Jesus vs. Judaism … Again – By Eva Mroczek

Eva Mroczek on David A. deSilva’s The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

David deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, 2012, 360pp., $35.00

In 1973, Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. “When it came out,” he reminisced in 1994, “it sounded like a very provocative title. Today it is commonplace. Everybody knows now that Jesus was a Jew.”

In 2012, Oxford University Press presented a new book: The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. There, David deSilva argues that Jesus was deeply influenced by Jewish ideas. The argument, brandished vigorously from the first page to the last, is that while “Jesus’ teaching was certainly innovative,” it cannot be divorced from the Judaism of his time. Much of it has a pedigree that can be traced to the Jewish teachers whose voices are preserved in apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts.

To whom is this news? DeSilva does not cite Vermes’s Jesus the Jew. Only one of Vermes’s works on Jesus appears in his bibliography and is cited only in support of a minor textual point. DeSilva makes no gesture to engage with the godfather of the “Jewish Jesus” subfield, although he does interact with a number of evangelical scholars like Ben Witherington III. In this choice of interlocutors, deSilva, who teaches at an evangelical seminary, reveals his point of departure and his intended audience. Jesus’s Jewishness is apparently still a point that bears arguing to seminarians and preachers, so his effort should be praised. The book’s selection of sources has the potential to correct an old tendency to see New Testament texts as primarily exegesis of the Old Testament, and to present them instead as participants in existing discourses that also find expression in non-canonical Jewish texts.

But, forty years after Vermes, is this book a scholarly contribution beyond this theological audience? And how well does it achieve its goals of embedding Jesus in Judaism? Two issues stand in the way. DeSilva’s understanding of history reveals the deep fractures in the field of biblical studies between scholarly and confessional points of departure. And his methodology — tracing the influence of Jewish pseudepigrapha on Jesus, text by text — may actually prevent us from seeing Jesus in a three-dimensional Jewish context.  DeSilva’s study does not, in fact, reveal much direct linear influence; instead, he ends up illustrating Jesus’s participation in first century CE Jewish culture. But despite this, “influence” remains the category of analysis, and his method of comparing Jesus to Jewish texts one by one risks re-inscribing the “Jesus vs. Judaism” model that he seeks to debunk.

Duccio, Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Duccio, Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

History and Theology

Vermes’ subtitle for Jesus the Jew was A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. The historical objective was “not to reconstruct the authentic portrait of Jesus but, more modestly, to find out how the writers of the Gospels, echoing primitive tradition, wished him to be known.” Contrast this with deSilva’s articulation of the historian’s task:

The question that faces the historian — the person interested in knowing what Jesus actually said and taught prior to his execution — is, essentially, “how much of this material attributed to Jesus did Jesus actually say and in what form?”

This is a distinctly confessional understanding of what the practice of history is supposed to do: uncover objective fact — what really happened — in the service of religious belief. Unlike Vermes, deSilva is not primarily interested in the development of traditions about Jesus, or the growth of Christian communities and theologies. It is an original that matters here. He seeks to recover the “authentic voice” of Jesus in a broader array of Gospel sayings than would be accepted by most contemporary New Testament scholars, who recognize that our sources come from a later time and usually tell us more about the people who preserved them than about the people they describe.

DeSilva presents James and Jude in the same way, reconstructing what he presents as biographical facts: the New Testament letters that bear their name were written by the real James and Jude, who were Jesus’s younger half-brothers. (DeSilva’s theological context does not presuppose a Catholic version of Mary who remained celibate for life.) According to this conjecture, they were not deeply involved in Jesus’s ministry but became leaders of the movement after their brother’s death. While the Epistle of Jude, at least, is attested early, only a minority of scholars accept that either of these two brief letters were written by Jesus’s family members: they seem to reflect a later time and are written in elegant Greek that is generally considered to be too sophisticated and philosophically informed to have come from Galilean craftsmen. This is especially true for the letter of James, which is typically dated later and ascribed to a trained Greek writer. But deSilva argues based on their reconstructed biographies that James could have grown and learned in many ways over his thirty years of church leadership, and Jude could have improved his Greek as a missionary to the Diaspora.

