Baker Academic

Friday, October 21, 2016

can Jews be Jews?

This isn't about Jesus directly, but if being a contributor to the Jesus Blog has any perks at all, surely they include being able to post marginally-relevant material from time to time.

This week an undergraduate student in my Romans class e-mailed me a question that was never directly relevant to the in-class discussion. Her e-mail:
I have a question that has been on my mind. It might be somewhat obvious, but nonetheless it has intrigued me. What would Paul say to a Jew who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and wanted to stop adhering to the Law? At first I think this would be fine due to salvation through Jesus is open to all, but what about the disruption it would have possibly caused in said Jew's family, who may or may not believe in Jesus? I immediately think of Romans 14:13-23, but Paul is writing that to the Gentiles. Does the same principle apply to the Jew who has already been living out a Law abiding lifestyle?
I love this because this student is obviously taking material we've discussed in class and applying it to material we haven't discussed. Also, it's just an intriguing question. So I thought I'd share my response, mostly in hopes that some of you who've thought about these same issues (ethnicity, culture, salvation, [Christian] faith, etc.) and how they intersect might have some additional response.

My reply:
Dear [student], 

You ask such great questions. This really is good. I like the way it shows me how you’re thinking about the things we’re talking about in class.

I can’t, of course, answer your question. Since we don’t have any record of Paul addressing a Jew who wanted to stop adhering to the Law, we don’t know what he would say. But we might imagine a couple of different scenarios and how Paul might react in each of them.
  • a Jew wants to set Torah-observance aside in order to present the gospel to gentiles: This is the easiest scenario to describe because it describes Paul himself. In 1 Cor. 9 Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9.19–22). Notice that Paul does not “stop adhering to the Law” completely; rather, he sets aside his Jewish lifestyle in order to open up opportunities to present the gospel. As I read this passage, Paul’s default position is to live like a Jew (hence, he mentions it first), but he’s willing to move away from that lifestyle as the situation requires. I would expect that, as the situation changes, he would return to his Jewish lifestyle. In other words, Paul stops adhering to the Law temporarily.
  • a Jew wants to stop adhering to the Torah because he rejects the covenant between Israel and YHWH: I think this, too, is an easy scenario to describe: Paul would condemn this Jew as unfaithful and subject to the wrath of God. Israel was unfaithful in her history, and God punished them for their sin. Paul does not hide from this. If we ever get to Romans 9–11 (😉), we’ll see Paul discuss Israel’s unfaithfulness and, as a result, their being broken off from the tree of Abraham’s family. “You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith” (Rom. 11.19–20). If a Jew who keeps Torah but fails to understand that Torah finds its fulfillment in Jesus (see Rom. 10.4) is broken off, then a Jew who rejects YHWH’s covenant is almost certainly also broken off.
  • a Jew wants to stop adhering to the Torah because he accepts the gospel and wants to be like gentile Christians: This is the most difficult scenario to describe, and I suppose a lot would depend on the specifics of a given situation. If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) married a gentile, that might present the kind of situation in which ceasing to live like (and so to be) a Jew might be understandable. If a Jew (esp. a Jewish male) was so integrated into a (gentile) Christian community that maintaining distinctive Jewish customs became increasingly difficult, that, too, might present an understandable scenario. But we need to appreciate that Jews had spent the previous 3–5 centuries negotiating how to live as faithful Jews in a world dominated by gentiles. Some Jews rejected that world and retreated into their ancestral customs (e.g., the Jews at Qumran); others rejected their heritage and embraced the culture around them (e.g., Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander). But most Jews chose a middle way and sought to live as faithful Jews even as they embraced life with and among gentiles. So it’s difficult for me to imagine that very many Jews would want to abandon Torah-observance/adhering to the Law, any more than most people want to abandon the distinctive customs of their native culture. And if it would have been rare, I can’t help but imagine that Paul would look at such a Jew side-eyed. 👀
But really, the reason I like your question is because it draws attention to a real problem in Christian theology: Because of Paul, we’re very clear that gentiles do not have to (really, should not try to) become Jews in order to receive the blessings of God and live a life of faith shaped by the gospel. But we’re not very clear on the opposite question: Does a Jew have to become a gentile in order to be saved by the gospel? When we ask it that baldly, I think most of us would say “no.”

