Sunday, November 08, 2009

The historical Jesus is Jewish: Gauging a gospel's historical view of Jesus

It has become increasingly common for skeptics to say that there is no real difference of quality between the canonical gospels -- the ones in the New Testament -- and the non-canonical gospels. The claim is increasingly made that equally viable gospels were "suppressed" by political means as an exercise in the winners writing the history books.

When I first decided to see whether there was anything to this, I set out to read the non-canonical gospels. I was forcefully struck by an impression that these were very different in general quality from the New Testament gospels. But I wanted to be sure, and I asked myself, "Is it simply a matter of my familiarity with the canonical gospels, or is there something objectively, measurably different about the non-canonical gospels?" I set about seeing if there was a way to actually measure differences in a way that anybody could fact-check for themselves.

In this post, I'll cover one of the first things I noticed: the non-canonical gospels, by and large, have a Jesus who is not particularly Jewish, and disciples who are not particularly Jewish. I've done a more thorough write-up previously; for now I want to mention that I'm hardly the only one to have noticed this.

As a case in point, I'd like to introduce a book to you that demonstrates this fairly well. It's a Jewish book on the history of the liturgy. My regular readers will know I'm very fond of liturgical prayer. In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today." Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy. The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen. The original edition (1913) was in German. At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written." His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others. Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

Before we look at why this might happen, I should mention why this work takes so much notice of certain Christian writings: it uses them to establish historical facts about Jewish liturgy and worship, especially as it is practiced in the synagogue. The canonical gospels contain first-century evidence of what Jewish worship was like. There is a record of Hanukkah being celebrated in Jerusalem under the name the Feast of Dedication; it is applicable to the discussion of the history of Hanukkah. The book considers parallels between traditional Jewish prayers and other prayers recorded in the canonical gospels, and uses that to show how far traditional Jewish prayers were already developed at that point in time. The canonical gospels were referenced for peoples' reactions to the practice of giving scholars preferred seats in the synagogues, for whether the Jewish synagogue worship already included readings from the prophets and sermons on those readings, for whether the twice-weekly fast was already in place before the fall of the Temple. There is evidence on the development of the role of the synagogue leader in speaking to people who were out of order; when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the fellow who objects has the proper title for the person who was supposed to maintain order in the synagogue. There is even evidence in the New Testament for some very detailed aspects of the Jewish liturgy: that the person who gave the sermon was first called to read, that the reading occurred while standing, that the sermon occurred while sitting. The gospels are used as evidence for the location of certain particular synagogues, and for the practice (also known elsewhere) that non-Jews might contribute to building a synagogue. All these very Jewish facts in the New Testament are placed alongside a continuum of Jewish writings to form a coherent whole of which they are an integral piece. Here I have focused only on the gospels, but the book takes the same approach to the book of Acts and Paul's letter to the Galatians.

So this author's interest in the New Testament comes down to this: how much historical information can you learn about first-century Jewish worship in general, and in particular the liturgical worship common in synagogues? The Jesus in the canonical gospels is a regular at the synagogue.

As for the non-canonical gospels, I have looked through the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Protoevangelium of James; I have found on-line electronic editions of these to double-check my searches. I have not found a reference to a "synagogue" in any of them. Exactly how Jewish is a Jesus who never goes to a synagogue?

If the historical Jesus is a Jewish figure of interest in the area of religion, that's a huge point, that some gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) can be used by historians of Jewish liturgy and provide useful data on first-century Jewish worship, while other gospels do not even mention a synagogue, much less provide detailed information on first-century Jewish worship practices. That is a measurable difference in the quality of the works. The works that are measurably better in telling us about first-century Jewish religious life just happen to be the ones that the early Christian church found to be better sources in general. Large numbers of non-canonical gospels have a Jesus who never goes to a synagogue; the works are of no historical interest for scholars of first-century Judaism. Their Jesus seems ... out of context for a first-century Jew. If we grant that the historical Jesus is Jewish, then here is one objectively measurable point in favor of the canonical gospels having more to say about the historical Jesus.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Looking forward to reading here more of the objectively measurable points!

Your research is SO useful, so helpful! Keep up the good work.

P.S. If you've written some of this same info before, would you please point me to it?

Howard said...

Fascinating series, and this particular entry is very useful.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

Thanks for the encouragement!

Kind of a summary of the earlier work I'd done on it is here:

I have much more research on this than I have posted yet; it's just that some of it is on the technical / dry side (even more so than this current post or the linked one).


Howard: Thank you!

I'm looking for the best way to summarize a few other things that are in the "measurable differences" category. I think a couple of the non-canonical gospels have points of interest here and there, but at some points they don't even pretend to be about the historical Jesus. Several of them never even identify Jesus by name ... how scholars of certain views came to regard them as historical sources on Jesus is ... interesting.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anonymous said...

Gauge the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi against 4Q MMT and Judaic, rather than Hellenist-Greek, accounts.


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

You know, most people who leave links have not stayed around to discuss the merits of their ideas; it is more a matter of using someone else's forum to advertise.

You say that all four of the gospels have lost their Jewish roots. Let's start with a Jewish root, then. Who do you say John the Baptist was? Was he the voice of the one calling in the wilderness that Isaiah foretold? All four of the canonical gospels say that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. Do you believe that?

Take care & God bless

maybe said...

I'm appreciate your writing skill.Please keep on working hard.^^

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for the kind words.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anders Branderud said...

"Historical Jesus"?!?

Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda--dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.

Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").

Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

Weekend Fisher said...

You know, you seem like you really believe you have something important to say -- namely, that the Torah is the thing.

Your history of the early Christian movement and Christian writings seems unsound, but I don't want to spend too much time arguing what is probably, to you, a side point. Back to discussing the Torah, then.

The main thing -- to keep this response to a reasonable size -- is that the Torah has lots of things that were never intended to apply to Gentiles; that is how the concept of Noahide laws developed, which is roughly what came down to the Gentiles (see Acts 15). I am sure as a Torah-observer you do not want to be a slanderer; do you pray against the slanderers every day when you say the Amidah? Be careful that you do not place yourself among the slanderers; say only what is true and right.

Because of God's destruction of the Temple and the fulfillment of the prophesies about the Messiah, no one can be fully Torah-observant even if they want to be; Passover has not been rightly kept (nor any of the other pilgrimage feasts) for nearly 2000 years. God has set aside the Temple sacrifices of the Torah -- and Jesus has claimed that he himself replaces the Temple -- consider that.

Do not put your trust in the Torah, but in Jesus. Because the Torah came through Moses, but one greater than Moses is here. God buried Moses. God raised Jesus.

All the Law and Prophets rest on this: Love of God and neighbor. Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.

Take care & God bless