This identification and these biographical details are not strongly attested. They do not arise from the evidence on their own but are secondarily built up to support a conclusion: that we can access the authentic voices of Jesus’s actual blood relations. The desire to find the real Jesus and his family is a religious drive to touch and pin down something real, to bring the divine within reach. Sensationalist discoveries of Jesus’s family tomb, which have no claim to historical authenticity, play upon the same religious desires. In a more extreme way, so do stories of the true cross or the Shroud of Turin.

All this illustrates a deep fault line in the discipline. What is called history in some corners of biblical studies would not be recognized as history by other biblical scholars, or by any other field. It is no surprise that scholars in Classics or Near Eastern Studies tend not to take biblical studies seriously: in some of its articulations, it is a field whose methods and findings cannot survive outside the womb, because its entire scope and conclusions are theologically determined. This is not a critique of the practice of theology itself, which can be intellectually rigorous and ethically powerful. But a theological project is a different kind of discourse from historical scholarship, with different starting points and interests, and the two should not be confused.

Frustratingly for those who want to do history using ancient texts, confessionally motivated writing is often unmarked as such. It uses the same words — history, scholarship — but means different things. Its authors belong to the same academic societies, attend the same conferences, and publish with the same academic presses, like Oxford University Press. It is not always obvious at the outset what understanding of history a writer is working with, but recognizing this fault line will help us see what is at stake for each writer and what determines the shape of each scholarly project.

In his introduction, deSilva is relatively forthcoming about his theological purpose. He writes that since Jesus and his brothers found the materials in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha valuable, so too he invites his audience to “read these writings for themselves, to reflect upon their broader contributions to the ongoing life and thought of both church and synagogue, and to explore their value as spiritual and ethical literature in their own right.” DeSilva has published several popular books about the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, presenting these texts as relevant to Christian theology. This idea, of course, has an ancient pedigree: these texts have survived because Christian communities of late antiquity found them valuable, and so they have long been part of Christian theological history.

Influence and Participation

What about their influence on Jesus, James, and Jude? In each chapter, deSilva summarizes a pseudepigraphical text and then asks how it influenced the “actual words” of the real Jesus and his brothers. The topics include such things as the term “son of man,” discourse on forgiveness, and values like patience, charity, and humility. DeSilva is careful to say that it is methodologically important to determine whether and precisely how a text was available to exert an influence on Jesus and his brothers. But the analysis itself often dissolves into generalities. In arguing that Ben Sira could have influenced Jesus’s family, deSilva writes that he “was a voice for scrupulous observance of God’s commandments as the path of wisdom and thus a voice that many Jewish teachers would echo throughout the synagogues of Palestine,” and that Jesus and James became “leading voices in their own right” and so were “well positioned to be influenced.” The argument for availability is based on the general fact that both Ben Sira and Jesus were teachers and called for obedience to God — and so one could have influenced the other.

But the book’s intention to show influence is not borne out in the textual analysis. DeSilva knows that something different is going on. In a chapter on 1 Enoch, he writes that, “Jesus seems to know and draw upon the traditions about the Son of Man known from the Parables of Enoch but not necessarily upon those particular texts directly.” The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs “may not represent a resource from which Jesus learned directly, [but] they represent another stream of moral reflection taught within Judaism during the Hasmonean period, from which Jesus may have learned through some other channel.” The Testament of Judah and the Beatitudes are not connected through literary dependence, but are a “common witness to the Jewish expectations that the sufferings of this present age […] will be remedied in the age to come and hence to Jesus’ thorough embeddedness in that Jewish milieu.” James and the Testaments “share several constellations of topics.”

