Baker Academic

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Interview with Simon J. Joseph (Part One) - Le Donne

I recently had the great pleasure to read The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition ​by Simon Joseph. As I say in my back-cover blurb for this book, it is the finest book to date on the topic of Jesus and non-violence. In hope that I can help this book get the reception it deserves, I approached the folks at Fortress Press about interviewing Simon.

ALD: Simon, you have a wide range of interests including early Christianity, the Dead Sea Scrolls, modern religious practices, and film production. What made this topic particularly interesting to you? How did it come about?
SJJ: I did my doctoral work on Q at Claremont Graduate University and after I published my dissertation – Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls – I knew that my next major project would focus on the relationship between Q and the historical Jesus. In 2011, I published an article in New Testament Studies that examined the question of why Q does not use the term Christos or messiah. At the time, I was working on a number of sayings in Q’s “Inaugural Sermon” (Q/Luke 6:20-49) that highlight a very radical orientation of nonviolence. I thought it would be interesting to see if there was some kind of connection between the absence of traditional Davidic messianism (which tends to be represented in terms of military violence) in Q and alternative, perhaps even nonviolent messianic ideas. There were, after all, many prospective messiahs in Second Temple Judaism, corresponding to a rich variety of Judaisms at that time.

ALD: What’s the central thesis of The Nonviolent Messiah? Why is it important?
SJJ: The central thesis of this book is that Jesus’ nonviolence is not taken seriously enough in New Testament studies or Jesus Research. While it is at times acknowledged, and at times even presupposed, its implications – if historical – have not been fully registered or integrated with other aspects of the Jesus tradition. After publishing a number of articles on various aspects of Jewish messianism and Christology, this thesis really developed when I began noticing more conversations about religion and violence taking place in the mainstream media. I was intrigued by the idea of linking the problem of violence with traditonal ideas about Jewish messianism and Jesus’ identity as a messianic figure in a way I hadn’t seen done before. I knew that many people are troubled by some of the violence contained in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and that Christians have, through the ages, introduced a number of different ways of dealing with these texts, but I also knew that I would have to challenge the simplistic dichotomy of a violent OT God vs. a loving NT God. After all, there is more than enough violence in both Testaments to go around! My goal with this book is to encourage the critical discussion of violence in the biblical tradition and urge others to take Jesus’ distinctive nonviolence more seriously. I realize that not everyone will agree with my assessment of the data, but at least the stakes of the debate might be made clearer as I think the consequences of not resolving this particular problem are more serious than we realize. On the positive side, I think that many biblical traditions can be understood without appealing to violence as their interpretive key.

ALD: As you know, I’m very sympathetic to your conclusions. But I wonder whether you’re alienating many readers by assuming a hypothetical “Q” source. We conducted a poll on the Jesus Blog a few months ago and it showed that less than half of our readers are Q*berts like you and me. How do you see Q functioning in Jesus Research?
SJJ: One of my favorite things about The Jesus Blog is that it reaches both scholars and many people outside of academia who are interested in these discussions. I know that a lot of people are skeptical of Q studies because they think they are either too speculative or because they think that Q studies tend to undermine traditional ideas about Jesus and Christian Origins. This is not necessarily the case and I devote a whole chapter to this problem in my book. So while many of your readers – who are presumably a mix of academic and non-academic folk – have an opinion that they don’t believe in Q, I am working within an academic context where the two Documentary Hypothesis is still the dominant solution to the Synoptic Problem and I use it as a working hypothesis. Despite ongoing debate on the Synoptic Problem, Q is a very useful analytical tool that represents quite well how the Jesus movement actually developed – literarily, historically, ethnically, geographically, socially, theologically, and Christologically. This makes it an important site in NT scholarship and Jesus Research. Of course, the Jesus of Q is not the historical Jesus, so there are methodological constraints and restrictions that we have to be aware of. For those interested, John Kloppenborg has written an excellent article on this (“The Sayings Gospel Q and the Quest of the Historical Jesus,” HTR 89 [1996]: 307-344).

