold back a 2000-year tide.
To this, Larry the likable Lawyer loquated:
...the Third Quest would be important as a repudiation of the anti-Jewishness of the Second Quest. We're well rid of the idea that the "authentic" Jesus can be found in his least Jewish sayings and doings.
I think Larry is absolutely correct on this point. In fact, I think that we've arrived at the heart of the issue. Perhaps we should be talking about modern Jesus research in terms of pre-Holocaust and post-Holocaust eras.

The impact of the Holocaust has been noticed in Pauline studies for a while now.  The New Perspective folks have sometimes been *accused* of reshaping Paul's theology and ancient Judaism in counterbalance to German Anti-Judaism.  In other words, perhaps our New Perspective friends overcompensated for the supersessionism and anti-Judaism of the previous era.  Keep in mind that it really wasn't until the mid-sixties that Jews and Christians could talk about the theological wheels in that machine (however, see now this Meisterst├╝ck).  It took all of that time to emerge from the ruins and arrive at a place of reflection (Martin Buber being the remarkable exception - pursuing dialogue with Christians sooner than most).  So maybe Sanders' conventional nomism was a reaction to rock-bottom of western civilization.  Or, and this will betray my sympathies, maybe Sanders, Wright, Dunn et al. simply benefited from better conversation partners as a byproduct of Christianity's newly found sensitivity.

So why not talk about the impact that post-Holocaust sensitivities had on Jesus studies?  Isn't it true that the Jesuses of Sanders, Vermes, Hengel, Theissen, Flussser, Charlesworth, etc. emerge just when Jews and Christians begin talking frankly about the theological currents of the Holocaust?

To be clear, I do not think that Jesus' Jewishness was any great revelation after the catastrophes of National Socialism.  The historical Jesus has always been a construct built on (or in reaction to) popular understandings of first-century Judaism.  But pendulums swing and the Holocaust was force of gravity like few others.

11 comments:

  1. Yes. But this is an uncomfortable paradigm, in part because the so-called Second Quest is a firmly post-Shoah phenomenon. So you might call Kasemann the father of post-Shoah historical Jesus studies. I would also place you, Chris, Dale Allison and others like you within this post-Shoah tradition, perhaps as a third wave (marked more by your general postmodernism than your specific historiography).

    There's much to discuss here, including how most of western intellectual thought can be mapped pre and post-Shoah (we probably need to consider this pre and post also in terms of Hiroshima). But a key point in all this is how post-Shoah historical Jesus studies has (and is) being driven by theological concerns. Here, Kasemann deserves credit, because from the little I've read, Kasemann made these concerns explicit: he wanted an historical Jesus that would held the church stand firm against movements like the Nazis (and the Communists).

    Your comparison of Jesus studies to Paul studies is spot-on, and deserves to be developed further. Have folks like Dunn and Wright discussed this?

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    1. Thanks for this, Larry. Again you're right. I think we probably need to talk about post-Holocaust sensibilities rather than mere "post-Holocaust" - so a better subsection of the period is needed. Whatever the case, I think we're closer to the mark. I'll step aside now and let others chime in... curious to see what sort of traction I get on this.

      -anthony

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  2. While the focus of the last few decades on Jesus's (and Paul's) Jewish context was certainly long-overdue, I have to wonder: what exactly would it mean to appropriately describe Jesus's "Jewishness?" How would we know when we had done justice to the Jewish context, when we had found the "Jewish Jesus" that so-called Third Quest writers are constantly harping on about? We've had a whole slew of authors since Vermes and Sanders who have (rightly) declared the centrality of Jesus's Jewishness, and yet this acknowledgement has not led to any decline in the proliferation of different pictures of the historical Jesus.

    Scholars often talk about "Jesus the Jew" as if it were self-explanatory what that meant. Often the phrase carries the implication that we have a thorough, uncontroversial understanding of first-century Judaism and it is simply a matter of fitting Jesus into that neat picture. But the picture of Judaism which you find in Wright, Sanders, and so on, is one drawn almost exclusively from literary texts written by the elites of the day. There is nothing I find more frustrating than a discussion of the "Jewish context" of Jesus which considers the writings of Josephus, Philo, and the DSS Essenes constitute a window into the mind of Jesus and his followers. But in my view we really have very little idea how a Jew of Jesus's social and economic standing would have understood the "Jewish story" or "Jewish worldview" which Wright talks about with the frequency of a broken record. And Sanders constructs the context of "restoration eschatology" entirely on the basis of those same literary sources without even stopping to ask the question as to whether it is appropriate to attribute to Jesus the thoughts of elite authors.