But in actual fact we look upon Torah/the Law with such suspicion that we can’t imagine a Jew would want to continue to live as a Jew if they were set free from the Law by the gospel of Jesus. It’s difficult for us—as gentile Christians—to appreciate that Jews viewed Torah as a gift of life, even Paul, who describes the Torah as “the commandment that promised life” (Rom. 7.10). When he asks, “Did what is good, then, bring death to me?” (Rom. 7.13), he emphatically rejects that possibility: “By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” If Jews considered the Torah as a God’s gift of life, and if Jews who confessed faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah thought that Torah was established, fulfilled, and had its goal/purpose met in Jesus (see Rom. 3.31; Matt. 5.17; Rom. 10.4), then we should expect that most Jews would not want to abandon Torah. And those that would want to would stand out as being strange, and they would need to explain themselves to their loved ones if they hoped to avoid being judged by other Jews as apostates.

Does that make sense?

Again, this is a brilliant question. Thank you for asking it!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sean Freyne and the Common Intertext—Chris Keith

Sean Freyne was one of those Jesus scholars from the previous generation who somehow never quite stole the limelight in the fashion of a Crossan or Wright but was an original thinker whose research is always illuminating.  Somewhat like Gerd Theissen, he was wedding historical criticism and sociological analyses well before most.  I've recently been revisiting some of his work as I prepare a paper on the portrayal of Jesus as a Galilean in the Gospel of John for SBL.  I found a place where he was, once more, way ahead of the field in general.

In my opinion, one of the more important emphases in more recent historical Jesus research, associated with the so-called "memory approach" and other approaches, concerns the "pressure of the past."  Without launching into an article here on the blog, what I mean by this is simply that scholars take seriously the fact that the tradents responsible for the Gospels were not making things up in a truly wholesale manner but were strategically emphasizing, de-emphasizing, crafting, re-crafting, etc., a past that preceded them.  They were not, in other words, working with a blank slate; they were working with prior interpretations of Jesus, joining a hermeneutical trajectory that came before them and would proceed beyond them.  Rather than focusing upon how early Christians rewrote the past in a unidirectional manner, then, scholars should be asking how the past impacted them as well as how their present impacted their reception of that past.

Neither I nor colleauges such as Rafael Rodriguez or Anthony Le Donne or others who emphasize these points in publications think (to my knowledge) that we came up with them on our own.  We got them from people like Alan Kirk and Jens Schroeter, who made similar points in earlier publications.  And one does not have to search hard to find scholars like Barry Schwartz, Jeffrey Olick, Yael Zerubavel, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, all of whom make these points in their own way.

Already back in the Neirynck Festschrift in 1992, however, Freyne was making this point.  Before I had a driver's license, before "memory" made an impact in Jesus studies, and even before Schroeter's Erinnerung an Jesu Worte, Freyne said this about the "common intertext" of the remembered past of Jesus that all the Gospel authors shared:

"All the canonical gospels share a common intertext, the actual career of Jesus as this was      remembered and narrated in various circles."

"It should never be forgotten that John wrote a gospel, not a revelatory discourse, and this means that the common intertext of Jesus' earthly career was important for his purposes."

(Both from "Locality and Doctrin: John and Mark Revisited," in his collection of essays, Galilee and Gospel, WUNT 125, pp. 288, 292 respectively.)

I think that viewing the received interpretations of Jesus' career as an "intertext" with which the Gospel authors engaged is a helpful way to think about the pressure of the past.  And importantly, this is not directly a historical point; it's a hermeneutical one.  Jesus was already interpreted long before the Gospel authors decided to cast their portrayals of him.  If we seek to understand the multitude of forces that influenced their portrayals, the interpretations they received, that "common intertext,"
must play a key role in the discussion.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Gaventa's New Book

I want to call attention to our banner ad from Baker Academic. I've been anticipating Beverly Gaventa's book for a while now hoping that it might prove useful as a supplemental textbook for my classroom. I'm just skimming the book today, but it looks about the right length and tone for this purpose. I am especially interested in her treatment of what she calls Paul's "Universal Horizon" as she deals with Romans 11. I will probably want to post again on this topic soon.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do, and there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith. But I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith, and I am in awe of people who truly turn the other cheek all the time, who can go that extra mile that we are called to go, who keep finding ways to forgive and move on. Those are really hard things for human beings to do, and there is a lot, certainly in the New Testament, that calls us to do that.

                       ~Hillary Rodham Clinton

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Goodbye Jack (1932-2016)

I was one of the many, many junior colleagues that worked with Jacob Neusner on a book project. I did not know Jack well enough to reflect on his oceanic career or unique personality. You might, however, have a look at Shaul Magid's obituary.

