Jesus as a Jewish mystic and prophet of social justice


We all know that Jesus was Jewish. Or, at least we all should know this. It does seem like many Christians, in their zeal to grant a messianic role to Jesus in his lifetime, ignore the fact that Jesus did not intend to found a new religion, that, as a devout Jew, he worshiped in the synagogues, was circumcised, wore fringes, and believed in "the law and the prophets" of Judaism.

Marcus Borg, in his most recent book, Jesus, describes Jesus as a prophetic Jewish mystic, and I think this captures something close to my own understanding:

Mystical experience not only changes the way mystics see. It also empowers, for mystics have experienced a reality, a ground, greater than themselves and the world. Empowerment begets courage and often leads to passionate protest against the way things are and advocacy of another vision of how things can be. For these mystics, the world has a positive value; it is the good creation of God, and not simply to be escaped. Rather, it is filled with the glory of God. It is where we live--but it needs to be changed.

It is in this sense of the word "mystic" that I see Jesus as a Jewish mystic. What the gospels report about about him fits this profile very well. He not only experienced God, but it was the ground of his vocation, activity, and teaching. He spoke and taught from the Spirit, he healed from the Spirit, and he became a passionate advocate of God's passion for justice. Jesus as a Jewish mystic also stood in the tradition of the Jewish Bible with its passion for justice. The God whom he experienced was not a "generic" sacred, but the God of Israel, the God of the law and the prophets.
The Judaism of Jesus and early Christianity has been the subject of many books. I have commented in an earlier posting on the book The Reluctant Parting, by Julie Galambush, as an example. Although I have critiqued some of Galambush's comments on New Testament scholarship in her book, I also think she deserves credit for approaching Jewish-Christian relations from the perspective of one who has worshiped in both faiths, and as such she offers a respectful and conciliatory approach to interfaith relations.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Amy-Jill Levine, author of the book The Misunderstood Jew. Levine's book focuses on anti-Semitism in post-Easter Christianity, which is generally an important issue to tackle, but, unfortunately, she goes much farther than I think is credible in attacking New Testament authors; and her understanding of Jesus's life seems based on a kind of knee-jerk defensiveness and, as a result, is unnecessarily limiting in its scope. I understand that she has reasons for her sensitivity and bias; Christianity has a sordid history of persecuting Judaism, as we all know, and there are certain infamous texts in the New Testament that have served as a justification throughout history for anti-Semitism by Christians. Yet many Christians in recent history have acknowledged that these faulty biblical texts exist and have refused to cover up for them or make excuses for them. John Spong, in his book The Sins of Scripture, for example, discusses among other things this very problem of anti-Semitic texts in the Gospels, and condemns them. Levine goes much farther than these Christians, however.

Levine seems to draw a stark line between Jesus and those who followed him after his death. Where I believe there was a gradual evolution of ideas emerging after his death that lead to post-Easter Christianity, she seems to put Jesus and his post-Easter followers on opposite sides of a deep divide. On the one hand, she sees Jesus as so unremarkably Jewish as to have offered nothing innovative, unique, prophetic, or distinct from some amorphous mass of first century Palestine Judaism. On the other, she insists that the post-Easter Christian New Testament writings, and by extension the Jesus movement that spawned them, had already made a complete break from Judaism and thus could not be considered "Jewish" in any sense. In my view, this does little to explain how Christianity could have emerged after the death of Jesus, and it is not credible to suggest that a man who preached an unremarkable vanilla brand of Judaism could have so quickly and suddenly spawned a movement that completely broke away from that man's own faith.

Galambush, unlike Levine, recognizes a continuity in the Judaism of Jesus and the evolving post-Easter Judaism of his first generation of followers. Over time, this post-Easter movement of Jesus followers found itself increasingly involved in an internecine struggle with those Jews who did not follow Jesus. It is commonly the case that the hottest rhetoric and the strongest vitriol is found not in disputes among those who are the farthest apart, but rather among those who are the closest. Thus, Galambush argues, the rhetoric against "Jews" found in Matthew, John, and some of Paul's letters represents a debate among different groups of Jews for the soul of the religion, and it was precisely the internecine nature of this struggle that made the rhetoric so vitriolic. These were attacks by Jews against other Jews.

Levine will have nothing of this. Whereas Galambush pointed out that all of the New Testament authors (with the possible exception of Luke) were Jewish, Levine flatly denies this. The Gospels of Matthew and John, for example, she sees as simply containing unrelentingly anti-Jewish polemics.

Both of these positions that she takes--the bland Judaism of Jesus on the one hand, and the non-Judaism of the New Testament writers on the other--seem to be born from a position of extreme defensiveness, and of a homogeneous conception of what Judaism was at the time. It seems that, as far as Levine is concerned, to accept that Jesus could possibly have been a social critic of the socio-political and religious hierarchies of his day is simply to attack the Judaism as a whole of the time he lived in; and, furthermore, for modern Christians to embrace these criticisms as Jesus's message is nothing short of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism on their part.

It should be self-evident how absurd this is. Judaism has, throughout its history, had its share of social critics and prophets who criticized certain religious and political practices of their times. The systems of political power merging with religious elites who served the interests of the wealthy and powerful has existed in other times in Jewish history (as it has in Christian history). The prophet Amos, to cite just one example, describes a confrontation with "Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel", and criticized this collusion of power with the religious elite. In many ways this is what the prophetic tradition is about.