    Unpacking scholarly rhetoric about the "Jewishness" of Jesus is of great importance to me, because accusations of a certain scholar's understanding of the historical Jesus as being "non-Jewish" are frequently used as weapon to dismiss reconstructions of Jesus without actually seriously inquiring into the arguments involved. Declarations of Jesus's Jewishness are also used by some scholars, such as Wright or Paula Fredriksen, to dismiss insights from the social sciences which Crossan, Borg, William Herzog and others have attempted to integrate into their work. It's hard not so see in some reconstructions of the "Jewish Jesus" the return of the old discredited notion of an iron divide between "Judaism" and "Hellenism," with the further implication that Judaism=good and Hellinism=bad.

    So one fundamental criticism I have of the so-called "Third Quest" is that its most prominent authors have failed to fully take into account the theoretical assumptions underlying their picture of the "Jewish context" of Jesus they talk so much about. To be clear, I do not for a moment question the appropriateness of trying to understand Jesus's Jewish context; I just get frustrated when scholars like Wright and the other so-called "Third Questers" reel off slogans about the Jewishness of Jesus as if they were self-explanatory.

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    1. Evan, I don't read the scholars you mention the way you do. You're right, saying that Jesus was a Jew doesn't tell us anything more about him than you know about me from knowing I am Jewish. There are and were many ways to be Jewish, and not everything a Jew says and does (then and now) is determined by Jewishness. We don't want to define Jesus by his context. In modern terms, that would "stereotype" Jesus. We have to make room for Jesus' particularities, and be wary of reasoning from what we know about a people to what we conclude about a person.

      I thing what when Wright and others emphasize the Jewish Jesus, they are doing this to disabuse us of the notion that Jesus was a Christian. Even I need to be reminded periodically that Jesus lived his life within Judaism as an observant and faithful Jew.

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  3. You quoted the locution of Larry the likeable Lawyer, "We're well rid of the idea that the 'authentic' Jesus can be found in his least Jewish sayings and doings." And you said he's correct on this point. Could it be argued that perhaps we don't quite understand Judaism like Jesus did, and therefore don't recognize some of his Jewishness and, instead, call that his "least Jewish" side? This argument works theologically too, it seems to me, since (many) Christians believe that the same God is on display in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

    All that aside, now that you mention it, it seems obvious that academic theology was greatly impacted by the holocaust. Excellent thought. And that makes me wonder about our current situation. What's our devotion to "political correctness" doing to theology and religious studies across the academic world?

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    1. John, you make good points. My point was to condemn a certain understanding of the criterion of dissimilarity, where a Jesus saying or doing was branded as suspect because it seemed too Jewish. I would instead promote what some call a criterion of contextual credibility, where we assume that Jesus' authentic sayings and actions should conform to the (Jewish) historical and social context of the world where he lived. Add to this the general disquiet we all feel in using these criteria and with the idea of authenticity ...

      But your point is a good one. We do not know enough about Jesus' Jewish context to apply either of the criteria I've mentioned with great confidence. I often find that, rather than using our knowledge of Judaism to flesh out the authentic Jesus, it's what I know about the historical Jesus that informs my understanding of first century Judaism.

      I personally don't believe in a mechanistic application of these criteria. They have to be used carefully, in a way that makes sense to us on a case-by-case basis. When we're reasonably confident about Jesus' Jewish context, I think we should examine Jesus materials and memories in that context. When we're not, we shouldn't. If the case falls between these extremes, we should talk.

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    2. John, the term "political correctness" is no longer politically correct. We now say "sensitivity challenged".

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  4. This all gets very complicated, fast. I do read enough of the authors mentioned and about trends of theology, etc. to follow the points here. And I find the issues "practical" in relation to various important beliefs of both Christians and non-Christians. It is certain "big points" that count, not the exact, more detailed description of Jesus' "identity" or social/religious/cosmic role.