Many more of his examples follow suit. Rather than dependence or influence, deSilva is able to trace less linear ways in which Jesus speaks the conceptual language of his culture. In other words, he has found not influence but participation. The difference between the two is compelling. What emerges are overlapping, shared traditions that are combined in distinctive ways in the discourses attributed to Jesus — just as they are combined in distinctive ways in other cultural products of this era. As such, the analyses have the potential to show how New Testament traditions are not Old Testament exegesis performed in a social vacuum but participants in Jewish discourses of the Second Temple period. This comes out clearly, for instance, when deSilva shows that the author of James was familiar with Job traditions that go beyond the canonical text and that are also present in one form in the Testament of Job.

But this potentially rich, complex picture does not quite emerge. The book’s methodology — one-by-one comparison of particular early Jewish texts to trace linear relationships of influence and discontinuity — undercuts deSilva’s own stated purpose and reinscribes the dichotomy of “Jesus vs. Judaism.” Lost in such a structure are the ways in which the Jewish materials overlap with and diverge from one another. 1 Enoch might be just as different from 2 Maccabees as it is from the putative sayings of Jesus. But comparing Jesus with each text individually, looking at a different theme for each, necessarily flattens the comparanda, while making Jesus three-dimensional.

For example, deSilva’s Tobit is particularist while the message of his Jesus is universal; Ben Sira is a misogynist while Jesus is open to women. How does this read to someone without any knowledge of the living world of first century Jewish traditions? Simple: the Jewish texts are exclusive and misogynist, and Jesus is not. Specific, atomized comparisons are universalized — Ben Sira for women, Tobit for ethnicity. The fact that Ben Sira is the great treasure trove of misogynist sound-bytes in the context of the early Jewish corpus is elided, since the comparisons are binary — Jesus vs. everything else. Take, for instance, other aspects of the Jesus/Ben Sira comparison. DeSilva notes a few points of contact in their ethical teachings and presents their many differences, which read like a classic laundry list of replacement theology. Jesus critiques the temple cult while Ben Sira supports it. Jesus includes and values women while Ben Sira derides them. Jesus also comes out on top in his attitudes about God’s forgiving nature, democracy/populism vs. elitism, the evil of divorce, and the inclusion of marginalized groups like Samaritans.

In a book for non-specialists, this coalesces into a picture of Judaism — ritualistic, exclusionist, and spiritually staid — that is alarmingly familiar and does the opposite of what deSilva wants to do. Perhaps we should ask why it is meaningful to compare Jesus, a revolutionary Galilean peasant, one-to-one and whole cloth to Ben Sira, likely a member of a scribal elite whose rhetorical purpose, context, and political leanings were radically different, and much of whose writing offers advice to young men who want to get ahead in public life. The discourses of Jesus and Ben Sira are different, and the contrast does not fall primarily along the lines of “Judaism” vs. “Christianity” — but that is how the comparison will appear to readers of deSilva’s book.

This kind of flattening is inherent in the method. When Jesus is compared individually to specific texts in terms of influence and innovation, the old division between Judaism and Christianity becomes re-entrenched, and far too early. This Jesus does not participate in a larger matrix of diverse traditions as one of its representatives, but is influenced by and departs from Jewish materials. DeSilva’s subtitle illustrates this well — What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Vermes and many others, notably Daniel Boyarin, show that Jesus and his immediate circle cannot yet be historically understood as “Christianity.” To do so is once again to create a binary and linear model that takes Jesus out of Judaism and places him against it.

The fields of Early Judaism and Christian Origins have progressed beyond arguments about the influence of Judaism upon Jesus or Christianity. The task now is more richly to describe early Judaism as a diverse world that includes Jews of many stripes, including followers of Jesus. DeSilva’s textual analyses point in this very direction. But his analytical categories and methodological starting points undermine what is no doubt a well-meaning attempt to speak to a theologically-motivated audience about something they are only now beginning to be able to hear.

Also Recommended from MRB: