Jesus within Judaism

Written by James H. Charlesworth Reviewed By F. F. Bruce

The three books under review deal in various ways with the implications of Jesus’ Jewish birth, heritage and environment—an essential corollary to the fact of the incarnation.

Of the three, Charlesworth’s is by far the most valuable. It contains the Gunning Lectures delivered in 1985 in New College, Edinburgh. It is a refreshing study for many reasons: here is a scholar who is complete master of his subject and who without apology treats the Jesus of history as a suitable subject for historical research, going so far as to devote a chapter of his book to ‘Jesus’ Concept of God and His Self-Understanding’—matters about which, a recently influential school of thought assured us, nothing can be known and nothing should be said. The author was brought up under the influence of this school of thought; he acknowledges his indebtedness to three studies which he read in the ‘sixties—by Günther Bornkamm, Hugh Anderson and David Flusser—for winning him over to the possibility and importance of Jesus Research. For him, ‘Jesus Research’ is distinct from the old quest for the historical Jesus, whose career and epitaph were written by Albert Schweitzer, and from the new quest launched in the 1950s; it undertakes rather to see Jesus in his cultural setting, in the light of new discoveries which have been made within the past half-century.

Here, then, Jesus is viewed in the light of the OT Pseudepigrapha, the Qumran scrolls, the Nag Hammadi codices, Josephus, and Palestinian archaeology. On the first of these Charlesworth speaks with unsurpassed authority. He concentrates on three features of this body of literature: apocalypticism, eschatology and soteriology (the consciousness of sin and need of forgiveness). Jesus, he notes, was certainly not an apocalyptist; yet contemporary apocalyptic thought is important for understanding his message. Of special interest in this regard is Charlesworth’s reassessment of the character and date of the Parables of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71). He agrees with Matthew Black that this collection antedates AD 70; his own conviction is that Jesus knew and was influenced by it as well as by Daniel’s vision of ‘one like a son of man’ (Dn. 7:13), indirectly if not directly. This is something that calls for fresh and careful study. As for Jesus’ ‘Son of Man’ sayings, Charlesworth is persuaded that none of the three categories into which these have been divided is the invention of the church.

As for eschatology, the recent access to Jewish literature of the period provides further illuminating background to Jesus’ announcement that the appointed time had fully come and the kingdom of God drawn near and to the expansion of that announcement in his ministry of teaching and healing. As for soteriology, this literature contains repeated confessions of sin and prayers for pardon which find a reassuring answer in Jesus’ teaching about the inexhaustible forgiveness of the heavenly Father.

The Qumran scrolls, with the light they have shed on a previously dark period, not only provide the ‘ideological landscape’ of Jesus’ life and reflect the social and economic settings of Palestinian Jews at that time; they emphasize with special clarity the real ‘uniqueness’ of Jesus and show how the genesis and distinctive genius of primitive Christianity are to be ‘found essentially in one life and one person’ (p. 74).

The relevance of the Nag Hammadi codices is of a different order, with the new questions raised by them about the possible Jewish and pre-Christian origin of gnosticism. But Charlesworth’s attention is fixed specially on the Gospel of Thomas and its background, and on the possibility that here and there it has preserved a pre-canonical form of a saying attested in one or more of the NT gospels.

In the brief discussion of Josephus attention is specially paid to the shorter form of the testimonium Flavianum attested in Arabic in a writing of the tenth-century Melkite bishop Agapius. This is closer to Josephus’ probable wording than any other form in which it has come down to us, but not identical with it: even this form shows the signs of interpolation and redaction to which all extant forms of the text have been subjected. It is the critic’s task to distinguish between these two processes and, by removing or correcting their effects, to restore what Josephus probably wrote. That he did make a non-committal reference to Jesus and his followers now seems quite certain; for those to whom it is important to produce a non-Christian first-century witness to the historical Jesus, here it is.

The survey of the evidence of Palestinian archaeology includes an account of recent discoveries in Capernaum and Jerusalem, and of their help in making Jesus visible in his social setting. The Johannine picture of Jesus driving sheep and oxen out of the temple precincts is seen to be no longer improbable now that excavations round the Huldah Gates have shown that large animals could easily have been led from the ‘Solomonic Stables’ to the halls of the money changers.

But the main importance of this book lies in its emphatic rejection of the criterion of dissimilarity as a tool for recovering the teaching of the historical Jesus and in its confidence that the gospels provide firm evidence for the nature of his thought and message. This is one of the most encouraging studies of its subject to have appeared for a long time.

The study of Bernard Lee also emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus but concentrates on those features of his Jewishness which are believed to be distinctively Galilean. The author does not claim to be an authority in this field (he speaks of Pompey as conquering Syria from ‘King Pontus’ and thinks that Hyranus II was made high priest by Herod the Great), but he makes full use of the works of Geza Vermes and Seán Freyne. He is interested in the christological significance of his study—a study which, he says, ‘does put many historical Christian interpretations at risk’—but might well have said outright that if our Lord’s incarnation is taken seriously, then all that can be established about his historical character, including his ‘Jewishness’, should be welcomed as an aid to understanding what incarnation involves. The exposition of the author’s main theme is unhelpfully mixed up with an account of his own philosophical progress, leading him to something like process theology.

The two writers of Interpreting Difficult Texts are properly concerned about the prevalence of anti-Jewishness in much Christian thinking and preaching and consider how far such attitudes are encouraged by NT texts. They see rightly that such texts need to be interpreted in their true contexts. But when one considers that the NT writers (with the probable exception of Luke) were themselves Jews, we have the situation (paralleled to some extent at Qumran) of a radical minority criticizing the religious establishment: this criticism was not anti-Jewish as such but implied rather that the minority maintained the true Judaism (cf. Rom. 2:28–29). To say that Luke’s picture of the prodigal’s elder brother is a ‘caricature of Judaism’ is nonsense: the younger brother was also a Jew, and so was the father, and so indeed was the narrator—the elder is rather a typical member of the moral majority, whether Jewish or Gentile, offended when someone who has outraged all decent standards is welcomed with all the lavishness of God’s grace. But the book is to be commended as a protest against the absurd idea that our Lord is honoured by the denigration of his kinsfolk.

F. F. Bruce