    In terms of the 3 (or more) phases of Jesus scholarship, I was recently pleasantly surprised to read the later work of a scholar/humanitarian who may be said to span the first two phases with real mastery - Albert Schweitzer. Even a lot of lay people are familiar with his classic, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (tho few have read it... I bogged down and didn't finish it myself.) But it seems his posthumous work "The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity" is was not nearly as noticed or referenced although it is eminently more readable and probably at least as valuable. I found it very interesting and informative, despite decades of fairly in-depth study of "Jesus Scholarship" and its surrounding subjects.

    In terms of the present discussion, one of the most interesting things I found in the book was Schweitzer's footnote discussion of having changed only one major factor in his understanding of Jesus' own self-understanding. In the 45 years between 1906 and 1951 (date of finishing the later book, tho it wasn't published until after his death years later) he says he came to no longer
    believe that Jesus saw his death as an atoning sacrifice. Here is how I summarized the issue and quoted it in a blog review:
    "He notes that while writing the various editions of his The Quest... he had believed that Jesus, '... in accordance with the [Suffering] Servant passages, regarded his vicarious sacrifice as an atonement. As the result of further study of late Jewish eschatology and the thought of Jesus on his passion, I find that I can no longer endorse this view.'"

    He doesn't comment anywhere in the book, that I recall, about impacts on him or others of the Holocaust or German antisemitism (although German-born, he'd become a French citizen and resident mainly because of location and boundary issues prior to WWII). Maybe someone else knows if he did write about such issues... I've not read his other writings.

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    1. Natural,

      Schweitzer's impact on the discipline is indeed complicated. Thank you for bringing this discussion full circle (you might remember that I begin my revisionist history essay by contextualizing Schweitzer). It is one of western history's greater tragedies that he and his German contemporaries abandoned historical Jesus research when they did. That time and place needed a Jewish Jesus like no other.

      If indeed he never spoke about the Holocaust (and I do not have any comprehensive handle on his non-theological works) this would have been par for the course for German intelligentsia and Christians in general. Again, a tragic silence.

      Curious: does anyone know why Schweitzer never published "The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity" during his lifetime? Do any of his letters suggest a reason for this?

      -anthony

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    2. Anthony,

      There are some remarks in the preface to the edition of "The Kingdom of God..." that I read (but don't own) re. the publication. All I remember is that speculation was that Schw. intended to add to the book sometime and never got to it. It was, however, well self-edited and complete as it was, but never submitted for pub... further evidence of his genius and multiple talents (musician, scholar, carpentry craftsman, writer, physician, etc.)

      I'd be surprised if he DIDN'T address the German Jewish issue somewhere... couple pertinent "factoids": In 1912 he married the daughter of Harry Bresslau, a Jewish German historian/scholar who was a "pan-nationalist" and apparently favored (as a Jew) Jewish assimilation when that was still considered/discussed. Bresslau was sent back from his teaching post in France to Germany in 1918. Just prior, Schw. had been under military supervision at his hosp. in Gabon (Fr. Colony) from 1914-17, and then interned, with his wife, in France until July, 1918. In 1919, with his native Alsace area returned to Fr., he was able to obtain Fr. citizenship. (His sponsoring mission had been/was a Fr. one).

      So one can surely see factors for a divided heart (and/or mind) in Schw. in relation to modern Jewish-German issues and I don't know how he tended to resolve and/or comment on them. His hometown, bordering Ger./Fr., had learned a certain element of Cath/Prot. tolerance not typical of his childhood or later. And that influence seemed to stick, perhaps helping form his humanitarian and "Christian humanist" (not sure if that is academically precise) philosophy of mutual respect, etc. He had thought and dwelt on that heavily, having had a mystical experience of "inspiration" about it while on a river in Africa, following a period of heavy contemplation. His mid-life work focused on both that (in writing) and on the actual compassionate/healing work of his medical practice and hospital. The fact that he left potential great careers in either music or theology to work in a very pioneering, tough place in Africa and stayed so many decades, I think is one of the things that sets Schw. apart from most theologians... not that all should necessarily do just that.

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  5. The holocaust is certainly a major feature, but I wonder if the formation is Israel as a modern nation/state is just as important, particularly in America. Scholars write with a knowledge of various eschatological themes in the wind. On a popular level, someone like Ray Vanderlaan has highlighted the Jewishness of Jesus partly based on his experiences in interacting with Judaism in modern Israel. Whilst he is not particularly eschatological the tenor of such politics can pick up on this and resonate with it. This is beyond the scope of Jesus scholarship and yet scholars write within a milieu that they may react against or assume.

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