ALD: What is your understanding of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism? Where do you locate the historical Jesus within Second Temple Judaism?
SJJ: I come to the study of the historical Jesus as a New Testament scholar and historian with expertise in the Jewish origins of Christianity. It’s now a truism that Christianity became a distinctive and identifiable religion only by differentiating itself from “Judaism,” but our interpretive problem is that Christianity was a part of Judaism when it began, i.e., it was born within Judaism. Consequently, any historical (re)construction of Jesus or Christianity first has to account for this early formative period.
     In terms of Jesus’ Jewishness, I think it should be fairly obvious to all by now that Jesus did not attack “Judaism” or try to replace it with himself. We have to come to better terms with that. But I don’t think that Jesus was a “normative” or “orthodox” Jew either – whatever that might even mean in the first century – because if he was I find it hard to see why he would have been so offensive to his contemporaries. I tend to think that Jesus was not accused of “blasphemy” and “leading Israel astray” for nothing. So I think we need to keep Jesus in that middle position – a Jewish Jesus who offends traditional Jewish sensitivities.
     Furthermore, if we want to take the historical question of why Jesus was understood to be a Jewish messianic figure seriously (as opposed to the more theological question of whether he was “The Messiah”), we need to reconstruct that historical context.
     I was fortunate to have begun my graduate studies when the whole academic scandal about the delayed publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls was dying down, so I had an opportunity to assess the field after a lot of heated discussion had already taken place. I became particularly interested in the Essene movement and I was surprised by how little interest NT scholars showed in them. With very few exceptions, they are virtually ignored, and their relevance to the study of Christian Origins is sometimes flatly denied. I find this to be a major historical oversight. Are the Essenes ignored because they are nowhere mentioned in the NT or because they do not fit our social or religious identity constructions of ancient or modern Judaism and Christianity? My contribution to the historical problem of the messianic identification of Jesus affirms that Jesus was indeed regarded as messianic by his Jewish followers, that they absorbed ideas and practices from the larger Essenic-Enochic movement (only partially accounted for in the Qumran community and Dead Sea Scrolls), and that their apocalyptic expectations of a new Adam/messiah were fulfilled in Jesus. In short, what we call “Christianity” originated as a form of universalistic-apocalyptic Judaism with Jesus as its central redemptive figure. 

See part two of my interview here.



  1. Simon’s answer about Jesus in Judaism is a bit confusing. I can mine from Simon’s answer the following statements: (1) We don’t know what was “normative” or “orthodox” Judaism in the first century, but (2) Jesus wasn’t a “normative” or “Orthodox” Jew, yet (3) Jesus must be sited within Judaism, even though (4) Jesus offended “normative” or “orthodox” Jews to the point that he could be accused of blasphemy and leading Israel astray. Ergo (5) Jesus was a non-traditional Jew, who nevertheless (6) was understood to be a Jewish messianic figure.

    Now, it seems to me that if we don’t know or can’t say what was orthodox or normative Judaism in the first century, we also don’t know whether Jesus should be located within or outside of these categories. The fact that Jesus had opponents simply places him firmly within what we understand was “normative” in the first century, namely a sectarian Judaism where each sect sniped at the others. The business about Jesus “leading Israel astray” is I think from the Talmud, which makes its early first century historicity suspect.

    It also seems to me that if Jesus was seen as a potential messianic figure, this argues against his being unorthodox or outside of whatever might have been normative. I don’t think you get to be thought of as a possible Jewish Messiah if folks aren’t sure about your Jewishness.

    While I personally doubt that Jesus was ever accused of blasphemy, even if we assume that Jesus was accused of blasphemy, it is close to impossible to draw any conclusions from this accusation. The New Testament, which is our primary source for the historicity of this accusation, also takes the position that Jesus was innocent of the accusation. The accusation against Jesus seems to have been based on his messianic claims, and it’s certainly not the case that Jews who claimed they were the Messiah were located outside of the Jewish mainstream (Bar Kochba was the leader of the Jewish people, which is arguably as mainstream and orthodox as you can get).

    Yes, arguably Jesus’ blasphemy went beyond his messianic claims, and was based more on his statement in Mark 14:62 claiming that his judges would see the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. But even if Jesus was claiming that he himself was this Son of Man, it’s not completely clear that this claim was any more blasphemous than the claim to be the Messiah. Was it unorthodox to think that the Messiah might also be the Son of Man? In any event, Jesus' alleged blasphemy does not seem to be based on a non-orthodox belief – no one was upset that Jesus claimed that there would someday be a Son of Man seated at the right hand of God. The problem was not that Jesus had a non-orthodox Judaism, but that he allegedly held an exalted vision of himself. His blasphemy seems to be a matter of whether or not he was right, and not whether or not he was unorthodox.

    One of the most controversial figures in Jewish history was the Rambam (also known as Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides). But I don’t think anyone accused him of being unorthodox or outside of normative Judaism. Richard Nixon was controversial in his day, but that didn’t make him non-traditional. Not everyone who is controversial is unorthodox.

    I like what A.-J. Levine said on this subject: Jesus was exceptional, not marginal.

    My two cents, FWIW.

  2. For me the otherwise inexplicably anomalous nature of a nonviolent, nonmilitary messiah, is best explained by derivation from Eastern priestly, even Buddhist origins (dating from c. 500 BC).

    Since the expansion of Greek thought to Jerusalem and Persia in 300 BC, and its reiteration in the Roman Empire c. 64 BC, Eastern thought was increasingly accessible even in the West, even in 30 AD Palestine.

    Solomon married foreign wives - and their gods some say. Was "Q" an Eastern sage, after all?

    1. Griffin, this is your second comment on this blog that suggests that you're a troll. (1) You've shown little to no evidence that you've read much on the topics that you're writing about. (2) You seem to be adopting pseudo-scholarly and popular-level theses.

      These two factors lead me to think that you're hoping to provoke rather than contribute. You'll need to do better if you'd like to continue to post here.


    2. Mr. Gaddie,

      An interesting post, which as you know has been around for awhile. Interestingly, Dr. Simon J. Joseph, has written something akin to your post. Simon J. Joseph, "Jesus in India? Transgressing Social and Religious Boundaries," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80 (March 2012): 161–99.