But for her, the idea that Jesus criticized the "temple domination system" of his time would imply a criticism of Judaism itself. The temple, as she rightly points out was at the center of Judaism. She writes, for example,
The Gospels and Acts depict Jesus, his family, and his followers as worshiping in the Temple and participating in the Temple sacrificial system. Apparently the didn't get the message that it was a "domination system."
Here she shows had badly she has missed the point. The problem with the Temple domination system was not the Temple per se, but the perversion of the Temple by the established collusion between the Roman Empire and its appointed clients who ran the Temple. Marcus Borg describes this collusion in this way:
Rome continued the practice of ruling through native collaborators responsible to the governor. With Archelaus gone, Rome assigned the role of client rulers to the temple authorities in Jerusalem. They included the high priest plus a group called in the gospels "the chief priests and elders." Rome appointed the high priest from the "high-priestly families," part of the traditional Jerusalem aristocracy. They were wealthy, in part because of the wealth that flowed into Jerusalem from tithes, taxes, pilgrimage, and building projects such as the temple, which Herod the Great had begun and which continued to be built in the first century. Their wealth also came from the ownership of agricultural land, despite the Torah's prohibition against priests owning land. They conveniently interpreted that prohibition to mean that priests could not work as laborers on the land, but it did not prevent them from owning land.

Though the high priest was the head of the native domination system, his position was vulnerable. Not only did he owe his appointment to Rome, but he could remain in office only so long as his rule pleased Rome. Many failed. From 6 CE to 66 CE, Rome appointed eighteen high priests. Three of these served a total of thirty-nine years, with the longest tenure held by Caiaphas, from 18 CE to 36 CE. This means that the remaining twenty-two saw fifteen high priests.

Thus, early in Jesus's life, the high priest and temple authorities became the mediators of imperial rule, responsible for collecting and paying tribute to Rome and for maintaining domestic order. Jerusalem and the temple, the sacred center of the Jewish world, had become the center of native collaboration with an imperial domination system. (Jesus, pp 90-91).
Yet Levine would have us believe that, first, no prophetic Jew would have criticized this system despite its oppressive character, and, second, to accept the validity of these criticisms of the temple domination system is simply an expression of anti-Judaism. On the contrary, the criticisms of oppressive systems of collaboration between religious authorities and political power lie at the heart and soul of prophetic Judaism, and they always have

The current issue of The Fourth R, a magazine published by the Jesus Seminar, contains an interview with scholar and author William Arnal. Arnal has this to say about those who complain about portrayals of Jesus within Judaism that don't conform with some people's rigid understanding of the Judaism of that era:
If we define "Jewish" in a very restrictive way...and then insist that Jesus must have corresponded to this restrictive definition, we're not investigating Jesus or the early Jesus movement at all; we're just making up caricatures of a flat, unchanging culture. Any type of argument to the effect that "Jesus, as a typical Jew, would have..." is just an end-run around the problematic sources for Jesus and the many difficult questions they raise.
That is the fundamental problem with Levine's book. Zealous to preserve Judaism's good name against those who would slander it, she ends up conflating the Temple authorities and the way they ran things with Judaism as a whole; thus she takes the absurd position that a devout Jew like Jesus could not possibly, in her scheme of things, have criticized the Temple domination system, since that would have meant criticizing Judaism itself.

The reason any of this matters for us is that Jesus's prophetic message has resonance for us today. Jesus resisted the Empire of his day, and the way its clients in the temple domination system participated in the oppressive system of class rule. We still live in an age of Empire today, and we still have a domination system of class rule, in our case manifesting itself through the prevailing of corporate interests. The prophetic vision of Jesus--of the Kingdom of God, in which God's justice prevails--is still as valid today as it was in his time.

Marcus Borg summarized several points about the prophetic vision of Jesus--which Jesus called "the Kingdom of God". One of the points was that
the kingdom of God was not only for the earth, but involved a transformed world. It is a blessed state of affairs, a utopia brought about by God, God's dream for the earth. Imaginative descriptions from Jewish sources near the time of Jesus portray an earth transformed by God into a world of plenty. One speaks of "life without care" in which "springs of wine, honey and milk" flow on an earth that will "bear more abundant fruits spontaneously." Moreover:

The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences....Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together.

It means the end of injustice and violence. Everybody will have enough, and nations will not make war on nations anymore. (Jesus, p. 187)
Until the day arrives when we see the end of injustice and violence, the vision of a certain Jewish mystic and prophet from two thousand years ago will continue to stand as a beacon for those who consider themselves his followers.


Barrett Pashak said...

For a great book on Christ as Jewish mystic try Constantin Brunner's Our Christ.


Adriane St Clare said...

For another look at Jesus as a Jewish mystic find "An Apostle thru Time" at Amazon. This is a fictional story about a 21st Century ex-Catholic mystic who finds a way to use a deep meditative trance as a way to travel back in time to witness the events of 1st Century Palestine without the translation and interpretation of the last 2000 years. Would love to see comments on this book.

Linda M. said...

I just read Julie Galambush's book THE RELUCTANT PARTNG. The author sounds like someone with a big chip on her shouler regarding Christanity, and applies her on prejudices to the FACTS. I would not recommend this book to any serious student of the scriptures--it is very NON-INSPIRATIONAL.