Bruce Chilton will be speaking at his funeral tomorrow and posting his reflection on the SBL webpage soon. Bruce will talk a bit about Jack's, "punch-in-the-nose prose" (Neusner's self description). No doubt, he could be a bear. I will hasten to add that he was always very kind to me. Jack told me in 2012 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Indeed, it took something as serious as Parkinson's to slow down the most prodigious pace of publication in history.

I will just say one word about him. Jack knew who he was and didn't pretend to be anything else. I once asked to interview him on a matter related to Jesus studies. He wrote back, "I am not a scholar of Jesus. I did some secondary and derivative work. It's not the same thing as knowing the subject well." When I reminded him that he had written more on Jesus than most specialists and that indeed one of his books on Jesus got him an audience with the Pope, he wrote, "I don't want to represent myself as something I am not."

May we all be as self aware when we have published over 900 books.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Pete Enns Interviews Me

Over at "the Bible for normal people" Pete Enns interviews me about my newest book. To see the interview, click here.

To get a free sample chapter of the book, click here.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Muted Male Members Made into Vestal Vegans by Wily Witches

This is the safest image I could find related to our topic.
We Christians don't often like to talk about the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity was sort of like our ponytail-and-Amway stage. We were the worst combination of ourselves: overzealous, superstitious, and absolutely certain. To be fair, everyone is entitled to a subpar millennium. But there is a common tendency among modern folks to see the 5th-15th centuries as "Dark Ages", which is probably chronological snobbery. Let's not be so quick to judge. Who is to say how future generations will judge the spray-tan-and-reality-TV era of Christianity?

Should we believe everything we read about medieval Christianity? For example, should we believe reports that there was a disappearing penis problem among Christian men? Did fine, Christian gentlemen blame witches for "glamouring" their penises away or keeping said penises hidden in bird nests? And did they accuse witches of raising some of their penises as pets? Most importantly, did the witches feed their penis pets oats and corn? Callie Beusman addresses these concerns in her Broadly article. A number of our readers have demanded that I address these concerns with an article that employs the word "penis" at least twenty times. I will do my best as it is a very serious issue.

Much of the article hinges on a 15th-century guide to rooting out witchcraft and devilry called the Malleus Maleficarum. I just happen to have this book in my personal library (because Jesus historians are secretly wizards). I have looked into the matter and I am chagrined to report that it is all true. Although according to Heinrich Kramer—the chief author of Malleus—the penis problem was due to illusion more often than not. I.e. these men didn't really become Ken dolls; they were just glamoured into believing they had. You know, the age-old problem of being tricked by a witch that your member is gone. Apparently this was such a widespread problem in 1486 that Kramer devotes almost three chapters to it. The book was reprinted 29 times between 1487 and 1669. So it is probably closer to the truth to say that men had penis paranoia, devoting various degrees of energy to the disorder. Not so much penis envy; but perhaps penis entropy.

So real was the illusion that men commonly accused witches—through the devil's power—of collecting "twenty or thirty members together, and putting them in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn. . . ." While this information might assuage the fears of our vegan friends, penis entropy seems a disorderly and highly disconcerting problem.

How was it done according to Kramer? By "confusing the organ of vision by transmuting the mental images in the imaginative faculty." Kramer (as does much of Malleus) attempts to allay superstitions of a kind. The witches weren't really keeping penises as pets, it was an illusion of the devil. See, problem solved.

But we haven't even discussed the insidious matter of ventriloquists. According to Kramer, tricking perception can be done without help of devilry. Sleight of hand and ventriloquy can cause similar delusions among upright, Christian men. Such is the danger of consorting with wicked, voice-throwing scoundrels. On this point, I must agree with an otherwise loathsome piece of literature. Ventriloquists represent a clear and present danger to our way of life. My good people, they must be stopped.

So what do we make of the story about a man who was made to climb a tree to retrieve his stolen member? I refer you to the article linked above to learn more about the myth of phallus trees common in Europe during this time. Long story short, the man climbed up to the nesting phalli and "tried to take a big one." But the witch refused him, explaining, "You must not take that one . . . . because it belonged to a parish priest."

One is left to wonder how the witch came to have access to the member of the parish priest. And with such a massive loss, was this cause for ecclesial lament? Not so much penis entropy; but perhaps penis elegy. Or perhaps the priest was actively invested in the devil's business. If so, perhaps penis equity?

The Malleus Maleficarum is a window into a Christianity driven by fear of the outsider, misogyny, and masculine insecurity. Indeed, such paranoia can cause widespread delusion and false belief. Worst of all, these vices conjure scary levels of impotency.

Feel free to share this article with your Christian friends looking for Halloween costumes.

Anthony Le Donne, PhD
author of Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God