A Look at the Historical Record Once Again
In each Easter season, we should seek honesty and truthfulness in spiritual matters. Truthfulness is part of new life in the resurrection. Here is some of what that means for me in 2012.
Fifty years ago it came as a revelation, a shock even, as Christian scholars professed Jesus as a Jew. One of my graduate school professors, Markus Barth, was a leader in that movement and opened our eyes to this truth. This seems obvious now, but half a century ago it was an uphill battle to affirm this truth. Today we see Jesus as a faithful Jew who did not depart from his source. Now we ask where he fits in his religious landscape.
Jesus the Jew could not have been among the Sadducees depicted in the New Testament for two reasons. First, he quoted from more than Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) accepted by the Sadducees; he also cited psalms and prophets as Scripture. Secondly, Jesus affirmed the resurrection; the Sadducees did not accept this article of faith.
Jesus the Jew was surely not among the Zealots who sought to overthrow the Roman Government, because he proclaimed that his Kingdom was “not of this world.” He came as a warrior for peace and healing.
Jesus was not an Essene, though attempts to locate him in that separatist movement who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls abound. He was embedded among the common people, who “heard him gladly,” not a separatist.
Among those Jewish movements then, we have to locate Jesus either as a peasant or as a Pharisee. If we see him as a Pharisee, the arguments he has with other Pharisees on the pages of the Gospel appear as in-house debates about the interpretation of scripture. The Pharisees were masters of interpretation; they consistently attempted to expound scriptural concepts and commandments for a new age. Jesus fits fairly easily into the mix. He offers his own interpretation of various commandments and beliefs, sometimes in opposition to received tradition.
Those who became called Christians did not separate from the Jews at one given moment or in one exodus. It is becoming ever more clear that Jewish Christians remained in the synagogues in the early period, and that the “parting of the ways” did not begin until after the destruction of the Temple in 70 and even after the Roman defeat of the Jewish nation in the Second War in 135. That defeat ushered in the forced expulsion of Jews throughout the world that today we call the “Diaspora.” In some areas of developing Jewish and Christian communities, interaction and cross-fertilization lasted until at least the middle of the 4th Century. The real turning point came when the Emperor of the fading Roman Empire disenfranchised the Jews in mid-6th century. From that time on, walls separated Jews and Christians definitely, with the Jews as second-class citizens at best.
The 20th Century was the most horrific century in recorded history for religious persecution and massacre all over the world. After World War II and the Holocaust the churches began – at last – to re-think their relationship to Jews. In recent years the favor has been returned, though we surely understand the reticence of those for whom the cross was a sign not of peace but of trial and tribulation.
Jews and Christians need each other. We are diminished without each other. Our faith comes from a common root, our understanding of the covenant between God and humanity comes from a common source, and we as Christians affirm a Messiah who comes from the Jews. Our Easter cry “Christ is risen!” would be unthinkable without the prior Jewish affirmation of the resurrection of the just.
published 20 April 2012